When Jesus tells Christians facing death for their faith in Smyrna that he is the one who died and is alive (Rev 2:8) he is encouraging them to see past their own birth and death to the bigger picture.
Death is not the end. That is both good news and bad news. This letter ends with two sobering words “second death“. Did you know there are two deaths? One is bad enough isn’t it? Well there are two and it kind of makes sense because no one is going to get away with stuff they have done wrong. Life does not have an ejector seat, at least one fitted with a parachute anyway. You can’t just perpetrate atrocities like the holocaust and then bale out of existence. Jesus talks about the second death a lot because he cares so deeply about us and wants us to touch down safely. It’s probably a good thing therefore if we talk about it once in a while too. Jesus talked about the second death to his disciples and showed John a vision of it:
Do not fear those who kill the body but cannot kill the soul. Rather fear him who can destroy both soul and body in hell. (ESV) Mat 10:28
Then Death and Hades were thrown into the lake of fire. This is the second death, the lake of fire. Rev 20:14 (ESV)
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.” Rev 21:8 (ESV)
Those are fearful descriptions. I know it’s probably symbolic, but of what? What could have such a fearful symbol as an eternal lake of burning sulphur? What would it be like for my soul to forever be in a state of perishing?
As I looked at all the times “first and last” type names are used for God I found they are often closely linked to judgment and the second death. All those lies, the murders, the hurtful words, the genocide, the adultery, the selfish cowardice, doesn’t disappear over the decades or centuries. Nor does the death of the body cleans the soul. Jesus will “give to each person according to what they have done” (Rom 2:6), which is fair, but pretty fearful as well.
Fear of the first death can be a lot to do with our fear of the second. Presumably people are not afraid of water because of getting wet, but because they may drown. It’s the same with death. If death was winking out of existence then what’s to fear? If it is just time to have another go then it might be bad but not catastrophic. Jesus though says it can lead to the second death which is far worse and longer lasting than any way we might experience the first death. Though he was threatened with torture, fire and wild beasts, Polycarp, the Bishop of Smyrna refused to deny Jesus. Instead he said to his tormentors:
“You threaten fire which burns for an hour and is soon quenched; for you are ignorant of the fire of the coming judgment and eternal punishment reserved for the wicked. But why do you wait? Come, do what you will!”
Those of us who have ever done anything wrong need to know about this second death and make choices now in the light of it, or more specifically in the light of what Jesus has done for us. More on that in the next blog.