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DEATH (מָ֫וֶת, H4638; θάνατος, G2505). (Hebrew māweth, Gr. thanatos; nekros).


The word "death" is used in several different senses throughout the Bible, some major and others minor:

  • the process of dying (Ge 21:16)

  • the period of decease (Ge 27:7)

  • as a possible synonym for poison (2Ki 4:40)

  • as descriptive of person in danger of perishing (Jud 15:18; "in deaths oft" 2Co 11:23). In this sense the shadow of death is a familiar expression in Job, the Psalms and the prophet|Prophets

  • death is personified in 1Co 15:55 and Re 20:14. Deliverance from this catastrophe is called the "issues from death" (Ps 68:20 the King James Version; translated "escape" in the Revised Version (British and American)). Judicial execution, "putting to death," is mentioned 39 times in the [[Levitical Law

  • Figuratively, death is the loss of spiritual life as in Ro 8:6; and the final state of the unregenerate is called the "second death" in Re 20:14
  • The Bible implies that man was made to enjoy the present life, not as a final end in itself, but as a transitory stage leading to another life. Man was therefore meant to experience at some stage a transition to a higher life. As a consequence of the Fall, this transition has taken the form of death, and the hope of life beyond has become faint and obscured. Christ came to reverse this sentence, to restore death to its true meaning, and to be the first to ascend to the glory man was originally meant to inherit by his nature. The Bible therefore seeks to understand death both as a natural aspect of man's created life and as a curse laid on man. Thus, though two men are “taken up” (Gen. 5:24; 2 Kings 2:11) and though several references are made to death as if it were a satisfactory climax to life, a “gathering to the fathers,” and as a merciful and natural end to life, death is nevertheless more often regarded as a sign of God's wrath and judgment on man as the result of sin, and as a realm of unhappiness to which all men are given over at the end.

    Yet there is also in the Old Testament an obvious movement toward a more cheerful and positive view. Death and Sheol are at times regarded as if only limited duration. The earth is not able to cover her slain for ever, and God will raise them. Death cannot separate from the love and fellowship of God.

    The Book of Revelation contains the expression “the second death” (Rev.20.6, Rev.20.14; Rev.21.8), and it is defined in symbolic terms as “the fiery lake of burning sulfur” (Rev.21.8) and is the opposite of “the crown of life” (Rev.2.10-Rev.2.11). It will be experienced by those whose names are not written in the Lamb’s Book of Life (Rev.20.15) and means everlasting separation from God and his redeemed people.

    In the New Testament there are passages that imply death is part of the original order of creation and of the intrinsic nature of man John 12:24; 1 Cor. 15:36; 1 Tim. 6:16), and passages that recognize that death can be used positively in the service of God (John 15:13; Phil. 2:17; 2 Tim. 4:6), and as something which brings gain and liberation (Rom. 6:3ff.; 2 Cor. 5:6ff.; Phil. 1:21ff.). Yet it is by the grace of God alone that death can play such a role. As men know it, death is the “last enemy” (1 Cor. 15:26,55). Its intrusion into life is the effect of sin (Rom. 5:12; James 1:15). Its shadow tends to blight all human life (Matt. 4:16), and it needs to be destroyed by Christ (Heb. 2:14f.). The destruction of death by Christ is linked with His conflict and destruction of the powers of evil (Rev. 20:14). He breaks the connection between death and sin, tastes its pangs (Acts 2:24; Heb. 2:9), becomes the firstborn from the dead (Rev. 1:5,18), in order that men might be saved from even experiencing its sting (John 6:49; 8:52; 1 Cor. 15:55f.). The final destruction of death at His second coming is now certain. (See also Burial Services. The apostle|apostles believed that in some cases they had the authority to seek sign|signs of Christ's power in raising the dead. The early church in both East and West proclaimed that Christ had come to give deliverance from death and corruption as well as from sin. Therefore it stressed the saving effect of the union of the incorruptible Word with our mortal flesh in the Incarnation-a theological emphasis John Calvin|Calvin sought to revive.

    Theology of sin and death

    According to Ge 2:17, God gave to man, created in His own image, the command not to eat of the tree of knowledge of good and evil, and added thereto the warning, "in the day that thou eatest thereof, thou shalt surely die." Though not exclusively, reference is certainly made here in the first place to bodily death. Yet because death didn't affect Adam and Eve on the day of their transgression, but took place hundreds of years later, the expression, "in the day that," must be conceived in a wider sense, or the delay of death must be attributed to God's mercy (Ge 3:15).

    However this may be, Ge 2:17 places a close connection between man’s death and his transgression of God’s commandment, thereby attaching to death a religious and ethical significance, and on the other hand makes the life of man dependent on his obedience to God.

    Old Testament


    "Death" is a translation of rapha’, plural repha’im, "ghosts," "shades," is translated by "dead," "dead body," and "deceased" in both the King James Version and the Revised Version (British and American)); the word seems to mean "soft," "inert," but its etymology is uncertain (see Rephaim).

    Old Testament understandings of death

    The opinion that the dead or at least the newly buried could partake of the food which was placed in graves, a custom which recent excavations have clearly shown to have been almost universal in Palestine, and which is referred to in De 26:14 and Tobit 4:17, was soon doubted (Sirach 30:18), and food and drink prepared for the funeral was henceforth intended as the "bread of comfort" and the "cup of consolation" for the mourners (Jer 16:7; 2Sa 3:35; Eze 24:17). Similarly the offering and burning of incense, originally an homage to the deceased, became a relief for the mourner (2Ch 16:14; 21:19; Jer 34:5). See also The Wisdom of Solomon 3:2; 7:6; Sirach 38:23.

    Death as punishment for sin

    The first reference to death in the Old Testament (Gen 2:17), although not without its problems, nevertheless gives the basic orientation for the Biblical understanding of death. Here death is punishment for sin. This is seen further in the course of events: when Adam and Eve sinned, they were excluded from the Garden, the place of communion with God, also from access to the Tree of Life which would have prevented the onset of their dying (3:22, 23), and are consigned to a life of pain and toil which will terminate in physical dissolution (3:16-19). Theological distinctions are usually made between physical death, spiritual death, and eternal death and in general these are valid; but from the passage it appears that death in its totality is the result of sin. One must remember also that in the Biblical view, man is a psychosomatic unity. The whole man is the subject of death. In the history of the Church there have been those who have felt that physical death, the dissolution of the body, was normal and natural, and that this is only reversed by a divine provision, as shown in the Genesis narrative by access to the Tree of Life. The majority of orthodox theologians, however, have rejected this idea. The rest of the Biblical revelation, especially that of the New Testament, seems to run counter to it, although it is often said that with our present physical make-up death is a biological necessity.

    Death as a fact of human experience

    It is certainly true that in much of the Old Testament narrative, death is recorded as a universal fact of human experience (cf. the genealogical table of Genesis 5, with its monotonous repetition “and he died”), but this is not to say that the writers thought of death as “natural,” or as something which was part of God’s perfect will for man. It is indeed seen as inevitable for man in his present sinful and fallen state, but this is rather different. The bright exception of Enoch (Gen 5:24) gives an indication of something better and more desirable.

    Death as something to be feared and avoided

    This becomes clearer in considering the great number of places where the Old Testament writers expressed their personal feelings, and speak of death as something to be feared and avoided at all costs (e.g. Pss 6:1-5; 88:1-14; Isa 38). It may be said that it is early death which is feared, and examples may be given (e.g., Gen 25:8) of men dying “in a good old age, an old man and full of years,” with the sense of satisfaction that they have enjoyed their natural span and that they continue to live on in their posterity, accepting their death as something natural. On the other hand, Psalm 90 bears witness to the belief that even a full life-span is short and is cut off because of God’s wrath.

    It is true, of course, that much of the abhorrence of death expressed by the Old Testament writers may be due to fear and avoidance of the unknown, so little having been positively revealed in the Old Testament on the state of the dead. It is also true that in view of this, it was felt that death would cut one off from enjoyment of the covenant blessings, which in the Old Testament were given in terms of the land, the Temple, the people and length of days. Even this fact may be used to show that death was considered as unnatural, since it might possibly separate from the living God, the God of the covenant, and therefore could not be part of God’s original purpose for man. If length of days is promised for obedience (Exod 20:12) and is a sign of God’s favor (Job 5:26), then the cutting off of those days, even when long, is an indication that death is something unnatural.

    Death is not outside the control or rule of God

    Death is not victorious

    These last references introduce the hope expressed in the Old Testament of victory over death. One or two of the vv. may refer to a revival of national fortunes, but others speak quite clearly of a resurrection from physical death, and to these may be added those which indicate a confidence in personal resurrection (e.g., Job 19:25-27; Pss 16:9-11; 17:15; 73:23-26). This hope, however slight, is nevertheless present in the Old Testament, but finds its full flowering in the New Testament which reveals Christ “who abolished death and brought life and immortality to light through the gospel” (2 Tim 1:10).

    New Testament


    Words translated as "death" in the New Testament include teleutao, "to come to an end," "married and deceased" (Mt 22:25)) and thanato, "death," "die the death" (Mt 15:4; Mr 7:10, the Revised Version, margin "surely die"). Elsewhere the word is translated "die" (Mt 2:19; 9:18; Mr 9:48 and often; Heb 11:22, the Revised Version (British and American) "end was nigh").

    Also used is exodos, "exodus," "exit," "departure," "his decease which he was about to accomplish" (Lu 9:31); "after my decease" (2Pe 1:15).

    Death as the penalty for sin

    The victory of Christ over death in His own resurrection from the dead and the consequences of this for believers, is the theme which dominates the New Testament in all its parts, but this is set against the backdrop of death as the penalty for sin. Paul traced back the entrance of death into the human race to the sin of the first man Adam (Rom 5:12-21; 1 Cor 15:22). No other New Testament writer makes this explicit connection but neither do they say anything which would militate against it; they are concerned, as is Paul in the main, rather with the empirical facts of man in sin. Indeed, the responsibility of the individual is not diminished by his involvement in Adam’s fall; for the individual “the wages of sin is death” (Rom 6:23; cf. Ezek 18:4, 20). This is death in its totality, contrasted with “eternal life” in the second part of the verse, and is elaborated and developed in different parts of the New Testament in the following ways:

    Physical death

    This is the result of the entrance of sin into the world through Adam. It is the lot of all men (Heb 9:27) and through fear of it and what may follow it they are throughout their lives in bondage (Heb 2:15; cf. Rom 8:15).

    Spiritual death

    All men are by nature spiritually dead, that is, alienated from God the Source of life by sin, insensible to divine things, unresponsive to His laws. This is clear from the words of Jesus (Matt 8:22; cf. Luke 15:32) as well as from the writings of Paul (Eph 2:1-3; 4:17-19; Col 2:13; cf. Jude 12).

    Eternal death

    Those who remain in spiritual death throughout their lives and do not believe on the Son of God, die in their sins (John 8:21, 24), remain under the wrath of God (3:36) and in the Day of Judgment will be consigned to a state of eternal separation from God, called in Scripture the second death (Rev 21:8).

    Jesus' victory over death

    This last reference introduces the blessings which come to believers as the result of Christ’s resurrection and triumph over death.

    In Christ their Head believers partake of the life of the age to come, and physical death is for them a sleep (1 Thess 4:15; cf. Acts 7:59). The sting of death has been removed (1 Cor 15:56); it cannot separate from Christ (2 Cor 5:8; Phil 1:23) and so is not to be feared, and may even be desired (Phil 1:21-23).

    At the Second Coming of Christ, believers’ bodies will be changed, and all traces of sin, mortality and death will be removed. Then death will be swallowed up in life (1 Cor 15:52-57).

    At the judgment, death and Hades are said to be cast into the lake of fire (Rev 20:14) signifying that as God brings in the new heaven and new earth (Rev 21) the last enemy, death (1 Cor 15:26), is finally and irrevocably destroyed.

    See also

  • Dead

  • Immortality

  • Sheol

  • Corpse

  • Resurrection
  • Bibliography

  • L. A. Muirhead, The Terms Life and Death in the Old and New Testaments (1908);

  • R. H. Charles, Eschatology: Hebrew, Jewish and Christian (1913);

  • J. C. Lamberts, HDAC I (1915), 698-700;

  • H. Bavinck, ISBE II (1929), 811-813; L. Morris, The Wages of Sin (1955);

  • Arndt (1957), 351, 352; T. C. Vriessen, An Outline of Old Testament Theology (1958), 201-212; J. J. von Allmen, VC (1958), 79-83; E. F. Harrison, BDT (1960), 158, 159;

  • L. Morris, NBD (1962), 301, 302; F. C. Grant, et al. in HDB rev. (1963), 205-207; R. Bultmann in TDNew Testament, III (1965), 7-25; ibid. IV (1966), 896-899.

  • J. A. Motyer, After Death, 1965; M. J. Harris, Raised Immortal, 1983.——PT

  • L. Morris, The Wages of Sin (1955); M. Achard, From Death to Life (1960);

  • J. Pelikan, The Shape of Death (1961);

  • E. Duckett, Death and Life in the Tenth Century (1967);

  • N. Tromp, Primitive Conceptions of Death and Life in the Old Testament (1969);

  • A. Toynbee et al., Man's Concern With Death (1969); H. Thielicke, Death and Life (1970).