Dying in Christ. The final talk on My Thoughts on Biblical Death

It has been a number of weeks now, but I am returning to a series of posts that I started entitled My Thoughts on Biblical Death. I began this particular series because of a notion that appears to be gaining traction in some sects of Evangelical Christianity regarding the biblical concept of death. It has become rather popular of late to say that “death” when spoken of in the Bible means physical cessation. In other words, when you die you cease to live. The argument goes on to say that any notion of spiritual living after physical death must be read into biblical thought. To argue for spiritual life after death (either in a state of bliss or torment; both awaiting the final judgment day) is said to introduce ancient Greek ideas of immortality. This was a popular argument by the late Edward Fudge.

He wrote,

“The ‘road to traditionalism’ is paved with many kinds of stones. Among those stones are pagan Greek philosophy…If the later church fathers had also confined themselves to biblical terms on this subject [i.e., death; eternal punishment], we would probably not be having this discussion. Unfortunately, this is not what happened. Soon after the time of the apostolic fathers, certain converts from Greek philosophy, known as the apologists, brought into the church the pagan doctrine of the immortality of the soul…[This] pagan theory…says that every human being has an invisible, immaterial part called the psyche or ‘soul,’ which can never die but will live forever. The traditionalist notion of everlasting torment in hell springs directly from that nonbiblical teaching.[1]”  

My initial reaction to this premise was a thought bubble full of question marks. Not only had I never heard of such nonsense before, but it sounded strangely familiar to a line of argumentation that I hear being tossed around about systemic racism and white privilege. Those that bite into the poisoned apple of Critical Race Theory (CRT) are convinced that a white person is unconsciously biased against People of Color (POC). Even if I say that I’ve never been a racist those on the LEFT will counter with “Yes, you have. You can’t help it. It’s just a part of your whiteness. You are racist without even thinking about it. You’ve been influenced by the privileged status of whiteness regardless of anything you may say or do.”

Similarly, those in Fudge’s circle argue that the only way you can understand “death” in a non-cessationist vein (i.e., figurative or spiritual) is to adopt ancient Greek thought. They will then specifically tie this to what is labeled the “traditional” belief about hell (hellfire) as a concept of eternal punishment and torment for the sinner that remains in an unrepentant state before their Maker. A belief about a biblical doctrine, Fudge and those like him will argue, that comes from Greek philosophers and their concept of the immortal soul and the type of punishment found in Tartus.

Deny this and they will come back with, “You just don’t realize it, but this is really how you’ve been influenced. It may be unconscious bias, but this bias derives from Greek thought whether you realize it or not.” Like little kids on a playground taunting you no matter how many times you deny the claims they are making about you they just cover their ears, close their eyes and shout all the more that it is true!

A Couple Quick Responses before Moving On…

First off, I do not get the idea of the spirit of man (male or female) living after his body has returned to the earth from Greek philosophical meanderings about eschatology (last things). There are enough biblical texts that at the very least imply (some more strongly than others) that some sort of spiritual existence occurs after the physical body has died. Fudge’s acolytes would need to prove that I and every other Christian who denies a cessationist understanding of death has in fact borrowed this idea from Greek versus biblical thought.

Secondly, the idea that death plainly means death, as in physical cessation, in the Bible seems to be either deliberate or accidental ignorance on the part of such an interpreter. Why do I say that? Because the normal use of language mitigates against such a conclusion. The same position will be found on various other terms; “destruction,” “consume,” “eternal,” and “fire,” to name a few. Each one of these words can be shown—given the context we might find them in—to mean something different. In short, the language of the writer in question determines the sense in which the word is used.

For example, the burning bush of Moses’ day was on fire, but not on fire in a “plain” sense as we would normally understand fire as a consuming agent (like in a forest fire, a campfire, or a cookstove fire). Logically you can apply that same methodology to consume, destruction and eternal. The context—the way in which the word is being used—helps determine the meaning. This is basic stuff, but sadly ignorance rules.

This brings me to my third and final musing regarding the argument that “death plainly means death” in the Bible. I stated that this is the result of either deliberate or accidental ignorance. Accidental ignorance just means you haven’t been taught. You don’t know, because you are lacking knowledge on the subject at hand. That is a legitimate form of ignorance. One that shouldn’t be slighted. However, deliberate ignorance is the opposite. It is purposeful. It knows that another possibility may exist, but blithely ignores it. Thus, a purposeful refusal to admit a counter argument. This form of denial is really a rescuing device by the individual(s) in question. Their conviction is challenged and rather than admit the contrary to what they hold, they dig their heels in and look for reasons of justification to hold onto their beliefs.

A person who argues that death must be taken in the plain sense (cessation), presupposes what the plain sense (use of the word/concept) is (cessation), and then argues for it (cessation). I don’t fault their circularity, but I do fault their refusal to admit that “plain” must be defined. The Bible speaks of death as separation: separation from God, separation from the body (i.e., physical/material living), and separation from sin. The Bible speaks of death in what some might deem a literal fashion (“Adam lived…nine hundred and thirty years, and he died”; Gen 5.5) and in a figurative sense (“If the man who is unclean does not cleanse himself shall be cut off from the midst of the assembly, since he has defiled the sanctuary of the Lord”; Numb 19.20).[2]

Looking at the Final Aspect of Biblical Death

It is often argued that Genesis 3 does not speak of spiritual death. The correct interpretation, it is stated, is one that sees “death” in the sense of Adam returning from the dust from which he came (Gen 3.19). There is no question that one of the consequences (there were many) of Adam’s sin was a return to the ground from which he was made. All humanity now suffers this fate, I agree. However, I do not find it very compelling or even genuine when someone argues that this is the ONLY way death can be understood.

Possible Source of the Confusion…

Perhaps it is the phrase “spiritual death” that throws people off. Does this mean that the “spirit” within the person dies? If we understand spirit as merely wind or breath (senses that can be drawn from the Hebrew or the Greek) then that cannot happen until physical death occurs. If we are speaking about the inner conscious self (our person-hood), then that too is somewhat confusing since after the fall of humanity continued to be persons (have an inner conscious self). However, that is not what is meant by “spiritual death.” Theologically, when we speak of someone being spiritually dead, we mean in the sense that the apostle Paul describes them in:

“And you were dead in trespasses and sins, in which you formerly walked according to the course of this world, according to the prince of the power of the air, of the spirit that is now working in the sons of disobedience. Among them we too all formerly lived in the lusts of our flesh, indulging the desires of the flesh and of the mind, and were by nature children of wrath, even as the rest” (Eph 2.1-3; NASB).

Offering Some Clarity…

Here Paul speaks of the entire human race, all those born of Adam, as dead. Dead in what way? Not dead physically, but dead spiritually. Completely spiritually dead? No, but dead in terms of God’s holiness. Rather than pursuing righteousness, which, is to long for the Spirit of God, fallen humanity chases another spirit’s leading who Paul identifies as the “prince of the power of the air.”

Now there is no question that Paul says we are dead before Christ. But if we keep reading, he makes it clear that

“God, [who is] rich in mercy, because of His great love with which He loved us, even when we were dead in our transgressions, made us alive together with Christ (by grace you have been saved) …” (Eph 2.4-5; emphasadded).

If we were not dead, then how can the apostle speak of us being made alive? If we were not spiritually dead before Christ, then how is it possible that by God’s gracious, merciful act of His love He raised us to life in Christ?

Paul’s not the only one…

An often-misunderstood verse by some further verifies that we are dead without Christ’s atoning regenerative work being applied to us (by the Holy Spirit). In John 5:40 Jesus tells those Jews who would take His life:

“…you are unwilling to come to Me so that you may have life” (NASB; emphasisadded).

They were standing before Him. They had essentially hunted Him down for violating the Sabbath laws that they had erected. Coming to Him was not the problem, but coming to Him in belief was. Though they professed to be believers they were not (John 5.38). Theologically, there is much being said here, but the only thing I want to highlight is that Jesus’ words ought to make it very clear…these individuals were dead. Dead? How so? What sense does it make for Jesus to say to them they need to come to Him in order to have life, if life is something they already possessed? If they were not dead in trespasses and sins, if they were truly alive, then why the need to come to Jesus in order to obtain life? The answer should be obvious, they were not alive in a spiritual sense towards God. Sure, they were alive spiritually in the sense of chasing after the passions of sin, which is why they were so antagonistic towards Christ Jesus, but they were not alive spiritually in terms of knowing God.

It is not possible…

If it is not possible for mankind to truly live, unless that man or woman live by every word that proceeds from the mouth of God (Matt 4.4; Deut 8.3), then in no legitimate way can we say that sinners are truly living.  I realize that statement alone smacks in the face of what we believe life or living is. This is why there is a tacit denial that Adam truly died in the garden when he violated God’s revealed Law (cf. Gen 2.16-17). Both husband and wife walked out of the garden, albeit hurriedly, they went on to live for hundreds of years (if it is safe to assume that Eve lived as long as her spouse), they had children, grandchildren, great-grandchildren and beyond.  How can it be said that they were dead? Because that is the condition that God reveals they were left in after violating His command.

Life is what God gives. Sure, as sinners we live, but only in a sustaining sense, not in a fulfilling sense, not in a sense that really matters. We were created as image bearers. Image bearers by nature reflect that inner light that is within them. Image bearers are dependent upon that light, but if that light within is really darkness, then there is no way that person can ever truly function as God created them to be (cf. Matt 6.23). Being deprived of the light of God within, sinners reflect depravity not holiness, licentiousness not righteousness. And in this sense the sinner is declared (judiciously) by the Lord Almighty as dead.

Illustrative Aid…

I suppose the closest we could come to in understanding this idea is by turning to an example in pop-culture. Zombies are dead people, but they are animate. In a sense, though dead they continue living. But in another sense, they are robbed of the kind of living that really matters. They don’t enjoy relationships, they don’t build anything of value, they don’t learn, all they do in their current state is follow the wind of their own fleshly desires. They devour that which is living (the good) caring little that their actions destroy life.

Spiritual Death in Christ

The final aspect of death that I intend to speak on in regards to biblical teaching is that which pertains to the antithesis to spiritual death experienced in the garden. This spiritual death was passed onto all the sons/daughters of Adam through his one transgression (violation of the law; an act of rebellion) we all became sinners (Rom 5.18-19). The antithesis to this death is found in the life-giving sacrifice of Jesus of Nazareth, the Christ.

Briefly Looking at Romans 6-8…

Paul explains this reality for us. This is the teaching found in Romans 6-8. After pointing to the greater gift of blessing found in Jesus as opposed to Adam (Rom 5.16-21), Paul begins to describe the spiritual state of things for those found in Christ.

**(My intention is only to hit some of the high points of this teaching. I will leave the rest to my readers to investigate these things for themselves).  

Grace is given where sin abounds. This is a gift by God to His people, those that bear the Name of His Son. In Romans 6:2, Paul asks a rhetorical question:

“How shall we who died to sin still live in it?” (NASB).

Here the apostle teaches that those found in Christ have died to sin. Is this death physical? No, but it is a literal (real) death. The death is spiritual in nature. Before Christ all sinned and fell short of the glory of God (Rom 3.23), but after Christ a radical change of heart has taken place. The point of this death is found in our baptism in Christ.

**(Without delving into another subject, I will merely point out that true baptism is spiritual in nature, touching the inner nature of a man, regenerating him, not the mere washing away of dirt as with water. The water serves as a symbol of the purification/cleansing of sins into a new life in God through Christ by the power of the Holy Spirit).

Paul’s intention with this question is to demand a negative answer: “If we have died to sin, then we surely cannot continue to live in it.” This is drawn out in verses 3-7:

“Or do you not know that all of us who have been baptized into Christ Jesus have been baptized into His death? Therefore we have been buried with Him through baptism into death, so that as Christ was raised from the dead through the glory of the Father, so we too might walk in newness of life. For if we have become united with Him in the likeness of His death, certainly we shall also be in the likeness of His resurrection, knowing this, that our old self was crucified with Him, in order that our body of sin might be done away with, so that we would no longer be slaves to sin; for he who has died is freed from sin” (NASB).

I realize I’ve been a bit long here, so allow me to quickly summarize the important elements of Paul’s discussion here. Believers are found in Christ because they have been baptized into His death. What sort of death did Christ die? A righteous one, an obedient one (Rom 5.18b, 19b). Unlike Adam, Christ’s response to God was absolute adherence to His revealed Word. Jesus was obedient on all points to the Law-Word of God.

To be baptized into Him means to share in His righteous death. Because of this we now share in the likeness of Him who died. In other words, we share in His righteousness as newly born creatures who “walk in newness of life.” Our former selves—spiritual dead sinners—has been buried and “done away with, so that we would no longer be slaves to sin.” Why? “for he who has died is freed from sin.”

An ‘At Once,’ and Yet ‘Ongoing Process’…

When Adam fell in the garden the sentence of death was two things at once: immediate, ongoing.

  • Immediately: Spiritually, the bent of Adam’s heart was not towards God, but away from Him. This was displayed in the covering of his nakedness (shame, sin), attempting to hide in the dark from the light of God’s presence, and in blaming others—including God, His Maker, for his own sin.
  • Ongoing: The process of returning to the dust from which he came was ongoing. Adam’s life would be plagued by sin. He would always struggle with this antagonistic nature towards God’s holiness and his own self-will (cf. Rom 7.21-23). Eventually, though the resultant judgement would be carried out and Adam would waste away into physical death.

I see in this picture of “dying you shall die” (Gen 2.17; often translated “surely die”) because of sin, also evident in the life of believers but in an opposite way. For in Christ, we who have died to sin through His life-giving sacrifice, having been immediately ushered into a blessed state with God. For from our wretched state of death in sin, God has saved us through Jesus Christ out Lord! (Rom 7.24-25), and we are found without condemnation for the dominion of sin has been broken (Rom 8.1-2). And yet, we will find a war still being waged in our hearts/minds throughout the duration of our lives as we are beings sanctified through and through. Having our minds conformed not to the old way of thinking, but to the Spirit’s through Christ’s Word (Rom 8.29; 12.2). Thus, the redeemed of Christ have immediately died to sin, and yet at the same time the process of killing sin in our lives is an ongoing process.

Closing Remarks…

The Bible speaks of death in a variety of ways. An overarching definition that might be helpful would be “separation rather than cessation.” In the garden Adam and Eve died being “separated” from the presence of the Lord, as well as being separated from the bliss of harmonious relationships that existed formerly before they violated God’s Law-Word. In the passing of time we all will experience the separation of our person-hood from our bodies, with the one returning to the earth and the other to the Lord who created it. This will either happen naturally through the passing of time on the day appointed by the Lord, or it will happen as a result of criminal activity that warranted our execution in order to protect society from our vile influence. For the unrepentant sinner this “separation” from the life of God will end in eternal punishment/torment, but for those who have been separated from sin into the righteousness of Christ Jesus an entirely different fate awaits where we shall never be separated from the presence of our Creator/King.


ENDNOTES:

[1] Edward William Fudge and Robert A. Peterson, Two Views of Hell: A Biblical & Theological Dialogue (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 2000), 184, 185. Fudge first touches on this subject on pg. 22, but for the most part avoids the argument until his rebuttal of Peterson, who noted what he viewed as an erroneous premise held to be Fudge. Obviously, Fudge does tie this to the traditional understanding of death and hell in the Church, but how much weight he puts on the argument I cannot say. No doubt he leans upon it, but just how much must be drawn from his other comments rather than relied upon by direct statements.

[2] To be excommunicated, which is how some understand the concept of being “cut-off,” is a figurative death sentence as the offending party is being driven from the presence of the Lord (cf. Gen 3.23-24). This concept is seen in the NT in 1Cor 5:1-6 in the incestuous relationship of a man with his father’s wife (i.e., his step-mother). And in regards to divorce as a comparison of Romans 7:1-3 and 1Cor 7:12-15 reveals. Marriage is a covenantal bond before God that is unbreakable except in the case of death. However, due to the hardness that sin brings in man’s hearts, divorce was granted in circumstances where the covenantal bonds were broken. In that case the innocent party, was free to remarry since the former union was considered dead. Such conclusions ought not to come quickly to us, but if we are diligent in studying all that Scripture says on the subject, I do not think you will find such conclusions outside the realm of what God is actually teaching.

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