Monday, February 20, 2017

What is the Second Death? Part 2, A Mountain of Spaghetti

In part 1 of this blog series, I began to explain why I am convinced that the phrase “second death” in Revelation refers to people literally dying a second time.  This second death involves the complete destruction of both the souls and the bodies of the unsaved (Matthew 10:28).  I showed that the traditional understanding of second death is based on a wrong assumption that John’s vision of eternal torment in the lake of fire should be taken literally (non-symbolically, non-metaphorically).  I also showed that John clearly and explicitly tells us what the lake of fire actually means (as he does with several other symbols from his visions), and that what it means is to die a second time.

A traditionalist counterargument to my view could point to the fact that the Bible often uses the word “death” in non-literal ways.  This traditional counterargument would go something like this:

The word “death” in the Bible is often used in a non-literal way.  People who are unsaved are referred to as being “dead” even when they are physically still alive.  It is this type of death to which Revelation is referring when it mentions the “second death”.

I understand this argument and I am thoroughly convinced it is wrong. In order to help you see why this argument is wrong, I ask you to bear with me while I discuss the nature of metaphorical language in general before addressing the phrase “second death” more specifically.  I think this will help clear things up (at least that is my earnest prayer).

Words are Simple and Complex

Consider the word “mountain”.  Everyone knows what “mountain” means.   It’s an easy word to understand because we all have experience with mountains.  Sure, you can quibble over some borderline cases between hills, ridges, and mountains, but the basic meaning is obvious.  The basic meaning of a word is often called the “literal meaning”.  Words can also have figurative meanings.  For example, we could speak of a “mountain of spaghetti”.

We immediately understand that a “mountain of spaghetti” refers to a very large portion of spaghetti.  This metaphorical meaning is easy to grasp because we all have experience with actual mountains, and the thing which stands out to us is that mountains are BIG.  So we are able to use the word “mountain” in a non-literal way to describe other things which are “big”:  a person, or a problem, or a plate of spaghetti.

It turns out that many words in human languages have both “literal” and “figurative” meanings.  Most of the time it is fairly obvious which meaning is intended. Some types of language, such as legal documents and technical documents, avoid metaphorical language and are very literal.  These types of documents are usually “boring” to read because they do not connect to our emotions or imagination.  God chose to speak to us through normal human language, and He chose to use the full range of language, including the abundant use of metaphors.  On the one hand, this does mean that we often have to work a little harder to understand the precise meaning.  But on the other hand, the full use of human language means that God’s Word speaks more powerfully to all parts of us:  to our imaginations, desires, and emotions as well as to the logical part of our minds.  Images and metaphors help God’s truth to work deep down into our beings and change us at deep levels.  So it’s worth it if we have to put up with the occasional confusion which metaphorical language is bound to bring.

An Additional Possible Point of Confusion

Most Bible-believing Christians, including myself, believe that a part of us (usually called our “soul” or our “spirit”) consciously lives in God’s presence in between the time we die and the time when we are resurrected. (Some Bible-believing Christians interpret the Bible to teach that this intermediate time is more like a peaceful sleep of the soul in God’s presence.  This is a very minor difference, and one I do not desire to debate here.)  Because we believe that a part of us lives on after death, there is a possibility that some might think that the word “death” in the Bible does not mean the complete loss of all ability to feel, think, or be aware of anything.  However, when the Bible speaks of death prior to the final judgment it is focused on what happens to our bodies, as these two verses clearly demonstrate:

James 2:26 As the body without the spirit is dead, so faith without deeds is dead.

Notice that the part of us that is dead when we die is “the body”.  And of course, our dead body will no longer feel, think, or be aware of anything. Also notice that while separation of soul and body occurs at the time of death, death does not mean “separation”. Otherwise, the spirit would be as equally dead as the body! We see the same truth here:

1 Peter 3:18 For Christ also suffered once for sins, the righteous for the unrighteous, to bring you to God. He was put to death in the body but made alive in the Spirit.

The part of Jesus that was put to death was his body, and in between Good Friday and Resurrection Sunday, the dead body of Jesus did not feel anything and was not aware of anything.

Of course, after the final judgment, both the body and soul of the unsaved will experience the same fate (Matthew 10:28).

Now let’s start to examine both the literal and metaphorical meanings of “death” in English, and then in the Bible, including the book of Revelation.  After that, we will look specifically at the phrase “second death”.

The Literal Meaning of “Death” in the Bible

Like the word “mountain”, the word “death” is something that all people have a basic understanding of because all people have seen it.  Even children have seen many dead animals, and most of us have seen the dead bodies of people.  The basic meaning of death when speaking of any person is that all the essential biological activities of the person have permanently ceased (when we say “permanently”, we mean that short of God’s miraculous intervention they have ceased and there is no reasonable expectation that they could resume).  These biological activities include breathing, circulating blood, and also include the ability to be conscious and feel and think.  Everyone knows that if someone can still feel and think, they are not “literally dead”.

This commonsense, literal meaning of death is also the literal meaning of death in the Bible.  The context of the following verses makes clear that when they use the word “death” (the same word used in the phrase “the second death”) they are referring to literal, physical death:

Matthew 10:21 "Brother will betray brother to death, and a father his child; children will rebel against their parents and have them put to death.

John 11:13 Jesus had been speaking of his death, but his disciples thought he meant natural sleep.

Acts 13:28 Though they found no proper ground for a death sentence, they asked Pilate to have him executed.

Philippians 1:20 I eagerly expect and hope that I will in no way be ashamed, but will have sufficient courage so that now as always Christ will be exalted in my body, whether by life or by death.

There are many more examples.  Here is a partial list of more examples where “death” is used with its normal, literal meaning in the New Testament:

Matthew 15:4, Matthew 20:18, Matthew 26:66, Luke 2:26, Luke 22:33, Luke 23:15, Luke 23:22, John 21:19, Acts 23:29, Acts 25:11, Acts 26:31, Acts 28:18, Romans 8:38, Philippians 2:27, Hebrews 7:23, Hebrews 9:16

Just as in the rest of the New Testament, in the book of Revelation the word “death” is used with its basic, literal meaning:

Revelation 2:10 Do not be afraid of what you are about to suffer. I tell you, the devil will put some of you in prison to test you, and you will suffer persecution for ten days. Be faithful, even to the point of death, and I will give you life as your victor's crown.

Revelation 9:6 During those days people will seek death but will not find it; they will long to die, but death will elude them.

Revelation 12:11 They triumphed over him by the blood of the Lamb and by the word of their testimony; they did not love their lives so much as to shrink from death.

In the verses above, to define death as “eternal torment” would be absurd. Jesus is not asking the Christians in Smyrna to be faithful to Him even if they are eternally tormented, people will not seek eternal torment, and we do not overcome the devil by a willingness to accept eternal torment.  The fact that the simple, plain, literal meaning of “death” is used commonly throughout the Bible including in Revelation should not be forgotten when we read about a “second death”.

Metaphorical Meanings of Death in English and in the Bible

I was once blessed with the opportunity to take a graduate level course on the science of defining words (if you do not think of that as a blessing, I understand, for not everyone shares my love of languages and meaning).  The basic procedure to follow when seeking to find all the definitions a word has (both literal and metaphorical) is to look for sentences where the context of the sentence makes the meaning clear.  This is what we just did for the literal meaning of death in the Bible.

Like many words, the word “death” can be used with metaphorical meanings.  Here are two examples you might find from everyday English:

1.  When Joey saw his brother had broken Mom’s favorite vase, he said, “You are so dead.”

2.  The car won’t start; the engine is dead.

The first example combines hyperbole (it’s not likely the mom will literally kill her son) with a figure of speech called prolepsis.  Prolepsis is used when we speak of something we expect to happen in the future as if it has already occurred.  We use this figure of speech when we feel the future event is certain to occur.  In the example above, Joey is certain that his brother will be punished even though it hasn’t happened yet.

The second example involves a metaphorical use of the word “dead”.  Metaphorical meanings are derived from the literal meaning.  Literal “death” refers to the state of a formerly living being which is no longer functioning.  For people and animals this means the dead person or animal is no longer breathing, its heart is no longer pumping, and it is no longer able to think or feel anything.  The person is no longer capable of doing what people were intended to do.  It is easy to see how this meaning can be extended metaphorically to an engine which in no longer able to run.

We find the same types of metaphorical meanings for death in the Bible.

With regard to prolepsis, the clearest example is probably found in the life of a king named Abimelech.  The ESV provides a literal translation:

ESV Genesis 20:3 But God came to Abimelech in a dream by night and said to him, "Behold, you are a dead man because of the woman whom you have taken, for she is a man's wife."

The NIV translation makes it clear that this is an example of prolepsis:

NIV Genesis 20:3 But God came to Abimelek in a dream one night and said to him, "You are as good as dead because of the woman you have taken; she is a married woman."

The Bible also uses “death” with metaphorical meaning.  Many Christians refer to this as “spiritual death”.  The term “spiritual death” is not found in the Bible.  It is alright to use this term as long as we are careful to let the Bible define “spiritual death”.  We are not free to give it definitions not found in Scripture and then use those definitions when interpreting Scripture.

“Spiritual death” refers to a situation where people who are clearly still physically living are called “dead”.  Here is an example:

Romans 8:6 The mind governed by the flesh is death, but the mind governed by the Spirit is life and peace.
 7 The mind governed by the flesh is hostile to God; it does not submit to God's law, nor can it do so.
 8 Those who are in the realm of the flesh cannot please God.

When in verse 6 Paul writes that the mind controlled by the flesh is “death”, it seems very likely that he means the same thing that he means in verses 7 and 8 when he says that the same mind is unable to submit to God’s will and the person with that kind of mind is unable to please God.  We can easily see how this meaning is derived from the literal meaning of “death”. Literal death occurs when a human body is no longer able to do what it was intended to do.  So it makes sense that metaphorically death could refer to a human mind which is no longer able to do what God intended it to do. God intended human minds to understand and submit to His will and to please Him, but the mind of the unredeemed is unable to do what it was designed and intended to do, and in this way it is “dead”. We could also say that the unredeemed mind is “unresponsive” to God and God’s will in a way which is analogous to a dead body being unresponsive to the world around it.

The metaphorical meaning of dead as “unresponsive” can also be used in a positive way.  Consider this example (a different Greek word from the examples above is used for “dead” here (an adjective is used) but the range of both literal and metaphorical meanings overlaps with the Greek word for death used in the examples above):

Romans 6:11 In the same way, count yourselves dead to sin but alive to God in Christ Jesus.

Here, Paul is urging us to be unresponsive to temptation in the same way that a dead body is unresponsive to the world around it.

We have identified two types of nonliteral meanings for “death” which are found in the Bible:

1.  “death” can be used proleptically to mean “good as dead”, “doomed to die”, to refer to someone who is not yet dead but is certain to be dead if their situation is not changed
2.  “death” can be used to refer to someone who is nonresponsive to influences either in a good way of being “dead” to temptation or in a bad way of being “dead” to the will of God.

While the vast majority of uses of “death” in the Bible appear to me to be either literal or to fit well under one of the two metaphorical meanings above, there are probably a few relatively rare cases where it has another meaning. For instance, in Revelation 6:8 John sees “death” riding a horse.  Here it is difficult to say what “death” means, and there are a number of guesses, but I don’t think anyone defines it as “eternal torment”!  I think we have a good, if not exhaustive and detailed, list of definitions for “death” in the New Testament:

Like most words, “death” can mean a number of things.  But it can’t mean just anything.  It is like the word “mountain”.  You can use the word “mountain” to refer to an actual mountain or to a very large plate of spaghetti.  But it would not make any sense to try to use the word “mountain” to describe a pathetically small portion of spaghetti.  Neither would it make sense to use the word “death” to describe a situation where people actually continue to feel and think forever and ever and never actually die.  It is fine to say that “death” is used metaphorically in the Bible (it certainly is!), but that doesn’t mean it can mean just anything.  “Death” is used to mean either “literally dead”, “doomed to die,” or “nonresponsive”.


To verify the conclusion demonstrated in the photos above, let’s look more specifically at the four uses of the phrase “second death” in Revelation.

The Meaning of “Death” in “Second Death”

Let’s look at the first use of the phrase “second death”.  Please pay attention to the word “second” as well as the word “death”.

Revelation 2:10 Do not be afraid of what you are about to suffer. I tell you, the devil will put some of you in prison to test you, and you will suffer persecution for ten days. Be faithful, even to the point of death, and I will give you life as your victor's crown.
 11 Whoever has ears, let them hear what the Spirit says to the churches. The one who is victorious will not be hurt at all by the second death.

It is significant that the first use of “second death” does not occur in the context of a vision of the lake of fire.  It comes in the context of a letter to a local church.  The church in Smyrna was facing persecution.  Jesus encourages them to remain faithful even if they are put to death for their faith.  This refers to literal death (what else would it refer to?). Jesus then promises them that even if they die, He will give them life as a victor’s crown.  He also promises that they will not be hurt by “the second death”.  In verse 10, “death” clearly refers to a literal, physical death.  Doesn’t it make sense that the Christians in Smyrna would have interpreted “death” in verse 11 to have basically the same literal meaning? There is certainly nothing in the context to imply that death in verse 11 means “spiritually nonresponsive”, much less, “never dying while experiencing eternal torment”.

The next use of “second death” is also consistent with the literal meaning of “death”:

Revelation 20:6 Blessed and holy are those who share in the first resurrection. The second death has no power over them, but they will be priests of God and of Christ and will reign with him for a thousand years.

Notice that the term “second death” here refers to what will NOT happen to the righteous people who have been resurrected.  The sequence of events is simple:  they literally died while being faithful to Jesus (in fact, they died specifically because they were faithful to Jesus, see Revelation 20:4), then they are literally resurrected (their bodies come back to life and function once more).  Jesus promises them that they will not die a second time.  They only had to die once.  They are given eternal life. This promise is ONLY for those who believed in Him and thus are saved.  In this context, literal “death” is a perfect fit once again for the phrase “second death”.

As mentioned in part 1 of this blog series, the confusion comes with the third and fourth uses of “second death”.  Many Christians (including myself in the past) read these verses as if they are giving a new definition for death.  But this reading is inconsistent with the use of the word “death” all throughout the Bible, even with its metaphorical uses, and even with the two previous uses of “second death” in Revelation.  John is not telling us what “second death” means so that we can go back through the Bible and reinterpret many clear and simple uses of “death”.  Instead, John is telling us what his vision of a lake of fire actually means.  What it actually means is that unsaved people will die a second time:

Revelation 20:14 Then death and Hades were thrown into the lake of fire. The lake of fire is the second death.

Revelation 21:8 But the cowardly, the unbelieving, the vile, the murderers, the sexually immoral, those who practice magic arts, the idolaters and all liars-- they will be consigned to the fiery lake of burning sulfur. This is the second death."

Pay attention to the word “second”.  These people have been resurrected from their first, literal “death” in order to face judgment.  The second death may very well include some suffering, as the first death often does, and this suffering may be (I believe will be) in some way proportional to their sins.  But the end result is dying a second time.  These unsaved people have always been unresponsive to God.  They have never been “not dead” in the metaphorical meaning of death.  In the traditional interpretation neither the word “second” nor the word “death” seems to fit.  In the annihilationist interpretation both words fit the context precisely and naturally with their normal meanings.

Is there anything at all different about the second death?  Yes, there are two differences.  Unlike the first death, the second death in permanent, it is eternal.  There is no such thing as a “second resurrection”.  Also, what happens to only the body in the first death happens to both body and soul in the “second death”, as explicitly taught by Jesus (Matthew 10:28).

We’ve seen some significant evidence so far to support the view that the term “second death” refers to the complete destruction of the body and soul of the unsaved, rather than to the unsaved being kept alive forever in torment.  There is still a lot more evidence to consider. We have discussed both the metaphoric and literal meanings of “death” in general and “the second death” in particular.  In part three we will focus on the fact that this second death is caused by fire.

Hebrews 13:16 And do not forget to do good and to share with others . . .


  1. This is a well written and researched blog, Mark.

    The second death is surely the "second" in a series: everything that is essential to "death," at least in relation to the first death, carries over to the second.

    With that in mind, is the cessation of conscious being essential to the first death?

    My answer is "no" (see Rev. 6:9, 1 Sam. 28, Ezek. 32:21). The result is that the second death in and of itself cannot prove the doctrine of annihilation.

    You'd need to show that the second death adds the cessation of conscious being by way of other Scripture.

    1. Paul, you ask an excellent and thoughtful question, namely, "is the cessataion of conscious being essential to the first death?"

      You answer "no", and I can understand why. Like myself, you believe that we will consciously be with the Lord after we die and before we are resurrected (Philippians 1:23). But, the part of us that is with the Lord is not dead! It is only our body that is dead, not our soul. We think this way, but more important, this is how the Bible views death:

      James 2:26 As the body without the spirit is dead, so faith without deeds is dead

      So, the part of us which is "dead" does indeed cease being conscious. Our dead body can no longer feel, think, or know anything. It is only our living soul which continues to be conscious.

      Does this answer make sense?