The Lake of Fire
Revelation 20:13 says,
13 And the sea gave up the dead which were in it, and death and Hades gave up the dead which were in them; and they were judged, every one of them according to their deeds.
Rabbinic opinions varied widely in John’s day. The Jewish Encyclopedia tells us in its article on “Resurrection,”
“According to R. Simai (Sifre, Deut. 306) and R. Hiyya bar Abba (Gen. R. xiii. 4; comp. Lev. R. xiii, 3), resurrection awaits only the Israelites; according to R. Abbahu, only the just (Ta’an, 7a); some mention especially the martyrs (Yalk. H. 431, after Tanhuma). R. Abbahu and R. Eleazar confine resurrection to those that die in the Holy Land; others extend it to such as die outside of Palestine (Ket. 111a).”
As we see from this, some “confine resurrection to those that die in the Holy Land.” The view was based on certain Scriptures that spoke of inheriting the land. The same article in The Jewish Encyclopedia continues
“The resurrection, therefore, was believed to take place solely in the Holy Land…. Jerusalem alone is the city of which the dead shall blossom forth like grass (Ket. 111b, after Ps. lxxii. 16). Those that are buried elsewhere will therefore be compelled to creep through cavities in the earth until they reach the Holy Land…”
Again, it says,
“The chief difficulty… is to find out what the resurrection belief actually implied or comprised, since the ancient rabbis themselves differed as to whether resurrection was to be universal, or a privilege of the Jewish people only, or of the righteous only.”
Apparently, John was familiar with these differing beliefs, so he assures us that this resurrection is universal and includes even those who had been lost at sea. No one is to be forgotten or left in perpetual death. All will be raised for judgment, and all will be restored.
The Second Death
Revelation 20:14, 15 continues,
14 And 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.
A “second death” implies either more than one death (made possible by resurrection from the first death) or two kinds of death. A common view is that both deaths are of the same type. However, the New Testament in particular actually speaks of two distinct kinds of death. The first is the kind of death that is the result of the mortality that came through Adam’s sin. The second is the death of “the flesh,” which Paul experienced when he said in 1 Cor. 15:31, “I die daily.”
Paul often speaks of putting the flesh to death, or crucifying the “old man.” This type of death results in renewed life, not in actual death. It is primarily accomplished by putting down the will of the flesh in order to follow the will of the Spirit. But denying the flesh (or the will of the old man) must be done moment by moment, because it does not fully die until mortality claims its prey. For this reason, the second death is a way of life, not the condition of a corpse.
Paul tells us further in Rom. 6:6, 7 (The Emphatic Diaglott),
6 Knowing this, that our old man was crucified with Him, so that the body of sin may be rendered powerless; that we may no longer be enslaved to sin; 7 for he who died has been justified from sin.
Justification is accomplished only through death. Hence, all who are justified have died the second death even before they have died as a result of being mortal. The second death, then, is the ultimate antidote to the first. Either we die while we yet live in this mortal body, or we must die after the resurrection. One way or another, all will die the second death, because all will be justified at some point in history. So Paul says in Rom. 5:18,
18 So then as through one [Adam] transgression there resulted condemnation to all men, even so through [Christ’s] one act of righteousness there resulted justification of life to all men.
Since no man can be justified apart from the second death—that is, the death of the old man—it follows that all men will put the old man to death in order to result in “justification of life to all men.” This second death is called “the lake of fire.”
The Origin of the Lake of Fire
John says nothing of the origin of this “lake.” To understand its origin, one must go back to Dan. 7:9, 10 where the prophet saw the last judgment in terms of “the Ancient of Days” seated on the throne. We read,
9 … 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…
The “river” of fire flowed from the throne of the Ancient of Days to form the “lake” that John saw. The river formed the lake, but the river originated in the fiery throne. Thrones represent authority, which is the right to command and to administer laws. Hence, when a monarch sits on a throne, he rules by law. The fire flowing out from His throne, then, pictures the administration of law and judgment upon all who are being raised from the dead.
Moses was actually the first to catch a glimpse of the fiery throne and the final judgment, telling us in Deut. 33:2-4 (KJV),
2 And he said, “The Lord came from Sinai, and 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 for them. 3 Yea, He loved the people; all His saints are in Thy hand; and they sat down at Thy feet; every one shall receive of Thy words. 4 Moses commanded us a law, even the inheritance of the congregation of Jacob.”
The “fiery law” came from “His right hand,” and at the same time “all His saints are in Thy hand.” Fire is the only way in which God is portrayed to us (Deut. 4:12), for it represents His nature as expressed in His law. But Moses also saw the saints in the hand of God. This shows us that the saints too have the same nature as God Himself, as the law is written on their hearts. This nature of God is “the inheritance of the congregation of Jacob.”
The fact that these saints are in the hand of God also suggests that they are the administrators of the fiery law. The judgment of God does not take place apart from the saints. Rather, the saints are part of “the river of fire” as well as “the lake of fire,” that is, the process of judgment and the long-term result.
It is clear to all that the fire is the judgment of God. However, many have missed the fact that the specific judgments are decreed in accordance with God’s law. All things are held to the standard of the divine nature. Anything less than that must be judged in order to be corrected and reconciled. Nowhere does the law command or even permit eternal torment as a judgment for any sin. Just judgment always is directly proportionate to the crime. No man can commit so much sin in a single life time to warrant unlimited judgment.
It is often said that God must judge all sin in order to be just and holy. That is certainly true, but it is equally true that God must judge righteously in order to remain just and holy. If the judgment is too little, it is unjust. If it is too much, it is unjust. The amount of judgment must precisely fit the crime. Hence, if a man steals $1,000, he must repay his victim $2,000, or double restitution (Exodus 22:4). To sentence such a man to repay $999 or $2,001 falls short of the glory and nature of God Himself.
Furthermore, the divine law itself places limits on judgment. For misdemeanors, the law limits beatings, telling us in Deut. 25:3, “he may beat him forty times, but no more.” Even if more than forty stripes seem to be warranted, grace forbids the forty-first stripe. For felonies, the law limits enslavement to a maximum of 49 years or whenever the year of Jubilee arrives (Lev. 25:10). Even if more debt is owed, God extends grace to the debtor.
These are examples of God’s grace built into the law. Grace does not contradict or put away the law, but puts limitations on the amount of judgment that can be meted out. Such is the judgment of a loving God. It shows that the ultimate purpose of the law is to correct and to restore sinners, not to destroy them or to punish them forever.
God’s fiery law shows us, then, that true justice is not done until full restitution has been paid to all the victims of injustice. It is not about punishment; it is about justice. Throughout history, men have sinned against their neighbors, and many of those sins were never judged. Many sinners got away with their crimes, especially those who were rich enough or powerful enough to remain immune to prosecution. Hence, many of history’s victims never saw justice in their lifetime.
The purpose of the Great White Throne judgment is to recall all of the dead and to administer true justice for every unresolved crime (sin) ever perpetrated throughout history. Only when all sin has been judged according to the law can it be said that justice has been done.
The Death Penalty
This simple principle of God’s law shows us that although the death penalty is one of the divine judgments, it can never bring justice to all on the scale that is required by the nature of God. Those who believe that the lake of fire annihilates the unbelievers do not understand the law or the requirement of justice. If a thief is killed, how is his victim recompensed for his loss? No, the thief must be required to pay restitution, and once this is accomplished, the law forgives his sin and has no further interest in his case. The books are closed. Forgiveness is mandatory. Justice is done, and to put the ex-sinner to death is excessive and unjust punishment, violating the nature of God.
The death penalty was instituted when God judged Adam by imposing mortality upon him and his descendants. This was actually a merciful act, for it delayed his actual death, giving him time not only to repent, but also to experience the second death while he yet lived. We all benefit in the same way, except for those who die young.
Later, when God gave legislation through Moses, some sins were beyond the ability of the earthly courts to judge properly. Premeditated murder, for example, had no solution, because men could not restore their victims by raising them from the dead. If a man stole another man (kidnapping), how could he restore two men as required by law? Raping an engaged or married woman could not be undone in a court of law, for the decrees of earthly judges could never un-rape a woman. These all required the death penalty, unless the sinner was forgiven by the victim according to the Law of Victims Rights.
In such cases, the death penalty was not designed to punish, but to appeal the case to the higher court, where it would be heard at the Great White Throne at the end of the age. Only that court is capable of administering justice in these “hard” cases. In fact, these cases are not so difficult that God must put sinners to death permanently.
The death penalty does not resolve the problem of injustice. It is never the end of the story. It is not the final solution to the problem of sin, nor is it permanent. The final goal of history is for God to reclaim all that was His by right of creation, to reconcile all that He has created (Col. 1:16-20), and to put all things under the feet of Christ, so that He may be “all in all” (1 Cor. 15:28).
The second death is a time of correction, where men either pay their victims or are sold into slavery to work off their debt until the Jubilee. At the Jubilee, all sinners return to their lost inheritance, and Christ Himself receives the full inheritance that was always His from the beginning.
Therefore, the lake of fire, which describes the second death, is the judgment of God with the goal of restoring the lawful order in accordance with the judgments of the law. We are admonished to “die daily,” but if we do not do so in this life time, we will do so in the age following the Great White Throne judgment.
That is the nature of the “fire” in the lake of fire.