DEATH is the designation which God Himself has placed upon the lake of fire to describe its effect upon those who are condemned at the great white throne. Our thoughts about the burning lake are usually the very opposite of this. We imagine it a place of torture, of pain prolonged and excruciating, of terror and despair, of hopeless and helpless horror. Few of our false notions are as difficult to displace as this, for this same lake will be a place of torment for a few others, who have never died before, and our experience with fire has left us with a sense of the anguish which it inflicts, whether we have been burned ourselves, or have seen others writhing in its flames. It is a triumph of faith to face all of this and rest on God's simple word, "This is the second death the lake of fire." In death there is no sensation whatever, no pain or pleasure, no despair, and no delight. We will never understand the lake of fire or God's purpose in it until we clear it of all the false notions with which we have invested it, and simply believe that it is oblivion, death, in which all sensation ceases and all consciousness of time and of place vanishes. Its victims awake only when they reach their journey's end, when death is abolished and God becomes their All.
DEATH AS A FIGURE
The sum of men's thoughts seems to be infinite: the number of words to express them is limited. Hence it is necessary to use words for ideas outside of their strict significance. This is done in figures of speech. Adjacent realms of thought are often covered by one expression. This is especially true of the term death. The meaning is clear. It is a return of the spirit to God, of the soul to the unseen, and of the body to the soil. It is an analysis, a dissolution of man into his components. This agrees with the fact that there is no consciousness in death. That this is the actual, literal meaning of the term is put beyond all doubt by the fact that this feature of death is implied in some of its figurative usages. A man who is sound asleep is dead to the world. Unbelievers are dead to God.
But there are passages which seem to imply that the dead are conscious, and these vitally concern the second death. Death and the unseen are pictured as the receptacle of the dead when they give up the dead in them, to stand before the great white throne (Rev.20:13). The death state cannot literally contain the dead, or disgorge them. It is a marvelously expressive way of saying that those who have died are raised. And it is highly significant that this resurrection does not mention the spirit, for this would vivify them. But the soul, the consciousness, is especially included by using the same figure of the unseen. "The dead" stand before the throne with their bodies and souls. How to express the fact that they literally have spirit (or they could not have a soul), but are not vivified as the saints, would take considerable explanation. It is done most vividly by calling them "dead" and omitting any mention of spirit.
Then the same words are used again, but the figure is slightly changed. Death and the unseen are cast into the lake of fire (Rev.20:14). Here the inhabitants, the persons who have died are intended by the term death. We use this figure freely in other connections. We speak of the "city" or the "country" being blotted out by a catastrophe, when we really mean the dwellers in these places. Is it not quite evident from this double use of the terms "death and the unseen," that all those who stand before the great white throne are cast into the lake of fire also? The figure reverts to the condition of those before the throne ere they came out of death and the unseen.
The chief source of confusion with regard to the death state, however, lies in those passages where, by association, the term death is used of its cause. In fact, Webster's dictionary, which is the authority for the meaning of words in the United States, actually includes "the act of dying" as one of its "definitions." That is the chief fault of this as well as other works of this kind. They "define" words by including their figurative usages, and, thus, they really diffuse the meaning, and rob the language of definition. Words have a constant meaning, yet their figurative usages are not constant, but may vary in the same context, as we have already seen. There is hardly any limit to the figurative usages. Webster mentions personification and likeness, and even the cause, among others, as though they were the meanings of the word. But even this great work does not mention the figures already discussed, the receptacle and the inhabitants of the death state.
The cause of death is too often confused with the literal death state. A living, lively man may be the "death" of a party, if the participants become like the dead because of his activities. Yet no one would insist that he is the death state! But, in our study of the Scriptures, we seem to be blind to such obvious figures of speech. The "death of the cross" is one of the most marvelous of the passages where the cause overshadows the death state. The shame and ignominy which attended Christ's decease is vigorously voiced by this famous figure. The same thought comes out in "the pangs of death" (Acts 2:24), "the suffering of death" (Heb.2:9). This figure is implied in the phrase "what death" He was about to die and glorify God (John 12:33; 18:32; 21:19). A less dreadful allusion to the crisis of dying is found in the phrase "tasting death" (Mark 9:1; Heb.2:9). This seems to have been the common figure for the end of life. Death itself is not a substance which the tongue can taste, and there is no taste or any other sensation in the literal death state. The word injure (Rev.2:11) does not imply sensation, for land (Rev.7:2), and grass (Rev.9:4), and olive oil (Rev.6:6) may be injured.
THE LAKE NOT LITERAL DEATH
Fire is not literal death. I have seen tremendous flames spouting from an oil well, with a white cloud continually hovering over it, yet no one called it death. I have seen the fumes of Vesuvius, and there was no death. Yet, since then, Vesuvius has been the death of many. A friend once told me that he nearly lost his life on Kilauea, the volcano on the Hawaiian islands. It almost became his death. This was, perhaps, the nearest that we can come to a lake of fire. Everyone will acknowledge that these craters are not literally the death state. Yet the same situation exists in regard to the lake of fire. It is not literal death, but the cause of death. To derive the literal meaning of death from this figurative usage would almost reverse its actual definition.
The "death" which is cast into the lake of fire becomes the lake of fire. This is impossible literally. Yet, in figure, the use of the same term even for different figures, identifies the literal death caused by the lake of fire. It was the first death that gave up the dead. This is confirmed by calling it the second death. Two things must be intrinsically the same or they cannot be related as first and second. The first death in view in this passage was not the crisis of dying, for that cannot give up the dead in it. Indeed that cannot well be the basis of any figure itself. Neither can such a death be cast into the lake of fire. The first death is confined to the literal death state, so this must be true of the second. All the more so, as it is also the explanation of the function of the lake of fire.
"Literal, if possible." Once we obey this axiom, and allow the literal lake its literal result, which is death with its literal effect of oblivion, all difficulties disappear. It fits in with all other revelation and God's great plan for the race. It may last for as many as twenty thousand years, a period of purgatory in fire that would be unbearable for mortals, and altogether at variance with God's judgment of individuals elsewhere. It would be impossible to reconcile His ways, and His great purpose to reconcile all with the submergence of infants in a fiery lake for conscious discipline for even a minute, let alone many millenniums. The function of the first death was to bring all into judgment immediately, at the end of life. So the second death ushered all into reconciliation as soon as they have been judged.
What does the second death actually accomplish? To be sure, it involves the loss of the bliss and glory which comes to those who have believed, and who have the free gift of immortality. But for those who do not possess this gracious gift it is a most merciful alternative. Men view their lives from the standpoint of experience and consciousness. What occurs to us when we are asleep or unconscious does not affect our happiness at the time. We cannot admire God's wisdom enough in that He has made death a state of absolute oblivion. It simplifies His dealings with His creatures enormously, and makes it possible for Him to be just and equitable. How anyone could justify God in holding the antediluvian world in conscious suspense for these thousands of years before bringing them into judgment, is inexplicable. Let us never accuse Him of such a crime.
To a human being who judges by his consciousness there is no interval of time between death and resurrection. Abel, the first man to die, will be raised, or rather vivified, nearly six thousand years ago--so far as he will be aware at the instant of his awakening. It is even possible, should it happen that he was begging for mercy at the time of his death, and expired with an unfinished sentence on his lips, that he will complete the petition before he realizes what has occurred. I remember the case of a Hollander who had been struck on the head while issuing an order, and injured so that he partly lost his mind. When an operation relieved the pressure on a certain part of his brain, the first thing he did was to finish the command to his workmen, which had been interrupted by the accident. The time between was a total blank.
So it will be with the believer. I feel certain that many saints who have ardently waited for the coming of Christ will awake under the impression that He came just as they were about to die, or during their lifetime. Indeed, has He not wisely planned it so that He comes to every one of His own at the close of their course, and yet this occurs at the same instant for them all? That is the ideal, and God is able to attain it. Not death, but His coming, is set before each one of His beloved, and, for all practical purposes, this is what takes place. Experimentally (though not actually) every time a saint dies the Lord comes in glory and gathers him to Him, together with all other saints of this economy, whether past or future! Impossible, but true. And who would have it otherwise? Can His inimitable wisdom be excelled?
A shimmer of this glorious wisdom falls upon the unbelieving dead. They also awake to find themselves, with all of their kind, of every age and every clime, before the Judge of all the earth. And when they die again, it will not be a long, dreary, unbearable suspense, but an instantaneous entrance into the glories of the consummation. For them the last eon will have no existence. For them we must fold our charts so that the consummation immediately follows the great white throne. For them the lake of fire is immediately transformed into the ineffable bliss which even we, His saints, but feebly apprehend, which comes only to those in whom God is All.
Some will object that this is casting them into eternal bliss, rather than into the lake of fire. Such an objector has at least understood my words, even if he has missed their spirit, and has forgotten that, at this time, the dead have been judged. It is I who am the stickler for a literal interpretation. I am not making the lake figurative, hoping thus to ease my heart at the expense of my head. The casting and the fire and the death are all as literal as they can be. The death here spoken of, being given in a definition, must be literal. As literal fire produces literal death, it also is literal. There is only one literal interpretation possible. It is supremely satisfactory. Various figurative interpretations have been offered. None of them has proved permanently tenable. They all arise from faulty views of judgment and of death, and are futile once these are clearly grasped.
And, from this viewpoint, can we not see the absolute necessity of the fire? It is not to torture the sinner but to do away with sin. God cannot be All in mortal men. He will not dwell in corruptible bodies. They must be made fit for His august presence. And what can picture and also provide such a complete destruction of all that is pernicious in man as to dissolve him into his elements? Ashes are clean, yes, cleansing. Fire is the best purifier. In fact, it is probable that our ideas of purity come from pur, the Greek for fire. The utter destruction of the sinner by the lake of fire clears the ground for his vivification as a temple of God at the consummation. Is not all this harmonious and satisfying, yes, comforting and glorious?
And this is no purgatory! It is quite the opposite. The sinner feels and does hardly anything. There is no conscious, long-lasting torture, no gradual cleansing of the old, no miraculous life within the flames of death. Nothing is strained. All is natural. Man is debased and God is glorified. All of God's destructive processes have been comparatively swift. Why should not His last be the swiftest? Let us always remember that the casting into the lake of fire comes after the dead have been judged, and all has been set right. The indignation and fury, affliction and distress which comes on every human soul who effects evil (Rom.2:9), has been experienced. It is a part of the judging that will then be past. The death in the lake of fire is not part of the judging. It is not a place of torment for those who are mortal!
The problem as to the condition of those who have been judged, between this time and their reconciliation to God at the consummation, is a difficult one, if we seek to solve it apart from revelation. If our hearts are in tune with God, we will wish them to experience immediate reconciliation. If our heads are in harmony with His great eonian purposes, we will not reconcile them until after the eons are over. And God, in His inimitable wisdom does both of these by introducing the second death. They do not receive eonian life, yet they experience immediate deathlessness. We rightly think that, when God has judged His creatures, He should not delay in clasping them to His bosom. Yet we see that, for His own glory, and for the good of these very creatures, this must be delayed until Christ has put all other enemies beneath His feet. Death must be the last, and the second death must not yield until He has abrogated all sovereignty and authority and power (1 Cor.15:24). The last eon, on the new earth, has no place in its plans for the judged of mankind. That would destroy its character and its lesson.
Let us never fall into the common error of thinking that the great white throne is only a trial, and that the sentence pronounced is the lake of fire. That would be a travesty of justice indeed! Why have a trial, to determine the amount of guilt and the proper infliction, if all, without distinction, are foredoomed to receive the same sentence! No indeed! The trial and the sentence and its execution--for all this is included in the one word judging--all take place in the interval between the first and second death of the sinner. Thus it will be possible to be just, and deal with each case according to its merits. The many differences between those who sinned much and those who sinned little, those who sinned against light and those who sat in darkness, those who never heard of God, and those who defied His name, all these will be recognized and rectified. Only thus can the Judge of all the earth do right. Only so can the judgment proceed along the lines God Himself has laid down as detailed in the early chapters of the epistle to the Romans.
The main point which we seek to press upon our readers is to accept God's declaration that, for those who are judged before the great white throne, the lake of fire is the second death. If we take God at His word, exactly and accurately, and add nothing to it and take nothing from it (which is a very difficult feat for us mortals) then all our objections will vanish. He does not say that it is a painful death, or a slow death or a horrible death. These are all figments of our imagination. In death there is no pain, and death by violence need not be painful, however it may appear. We have no right whatever to make either the dying or the death in the lake of fire a thing to be dreaded. It is not so at all.
There is every reason to think that the deluge brought much more individual suffering than the lake of fire. Yet even this is not certain. We have been taught by pictures that the waters gradually drove the people to the heights and that their end came only after days and weeks of fearful, frightful, dreadful despair. The remains of animals found in northern ice seem to hint that it may have been an instantaneous death, that a wall of water drowned the unfortunates in a moment. But in the case of the lake of fire we are sure. The word cast, which seems so cruel at first, is really filled with mercy. It suggests a sudden and settled end. A second is all that is needed.
I once had an experience which taught me a salutary lesson. I suppose the most sensitive parts of the human frame are the finger tips. At least their constant use for the purpose of touching makes them very sensitive to any contact. When I was a young man I very foolishly undertook to clean parts of a printing press while it was running. With a rag I reached far into the revolving mechanism on which steel fingers opened and closed as they grasped the sheets. My rag caught and dragged my hand through, and the steel grippers tore open the last three fingers of my right hand. I still bear the scars. In fact, I can tell the approximate temperature by the long seam on my little finger, which will not straighten out in cold weather.
Oh! You may exclaim, how painful that must have been! One person who saw it became ill and almost fainted at the sight. Everyone was so stunned that I had to take charge myself, and order them to call a doctor. But I had no pain in my hand. I could see the bleeding flesh and the bared bone, but it seemed to have little sensation. If I had died then and there I would not have suffered, except from fright. Later I had pain aplenty, but not enough at the time to give it a name. I have heard of some similar experiences. Livingstone, the African explorer, was bitten in the shoulder by a lion, and he felt no pain at the time. I feel quite sure that animals which are the prey of others seldom feel the pangs they are supposed to, especially if the blood flows. it is a merciful provision that sudden violence stuns the nerves so that they do not function.
Death, in the Scriptures, that is, the Greek word thanatos, always means the state consequent on dying, but in current English it is also used for the act of dying. In our Bible it occurs in this sense. In John 4:47 we read that the nobleman's son was "at the point of death." He was about to be dying. Usually the context makes the matter clear, or should do so, but that depends upon the reader. When I speak of the process of "death," I have taken it for granted that everyone will understand me to refer to the experience which immediately precedes the death state, not death itself, for there is no experience possible in death. When we use the word "death" of the cause of death, we are not really giving it a new meaning, but giving it a figurative usage. For instance, "the death of the cross" is not the spirit and soil and soul of our Lord nailed to the cross in the death state, during the three days before His resurrection, but the experience which caused His death. Literally, it is His dying on the cross. But the figure carries us further than that. It implies the shame and ignominy which is the portion of the worst criminal.
I do not deny that gradual death by fire may be excruciating. Yet such has been the portion of some of God's choicest saints. But neither nature nor revelation gives any warrant for thinking that the lake of fire is the cause of pain to any who find in it a second death. For those who live in it and are tormented, it is an entirely different matter. I have no reason for believing that a human being could live more than a few seconds in a lake of fire. Death would come almost instantly. And in that time it is not likely that there would be appreciable suffering.
It is a question just how much those who stand before the great white throne will know of their fate; we are not informed whether they are told about the lake of fire or not. This we can well leave with God. If they know it, they will have far less to dread than anyone at the present time, saint or sinner. Were men absolutely sure that, at death, they would be taken suddenly without previous suffering or appreciable pain, it would be a great consolation, for that sort of death is much to be preferred to the one which befalls the majority of mankind. God could have doomed those who are judged before the throne to die as they had died before, of disease and senility, and have made this a part of their judgment. But it seems to me that the purpose of such experiences is to humble us, not simply to set us right. It is most probable that God's judgment will not be prolonged sufficiently to include such inflictions. We cannot look upon them as judgments, as they are the lot of mankind long before they enter into the judgment, before the first death. There seems to be no indication that the second death affects the judgment at the great white throne, except that, as a result of its condemnation, no eonian life is granted to anyone, and they have no part in the blessings of the final eon, either in the heavens or on the earth. They pass these in oblivion, death.
Still further it is scriptural to believe that it will be a release from pain. In various degrees and for various periods, according to their deserts, "indignation and fury, affliction and distress" (Rom.2:9), will be the portion of those who stand before the great white throne. Men are not simply tried there. They are judged. And this continues until they are cast into the lake of fire. Then, in death, all sensation ceases. It is a release, not a torture chamber. Most of us have known cases of human suffering where we have questioned the wisdom of combating death. We breathe a sigh of relief when the last long sigh has closed a case of unbearable torture. So will the lake of fire mercifully close the judgment period of all who suffer for their sins. It is not an infliction but its cessation.
It is worth our while to note God's use of the two elements, water and fire, in His great eonian operations. The first two eons are separated by watery boundaries--the disruption and the deluge. So the last two eons are bounded by fire. This element plays a powerful part in the judgments which usher in the kingdom, and it is most prominent between the last two eons, for the greatest of all conflagrations will precede the new heavens and the new earth. Both in fact and in figure fire is the final cleansing agent. So it is in utmost harmony to use this element in effecting the second death of those who will be made alive at the consummation.