What is death?

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The subject Death is avoided more and more. Still, everyone is confronted with it from time to time. Finally, also with one’s own death. In the Bible this subject is not avoided. So, it has to have meaning for faith. But what is written about that in the Bible?

Death is a state [1] something created can have. Two types of death exist: spiritual (non-physical) and physical. Death is the complete passiveness [2] of something. It is often seen as the opposite of being alive: lifelessness. But that idea can only be true if life preceded it. That asks for a definition of life. In Biblical sense that definition is: being relevant to God [3].

However, in Creation there is a state of being death which was never preceded by a being alive or was never connected with life. For example, light or matter. A stone was never alive but has always been lifeless. But also the smallest particles of living creatures, the atoms, are dead. Living and being alive thus seem more an exception that the general rule in Creation. This is even more so because the order of Creation dictates that all that lives shall die. Death seems to rule in Creation and over life itself.

Word study
The word ‘dying’ (Hebrew: mot originating from the root ‘moet’ (dying/killing) [4]) is mentioned in the book Genesis for the first time in chapter 2:17. There it is used as the consequence of eating from the Tree which God had forbidden for eating. Dying is in that case linked with trespassing God’s commandment (prohibition). This suggests that dying comes from God, as a punishment for offending Him [5]. Interestingly, the serpent in that Tree seems to be right in presuming that physical death will not (immediately) follow. That death came to Adam only just after almost a millennium (Gn 5:5) [6].

Humans experience dying/death for the first time after Cain murdered his brother Abel (Gn 4:8). There the Hebrew word ‘harag’ (slaying) is used. A different Hebrew word with a similar meaning is ‘ratsach’ (a slayer (by accident)).

In the book Job dying and death also has a prominent place [8]. The words ‘peger’ (root: pagar – being fatigued/tired) and ‘nevelah’ (root: navel – wither away/perish) are linked with a dead body (corpse). Also relevant is the word ‘enosj’ (mortal human) originating from the root ‘anasj (weak/being incurable). Its first occurrence in Genesis is in 6:4.

The Greek noun ‘thanatos’ (death/having a miserable state) is found 106 times in the New Testament (NT). Deducted from that is the verb ‘(apo)thenesko’ (dying/being dead) which is found 112 times [9]. From the word ‘teleo’ (reaching the (end)goal) is deducted the word ‘teleute’ which is sometimes used in the meaning ‘reaching the end of life’ or ‘dying’. Conclusion: the concept ‘life’ is mentioned far more then death in the NT then in the Old Testament [10].

Death in the Bible
According to the Bible account life in Creation is special, unique and God given. In Genesis 1 it is written that God first gave life to plants and trees. After that to animals. Finally, to Adam and out of him to Eve. All physical creatures are mortal, but only humans could maintain their life by eating from the Tree of Life. All other creatures died. Hence, death is a quality of Creation that God gave it [11].

But when man became resistant to God (died spiritually), He announced a curse over them and closed the access to the Tree of Life. As a consequence of that man would also die physically. God uses death as a means of punishment for sin (Rm 6:23) [12]. Man came under the power of satan and couldn’t stop sinning [13], but God called him to fight it (Gn 4:7). Man was confronted with mortality, sickness and its own death. That explains why in the Bible death is connected with the grave (Ps 6:5), but no command was given for funerary customs. These fall outside the Covenant life [14].

Biblical history of human death
Adam was created to serve and honor God (Gn 2:15). If a human is no longer able to do this, then that person is spiritually dead (for God). When Adam and Eve became resistant towards God they came under the power of satan (the power of sin). But because God had made Adam the head of the physical creation, the whole of that part of creation came under the power of satan. From then on each child was born under that power. The sinfulness of man came from bad to worse resulting in taking away of the Spirit of God from man by God (Gn 6:3). Thus, every man since is born spiritually dead. That seems a very strange idea, since the birthday is celebrated each year to commemorate the moment when someone’s life began. But in Biblical sense life is not relevant if it’s not dedicated to God [15].

But even when someone is dedicated to God and if that is confirmed by (daily) conversion, that life doesn’t meet up with God’s expectation of a life dedicated to Him. Especially not since the Lord Jesus accomplished redemption of the power of sin. What is needed is rebirth through the Spirit of God [16]. Only just then man will start living spiritually in a mortal body. But because God’s order is not yet restored in Creation, the reborn believer will die physically. On itself that is a good thing, since otherwise reborn believers would have an unbecoming better state then the unbeliever.

Eternal existence
In the Bible a distinction is made between man and the other creatures, which is contrary to materialistic philosophies [17]. Plants and animals die and with that their existence definitively ends. When a human dies, that person will eternally stay in existence [18]. Although in the Bible it is written that the physical body of the dead person will rot and decay into dust (Gn 3:19; Job 10:9; Hebrew: ’afar). It is also stated that the dying person will give up its spirit (Nm 17:13; Job 13:19; Hebrew: gawa’) [19]. That is the difference between a human and the other physical creatures.

But above all, man is uniquely created in the Likeness and Character of God (Gn 1:26). Since God exists eternally, so humans also do. In that sense the death of a human is something different than that of other creatures. A human can be spiritually dead, but still exist in eternity [20]. That not only has its purpose for the final judgment of God on each person (Hebr 9:27) [21], but even the final judgment will not end the eternal existence of a human [22].

How to die?
Reborn believers are under God’s authority. They are the property of God and are dedicated to Him. Therefore, they do not have much to fear from death (Rm 8:38-39), since they are redeemed from spiritual death (1 Cor 15:26). But this doesn’t mean that such believers are allowed to choose to die (spiritually (falling away from faith) or physically (suicide)), because they then would again surrender themselves over to the power of satan [23]. Such believers are obliged to do the will of God also in there dying.

The realm of the dead [24] / resurrection
The dead person will be accompanied by angels on its way to dwell in the realm of the dead [25]. This is because in that realm also evil creatures will remain, like satan, his demons and all those who served them (Rev 20:3) [26]. The realm of the dead is the compartment of Creation which is inaccessible for physical living creatures (Jh 8:21-22). Therefore, it is forbidden for believers to try to call up the dead or to speak to them (Dt 18:11). Remembering the dead is something very different then worshipping them [27]. God will resurrect all the dead humans which are in the realm of the dead on a specific moment (bring them back to the physical Creation) to be judged (Rm 14:10; 2 Cor 5:10).

End of death
Only just when all things according to God’s righteousness will have had its course [28], then God will end death, after which also the realm of the dead will be taken away [29] (Rev 20:14). This will happen preceding the coming of the new Creation. Seemingly death will no longer exist then, but still there will be mortality since the Trees of Life will heal and restore the intrinsic devolution of humans (Rev 22:2, 14). Hence, mortality will remain a characteristic of all physical life [30]. This shows that on the new earth there will be plants, trees and animals, but also they will not die [31].

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[1] Many people image death as a person, a spiritual power, a spirit or a demigod. It is even linked to satan. Still, death is a quality of Creation.
[2] It is compared to sleeping, but contrary to being death the thinking process and activity continues during sleeping. So, this comparison is only true in part.
[3] Dedicating the will and power of one’s life to the will of God. The dead can thus also be understood as those which are irrelevant (in neutral sense) to God (Ps 6:6; 88:11; 115:17).
[4] The Hebrew root ‘moet’ occurs almost 700 times in the Old Testament and the root ‘chajah’ (life) only 235 times.
[5] According to the dogma of ‘original sin’, but that is a mistake. Death already existed at the outset of Creation. Plants and animals were deliberately created in pares. So they could multiply, in order to safe their species after their death (Gn 1:12; 1:22; 2:20).
[6] Age is the counting of lifespan (mortal life).
[7] It can be however that they experienced mortality in their body (Gn 3:20).
[8] The Hebrew word ‘mot’ (death/dying) occurs 6 times in the book of Job and the Hebrew root ‘moet’ occurs 16 times.
[9] In comparison, the word ‘dzoe’ (life) occurs 126 times in the NT and the verb subtracted from it ‘dzao’ (life/life’s power) occurs 127 times.
[10] That partly explains why death is less specified in Christianity then in Judaism.
[11] That explains why Paul can be positive about it (Filip 1:21), since he had become spiritually alive (the spiritual death did no longer reign over him).
[12] In order that sin doesn’t pay off, but instead will be ended.
[13] However, humans made the interpretive mistake to conclude that sin had to be a (genetic) inheritance of Adam. But it has nothing to do with a physical given. It is a spiritual given (In Biblical terminology: power of sin).
[14] Still, all kinds of funerary customs around the burial of the dead are determined, like those administered to the Lord Jesus (19:40). Pagan funerary customs are however explicitly forbidden (Dt 14:1).
[15] Circumcision is the basic dedication that God commanded. The question however is whether a human is only relevant (for God) in physical sense. This is what Evolution theories state, but not the Bible.
[16] The Holy Spirit enters into the body of the believer and becomes part of the believer being human.
[17] Like Darwinism and socialism.
[18] That certainty is also a comfort for the families of the dead.
[19] This is mentioned 23 times in the OT.
[20] Being dead (spiritual and/or physical) is a state of eternal existence of a person. Life is another state of it. The spiritual existence of a person is often called ‘soul’ (Hebrew: néfésj).
[21] Many Christians think that they, just like the Lord Jesus once resurrected from death, will not undergo the final judgment of God. However, humans are not equal to the Lord Jesus. If it were possible for Christians not to undergo the final judgment, then that would make God unrighteous and would be contrary to what He said about it. The final judgment is in Biblical sense neutral, but only its consequence is either positive (life) of negative (condemnation) (Jh 5:29).
[22] But the question is what kind of existence that will be (See the definition of life in the beginning of this article).
[23] Many Christians think it impossible to become detached from God, but the possibility is however mentioned in the Bible and also the consequences of it (Mt 7:19; 1 Tim 5:15; Hebr 6:4-8; 10:28; Rev 20:15).
[24] ‘Realm of the dead’ is a somewhat awkward translation of the Hebrew word ‘Sje‘oel’ (or the Greek word ‘Abussos’). Presuming it to be an organized world, like a worldly realm. A better translation is: domain for those who are irrelevant for God.
[25] There is no access to heaven, although many believers think that possible. Man has its goal, purpose and calling only in the physical Creation.
[26] This explains why the realm of the dead is sometimes called ‘hell’ (prison for the dark forces) and why the realm of the dead has two separate and unbridgeable compartments (Lc 16:22-23, 26).
[27] Worshipping the dead (worshipping saints) is explicitly forbidden, still many believers persevere in it with all kinds of nasty consequences. God is the God of the living, not of the dead (Mc 12:27).
[28] When the Plan of God’s Salvation is unfolded to the point of His final judgment.
[29] That is a change of Creation, since the realm of the dead, which is also called ‘abyss’ (Hebrew tehom), seems to have existed from the origin of Creation or from its early beginnings (Gn 1:2).
[30] Mortality is something different then dying/going to die.
[31] It seems that the seasons, which causes sickness, dying and death, will end and the propagation of plants and animals will be kept under control by humans.