But the cowardly, unbelieving, abominable, murderers, sexually immoral, sorcerers, idolaters, and all liars shall have their part in the lake which burns with fire and brimstone, which is the second death.
Recently I received a letter from a pastor who wondered about the meaning of this verse. The following is an expansion of my response.
Current Behavior of the Unsaved Is in View
Many pastors and commentators suggest that this verse is teaching something about the present behavior of the unsaved. It is viewed as being given to help us determine if we or others are headed toward hell or not.
One group holding this view (Reformed pastors and commentators) suggests that the verse concerns those who have never been saved. Anyone who is guilty of major sins shows he is unregenerate. Of course, they usually qualify this by saying that the verse concerns people habitually caught up in sins like immorality and lying. And what does habitually mean? That’s hard to pin down, they say. They suggest that the more a person sins, the more likely it is that he or she is unsaved.
Another group (Arminian pastors and commentators) suggests that this verse is teaching that anyone who is guilty of major sins loses his or her salvation. According to this view only those who regularly confess and repent of their sins can enter God’s kingdom. A failure to confess and repent results in loss of eternal salvation.
Neither of these views, however, is consistent with Scripture.
All believers sin and sin repeatedly (e.g., 1 John 1:8, 10). Some believers actually wallow in sin (1 Cor 3:1-3; 6:18-20; 11:30; Gal 6:1; James 5:19-20; 2 Pet 2:18-22; 3:14-18). So the view that this verse is teaching that habitual sinners must never have been saved in the first place is untenable.
And, the Bible also teaches that believers can’t lose their salvation (cf. John 4:14; 6:35; 10:28-29; Rom 8:38-39). Once a person is born again, they can never be un-born. Thus the Arminian loss-of-salvation view is also unscriptural.
Eternal Sinfulness Is in View
It is a mistake to think that this verse is describing the way the unsaved behave here and now. The verse says nothing about the current behavior of believers or unbelievers. Rather, it concerns the eternal sinfulness of unbelievers.
A parallel passage is John 8:24: “If you do not believe that I am He, you will die in your sins.” Unbelievers die in a state of sinfulness. Forever they remain sinners. Believers, however, do not remain in a state of sinfulness because they are justified by faith: “Blessed is the man to whom the Lord shall not impute sin” (Rom 4:8; see also vv 1-7 and Rom 8:33-34).
Revelation 21:8 says nothing about whether believers actually sin prior to death or not. Of course we know that they do. However, that is not in view in Rev 21:8. What is actually in view is the continued unregenerate and unjustified state of the lost. Because unbelievers upon death are sealed permanently as those who are unjustified, they remain sinners in God’s sight forever.
There will be no sinners and no sin in the new heavens and the new earth. According to 1 John 3:2, “when He is revealed, we shall be like Him.”
It is interesting to note that this basic message is found three times in Revelation 21-22 (Rev 21:8, 27; and 22:15), the section of the book dealing with the eternal kingdom. A comparison of these three passages, and particularly the first and last, supports the conclusion that the sinful state of those in hell is what is in view. Space restrictions will not allow this here so I will address Rev 22:14-17 in the next issue.
If we look closely at Rev 21:6-8, we will discover that three groups of people are in view: (1) all who have received the free gift of eternal life, (2) those who have received the free gift and who also overcame the world in their Christian experience, and (3) all who did not receive the free gift of eternal life. The text can be laid out as follows:
- “I will give…freely…” (v 6b)
- “He who overcomes shall inherit…” (v 7)
- “But the cowardly…murderers…shall have their part in the lake which burns…” (v 8)
It is naive both biblically and practically to conclude that all believers live victorious overcoming lives. Certainly nothing in Rev 21:6-8 gives that impression (cf. Rev 2:13:22; 22:14-17).
If the kingdom contained those still in a sinful state, it would not be as glorious as God intends.That would put an eternal damper on the joy the Lord Himself and we, His subjects, could experience.
Revelation 21:8 should be a joyous verse for us. Those who interpret it to mean that we need to examine our behavior to see if we are saved (or if we are still saved) have robbed it of its joy and replaced it with works-salvation gloom.
The kingdom will be truly joyful because everyone in it will be holy and sinless.