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These expressions occur in the book of Revelation only. I introduce them here, not because I have the vanity to suppose that I can furnish the true key to their meaning, for I pretend not to be able to do this with certainty, but because they are usually urged against the universalist faith with the more vehemence, and positiveness, as of all the other parts of Scripture, they are least understood. I can speak to the negative point of what they do not mean, with more confidence than to the positive of what they do.
That the lake of fire cannot refer to a place or mode of suffering in another life, is evident from the nature of some of the things subjected to its operation; these are death, hades, the beast, and the false prophet. The first three of these, it can scarcely be supposed, are suitable subjects for endless suffering! Death is a mere negation -- the absence of life. Hades is the separate state. The beast personates the corruptors and opposers of Christianity, or a corrupt hierarchy, some say Jewish, some Pagan, some Romish Christian, and some (the Romanists) the pseudo reformed Christian. It may mean either of these, or the Lord knows what. Whatever it means, however, it is represented, together with the false prophet, as having been "cast alive into a lake of fire, burning with brimstone," from which, if the lake of fire mean hell, we must infer that they were consigned bodily, in flesh and blood, to its sulphurous flames!
It is equally evident that the second death cannot signify an endless death, (as some assume,) because the inspired testimony is full and clear to the point, that death is to be destroyed, swallowed up in victory, be no more, etc., which may imply any thing rather than that it shall endure, and triumph over millions of Jehovah's offspring, to all eternity!
Touching the meaning of Revelation there is a great diversity of judgment among critics. They are also much divided as to the period at which it was written -- some placing it before, some after, the destruction of Jerusalem. To my mind the probabilities seem decidedly to favor the former position, and I also think that the book chiefly relates to that catastrophe, and to the various circumstances attendant on the introduction of the Christian institution. I have, as I think, very substantial reasons in the book for this opinion. In the introduction thereto it professes to disclose things that were "shortly to come to pass," and for which it even says, "the time is at hand" (Rev. 1:1-2). And that the judgments threatened through the book were to have an immediate (and not a remote) fulfilment, seems evidently to be implied in the closing declarations; -- "Surely I come quickly" (Rev. 22:20); "behold, I come quickly; and my reward is with me, to give every man according as his work shall be" (Rev. 22:12). It seems too that the city and temple of Jerusalem must have been yet standing, not only from their being referred to in several indirect forms, but form the additional fact, that John is directed by the angel to measure the temple. "And there was given me a reed like unto a rod: and the angel stood, saying, Rise, and measure the temple of God, and the altar, and them that worship therein. But the court which is without the temple leave out, and measure it not; for it is given unto the Gentiles; and the holy city shall they tread under foot forty and two months" (Rev. 11:1-2). Moreover, I have (in the article on general judgment) shown reasons for identifying the judgment so sublimely described in chapter 20 with that of which Daniel spoke in a strain of equal grandeur, (Dan. 7:9) which is regarded by both Bishop, and Sir Isaac Newton, and other eminent expositors, as portending the momentous events which should attend the destruction of the Mosaic economy, and the setting up of Messiah's kingdom.
By keeping these things in mind, we need be at no very great loss for the understanding of the phrases at the head of this article. We can at least attain a high degree of probability in regard to it. As to the lake of fire, we often find that very figure employed in the descriptions of the judgment at the end of that world (aion, or age). Malachi calls the period thereof "the day that shall burn as an oven" Malachi 4:1). Christ said, that at the end of that world, (or age,) the tares should be cast into the furnace of fire (Matt. 13:40). God expressly says he will gather the Jews into the midst of Jerusalem, and melt them as silver is melted in a furnace (Ezek. 22:18, 22). And it is said that the Lord's "fire is in Zion, and his furnace in Jerusalem" (Isa. 31:9). This, indeed, was a figure to which those whom Christ and his apostles addressed were well accustomed. In Revelation, the lake of fire, is represented as an agent in destroying, as well as punishing. Death, hades, the beast, etc., are not subjects of punishment. The destruction of the two former, at the time of the introduction of the gospel institution, must imply, I think, that the fundamental and most glorious feature in that gospel, viz., the doctrine of immortality, would effectually and forever dispel, in the minds of believers, all fears and anxieties on the subject of death ant the state beyond it; and that it would also carry their minds forward in anticipation to the final extinction of these and all other foes to human happiness.
The second death is also used in reference both to the punishment of sentient beings, and the destruction of insentient things. After the stating, that all liars, adulterers, the unbelieving and abominable, etc., were cast into the lake of fire and brimstone, it is added, "this is the second death." Here the phrase must imply a process of punishment. Again, after telling that death and hell were cast into the lake of fire, the revelator adds, "this is the second death." It here, unquestionably, implies an utter destruction, for, as stated before, death and hades cannot be subjects of suffering, and, therefore, in this instance the lake of fire cannot signify a place of punishment, or of misery. It is the height of absurdity to speak of casting insentient things into misery. Their being cast into a lake of fire can only intimate their destruction.
"But why may it not mean an utter destruction in both cases?" I may be asked. Because, I reply, its application in other places is such as clearly to discountenance such construction. "He that overcometh shall not be hurt of the second death" (Rev 2:11). From this it is plain that the punishment denominated the second death, was one involving pain, and not destruction. Moreover, it is said of those who had part in the first resurrection, "on such the second death hath no power" (Rev. 20:6). These are the overcomers who should not be hurt of it, whereas, the fearful, the unbelieving, etc., should be subjected to its full power. The smoke of their torment should ascend "day and night, forever and ever." Hence, the phrase implies suffering, not extinction of being. It implies, I may add, temporal, or timely suffering, where there is an alternation of day and night.
In the close of the book, the gospel institution is spoken of under the figure of a city -- a holy city coming down from God out of heaven. Into this pure and happy place none are admitted but such as are pure in character, "there shall in nowise enter into it anything that defileth, neither whatsoever worketh abomination, or maketh a lie, but they which are written in the Lamb's book of life." The gates thereof are never to be closed, inasmuch as at all times it is to be accessible to all, upon their faith and reformation. In it is no darkness, nor sin, nor death, nor sorrow. Old things are done away, and all things are new. This highly colored description of the gospel state on earth has been often supposed to refer to a time called Millennium, when Christ shall literally descend, and live with his saints on this terrestrial globe for a thousand years. But there is no necessity for so extravagant a supposition. Anyone who has familiarized himself with the poetic style of the sacred penmen, will easily believe that nothing more is intended in this beautiful vision, than the setting up of the kingdom, or church, if Messiah in the world. The joy, and hope, and purity, and peace, which are the lot of its subjects, and the prospects it would afford to all believers, of a final and glorious issue from the sorrows, and death, and guilt, of this earthly state, in the unending felicity and immortality of heaven.
The Savior never intimated, at any time, in any of his several discourses with his apostles, that he was to come in latter times, and establish a civil dynasty in this world. He would certainly not have left a matter of this consequence unrevealed. We never find it referred to in any of the apostolic epistles, which it unquestionably would have been if it were to take place. It seems to me a weakness, a puerility, to base a doctrine of such magnitude upon a passage or two in a book, which is avowedly the least understood of all the sacred writings! It is admitted that Christ has now a spiritual kingdom on earth. It is admitted that he is present, in doctrine and spirit, in this kingdom. It is admitted that this divine dynasty is extending its conquests over the globe, dispelling sin, and darkness, and despair, and imparting holiness, and light, and hope. It is admitted, moreover, that in the light of this kingdom, death and hades lose their blighting influence over the mind of man, and a clear end, and glorious issue, are seen to all the evils which now infest the world. What more is needed, then, to meet the just and sober expectations which (making due allowance for the poetic coloring employed in this enigmatical part of the sacred oracles) arise out of what is said by the revelator, about the thousand years reign of Messiah on the earth? Candor replies -- nothing.
Reader, I am greatly averse to dogmatizing, and will not pretend, therefore, that I have infallibly unfolded the true significance of the parts of this mystical book which I have touched upon. But this I will affirm, that I have given you my own views with all candor, and that I have formed those views with the utmost care, and without implicitly following the steps of any of the numerous expositors thereof, and consequently I shall not ask you implicitly to follow mine.