(Rev. 21:8 ESV) 8 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.”
A couple of observations to set the table.
First, the “second death” refers to death after death. As taught by Edward Fudge in The Fire That Consumes, when a lost person dies, he will be resurrected at the Second Coming to suffer whatever punishment God considers just and then to die eternally, that is, to die without hope of a second resurrection. He remains dead forever. I’ve covered this doctrine, known as Conditionalism, many times.
The lake that burns with fire and sulfur has been mentioned a few times before. All such language can be easily traced back to Genesis and the destruction of Sodom and Gomorrah. Long before the writing of the Revelation, Sodom and Gomorrah had become a trope for the destruction coming from God’s wrath — and the universal image is one of death followed by perpetual shame and no hope for revival. For example,
(Isa. 34:9-10 ESV) 9 And the streams of Edom shall be turned into pitch, and her soil into sulfur; her land shall become burning pitch. 10 Night and day it shall not be quenched; its smoke shall go up forever. From generation to generation it shall lie waste; none shall pass through it forever and ever.
Edom (a small nation immediately east of biblical Israel) was not kept alive to suffer forever. Rather, it was destroyed, resulting in everlasting shame, with no hope of restoration.
In terms which are very reminiscent of those applied to Sodom and Gomorrah (Gen. 19:24–28; Deut. 29:23; Ps. 11:6; Jer. 49:18; Rev. 14:10, 11), the prophet pictures the land as a perpetual wasteland of burning pitch and brimstone. …
In v. 10, the primary emphasis is upon the perpetuity of the destruction.
John N. Oswalt, The Book of Isaiah, Chapters 1–39, The New International Commentary on the Old Testament, (Grand Rapids, MI: Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Co., 1986), 614.
To me, the most difficult part of this passage is that it sounds so definitive. I mean, I understand that murderers and idolaters are damned. But what all liars? All cowardly? Doesn’t everyone lie once in a while? Don’t we all have a streak of cowardice in us?
In fact, all eight classes of people mentioned in the verse may refer to professing believers who have apostatized (although after the second or third class they apply to pagans as well). The “vile” are those who have joined in the detestable and unholy ritual of emperor worship. They are successors to the idolatrous Israelites who “consecrated themselves to that shameful idol and became as vile as the thing they loved” (Hos 9:10; cf. Exod 5:21; Titus 1:16; Rev 17:4ff.). They have become defiled by the impurities of the imperial cult. “Murderers” may refer to those committing acts of homicide under the tyranny of the beast (13:15). The “sexually immoral” are mentioned because the practice had become the major vice of paganism. “Those who practice magic arts” remind us of the scene in Ephesus where the sorcerers brought their scrolls together and burned them in public (cf. Acts 19:19). The inclusion of “liars” is appropriate in view of John’s emphasis on truth (cf. 1 John 2:21–22; 3:19; 4:6). Throughout Revelation deviation from truth has been stigmatized (2:2; 3:9; 14:5; 21:27; 22:15). The lot of all apostates and pagans is to be cast into the fiery lake of burning sulfur (cf. 20:15).
Robert H. Mounce, The Book of Revelation, The New International Commentary on the New Testament, (Grand Rapids, MI: Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Co., 1997), 386–387.
Mounce argues that the passage refers to those who have apostatized, that is, fallen away after being saved. The particular sins refer to the various trials and tests suffered by the church in the preceding visions. This is a list of those who failed the tests.
He not speaking of cowardice in the face of enemy gunfire; it’s cowardice when your faith in Jesus is challenged by the Dragon. It’s fornication when tempted to sin with the Prostitute, who represents idolatrous religions. In the New International Greek Testament Commentary, Beale ties each sin in the list to prior warnings in the Revelation.