14) Reflections on the "Second Death" (Revelation 2:11)
What I Deserve vs. What I Get
The timing of this meditation is significant. I’m writing it on the day before Thanksgiving, 2006.
Like most of you, I’ll soon be seated with my family around a table laden with more food than many people will see in a month. Thousands will die today of starvation. Tens of thousands will scrounge for a few kernels of corn or a handful of grain. No, I’m not trying to rob you of joy at this time of year. In fact, I’m trying to intensify it. You are not among those who go hungry, so rejoice! Be thankful!
No, I can’t explain global hunger. Neither can you. But that is not my primary concern here, as important as that issue is in itself (and it is critically important). Rather, I was stirred to write this meditation upon reading the words of our Lord in Revelation 2:11. There he makes yet another stunning promise: “The one who conquers will not be hurt by the second death”!
So, I want to talk about hell. That’s right, hell. I know it is Thanksgiving, but what better time to think about hell and realize, Oh, praise be to God, that I will never go there! I’m grateful for countless things, such as the meal I’ll soon enjoy and the family with whom I’m blessed to share it. But let’s pause for a moment and give thanks that those who know and love Jesus “will not be hurt by the second death.”
The “second death” is mentioned three other times in Revelation, each of which reinforces the fact that this is Jesus’ (and John’s) way of referring to eternal punishment in the lake of fire. We read in Revelation 20:6, “Blessed and holy is the one who shares in the first resurrection! Over such the second death has no power, but they will be priests of God and of Christ, and they will reign with him for a thousand years.” Later in the same chapter (20:14), we are told that “Death and Hades were thrown into the lake of fire. This is the second death, the lake of fire.” Finally, in Revelation 21:8 we read, “But as for the cowardly, the faithless, the detestable, as for murderers, the sexually immoral, sorcerers, idolaters, and all liars, their portion will be in the lake that burns with fire and sulfur, which is the second death."
Clearly, then, the “second death” is the lake of fire, the place of eternal torment for those who do not know and love our Lord Jesus Christ. The “first death” would be physical death, the death that Jesus said some in Smyrna would suffer because of their faith in him. The point of his promise, then, is this: no matter how much you may endure physically in the present, you will never suffer spiritually in the future. Therefore, be faithful if you should be called on to die now, for you will never die then!
The contrasts couldn’t be more vivid. Those who know and love Jesus and remain faithful to him will be granted the “crown of life” (v. 10). They will never, by no means ever (such is the literal force of the double negative in Greek), taste the “second death” (v. 11).
Now, here me well. There is nothing of which I am more deserving than the second death! There is nothing more fitting, more just, more righteous than that I should suffer forever in the lake of fire. And the only reason why I won’t is that Jesus has endured in himself the judgment it entails. Jesus has exhausted in his own person the wrath of God that I otherwise would have faced in the lake of fire.
As I reflect on that reality I can’t help but feel complete dismay at those who reject penal substitutionary atonement, or flippantly (and blasphemously) dismiss it as “cosmic child abuse”. What hope have we for deliverance from the “second death” if not the suffering of its pains, in our stead, by the Son of God? If I receive the “crown of life”, which I don’t deserve, in place of the “lake of fire”, which I do deserve, it can only be for one reason: Jesus Christ, by a marvelous and ineffable exchange, has died that I might live, has suffered that I might be set free, has for me faced and felt the wrath of God and absorbed it in himself.
I suppose some might still seek to undermine the force of Revelation 2:11 by simply denying that the “second death” is equivalent to the “lake of fire”. Many today are doing precisely that, as they cleverly and subversively deny that Jesus ever believed in or taught, much less endured in his own person, the reality of hell’s torments. What “gospel,” then, can they preach? In what does the “good news” consist if not that Jesus has died, the just for the unjust, having “redeemed us from the curse of the law by becoming a curse for us” (Galatians 3:13)?
As for the Christians in Smyrna, no sweeter words were ever spoken than these. Tribulation was tolerable, knowing that the “second death” died in the death of Jesus. Slander and imprisonment, yes, even martyrdom, were but “slight momentary affliction” when compared with the “eternal weight of glory” (2 Corinthians 4:17) that is ours because Jesus died and rose again on our behalf.
Yes, thinking about hell and the “second death” has immense practical benefits! In his famous Resolutions, Jonathan Edwards put it succinctly: “Resolved, when I feel pain, to think of the pains of martyrdom, and of hell” (no. 10).
It is remarkable how tolerable otherwise intolerable things become when we see them in the light of the “second death”! Think often, then, of the pains of hell. Think often, I say, of the lake of fire. It puts mere earthly pain in perspective. It puts “tribulation” and “poverty” and “slander” and “imprisonment” and even “death” itself in their proper place. The collective discomfort of all such temporal experience is nothing in comparison with the eternal torment of the “second death” in the “lake of fire.”
The one who conquers, said Jesus, “will not be hurt by the second death.” Not even when Satan viciously accuses me of sins we all know I’ve committed? No, never, by no means ever will I be hurt by the second death. Not even when others remind me of how sinful I still am, falling short of the very standards I loudly preach and proclaim? No, never, by no means ever will I be hurt by the second death. Not even when my own soul screams in contempt at the depravity of my heart? No, never, by no means ever will I be hurt by the second death.
And that for one reason only: Jesus, in unfathomable mercy and grace, has suffered hurt by it in my place.
So, be faithful, Christian man or woman. Rejoice, oh child of God. And give thanks this Thanksgiving that you will never, by no means ever, suffer harm from the “second death”!