Tuesday, February 21, 2017

What is the Second Death? Part 3, Fire

We are discussing this question:  What is the second death?

Whatever the second death is, in John’s visions it occurs in fire. In his vision, John sees a lake of fire which the unsaved are cast into.

The purpose of part 3 of this series is to show that the rest of the Bible provides extensive reason to believe that punishment carried out by fire from God leads to annihilation.  The fire is used to consume God’s enemies, not to torment them (although there may of course be a relatively short period of torment in the process of being consumed).  There are several lines of evidence which support this interpretation:

1.  There are examples of judgment by fire in the rest of the Bible, and these examples consistently involve the destruction of those who are judged;

2.  Punishment for sin is symbolized by burning up dead sacrifices;

3.  There are specific prophecies of fire burning up dead bodies in final judgment;

 ** and most importantly (this one should settle the question)**
4. The Bible explicitly teaches that the unsaved will be completely “burned up” and burned to ashes.

Let’s look at each of these types of evidence.

1.  Examples of Judgment by Fire

·         Perhaps the most famous judgment by fire occurs when God destroys Sodom and Gomorrah (Genesis 19:24-25).  The people are not tormented by fire, they are destroyed by fire.

·         In Leviticus we read about the tragic case of Nadab and Abihu, who, after disobeying the Lord’s command, are consumed by fire from the presence of the Lord.  They die. (Leviticus 10:1-2)

·         In Numbers we read of two cases of “fire from the Lord” consuming people in judgment (Numbers 11:1 and Numbers 16:35).

·         Finally, the Lord sends down fire to consume soldiers sent to apprehend Elijah (2 Kings 1:10).

In these examples, fire is used to consume and destroy people.  The people die. Fire is not used to torment living people.

2.  Old Testament Sacrifices were Burned Up with Fire, Not Tortured with Fire

Throughout the Old Testament, animals are sacrificed as sin offerings.  The sacrificed animals are then burned.  This is a picture of sin being paid for.  Notice that fire is used to consume dead bodies, not to torture living animals.  If it seems like it would have been just too terrible for God to direct people to torture living animals as a symbol of sins being paid for, imagine how much more terrible it would be if God tortured people forever. Sacrifices which are killed and then burned up with fire are much more consistent with people being burned up in the lake of fire than with people being tortured forever in the lake of fire. This same idea, that final judgment will involve death followed by bodies being burned up is seen in Daniel’s vision . . .

3.  Prophecies of Fire Burning Up Dead Bodies in Final Judgment

Some parts of the visions John records in Revelation are very similar to the visions Daniel recorded.  Daniel saw this:

Daniel 7:9 "As I looked, "thrones were set in place, and the Ancient of Days took his seat. His clothing was as white as snow; the hair of his head was white like wool. His throne was flaming with fire, and its wheels were all ablaze.
 10 A river of fire was flowing, coming out from before him. Thousands upon thousands attended him; ten thousand times ten thousand stood before him. The court was seated, and the books were opened.
 11 "Then I continued to watch because of the boastful words the horn was speaking. I kept looking until the beast was slain and its body destroyed and thrown into the blazing fire.

In Daniel’s vision a terrible beast is slain, it is destroyed, and THEN its dead body is thrown into blazing fire.  A very similar beast (it may be the same beast) is seen by John in Revelation. Both Daniel and John see beasts with ten horns.  The beasts both seem to represent evil government forces used by Satan to oppose and persecute God’s people. Both beasts boast against God.  And both meet their end by a judgment of intense fire.  John and Daniel each see more than one beast, and it is difficult to determine precisely how the beasts relate, but they seem to have far too much in common not to be closely related to each other, if not in fact identical.  But there is one difference.  Daniel’s beast is slain and destroyed and then thrown into blazing fire.  John’s beast is thrown into the fire alive and tortured forever.  Is this a contradiction?  It is if both accounts refer to the same beast (which is a common view) AND if both visions are entirely literal portrayals of the future. I believe there are no actual contradictions in the Bible.  Both John and Daniel are relating visions filled with symbols.  While some specific elements in some of their visions are undoubtedly literal (Jesus being worshipped forever!), other elements are not literal.  Now here is a question:  why do so many people uncritically assume that the beast being tortured in fire forever is literal instead of believing that the beast being slain, destroyed, and consumed by the fire is literal?

Isaiah sees something similar happening to the unsaved.  In the last chapter of Isaiah we read:

Isaiah 66:16 For with fire and with his sword the LORD will execute judgment on all people, and many will be those slain by the LORD.
. . .
22 "As the new heavens and the new earth that I make will endure before me," declares the LORD, "so will your name and descendants endure.
 23 From one New Moon to another and from one Sabbath to another, all mankind will come and bow down before me," says the LORD.
 24 "And they will go out and look on the dead bodies of those who rebelled against me; the worms that eat them will not die, the fire that burns them will not be quenched, and they will be loathsome to all mankind."

The unquenchable fire is not used to torture living people, but to consume the dead bodies after final judgment!  Since almost all dead human bodies are either reduced to ashes by fire or reduced to dust by worms, doesn’t it make perfect sense that God would use these images to point to the permanent death of those He judges?

4.  The Bible explicitly teaches that the unsaved will be completely “burned up” and burned to ashes.

Prophecies and symbols are admittedly hard to interpret.  Thankfully, the Bible also tells us in very explicit language that the unrighteous will be burned to ashes.

John the Baptist teaches that the unrighteous will be burned up like chaff thrown into fire:

Matthew 3:12 His winnowing fork is in his hand, and he will clear his threshing floor, gathering his wheat into the barn and burning up (katakaio) the chaff with unquenchable fire."

The Greek word translated “burned” is katakaio. This word is consistently used to refer not merely to something being damaged or singed by fire, but to something being completely burned up (in the NT see Acts 13:19, in the LXX see 2 Kings 23:4 and Isaiah 33:12). Jesus also uses this same word to describe the fate of the unrighteous:

Matthew 13:30 Let both grow together until the harvest. At that time I will tell the harvesters: First collect the weeds and tie them in bundles to be burned (katakaio); then gather the wheat and bring it into my barn.'"

Peter is even more explicit when, inspired by the Holy Spirit, he explains that Sodom and Gomorrah being burnt to ashes is an example of what will happen to the ungodly:

2 Peter 2:6 if he condemned the cities of Sodom and Gomorrah by burning them to ashes, and made them an example of what is going to happen to the ungodly;

All of this is consistent with Malachi’s prophecy:

Malachi 4:1 "Surely the day is coming; it will burn like a furnace. All the arrogant and every evildoer will be stubble, and the day that is coming will set them on fire," says the LORD Almighty. "Not a root or a branch will be left to them.
 2 But for you who revere my name, the sun of righteousness will rise with healing in its rays. And you will go out and frolic like well-fed calves.
 3 Then you will trample on the wicked; they will be ashes under the soles of your feet on the day when I act," says the LORD Almighty.

No wonder the author of Hebrews wrote:

Hebrews 12:29 for our "God is a consuming fire."

Destruction by Fiery Judgment is a Common Biblical Theme

Here are a few more verses on this theme (hold your cursor over the verse to see it pop up):

Deuteronomy 4:24

Deuteronomy 9:3

Psalm 21:9

Psalm 50:3

Psalm 68:2

Psalm 80:16

Psalm 97:3

Psalm 106:18

Isaiah 5:24

Isaiah 26:11

Isaiah 47:14

Ezekiel 28:18

Zephaniah 1:18

Zephaniah 3:8

Many of the images in John’s vision depend heavily on the rest of the Bible for their interpretation.  This is obviously true for the “lamb”, the “lion of the tribe of Judah”, the temple, the altar, “Babylon”, and other images in his vision.  Beale claims that “Revelation has more allusions to the OT than all other books of the NT put together” (Beale, Revelation, A Shorter Commentary, pg. 17).  He says the meaning of the elements in John’s vision are almost always symbolic and the interpretation is “almost always within the context of OT references” (Beale, pg. 12).  Likewise, Mounce sees symbolism playing a major role in Revelation and says, “much of it stems from the OT” (Mounce, The Book of Revelation, Revised, pg. 5). Beale and Mounce are both traditionalists with respect to their view of Hell, yet their own interpretative principles imply that the many examples of fire from God being used to destroy people in judgment throughout the Bible should influence our understanding of what happens in the lake of fire.


Throughout the Bible God’s judgment often involves the use of fire.  Fire is not used to torture living people, but rather to completely burn them up.  The Bible also explicitly states that this is what will happen to the ungodly in the end. 

In John’s vision, the “second death” occurs in a lake of fire.  All of this supports the claim that in Revelation “second death” refers to the unsaved dying a second time in such a way that their souls and bodies are completely and permanently destroyed (Matthew 10:28).  It all adds up!

In the next part of this series we will examine the only two phrases in the entire Bible which seem to be contrary to our conclusion.  We will see that there is a simple explanation for the meaning of these two phrases which shows that they do not, in fact, contradict all the evidence we have seen so far.

*********Additional Resources**********

The use of fire to consume God’s enemies is a theme which communicates powerfully.  It is not surprising that the most influential book on annihilationism bears the title TheFire that Consumes.  This book by Edward Fudge played an important role in helping me see and understand the Biblical evidence for annihilationism.

The Biblical language referring to being “burned up” also prompted my own 2 part sermon on annihilationism which may be found on YouTube here:  Burned Up, Part 1 and Burned Up, Part 2.

Finally, as on just about any topic you can think of related to conditional immortality, the RethinkingHell website has excellent resources on God’s consuming fire.  For example, one article which recently helped to sharpen and clarify my thinking on the topic of eternal fire can be found here.

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

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