by Zane Hodges, originally published in the March 1991 edition of Grace in Focus
“He who overcomes shall not be hurt by the second death” (Rev 2:11)
If someone says to me, “His request presented me with no small problem,” I know exactly what he means. The person who made the request of him had presented him a BIG problem!
In the phrase “no small problem” we have a very common figure of speech. Its technical name is “litotes” (pronounced, lie’-tuh-tease’). Litotes occurs when an affirmative idea is expressed by the negation of its opposite. In the sentence we started with, the affirmative idea is that the problem is very large. The phrase “no small problem” negates the opposite idea.
Americans use litotes all the time in ordinary speech without being aware of it. Some additional examples might be:
“You won’t go unrewarded” =
“You’ll be repaid”
“That suit is no bargain” =
“The quiz wasn’t any snap” =
“It was tough”
“He sure isn’t Santa Claus” =
“He’s a Scrooge”
The reader could probably multiply examples with ease.
One can also make highly generalized statements that involve litotes:
“Retailers are not saints” =
“They’ll cheat you”
“Theologians are not given to simple language” =
“They’re hard to follow”
“God is not unjust to forget your work and labor of love” (Heb 6:10) =
“God’s character guarantees He will remember”
The secret of understanding any statement involving litotes is found in knowing that the negative idea is not the point. Since most English speakers are familiar with the fact that theologians are famous for complicated and difficult discussions, they also know that the claim that they “are not given to simple language” is a huge understatement!
In the final analysis, that is what litotes really is. A negative statement is made that understates the reality being referred to. To point to an enormous price tag on a suit and to say that the suit is “no bargain” is obviously a major understatement of the actual cost.
The Christian reader who encounters Revelation 2:11 ought to recognize it immediately as an understatement. No Christian can be “hurt by the second death.” The many passages that teach eternal security make this clear. So Revelation 2:11 ought to be taken as a litotes.
What is the positive idea which it understates? Fortunately, the context helps us. In verse 10 we read: “Be faithful until death, and I will give you the crown of life.” The Smyrnan Christians are challenged to face possible martyrdom with courage and fidelity to God. Their reward for doing so will be a superlative experience of life in the world to come. So to speak, they will be “crowned” with the enjoyment of life “more abundant” (see John 10:10).
In this light, Revelation 2:11 can be seen as truly an understatement. The overcomer (that is, the faithful Christian) will be more than amply repaid for whatever sacrifice he may make for Christ’s sake. His experience will be truly wonderful–far, far beyond the reach–the touch–of the second death. That is to say, this conquering Christian is as far above the experience-level of eternal death as it is possible to be.
In a masterly understatement, the Lord Jesus says in effect: “The first death may ‘hurt’ you briefly, the second not at all!”
Revelation 2:11 is not a veiled threat that the unfaithful believer may forfeit eternal life. On the contrary, it is an effective litotes whose very vagueness stirs our imaginations and our hearts with anticipation. If we understand it like this, we could never say that this text creates “no small problem”! Actually, it is not a problem at all!