The cessation of all functions of life, hence, the opposite of life. (De 30:15, 19) In the Bible the same original-language words for “death” or “dying” are applied to humans, animals, and plants. (Ec 3:19; 9:5; Joh 12:24; Jude 12; Re 16:3) However, for humans and animals the Bible shows the vital function of the blood in maintaining life, stating that “the soul of the flesh is in the blood.” (Le 17:11, 14; Ge 4:8-11; 9:3, 4) Both humans and animals are spoken of as ‘expiring,’ that is, ‘breathing out’ the breath of life (Heb., nish·mathʹ chai·yimʹ). (Ge 7:21, 22; compare Ge 2:7.) And the Scriptures show that death in humans and animals follows the loss of the spirit (active force) of life (Heb., ruʹach chai·yimʹ).
From the Biblical viewpoint, what is death?
It is of interest to note the correspondency of these Biblical points with what is known scientifically of the death process. In humans, for example, when the heart stops beating, the blood ceases to circulate nourishment and oxygen (obtained by breathing) to the billions of body cells. However, The World Book Encyclopedia (1987, Vol. 5, p. 52b) pointed out: “A person whose heart and lungs stop working may be considered clinically dead, but somatic death may not yet have occurred. The individual cells of the body continue to live for several minutes. The person may be revived if the heart and lungs start working again and give the cells the oxygen they need. After about three minutes, the brain cells
Cause of Death in Humans. The first reference to death in the Scriptures occurs at Genesis 2:16, 17 in God’s command to the first man concerning the eating from the tree of the knowledge of good and bad, violation of which command would result in death. (See NW ftn.) However, death among animals as a natural process was evidently already in effect, since they are passed over completely in the Biblical presentation of the introduction of death into the human family. (Compare 2Pe 2:12.) The gravity of God’s warning about the death penalty for disobedience would therefore be understandable to his human son, Adam. Adam’s disobedience to his Creator brought death to him. (Ge 3:19; Jas 1:14, 15) Thereafter, Adam’s sin and its consequence, death, spread to all men.
Certain texts are, at times, brought forth as supposed evidence that physical death was intended as a natural eventuality for humans, even as for the animals; for example, the references to man’s life span as being ‘seventy or eighty years’ (Ps 90:10) and the apostle’s statement that “it is reserved for men to die once for all time, but after this a judgment.” (Heb 9:27) Nevertheless, all such texts were written after the introduction of death among mankind, and are applied to imperfect, sinful humans. The tremendous longevity of the men living prior to the Flood must at least be considered as reflecting a remarkable potential in the human body, surpassing that found in any animal even under the most ideal conditions. (Ge 5:1-31) The Bible unmistakably relates the entrance of death into the human family to Adam’s sin, as already shown.
Alienated from God by sin, mankind in general is said to be in “enslavement to corruption.” (Ro 8:21) This enslavement is due to the workings of sin in their bodies, bringing forth its corrupting fruit, and all persons not obedient to God are under the rule of sin as its slaves “with death in view.” (Ro 6:12, 16, 19-21) Satan is stated to have “the means to cause death.” (Heb 2:14, 15) He is called “a manslayer” (Joh 8:44), not necessarily because he kills directly but because he does so by deceit and seduction to sin, by inducing or stimulating wrongdoing that leads to corruption and death (2Co 11:3), and also by fathering murderous attitudes in the minds and hearts of men. (Joh 8:40-44, 59; 13:2; compare Jas 3:14-16; 4:1, 2.) Death is therefore presented, not as the friend of man, but as man’s “enemy.” (1Co 15:26) It is generally those in extreme or unbearable pain who are shown as desiring death.
Condition of Human Dead. The dead are shown to be “conscious of nothing at all” and the death state to be one of complete inactivity. (Ec 9:5, 10; Ps 146:4) Those dying are described as going into “the dust of death” (Ps 22:15), becoming “impotent in death.” (Pr 2:18; Isa 26:14) In death there is no mention of God or any praising of him. (Ps 6:5; Isa 38:18, 19) In both the Hebrew and the Greek Scriptures, death is likened to sleep, a fitting comparison not only because of the unconscious condition of the dead but also because of the hope of an awakening through the resurrection. (Ps 13:3; Joh 11:11-14) The resurrected Jesus is spoken of as “the firstfruits of those who have fallen asleep in death.”
Whereas the ancient Egyptians and other peoples of pagan nations, and particularly the Grecian philosophers, were strong in their belief in the deathlessness of the human soul, both the Hebrew Scriptures and the Christian Greek Scriptures speak of the soul (Heb., neʹphesh; Gr., psy·kheʹ) as dying (Jg 16:30; Eze 18:4, 20; Re 16:3), needing deliverance from death (Jos 2:13; Ps 33:19; 56:13; 116:8; Jas 5:20), or as in the Messianic prophecy concerning Jesus Christ, being “poured out . . . to the very death” (Isa 53:12; compare Mt 26:38). The prophet Ezekiel condemns those who connived “to put to death the souls that ought not to die” and “to preserve alive the souls that ought not to live.”
Thus, The Interpreter’s Bible (Vol. II, p. 1015), commenting on 1 Samuel 25:29, observes that “the idea of man as consisting of body and soul which are separated at death is not Hebrew but Greek.” (Edited by G. Buttrick, 1953) Similarly, Edmond Jacob, Professor of Old Testament at the University of Strasbourg, points out that, since in the Hebrew Scriptures one’s life is directly related with the soul (Heb., neʹphesh), “it is natural that death should sometimes be represented as the disappearance of this nephesh (Gen. 35:18; I Kings 17:21; Jer. 15:9; Jonah 4:3). The ‘departure’ of the nephesh must be viewed as a figure of speech, for it does not continue to exist independently of the body, but dies with it (Num. 31:19; Judg. 16:30; Ezek. 13:19). No biblical text authorizes the statement that the ‘soul’ is separated from the body at the moment of death.”
Redemption From Condemnation of Death. Psalm 68:20 states: “To Jehovah the Sovereign Lord belong the ways out from death.” By means of the sacrifice of his human life, Christ Jesus became God’s “Chief Agent” of life and salvation (Ac 3:15; Heb 2:10), and through him the abolishing of death is assured. (2Ti 1:10) By suffering death, Jesus ‘tasted death for every man’ and provided “a corresponding ransom for all.” (Heb 2:9; 1Ti 2:6) By means of Jesus’ “one act of justification,” a cancellation of the condemnation of death that sin brings now became possible, so that men of all sorts might enjoy “a declaring of them righteous for life.” (Ro 5:15, 16, 18, 19; Heb 9:27, 28; see DECLARE RIGHTEOUS; RANSOM.) Thus, concerning Jesus’ true followers, it could be said that they had, in effect, “passed over from death to life.” (Joh 5:24) Those disobeying the Son and not exercising love, however, ‘remain in death’ and under God’s condemnation. (1Jo 3:14; Joh 3:36) Those who want to be free from condemnation and free from “the law of sin and of death” must be guided by God’s spirit and produce its fruits, for “the minding of the [sinful] flesh means death.”
Jesus’ sacrificial course, terminating in his death and resurrection, was likened by him to baptism. (Mr 10:38, 39; Lu 12:50; compare Eph 4:9, 10.) The apostle Paul showed that Jesus’ anointed followers also would go through a similar baptism into death, their resurrection to heavenly glory ensuing. (Ro 6:3-5; Php 3:10, 11) In expressing his earnest desire to take up heavenly life, Paul showed that it was not death itself that was wanted by spirit-begotten Christians, nor to lie “naked” in death, but the ‘putting on’ of a heavenly body in order to be at “home with the Lord.” (2Co 5:1-8; compare 2Pe 1:13-15.) In the meantime, death “is at work” in them, while, by their ministry, they bring a message of life to those to whom they minister.
Those who benefit from that ministry include the great crowd that have the prospect of surviving the great tribulation and enjoying eternal life on a paradise earth. Because of their faith in the sin-atoning value of Jesus’ sacrifice, they, too, come to have a clean standing before God.
Jesus speaks of himself as having “the keys of death and of Hades” (Re 1:18), and he uses these in releasing those held by death. (Joh 5:28, 29; Re 20:13) Jehovah God’s release of Jesus from Hades serves as a “guarantee to all men” of God’s future day of judgment or reckoning and provides assurance that there will be a resurrection of those in Hades. (Ac 17:31; 1Co 15:20, 21) Those inheriting God’s Kingdom in immortality are described as triumphing over death in their resurrection, so that its “sting” is overcome.
The Destruction of Death. At Isaiah 25:8 the prophetic promise is made that God “will actually swallow up death forever, and the Sovereign Lord Jehovah will certainly wipe the tears from all faces.” The sting producing death is sin (1Co 15:56), and thus all having sin and its accompanying imperfection have death working in their bodies. (Ro 7:13, 23, 24) The abolition of death, therefore, would require the abolition of that which produces death: sin. By the removal of the last trace of sin from obedient mankind, the authority of death will be abolished and death itself will be destroyed, and this is to be accomplished during the reign of Christ. (1Co 15:24-26) Thereby death, brought upon the human race by Adam’s transgression, “will be no more.” (Ro 5:12; Re 21:3, 4) Its destruction is figuratively likened to its being hurled into a “lake of fire.”
Second Death. “The lake of fire” into which death, Hades, the symbolic “wild beast” and “the false prophet,” Satan, his demons, and the persistent practicers of wickedness on earth are cast is shown to mean “the second death.” (Re 20:10, 14, 15; 21:8; Mt 25:41) Initially death resulted from and was passed on to mankind as a result of Adam’s transgression; hence “the second death” must be distinct from this inherited death. It is evident from the cited texts that there is no release possible from “the second death.” The situation of those in “the second death” corresponds to the outcome warned of in such texts as Hebrews 6:4-8; 10:26, 27; and Matthew 12:32. On the other hand, those represented as gaining “the crown of life” and having part in “the first resurrection” are free from any possibility of harm by the second death. (Re 2:10, 11) These, who are to reign with Christ, receive immortality (deathlessness) and incorruption and hence are beyond the “authority” of the second death.
Illustrative Use. Death is personified as a “king” ruling over mankind from the time of Adam (Ro 5:14), along with the rule of King Sin. (Ro 6:12) Thus, these kings are spoken of as exercising their “law” over those subject to their dominion. (Ro 8:2) With Christ’s coming and the provision of the ransom, undeserved kindness began exercising a superior kingship over those accepting God’s gift, “with everlasting life in view.”
Though men, disregarding God’s purposes, may try to make their own pact or covenant with King Death, it will fail. (Isa 28:15, 18) Like a horseman riding behind war and famine, death is pictured as bringing mass mortality to earth’s inhabitants.
Those spiritually sick or distressed are described as “arriving at the gates of death” (Ps 107:17-20; compare Job 38:17; Ps 9:13), and those passing through such “gates” enter the figurative “house of meeting for everyone living” (Job 30:23; compare 2Sa 12:21-23), with its “interior rooms” (Pr 7:27) and a capacity for victims that is never completely filled. (Hab 2:5) Those going into Sheol are like sheep shepherded by death.
“The pangs of death.” At Acts 2:24 the apostle Peter spoke of Jesus as being ‘loosed from the pangs of death, for it was not possible for him to continue to be held fast by it.’ The Greek word (o·dinʹ) here translated “pangs” is elsewhere used to mean the pains of childbirth (1Th 5:3) but may also mean travail, pain, calamity, or distress generally. (Mt 24:8) Additionally, it was used by the translators of the Greek Septuagint in rendering the Hebrew word cheʹvel in texts where the evident meaning is “rope.” (2Sa 22:6; Ps 18:4, 5) A related Hebrew word means “birth pangs,” leading some commentators and lexicographers to suggest that the Greek term (o·dinʹ) used by Luke at Acts 2:24 also had this double meaning, at least in Hellenistic Greek of apostolic times. Thus some translations render the phrase in this verse as “the bands [or bonds] of death.” (NC [Spanish]; Segond, Ostervald [French]) In numerous texts the danger of death is represented as reaching out to snare the threatened one (Pr 13:14; 14:27) with ropes that encircle him and bring him down into “the distressing circumstances of Sheol.” (Ps 116:3) Whereas other texts, already considered, show that there is no consciousness in death, and it is obvious that Jesus was not in any literal pain while dead, nonetheless death is presented as a bitter and distressing experience (1Sa 15:32; Ps 55:4; Ec 7:26) not only in the pain usually preceding it (Ps 73:4, 5) but in the loss of all activity and freedom that its paralyzing grip brings. So, it may be that it is in this sense that Jesus’ resurrection ‘loosed’ him from “the pangs of death,” freeing him from its distressing grip.
Change in spiritual state or condition. The death state is used to illustrate the spiritually dead condition of the world in general, so Jesus could speak of ‘the dead burying the dead,’ and the apostle Paul could refer to the woman living for sensual gratification as “dead though she is living.” (Lu 9:60; 1Ti 5:6; Eph 2:1) And since physical death discharges one from any debts or obligations existing up to that time (Ro 6:7), a Christian’s being freed or liberated from sin (Ro 6:2, 11) and from the condemnation of the Mosaic Law (Ro 7:2-6) is also likened to death, such one having ‘died’ to his former situation and obligations. The one figuratively dying in such a way, of course, is still alive physically and is now free to follow Christ as a slave to righteousness.
The use of death to represent a change in one’s state or condition throws light on prophetic visions, such as that in the book of Ezekiel wherein God’s people in exile in Babylon are likened to dried-out bones and to persons dead and buried. (Eze 37:1-12) They were to “come to life” again and be settled on their own soil once more. (Eze 37:13, 14) Comparable illustrations are found at Revelation 11:3, 7-12 and Luke 16:19-31.