“Your Word Is Truth”
What Is Death?
“DEATH is the most important question of our time.” Those are the words of the American psychiatrist Robert J. Lifton, professor at Yale University. He is devoting his life to the study of death, and among the conclusions he has reached is, “When you’re dead you’re dead.”—Newsweek, April 16, 1970.
Dictionaries and encyclopedias answer the question as to what is death in much the same way. Thus Webster’s Third New International Dictionary, Unabridged, defines death as “the state of being no longer alive“; “the ending of all vital functions without possibility of recovery either in animals or plants or any parts of them.”
And the Encyclopædia Britannica (1959), Vol. 7, pp. 108, 110, states: “Death [is] the permanent cessation of the vital functions in the bodies of animals and plants, the end of life or act of dying.”
Just what is included in “the cessation of all vital capacity” has been spelled out by Dr. V. J. Collins, director of anesthesiology at the Cook County Hospital, Chicago, Illinois. He has developed a “score card” that takes in the five basic factors for determining when a person is dead. These are: “brain function, nerve reflexes, breathing function, circulatory function and heart action.” When all these have ceased, death is an absolute fact.—Science Digest, August 1970.
All the foregoing harmonizes with what the Bible says is the condition of the dead. Thus in sentencing the first man Adam for his disobedience, God said: “Dust you are, to dust you shall return.” (Gen. 3:19, The New English Bible) Where was Adam before God formed him out of the dust of the ground? He did not exist. He was nonexistent. There was no Adam. So after he returned to his former condition, where was Adam? Not in heaven, not in hellfire, not in purgatory. He ceased to exist; there was no Adam; he was nonexistent.
That death means the absence of life, nonexistence, is time and again called to our attention in the rest of the Scriptures. Thus the Bible psalmist counseled: “Put no faith in princes, in any man, who has no power to save. He breathes his last breath, he returns to the dust; and in that same hour all his thinking ends.”—Ps. 146:3, 4, NEB.
Wise King Solomon, in commenting on the emptiness of life, likens man to the animals in death, saying: “Man is a creature of chance and the beasts are creatures of chance, and one mischance awaits them all: death comes to both alike. They all draw the same breath. Men have no advantage over beasts; for everything is emptiness. All go to the same place: all came from the dust, and to the dust all return.” “But for a man who is counted among the living there is still hope: remember, a live dog is better than a dead lion. True, the living know that they will die; but the dead know nothing. There are no more rewards for them; they are utterly forgotten. For them love, hate, ambition, all are now over.”—Eccl. 3:19, 20; 9:4-6, NEB.
But do you ask, What about the human soul? God’s Word tells us that when God created man in the first place ‘man came to be a living soul.’ It also says that “the soul that sins shall die.” So neither as regards the human soul can consciousness after death be maintained.a—Gen. 2:7; Ezek. 18:4, NEB.
True, the Bible speaks of certain “dead” ones as being conscious, but these are only said to be dead in a spiritual sense, not literally. Thus the apostle Paul says: “Time was when you were dead in your sins and wickedness, when you followed the evil ways of this present age.”—Eph. 2:1, 2, NEB.
Interestingly, the modern trend among theologians is toward granting that the dead are actually dead. Thus James Lapsley, of the Princeton Theological Seminary in New Jersey, in reviewing several books on the subject of death, states: “The literature both reflects and documents the decline in Western culture’s traditional belief in the immortality of the soul, and the consequent secularization of death. In Perspectives on Death, a compilation of essays covering many aspects of the subject from a dominant theological perspective, Lou H. Silberman and Leander Keck show that the idea of the immortality of the soul has in any case no biblical foundation.”—Theology Today, April 1970.
But in spite of all these facts ever so many clergymen in Christendom still preach funeral sermons in line with the old creeds that teach that the human soul is immortal. If they are Protestant Evangelicals or Fundamentalists, they consign the deceased to heavenly bliss at the moment of death. If the dead person happened to be a Roman Catholic, the priest places his soul in a torturous purgatory.
All of which calls to mind what a certain undertaker once said. He had buried ever so many Catholics, Protestants and Jews, but after having heard the funeral discourse and then buried one of the Christian witnesses of Jehovah, he muttered, “That’s the first time I buried a dead man!”
However, those clergymen in Christendom who have discarded the myth of the immortality of the human soul are faced with a problem, even as they themselves admit. Thus Dr. Minton, who teaches in the department of religion and philosophy in a United States midwestern college, in an article entitled “The Need for a Theology of Death,” states: “The question of personal survival of death needs to be seriously confronted, for that death is a problem to ‘secular’ man must be obvious to all but the blind.”—The Christian Century, March 25, 1970.
Why does death pose a problem to these ‘secular’ clergymen? Because of their having rejected not only belief in a literal heaven and in the myth of human immortality, but also the Scriptural hope of a resurrection from the dead, they have nothing to offer to their flocks, and so life comes to be without real meaning for them. But though the Bible teaches that the dead are really dead, death poses no problem for one who really believes the Bible, for the Bible holds out the hope of a resurrection of the dead.
The apostle Paul makes a masterly argument in favor of the resurrection of the dead at 1 Corinthians chapter 15. And Jesus himself said: “Do not wonder at this, because the time is coming when all who are in the grave shall hear his [Jesus’] voice and come out.”—John 5:28, 29, NEB.
Thus the resurrection hope gives meaning to this present life, for it shows that there is hope for the future. The knowledge that one has gained, and the pattern of right conduct that he has built up, are not blotted out eternally by death, but will count in the resurrection.
a A note in The New American Bible (Roman Catholic, 1970) states that the term “soul” refers to “the whole person with emphasis on the fact that the person is living, desiring, loving and willing, etc., in addition to being concrete and physical . . . There is no opposition or indifference between soul and body; they are merely different ways of describing the one, concrete reality.”