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In the Garden of Eden, God told Adam and Eve that they were not to eat of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil (Genesis 2:17). If they did so, they would “surely die.” The Hebrew text reads literally, “dying you shall die.” Many Christians have redefined death as being eternal separation from God. However, separation from God is a result of death; it is not a proper definition of death itself.
Neither is it eternal separation, because that would imply an irreversible condition, giving no one any hope of returning to a state of immortal life.
So what exactly is death?
Death is the opposite of life. Primarily, it is mortality, a process of dying. For this reason, Adam died at the age of 930 (Genesis 5:5), and everyone since Adam has also died, with the exception of Enoch and Elijah. When men die, they go to the grave, which in the Hebrew is called Sheol and in the Greek Hades.
Two Types of Death
Revelation 20:14 says,
14 Then death and Hades were thrown into the lake of fire. This is the second death, the lake of fire.
By speaking of a “second death,” John implies that there is also a first death, or a first type of death. Nowhere in Scripture does it speak of a “first death,” but there can be no second without a first. In fact, mortality is the first death, but it is never said to be “first” because this fact was self-evident.
So there are two types of death in Scripture. The first is mortality; the second, John says, is “the lake of fire.” Many have applied this second death to Adam, ignoring the fact that there must be a first in order to have a second. But Paul does not ignore the first death, telling us in 1 Corinthians 15:53 that “this mortal must put on immortality.” He then says in 1 Corinthians 15:54, 55 (KJV),
54 But when this corruptible shall have put on the incorruption, and this mortal shall have put on immortality, then shall be brought to pass the saying that is written, “Death is swallowed up in victory.” 55 O death, where is thy sting? O grave [hades], where is thy victory?
Here Paul links death with hades, “the grave.” In fact, it is the only time Paul speaks of hades, and he treats it as a defeated foe. He was writing about the first death, not the second. The context in verse 53 shows that he was speaking of going from mortality to immortality.
Hades, “the grave,” is not the lake of fire. It is a state of mortality—referring specifically to one who has died as a result of the mortality that he inherited from his fathers going back to Adam.
The Second Death
If we were to limit our understanding to what John said in Revelation 20:14, we would not have a complete picture of the second death. He merely defines it as “the lake of fire.” But what is this lake? What is its nature? What is its purpose? Is it designed to torture sinners or to purify them?
The answer really begins with Moses’ statement in Deuteronomy 33:2 KJV,
2 And he said, “The Lord rose up from Seir unto them; He shined forth from mount Paran, and He came with ten thousands of saints; from His right hand went a fiery law [esh dath] for them.”
When God descended upon Mount Sinai, the people saw only the appearance of fire (Exodus 19:18; Deuteronomy 4:12). Out of that fire, God spoke the Ten Commandments, which Moses later called “a fiery law.” God’s character, or nature, is expressed as fire—not a literal fire, but a way of setting forth His nature in a comparative way. Fire is thus a metaphor for God’s nature.
The law itself is an expression of God’s nature. Everything God says is based upon His nature, for He is always true to Himself. God cannot lie, because everything He says is another creation of Truth. When God speaks, things come into existence (Romans 4:17). This is Truth, and it is a fire—ever changing its shape, but never changing its nature (Malachi 3:6).
Fire, then, can be seen as a metaphor for God’s nature, as expressed in “a fiery law.” This Hebrew expression is esh dath. The word esh is the Hebrew word for fire, and it is also where we get our English word “ash.” Fire burns things to ashes. The Hebrew word dath is a law or decree. So the KJV translation of esh dath is correct—“a fiery law” or “fire of a law.”
In Daniel 7:9, 10 we read,
9 I kept looking until thrones were set up, and the Ancient of Days took His seat; His vesture was like white snow and the hair of His head like pure wool. His throne was ablaze with flames, its wheels were a burning fire. 10 A river of fire was flowing and coming out from before Him; thousands upon thousands were attending Him, and myriads upon myriads were standing before Him; the court sat, and the books were opened.
This is the same scene that John saw in Revelation 20:12-14. It is at the great White Throne, where all the dead were raised for judgment (except for those who were raised a thousand years earlier in Revelation 20:6). A throne is a symbol of law, and when the Judge is seated upon His throne, He judges according to the law. That is why His throne was pictured as a fire. He will judge the earth by His “fiery law.”
The “river of fire” in Daniel 7:10 flows from the throne of fire and eventually forms a “lake of fire” (Revelation 20:14). The river is the immediate sentence that the Judge decrees; the lake is the outworking of that sentence. Neither was meant to be taken as a literal fire; the fire represents the judgment of the law, which includes restitution payment (Exodus 22:4) or flogging (Deuteronomy 25:1-3). In Luke 12:47-49, Jesus told us that a flogging was a “fire.”
47 And that slave who knew his master’s will and did not get ready or act in accord with His will, will receive many lashes, 48 but the one who did not know it, and committed deeds worthy of a flogging, will receive but few. From everyone who has been given much, much will be required; and to whom they entrusted much, of him they will ask all the more. 49 I have come to cast fire upon the earth; and how I wish it were already kindled.
If the “flogging” is said to be a “fire,” it is because it is a judgment of the “fiery law.” It is therefore not a literal fire but a metaphorical fire. The basic principle of justice in God’s law establishes that the judgment must always be in direct proportion to the crime. If a man steals, he owes double restitution (Exodus 22:4). If he gouges out the eye of his neighbor, and if they cannot agree on a payment, then (as a last resort) the sinner might lose his own eye (Exodus 21:24), and his victim will receive no restitution.
Only if a man burns another man does the law permit any kind of burning as a judgment for sin. Exodus 21:24, 25 says,
24 eye for eye, tooth for tooth, hand for hand, foot for foot, 25 burn for burn, wound for wound, bruise for bruise.
There is no mandate in Scripture to burn anyone in hell for any sin. Only if a man were able to burn his neighbor in hell could he receive such a judgment for sin. Perhaps the worst that might happen would be if a church bishop had burned someone at the stake. It is possible—if the victim refused to forgive the bishop—that he might also be burned at the stake, which would inflict the same amount of damage that he did to his victim.
But if that were the case, the bishop would then be raised from the dead immediately in order to spend the final age in “the lake of fire”—that is, under the judgment of the law. This “lake of fire” is not a continuous state of torment and torture but instead is a life of slavery (Exodus 22:3). He is to remain “under the law” and under the authority of the believers until the Creation Jubilee sets all men free into the glorious freedom of the children of God (Romans 8:21).
Believers in that age will receive immortality at the White Throne judgment (John 5:28, 9), and they will receive authority in the earth (Revelation 20:6). Who will they reign over, if not the sinners in the lake of fire?
The Responsibility of the Righteous
A close study of God’s law shows that its purpose is to teach sinners not to sin. When they are “sold” to one who is righteous, the righteous man takes responsibility for the sinner to train him in the ways of righteousness. For example, he will learn that to gain wealth, he must labor for it, rather than to steal the fruits of other people’s labor. So Isaiah 26:9 says,
9 … for when the earth experiences Your judgments, the inhabitants of the world learn righteousness.
In other words, the righteous rulers of the earth are responsible to manifest the character of Christ to the sinners. By this example, they will behold Christ and their hearts will be changed (2 Corinthians 3:18). Nonetheless, their debt to the law will be too great for any sinner to pay through his own labor. For this reason, they will have to labor until the Creation Jubilee sets them free.
In this way, sinners will “learn righteousness,” and God will be able to fulfill His oath to save the world (Deuteronomy 29:13-15; 1 John 2:2; 4:14).
The law shows forth the nature of God. More than anything else, His nature is Love. This means that even His judgments proceed out of a heart of love. In 1 Corinthians 13:5 Paul says that love “does not seek its own” but rather seeks the well-being of others. Likewise, “love never fails” (1 Corinthians 13:8), for it overcomes the worst of sinners.
For this reason, we know that the judgments of God are corrective in nature. Ultimately, being based on His love, His judgments should be seen as a Father disciplining His children so that in the end they become like their Father.
The law of Jubilee is the law of grace, because it limits all judgment for sin. Sin is reckoned as a debt in Scripture, and if the debt is too great for the sinner to pay during his time of slavery, he is to be set free purely by grace in the year of Jubilee (Leviticus 25:54). There is no such thing as eternal punishment in the law of God. All judgment is limited by the law of Jubilee.
Eternal and Everlasting
The Hebrew word translated “everlasting” is olam. Its Greek equivalent in the New Testament often translated “eternal,” is aionian. The word olam comes from the root word alam, which means “to hide.” The noun form, olam, means “hidden,” and it refers to something that is unknown. When applied to time, it is an unknown, or indefinite period of time. It is not necessarily “everlasting.”
For this reason, the sacrifices were to be performed olam, not forever but until Christ would come to put an end to those sacrifices. Another example is the covenant that God made with Phinehas. It was “a covenant of olam priesthood” (Numbers 25:13). Did this last forever? Not at all. It ended after about 300 years, when Eli’s priestly dynasty was replaced by Zadok in the early days of Solomon’s rule (1 Kings 2:35). Yet in the days of Phinehas, it was unknown how long his descendants would hold the high priesthood, just as it was unknown how long the priests would have to continue offering animal sacrifices.
The law of Jubilee is possible only because olam and aionian do not demand “eternal” punishment. The length of judgment is indefinite and unknown, so it is said to be “an age.” The word aionian means pertaining to an age, or eon. But ultimately, aionian is simply the Greek equivalent of olam and must be interpreted according to Hebrew thought.
The Jubilee makes it possible for Christ to be “all in all” and to put all things under His feet (1 Corinthians 15:28).
The Second Death
One who dies is justified from sin (Romans 6:7, literal). But yet Paul says, “I die daily.” This does not mean Paul was committing suicide every day. He was actually experiencing the second type of death, the lake of fire, which is the baptism of fire (Matthew 3:11). This is the fire of the Holy Spirit, which is designed to burn “chaff” from our lives. We experience this baptism of fire now so that we do not have to go through it at the great Judgment.
Yet we experience the baptism of the Holy Spirit’s “fire” through the feast of Pentecost. It proceeds from the fiery throne of God, even as we have seen with the river of fire in Daniel 7:10. Its purpose is also the same. It is to purify us and burn out the “chaff” in our lives so that we may come into the freedom of the children of God.
All must undergo the second death, either now or later. God has given believers the baptism of fire first, so that they may administer it to the world at large during the age of judgment. Nonetheless, the whole world will be filled with the glory of the Lord by the time the divine plan is concluded.