In Revelation 2:11, Jesus spoke to those “who have ears to hear”, meaning believers who have exercised their senses to discern good and evil (cf. Hebrews 5:14). There, he promises that he who overcomes would not be harmed by the second death. But, what does Jesus mean by the second death? Exactly, how many deaths are there, and how are they described in Scripture?
First of all, we need to understand that Jesus didn’t claim, as some presume he does, that these who overcome wouldn’t go through the second death. Jesus merely tells us here in Revelation 2:11 that he who overcomes will not be hurt by the second death. Therefore, if there is a second death, logic demands there must be a “first” death. Later in the Apocalypse we find that those who have a part in the “first resurrection” cannot be hurt by the “second death” (Revelation 20:6). So, likewise, if there is a **first** resurrection, there must also be a “second resurrection”, but what resurrection is pointed to in Revelation 20:6 and could it shed light upon the “second death” that Jesus mentions in Revelation 2:11? Consider the life and death and resurrection terminology Paul uses in his epistle to the Ephesians:
“And you were dead in your trespasses and sins… But God, being rich in mercy, because of His great love with which He loved us, even when we were dead in our transgressions, made us alive together with Christ (by grace you have been saved), and raised us up with Him, and seated us with Him in the heavenly places in Christ Jesus,” (Ephesians 2:1, 4-6; NASB)
Here, the Scriptures seem to describe the believer’s first resurrection in what is called being born again. Jesus said one must be born again before he could **see** the Kingdom of God (John 3:3). This seems to be a spiritual matter, not a physical one, and, therefore, Paul seems to be describing a spiritual death and a spiritual resurrection. Notice, that only those who have a part in the first resurrection are even aware of the presence of the Kingdom of God. Jesus, himself, claimed that this new birth was one of the spirit or a spiritual birth (John 3:6).
In Galatians 4:29 Paul described the two births as “he that was born after the flesh (first birth), persecuted him that was born after the spirit (second birth),” which seems to be saying the same thing Jesus said in Revelation 2:11. Therefore, the Scriptures seem to conclude that he that “has a part in the first resurrection” must be one who has been born again, and it is that one who cannot be hurt by the **second** death. In other words, if one is alive in the spirit, he is one who has been “born again, not of corruptible seed (Adam), but of incorruptible, by the Word of God (Jesus), and he lives and abides forever” (1Peter 1:23 – parenthesis mine in the quote).
The Scriptures tell us “the soul that sins, it shall die” (Ezekiel 18:4, 20). If sin is a spiritual matter, then it stands to reason that Ezekiel is referring to a spiritual death, not a physical one. In other words, sin didn’t introduce physical death. All things physical decay and eventually die. Adam would have died, physically, whether or not he ate of the forbidden fruit (Genesis 2:7; 3:19), and according to the Scriptures, all life ends at death. Even our thoughts cease to exist at the point of death (Psalm 6:5; 30:9; 88:10-12; 115:17; Ecclesiastes 9:10; Isaiah 38:18). In other words, mankind does not have an immortal soul, as is claimed by some. Men—all men—will die, and there is no understanding in the grave, according to what we are able to discern from the Scriptures above (Psalm 6:5 etc.). So, if physical death is a point of ‘non-existence’, whereby there is no difference between him and the animal (Ecclesiastes 3:19), what hope does mankind have (Ecclesiastes 3:21)?
Through man (Adam), sin entered the world, and death entered through sin (Romans 5:12). Remember, sin didn’t kill Adam physically. Rather, it separated him from God, and brought upon him a spiritual death, whereby all things spiritual were either difficult or impossible to understand. Spiritual things must be revealed to him. He cannot see them without the Lord’s aid or without being born again (viz. John 3:3). In other words, in the day that Adam ate of the forbidden fruit, he died spiritually.
Therefore, by implication, the second death MUST be physical death. First, Adam became disconnected from God, i.e. he **died** in his spirit in the day he rebelled from God—ate the forbidden fruit (cf. Genesis 2:17). This was the first death. Much later he died a physical death, and that was his second death (cf. Genesis 5:5). In this context, then, we are able to understand Jesus’ words: “He that has an ear, let him hear what the Spirit says to the churches; he that overcomes shall not be hurt of the second death” (Revelation 2:11). That is, although he may die physically, perhaps even be killed in the tribulation (Revelation 2:10) he will live on (John 3:36; 11:25). In Christ, and only in Christ, we have hope of life.