Apr 1, 2000

Faces of Death

6 Min Read

DEATH IS THE GREAT OBSCENITY OF our age. Men and women will air their sex lives and other intimate details on television talk shows, but they will not talk about death. A shroud of silence lies over the subject because we are afraid of it. As Paul Helm writes, “The modern Western attitude to dying and death is all too obvious. It is to avoid it, to avoid mentioning it, and where mention of it is unavoidable, to use euphemisms and circumlocutions.”

The Bible, on the other hand, speaks openly and often about death. According to the Bible, we fear death because it is unnatural. God made man in His image and gave him an immortal soul. Man wants to live forever, but death abruptly terminates his conscious physical existence. Psalm 6 laments, “For in death there is no remembrance of You; in the grave who will give You thanks?” Moreover, the Bible teaches that death leads to an unnatural separation of body and soul. The writer of Ecclesiastes describes what happens at death: “Then the dust will return to the earth as it was, and the spirit will return to God who gave it” (12:7). We fear death, also, because it speaks to our consciences of judgment. The writer to the Hebrews says, “it is appointed for men to die once, but after this the judgment” (9:27).

Above all else, the Bible teaches that death is God’s punishment for sin. Paul says in Romans 5:12: “through one man sin entered the world, and death through sin, and thus death spread to all men, because all sinned. …” When God created Adam, He entered into a covenant with him. In this covenant, God tested Adam’s love and obedience by forbidding him to eat of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil. He threatened Adam with death if he disobeyed, saying, “in the day that you eat of it you shall surely die” (Gen. 2:17). But Adam and Eve would not heed God; they rebelled and ate the fruit. At that moment they died, and all who descend from them by ordinary generation suffer that penalty as well.

But what is death? The Bible uses the term in various ways. The Westminster Shorter Catechism defines death in Question 19: “What is the misery of that estate whereinto man fell? All mankind by their fall lost communion with God, are under His wrath and curse, and so made liable to all miseries in this life, to death itself, and to the pains of hell for ever.” In this summary of the miseries of sin, we find three types of death that are mentioned in Scripture: spiritual death, physical death, and judicial death.

In the first place, Adam died spiritually, and all those who descend from him by ordinary generation suffer the same death. This is the death the Shorter Catechism refers to as “lost communion with God.” Moses illustrates this alienation from God in Genesis 3:8–10, as our progenitors hide themselves from God. Paul comments on the reality of this loss in Ephesians 2:1 by reminding us that we were born dead in trespasses and sins, and were “at that time … without Christ, being aliens from the commonwealth of Israel and strangers from the covenants of promise, having no hope and without God in the world” (Eph. 2:12).

Spiritual death explains the corruption of man’s nature and the loss of his perfect knowledge, righteousness, and holiness. We are born in the bondage and corruption of sin. As a result, we are the living dead. Paul describes us as those who “once conducted ourselves in the lusts of our flesh, fulfilling the desires of the flesh and of the mind” (Eph. 2:3a). Because of this corruption, we are spiritually blind, unable to understand savingly the Gospel (1 Cor. 2:14; John 3:3); filled with hate toward God (Rom. 8:6–7); and unwilling and unable to respond to God in faith and repentance (Rom. 8:8; John 5:40). The terrible reality of spiritual death is summarized in the Shorter Catechism: “Wherein consists the sinfulness of that estate whereinto man fell? The sinfulness of that estate whereinto man fell consists in the guilt of Adam’s first sin, the want of original righteousness, and the corruption of his whole nature, which is commonly called Original Sin; together with all actual transgressions which proceed from it” (Question 18).

Separation from God also leads to internal disequilibrium and alienation from others. God made us for communion with Him. Without that relationship, we internally self-destruct. The fact of spiritual death is the key to understanding the great psychological and emotional upheavals that plague so many people. This separation further alienates people from one another. Notice that Adam not only sought to hide from God, but also blamed Eve for his problem: “ ‘The woman whom You gave to be with me, she gave me of the tree, and I ate’ ” (Gen. 3:12). Because of sin, the two whom God made to be one flesh are now alienated.

Furthermore, James tells us that social strife springs from our sinful natures and desires. “Where do wars and fights come from among you? Do they not come from your desires for pleasure that war in your members? You lust and do not have. You murder and covet and cannot obtain. You fight and war” (4:1–2a).

Spiritual death is the root cause of the second consequence of the fall, physical death. Satan had told Adam and Eve, “ ‘You will not surely die’ ” upon eating the fruit. Was he right? Mercifully, God did not strike Adam and Eve dead immediately. But they began to die. The process of bodily decay began at the moment of their rebellion. God declares to Adam, “ ‘In the sweat of your face you shall eat bread till you return to the ground, for out of it you were taken; for dust you are, and to dust you shall return.’ ”

God bears eloquent testimony to the reality of death in Genesis 5. Here Moses records the awful reality of physical death with the monotonous repetition “and he died” (Gen. 5:5, 8, 11, 14, 17, 20, 27, 31). The psalmist solemnly testifies to the reality of physical death in Psalm 49:12 “… man, though in honor, does not remain; he is like the beasts that perish.”

Physical death further manifests itself in what the Shorter Catechism calls “the miseries of this life.” God pronounces other physical maladies on people and the remainder of the creation (Gen. 3:16–19). These miseries include: the physical pain of child-bearing; the cursed frustration of work; and the corruption of the physical world. God declared to Adam, “ ‘Cursed is the ground for your sake’ ” (Gen. 3:17). Paul comments on this in Romans 8:20: “For the creation was subjected to futility, not willingly, but because of Him who subjected it in hope.” Earthquakes, floods, tornadoes, and the violent death of animals are all examples of the physical curse on the creation.

The third type of death is judicial. As guilty sinners (we are guilty of Adam’s first sin and all our own sins, Rom. 5:12), we are liable to the punishment of sin. Our guilt places us under the wrath and curse of God. Raul expresses our guiltiness by calling us “children of wrath” (Eph. 2:3). The apostle John says that all those who do not believe in Christ are condemned (John 3:18) and that “ ‘the wrath of God abides on him’ ” (3:36). Paul indicts us all when he says, “For all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God” (Rom. 3:23). Our guilt exposes us to the temporal judgments of God in this life. Throughout Scripture and subsequent history, God has manifested His judgment against sinners. Consider the destruction of the world in the days of Noah; the destruction of Sodom and Gomorrah; the destruction of the inhabitants of Canaan; and the announcements of temporal judgment on the nations by many of the prophets.

Of course, the ultimate act of judicial death is that which God calls the “second death” in Revelation 20: “Then I saw a great white throne and Him who sat on it, from whose face the earth and the heaven fled away. … And I saw the dead, small and great, standing before God, and books were opened. And another book was opened, which is the Book of Life. And the dead were judged according to their works, by the things which were written in the books. The sea gave up the dead who were in it, and Death and Hades delivered up the dead who were in them. And they were judged, each one according to his works. Then Death and Hades were cast into the lake of fire. This is the second death. And anyone not found written in the Book of Life was cast into the lake of fire” (20:11–15).

These verses describe the final judgment and the reality of hell. Hell is the place in which God eternally punishes all those whom He has not redeemed. The Bible uses many different terms to describe the horror of eternal damnation: “lake of fire burning with brimstone” (Rev. 19:20); “vengeance of eternal fire” (Jude 7); “the blackness of darkness forever” (Jude 13); “torments” (Luke 16:23); “everlasting destruction from the presence of the Lord” (2 Thess. 1:9); and a place of “outer darkness” and “weeping and gnashing of teeth” (Matt. 22:13). The impact of God’s righteous judgment is compounded as we realize that these images may be mere illustrations for a much worse reality.

Thus, we see the Bible’s honest and comprehensive description of death. All is not revealed, but not as much is hidden as our agnostic culture would have us think. Let us rejoice that Christ faced all the horrors of death on our behalf.