Connections 05.19.2019: “The Second Death”

Revelation 21:1-14

This passage offers some of the most hopeful promises in the Bible. In the first part, death is overcome! In the second part, God rebuilds Jerusalem as a place of hope and strength and newness.

But what about verse 8? Between the two hopeful, positive parts of the passage is this bold statement: “But as for the cowardly, the faithless, the polluted, the murderers, the fornicators, the sorcerers, the idolaters, and all liars, their place will be in the lake that burns with fire and sulfur, which is the second death.” There is quite a distance from “death will be no more” (v. 4) to “the second death” (v. 8).

When I was a child, I felt delighted when my younger brother was punished for hitting me or trying to wreck whatever I was playing with. (Because of course, I was always in the right.) As a teenager, I felt glad when a peer was grounded for staying out too late or disrupting class in school. As an adult, I feel a sense of justice when a criminal goes to jail or a speeder gets caught by the police or someone gets called out for cheating.

On a larger, deeper level, I long for justice in some of the most horrific crises in our world: sex trafficking, child abuse, starvation, homelessness, oppression, racism, gun violence. The list could go on for the rest of this article. I have to be honest: it helps my heart a little to picture the perpetrators of these injustices burning in a lake of fire. When I read about the latest school shooting, for example, I wanted the suspects punished, but I wanted those in power—people with the ability to make a difference in gun control measures, mental health access, and other issues that contribute to this crisis—to spend a little time in the lake of fire.

What am I really asking for, though? Many commentators interpret the lake of fire figuratively rather than literally, like much of the book of Revelation. They view it as something that happens after physical death. It seems to refer to an eternal spiritual death, eternity apart from God—what we might call hell. Do I really want perpetrators of injustice to go to hell? Sometimes, yes.

Most of the time, though, that’s not what I want at all. I want, instead, for them to find their way—either for the first time or for a second, third, or fourth time—to the “Alpha and the Omega” (Rev 21:6), the one “who is and who was and who is to come” (1:4), the one whose “life was the light of all people” (John 1:4). If they truly encountered this one, surely they would be forever changed. And that would be the greatest justice of all.


• How have you been punished for doing wrong, and did it have a corrective effect on your behavior?

• What does the concept of justice mean to you? How is it best carried out?

• How do you think God feels about justice?

• Where in our world do you see injustice, and what corrective measures do you think would help in these situations?

• Do you think there are people who deserve the “second death” as described in this passage? Why or why not? How does this idea affect your view of God?

• As a Christian, what is your role in situations of injustice?

Reference Shelf

New Heaven and New Earth, 21:1-8

…All the promised blessings of the new Jerusalem, including the gift of “the water of life,” God will grant to those who conquer, that is, those who are the faithful believers. God wills that all people be a part of the new Jerusalem, that all will be God’s children (21:7). Those, however, who through their actions and their lifestyles choose to follow the way of the beast rather than the way of the Lamb will find themselves excluded from the new Jerusalem. Instead, “their place will be in the lake of fire . . . the second death” (21:8).

While the list of those excluded may be indebted to traditional vice lists (cf. Rev 9:20-21; 22:15; Rom 1:29-31; 1 Cor 5:9-11; 6:9-10; Gal 5:19-20; 1 Tim 1:9-10), several of the sinful actions included in this list would have had particular relevance for John’s situation. Leading the list of those who will not be a part of the new Jerusalem are the cowardly and the faithless. Throughout the book of Revelation, John has called for endurance and faithfulness on the part of the beleaguered Christians. The rewards of God are for those who do not yield to the charms and threats of the beast. (In this context, the “faithless” or “unbelieving” likely refers not to non-Christians, but to Christians who renounce their faith by worshiping the beast.) Likewise, the “polluted” have rendered themselves unclean through their unfaithfulness; they have “soiled their clothes” (3:4). The fornicators have committed religious adultery by offering worship to the emperor; they are “the idolaters” (21:8). The sorcerers have tricked others into joining them in following the beast (see comments on 18:23). The liars are likely not people who spread untruths generally, but those who are participants in the “Big Lie,” the notion that someone or something other than God is deserving of ultimate allegiance. In sharing in this lie, they are true followers of Satan, “the deceiver of the whole world” (12:9). The purpose of this list was to serve as a pastoral warning to the members of the churches of Asia Minor. If they want to be a part of the new Jerusalem, they must persevere in faithfulness.

Mitchell G. Reddish, Revelation, Smyth & Helwys Bible Commentary (Macon GA: Smyth & Helwys Publishing, 2001) excerpts from 404–405.

Kelley Land, a graduate of Mercer University, has been an assistant editor of Smyth & Helwys curriculum and books since 2001. She is also the office administrator for Jay’s HOPE, a nonprofit serving families of children with cancer. Kelley enjoys spending time with her daughters, Samantha (14) and Natalie (12), and her husband John. Occasionally, she appears onstage in community theater productions and can sometimes be found playing board games with a group of rowdy friends. She loves Marvel movies and Doctor Who, and she’s still trying to write a young adult novel that her girls will enjoy.


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  1. Gary Myers says

    Kelley, I so agree with your statement;” I wanted those in power—people with the ability to make a difference in gun control measures, mental health access, and other issues that contribute to this crisis—to spend a little time in the lake of fire.” Thank you for having the same attitude that many of us have. Our lawmakers have let our children down! Thank you.