The Biblical View of Death

By Wayne Jackson

When the writer of Psalms exclaimed: “. . . the terrors of death are fallen upon me. Fearfulness and trembling are come upon me. And horror has overwhelmed me” (Psa. 55:4-5), he expressed the sentiments of vast multitudes who have faced the prospect of death. Bildad, Job’s friend, characterized death as the “king of terrors” (Job 18:14). And the writer of Hebrews spoke of those “who through fear of death were all their lifetime subject to bondage” (Heb. 2:15).

Though few of us may reach that plateau of faith where we might say, along with Paul, that we desire to die (Phil. 1:23), certainly with the illumination of the New Testament revelation we can face the mysteries of death with calmer spirits. What is the biblical view of death?

The Sleep of Death

Death is a sleep. The New Testament speaks of them “that are fallen asleep in Jesus” (1 Thes. 4:14). The term “sleep” is used in the Scriptures to describe the state of the body in death. Only the body of man sleeps in death. This is revealed in Daniel 12:2 where the dead are described as those who “sleep in the dust of the earth.” Here, it is obvious that:

(1) The part of man that is placed in the dust of the earth is that which sleeps.
(2) But it is man’s body that is placed in the earth.
(3) Thus, it is the body that sleeps in death, not the spirit.

In the New Testament the word “asleep” is the Greek koimaomai, which is from keimai, literally meaning “to lie down.” The Greeks used the word koimeterion of a place where traveling strangers could stop for sleep, and from that word derives our term “cemetery,” a place where the bodies of the dead lie sleeping. Some scholars suggest that the use of “sleep” for death conveys the idea "that, as the sleeper does not cease to exist while his body sleeps, so the dead person continues to exist despite his absence from the region in which those who remain can communicate with him, and that, as sleep is known to be temporary, so the death of the body will be found to be. . . " (W.E. Vine & C.F. Hogg, Expository Commentary on 1&2 Thessalonians, Nashville: Nelson, 1997, p. 95). Also, death is a state of rest from the toils and cares of the world. There, “the wicked cease from troubling; and the weary are at rest” (Job 3:17; cf. Rev. 14:13).

Back to the Dust

The Bible also realistically speaks of the decomposition of the body. When Adam and Eve sinned, they were deprived of the tree of life and hence of physical immortality (Gen. 3:22; Rom. 5:12). It is, therefore, man’s lot to return to the dust of the ground (Gen. 3:19; Ecclesiastes 12:7).

Paul speaks of the earthly house of our tabernacle being “dissolved” by death (2 Cor. 5:1). The Greek term for “dissolved” is kataluo, literally meaning to “loose down,” a vivid expression for fleshly decomposition. It is sad that some refuse to acknowledge the fate of the body, spending vast sums of money in attempting to preserve their mortal remains in hope of resuscitation. In spite of claims to the contrary, physical immortality will never be achieved by the medical profession.

The Sentimental Journey

Death is a departure. Death occurs when the spirit leaves the body (Jas. 2:26). When Dorcas died, Christian widows stood near her body and showed the garments she had made “while she was with them” (Acts 9:39). Her body was there, but “she” (i.e., her spirit or personality) was gone!

Paul thought of death as a departure (Phil. 1:23). Interestingly, the apostle here uses the term analuo (loosed up). At death, though the body is “loosed down” (see above on 2 Cor. 5:1), the spirit of man is “loosed up.” When Lazarus died, his spirit “was carried away by the angels into Abraham’s bosom” (Lk. 16:22). These passages, and a host of others, are devastating to the materialistic theories that assert that man is a wholly physical being.

Another interesting word that reveals death as a journey is the term exodus. On the mount of transfiguration, the Lord talked of his impending “decease” (exodus, Lk. 9:31), and Peter wanted his brethren to remember his words after his “departure” (exodus, 2 Pet. 1:15). This is the very word used of the Israelites’ departure from Egypt (cf. Heb. 11:22, and the title of the Book of Exodus in the Septuagint). As the Hebrews continued to consciously exist while passing from Egypt into the wilderness of Sinai, even so, we continue to consciously exist when our departure is made from earthly regions to the realm of disembodied spirits.

Blissful Reunions

Death is a reunion with righteous loved ones. It is written of the patriarch Abraham, “Abraham gave up the ghost, and died. . . and was gathered to his people” (Gen. 25:8). This cannot refer to the interment of Abraham’s body. He was buried near Mamre in Palestine. Yet his ancestors had been entombed hundreds of miles away in distant lands! The expressions “gathered to his people,” and “going to his fathers” (Judg. 2:10), are constantly distinguished from being buried and denote reunion with loved ones in Sheol, the sphere of departed spirits (C.F. Keil & F. Delitzsch, The Pentateuch, Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1980, I, p. 263).

When Jesus suggested that many would sit down with Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob in the kingdom of heaven (Mt. 8:11), he certainly implied a reunion among those three.

Face-to-face with Christ

For those who die in Christ, death is union with the Lord. Jesus informed the dying thief, “Today you shall be with me in paradise” (Lk. 23:43). And as previously observed, Paul longed to depart to be “with Christ” (Phil. 1:23).

In a passage brimming with comfort, the apostle affirms that “to be absent from the body” (i.e., be dead) is, in reality, “to be at home with the Lord” (2 Cor. 5:8). The expression “to be at home” is used in Greek of “one among his own people” in contrast to “one away from home.” (A.T. Robertson, Word Pictures, Nashville: Broadman, 1931, IV, p. 229).

Additionally, the phrase “with pros the Lord,” as here used, means to be in the presence of the Lord! Alford Plummer says it implies “that at death there is immediate entrance into closer fellowship with Christ” (International Critical Commentary, II Corinthians, Edinburgh: T.&T. Clark, 1925, p. 153). Yes, at death the spirit “returns to God who gave it” (Eccl. 12:7), and he will assign it its final disposition.

The Agony of Defeat

For the wicked, death begins an eternity of suffering. Though it is not a popular theme in contemporary society, the doctrine of hell is still a vital part of the Bible. At death, all who have lived in rebellion to God will enter a spirit state characterized by pains, trouble, and sorrow (Psa. 116:3). They will be immersed in shame and contempt (Dan. 12:2). It will be a realm of anguish, suffering, and torment (Mt. 22:13; 25:46; Mk. 9:48; Lk. 16:24; 2 Thes. 1:9; Rev. 20:10).

Prepare for Your Death

One cannot live wrong and die right! After death there is no opportunity for repentance or salvation. Such concepts as “a second chance after death,” “baptism for the dead,” and “purgatory,” are totally without basis in the Scriptures. While it is still “today,” therefore, let us resolve to learn the will of Christ and to obey the same (Heb. 5:8-9).

One must believe in Christ (Jn. 8:24), turn from sin (Lk. 13:3), and unite with the Lord in the likeness of his death through immersion in water (Rom. 6:3-4). Then, as a newborn babe, long for the word and grow thereby (1 Pet. 2:2; cf. 2 Pet. 3:18).

Though there are many things about death that we do not know (and the unknown can be somewhat frightening), the inspired word of God does afford enough information that we may take courage at the prospect of dying. Indeed, by faith, we know that for the faithful child of Jehovah, death will be an absolutely thrilling experience!

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About the Author

Wayne Jackson has written for and edited the Christian Courier since its inception in 1965. He has also written several books on a variety of biblical topics including The Bible and Science, Creation, Evolution, and the Age of the Earth, The Bible on Trial, and a number of commentaries. He lives in Stockton, California with his dear wife, and life-long partner, Betty.