The Scriptural idea of death includes physical, spiritual, and eternal death. Physical and spiritual death are naturally discussed in connection with the doctrine of sin, and eternal death is considered more particularly in general eschatology. For that reason a discussion of death in any sense of the word might seem to be out of place in individual eschatology. Yet it can hardly be left out of consideration altogether in an attempt to link up past generations with the final consummation.
A. THE NATURE OF PHYSICAL DEATH.
The Bible contains some instructive indications as to the nature of physical death. It speaks of this in various ways. In Matt. 10:28; Luke 12:4, it is spoken of as the death of the body, as distinguished from that of the soul (psuche). Here the body is considered as a living organism, and the psuche is evidently the pneuma of man, the spiritual element which is the principle of his natural life. This view of natural death also underlies the language of Peter in I Pet. 3:14-18. In other passages it is described as the termination of the psuche, that is, of animal life or living, or as the loss of this, Matt. 2:20; Mark 3:4; Luke 6:9; 14:26; John 12:25; 13:37,38; Acts 15:26; 20:24, and other passages.[Cf. Bavinck, Bijb. en Rel. Psych., p. 34.] And, finally, it is also represented as a separation of body and soul, Eccl. 12:7 (comp. Gen. 2:7); Jas. 2:26, an idea that is also basic to such passages as John 19:30; Acts 7:59; Phil. 1:23. Cf. also the use of exodus in Luke 9:31; II Pet. 1:15,16. In view of all this it may be said that, according to Scripture, physical death is a termination of physical life by the separation of body and soul. It is never an annihilation, though some sects represent the death of the wicked as such. God does not annihilate anything in His creation. Death is not a cessation of existence, but a severance of the natural relations of life. Life and death are not opposed to each other as existence and non-existence, but are opposites only as different modes of existence. It is quite impossible to say exactly what death is. We speak of it as the cessation of physical life, but then the question immediately arises, Just what is life? And we have no answer. We do not know what life is in its essential being, but know it only in its relations and actions. And experience teaches us that, where these are severed and cease, death enters. Death means a break in the natural relations of life. It may be said that sin is per se death, because it represents a break in the vital relation in which man, as created in the image of God, stands to his Maker. It means the loss of that image, and consequently disturbs all the relations of life. This break is also carried through in that separation of body and soul which is called physical death.
B. THE CONNECTION OF SIN AND DEATH.
Pelagians and Socinians teach that man was created mortal, not merely in the sense that he could fall a prey to death, but in the sense that he was, in virtue of his creation, under the law of death, and in course of time was bound to die. This means that Adam was not only susceptible to death, but was actually subject to it before he fell. The advocates of this view were prompted primarily by the desire to evade the proof for original sin derived from the suffering and death of infants. Present day science seems to support this position by stressing the fact that death is the law of organized matter, since it carries within it the seed of decay and dissolution. Some of the early Church Fathers and some later theologians, such as Warburton and Laidlaw, take the position that Adam was indeed created mortal, that is, subject to the law of dissolution, but that the law was effective in his case only because he sinned. If he had proved himself to be obedient, he would have been exalted to a state of immortality. His sin brought about no change in his constitutional being in this respect, but under the sentence of God left him subject to the law of death, and robbed him of the boon of immortality, which he might have had without experiencing death. On this view the actual entrance of death, of course, remains penal. It is a view which might be made to fit in very well with the supralapsarian position, but is not demanded by this. In reality this theory merely seeks to square the facts, as they are revealed in the Word of God, with the dicta of science, but even these do not make it imperative. Suppose that science had proved conclusively that death reigned in the vegetable and animal world before the entrance of sin, then it would not yet necessarily follow that it also prevailed in the world of rational and moral beings. And even if it were established beyond the shadow of a doubt that all physical organisms, the human included, now carry within them the seeds of dissolution, this would not yet prove that man was not an exception to the rule before the fall. Shall we say that the almighty power of God, by which the universe was created, was not sufficient to continue man in life indefinitely? Moreover we ought to bear in mind the following Scriptural data: (1) Man was created in the image of God and this, in view of the perfect condition in which the image of God existed originally, would seem to exclude the possibility of his carrying within him the seeds of dissolution and mortality. (2) Physical death is not represented in Scripture as the natural result of the continuation of the original condition of man, due to his failure to rise to the height of immortality by the path of obedience; but as the result of his spiritual death, Rom. 6:23; 5:21; I Cor. 15:56; Jas. 1:15. (3) Scriptural expressions certainly point to death as something introduced into the world of humanity by sin, and as a positive punishment for sin, Gen. 2:17; 3:19; Rom. 5:12,17; 6:23; I Cor. 15:21; Jas. 1:15. (4) Death is not represented as something natural in the life of man, a mere falling short of an ideal, but very decidedly as something foreign and hostile to human life: it is an expression of divine anger, Ps. 90:7,11, a judgment, Rom. 1:32, a condemnation, Rom. 5:16, and a curse, Gal. 3:13, and fills the hearts of the children of men with dread and fear, just because it is felt to be something unnatural. All this does not mean, however, that there may not have been death in some sense of the word in the lower creation apart from sin, but even there the entrance of sin evidently brought a bondage of corruption that was foreign to the creature, Rom. 8:20-22. In strict justice God might have imposed death on man in the fullest sense of the word immediately after his transgression, Gen. 2:17. But by His common grace He restrained the operation of sin and death, and by His special grace in Christ Jesus He conquered these hostile forces, Rom. 5:17; I Cor. 15:45; II Tim. 1:10; Heb. 2:14; Rev. 1:18; 20:14. Death now accomplishes its work fully only in the lives of those who refuse the deliverance from it that is offered in Jesus Christ. Those who believe in Christ are freed from the power of death, are restored to communion with God, and are endowed with an endless life, John 3:36; 6:40; Rom. 5:17-21; 8:23; I Cor. 15:26,51-57; Rev. 20:14; 21:3,4.
C. THE SIGNIFICANCE OF THE DEATH OF BELIEVERS.
The Bible speaks of physical death as a punishment, as “the wages of sin.” Since believers are justified, however, and are no more under obligation to render any penal satisfaction, the question naturally arises, Why must they die? It is quite evident that for them the penal element is removed from death. They are no more under the law, either as a requirement of the covenant of works or as a condemning power, since they have obtained a complete pardon for all their sins. Christ became a curse for them, and thus removed the penalty of sin. But if this is so, why does God still deem it necessary to lead them through the harrowing experience of death? Why does He not simply transfer them to heaven at once? It cannot be said that the destruction of the body is absolutely essential to a perfect sanctification, since that is contradicted by the examples of Enoch and Elijah. Neither does it satisfy to say that death sets the believer free from the ills and sufferings of the present life, and from the trammels of the dust, by liberating the spirit from the present coarse and sensual body. God might effect this deliverance also by a sudden transformation, such as living saints will experience at the time of the parousia. It is quite evident that the death of believers must be regarded as the culmination of the chastisements which God has ordained for the sanctification of His people. While death in itself remains a real natural evil for the children of God, something unnatural, which is dreaded by them as such, it is made subservient in the economy of grace to their spiritual advancement and to the best interests of the Kingdom of God. The very thought of death, bereavements through death, the feeling that sicknesses and sufferings are harbingers of death, and the consciousness of the approach of death, — all have a very beneficial effect on the people of God. They serve to humble the proud, to mortify carnality, to check worldliness and to foster spiritual-mindedness. In the mystical union with their Lord believers are made to share the experiences of Christ. Just as He entered upon His glory by the pathway of sufferings and death, they too can enter upon their eternal reward only through sanctification. Death is often the supreme test of the strength of the faith that is in them, and frequently calls forth striking manifestations of the consciousness of victory in the very hour of seeming defeat, I Pet. 4:12,13. It completes the sanctification of the souls of believers, so that they become at once “the spirits of just men made perfect,” Heb. 12:23; Rev. 21:27. Death is not the end for believers, but the beginning of a perfect life. They enter death with the assurance that its sting has been removed, I Cor. 15:55, and that it is for them the gateway of heaven. They fall asleep in Jesus, II Thess. 1:7, and know that even their bodies will at last be snatched out of the power of death, to be forever with the Lord, Rom. 8:11; I Thess. 4:16,17. Jesus said, “He that believeth on me, though he die, yet shall he live.” And Paul had the blessed consciousness that for him to live was Christ, and to die was gain. Hence he could also speak in jubilant notes at the end of his career: “I have fought the good fight, I have finished the course, I have kept the faith: henceforth there is laid up for me the crown of righteousness, which the Lord, the righteous Judge, shall give to me at that day; and not to me only, but also to all them that have loved His appearing,” II Tim. 4:7,8.
QUESTIONS FOR FURTHER STUDY: What is the fundamental idea of the Biblical conception of death? Is death merely the natural result of sin, or is it a positive punishment for sin? If it is the latter, how can this be proved from Scripture? In what sense was man, as he was created by God, mortal; and in what sense, immortal? How can you disprove the position of the Pelagians? In what sense has death really ceased to be death for believers? What purpose does death serve in their lives? When is the power of death completely terminated for them?
LITERATURE: Dick, Lect. on Theol, pp. 426-433; Dabney, Syst. and Polemic Theol., pp. 817-821; Litton; Introd. to Dogm. Theol., pp. 536-540; Pieper, Christl. Dogm. III, pp. 569-573; Schmid, Dogm. Theol. of the Ev. Luth. Church, pp. 626-631; Pope, Chr. Theol. III, pp. 371-376; Valentine, Chr. Theol., II, pp. 389-391; Hovey, Eschatology, pp. 13-22; Dahle, Life After Death, pp. 24-58; Kenneday, St. Paul’s Conception of the Last Things, pp. 103-157; Strong, Syst. Theol. pp. 982 f.; Pohle-Preuss, Eschatology, pp. 5-17.