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Written by Ángel Manuel Rodríguez
As a church we hold that sinners who die “the second death” will stay dead forever. Should not Christ, who experienced this death as our substitute, also stay dead forever?
It’s impossible for us to understand fully what the second death entails, because the only one who went through it and came back was Jesus. Therefore, we must carefully approach this subject, beginning by examining the passages in which the phrase “second death” is used and then exploring Jesus’ experience.
The “second death” in the Bible: The phrase “second death” is found four times in the book of Revelation, and nowhere else (Rev. 2:11; 20:6, 14; 21:8). But these few verses reveal several important things.
First, it is God’s instrument in the eradication of sin, sinners, Satan, and death from the universe (Rev. 20:10, 14; 21:8). The second death is fundamentally different from natural death. Sin and death entered into the world together, and they will be extinguished from it together. The second death is the final penalty for sin, the total and eternal elimination of evil powers and sin in God’s creation.
Second, the second death is a process that brings sinful life to an end (Rev. 20:10, 14). Sinners will be completely aware of the fact that they are going through that which will separate them from God forever. This process culminates in the inevitable and inescapable cessation of the life of unrepentant sinners. It stops its work only when nothing is left of sinners and sin.
Third, the second death is characterized by pain. It harms or hurts those who experience it (Rev. 2:11). This same verb is used in the New Testament to describe physical (Luke 10:19) and spiritual (Col. 3:25) harm. In Revelation it is a synonym for torment (cf. Rev. 9:4, 5; 20:10). Those who are under the full control of evil are tormented by it (cf. Matt. 8:29). Therefore, one could suggest that the second death is experienced as both physical and spiritual anguish or agony—indescribable pain.
Finally, the second death is legally right. This death has no power or authority over the righteous (Rev. 20:6). But it does have a claim against the wicked. It isn’t an expression of divine arbitrariness, but an expression of a legal penalty or retribution (cf. Col. 3:25). It serves to reveal the justice of God’s judgments (cf. Rev. 19:1-3).
Jesus and the second death: Jesus experiencing the second death would include everything we stated above and much more.
First, He underwent excruciating physical and emotional pain. As Jesus approached the cross He “began to be sorrowful and troubled.” He said to His disciples, “My soul is very sorrowful, even to death” (Matt. 26:37, 38, RSV). That terminology expresses a grief, sadness, and anxiety so intense that it threatened His existence. In Gethsemane the pain was almost unbearable, and Christ’s body reflected His spiritual agony as His perspiration appeared as drops of blood that fell to the ground. He would have died were it not for an angel sent from heaven who strengthened Him (Luke 22:43, 44; cf. Heb. 5:7-9).
Second, Jesus experienced the second death because it was the right penalty for the sins of the world. He bore the sins of the human race as its substitute (Mark 10:45). Here we reach the limits of this mystery. Christ experienced the second death by assuming responsibility for our sin and receiving its penalty (2 Cor. 5:21).
Third, Jesus experienced the anguish of His separation from the Father in the most real form (Matt. 27:46). He confronted the pain of God’s abandonment. The anguish of His soul had a spiritual component in that He was the rejected one. This is unquestionably the second death. Of course, Christ came back to life. He was resurrected because there was no sin in Him and the tomb could not retain Him. For believers, Jesus’ resurrection is an expression of God’s love. For the wicked, going into eternal oblivion may well be an expression of that same love. The second death marks the extermination of sin and death from the universe. Because Jesus paid the penalty for our sin, our destiny is communion with God and the Lamb throughout eternity, achieved for all who believe in Him through His death and resurrection.