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THEOLOGY > Sin > Man's Disobedience > Death


In the Scriptures “death” is a comprehensive term that describes the spiritual state of every individual outside of Christ and also indicates the physical fate awaiting each person; additionally, the word relates both to the temporal and the eternal. Thus death defines our initial spiritual state while on earth; it speaks of our demise following our earthly existence; and it describes the eternal condition of the lost following the judgment. Death, therefore, begins at conception, terminates earthly life, and potentially culminates in the second death, a death of eternal damnation.

The essential quality of death in each of its manifestations is separation. In his initial earthly existence man is separated from God and spiritual life; at the time of physical death man is separated from his earthly pursuits and from family and friends; and in eternity man is separated from God and the habitation of the redeemed. Death is not cessation in the sense that there is no life at some point after death.

Three concepts related to death arise from the Scriptures: spiritual death, physical death, and eternal death.

Spiritual Death

Death is the judgment of God upon man because of his sin. It is the penal punishment that came to Adam as a consequence of his disobedience, and through Adam the penalty was visited upon the race because of the identification of the race with Adam (see: The Principle of Identification). Man is not born with the freedom of choosing life or death, for through Adam every man died and therefore each person comes into this life spiritually dead. At the time of his creation God instructed Adam regarding the trees of the garden:

And Yahweh God commanded the man, saying, “You may surely ea of every tree of the garden, but of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil you shall not eat, for in the day that you eat of it you shall surely die” (Gen. 3:16-17).

The command to refrain from eating and the penalty of death if he did eat were clearly understood by Adam (see: God’s Command); he knew that sin and death were intricately and unchangeably related, a theological truth enunciated succinctly by Paul—“the wages of sin is death” (Rom. 6:23). “You shall surely die” was God’s warning to Adam; literally the words can be translated: “dying you will die” (Gen. 2:17). Two truths reside in these four words:

“dying” speaks of spiritual death,

and “you will die” speaks of physical death;

Therefore, the meaning of God’s warning was that to disobey Him would insure for man both spiritual death and physical death, with the spiritual appearing first.

Spiritual death was the immediate effect of Adam’s sin, with physical death occurring at some later point; thus, after his sin Adam was physically alive but spiritually dead. And because of Adam’s identification with the race, this state of Adam became the state of every person that would be born. Paul teaches in Romans that “death spread to all men” because “all sinned” (5:12; “sinned” is an aorist tense verb indicating a single past act—the act of Adam, not a series of acts in the present committed by each individual); in, with, and through Adam the race became sinful (see: By One Man and The Principle of Identification).

Separation from God is the crucial character of spiritual death, meaning that death is not only the final event of man’s earthly existence, but it is the very essence of his earthly existence. Man is alive but dead, and it is in this sense that the central point of death is separation, separation from fellowship with God, with alienation and condemnation accompanying the separation. Man is alive and yet without life, the spiritual life that knows fellowship with God.

Spiritual death is another name for depravity (see: Depravity); it is the same as alienation or estrangement from God. Sometimes this state is spoken of as corruption; that is, it is the loss of original righteousness (see: Morally Upright). For man to lose the original righteousness with which he was created is for man to be dead, dead in trespasses and sins (Eph. 2:1, 5, 12; 4:18; Gal. 3:22).

Spiritual death means that man has no ability to rectify his condition. Man is incapable of initiating or completing his salvation and renewing fellowship with God; in fact, man can do no good thing because he is dead (Rom. 3:10-18) and because there is no spiritual life in him. He is incapable of accomplishing anything that will earn or deserve salvation; he is spiritually powerless. “Those who are in the flesh cannot please God” (Rom. 8:8).

A dead man must be raised in order to have life; for the spiritually dead to have life, God must raise the dead and endow the individual with life (see: Spiritual Life). That is, God must bestow spiritual life to the one who is without life. When He does so, He is manifesting His grace. Because of spiritual deadness man must have grace, and without God’s grace man will remain in death:

Grace is God doing for me what I cannot do for myself;
Grace is God giving to me what I cannot get for myself.

Grace is God giving spiritual life to the one who is spiritually dead.

Spiritual death is not partial but total; it extends to the entire person. There is no aspect of the individual that is not affected by this death. Every area of man—his emotions, his thoughts, his actions, his worship—are all under the curse of death. No part is excluded.

So it would seem that as spiritual death is total so physical death is total, not partial; in other words, there is no independent entity known as the soul that continues to live after the death of the body. When man dies, it would seem that the total man dies, not just one part of the man (see: Constitution; Soul Sleep).

The issue for man is death vs. life—
man is dead and is in need of life.

Physical Death

Physical death is inescapable: “it is appointed for man to die once” (Heb. 9:27). Death cannot be denied nor can it be delayed. Man knows that he will die, and as he ages and the time for death draws closer, he is even more assured that his life is limited and indeed brief.

While Adam’s body was susceptible to death at the time of his creation, his body did not have within it the principle of death; the fact of death was not yet a part of his essential nature, but with his sin of disobedience death became an inevitable aspect of his existence, meaning that the potential within his body was activated because of his rebellion. That which was a mere potential for the newly created Adam became an active aspect of his nature. Subsequently Adam experienced physical death some nine hundred years after he had sinned. And since Adam all of his descendants, with the exception of two, have died physically.

The moment Adam ate he became mortal—the principle of death invaded his existence and began its work of destruction. Death was not part of the original creation but appeared after the Fall, plaguing man with that which is unnatural. Death, therefore, is not something that comes upon man from outside of his nature, but it is an inward principle. It is the judgment arising from within man due to his own evil.

Since each individual is associated with Adam’s sin a state of dissolution is characteristic of every person, and this dissolution culminates in the loss of life on earth. Even infants die, therefore, they must have the corrupt nature from Adam, for death, spiritual and physical, is the curse of his sin.

Animals also  die—death is not just the curse visited upon man but also the curse that all of creation must endure. Because of sin and the resulting curse, animals struggle and fight for survival; like men who fight a viciousness has developed between the animals, with the loss of many lives (see: Reflections on Physical Death).

Eternal Death

The “second death” is mentioned four times in Scripture (Rev. 2:11; 20:6, 14; 21:8) and implies that there is a first death which is the physical death referenced above. The “second death” is eternal death in the lake of fire; the Scriptures are precise:

Then I saw a great white throne and Him who was seated on it . . . and I saw the dead, great and small, standing before the throne . . . and the dead were judged by what was written in the books . . . then Death and Hades were thrown into the lake of fire. This is the second death, the lake of fire. And if anyone’s name was not found written in the book of life, he was thrown into the like of fire (Rev. 20:11-15).

Specifically “the second death” speaks of a place, “the lake of fire”; in addition to the above text is the statement from the One sitting on the throne: “. . . their portion will be in the lake that burns with fire and sulfur, which is the second death” (Rev. 21:8). Only indirectly does the phrase imply a state. The second death is the lake of fire, and those who are confined there are said to experience the second death.

Unless the view of annihilation is accepted, eternal death must be view as separation and not cessation. The damned do not cease to exist in torment but are separated from God for all eternity and are conscious of the saved who are enjoying eternal life with Him. Part of the torment of the damned is their eternal knowledge of their alienation from God and His heaven.

For those who experience the second death there is no hope. The same words that denote eternality for the redeemed in heaven are used of the hopeless ones in the lake of fire.

To be with God, in harmony with God, is life,
to be against Him is death.
Brunner, Eternal Hope, 173

See: Gen. 5:1-32 and Need of Man

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