Elizabeth Kubler-Ross writes, “When we look back in time and study old cultures and people, we are impressed that death has always been distasteful to man and will probably always be… Death in itself is associated with a bad act, a frightening happening, something that in itself calls for retribution and punishment. Death is still a fearful frightening happening and fear of death is a universal fear even if we think we have mastered it on many levels.”

“Death is a mystery!” is an expression that is frequently used to put across the point that one cannot understand the meaning or definition of death. It communicates the notion that death is beyond human comprehension. It is also a phrase used to express the fear of death. While man has sought to understand death, he has always fallen short of an accurate understanding of death. If we are to answer the questions what is death, what does it mean, why do we die, where did death come from, and is death a punishment to Christians, the Bible is the book to go to. On this “mysterious” and important subject, we need to seek the mind of the Author of life, God himself. Death is a subject many people fear to talk about, let alone even prepare for.

The origin of death in the Old Testament

In discussing death from the Old Testament Scriptures, we must begin where the Bible begins, that is, from Genesis where we read the following words,

“And the LORD God commanded the man, ‘You are free to eat from any tree in the garden; but you must not eat from the tree of the knowledge of good and evil, for when you eat of it you will surely die.’… ‘but God did say, You must not eat fruit from the tree that is in the middle of the garden, and you must not touch it, or you will die. You will not surely die,’ the serpent said to the woman. For God knows that when you eat of it your eyes will be opened, and you will be like God, knowing good and evil. When the woman saw that the fruit of the tree was good for food and pleasing to the eye, and also desirable for gaining wisdom, she took some and ate it. She also gave some to her husband, who was with her, and he ate it. To Adam he said, ‘Because you listened to your wife and ate from the tree about which I commanded you, ‘You must not eat of it, … By the sweat of your brow you will eat your food until you return to the ground, since from it you were taken; for dust you are and to dust you will return’” (Gen. 2:16–17; 3:3–4, 17, 19.)

We observe from this account that death is unnatural to humans. When God created Adam and Eve, death was not part of the created order. It was not until they had sinned that death entered the scene. Death is the consequence of sin and not a debt of nature. The normative Old Testament teaching about death is presented here in Genesis. Death is the result of rebellion against God’s command. It was the penalty affixed to Adam’s transgression, and all his posterity are transgressors. We share this curse, which God inflicted upon him.

Since God’s purpose for our first parents was a never-ending life, the introduction of death was an undesirable, but nevertheless necessary, consequence of disobedience. The physical corruption of the human body and the consequent suffering and pain brought about by the fall were only the obvious symptoms of death. Death is the consequence and the punishment of sin. It originated with sin.

The definition of death in the Old Testament

A grand theme of the Old Testament is God’s holiness, which separates him from all that is not in harmony with his character. Death, then, in the Old Testament, means ultimate separation from God due to sin. And sin is any rebellion or lack of conformity to his holy will. “All men then, in a sense, are what the Hebrews would call benê mawet ‘sons of death’; that is, they deserve to die because they are sinners. This and a related term (’ îsh mawet ‘man of death’) are used in Psalm 79:11 and Psalm 102:20 of the people of God in captivity who must look to him for deliverance from impending doom.”

Death from the Old Testament standpoint means the separation of the body and the soul. The Old Testament depicts death by the use of several pictures. In Psalm 146:4 death is pictured as the departure of the spirit and the return of the body to the ground (interment of the body is implied). This picture of departure and return is plainly stated in Ecclesiastes 12:6–7, “Remember him—before the silver cord is severed, or the golden bowl is broken; before the pitcher is shattered at the spring, or the wheel broken at the well, and the dust returns to the ground it came from, and the spirit returns to God who gave it.”

It is because of this understanding of death that 1 Kings 17:21 uses the language of the returning of life into someone when referring to someone coming back to life. Obviously, the returning of the soul into the body is what is inferred in the text. Jonah, in what we may call an unwise prayer, uses this same language of departure. He says, “Take away my life,” i.e. remove this soul from my physical body (Jonah 4:3).

So, we see that in the Old Testament, natural death is described as a yielding up of the breath/spirit, an expiring (Psalm 104:29), or as a return to our original dust (Genesis 3:19 and Ecclesiastes 12:7).

It must, however, be pointed out that while this definition is certainly clear from the Old Testament, the authors of the Old Testament Scriptures are not reducing death to a mere separation of body and soul. To them, as a consequence of this, the whole person dies. Death is the end of a human life on earth. We should understand death as something that involves the whole person.

This teaching of Old Testament also hints in a very significant way against the teaching of annihilation. Death is depicted as a change of place or condition in which self and conscious existence continues (2 Samuel 12:23; Psalm 73:24; Job 14:14).

 Death in the New Testament

The New Testament is not different from the Old Testament in its teaching on the core meaning of death. It differs particularly in the ceremonial defiling effect of death, but both Testaments completely agree on its essential meaning, and surely they should, due to the fact that the author is the same. We do not expect him to have a different definition of death in the New Testament, do we?

Paul describes death as the soul’s putting off of the body, its clothing, its tent. “Now we know that if the earthly tent we live in is destroyed, we have a building from God, an eternal house in heaven, not built by human hands. Meanwhile we groan, longing to be clothed with our heavenly dwelling, because when we are clothed, we will not be found naked. For while we are in this tent, we groan and are burdened, because we do not wish to be unclothed but to be clothed with our heavenly dwelling, so that what is mortal may be swallowed up by life” (2 Cor. 5:1–4).

The apostle Peter states the same truth, “I think it is right to refresh your memory as long as I live in the tent of this body, because I know that I will soon put it aside, as our Lord Jesus Christ has made clear to me. And I will make every effort to see that after my departure you will always be able to remember these things” (2 Pet. 1:13–14).

The reason we die, as pointed out from the Old Testament, is because of disobedience, “…sin entered the world through one man, and death through sin, and in this way death came to all men, because all sinned…” (Rom. 5:12), and “…the wages of sin is death, but the gift of God is eternal life in Christ Jesus our Lord” (Rom. 6:23).

Spiritual death

Death, as already stated, has more than one meaning. What we have been considering thus far, and the focus of this article, is physical death. Death, however, is not simply a physical experience. It is also a spiritual reality. Spiritual death is in fact a more serious death. It is a divine penalty for sin, the full penalty for sin.

There is a spiritual death, which is experienced because a soul is in trespasses and sins. It is the death of the soul under the power of sin (Rom. 8:6; Eph. 2:1, 3; Col. 2:13). Unless God gives spiritual life, the consequence of remaining under the power of sin, is the “second death” (Rev. 2:11), which is the everlasting damnation of the wicked (Rev. 21:8). It is “second” because the first is physical death.

In allusion to spiritual death, Paul further speaks of certain sinners who know “God’s righteous decree that those who do such things deserve death” (Rom. 1:23). The thought of God’s decree underlies John’s reference to the “sin that leads to death” (1 John 5:16). This is a very important truth about death, because it enables us to see the full horror of death.

This death is not simply a biological reality, but a spiritual reality too. It is the absence of spiritual communion with God. Spiritual death is alienation from God, and exposure to his wrath. “We know that we have passed from death to life, because we love our brothers. Anyone who does not love remains in death” (1 John 3:14). It is the eternal separation from God, as a result of sin (Isaiah 59:2). It is to be in a conscious state of damnation without hope (1 Thessalonians 4:13; Revelation 20:10, 14, 15).

Spiritual death is a condition of fallen man, described by Paul in the following ways:

“As for you, you were dead in your transgressions and sins, in which you used to live when you followed the ways of this world and of the ruler of the kingdom of the air, the spirit who is now at work in those who are disobedient… But because of his great love for us, God, who is rich in mercy, made us alive with Christ even when we were dead in transgressions—it is by grace you have been saved” (Eph. 2:1–2, 4–5).

“What a wretched man I am! Who will rescue me from this body of death?” (Rom. 7:24).

Spiritual death is as real as physical death, but comparatively more horrifying than physical death. But notice that even in the context of this horrific picture of death, there is hope in realising that it is God who is over the whole process. It is he who has decreed that death is the penalty of sin. This same God has determined to give eternal life to those who are saved by Jesus Christ.

The death of a believer

Is death, physical death, a curse to a believer? The death of the believer is a departure, a going home, a falling asleep in Jesus (Philippians 1:23; Matthew 26:24; John.11:11). Albert Martin in one of his sermons has described the death of a believer as, “God’s bitter sleeping pill”.

To, those who are outside Christ, death is the supreme enemy and the ultimate horror; but to those in Christ, it is God’s path of entrance for them into glory. For those in Christ, death has been transformed so that it is no more than sleep (1 Thess. 4:14). Believers have already passed out of death and into freedom (John 5:24; 1 John 3:14). Death cannot separate them from God. Death to a Christian is a gateway to be with their God. Jesus has by his own death taken away its sting for all his followers (1 Cor. 15:55–57).

Conclusion

We have learned in this article that death may be simply defined as the termination of life. It is represented under a variety of aspects in Scripture. Scripture is not the book of death, but of life, of everlasting life through Jesus Christ our Lord. It tells us, in oft-repeated and unmistakable terms, of the dreaded reality of death, but it proclaims to us still more loudly the wonderful power of the life that is in Christ Jesus. Amen!

Bibliography

American Tract Society Bible Dictionary: Online Bible. Edition.2.00.3

Concise Bible Dictionary. Online Bible, Edition.2.00.3

Easton’s Revised Bible Dictionary: Online Bible, Edition.2.00.3

Elizabeth Kubler-Ross: 1974. On Death and Dying, New York: Macmillan Publishing Co. Inc.

International Standard Bible Encyclopaedia. Online Bible, Edition.2.00.3

Marshall, Millard, and Wiseman: 1996. New Bible Dictionary, Leicester, England: IVP

Merrill C. Tenny: 1987. The New International Bible Dictionary. Grand Rapids, Michigan: Zondervan

Merrill F. Hunger:1988. The New Unger’s Bible Dictionary, Chicago: Moody Press