Death is one of the indisputable facts of life. But according to certain religious teachings, a “second death” is also possible. Second death primarily appears in Christian scriptures, but the concept also has a place in Judaism. Protestants, Catholics, and Mormons all have their own interpretations of what second death is like.
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So what exactly is second death, and how do different Christian teachings interpret the event?
What’s a ‘Second Death?’
“Second death” is an eschatological concept: a part of religious philosophy related to the ultimate fate of humanity. Eschatology often refers to teachings about the end of the world, the apocalypse, and the “end times.” But it also has to do with a soul’s final judgment and other “last things.” And eschatology plays a role in nearly every religion on Earth.
Second death, sometimes known as “spiritual death,” is synonymous with hell. It equates to a total separation from God and everything that’s good. In some types of Christianity, this entails the permanent death and total disappearance of the soul. In the majority of Christianity, though, “second death” means eternal punishment in a “lake of fire.” And a soul typically experiences second death if it fails to achieve salvation, or purge its sins, in the Christian afterlife.
The concept of a second death is similar, in many ways, across the various sects of Christianity. But there are also some differences in how Protestant Christians, Catholics, Mormons, and Universalist Christians interpret spiritual death as it’s described in the scriptures.
In Protestant Christianity
Protestantism encompasses a large portion of the Christian religion, and there are many different beliefs within Protestantism itself. Beliefs about the afterlife differ a great deal within the Protestant religion, including beliefs about a second death.
A large portion of Protestants don’t believe in second death. In fact, they don’t believe in hell or purgatory at all. These segments of the Protestant faith believe souls only go to different levels of heaven after physical death.
Some denominations like Seventh-day Adventists also oppose the idea of eternal suffering. But they also believe in a version of second death. According to these Protestant teachings, second death is more literal: souls who are condemned at final judgment simply cease to be, entirely. The denominations that follow such beliefs are known as Annihilationists. They don’t believe in the soul’s eternal suffering in hell, but instead believe in its annihilation as punishment for wickedness.
Catholicism teaches that Christ, by facing death himself, destroyed the permanent nature of death. He essentially created the separation between physical death (first death) and the afterlife.
Catholics believe Christ revolutionized death, freeing humanity of the fear of death. Upon physical death, the soul is freed to reunite with the Father. And while there might not be any reason to fear physical death, according to Catholic teachings, there’s even more cause to fear a second death.
In a 2006 address, Pope Benedict XVI referred to second death as “true death,” and “the death of the soul.” He stated that this death in the afterlife is the one humanity should truly fear and that, “those who die in mortal sin without repentance, locked into their proud rejection of God's love, exclude themselves from the Kingdom of life.”
In addition to the New Testament, followers of the Mormon faith rely on the Book of Mormon to understand death and life after death. And while the New Testament only mentions hell by name 23 times, the word appears 62 times in the Book of Mormon.
The Book of Mormon has extensive descriptions of a dark and torturous afterlife, describing a state of second death following a final judgment. It refers to this state as the “depths of hell,” “everlasting hell,” and “endless hell” among other phrases.
But according to the Book of Mormon, “hell” is usually only temporary. Following Morman teachings about resurrection, the body and spirit of even the wicked are restored. The spirit eventually ascends from hell for judgment, and from there goes on to heaven.
However, wicked souls that are “filthy still” at this judgment experience a second death, or assignment to a state of permanent hell.
Christian Universalism centers around the idea that every soul can reach eternal holiness and happiness. This idea is known as “universal reconciliation.”
Following the theology of universal reconciliation, Universalist Christians don’t believe in second death in the traditional sense. There’s some debate within the denomination about whether hell exists. But Universalists do agree that there is no state of eternal punishment.
Instead, according to Universalism, second death and hell are states of cleansing. Although the process may be painful, a soul can eventually reach salvation, even after a second death occurs.
When Does the Second Death Happen in the Bible?
Christian interpretations and beliefs about second death stem from writings in the Bible. The term “second death” appears four times in the New Testament, specifically in Revelation.
More general references to a kind of second death, without using that specific phrasing, also occur in the Books of John, Romans, Matthew, Ephesians, Ezekiel, and elsewhere.
Below are just a few examples of references to second death that appear in the Bible.
The Book of Revelation is the part of the Bible that specifically refers to a “second death” as an exact phrase. These are the instances that inspired beliefs and discussion about second death in Christianity.
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.
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.
Then Death and Hades were thrown into the lake of fire. This is the second death, the lake of fire.
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.
The term “second death” doesn’t appear in Matthew, but references to such an event do.
And 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.
Then he will say to those on his left, “Depart from me, you cursed, into the eternal fire prepared for the devil and his angels.”
And these will go away into eternal punishment, but the righteous into eternal life.
References to something similar to a second death also appear throughout the Bible, including the locations below.
Behold, all souls are mine; the soul of the father as well as the soul of the son is mine: the soul who sins shall die.
And come out, those who have done good to the resurrection of life, and those who have done evil to the resurrection of judgment.
The Lord preserves all who love him, but all the wicked he will destroy.
Understanding Second Death
Many religions and philosophies around the world imagine death as a two-step process. That’s because it’s common to picture a human being as two parts of a greater whole: the body and the spirit. And even though the body dies, the spirit is thought to continue on into the afterlife.
With that in mind, it’s easy to understand how the concept of “second death” came about. And whether you believe in second death or not, it’s always useful to understand and appreciate the philosophy of death in different cultures and religions.
- Landes, Richard. “Eschatology.” Britannica. www.britannica.com/topic/eschatology
- Largey, L. Dennis. “Hell Second Death, Lake of Fire and Brimstone, and Outer Darkness.” BYU Religious Studies Center. rsc.byu.edu/book-mormon-message-four-gospels/hell-second-death-lake-fire-brimstone-outer-darkness
- “The Second Death.” Open Bible. www.openbible.info/topics/the_second_death
- “On the Soul and the Resurrection.” New Advent. www.newadvent.org/fathers/2915.htm
- Pope Benedict XVI. “Angelus: Beware of the Deadly Second Death.” Global Catholic Network. 5 November 2006. www.ewtn.com/catholicism/library/angelus-beware-of-the-deadly-second-death-6937