Traditionalism and the (Not So) Second Death

In his apocalyptic vision recorded in the book of Revelation, John sees a lake of fire into which the risen wicked are thrown (20:15). There they join a seven-headed, ten-horned beast, a two-horned beast (the false prophet), and the devil, all three of whom are in eternal torment (20:10). This imagery is often appealed to by proponents of the traditional view of hell, typically treating it incorrectly as if it were a literal description of future events, or offering no justification for assuming that the proper interpretation is one in which the damned will suffer for eternity,1 despite the interpretation offered by “He who sits on the throne” (21:5) which is that the lake of fire is a symbol for “the second death” (21:8).
Conditionalists, recognizing this as the divine interpretation of the cryptic lake of fire imagery, take the interpretation in a quite straightforward way: those who die apart from Christ will rise and die a second time. Traditionalists offer an alternative explanation for the phrase, “the second death.” As the first death is a separation of body and soul, they often argue, so, too, is the second death a separation, one of the whole person from God for eternity (a claim which itself will be examined more closely in the future here at Rethinking Hell). And whereas the first death is physical, they tend to say that the second death is in some way a spiritual one. But in identifying the second death as spiritual death and separation from God, they demonstrate that they don’t really think it’s a “second” death at all.

Separation and Spiritual Death

According to many traditionalists, the second death is a form of eternal separation from God. Robert Peterson writes, “death signifies separation in Scripture, including… ‘the second death,’ that is, the eternal separation of sinners from the joyous presence of God ().”2 He explains that “As death means the separation of the soul from the body, so the second death denotes the ultimate separation of the ungodly from their Creator’s love…being deprived of God’s fellowship for all eternity.”3 And so, he insists, “The wicked will not cease to exist; they will exist in perpetual separation from God’s eternal life (‘death’)…cut off from the gracious presence of God.”4
Peterson is not alone. A.W. Pink concurs, writing, “As the first death is the separation of the soul from the body, so the second death will be the eternal separation of the soul from God.”5 John Walvoord says the second death “indicates eternal separation from God.”6 Saint Augustine writes that it is “called the second death, because the soul shall then be separated from God.”7 G.K. Beale explains, “A facet of suffering the ‘second death’ is also being separated forever from the presence of God who dwells in the ‘city’ of God.”8
The quotes can be easily multiplied. “The second death [means that the soul] is ultimately and finally deprived of that presence of God and fellowship with him which is the chief end of man and the essential condition of worthwhile existence.”9 “He can consign them to eternal (second) death, separating them forever from His presence and kingdom.”10 “What the book of Revelation calls ‘the second death’ () is a final separation of the wicked from the gracious presence of God (cf. ).”11 “In ‘the second death’…they will be…separated forever from the presence of God, and cut off from his benevolence, his providential care, and his grace.”12 “The first death consisted in the separation of the soul from the body for a season; the second death in the separation of body and soul from God for ever.”13 The second death “will consist in an eternal separation of both from God.”14 In it “their eternal state is one of eternal ‘death’ (i.e. separation from God) in sins (John viii. 21, 24).”15 It is a picture of one’s “ultimate fate as eternal separation from God”16 and of “exclusion from God’s fellowship and companionship.”17
The second death is also often considered by traditionalists to be some sort of “spiritual death.” W.G.T. Shedd writes that “Spiritual death is the same as the ‘second death.'”18 Beale says that “the ‘lake of fire’ [is] the place of those suffering the ‘second [spiritual] death’ in the postconsummation age.”19 Cyrus Scofield writes, “spiritual death is a state of eternal separation from God in conscious suffering. This is called ‘the second death’ (Rev. ii. 11; xx. 6, 14; xxi. 8).”20

Dead in your trespasses and sins

Many traditionalists, however, including many of those quoted above, believe that the unsaved are spiritually dead and separated from God now, and conditionalists are likely to agree that there is some sense in which this is true. After all, Paul wrote that the Ephesian believers “were dead in your trespasses and sins” (). Peterson says that “death signifies separation in Scripture, including…the separation of living unbelievers from the life of God in spiritual death ().”21 Shedd writes, “the spiritually dead are described in Scripture as conscious…The ‘dead in trespasses and sins walk according to the course of this world’ ().”22 Beale says, “the New Testament can speak of a spiritual death that separates people from God (e.g., ; ; ).”23 Eldon Woodcock writes that through evangelism, God brings people “from spiritual death to spiritual life.”24
Larry Dixon explains, “‘Death’ in [] seems to refer to a condition of spiritual separation from God. That decision to move out of the realm of spiritual death into the realm of eternal life is made in this life, not after one has died!”25 Robert Reymond writes of man’s fallen state, “Paul calls this…a form of death, the fallen heart being ‘dead in transgressions and sins’ (; ).”26 R.C. Sproul likewise says, “fallen man is spiritually dead…According to Paul [sinners] are dead. There is not an ounce of spiritual life left in them.”27 John MacArthur preached, “that is precisely the definition that the Scripture gives of people outside the Kingdom of God. They are totally shut off from God altogether. They live as if he did not exist. They are not able to respond at all to him.”28 Mark Dever writes, “we are, says , dead in our sins and transgressions…This is what the theologians call depravity. It is the death that deserves death.”29 Scofield says, “Spiritual death is the state of the natural or unregenerate man as still in his sins (Eph. ii. I), alienated from the life of God (Eph. iv. 18, 19), and destitute of the Spirit.”30
Some differences exist, of course, among traditionalists when it comes to what it means that believers were formerly dead in trespasses and sins. But the consensus appears to be that unbelievers in the here and now are living their lives in some sense separate from God, spiritually dead.

The “Second” Death?

The problem, then, should be readily apparent. Those living this life outside of Christ are already separated from God, already spiritually dead. The second death, it is alleged, is likewise a separation from God, a spiritual death. Several of the authors cited above, in fact, mention the two states together in the same breath, even though they appear separately above:

The spiritually dead are described in Scripture as conscious. compared with : “In the day thou eatest thereof, thou shalt surely die.” Adam and Eve “hid themselves.” After their fall they were spiritually dead, and filled with shame and terror before God. The “dead in trespasses and sins walk according to the course of this world” (). “She that liveth in pleasure is dead while she liveth” (). “You being dead in your sins hath he forgiven” (Coloss. 2:13). “Thou livest, and art dead” (). Spiritual death is the same as the “second death.”31

Spiritual death is the state of the natural or unregenerate man as still in his sins (Eph. ii. I), alienated from the life of God (Eph. iv. 18, 19), and destitute of the Spirit. Prolonged beyond the death of the body, spiritual death is a state of eternal separation from God in conscious suffering. This is called “the second death” (Rev. ii. 11; xx. 6, 14; xxi. 8).30

A facet of suffering the “second death” is also being separated forever from the presence of God who dwells in the “city” of God…Elsewhere the New Testament can speak of a spiritual death that separates people from God (e.g., ; ; ).23

But then, in what sense is the second death a “second” death? These traditionalists do not believe that the unsaved who were formerly spiritually dead and separated from God rise to spiritual life and unity with God prior to the second death. Therefore, it’s not a second death at all; it is an unbroken continuation of the state of death in which they had lived, albeit perhaps intensified and accompanied by additional retributive elements like physical, emotional and spiritual suffering.
Shedd even said that the “spiritual death” he identified in passages speaking about the here and now “is the same as ‘the second death.'” Scofield went so far as to say that this state of spiritual death, “[p]rolonged beyond the death of the body…is called ‘the second death.'” Woodcock similarly writes, “one’s spiritual status at the time of one’s physical death will be one’s status for all eternity,”32 and “their present lost condition involving their wandering from God and living in sin would, if not changed, lead to their permanent lost condition.”33 According to traditionalists, then, the risen wicked don’t die a second death; they die further (except, of course, for the body which never dies).
What makes this view still more problematic is that this state of spiritual death in which the unsaved live now, and which will be continued and unbroken, but amplified, in hell, actually precedes the first death implied by the second, widely acknowledged by traditionalists (including those cited above) to refer to physical death. Not only, then, is their view of hell not really a second death at all, but it commences prior to the first! If we’re to believe traditionalists, the divine interpretation of the lake of fire imagery as the second death is more perplexing than the imagery it purports to explain!

A First of its Kind

Perhaps the traditionalist might attempt to argue that the spiritual death and separation from God in the second death is of a fundamentally different nature than the spiritual death and separation from God in which the unsaved live now. What that argument might look like is not clear. After all, in the quotes above, the first state is one in which sinners are separated and wandering from God, from the life of God, totally shut off from God, alienated from God, spiritually separated from Him, and destitute of His Spirit. They are spiritually dead, lacking even an ounce of spiritual life. These theologians are perhaps a little more explicit in describing the second death as separation from the gracious presence and kingdom of God, deprived of His fellowship and companionship, lacking eternal life, but it seems that these are likewise true of sinners now.
One of the quotes above, however, says that in the second death the risen wicked will be deprived of God’s benevolence, providential care and grace, of which they are recipients in the here and now. And so, perhaps it could be argued that there are some significant ways in which this second state of separation from God is fundamentally different from the first. Whereas sinners now are extended common grace and are shown a degree of kindness and care, in the second death that will no longer be true. They will be utterly deprived of those things.
Such reasoning, however, does not escape the problem. For one thing, it is entirely arbitrary to say that the first spiritual death experienced in this life—separated and wandering from God, deprived of His life, totally shut off and alienated from Him, destitute of His Spirit, lacking even an ounce of spiritual life—is fundamentally different from the second spiritual death—deprived of just a few more of His blessings. Furthermore, it is doubtful that a traditionalist employing this reasoning would affirm that sinners in this life enjoy God’s kindness, care and grace in full measure, meaning that their complete deprivation of these mercies is, once again, merely an amplification of the state of spiritual death and separation in which they presently live. On the other hand, if one insists on this arbitrary distinction as constituting what are truly two spiritual deaths, then the second such state is not a second anything; it’s the first of its kind.
The second death is the second spiritual death and separation from God only if it fundamentally shares the same qualities as the first spiritual death and separation from God. But then, the only way it is second is if this separation is not an unbroken continuation of the first. That is to say, unsaved sinners must at some point come to spiritual life and be united with God, so they can spiritually die and be separated from Him a second time. It is, no doubt, highly unlikely that any traditionalist is willing to affirm that.

Second Torment?

Perhaps traditionalists would do better to locate the nature of the second death, not in some sort of intensified spiritual death and separation from God (since it would not be second at all), but rather in the torment inflicted in hell. Assuming a dualistic anthropology in which the disembodied, immaterial souls continue to live on in death, and operating from a somewhat literalistic interpretation of the parable of Lazarus and the rich man, a traditionalist might argue that just as the first death consists in torment, so, too, will the second death. So long as such a traditionalist is willing to affirm a brief respite from torment upon resurrection from Hades, it would seem at first glance that a second everlasting period of torment in hell could properly be called a second death.
Putting aside the rather awkward definition of death as torment, this line of reasoning suffers from still another problem. Those over whom John says the second death will have no power are those who come to life and reign with Christ (20:4-6). Those who are not thrown into the lake of fire—the second death—are first raised out of death and Hades (20:13-15). The first death, then, is something experienced by both believers and unbelievers alike; both are raised from it, and only the unsaved experience the second.
Therefore, if what qualifies the second death as the second death is the torment in which it consists, and in which the first death likewise consists, then it follows that believers, too, experience torment in Hades prior to the resurrection. But even given a literalistic reading of the parable of Lazarus and the rich man, believers are at rest being comforted in the bosom of Abraham. And the dualistic interpretation of passages like Luke 23:43 (“Today you will be with me in Paradise.”) and 2 Corinthians 5:8 (“to be absent from the body and to be at home with the Lord”) has believers experiencing bliss in heaven, not torment in Hades. What makes the second death a second death, then, cannot be any torment in which it is believed to consist.

No Interpretation At All

The traditional understanding of the second death is thus fraught with problems. It is not a second anything at all, either because it is an unbroken, albeit amplified, continuation of the state of spiritual death and separation from God experienced by all people prior to salvation, or because it is a first of its kind unlike anything preceding it. Alternatively, it is a second period of torment, from which it logically follows that those who die in Christ experience torment in Hades alongside the unsaved. How traditionalists might try to overcome this challenge awaits to be seen, but it will likely render John’s interpretation of the imagery as discombobulating as the imagery itself, and thus no interpretation at all.
Conditionalism, on the other hand, makes perfect sense of the interpretation offered by the One on the throne. Our understanding of the text is simple and elegant. Those who die a first time apart from Christ will be raised, judged and sentenced to permanent execution: to die a second time. And this, of course, coincides with the repeated and consistent testimony of Scripture that the wages of sin is death.

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  1. For one of several reasons to interpret the imagery otherwise, see Date, C. [2012, July 12]). “Consistency in Preterism: Annihilation and Revelation 20:10Rethinking Hell [blog]. Retrieved 26 August, 2012. http://www.rethinkinghell.com/2012/07/consistency-in-preterism-annihilation-and-revelation-2010 []
  2. Peterson, Robert A.; Fudge, Edward W. (2010-09-15). Two Views of Hell: A Biblical & Theological Dialogue (p. 112). Intervarsity Press – A. Kindle Edition. []
  3. Peterson, R. Hell on Trial: The Case for Eternal Punishment (Presbyterian and Reformed, 1995). 90. []
  4. Ibid. 198. []
  5. Pink, Arthur W. Eternal Punishment (Arthur Pink Collection) (Prisbrary, 2012). Kindle Locations 528-529. []
  6. Walvoord, J. “The Literal View.” Crockett, W. and Gundry, S. (eds) Four Views on Hell (Counterpoints: Bible and Theology) (Zondervan, 2010). Kindle Location 259. []
  7. St. Augustine (2011-10-04). The City of God – Enhanced (Kindle Locations 15361-15363). Kindle Edition. []
  8. Beale, G. K. “The Revelation on Hell.” Morgan, C. and Peterson, R. (eds) Hell Under Fire (Zondervan, 2004). 130-131. []
  9. Nicole, R. cited in Blanchard, J. Whatever Happened to Hell? (Crossway, 1995). 228. []
  10. Dixon, L. The Other Side of the Good News (Christian Focus, 2003). 190. []
  11. Boa, K. and Bowman, R. Sense & Nonsense About Heaven & Hell (Zondervan, 2007). 38. []
  12. Ibid., 107. []
  13. Clarke, A. “Commentary on “. “The Adam Clarke Commentary”. http://www.studylight.org/com/acc/view.cgi?book=re&chapter=020. 1832. []
  14. Gill, J. “Commentary on “. “The New John Gill Exposition of the Entire Bible”. http://www.studylight.org/com/geb/view.cgi?book=re&chapter=020&verse=014. 1999. []
  15. Scofield, C. The Scofield Reference Bible (Oxford University Press, 1909). 1351. []
  16. Woodcock, E. Hell: An Exhaustive Look at a Burning Issue (WestBow, 2012). Kindle Locations 4030-4023. []
  17. Ibid. Kindle Locations 12753-12754. []
  18. Shedd, G.T. (2011-05-18). The Doctrince of Endless Punishment: a 19th Century Response to Rob Bell and Love Wins (Kindle Locations 887-891). Primedia E-launch. Kindle Edition. []
  19. Beale, Hell On Trial. 130-131. []
  20. Scofield, C. The Scofield Reference Bible (Oxford University Press, 1909). 1251 []
  21. Peterson. Two Views of Hell. 112 []
  22. Shedd. The Doctrine of Endless Punishment. Kindle Locations 887-891. []
  23. Beale. Hell Under Fire. 130-131. [] []
  24. Woodcock. An Exhaustive Look. Kindle Locations 8399-8400. []
  25. Dixon, L. The Other Side of the Good News (Christian Focus, 2003). 134. []
  26. Reymond, R. Contending for the Faith (Christian Focus, 2005). 137. []
  27. Sproul, R. C. Chosen by God (Tyndale House, 1994). 90-91. []
  28. MacArthur, J. “Exchanging Living Death for Dying” 12 Apr. 1998. Grace to You. Web. 24 Apr. 2012. []
  29. Dever, M. The Gospel and Personal Evangelism (Crossway, 2007). 35. []
  30. Scofield. The Scofield Reference Bible. 1251. [] []
  31. Shedd. The Doctrince of Endless Punishment. Kindle Locations 887-891 []
  32. Woodcock. An Exhaustive Look. Kindle Locations 12061-12064. []
  33. Ibid. Kindle Locations 3804-3806. []

11 He who has an ear, let him hear what the Spirit says to the churches. The one who conquers will not be hurt by the second death.’

Revelation 20:14

14 Then Death and Hades were thrown into the lake of fire. This is the second death, the lake of fire.

Revelation 21:8

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.”

11 He who has an ear, let him hear what the Spirit says to the churches. The one who conquers will not be hurt by the second death.’

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.

Revelation 20:14

14 Then Death and Hades were thrown into the lake of fire. This is the second death, the lake of fire.

Revelation 21:8

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.”

They will suffer the punishment of eternal destruction, away from the presence of the Lord and from the glory of his might,

20:1 Then I saw an angel coming down from heaven, holding in his hand the key to the bottomless pit and a great chain. And he seized the dragon, that ancient serpent, who is the devil and Satan, and bound him for a thousand years, and threw him into the pit, and shut it and sealed it over him, so that he might not deceive the nations any longer, until the thousand years were ended. After that he must be released for a little while.

Then I saw thrones, and seated on them were those to whom the authority to judge was committed. Also I saw the souls of those who had been beheaded for the testimony of Jesus and for the word of God, and those who had not worshiped the beast or its image and had not received its mark on their foreheads or their hands. They came to life and reigned with Christ for a thousand years. The rest of the dead did not come to life until the thousand years were ended. This is the first resurrection. 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.

And when the thousand years are ended, Satan will be released from his prison and will come out to deceive the nations that are at the four corners of the earth, Gog and Magog, to gather them for battle; their number is like the sand of the sea. And they marched up over the broad plain of the earth and surrounded the camp of the saints and the beloved city, but fire came down from heaven and consumed them, 10 and the devil who had deceived them was thrown into the lake of fire and sulfur where the beast and the false prophet were, and they will be tormented day and night forever and ever.

11 Then I saw a great white throne and him who was seated on it. From his presence earth and sky fled away, and no place was found for them. 12 And I saw the dead, great and small, standing before the throne, and books were opened. Then another book was opened, which is the book of life. And the dead were judged by what was written in the books, according to what they had done. 13 And the sea gave up the dead who were in it, Death and Hades gave up the dead who were in them, and they were judged, each one of them, according to what they had done. 14 Then Death and Hades were thrown into the lake of fire. This is the second death, the lake of fire. 15 And if anyone’s name was not found written in the book of life, he was thrown into the lake of fire.

14 Then Death and Hades were thrown into the lake of fire. This is the second death, the lake of fire.

2:1 And you were dead in the trespasses and sins

2:1 And you were dead in the trespasses and sins

Ephesians 2:5

even when we were dead in our trespasses, made us alive together with Christ—by grace you have been saved—

2:1 And you were dead in the trespasses and sins

Ephesians 2:2

in which you once walked, following the course of this world, following the prince of the power of the air, the spirit that is now at work in the sons of disobedience—

24 For this my son was dead, and is alive again; he was lost, and is found.’ And they began to celebrate.

Luke 15:32

32 It was fitting to celebrate and be glad, for this your brother was dead, and is alive; he was lost, and is found.’”

2:1 And you were dead in the trespasses and sins

Ephesians 2:12

12 remember that you were at that time separated from Christ, alienated from the commonwealth of Israel and strangers to the covenants of promise, having no hope and without God in the world.

13 And you, who were dead in your trespasses and the uncircumcision of your flesh, God made alive together with him, having forgiven us all our trespasses,

24 Truly, truly, I say to you, whoever hears my word and believes him who sent me has eternal life. He does not come into judgment, but has passed from death to life.

2:1 And you were dead in the trespasses and sins

13 And you, who were dead in your trespasses and the uncircumcision of your flesh, God made alive together with him, having forgiven us all our trespasses,

2:1 And you were dead in the trespasses and sins in which you once walked, following the course of this world, following the prince of the power of the air, the spirit that is now at work in the sons of disobedience— among whom we all once lived in the passions of our flesh, carrying out the desires of the body and the mind, and were by nature children of wrath, like the rest of mankind. But God, being rich in mercy, because of the great love with which he loved us, even when we were dead in our trespasses, made us alive together with Christ—by grace you have been saved— and raised us up with him and seated us with him in the heavenly places in Christ Jesus, so that in the coming ages he might show the immeasurable riches of his grace in kindness toward us in Christ Jesus. For by grace you have been saved through faith. And this is not your own doing; it is the gift of God, not a result of works, so that no one may boast. 10 For we are his workmanship, created in Christ Jesus for good works, which God prepared beforehand, that we should walk in them.

11 Therefore remember that at one time you Gentiles in the flesh, called “the uncircumcision” by what is called the circumcision, which is made in the flesh by hands— 12 remember that you were at that time separated from Christ, alienated from the commonwealth of Israel and strangers to the covenants of promise, having no hope and without God in the world. 13 But now in Christ Jesus you who once were far off have been brought near by the blood of Christ. 14 For he himself is our peace, who has made us both one and has broken down in his flesh the dividing wall of hostility 15 by abolishing the law of commandments expressed in ordinances, that he might create in himself one new man in place of the two, so making peace, 16 and might reconcile us both to God in one body through the cross, thereby killing the hostility. 17 And he came and preached peace to you who were far off and peace to those who were near. 18 For through him we both have access in one Spirit to the Father. 19 So then you are no longer strangers and aliens, but you are fellow citizens with the saints and members of the household of God, 20 built on the foundation of the apostles and prophets, Christ Jesus himself being the cornerstone, 21 in whom the whole structure, being joined together, grows into a holy temple in the Lord. 22 In him you also are being built together into a dwelling place for God by the Spirit.

then the Lord God formed the man of dust from the ground and breathed into his nostrils the breath of life, and the man became a living creature.

And they heard the sound of the Lord God walking in the garden in the cool of the day, and the man and his wife hid themselves from the presence of the Lord God among the trees of the garden.

2:1 And you were dead in the trespasses and sins

Ephesians 2:2

in which you once walked, following the course of this world, following the prince of the power of the air, the spirit that is now at work in the sons of disobedience—

but she who is self-indulgent is dead even while she lives.

3:1 “And to the angel of the church in Sardis write: ‘The words of him who has the seven spirits of God and the seven stars.

“‘I know your works. You have the reputation of being alive, but you are dead.

24 For this my son was dead, and is alive again; he was lost, and is found.’ And they began to celebrate.

Luke 15:32

32 It was fitting to celebrate and be glad, for this your brother was dead, and is alive; he was lost, and is found.’”

2:1 And you were dead in the trespasses and sins

Ephesians 2:12

12 remember that you were at that time separated from Christ, alienated from the commonwealth of Israel and strangers to the covenants of promise, having no hope and without God in the world.

13 And you, who were dead in your trespasses and the uncircumcision of your flesh, God made alive together with him, having forgiven us all our trespasses,