The following may or may not be how Todd understands this passage, but as one who shares his view that punishment is entirely confined to this world, I thought I’d offer my interpretation for your consideration.
I see Rev 20:11-5 as being a figurative description of the judgment that God brought upon the unbelieving people of Israel at the end of the Mosaic dispensation in 70 AD. It is simply a more climactic and closing description of what John had previously described in Revelation 6:12-17, making chapter 20 a recapitulation. Notice that in both passages we find “the heavens” (the sky) and “the earth” (the land masses) being “removed” (which is simply figurative, prophetic imagery signifying the overthrow of a nation or existing social order). Notice also that in both passages we have all different classes of people: in Rev 6:15 we read of “the kings of the earth, the great ones and the generals and the rich and the powerful,” which corresponds to “the great” in Rev 20:12. In chapter 6, “everyone, slave and free” corresponds to “the small” in chapter 20. Finally, we have the image of one “who is seated on the throne” in Rev 6:16, which corresponds to John’s later description of “a great white throne and him who sat on it” (20:11). Both chapters are simply different perspectives on the final overthrow of the Jewish nation in 70 A.D., when all the righteous blood shed on the earth came upon the spiritually dead men and women of that “crooked generation.” Jesus even applies language similar to what John uses in Rev 6:15-16 to the severe calamites that were soon to come upon the doomed capital city of Israel (Luke 23:28-30).
Moreover, as Todd pointed out, there is no valid reason to understand the “dead” spoken of in Rev 20:12 as being literally dead. They are “dead” in the same figurative sense that many members of the church in Sardis at that time were said to be “dead” or “about to die” (Revelation 3:1). It may be objected that they cannot merely be spiritually dead, since John says he saw “Death and Hades” give them up unto judgment. However, if this language is to be understood literally, then it must also be believed that “the sea” (in addition to death and Hades) is also the abode of the literal dead, because John names it as a place from which they came as well. If “Hades” is a literal “place” to which some people literally go when they physically die, then, to be consistent, “Death” and “the sea” are literal places to which others literally go as well, because John says all three “gave up the dead” which were “in them.” One must also believe that “Death” and “Hades” were literally “thrown” into a literal “lake of fire.” But “Death and Hades” (though figuratively represented as two horsemen earlier, in Rev 6:8) are not literal things that can literally be “thrown” anywhere - whether it be into a literal “lake of fire,” or into outer space.
Consequently, unless one believes that “the sea,” “Death” and “Hades” are all different places where the physically dead literally dwell prior to the resurrection, and that both “Death” and “Hades” can be literally thrown into a literal lake of fire, then one will have to admit the absurdity of a strictly literal interpretation of this passage. Moreover, if this is a depiction of a general judgment following the resurrection of the dead, then those standing “before the throne” (a common Hebrew expression meant to convey to the reader the solemnity and divine appointment of an event) have been raised immortal. But if that’s the case, why then would John call them “the dead?” At the literal resurrection of the dead, death is said to be “destroyed,” and “swallowed up in victory" (1 Cor 15). It would be the most inappropriate of all descriptions to refer to those who have been “made alive in Christ” as “the dead.” In light of these several considerations, I find the only reasonable interpretation to be that this is a figurative description neither of the literal dead, nor of those who have been resurrected, but instead of those who, though still alive physically, were dead in their transgressions and sins.
So what does John mean when he says that “the sea gave up the dead,” and that “death and Hades delivered up the dead in them?” I submit that John is simply using figurative language that would have been very familiar to his first-century Jewish readers. The “sea,” “death” and “Hades” are images derived straight from Isaiah chap 28:15-18, and Amos chap 9:2-3 (cf. Obadiah 1:4). In describing these spiritually dead people as being delivered up by the sea, death and Hades, John is saying that nothing could screen the guilty people of the Jewish nation from the retributive judgment which God, in his sovereign counsel, had determined to bring upon them.
In Isaiah 28:15, we read of the wicked people of Israel saying,
“We have made a covenant with Death, and with Sheol (the Hebrew equivalent of “Hades”) are we at agreement; when the overflowing scourge shall pass through, it shall not come unto us; for we have made lies our refuge, and under falsehood have we hidden ourselves.”
Although they comforted themselves with their “refuge of lies” and “hiding places of falsehood,” it was ultimately a false sense of security they enjoyed; their covenant partners, “Death and Hades,” still delivered them up to national destruction. For in v. 18 we read: “Your covenant with Death shall be disannulled, and your agreement with Sheol (Hades) shall not stand; when the overflowing scourge shall pass through, then shall you be trodden down by it.” In other words, there was nothing the ungodly people of Israel could do to protect or screen themselves from the impending national judgment God had purposed to bring upon them. “Death and Hades” (which are simply figures/metaphors representing their “refuge of lies” and “hiding places of falsehood”) would not aide or protect them, but would instead give them up to destruction (the casting of Death and Hades into the “lake of fire” referred to in Rev 21:14 represents the disannulling of Israel’s “covenant” with them). Israel was thus forced to learn that God cannot be mocked; as a nation, their doom was inevitable.
In Amos 9:3, we find similar language to that which is in Isaiah: “If they hide themselves on the top of Carmel, from there I will search them out and take them; and if they hide from my sight in the bottom of the sea, there I will command the serpent, and it shall bite them.” Of course, this language is not literal, but figurative. No one was literally hiding at the top of Mount Carmel, or hiding at the bottom of the sea. The language is used in reference to the living, who (as in Isaiah) are represented as hiding themselves under falsehood and lies - as taking refuge at “the bottom of the sea,” and as making “a covenant with death and Hades,” to protect them from the national ruin God promised to bring upon them because of their unfaithfulness to him. But it was all in vain, for, as John says, they were given up to judgment.
The “books” by which these people were judged according to what they had done (cf. Daniel 7:10, from which the imagery is taken) may represent the books of the Jewish law. Because they clung to the Mosaic law instead of embracing Jesus as their Messiah, they were judged by the law (Rom 2:12, etc.). In attempting (unsuccessfully) to live by the law and receive their righteousness through it instead of through faith in Christ, the curses of the law ultimately fell upon them. Deuteronomy 28:49-57 (see also Dan 9:1-19) provides us with a horrifying description of the culmination of the judgment which God threatened to bring upon the nation of Israel for their unfaithfulness to the Old Covenant. Under this covenant, the ultimate consequence of national sin was a national judgment in which the capital city, Jerusalem, would be overthrown and the temple destroyed. This national judgment that God threatened would fall upon Israel for their unfaithfulness to him is the “hell” (Gehenna) of which Christ spoke in the Gospels, and is the judgment of which John describes in the book of Revelation.
The “book of life” represents God’s record of those who, by faith, are in right-standing with him and thus come under his covenantal approbation (Phil 4:3; Rev 3:5; cf. Exodus 32:32-33; Psalm 69:28; Mal 3:16-17). The Jews who were found in God’s book at this time were those who believed on Christ and embraced the gospel of his death, resurrection and Lordship. Consequently, they were spared from the terrible judgment that came upon their unfaithful nation. They fled (according to the directions of Christ) to the mountains of Judea for safety, until the violent siege was over (Matt 24:15-21; Mark 13:14-19; Luke 21:20-24). And in this way their lives were spared, just as Christ promised them.
This national judgment against Israel is referred to by John as the “second death.” But why? Answer: because it was to be the second national “death” of the Jewish people. In Deuteronomy, God warned Israel of this judgment if they were unfaithful to God by breaking covenant with him (Deut 30:15-20; cf. 28:15-68; Daniel 9:12). This national “death” became a reality for the Jewish nation when God executed judgment upon Israel through the instrumentality of the Babylonians (circa 586 B.C.). We find God threatening this divine judgment in Ezekiel 18. Later, God refers to this first death of the Jewish nation (the Babylonian captivity) in the well-known vision of the dry bones (Ezekiel 37:11-14).
Thus, the Babylonian captivity was the “first death,” during which time the whole house of Israel was said to be (figuratively speaking) dead and in their graves for 70 years. The “second death” was God’s judgment of Israel through the instrumentality of the Romans, which culminated in the total destruction of the city of Jerusalem, the desolation of the Temple, and the exile of the people from their land (incidentally, the Jewish era of Jesus’ day is referred to by scholars as “Second Temple Judaism”). Having been raised from their “first death” and returned to their land, their nation was ultimately destroyed by another Gentile people a second time. Much of the Jewish population was killed in this judgment, and the rest were scattered among the nations (Deut 28:64; cf. Luke 21:20-24).
This judgment is also described as a “lake of fire” which brings to mind those passages in the Old Testament in which national judgment against Israel is said to be with the fire of God’s wrath. In Isaiah 31:9, God says his “fire is in Zion” and his “furnace is in Jerusalem.” Similarly, we read in Ezekiel the following:
“And the word of the LORD came to me: “Son of man, the house of Israel has become dross to me; all of them are bronze and tin and iron and lead in the furnace; they are dross of silver. Therefore thus says the Lord GOD: Because you have all become dross, therefore, behold, I will gather you into the midst of Jerusalem. As one gathers silver and bronze and iron and lead and tin into a furnace, to blow the fire on it in order to melt it, so I will gather you in my anger and in my wrath, and I will put you in and melt you. I will gather you and blow on you with the fire of my wrath, and you shall be melted in the midst of it. As silver is melted in a furnace, so you shall be melted in the midst of it, and you shall know that I am the LORD; I have poured out my wrath upon you.”” Ezekiel 22:17-22
The expression “lake of fire” is used four times in Revelation, and in every instance refers to God’s wrath or judgment in the world. Because of the fearful divine judgment manifested in the destruction of Sodom and Gomorrah (Gen 19:24), the image of “fire” and “sulfur” became frequently used in the OT as an emblem of God’s judgment and wrath upon the inhabitants of the earth (Num 11:1-3; 21:28-30; Deut 4:24; 9:3; 29:23-24; 32:22; 2 Sam 22:9, 13; Job 18:15; Psalm 11:6; 21:9; 29:7; 50:3; 68:2; 78:21; 79:5; 83:13-15; 89:46; 97:3; Isaiah 9:19; 10:17; 30:27-33; 34:9-10; 42:24-25; 47:14; 66:15-16, 24; Jer 4:4; 17:4, 27; 21:10-12; 48:45; Lam 2:3-4; 4:11; Ezekiel 21:31; 22:18-22, 31; 38:22; Amos 1:4, 7, 10, 12, 14; 2:2, 5; 5:6; Obadiah 1:18; Nahum 1:6; Zeph 3:8; Zech 13:9; Mal 3:2). It is thus highly appropriate that John would use similar imagery when describing the terrible judgment that was soon to fall upon the unbelieving people of Israel.