Why Do People Die?

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from 40 Questions About Heaven and Hell
by Alan W. Gomes

The question of what may await us after we die requires us to explore why it is that we die in the first place. If we can get a handle on why death is the common experience of humankind, this will help us better understand what we might expect to occur after it.

When we deal with “why” questions such as this, we can approach them from several different angles. One obvious answer would be that people die because their bodies—the “biological machine,” as it were—wears out or otherwise stops functioning. A “natural” process of decay and corruption be- sets all biological organisms and human beings are not exempt. Sometimes, though, we might not live long enough to perish from these so-called “natural causes” and meet our demise instead through accidents, natural disasters, homicide, etc. Regardless, people die when and because their bodies sustain damage to the point where they can no longer maintain life.

So much for death’s most immediate cause. But what if we push the “why” question back even further? We could certainly imagine a world in which human beings do not wear out and decay. Why is that not the kind of world in which we find ourselves? In fact, if a loving and all-powerful God, such as Christians profess, really created this world, would we not expect him to have created a deathless world? Is this really the best that God could do? How are we to explain the presence of death and destruction in our universe?

The Scriptures give us some insight into the more remote or ultimate rea- sons behind why we die. We start first with the biblical understanding of what death is, in its most basic sense, and then move on to what the Bible tells us about its cause.

Defining Death, according to the Bible

As many biblical scholars and theologians have observed, the Bible teaches that the essence of death is separation. This is so whether it uses the word “death” literally or figuratively. Laidlaw states that for human beings, “death means separation, cutting off: primarily, of his spiritual life from God;  secondarily, of his soul from his body.”[1]

Speaking of physical death, the seventeenth-century Lutheran theologian J. A. Quenstedt defined it succinctly: “[Physical] death, properly speaking, sig nifies the separation of the soul from the body, and its deprivation of animal life.”[2] A number of biblical passages bear out this understanding. Consider James 2:26, which reads, “For as the body apart from (chōris)[3] the spirit (pneu matos) is dead, so also faith apart from works is dead.” Here, the “spirit” (Gk. pneuma) is seen in its capacity of giving life to or “vivifying” the body on the physical level.[4] Along the same lines is Genesis 35:18, which speaks of Rachel’s “soul” (Heb. nefesh) “departing” when she died. The word nefesh has a range of meaning, variously defined as “life,” “soul,” or “person.”[5] The Old Testament conveys the same idea by the Hebrew word ruakh, or “spirit,” as in Psalm 31:5: “Into your hand I commit my spirit.” Likewise, some New Testament passages speak of “yielding up” one’s spirit (pneuma), resulting in physical death (Matt. 27:50; John 19:30; Acts 7:59).

The Bible also uses the word “death” in various metaphorical ways. As with the literal use of death, the metaphorical or figurative uses also feature the idea of separation—specifically, the separation or estrangement of the person from God and from the benefits of his divine life. So, for instance, we have Ephesians 2:1, which declares that before conversion to Christ a person is “dead” in trespasses and sins, described several verses later as being “separated from Christ” (v. 12). Yet another metaphorical use of “death” in the Bible is the expression “second death,” used to describe the final fate of those who die in ultimate rejection of God’s provision for salvation. The second death is “a metaphorical term for eternal separation from the presence and glory of God (2 Thess. 1:7–10; Rev. 2:11; 20:6, 14–15).”[6] The Bible equates this “second death” with the “lake of fire”—also spoken of as “hell.”[7]

Determining the “Cause of Death,” according to Scripture

Having defined death from a biblical perspective, let us see what the Bible tells us about its cause. We shall consider the ultimate reason people die and not more immediate explanations, such as heart attacks or car accidents.

Biblically speaking, we may answer this question simply enough, though the implications of this simple answer are many. “The answer to this question is summed up by Paul: ‘The wages of sin is death’ (Rom. 6:23).”[8] In other words, death is the punishment for sin.

In saying that death is the punishment for sin, I am not suggesting that everyone dies for committing some particular misdeed or other, such as when a police officer shoots and fatally wounds a bank robber. Indeed, infants die all the time and yet they do not rob banks, use profanity, or exceed the speed limit. Rather, we are talking about something much more fundamental here: the fall of the entire human race into sin, resulting from Adam and Eve’s original transgression in the garden. This “fall” is what we commonly consider under what theologians call the doctrine of “original sin.” (We shall consider this doctrine in more detail in Question 11.)

One of the earliest verses in the Bible presents the truth of the fall and its consequences in all of its stark reality. In Genesis 2:17, God commanded Adam and Eve not to eat from the tree of the knowledge of good and evil, warning them, “in the day that you eat of it you shall surely die.” Whether this verse is referring to a literal tree or to something symbolic is irrelevant to the point.[9] If the verse means anything, it surely means this: Adam and Eve were to obey God’s direct command, and failure to do so—which is sin—would result in punishment, namely death. Of course, the biblical record shows clearly what happened: Adam and Eve disobeyed and thereby set in motion the wheels of death.[10]

In the New Testament, the apostle Paul gives what is perhaps the most extended discussion of death as the punishment for sin in Romans 5.[11] In the relevant portions of this passage, Paul states:

Therefore, just as sin came into the world through one man, and death through sin, and so death spread to all men be- cause all sinned. For if many died through one man’s trespass, much more have the grace of God and the free gift by the grace of that one man Jesus Christ abounded for many. And the free gift is not like the result of that one man’s sin. For the judgment following one trespass brought condemnation, but the free gift following many trespasses brought justification. For if, because of one man’s trespass, death reigned through that one man, much more will those who receive the abundance of grace and the free gift of righteousness reign in life through the one man Jesus Christ. Therefore, as one trespass led to condemnation for all men, so one act of righteousness leads to justification and life for all men so that, as sin reigned in death, grace also might reign through righteousness leading to eternal life through Jesus Christ our Lord. (Rom. 5:12, 15–18, 21)

Observe the following conclusions that we can draw from this text.

Death, in All Its Parts, Entered the World through Sin

First, Paul tells us explicitly that death entered the world through sin. The death here is both spiritual and physical.[12] The relationship between this death and condemnation (v. 16) shows that it is certainly spiritual in nature. However, Adam’s sin brought in physical death as well. This is entirely consistent with what Paul states elsewhere, when he declares that all die in Adam physically (1 Cor. 15:21–22). Note, too, that when God punished Adam and Eve for their disobedience, as recorded in Genesis, he very clearly included physical death in this. Genesis 3:19 makes this plain, when God states, “to dust you shall return.” Thus, death—both physical and spiritual—is the punishment for sin.

Had Adam and Eve Not Sinned, They Would Not Have Died

The second conclusion that we can draw is that had Adam and Eve not sinned, they would not have died. In other words, death is in one very important sense unnatural; it was not part of God’s original or ultimate plan.[13]

This is obvious on its face. If Adam and Eve would have died anyway (i.e., apart from their disobedience), then it makes absolutely no sense for God to have threatened them with death as a consequence for their disobedience. It was only “in the day that they ate of it” that they would “surely die” and not before. In any case, Genesis 3:22 removes all doubt: Had God allowed them ongoing access to the tree of life, they would have lived forever.

Does this mean that God created Adam and Eve immortal, but that they lost their immortality through sin? Well, that depends upon what we mean by “immortal.”

Let us consider their physical immortality first. As Augustine described it, in their innocent state as originally created (i.e., before they sinned), Adam and Eve were “able not to die.” That is, God provided them with the means of living free from death and disease. Now, we should not confuse being “able not to die” with being “unable to die,” or being absolutely indestructible. Even apart from sin, Adam could have died in principle (e.g., if someone had dropped an anvil on his head or if he had been run over by a freight train). But God, in his providence, kept all external dangers from harming them in the garden and would have continued to do so for as long as they had remained in that garden without sin. As for death through internal causes, such as dis- ease and old age, God provided them with the tree of life, through which they would maintain their youthful vitality and be free of all such maladies.[14] In that sense, then, we could say that Adam and Eve were “immortal” in their unfallen state: not inherently, but in the sense that they would not have died. Nevertheless, as we shall see when we consider the nature of the resurrection body, a higher form of bodily immortality awaits us—a grade or quality of immortality that Adam and Eve never had. Believers will someday possess bodies that are, more properly speaking, immortal in the sense of being absolutely impervious to death (1 Cor. 15:53–54). Such bodies are not merely “able not to die” but are “unable to die.”[15]

As for whether God created Adam and Eve with immortal souls, for now it is enough to note that Adam and Eve’s soul/spirit survived the death of their bodies. This will be true for us as well. (I shall treat that in more detail in Question 6, “Does Our Soul or Spirit Survive the Death of Our Body?”)

Adam and Eve’s Sin Brought Death to All

The third conclusion that we must draw from that text in Romans is that Adam and Eve’s sin brought physical and spiritual death on you and me, as well as on themselves. I have alluded to this earlier when I mentioned the doc- trine of original sin. Since I examine this doctrine in more detail in Question 11, I shall not elaborate upon it here.

God Has Provided a Solution to the Scourge of Death

The final point is that God has provided a solution to death: the free gift of salvation through Jesus Christ. He alone has conquered death and provided deliverance from its power. Through Christ’s work, God has addressed the problem of death, both in its spiritual and in its physical aspects. Spiritually, he has brought us into a right relationship with God, so that we are no longer alienated from him but are declared “not guilty” of our sins (i.e., we are “justified”). Even more than that, we become his children by adoption (Rom. 8:15, 23; Gal. 4:5; Eph. 1:5). In addition, those who put their faith in Christ will have bodies one day that are better than the bodies of Adam and Eve ever were, even before they fell into sin. God will animate these new glorified bodies with a dynamic, vital, spiritual principle of life that will make them impervious to death, disease, and decay. We shall save our consideration of the astonishing characteristics of our resurrection bodies for Question 19, “What Will the Resurrection Body Be Like?” For now, it is enough to say that Jesus Christ is the answer to death in any and every sense of the word.

 

 


 

[1] John Laidlaw, The Bible Doctrine of Man (Edinburgh: T. & T. Clark, 1895), 245.

[2] J. A. Quenstedt, Theologica didactico-polemica (1685), 4.535, cited in Heinrich Schmid, Doctrinal Theology of the Evangelical Lutheran Church, trans. Charles A. Hay and Henry E. Jacobs (Minneapolis: Augsburg, 1961), 443.

[3] The Greek preposition chōris in this passage means “without the presence of,” and so well conveys the idea of separation. J. B. Bauer, “χωρις,” Exegetical Dictionary of the New Testament, 3 vols., ed. Horst Balz and Gerhard Schneider (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1993), 3:493.

[4] See Question 5, “What Does the Bible Mean When It Speaks of Our ‘Soul’ and ‘Spirit’?” for more detail.

[5] Robert Culver, Systematic Theology: Biblical and Historical (Fearn, Ross-shire, UK: Mentor, 2005), 1021. For a detailed and careful discussion on the meaning of the word nephesh, see Question 5.

[6] Paul Ferguson, “Death, Mortality,” EDBT, 156.

[7] See Revelation 20:6, 14-15; 21:8. We shall address the “second death” and the lake of fire more in Question 8 (concerning the biblical words for hell) and also under Section B of Part 4: “The Eternal State for Unbelievers (Hell).” For a good discussion of the second death, see René Pache, The Future Life (Chicago: Moody, 1962), 286.

[8] “θάνατος,” TDNTW, 534.

[9] Personally, I think it refers to a literal tree.

[10] In saying that Adam and Eve would die “in the day” that they ate the forbidden fruit, the text does not mean that they were to keel over dead on the spot. Indeed, according to Genesis 5:5, Adam did not die until he reached the age of 930. Rather, it means that the death sentence would be pronounced in that day, judicially speaking, even though the execution of that sentence would work itself out over time through an ongoing process of decay.

[11] Speaking of Paul generally, TDNTW notes, “It is Paul who, among the NT writers, reflects most on the connection between guilt and one’s mortal destiny” (“θάνατος,” 535).

[12] See Augustine, City of God 13.15, as proof that the divine threatening includes both physical and spiritual death.

[13] This includes not only human death but animal death as well: “If death is the consequence of human sin, then why are nonhuman living creatures likewise subject to mortality? To this Paul replies that the ‘creation’ has been subjected, not by its own will but as a result of human sin, to futility and impermanence. It now waits to be set free from death, together with the ‘children of God’ (Rom. 8:19–22). Thus, Paul does not regard even death in nature as a ‘natural’ phenomenon. From all that we have said, it is evident that in the NT death is regarded not as a natural process, but as a historical event resulting from the sinful human condition” (“θάνατος,” TDNTW, 535).

[14] “They were, then, nourished by other fruit, which they took, that their animal bodies might not suffer the discomfort of hunger of thirst; but they tasted the tree of life, that death might not steal upon them from any quarter, and that they might not, spent with age, decay” (Augustine, City of God 13.20). See also City of God 13.23; 14.26; On the Merits of Forgiveness of Sins, and on the Baptism of Infants 2.35.

[15] For an excellent discussion of Adam and Eve’s pre- and post-fall condition, see Laidlaw, The Bible Doctrine of Man, 233–46.

 


This post is adapted from 40 Questions About Heaven and Hell written by Alan W. Gomes. If you are interested in adopting this book for a college or seminary course, please request a faculty examination copy. We will also consider requests for your blog or media outlets.

In 40 Questions About Heaven and Hell, Alan Gomes surveys the Old and New Testaments to present a comprehensive picture of the afterlife. The question-and-answer format makes it easy to find answers to specific questions on heaven, hell, the intermediate state, the final judgment, and life in eternity. Readers will find solid answers to many vital questions:

  • What should we conclude about those who claim to have seen heaven or hell?
  • Is it possible for us to communicate with the dead?
  • Is there such a place as purgatory?
  • What will our resurrected bodies be like?
  • What will we do in the eternal state?
  • Will there be animals in the eternal state?
  • What is hell like?
  • How can a God of love send people to an eternal hell?
  • Did Jesus “descend into hell” like the Apostles’ Creed says?

Study notes point to additional resources for learning, and reflection questions at the end of each chapter make the book ideal for small group studies.

 


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About Author

Alan W. Gomes is professor of theology at Talbot School of Theology and the author of numerous books and articles on theology and apologetics. Find him at alangomes.com.

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