Dr. Willis Newman, Esmeralda Newman, bible-teaching-about.com

Bible teaching about death

INTRODUCTION

I am now 76 years of age. I must face what every human must experience: death. I cannot escape it. I know we don’t like to talk about death, but nevertheless it is coming, like a roaring freight train hurling down steel tracks. It can bring gloom or hope.

Recently, I watched an interview on TV. I will not disclose any names. The person being interviewed was an old man who, at great danger to himself, had managed to get many Jewish children out of Germany and into the safety of English homes during WWII. He was a hero. At all the evil he had experienced in his long life, he had come to the cynical conclusion that death simply means everything ends for the individuals. We cease to be. 

Do you think he was right? I don’t think so. Here is why. I hope this explanation from the Bible will give hope and perspective to us mere mortals. I will unpack this dreadful but real experience by looking at the ultimate victory over death, how death affects humanity, and then I will break down the nature, cause and meaning of death – both for the believer, and the unsaved. Let me start with a portion of Scripture before us, and through these few pages, I will be adding many more Scripture verses for your benefit. Here is Hebrews 2:14-18:

“(2:14) Since then the children share in flesh and blood, He Himself likewise also partook of the same, that through death He might render powerless him who had the power of death, that is, the devil; (15) and might deliver those who through fear of death were subject to slavery all their lives. (16) For assuredly He does not give help to angels, but He gives help to the descendant of Abraham. (17) Therefore, He had to be made like His brethren in all things, that He might become a merciful and faithful high priest in things pertaining to God, to make propitiation for the sins of the people. (18) For since He Himself was tempted in that which He has suffered, He is able to come to the aid of those who are tempted” (2:14-18).

1. These verses speak of an enormous freedom – victory over death. We might call it the death of death – its defeat. Here is how it happened. Jesus Christ identified with us humans by becoming one of us so as through His substitutionary sacrifice for our sins on the cross, He took our penalty. Christ broke the ugly power of death that hovers over the human race. Death is the power Satan wields over humanity. Here is how he wields it.

Every culture in any part of human history (after the fall of Adam) has had a religious expression. In that expression, they have certain rules, worldviews, and rituals that they hope will gain God’s (or gods) favor, and somehow give them a few more years of life. That is the power of religion: to escape death. It is interesting to note that all of the major religions have some sort of remedial system after this life. That is, they hold out hope that after death they will somehow get a second chance to get better and avert ultimate death and punishment. 

I have often thought that the common and central dynamic in culture is death, the fear it brings, and the culture that surrounds it.

We have cemeteries, religions, casket makers, hospitals, poisons, prisons, medications, life insurance, funerals, armies, police, prisons, sanitation services – and the list goes on. The death industry is enormous. Take just a minute and think how different life would be if there were no death. It is almost impossible to imagine because death is so pervasive. As I write, there is a deadly Ebola virus outbreak in West Africa. It is one of the most deadly diseases on earth with no cure and a 90% death rate. Those afflicted places are almost in a state of panic. Why? Because of death. 

The object of war is to bring enough death to the enemy so they will surrender. The ultimate power and threat of a bank robber is that, “If you don’t give me your money, I will kill you.” His power? Death.  

As the writer states, “that through death He (i.e. Christ) might render powerless him who had the power of death, that is the devil; and might deliver those who through fear of death were subject to slavery all their lives” (Hebrews 2:14b, 15).

The power of death and the fear it spawns is how Satan controls the people of the world. The great fear is that of punishment and pain, but the great news is that with Christ, death has been defeated. We need not fear death and punishment anymore, because Christ took our punishment, and we are guaranteed of heaven and peace with God along with eternal life. Satan has lost his powerful weapon of the fear of death to use against us.

Our enemies, who are the enemies of Christ, may cut off our heads, poison us, bomb us, shoot us, starve us, or kill is in any number of ways. Disease may kill us. However, the fact is that real death is never the worry of Christians. Christ overcame death; consequently, all who come to Him by faith overcome death and has eternal life. 

God has given believers the right to eternal life, and through the sacrifice of Christ, the right to be delivered from the punishment of our sin, and the right to eternal life – a blessed life. 

One serious question is this: since God is a holy and just God, How can he not punish us sinners who have greatly offended Him with our disobedience to His law? Justice is the basic attribute of God. God’s justice was satisfied through the sacrifice of Christ. He became our substitute, and took upon Himself all the punishment we deserve. Since He took care of our sin and death problem, the pure justice of God was satisfied. He can forgive us, because through Christ, we have “done our time,” so to speak.

We are taught that Christ made “propitiation for the sins of the people (Hebrews 2:17). Propitiation means that God’s wrath toward guilty mankind was satisfied through the death of Christ (cf. Romans 3:25; 1 John 2:2). We are told the Christ is now our permanent High Priest, and that He is merciful and faithful. He was tempted in all things as we people of the earth (but remained sinless); consequently, He can understand and sympathize with the temptations that we go through. It is a good thing that He is merciful, because even as Christians, we need much mercy. 

With this, we have the “hope” part of this article. Now I will unpack the key features of this monster called death.

Webster’s dictionary explains that death is “the act of dying; the end of life.” The issue then becomes, what is life? Again, Webster states, “The general condition that distinguishes organisms from inorganic objects and death organisms, being manifested by growth through metabolism, a means of reproduction, and internal regulation in response to the environment” (Webster’s College Dictionary.)

Life can be seen, then, as the interaction of energy, activity, movement, power, feeling, the capability to relate and communicate to one’s environment. One problem with Webster is that death is addressed only as it relates to the nonphysical universe. However, death encompasses trees, bushes, and other physical objects. In fact, according to the Second Law of Thermodynamics, the whole universe is in the process of decay and death. We see death all around. Flowers die. A fire dies out. An automobile engine dies. The list goes on. 

Perhaps we can start with this definition: death involves the inability to relate, interact and communicate to the environment. Physical death is the inability to communicate to the material world around us. Spiritual death is the inability to communicate with God.

Let’s dig into the Bible. The common word for death is “thanatos.” Death is the opposite of life; but it is never used as the cessation of existence – or ceasing to exist. It is explained three ways in the Bible. My focus here is death as it relates to people – not the physical universe.

First, there is spiritual death which is the experience of the separation of the person from God, and is the present state of all the unsaved (Ephesians 2:1, 5, 12; 4:18; cf. 2:5, 6, 13, 18). By person it is meant the immaterial part of a human: spirit and soul.

Second, there is physical death which is the temporary separation of the body from the spirit and/or soul (James 2:26; Genesis 35:18). 

Third, there is the second death which brings the unsaved person into the final and permanent state, involving perhaps a repetition of physical death, but certainly the irrevocable continuance of spiritual death. Some say the unsaved person’s bodies continue on in the lake of fire and are not separated from the spirit/soul (Cf. Revelation 20:13-15; 21:8; 22:14, 15). Believers never experience the second death (Revelation 20:6).

There are a number of observations to be made regarding these three experiences of death.

  • The central idea of death is separation in all three.
  • Spiritual death is the experience of all mankind.
  • Physical death is the experience of all except Enoch and Elijah and those Christians living at the time of Chris’s second coming – or the Resurrection.
  • The second death will be experienced only by the unsaved.
  • The remedy for spiritual death is eternal life in Christ which begins when one accepts Christ as their Savior.
  • The remedy for physical death is resurrection (1 Thessalonians 4:13-18; 1 Corinthians chapter 15).
  • There is no remedy for the second death.
  • Death entered this world as the penalty for Adam’s sin (Genesis 3:3, 19; Romans 5:12).
  • Death was defeated at the cross of Jesus Christ, though its full application has yet to be completed (Revelation 21:5).

With this overview, let us dig down deeper into the details of the nature, cause, and meaning of physical death. 

With this overview, let us dig down deeper into the details of the nature, cause, and meaning of physical death. 

First, the nature of physical death is that it is the temporary separation of the body from the soul and spirit (Genesis 35:18; Luke 23:46; Acts 7:52; James 2:26). Death is a distinct crisis manifested by the cessation of life in the body, resulting ordinarily in its dissolution and corruption (James 2:26; 2 Corinthians 5:1; Ecclesiastics 12:7). The one exception is Jesus (Acts 2:27; cf. Jude 9).

Looking at death from a metaphysical viewpoint, we see the experience brings the soul and spirit into a new state of conscious existence for both saved and unsaved (Luke 16:19-23; Revelation 6:9-11). Physical death is an event which involves the entire person: body, soul and spirit (Luke 16:22, 23; Genesis 3:19; Luke 23:43). 

Second, the cause of physical death may be viewed from several vantage points. From the material view, death is the result of natural causes which are recognized in the Bible (Genesis 3:19; Psalm 90:10; 103:15, 16; Luke 13:1, 4; Acts 9:37; Proverbs 10:21). Morally, death is the awful result of sin; a terrible penalty and curse upon the universe (Genesis 2:17; Romans 5:12, 21; 1 Corinthians 15:21; Psalm 90:7-11; James 1:14, 15). 

In the final analysis, God is the cause of physical death (Luke 12:5; Revelation 2:23). God established the moral law that demands death for its violation, plus the physical law that obeys the demand.

Third, the meaning of death expands our understanding and gives hope to the believer. To mankind in general, death is an inevitable experience (Ecclesiastes 2:15, 16; 3:12, 19; 9:5), a deep mystery (Job 14:14; 3:21), and the great enemy (1 Corinthians 15:25, 26). To the unsaved it is a loss of all they call good (1 Corinthians 15:32; Ecclesiastes 5:15, 16), an escape from the intolerable evils of this life (Job 3:21; Revelation 9:6), and the door to Divine judgment (Hebrews 9:27). 

To the Old Testament Saints, death was a gloomy and dreadful experience (Isaiah 38:1-19; Job10:20-22; Psalm 6:1-5; Hebrews 2:15). The cause of this attitude was that Israel’s blessings generally were connected with the earth, there was the consciousness of sin aroused by the Law (Hebrews 10:1-4), and the lack of revelation concerning the intermediate or final state of our existence. Those in the Old Testament times did, however, have some light to blow aside the gloom.

For example, Job said, “And as for me, I know that my Redeemer lives, and at the last He will take His stand on the earth. Even after my skin is destroyed, yet from my flesh I shall see God; Whom I myself shall behold, and whom my eyes shall see and not another” (Job 19:25-27; cf. Psalm 16:8-11; Isaiah 25:6-8; Hosea 13:14).

In sharp contrast, to the New Testament believer, death is no longer feared (Romans 8:2; 1 Corinthians 15:56, 57; Hebrews 2:14, 15; 2 Timothy 1:10; Romans 8:38; 1 Corinthians 3:22), it is robbed of its mystery (1 Thessalonians 5:10), it becomes the door into the presence of Christ (Philippians 1:21-23), it is used as an instrument of Fatherly discipline (1 Corinthians 11:27-32), yet even the true believer shrinks from the experience (2 Corinthians 5:1-8).

As a comfort to the saved, when facing death, or at the loss of a loved one, we learn from Paul’s example that he “preferred” to be absent from the body and present with the Lord, and that it is “very much better” to be with Christ (2 Corinthians 5:8; Philippians 1:23). Further, we may know that “Precious in the sight of the Lord is the death of His godly ones” (Psalm 116:15; cf. 1 Thessalonians 4:13-18).

There you have it, my friend. We have seen the victory over and the destruction of death, how death affects humanity, and finally, the nature, cause and meaning of death – both for the believer, and the unsaved. Back to that courageous old man who thought death was just the end of things. He was wrong, according to the Bible. Aren’t you glad?

Note: for an excellent short essay on death, I refer you to the International Standard Bible Encyclopaedia (ISBE), pp. 811-813). You can access this online.  

Dr. Newman

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