“But for the cowardly and unbelieving and abominable and murderers and immoral persons and sorcerers and idolaters and all liars, their part will be in the lake that burns with fire and brimstone, which is the second death.” (21:8)
John concludes his overview of the new heaven and the new earth with a serious and solemn warning. He delineates those who will be excluded from any participation in the blessings of heaven—all unforgiven and unredeemed sinners. There are similar lists of such sinners in 22:15; Romans 1:28–32; 1 Corinthians 6:9–10; Galatians 5:19–21; and 2 Timothy 3:2–5.
The first group excluded from heaven are the cowardly. These are the ones who lack endurance (cf. Matt. 24:13; Mark 8:35). They fell away when their faith was challenged or opposed, because their faith was not genuine. Jesus described such people in the parable of the soils: “The one on whom seed was sown on the rocky places, this is the man who hears the word and immediately receives it with joy; yet he has no firm root in himself, but is only temporary, and when affliction or persecution arises because of the word, immediately he falls away” (Matt. 13:20–21). These are the ones who “shrink back to destruction” (Heb. 10:39). In John 8:31 Jesus defined those whose faith is genuine as those who continue in His Word. (For further discussion of this issue, see my books The Gospel According to Jesus [rev. ed., Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1994], and The Gospel According to the Apostles [Nashville: Word, 2000].)
Because they lack saving faith and are unbelieving, their disloyalty excludes them from heaven. They are also abominable (vile, polluted, detestable, wholly caught up in wickedness and evil), murderers, immoral persons, sorcerers (from the Greek word pharmakos, from which the English words “pharmacy” and “pharmaceuticals” derive; that indicates the inclusion of those who use mind-altering drugs in occult religion), idolaters, and liars. Those whose lives are characterized by such things give evidence that they are not saved and will never enter the heavenly city. On the contrary, their part will be in the lake that burns with fire and brimstone, which is the second death. In contrast to the eternal bliss of the righteous in heaven, the wicked will suffer eternal torment in hell. (For a further discussion of the lake that burns with fire and brimstone, which is the second death, see chapter 17 of this volume.)
The new heaven and the new earth await believers and the final hell awaits resurrected unbelievers. For believers, it will be a universe of eternal happiness as they dwell forever in the glorious presence of God. For unbelievers, it will be a terrifying place of unbearable torment and unrelieved misery away from God’s presence (2 Thess. 1:9). The choices men and women make in this life determine in which of those realms they will live forever.