What is Death?


John Hoole - May 15, 2011





I heard a story about a Catholic priest, a Protestant minister, and a Jewish rabbi.  They were discussing what they would like people to say after they died and their bodies were on display in an open casket.  The Catholic priest said:  "I would like someone to say, 'He was a righteous man, an honest man, and very generous.' "  The Protestant minister said:  "I would like someone to say, 'He was kind and exemplified in his life the Word of God.' "  The Jewish rabbi said:  "I would like someone to say, 'Oh look! He's moving.'"


This humorous story reveals the way most people think about death.  Like the Jewish Rabbi, it's something they want to avoid at all cost.  As Woody Allen once said, "It's not that I am afraid to die.  I just don't want to be there when it happens."


Not long ago the Discovery Channel featured a program about the ten great mysteries of the world.  The mysteries included the lost city of Atlantis, UFOs, Bigfoot, Stonehenge, and the Loch Ness Monster.  But the overwhelming number one mystery was "life after death."


Today we begin our investigation of what the Bible says about what happens to a person once they die.  It is significant that the oldest book in the Bible, the book of Job, addresses this question.  Four thousand years ago, in the wake of deep personal tragedy, suffering, and death, a man named Job asked the question of the ages.


         Job 14:14


                   If a man die, will he live again?


Here, in possibly the oldest book in the Bible, we have an age-old question.  People throughout history have wanted to know if this life is all there is.  Is there something else, or is death the finalé


Since the dawn of history, the subject of death and the afterlife has been the great question of human existence.  Every minute of each day we stand on a sharp precipice between life and death.  Between mortality and immortality – between the known and the unknown.  And many questions naturally arise when we consider life, death and immortality.


                   •  What is death?


                   •  Will we live again after our final breath?


                   •  What, if anything, lies behind the veil of death?


                   •  Why must we die?


                   •  Does our consciousness cease forever when our physical body stops breathing?


                   •  Is there such a thing as "soul sleep?"


                   •  Is reincarnation consistent with the Bible?


                   •  If we do live forever, what is the nature of our life?


                   •  Will we retain our memories and our personal identities from this life?


                   •  Is there a judgment and reward after this life is over?


                   •  What happens to us immediately after we die?


                   •  Will we be aware of those still left on earth?


                   •  Can the dead communicate with the living?


                   •  Is there really a Heaven to yearn for and a Hell to shun?


                   •  Do some people get a glimpse of heaven or hell before they die?


                   •  Is fear of death normal?


         We will be answering most, if not all, these questions during this series of lessons.


It is an obvious fact that every one of us at some point in time, must face the crisis of our human mortality.  Because of that, we need to carefully consider the question of whether that moment of death is final, and our consciousness ceases or is that moment only the beginning of a potentially glorious new experience that far surpasses the life we now know?  Or is it the beginning of something more terrible than anything we have already experienced.


The writer Martineau wisely wrote:


         “We do not believe in immortality because we have proved it, but we forever try to prove it because we believe it.”


A few years ago, several people on the street were asked this question: “Do you believe in an afterlife?”  Here is how some of them responded.

Ecclesiastes 9:5 states it very pointedly and bluntly:


          For the living know that they shall die.


People don’t like to talk about death.  In our culture we try to camouflage death, dress it up, by using soothing terms like “passed on,” “laid to rest,” “gone ahead,” or “departed.”  Or more crudely, to avoid being serious, people speak of someone "pushing up daisies," or as having "kicked the bucket," "bitten the dust," "giving up the ghost," "cashed in his chips," or "checked out."


Those slangy substitutes point to the fact that man is basically afraid of death.  It baffles him, bothers him, frustrates him, and frightens him.  Why?


We don’t like to say good-bye to those we love.  But, try as we might, and as reluctant as we are to discuss it, we have to, because death is a very real part of life.  Each one of us must release the hand of one we love, into the hand of one we have not seen.  In less traumatic circumstances, one theologian put the same simple truth like this:  "Death is the most democratic institution on earth.  It allows no discrimination, and tolerates no exceptions."


The American statesman Benjamin Franklin used to say that only two things in life were absolutely certain - death and taxes.  That phrase became famous - we have all heard it.  But Franklin got his facts wrong, because whereas taxes can be legally avoided or illegally evaded, death is a different matter - it is the most certain fact of life.


People of every generation have wondered about death and what might follow.  Some, who have lost loved one, have asked, “What about those who have already died.?  What happens between the time of death and the return of Jesus?”


Apparently the church in Thessalonica asked such a question.  Listen to Paul’s words as he respond to their question.


1 Thessalonians 4:13 TJB


         13     We want you to be quite certain, brothers, about those who have died, to make sure that you do not grieve about them, like the other people who have no hope.


Christians in the city of Thessalonica were grieving over the deaths of fellow believer, and they were anxious about what would happen to them at the Second Coming of Christ.  Paul reassures them that they have nothing to be concerned about.  Their dead friends will not be forgotten or left behind.  The Thessalonian church had already buried her share of loved ones.  And Paul wants the members who remain to be at peace regarding the ones who have gone ahead.


Many of you have buried loved ones as well as they.  And just as God spoke to those in that church, He speaks to you today in this church.


If you will be celebrating a wedding anniversary alone this year, He speaks to you today. 


If your child made it to heaven before making it to kindergarten, He speaks to you.


If you lost a loved one through the violence of another, He speaks to you.


If you have learned more than you wanted to know about a disease, He speaks to you.


If your dreams were buried as they lowered the casket, God speaks to you today.


The apostle Paul speaks to all of us who have stood or will ever stand in the soft dirt near an open grave.  And to us, He again gives this confident word:


         1 Thessalonians 4:13-14 TLB


13     ……I want you to know what happens to a Christian when he dies so that when it happens, you will not be full of sorrow, as those are who have no hope.

14     For since we believe that Jesus died and then came back to life again, we can also believe that when Jesus returns, God will bring back with him all the Christians who have died.


So what IS death?


What is this thing – or event – which seems so final?  There is something about death that seems so unnatural – even grotesque.  It is very difficult, if not totally impossible, to beautify death.  We may live with it and accept its presence, but we cannot change its foul nature.  Death is an offense to beauty.


King David put it bluntly:


         “The terrors of death have fallen upon me.  Fear and trembling come upon me, and horror overwhelms me.” (Psalm 55:5-6)


Hebrews 2:15 speaks about those “who through fear of death have been living all their lives as slaves to its constant dread”


What is it about death that creates this unnatural horror in us?


While death is universal and therefore common to all of humanity, the personal experience of death is naturally an original, one-of-a-kind experience for each human being.  It is no wonder that we look on our own death with a certain amount of wonder and fear.  When the moment comes for each of us to individually drink our final cup, that experience will be as unique to us as it was to Abel, the first person to ever experience the mystery of death.


From the beginning of time, philosophers have told us that if you really want to understand life, you have to understand death.  There is no dearth of ideas about what death is.  But anybody other than Jesus Christ who gives you an opinion about death is possibly giving you an uninformed opinion.


The reason we can trust Him is because He’s been there and done that.  He knows what it is to die and has come back to let you know.  Death is a 100% certainty for all of us – except those taken in the Rapture.


George Bernard Shaw, in his own straightforward way, pointed out: “…..that, for all the medical statistics that show that fewer and fewer people die from this or that disease, the ultimate statistic still remains the same:  one out of one dies.”  You and I are marching toward a date with death.




Before we can fully understand life after death, we must first get a handle on what death means.


         WHAT IS IT?


What does the Bible tell us about death?  What is this thing – or event – which seems so final?


A few years ago, when Billy Graham was in his early eighties, an interviewer asked him what had surprised him most about life.  Without hesitation, Dr. Graham replied, "Its brevity."  Many of us already know that the older we get, the faster the sands of time seem to leak through the glass.  One important thing the Bible and experience teach us about death is that it comes quickly.


Here is another central biblical truth about death:  It is not the end


I once heard a story about an ancient king who called a group of scholars to his palace to write a history of mankind.  As they labored through the years, the scholars compiled numerous volumes.  The king, however, was always too busy to read them.  When the king was very old, he again called the scholars to the palace, and he asked them to give him a summary of their findings.  The leader of the group said, "Man was born, he suffered, he died.  That is the history of mankind."


There is a lot of truth in that summary.  But it is not complete.  What about after "he died?"  Death is not the end of man's history.


I find it interesting that the Jews call their burial ground "Beth-haim."  That two-word phrase means, "The house of the living."  This name acknowledges their fundamental belief that their bodies will rise in the last day to be "gathered to their fathers."


The Greek word for burial ground or graveyard is KOIMETERION  (κοιμητήριον).  In Latin, it is COEMETERIUM.  From it, we get our English word "Cemetery."  That Greek word means "Sleeping Place."


This term was used by the early Christians to reflect the fact that only our bodies rest in the ground, while our spirits rise to heaven to rejoice consciously in the presence of Jesus Christ until the day of our glorious  resurrection.  Death is the beginning of a whole new spiritual existence for all those who have died.


The English writer Sir Walter Scott wrote:


         "Is death the last sleep?  No, it is the last and final awakening."


In the English Book of Common Prayer, the funeral service contains these words to commemorate the death of a faithful believer:  "They rest from their labors."   The reference to the "rest" of the body confirms the expectation that our bodies will arise again at the resurrection.


"Sleep" is a word that applies to the body only and never to the soul.  Our Lord said to His disciples: "Our friend Lazarus sleeps, but I go that I may wake him out of his sleep.... However, Jesus spoke of his death" (John 11:11-13).  Of the martyrdom of Steven, we read:  "He fell asleep" (Acts 7:60)When the apostle Paul was still alive, he said that of the five hundred who had seen Jesus after the resurrection, "some have fallen asleep" (1 Corinthians 15:6).  The apostle Peter, speaking of Old Testament saints, said: "The fathers fell asleep" (2 Pet. 3:4).  More than forty times in the Old Testament it is said of a man who had died: They "slept with their fathers."  The Bible's references to death of a believer as "sleep," assumes a future awakening when we rise to meet our Lord.


The word “death” does not merely mean “the cessation of life.”  The word “death” means SEPARATION - never annihilation or cessation of existence.




         There are at least two kinds of death:


                            •  Physical death


                            •  Spiritual death


                   Let’s look at these two kinds of death.




         This is the separation of the inner, or spiritual, part of a person from their outer, or bodily, part.


2 Cor. 5:8 tells us that to be absent from our bodies, is to be immediately present with God.  This certainly speaks of a form of separation.  In other words, the spirit (soul) takes leave of the body.


James 2:26 NIV


         26     As the body without the spirit is dead, so faith without deeds is dead.


Most of us are familiar with the last half of this verse.  But notice how he illustrates that “faith without works is dead.”  He mentions that when the spirit is separated from the body…….death of the body occurs.  So, physical death is the separation of one’s spiritual nature from their physical.


In the Garden of Eden, God told Adam that the day he ate of the fruit of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil, he would surely die (Genesis 2:17).  When our first parents disobeyed that command, they did not immediately fall over dead.  But in that moment, they began to die physically.


God pronounced this part of the death sentence on Adam by telling Him, "Dust you are and to dust you will return"  (Genesis 3:19).  This is a thought or truth that is echoed several times in the Bible.  The body may be buried, cast into the ocean, cremated, or blown to pieces on the battlefield.  But, ultimately the physical remains of a person will decompose and go back to dust.


Ecclesiastes 3:20 NKJV


20     All go to one place: all are from the dust, and all return to dust.


Ecclesiastes 12:7 NKJV


7       Then the dust will return to the earth as it was, And the spirit will return to God who gave it.


Psalms 103:14 NKJV


14     For He knows our frame; He remembers that we are dust.


Psalms 104:29b NKJV


         29     You take away their breath, they die and return to their dust.


In Daniel 12:2, the dead are described as those who "sleep in the dust."


From the moment he sinned, Adam's body became prone for the first time to decay, disease and deterioration.  And his eventual physical death was a foregone conclusion.




What follows in the account of Adam and Eve tells us they carried on life living much as they did before.  But their relationship with God gave way to a rift.  The moment they sinned, they lost the greatest blessing they possessed.  They lost their union with God.  Before their sin, they had been in perfect harmony with their Creator.  Now, "they hid from the Lord God among the trees of the garden" (Genesis 3:8).  Instead of being at peace in God's presence, they were in a state of panic.  They were now afraid at the thought of meeting Him.  While they retained personality and character, they had lost their communion with God.


Adam died 930 years later.  But the very instant they ate the fruit, they did die spiritually, just as God had said.  They found themselves separated and alienated from God.  Adam and Eve sensed their guilt and shame before God and made garments out of leaves to cover their naked bodies and hide their sin.


A person who is spiritually dead is a person who is spiritually separated from God.  Ephesians 2:1 relates that those who are separated from God are "dead in trespasses and sins."


1 Timothy 5:6 speaks about those who are alive physically but dead spiritually.  "She that liveth in pleasure is dead while she liveth."  This is spiritual death……i.e., separation from God.  Alive physically - but dead spiritually while she/he lives.


At the Great White Throne judgment, in Revelation 20, which we will study later, those judged are cast into the Lake of Fire, where they are forever separated from God.  And verse 6 of that chapter calls this the second DEATH.”  So, spiritual death is “separation from God.”


Having briefly defined and described physical and spiritual death, there are some theologians that add a third kind of death:  Eternal Death.




We can summarize what we have learned thus far into five things.


1.      Firstly, death is universal.  We have an appointment with death and there is nothing we can do to cancel it.


2.      Secondly, death is terrible - for one reason or another it fills people with fear and dread.


3.      Thirdly, death is penal - it is a judgment.  It is the righteous punishment by a holy God on unholy people.


4.      Fourthly, death is not final.  The Bible nowhere teaches that death marks the end of a person's existence.  Death is not a terminus.  Rather, it is the point at which we switch tracks.


5.      Fifthly, Death is when our eternal destiny is fixed.  It is appointed for each of us to die once, then the judgment.