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What Does the Bible Say About Death? Basic Beliefs

Tom May
holding the Holy Bible

What does the Bible say about death? Can one find comfort and hope in its words? The shadows of death lurk around every corner. Benjamin Franklin's words have echoed for over two hundred years: "In this world nothing can be said to be certain, except death and taxes." Is it possible to learn more about the experience of death from Bible passages?

Euphemisms in the Bible About Dying

Though acquainted with death, its experience remains a mystery to everyone. The unknown finds a better definition though a comparison to the known. The Bible uses several expressions to paint an accurate portrait of death's power. These euphemisms craft milder, gentler words and phrases about death in place of stronger, harsher terms. Scriptures wants to make clear the reality of death and the nature of its experience.

Going the Way of All the Earth

During the times of the Old Testament, Israel considered David to be her greatest king. As he was approaching death, he encouraged his son Solomon to be faithful to God. To let Solomon know that his death was near, David said, "I am going the way of all the earth" (1 Kings 2:2). The phrase was used to make clear that death is common to all people, kings and servants. The accepted belief among the nearby Egyptian people was that the Pharaoh, Egypt's equivalent of a king, was to be preserved so he could live again.

Breathed His Last

People in biblical times saw a great connection between breath and the spirit of life within someone. When God created Adam, the Bible records God "breathed into his nostrils the breath of life, and the man became a living being" (Genesis 2:7 NIV). At death, "our spirit will return to God who gave it" (Ecclesiastes 12:7 NIV). As Jesus died on the cross, He is described as "breathing his last" (Mark 15:37) and "giving up His spirit" (Matthew 27:50).

Gathered to His People

Several times, the Bible uses the image of people being "scattered" and then "gathered" back together. A description of the process of death uses "gathering" as its image. When Abraham died, the Bible records, "Abraham breathed his last and died in a ripe old age, an old man and satisfied with life; he was gathered to his people" (Genesis 25:8 NIV). Although several interpretations of the phrase are possible, the best seems to indicate that Abraham went to be with the believers who went on before him. A passage like this sparks interest and assurance that the life of the believer does not end, it continues on into eternity.

Fallen Asleep

The Bible uses the comparison between death and sleep more than fifty times. For this reason, Christians in the first century began calling their burial places "cemeteries" which in the Greek literally meant "dormitories" or "sleeping rooms." Christians believe that Christ will come again, ushering in a resurrection at the end of time. They saw death as a time of sleep until His return. They understood death allowed a believer to "rest in peace." Some verses using the imagery of sleep include:

  • Daniel 12:2 - "Multitudes who sleep in the dust of the earth will awake: some to everlasting life, others to shame and everlasting contempt" (NIV).
  • Job 3:11-17 - "For now I would be lying down in peace; I would be asleep and at rest" (Job 3:13 NIV).
  • John 11:11-14 - "After he had said this, he went on to tell them, 'Our friend Lazarus has fallen asleep; but I am going there to wake him up.' His disciples replied, 'Lord, if he sleeps, he will get better.' Jesus had been speaking of his death, but his disciples thought he meant natural sleep. So then he told them plainly, 'Lazarus is dead,'" (NIV).
  • 1 Thessalonians 4:15-17 - "According to the Lord's word, we tell you that we who are still alive, who are left until the coming of the Lord, will certainly not precede those who have fallen asleep" (1 Thessalonians 4:14 NIV).
Women reading the Holy Bible

The Last Enemy

The Bible teaches that death is an enemy of God and man. Rebellion against God led to the presence of death. Death reigns today over all the earth. But the Bible teaches that eventually death will be destroyed forever. Paul writes to the Corinthians and tells them that death will be the last enemy to be destroyed (1 Corinthians 15:26).

What Does the Bible Say About Death?

The Bible speaks often about death and dying. Depending upon the translation, there are over 1,600 references to death in most English Bibles. The Old Testament uses the Hebrew word "maveth" (twm) and its derivatives some 160 times, most often in the books of Psalms and Proverbs. The New Testament focuses on two words to describe death: "thanatos" (θάνατος) and "nekros" (νεκρὸς) with the former some 119 times. The words convey the idea of a separation of the soul and the body. It can be used to describe a violent or a natural circumstance in which life on earth has ended. The Scripture uses the words to portray three images or kinds of death.

There Is a Spiritual Death

One of the deaths described by the Bible is the separation of man from God. This image goes all the way back to the Garden of Eden and the sin of Adam and Eve (Genesis 2:16-17). A person can be alive physically but dead spiritually (Matthew 8:22; 1 Timothy 5:6). An individual has opportunities throughout the physical life to reverse the status of spiritual death.

There Is a Physical Death

The second type described in the Bible presents death as a separation of the soul and spirit from the physical body. There is no escaping the physical death. "It is appointed for men once to die, and after this the judgment" (Hebrews 9:27). Unless the Lord returns, everyone will experience death. The Bible tells of only two exceptions, individuals who did not undergo a physical death but were transformed in a way that separated their souls from their bodies. One was Enoch (Genesis 5:23-24) and the other was Elijah (2 Kings 2:1, 11).

There Is an Eternal or Final Death

The Bible also speaks of death as a place of final judgment (Matthew 25:41). Death is seen as the final resting place for the devil, his demonic followers, and the wicked. The final death is a place of torment and punishment, described in terms of fire, suffering and torment (Mark 9:44-48). This is often contrasted against the backdrop of "eternal life" which describes the final home for the faithful.

Meditating on God's word

Other Scriptures Broaden Understanding

In addition to gentle euphemisms and descriptions of different types of death, the Bible represents death in a few other ways that connote its nature and how it affects humans. Separately, these concepts give a better glimpse of death, but together they widen the horizon of the understanding of its effect.

The Shadow of Death

One of the most well-known verses in the Bible teaches us about death. The 23rd Psalm offers comfort and hope when the words are recited at funerals or sang in songs. Those grieving the loss of a loved one cling to the words "when I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I will fear no evil" (Psalm 23:4). Job, when speaking of the calamities and pain of his life, uttered the prayer, "Let darkness and the shadow of death stain it" (Job 3:5). Job's cry is the first of 20 references in the Bible to "the shadow of death." The shadow casts its darkness over everything close to what it touches.

The Silence of Death

Silence can be eerie. It is calming and encouraging in certain places and occasions, but when its length lingers, silence brings an uneasy and uncomfortable feeling. There is a desire to hear the sounds of our friends and family. Many avoid the silence of being alone with thoughts. In describing praising God and death, the Psalmist writes, "It is not the dead who praise the Lord, those who go down to the place of silence" (Psalm 115:17).

Death Has a Sting

Although the power of death seems insurmountable, the Bible reaches that its potency is nothing more than a sting. "Where O death, is your victory? Where, O death, is your sting" (1 Corinthians 15:55). In the New Testament, Paul affirms to his Roman readers that death entered into the world through Adam's sin (Romans 5:12). God has secured death's defeat through the resurrection of Jesus. Death no longer possesses victory.

Death Is the Result of Sin

The Bible teaches that death entered the world as a punishment for sinning against God's commands. God warned Adam and Eve not to eat of the fruit of the tree in the Garden of Eden "for when you eat from it, you will certainly die" (Genesis 2:17 NIV). Since the time of Adam, everyone has sinned against God and against others (Romans 3:23). In the New Testament, Paul affirms to his Roman readers that death entered into the world through Adam's sin (Romans 5:12). He compares death to the wages received for work on a job. "The wages of sin is death" (Romans 6:23). Because of the work of sin, the paycheck received is death.

The Death of Death

Christians believe the Bible teaches that Jesus "abolished death and brought life" to people through the gospel (2 Timothy 1:10). The Hebrew writer shares the theological importance of Christ's death for the believer. "Since the children have flesh and blood, he (meaning Jesus) too shared in their humanity so that by his death he might break the power of him who holds the power of death - that is, the devil - and free those who all their lives were held in slavery by their fear of death" (Hebrews 2:14-15 NIV). The Apostle Paul has the confidence to write, "For me to live is Christ, and to die is gain" I(Philippians 1:21).

Death Is Not the End

Death is a real, but sad part of the life of everyone. The desire for most is that "the day of [our] death is better than the day of our birth" (Ecclesiastes 7:2). By heeding what the Bible teaches about death, there can be comfort, assurance and hope for living and especially for those in mourning.

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What Does the Bible Say About Death? Basic Beliefs