WHAT IS DEATH?
If asked to define death, most of us would likely answer by saying “death is the cessation of physical life” or something along those lines. Yet is this really what death is? What does the Bible, God’s inspired revelation to mankind, have to say about death?
Death appears very early in the Bible. Let’s look at Genesis 2:15-17 to see the first mention of death:
GENESIS 2:15 Then the LORD God [YHVH ‘elohim] took the man and put him in the garden of Eden to tend and keep it. 16 And the LORD God [YHVH ‘elohim] commanded the man, saying, “Of every tree of the garden you may freely eat; 17 but of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil you shall not eat, for in the day that you eat of it you shall surely die.” (NKJV)
YHVH ‘elohim, the “Word of God” (the preincarnate Messiah) plainly told Adam that he would die the very day that he ate of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil. Just one chapter later, we see Adam and Eve eating of that forbidden fruit (Gen. 3:6). Yet they did not physically die that day. Had the Messiah lied to Adam about dying, as the “serpent” implied to Eve in the Garden (Gen. 3:4)? Or did the Messiah literally mean that Adam would DIE the day he ate of the fruit?
In pronouncing the curse on Adam for eating of the forbidden fruit, the Messiah told him that he would have to work the ground to produce food to eat for the rest of his life. He cursed the soil so that it would produce thorns and thistles and make Adam’s job of farming much more difficult. In Genesis 3:19, the Messiah tells Adam his physical fate:
GENESIS 3:19 “In the sweat of your face you shall eat bread till you return to the ground, for out of it you were taken; for dust you are, and to dust you shall return.” (NKJV)
But is this fate to return to dust what the Word of God was talking about when He told Adam that he would die in the day he ate of the forbidden fruit? No. Genesis 3:23-24 pictures the death the Messiah was referring to:
GENESIS 3:23 Therefore the LORD God sent him out from the garden of Eden, to cultivate the ground from which he was taken. 24 So He drove the man out; and at the east of the garden of Eden He stationed the cherubim and the flaming sword which turned every direction to guard the way to the tree of life. (NASU)
Clearly Adam was banished from the Garden of Eden because of his disobedience. But how does this equate to dying, you might ask?
The answer to that question reveals God’s definition of death. The Bible doesn’t tell us how long Adam was in the Garden before his expulsion, but we can see from Genesis 2 and 3 that Adam had a personal relationship with the Messiah there. He was in close contact with Him, and certainly the Messiah spent time teaching him many things, including the fundamental concepts of right and wrong. But after his exile, the Scriptures never again mention the Messiah talking to or interacting with Adam. His relationship with YHVH ‘elohim was cut off at that moment.
Because the Eternal thinks in a way that is fundamentally foreign to mankind (Isa. 55:8), many have failed to realize how He views life and death. The Bible shows that God considers those who are spiritually separated from Him to be dead. Indeed, alienation from God and His ways is more certainly death than the physical cessation of life (Matt. 22:31-32; Mark 12:26-27; Luke 20:37-38). In this article, we’re going to examine Scriptures which prove this point.
Let’s start in I Timothy 5:5-6. We’ll break into the middle of instructions Paul was giving Timothy about the proper care for widows in the Church. Notice what Paul says about their conduct:
I TIMOTHY 5:5 Now she who is really a widow, and left alone, trusts in God and continues in supplications and prayers night and day. 6 But she who lives in pleasure is dead while she lives. (NKJV)
Here, Paul states that a widow who lives in pleasure is dead even while she continues to live physically. What does he mean by this statement? How can one be dead while still alive? In Colossians 2:13, Paul gives us a hint at the answer:
COLOSSIANS 2:13 When you were dead in your transgressions and the uncircumcision of your flesh, He [the Father] made you alive together with him [Christ], having forgiven us all our transgressions, (NASU)
Here, Paul states that a person who transgresses God’s law, one who is a sinner, is dead in that state. Although physical death is one consequence of sin, clearly Paul isn’t speaking of physical death in this verse. In Ephesians 2:1-5, he expands on this concept:
EPHESIANS 2:1 And you He made alive, who were dead in trespasses and sins, 2 in which you once walked according to the course of this world, according to the prince of the power of the air, the spirit who now works in the sons of disobedience, 3 among whom also we all once conducted ourselves in the lusts of our flesh, fulfilling the desires of the flesh and of the mind, and were by nature children of wrath, just as the others. 4 But God, who is rich in mercy, because of His great love with which He loved us, 5 even when we were dead in trespasses, made us alive together with Christ (by grace you have been saved), (NKJV)
Whoever breaks God’s law commits sin, for sin is the transgression of His holy law (I John 3:4). Sin separates us from God, and keeps us from knowing Him and having a personal relationship with Him. The Bible tells us that those who keep His commandments have a good understanding (Psa. 111:10). The Scriptures show that without understanding and knowing God, we cannot have eternal life:
JOHN 17:3 “This is eternal life, that they may know You [the Father], the only true God, and Jesus Christ whom You have sent.” (NASU)
I JOHN 5:20 We know too that the Son of God has come, and has given us the power to know the true God [the Father]. We are in the true God [the Father], as we are in His Son, Jesus Christ. This [the Father] is the true God, this is eternal life. (Jerusalem Bible)
Knowing the true God is the key to eternal life. However, this knowledge goes beyond simply comprehending who God is. One must obey God to truly know Him. The demons know who God is (Jam. 2:19), but they do not have life because they do not submit to God’s law.
In God’s view, those who do not live according to His commandments are dead, because their sins cut them off from Him. Unrepentant sinners can have no true relationship with God. Yet through the Father’s wonderful grace, we can be made alive when we repent and accept the sacrifice of His Son, Yeshua.
ROMANS 6:11 Likewise you also, reckon yourselves to be dead indeed to sin, but alive to God in Christ Jesus our Lord. 12 Therefore do not let sin reign in your mortal body, that you should obey it in its lusts. 13 And do not present your members as instruments of unrighteousness to sin, but present yourselves to God as being alive from the dead, and your members as instruments of righteousness to God. (NKJV)
We have been made spiritually alive through repentance and the acceptance of Christ’s atoning sacrifice. We have now been reconciled to the Father; we are now to be dead to sin. John tells us one way we can know we have progressed from death to life:
I JOHN 3:14 We know that we have passed from death to life, because we love the brethren. He who does not love his brother abides in death. (NKJV)
Jesus Christ had many things to say about death. Much of what he said was misunderstood by those he spoke to, and remains perplexing to this day. For instance, let’s look at what he told one of his disciples after the death of his father:
LUKE 9:59 Then he said to another, “Follow Me.” But he said, “Lord, let me first go and bury my father.” 60 Jesus said to him, “Let the dead bury their own dead, but you go and preach the kingdom of God.” (NKJV)
What did Yeshua mean when he said “let the dead bury their own dead”? Clearly he was using two different meanings for the word “dead” in this passage. Surely Christ did not intend to downplay the obvious emotional trauma the man had undergone with the recent death of his father. Instead, his comment was meant to draw a distinction between the disciple, who was called to preach the gospel, and those who had not received the call of God. The calling of that disciple by God separated him from those who were spiritually dead.
Regarding life, death, and the call of God, the Messiah told the Jews the following:
JOHN 6:44 “No one can come to me unless the Father who sent me draws him; and I will raise him up at the last day. 45 It is written in the prophets, ‘And they shall all be taught by God.’ Therefore everyone who has heard and learned from the Father comes to me. 46 Not that anyone has seen the Father, except he who is from God; he has seen the Father. 47 Most assuredly, I say to you, he who believes in me has everlasting life. 48 I am the bread of life. 49 Your fathers ate the manna in the wilderness, and are dead. 50 This is the bread which comes down from heaven, that one may eat of it and not die. 51 I am the living bread which came down from heaven. If anyone eats of this bread, he will live forever; and the bread that I shall give is my flesh, which I shall give for the life of the world.” (NKJV)
As Yeshua said, when we “eat of the bread which came down from heaven,” we will not die in the spiritual sense. We will not be separated from God, even though we may for a time “sleep” because of physical death (I Kings 2:10; 11:21, 43; Job 3:11-15; Psa. 13:1; Dan. 12:2; John 11:11-14; I Cor. 11:30; 15:51), awaiting the resurrection. The Jews totally missed the spiritual point Yeshua was making here, as the ensuing verses show:
JOHN 6:52 The Jews therefore quarreled among themselves, saying, “How can this man give us his flesh to eat?” 53 Then Jesus said to them, “Most assuredly, I say to you, unless you eat the flesh of the Son of Man and drink his blood, you have no life in you. 54 Whoever eats my flesh and drinks my blood has eternal life, and I will raise him up at the last day. 55 For my flesh is food indeed, and my blood is drink indeed. 56 He who eats my flesh and drinks my blood abides in me, and I in him. 57 As the living Father sent me, and I live because of the Father, so he who feeds on me will live because of me. 58 This is the bread which came down from heaven — not as your fathers ate the manna, and are dead. He who eats this bread will live forever.” (NKJV)
Christ is not talking about physical death in the verses above; his statement “I will raise him up at the last day” clearly alludes to the future resurrection of believers. To understand this Scripture, we must properly understand God’s view of death. Eating the flesh and drinking the blood of our Messiah is symbolic of adopting his very nature and making it an integral part of our being. It is not merely a profession of belief, but a way of life. It is living in complete obedience to God and His laws, the same way of life that Yeshua himself lived while on the earth. This concept is succinctly expressed by the apostle John in his first general epistle:
I JOHN 2:3 Now by this we know that we know him, if we keep his commandments. 4 He who says, “I know him,” and does not keep his commandments, is a liar, and the truth is not in him. 5 But whoever keeps his word, truly the love of God is perfected in him. By this we know that we are in him. 6 He who says he abides in him ought himself also to walk just as he walked. (NKJV)
John 8:51-53 is another example of the Jews’ misunderstanding the true nature of death:
JOHN 8:51 “Most assuredly, I say to you, if anyone keeps my word he shall never see death.” 52 Then the Jews said to Him, “Now we know that you have a demon! Abraham is dead, and the prophets; and you say, ‘If anyone keeps my word he shall never taste death.’ 53 Are you greater than our father Abraham, who is dead? And the prophets are dead. Whom do you make yourself out to be?” (NKJV)
In the above passage, Yeshua plainly states that those who keep his word (the Father’s word-John 12:49) would never see death. It’s obvious that he didn’t mean fleshly death, because the Jews correctly pointed out that both Abraham and the prophets had died physically. The Messiah was clearly speaking here of spiritual death, or separation from God.
When talking to the Sadducees about the resurrection (Matt. 22:23-32; Mark 12:18-27; Luke 20:27-38), Yeshua again speaks of the living and the dead:
MATTHEW 22:29 Jesus answered and said to them, “You are mistaken, not knowing the Scriptures nor the power of God. 30 For in the resurrection they neither marry nor are given in marriage, but are like angels of God in heaven. 31 But concerning the resurrection of the dead, have you not read what was spoken to you by God, saying, 32 ‘I am the God of Abraham, the God of Isaac, and the God of Jacob’? God is not the God of the dead, but of the living.” (NKJV)
Some have attempted to use Matthew 22:32 to prove that Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob are now alive in heaven. Yet this belief contradicts numerous clear Scriptures which show that believers are currently asleep in their graves (Job 3:11-19; Psa. 6:5; 115:17; Ecc. 9:5, 10; I Cor. 15:20; Isa. 57:1-2; Dan. 12:2; Acts 2:29, 34; 13:36). God “calls those things which do not exist as though they did” (Rom. 4:17). Christ could confidently tell the Sadducees that Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob were alive, because their resurrection to eternal life is sure due to their faithful obedience. Yeshua’s statement does not mean that these three men had already been resurrected and were then alive somewhere (Heb. 11:13, 39-40). In fact, Paul specifically labels this teaching as heresy in his second letter to Timothy (II Tim. 2:18). As Paul tells us (I Cor. 15:23), there is an order to God’s plan. That order specifies that believers will receive eternal life at the second coming of Christ (Matt. 24:30-31; I Cor. 15:51-52; I The. 4:15-17; Rev. 11:15-18). For additional information on the status of the dead, see my article “Are the Dead Conscious?”
The glorified Messiah makes it clear that even Christians can return to a state of being spiritually “dead” in the prophetic book of Revelation:
REVELATION 3:1 “To the angel of the church in Sardis write: He who has the seven Spirits of God and the seven stars, says this: ‘I know your deeds, that you have a name that you are alive, but you are dead. (NASU)
With an understanding of the true nature of death, the meaning of a generally misunderstood passage in Peter’s first epistle becomes evident:
I PETER 4:3 For we have spent enough of our past lifetime in doing the will of the Gentiles — when we walked in lewdness, lusts, drunkenness, revelries, drinking parties, and abominable idolatries. 4 In regard to these, they think it strange that you do not run with them in the same flood of dissipation, speaking evil of you. 5 They will give an account to Him who is ready to judge the living and the dead. 6 For this reason the gospel was preached also to those who are dead, that they might be judged according to men in the flesh, but live according to God in the spirit. (NKJV)
One of the most widely quoted passages regarding death is from Paul’s letter to the Roman assembly:
ROMANS 6:23 For the wages of sin is death, but the free gift of God is eternal life in Christ Jesus our Lord. (NASU)
Although physical death is definitely a consequence of sin, Paul’s primary focus here is on spiritual death. He tells us that God’s free gift is eternal (Gr. aionios) life in Christ. This free gift is available to us because Yeshua offered himself as a sacrifice for our sins:
I CORINTHIANS 15:3 For I delivered to you first of all that which I also received: that Christ died for our sins according to the Scriptures, (NKJV)
The Scriptures clearly show that the wages of sin is death, and that Christ died for our sins. Most of the Christian world believes this “death” to be everlasting torment in the fires of hell. Still others claim that this is eternal “death,” a death where the sinner is annihilated and ceases to exist.
However, simple logic should tell us that neither of these scenarios are correct. If the Messiah paid for sin in our stead, he had to suffer the penalty that we should have suffered because of our sins. According to Romans 6:23, that penalty is death. Yet this “death” cannot be “everlasting torment,” because Christ is not now suffering endlessly in an everburning hell. Likewise, it cannot be annihilation, because Christ was not destroyed for eternity. Instead, God resurrected him from death after three days and three nights in the grave.
The death spoken of here is the same death referred to in the Scriptures we’ve looked at previously. This death is simply separation from God. The Scriptures teach that by sinning, mankind has earned separation from God. But God, in His infinite mercy and grace, sent Christ to pay the penalty for our sins on the cross. As Yeshua hung there beaten and bleeding, the sins of the world were imputed to him and he suffered the penalty for sin, death.
MATTHEW 27:46 And about the ninth hour Jesus cried out with a loud voice, saying, “Eli, Eli, lama sabachthani?” that is, “My God, my God, why have You forsaken me?” (NKJV)
When he who knew no sin was made to be sin for us (II Cor. 5:21), Yeshua felt forsaken by God. For the first time in his existence, he was separated and cut off from the Eternal Father. That separation lasted from the time the sins of the world were laid upon him on the cross until he was resurrected by God after spending three days and three nights in the garden tomb. At that time Christ became the “firstborn from the dead” (Col. 1:18; Rev. 1:5), the first human raised from corruption to incorruption, the first man changed from flesh to spirit, the first person to overcome the sting of sin.
This brings us to a fundamental truth of God’s plan that is misunderstood by most. Paul explains part of this truth in his letter to the Romans:
ROMANS 5:12 Therefore, just as through one man sin entered into the world, and [spiritual] death through sin, and so [spiritual] death spread to all men, because all sinned — 13 for until the Law sin was in the world, but sin is not imputed when there is no law. 14 Nevertheless [spiritual] death reigned from Adam until Moses, even over those who had not sinned in the likeness of the offense of Adam, who is a type of him who was to come. (NASU)
We know sin cuts us off from God and causes us to be spiritually dead even though we may be physically alive. Paul traces this spiritual death back to one man, Adam. As we saw at the beginning of this article, Adam’s sin cut him off from God. Yet it did more than that; his sin effectively separated the entire human race from God. But there is hope for humanity, as Paul tells us in his first epistle to the Corinthian Church:
I CORINTHIANS 15:22 For as in Adam all die, even so in Christ all shall be made alive. (NKJV)
The magnitude of meaning in this one small verse is incredible; unfortunately, it has been hidden to most believers. Paul tells us that even as ALL mankind has spiritually died because of Adam’s sin, the same ALL will be made spiritually alive because of Christ’s sacrifice.
ROMANS 5:18 Therefore, as through one man’s offense judgment came to all men, resulting in condemnation, even so through one man’s righteous act the free gift came to all men, resulting in justification of life. (NKJV)
The spiritual resuscitation of all humanity is also called “reconciliation” in the Bible, and the Scriptures speak of the eventual reconciliation of all mankind to God:
COLOSSIANS 1:19 For it pleased the Father that in him [Yeshua] all the fullness should dwell, 20 and by him [Yeshua] to reconcile all things to Himself, by him [Yeshua], whether things on earth or things in heaven, having made peace through the blood of his cross. (NKJV)
II CORINTHIANS 5:18 Now all things are of God, who has reconciled us to Himself through Jesus Christ, and has given us the ministry of reconciliation, 19 that is, that God was in Christ reconciling the world to Himself, not imputing their trespasses to them, and has committed to us the word of reconciliation. (NKJV)
Most cannot accept that God will eventually reconcile ALL of His creation to Himself through the Messiah. It just seems too unbelievable, too far-fetched. The weight of century upon century of false teachings and faulty translations has obscured the true revelation of the Bible regarding the ultimate fate of God’s creation. The numerous Scriptures about hell, the doom of the wicked, the “second death,” etc. seem to preclude a universal restoration of all of God’s self-aware entities. In the remainder of this article, we will examine the true teaching of the Bible on this topic.
One overriding principle in understanding the Bible is the concept of “here a little, there a little” (Isa. 28:9-13). To truly discern God’s plan as revealed in the Bible, one must look at all the Scriptures on a topic. Since there are so many Scriptures on this subject, I’m going to select a portion that seem to contradict the idea of universal restoration. But when viewed in totality, we will see that the Bible does not contradict itself on this topic; all the relevant Scriptures are in perfect harmony.
Let’s start by looking at what the Bible has to say about “hell” (Gr. geenna). This term has come to mean the place of eternal fiery torment to most Christians. It is also often equated to “the lake of fire” mentioned in Revelation (Rev. 19:20; 20:10, 14, 15; 21:8). The New Bible Dictionary tells us about the origin and meaning of the Greek word geenna:
HINNOM, VALLEY OF. A valley to the S of Jerusalem, also styled ‘the valley of the son (or sons) of Hinnom’. It was associated in Jeremiah’s time with the worship of Molech. Josiah defiled this shrine, and put an end to the sacrifices offered there. Later the valley seems to have been used for burning the corpses of criminals and animals, and indeed refuse of any sort. Hence the name came to be used as a synonym for hell, the Hebrew phrase ge (‘valley of’) hinnom becoming geenna in Greek, whence Gehenna in Latin and English (p. 484).
The word geenna or a variation is used only 12 times in the New Testament. Let’s look at each of those occurrences:
MATTHEW 5:22 “But I say to you that whoever is angry with his brother without a cause shall be in danger of the judgment. And whoever says to his brother, ‘Raca!’ shall be in danger of the council. But whoever says, ‘You fool!’ shall be in danger of hell [geennan] fire.” (NKJV)
MATTHEW 5:29 “If your right eye causes you to sin, pluck it out and cast it from you; for it is more profitable for you that one of your members perish, than for your whole body to be cast into hell [geennan]. 30 And if your right hand causes you to sin, cut it off and cast it from you; for it is more profitable for you that one of your members perish, than for your whole body to be cast into hell [geennan].” (NKJV)
MATTHEW 10:28 “And do not fear those who kill the body but cannot kill the soul. But rather fear Him who is able to destroy both soul and body in hell [geenne].” (NKJV)
LUKE 12:5 “But I will show you whom you should fear: Fear Him who, after He has killed, has power to cast into hell [geennan]; yes, I say to you, fear Him!” (NKJV)
MATTHEW 18:8 “If your hand or foot causes you to sin, cut it off and cast it from you. It is better for you to enter into life lame or maimed, rather than having two hands or two feet, to be cast into the everlasting [aionion] fire. 9 And if your eye causes you to sin, pluck it out and cast it from you. It is better for you to enter into life with one eye, rather than having two eyes, to be cast into hell [geennan] fire.” (NKJV)
MARK 9:43 “If your hand causes you to sin, cut it off. It is better for you to enter into life maimed, rather than having two hands, to go to hell [geennan], into the fire that shall never be quenched – 44 where ‘Their worm does not die, and the fire is not quenched.’ 45 And if your foot causes you to sin, cut it off. It is better for you to enter life lame, rather than having two feet, to be cast into hell [geennan], into the fire that shall never be quenched – 46 where ‘Their worm does not die, and the fire is not quenched.’ 47 And if your eye causes you to sin, pluck it out. It is better for you to enter the kingdom of God with one eye, rather than having two eyes, to be cast into hell [geennan] fire – 48 where ‘Their worm does not die, and the fire is not quenched.’ 49 For everyone will be seasoned with fire, and every sacrifice will be seasoned with salt.” (NKJV)
MATTHEW 23:15 “Woe to you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! For you travel land and sea to win one proselyte, and when he is won, you make him twice as much a son of hell [geennes] as yourselves.” (NKJV)
MATTHEW 23:33 “You snakes! You brood of vipers! How will you escape being condemned to hell [geennes]?” (NIV)
JAMES 3:6 And the tongue is a fire, a world of iniquity. The tongue is so set among our members that it defiles the whole body, and sets on fire the course of nature; and it is set on fire by hell [geennes]. (NKJV)
Clearly, geenna is often used in conjunction with “fire.” Yet it is interesting to examine how the Jews viewed Gehenna at about the time of Christ. In the Theological Dictionary of the New Testament, Joachim Jeremias writes:
It is significant that the oldest Rabbinic reference to Gehenna (T. Sanh., 13, 3 and par.) tells us that the disciples of Shammai, as distinct from those of Hillel, ascribe to Gehenna a purgatorial as well as penal character, namely, in the case of . . . those whose merits and transgressions balance one another. It may be that this conception of a purificatory character of the final fire of judgment underlies such passages as Mk. 9:49; 1 C. 3:13-15; cf. 2 Pt. 3:10 (p. 658, vol. I).
Similarly, The New International Dictionary of New Testament Theology says:
The word gehenna does not appear in the LXX or in Gk. literature. . . . Jewish apocalyptic assumed that this valley would become, after the final judgment, the hell of fire . . . At the end of the 1st cent. A.D. or the beginning of the 2nd the doctrine of a fiery purgatory arose among the Rabbis. All those in whose cases merit and guilt are equally balanced go to gehenna. There they are purified and, if they do penance, inherit paradise. Alongside this we find the concept of an eschatological Gehinnom judgment, limited in time, after the last judgment . . . (p. 208, vol. 2).
From the fact that this word does not appear in any Greek literature outside of the New Testament, we can see that the concept of geenna was purely Jewish in origin and nature. Apparently, around the time of Christ the Jewish understanding of geenna was that it was a place of purification for a limited amount of time after the judgment.
But how does this understanding fit with the scriptural discussion of the “everlasting fire” of Gehenna (Matt. 18:8-9), you may ask? The word translated “everlasting” in this verse is the word aionion, a variation of the Greek adjective aionios. This adjective and its variations are usually translated “everlasting” or “eternal” in the New Testament. The noun from which it is derived (aion) is generally translated “ever,” “forever,” “evermore,” or “eternity.” Interestingly, however, it is also translated “world” and “age” in numerous places. To fully understand the biblical teaching on this topic, we must understand what these words really mean.
Dr. Marvin Vincent, a noted New Testament scholar who taught at the Union Theological Seminary in New York, wrote the following regarding the words aion, aionios, and their variations:
Άιών, transliterated aeon, is a period of time of longer or shorter duration, having a beginning and an end, and complete in itself. Aristotle (περι ουρανου, i. 9, 15) says: “The period which includes the whole time of each one’s life is called the aeon of each one.” Hence, it often means the life of a man, as in Homer, where one’s life (αιών) is said to leave him or consume away (Il. v. 685; Od. v. 160). It is not, however, limited to human life; it signifies any period in the course of events, as the period or age before Christ; the period of the millennium; the mythological period before the beginnings of history. . . . The word always carries the notion of time, and not of eternity. It always means a period of time. Otherwise it would be impossible to account for the plural, or for such qualifying expressions as this age, or the age to come. It does not mean something endless or everlasting. . . . The adjective αιώνιος in like manner carries the idea of time. Neither the noun nor the adjective, in themselves, carry the sense of endless or everlasting. (pp. 58, 59, vol. IV,Vincent’s Word Studies of the New Testament)
The consistent mistranslation of aion and aionios as “eternity,” “forever,” “eternal,” “everlasting,” etc., is the primary reason why there is such a grave misunderstanding of God’s plan for mankind among those who consider themselves to be His people. As Dr. Vincent clearly states, these words do NOT imply “eternity” or “endlessness” as we understand them.
In his detailed study of aion and aionios, Louis Abbot wrote of how these words were used in secular Greek literature:
Ancient writings, other than the Scriptures, show how aion and aionios were used in the ordinary affairs of that time period. Long ago in Rome, periodic games were held. These were referred to as “secular” games. Herodian, who wrote in Greek about the end of the second century A.D., called these aionios, “eonian,” games. In no sense could those games have been eternal.
Adolph Deissman gives this account: “Upon a lead tablet found in the Necropolis at Adrumetum in the Roman province of Africa, near Carthage, the following inscription, belonging to the early third century, is scratched in Greek: ‘I am adjuring Thee, the great God, the eonian, and more than eonian (epaionion) and almighty . . .’ If by eonian, endless time were meant, then what could be more than endless time?” . . .
Dr. Mangey, a translator of the writings of Philo, says Philo did not use aionios to express endless duration.
Josephus shows that aionios did not mean endlessness, for he uses it of the period between the giving of the law to Moses and that of his own writing; to the period of the imprisonment of the tyrant John by the Romans; and to the period during which Herod’s temple stood. The temple had already been destroyed by the time Josephus was writing.
St. Gregory of Nyssa speaks of aionios diastema, “an eonian interval.” It would be absurd to call an interval “endless.”
St. Chrysostum, in his homily on Eph. 2:1-3, says that “Satan’s kingdom is æonian; that is, it will cease with the present world.”
St. Justin Martyr repeatedly used the word aionios as in the Apol. (p. 57), aionion kolasin . . . all ouchi chiliontaetee periodon, “eonian chastening . . . but a period, not a thousand years.” Or, as some translate the last clause: “but a period of a thousand years only.” He limits the eonian chastening to a period of a thousand years, rather than to endlessness.
In 1 Enoch 10:10 there is an interesting statement using the Greek words: zoen aionion, “life eonian,” or, as in the KJV, “everlasting life” (at John 3:16 and elsewhere). The whole sentence in Enoch is, hoti elpizousi zesai zoen aionion, kai hoti zesetai hekastos auton ete pentakosia, “For they hope to live an eonian life, and that each one of them will live five hundred years.” Here, eonian life is limited to five hundred years! (ch. 9, An Analytical Study of Words)
The following information on the use, meaning, and origin of the word aionios comes from Greek language experts J.H. Milligan and G. Moulton:
Without pronouncing any opinion on the special meaning which theologians have found for this word, we must note that outside the NT, in the vernacular as in the classical Greek . . . it never loses the sense of perpetuus [Lat., “unbroken,” “perpetual,” “lasting,” “continuous,” “uninterrupted”] . . .
In the Sanskrit ayu and its Zend equivalent the idea of life, and especially long life, predominates. So with the Germanic cognates (Gothic aiws). The word, whose root it is of course futile to dig for, is a primitive inheritance from Indo-Germanic days, when it may have meant “long life” or “old age” . . . (p. 16, Vocabulary of the Greek Testament)
Let’s look at one more piece of evidence about the true meaning of aion and aionios. It comes from a study of these words by John Wesley Hanson published in 1875:
The oldest lexicographer, Hesychius, (A.D. 400-600,) defines aion thus: “The life of man, the time of life.” At this early date no theologian had yet imported into the word the meaning of endless duration. It retained only the sense it had in the classics, and in the Bible. . . .
John of Damascus (A.D. 750) says, “1, The life of every man is called aion. . . . 3, The whole duration or life of this world is called aion. 4, The life after the resurrection is called ‘the aion to come.’ ”
But in the sixteenth century Phavorinus was compelled to notice an addition, which subsequently to the time of the famous Council of 544 had been grafted on the word. He says: “Aion, time, also life, also habit, or way of life. Aion is also the eternal and endless AS IT SEEMS TO THE THEOLOGIAN.” Theologians had succeeded in using the word in the sense of endless, and Phavorinus was forced to recognize their usage of it and his phraseology shows conclusively enough that he attributed to theologians the authorship of that use of the word. . . .
The second definition by Phavorinus is extracted literally from the “Etymologicon Magnum” of the ninth or tenth century. This gives us the usage from the fourth to the sixteenth century, and shows us that, if the word meant endless at the time of Christ, it must have changed from limited duration in the classics, to unlimited duration, and then back again, at the dates above specified!
From the sixteenth century onward, the word has been defined as used to denote all lengths of duration from brief to endless. . . . (ch. II, The Greek Word Aion — Aionios, Translated Everlasting — Eternal in the Holy Bible)
As the quotations above show, the idea of “eternity” or “endlessness” was not conveyed by these related Greek words until theologians assigned such meanings to them centuries after the New Testament was written. Once we understand that aion denotes an “age” or “ages,” and that aionios means “age-lasting,” we can begin to see how the doctrines of eternal punishment/death are erroneous and not taught by the Bible.
As stated earlier, many equate the “lake of fire” spoken of in Revelation with geenna. From the descriptions given in the Bible, it appears likely that these two are the same place/thing. Let’s look at the lake of fire as it is described in Revelation:
REVELATION 19:20 And the beast was seized, and with him the false prophet who performed the signs in his presence, by which he deceived those who had received the mark of the beast and those who worshiped his image; these two were thrown alive into the lake of fire which burns with brimstone [theio]. (NASU)
REVELATION 20:10 And the devil who deceived them was thrown into the lake of fire and brimstone [theiou], where the beast and the false prophet are also; and they will be tormented [basanisthesontai] day and night forever and ever [eis tous aionas ton aionon]. (NASU)
REVELATION 20:14 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. (NASU)
REVELATION 21:8 “But for the cowardly and unbelieving and abominable and murderers and immoral persons and sorcerers and idolaters and all liars, their part will be in the lake that burns with fire and brimstone [theio], which is the second death.” (NASU)
In these Scriptures we see several concepts presented, with the main one being the lake of fire. Revelation 14:9-11 is an additional related passage which also refers to this “lake of fire”:
REVELATION 14:9 Then another angel, a third one, followed them, saying with a loud voice, “If anyone worships the beast and his image, and receives a mark on his forehead or on his hand, 10 he also will drink of the wine of the wrath of God, which is mixed in full strength in the cup of His anger; and he will be tormented [basanisthesetai] with fire and brimstone [theio] in the presence of the holy angels and in the presence of the Lamb. 11 And the smoke of their torment [basanismou] goes up forever and ever [eis aionas aionon]; they have no rest day and night, those who worship the beast and his image, and whoever receives the mark of his name.” (NASU)
Let’s examine these passages in detail to discover what the “lake of fire” really is. For in understanding this mystery, we can begin to comprehend God’s plan for His creation. To do so, we must grasp the true meaning of some of the key words used in the passage above.
First, notice that Satan, as well as the beast, false prophet, and all who worshiped the beast, are to be “tormented.” This “torment” is said to be “forever and ever.” On the surface, it sounds like God has provided for the eternal torture of those who opposed Him. But is that really what these Scriptures are teaching?
The words “torment” and “tormented” in Revelation 14:10, 11 and 20:10 come from the Greek root words basanizo and the related basanismos. Understanding the true meaning of these words is one of the major keys to accurately interpreting these verses.
Friberg’s Analytical Lexicon says that basanisthesontai means “strictly, rub upon the touchstone (βάσανος), a Lydian stone used to test the genuineness of metals; hence, test or make proof of anything . . .”
Understanding the original connotation of these words and seeing how they evolved over time is very helpful in correctly understanding the meaning of these verses. The Theological Dictionary of the New Testament gives us the history of these words:
. . . The βάσανος originally belongs to the calling of the inspector of coins. It is linked with the Heb. root בחן (“to test”) . . . βάσανος is generally accepted to be a loan word . . . The testing of gold and silver as media of exchange by the proving stone, was first developed by the Babylonians, then came to the Aramaeans and Hebrews by way of Lydia . . . and from them to the Gks. In non-biblical Gk. βάσανος is a commercial expression, or is used in relation to government. It then acquires the meaning of the checking of calculations, which develops naturally out of the basic sense of βάσανος, βασανίζειν . . . In the spiritual sphere it has the figur. sense, which is closely related to the original concrete meaning, of a means of testing . . .
The word then undergoes a change in meaning. The original sense fades into the background. βάσανος now comes to denote “torture” or “the rack,” espec. used with slaves . . . βάσανος occurs in the sense of “torment” . . .
The change in meaning is best explained if we begin with the object of treatment. If we put men instead of metal or a coin, the stone of testing become[s] torture or the rack. The metal which has survived the testing stone is subjected to harsher treatment. Man is in the same position when severely tested by torture. In the testing of metal an essential role was played by the thought of testing and proving genuineness. The rack is a means of showing the true state of affairs. In its proper sense it is a means of testing and proving, though also of punishment. Finally, even this special meaning was weakened and only the general element of torture remained. (pp. 561, 562, vol. I)
So we can see that the true meaning of “torment” in these passages is really “to test” or “prove.” This change in meaning will be significant to our overall understanding of God’s plan.
Now we must look at the phrases eis aionas aionon (“to ages of ages”) and eis tous aionas ton aionon (“to the ages of the ages”) which refer to the length of the testing (“torment”). As we have already seen above, aion and its variations speak of periods of time, not eternity. So we must come to the conclusion that these phrases do not mean “forever and ever,” but rather “for indefinite periods of time.”
One additional word we need to define is “brimstone” (theio), also known as sulfur. Friberg’s Analytical Lexicon tells us that the root word theion, which is the neuter form of the Greek theios (“divine”), was “anciently regarded as divine incense to purify and prevent contagion.” Thayer’s Greek-English Lexicon of the New Testament agrees, saying that “burning brimstone was regarded as having power to purify . . .” (p. 284).
Now that we have the correct understanding of the terms used, let’s look at Revelation 14:10-11 again. When we read that those people who accept the mark of the beast will be “tormented with fire and brimstone in the presence of the holy angels and in the presence of the Lamb,” and that “the smoke of their torment goes up forever and ever,” we can understand this Scripture as follows: Those who accept the mark of the beast will be tested and tried for genuineness (basanisthesetai) with fire and divine incense that purifies (theio) in the presence of the holy angels and Christ. The smoke of their testing and trying (basanismou) will go up for a long, indefinite time (eis aionas aionon).
It is disturbing to think that Yeshua the Messiah, who gave his life as a ransom for ALL mankind (I Tim. 2:6), would, along with the holy angels, watch these people being tortured forever in fire. However, this is NOT what is being described in this passage. Eternal punishment is not the goal of the testing depicted here. Paul tells us that God “will have all men to be saved, and to come to the knowledge of the truth” (I Tim. 2:4). Clearly the Eternal’s intent is the eventual purifying of the ones being tested and tried in the lake of fire.
Indeed, refinement and purification through trials is how God has always prepared people for citizenship in His Kingdom (Psa. 34:19; 66:10-12; Pro. 17:3; Isa. 48:10; Jer. 9:7; Dan. 11:35; 12:10; Zec. 13:9; Mal. 3:1-3; II Cor. 4:17; I The. 3:2-4; Heb. 12:10; Jam. 1:2-4; I Pet. 1:6-7; 4:12-13). It is logical and scriptural (Isa. 30:19-21) to assume that He will continue to use this pattern in the future. This fiery testing and purifying in the lake of fire will, in the end, produce the results God has planned for all His creation (Col. 1:20).
The punishment of Sodom and Gomorrah by “eternal (aioniou) fire” is instructive, when understood correctly. These cities and their inhabitants were destroyed for their sinfulness by fire and brimstone (Gen. 19:24). Jude says that they were an example of those who suffered the judgment (Gr. diken) of “eternal fire” (Jude 7). However, Yeshua clearly indicated that the inhabitants of Sodom and Gomorrah would be raised up in the resurrection and be shown more tolerance than the inhabitants of cities which rejected his ministry (Matt. 10:15; Mark 6:11; Luke 10:12). Here, the adjective aioniou plainly indicates that this judgment God pronounced upon Sodom and Gomorrah was to last for only a certain amount of time (until the resurrection to judgment).
So when we arrive at the proper understanding of aion, aionios, and geenna, it becomes evident that the idea of a fiery hell where sinners are tortured for all eternity or annihilated is NOT taught in the Bible. Using the meanings of those words at the time of Yeshua, we see a picture of corrective (not destructive or retributive) punishment of sinners for a limited time in “hell.”
Intricately tied to “the lake of fire” in these passages in Revelation is “the second death.” What is this second death?
REVELATION 2:11 ‘He who has an ear, let him hear what the Spirit says to the churches. He who overcomes will not be hurt [adikethe] by the second death.‘ (NASU)
REVELATION 20:6 Blessed and holy is the one who has a part in the first resurrection; over these the second death has no power [exousian], but they will be priests of God and of Christ and will reign with Him for a thousand years. (NASU)
REVELATION 20:14 Then death and Hades were thrown into the lake of fire. This is the second death, the lake of fire. (NASU)
REVELATION 21:8 “But for the cowardly and unbelieving and abominable and murderers and immoral persons and sorcerers and idolaters and all liars, their part will be in the lake that burns with fire and brimstone, which is the second death.” (NASU)
First, we see that even those who are members of the Church can be “hurt” by the second death unless they overcome. The word “hurt” here is a form of the Greek verb adikeo; it is defined in Vine’s Expository Dictionary of New Testament Words as either “to do wrong, do hurt, act unjustly” or “to wrong, hurt or injure a person” (p. 315). A variant of adikeo is used in Revelation 9:10 to refer to the pain inflicted on men by the demons released from the Abyss. Significantly, these demons are not allowed to kill those they are inflicting pain upon (Rev. 9:5).
Next, we see in Revelation 20:6 that the second death will have no “power” over the believers who experience the resurrection at the return of Yeshua. The word translated “power” is a form of the Greek “exousia“; it literally means “authority.” From the use of this word, we can see that resurrected believers will not be subject to the power or authority of the second death.
Revelation 20:14 and 21:8 clearly states that “the second death” and “the lake of fire” are one and the same. Many have defined the second death to mean either everlasting separation from God in the lake of fire or eternal destruction in the lake of fire. But do the Scriptures support this conclusion?
In order to understand the second death, we must again fix in our minds what the “first” death really is and why it exists. The Scriptures tell us that “it is appointed for men to die ONCE, and after that comes judgment” (Heb. 9:27). Yet Paul tells us that those believers who are alive and remain until the second coming of Christ will not physically die, but instead will be changed to spirit in “the twinkling of an eye” (I Cor. 15:50-53; I The. 4:15-17).
Clearly, the Scriptures teach that not all will have to die a physical death. So what is the “first” death that all men are appointed to experience, after which comes judgment? Undoubtedly, it’s the death Paul referred to in Romans 5:12, the death that was introduced into the world through the sin of Adam:
ROMANS 5:12 Therefore, just as through one man sin entered the world, and death through sin, and thus death spread to all men, because all sinned – (NKJV)
From the point that Adam disobeyed God, all mankind has been cut off from the Eternal Father by sin, because all have sinned and fallen short of the glory of God (Rom. 3:23). As we’ve already seen from the Scriptures, God views this state of separation as death. So the author of Hebrews is speaking of this alienation from God in Hebrews 9:27. As Paul tells us, the death brought about by Adam’s disobedience can and will be reversed by the obedient sacrifice of Yeshua:
ROMANS 5:18 So then as through one transgression there resulted condemnation to all men, even so through one act of righteousness there resulted justification of life to all men. (NASU)
Clearly understanding how the first Adam’s sin is offset by the second Adam’s obedience is vital for comprehending how the separation of the first death will be neutralized by the reconciliation eventually brought by the second death. Indeed, the Scriptures tell us that the second death will consume the first death (Rev. 20:14).
Through sin, the first man (Heb. ‘adam) died to God and righteousness, bringing death to all mankind. Through obedience, the second man, Yeshua, died to sin and lived his life to God, bringing an acquittal that leads to life for all mankind. The first made all men sinners, the second will make all men righteous. Thus we can see that the lives and the deaths of the two Adams are a contrast to one another.
In like manner, the first and second deaths are also opposite and antagonistic. The second death will undo all the work of the first death in the precisely the same fashion as the last Adam is reversing all the work of the first Adam. Paul tells us that the creation has been subjected to futility (Rom. 8:20), but that futility has an ultimate purpose! Sin has been allowed by God because it accomplishes a goal of His plan; but when that purpose has been achieved, sin will cease to exist.
The first death initiated by Adam (which thereafter spread to all mankind) was a transition from knowing God to being separated from Him by sin. The second death will be a purifying change in the lake of fire from a state of sinfulness to righteousness. The second death is designed to purge, refine, and burn away all sin and its results. In the process, all of God’s universe will be cleansed.
Let’s look closely at what the book of Revelation really tells us about those who suffer the second death by being cast into the lake of fire. Keep in mind that Revelation is primarily a chronological record of events that will come to pass starting at the end of this age.
In Revelation 20:11, what is commonly called the “great white throne” judgment period is introduced. All those who are still dead come before this throne. The Book of Life is opened, as well as books recording what the dead had done during their lives. They are judged by their deeds as recorded in the books (Rev. 20:12). Anyone whose name isn’t found in the Book of Life is cast into the lake of fire (Rev. 20:15).
But the story doesn’t end there. In the beginning of Revelation 21, we see the new heaven and the new earth, as well as the New Jerusalem coming down from heaven. At this point, God the Father comes down from heaven and makes His home with mankind (Rev. 21:3). The first death ceases to exist (Rev. 21:4). God then declares “Behold, I make all things new” (Rev. 21:5) and “he who conquers shall have this heritage, and I will be his God and he shall be my son” (Rev. 21:7). But notice, some still exist who aren’t accounted as God’s sons yet:
REVELATION 21:8 But as for the cowardly, the faithless, the polluted, as for murderers, fornicators, sorcerers, idolaters, and all liars, their lot shall be in the lake that burns with fire and sulphur, which is the second death.” (RSV)
Immediately afterward we are given a glorious description of the New Jerusalem that is to come down out of heaven to earth (Rev. 21:9-22:5). But in this passage is a verse which must seem out of place to those who believe that the second death will annihilate all sinners:
REVELATION 21:27 But nothing unclean shall enter it [the New Jerusalem], nor any one who practices abomination or falsehood, but only those who are written in the Lamb’s book of life. (RSV)
Why, if the lake of fire has already consumed all the wicked at the end of the “great white throne” judgment, is it necessary for John to write that no one “unclean” will be able to enter the New Jerusalem? But an even greater question arises from Revelation 22:14-15:
REVELATION 22:14 Blessed are those who do His commandments, that they may have the right to the tree of life, and may enter through the gates into the city. 15 But outside are dogs and sorcerers and sexually immoral and murderers and idolaters, and whoever loves and practices a lie. (NKJV)
Here we are told that there are still sinners outside the city who do not yet have the right to enter New Jerusalem and eat from the tree of life. But it is also revealed that those who do obey God’s commandments merit the right to enter into the New Jerusalem and partake of the tree of life. The amazing implication here is that those on the outside, the same sorry lot earlier consigned to “the lake of fire” (Rev. 21:8), can enter the city when they start keeping the commandments of God!
Eventually, after indefinite ages in the “lake of fire,” the sinners who are outside New Jerusalem will repent and obey God. Then the time Paul speaks of in his letter to the church at Philippi will come about.
PHILIPPIANS 2:9 Therefore God has highly exalted him and bestowed on him the name which is above every name, 10 that at the name of Jesus every knee should bow, in heaven and on earth and under the earth, 11 and every tongue confess that Jesus Christ is Lord, to the glory of God the Father. (RSV)
Yes, the Scriptures clearly tell us that the time is coming when all of God’s creation will repent and be reconciled to God the Father through His Son, Yeshua the Messiah:
COLOSSIANS 1:19 For it pleased the Father that in him [Yeshua] all the fullness should dwell, 20 and by him [Yeshua] to reconcile all things to Himself, by him [Yeshua], whether things on earth or things in heaven, having made peace through the blood of his cross. (NKJV)
EPHESIANS 1:7 In him [Yeshua] we have redemption through his blood, the forgiveness of sins, according to the riches of His [the Father’s] grace 8 which He made to abound toward us in all wisdom and prudence, 9 having made known to us the mystery of His will, according to His good pleasure which He purposed in Himself, 10 that in the dispensation of the fullness of the times He might gather together in one all things in Christ, both which are in heaven and which are on earth — in Him. (NKJV)
When every one of God’s sentient creatures bows before Yeshua and confesses that he is their Lord, the second death will no longer be necessary. Death, the separation from God, will have been destroyed. Then will come the time when Christ will hand the entire creation over to his Father, that God may be all in all:
I CORINTHIANS 15:24 Then comes the end, when he [Yeshua] delivers the kingdom to God the Father, when He puts an end to all rule and all authority and power. 25 For he [Yeshua] must reign till He has put all enemies under his feet. 26 The last enemy that will be destroyed is death. 27 For “He has put all things under his [Yeshua’s] feet.” But when He says “all things are put under him [Yeshua],” it is evident that He who put all things under him [Yeshua] is excepted. 28 Now when all things are made subject to him [Yeshua], then the Son himself will also be subject to Him who put all things under him, that God may be all in all. (NKJV)
This is the true revelation of the mystery of God which was kept secret for long ages (Rom. 16:25), the mystery which was hidden from ages and from generations but now has been revealed to His saints (Col. 1:24), which God ordained before the ages for our glory (I Cor. 2:7). May God be praised for His infinite mercy and kindness!
Bryan T. Huie
February 5, 1999