Death (in the Bible)

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Because ancient Semitic anthropology, or concept of man's composition, differs so strikingly from the Greek dichotomistic view of man widely held today, it would be incorrect to define death in Biblical thought simply as the separation of the soul from the body. An adequate explanation requires an investigation of the Biblical data. This article discusses the Bible's teaching on death first from a physiological, then from a theological point of view; finally it discusses the metaphorical uses of the term.

Physiologically Considered. For the man of the ancient Orient, life and death were not two abstract entities, but two opposing spheres. Death (Heb. māwet ) was experienced not only spatially as the realm of the dead, but also dynamically through its power (Hos 13.14). The Israelite did not meditate on death as a physiological process, neither did he describe death as a separation of body and soul in the Greek manner. Rather, he viewed death as the ultimate and undesired weakening and loss of vitality. Only in advanced age did death become acceptable as something natural [Ps 89 (90).10]. The emptying out of man in death was concretely pictured as a going out of the nepeš, the soul or vital force (Gn 35.18; 2 Sm 1.9; 1 Kgs 17.21). [see soul, (in the bible).] Man lost his vital force with the last breath that he exhaled (Jb 11.20; Jer 15.9). On the basis of the empirical observation that life manifests itself in breath, the death of man or beast was described as the departure of the breath (Heb. rûa ) from the body, as in Ps 145 (146).4; 103 (104).29; Jb 12.10; Eccl 8.8; 12.7.

In a somewhat later conception, the blood received primary consideration as the vitalizing element. [see blood, religious significance of.] Blood was called the seat of life; when the blood was poured out, life also flowed away (Lv 17.11; Dt 12.23).

The NT described the physiological phenomenon of death (θάνατος) in a similar fashion. Here too, the principle of life was the spirit or breath (πνε[symbol omitted]μα) given by God (Acts 17.25). Death is the giving up of the spirit (Mt 27.50; Lk 23.46; Jn 19.30) or of the soul (φυχή; see Jn 10.11; 15.17; 13.37). Without the spirit, the body is dead (Jas 2.26); if a dead person comes back to life, his spirit returns (Lk 8.55).

Theologically Considered. There is a continuity in the teaching on death in the OT and in the NT. In each case death is seen to be the ultimate consequence of sin. Yet in the NT, because of the victory of Christ over sin and the kingdom of Satan and the Christian's conformation to His death and Resurrection, death takes on a new, less terrible meaning.

In the Old Testament. Since the violence of death is such a terrible evil, man naturally connected its origin with primeval transgression and consequent punishment. It could not have been intended by an all-good God who had indeed destined man for life (Gn 2.9; 3.22); only by breaking God's command was man to die (Gn 2.17; 3.3; see also Rom 5.1221). Death is an inescapable necessity, yet those are praised who die "after a full life" (Gn 25.8) or "at a good old age" (Gn 15.15; Jgs 8.32).

For the Israelite, death was thought not only to affect the body, but also to mark the end of all religious activity. God's relationship to sheol (abode of the deadthe nether world) is difficult to define (see Is 38.11). It was subject to His limitless power [Am 9.2; Is 7.11; Ps 138 (139).8; Jb 26.6], but He seemed to have no concern about the dead [Ps 87 (88).6]. Similarly after death man thought no more of Yahweh or of His wonderful deeds [Ps 6.6; 87 (88).13]. He no longer praised God's goodness and fidelity [Ps 29 (30).10; 87 (88).12; 114 (115).17; Is 38.18], or rendered honor to the Lord, or extolled His righteousness (Bar 2.17). This is the most decisive as well as the most crushing statement on the dead in the OT. It naturally engendered a horror of death that could be lightened only by a long life, which was the most tangible proof of God's lasting favor. The apocalyptic world concept that became familiar in late Judaism broke the ground for the decisive change of attitude toward death in the NT. (see resurrection of the dead, 1; afterlife,2.) From this point on, it was believed that God would conquer death, at least for a portion of mankind, through the eschatological salvific resuscitation and the inauguration of a new era.

In the OT, death is viewed as the climax of all pain and sorrow, the final estrangement from God that flowed from God's wrath and was provoked by primeval as well as personal sins (Prv 2.18; 7.27; 21.16; 22.23; Is 5.14). A long life is looked upon as a reward for virtue and for faithfulness to Yahweh's law (Dt 30.1520; 32.47; Bar3.14). By committing sins, the Israelite brings a premature death upon himself [Ps 54 (55).24; Jb 15.32; 22.16]. By the practice of virtue, good deeds, and almsgiving, man could make reparation for his sins and thus save himself from an early death (Prv 10.2; 11.4; Tb 4.11;12.9). Vigorous opposition to any generalization of this doctrine is found in Wis 4.720; this reflects a more mature attitude to the problem of retribution.

In the New Testament. The dominating concern in the NT is not death, but life in Christ. The core of the apostolic kerygma is the death and Resurrection of Christ that bring salvation for all men and ensure man's resurrection. Christ "destroyed death" (2 Tm 1.10) by suffering it Himself and by atoning for sin. By His death, He annihilated the one who held the empire of death, the devil (Heb 2.1415). Death now has no effective power over the redeemed. Finally, in apocalyptic terminology, death will be "cast into the pool of fire" (Rv 20.14), and by virtue of Christ's victory, "death shall be no more" (Rv 21.4).

In Metaphorical Sense. Often death designates not so much the separation of the body from the soul, as the privation of everything that can contribute to true happiness in this world or in the next; e.g., sin deprives man of God's friendship and brings about death (Prv 11.19). Further, the winding roads of lies and other vices lead to death (Prv 12.28; 14.12; 16.25; Wis 1.12). In the NT, the word death is frequently used to refer to the eternal death, i.e., damnation, that results from disbelief and sin (Jn5.24; 8.51; Rom 7.911; Jas 1.15; 1 Jn 3.14; 5.16); Revelation uses the term "second death" for this (2.11; 20.6, 14; 21.8). Spiritual death is overcome by spiritual resurrection, i.e., by repentance and conversion (Acts 11.18). Finally, the word death is used figuratively by St. Paul for the passage from the state of sin to the state of grace through baptism: the believer "dies" to sin (Rom 6.211; 1 Pt 2.24), is buried with Christ (Rom 6.4, 8), so that he may rise with Christ to a new life in God (Rom 6.5; Col3.14). St. John, too, describes man's justification as the transition from death to life (1 Jn 3.14). He who possesses the Son, i.e., is united with Him in faith and love, enjoys the new spiritual life of divine adoption that will find its ultimate completion in heavenly glory (Jn 3.15).

Bibliography: Encyclopedic Dictionary of the Bible, tr. and adap. by l. hartman (New York 1963) from a. van den born, Bijbels Woordenboek, 532536. h. schmid and b. riecke, Die Religion in Geschichte und Gegenwart, 7 v. (3d ed. Tübingen 195765) 6:912914. h. lesÈtre, Dictionaire de la Bible, ed. f. vigouroux, 5 v. (Paris 18951912) 4.2:128589. r. k. bultmann et al., g. kittel, Theologisches Wörterbuch zum Neuen Testament (Stuttgart 1935) 2:833877; 3:721. j. a. fischer, Studien zum Todesgedanken in der alten Kirche (Munich 1954). e. c. rust, Nature and Man in Biblical Thought (London 1953). r. k. bultmann, Theology of the NT, tr. k. grobel, 2 v. (New York 195155). g. von rad, OT Theology, tr. d. stalker (New York 1962), passim.

[h. kÖster]