Three Kinds of Death

by Mike Ratliff

And you were dead in the trespasses and sins in which you once walked, following the course of this world, following the prince of the power of the air, the spirit that is now at work in the sons of disobedience– among whom we all once lived in the passions of our flesh, carrying out the desires of the body and the mind, and were by nature children of wrath, like the rest of mankind. (Ephesians 2:1-3 ESV)

The fallen nature of man does not understand death. Depending on culture, some fight to stay alive with their all. The correct understanding of death comes to us from God’s Word. The word death is used in three different ways in Sacred Scripture. The first is spiritual death, which is separation from God (Ephesians 2:1,1). Then, of course, there is physical death (Hebrews 9:27). Then there is eternal death, which is referred to as “the second death” in Revelation 20:11-15). While many would consider the topic of death to be a subject to be avoided, it is vital for us to have a clear understanding of all three manifestations in biblical terminology so that we will have a better foundation for sharing the Good News. 

For the wages of sin is death, but the free gift of God is eternal life in Christ Jesus our Lord. (Romans 6:23 ESV)

The Greek word translated “death” in this passage is θανατος. It is pronounced “thanatos.” It refers to either physical or spiritual death. On the other hand, the word he used for death in Ephesians 2:1 (above) is νεκρους, which is pronounced “nekros.” This word also refers to either physical or spiritual death so we must determine Paul’s meaning from the context. At the fall, Genesis 3, all three aspects of death came with it. Before the fall, Adam was not subject to any form of death, but through his sin, death became a grim reality for the entire human race. The death Paul refers to in Romans 6:23 are spiritual death as well as eternal death, but not physical death. The wages of sin is separation from God both in the temporal and the eternal. However, Paul also gives us two absolutes about the reality of death and life in God’s economy. The first is that spiritual death and eternal separation from God are the wages for every person’s slavery to sin. However, the good news is that we have a second absolute, which is that eternal life is a free gift God gives undeserving sinners who believe in His Son (Ephesians 2:8-10).

Physical death is something none of can quite get our minds around. I have been to plenty of funerals of relatives and have lost friends to this enemy as well. This also entered into the world at the fall.

And just as it is appointed for man to die once, and after that comes judgment, so Christ, having been offered once to bear the sins of many, will appear a second time, not to deal with sin but to save those who are eagerly waiting for him. (Hebrews 9:27-28 ESV)

The Greek word the writer of Hebrews used that is translated here as “to die” is αποθανειν, pronounced “apothanen.” In this context, it must refer to physical death. Therefore, this death takes a person from the temporal into the eternal.

The last form of death is the worst, for those who enter in to it will be there eternally.

Then I saw a great white throne and him who was seated on it. From his presence earth and sky fled away, and no place was found for them. And I saw the dead, great and small, standing before the throne, and books were opened. Then another book was opened, which is the book of life. And the dead were judged by what was written in the books, according to what they had done. And the sea gave up the dead who were in it, Death and Hades gave up the dead who were in them, and they were judged, each one of them, according to what they had done. Then Death and Hades were thrown into the lake of fire. This is the second death, the lake of fire. And if anyone’s name was not found written in the book of life, he was thrown into the lake of fire. (Revelation 20:11-15 ESV)

The word John used for death in v14 referring to the “second death” is θανατος, however, when describing “the dead” in vv12-13 he used νεκρους. The key for us my brethren is v15. Who is thrown into the lake of fire, which is the second death? Those whose names are not written in the book of life were thrown into the eternal flame. On the other hand, those not thrown in do have their names in this book. This book of ζωης or zoes or life contains all of the names of those who have believed God like Abraham, and who have believed in God’s Son, the Lord Jesus Christ. Until we too succumb to physical death, let us eagerly share our faith with all who will hear. We should gently lead them to see their sin and separation from God as well as the only way out from under His wrath, which is the way provided by our Lord Jesus on the Cross.

Soli Deo Gloria!

10 thoughts on “Three Kinds of Death

  1. Thanks to Christ for conquering death for me so I wont have to experience the third death. Lets look to Christ, the author and perfecter of our faith.

  2. Jon, Amen and let it be stated emphatically that all in Christ have also been delivered from separation from God (the first death) in this life. What a blessing it is to know that we are accepted in the beloved for the sake of our sinless Lord rather than on our own merit, which is as filthy rags in God’s sight, or our works of the flesh. Instead, as we work out our salvation in humility as God works in us to draw us to Himself to do good works for His glory and our edification.

  3. Mike-
    Great commentary. One thing I just noticed, even though I have read Revelation 20:11-15 many times, is how it says “and books were opened. Then another book was opened, which is the book of life.” What is the reason for books (plural) and then when it refers to book of life it just says book? I am curious as to why it says books vs book (when referring to life). Is this an indicator for how there will be many more lost than saved? Just curious.

  4. Adrian,

    Yes, there are more than just the book of life, which contains the names of those in Christ. The other book(s) contain the “deeds” that God will use to judge each person. Those whose names are in the book of life have already had their “deeds” judged at the Cross.

    In Christ

    Mike Ratliff

  5. I am very familiar with the Greek language and I was wondering where you obtained the definition that death means separation. Revelation says that unbelievers “will be tormented . . . in the presence of the Lamb.” (Rev. 14:10) I am not in any way in disagreement with what you said, but am just wondering if the definition of ‘seperation’ is a theological assumption or whether you found this word used this way in a text or in a lexicon. I would like to look at your source on this if you have one. Thank you for your article.

  6. J. Randall,

    Thanks for your comment. I did not get that definition from a Greek Lexicon. I got if from the doctrinal statements that tell us that spiritual life is found in God alone, therefore, those not in Christ are separated from God. They are separated from God because their sin is not covered by the blood of Christ. Since the fall, no one can approach God without a blood sacrifice, hence the need for the Cross and it is Christ’s blood that is the covering for those in Him that they are included in the beloved.

    In Christ

    Mike Ratliff

  7. I do not mean to be a bother. I agree with what you are saying. Separated from spiritual life, grace, favor, and ect., but recipients of wrath, judgment, punishment, and ect. I am just looking for the source (doctrinal statments) that uses the word ‘separation.’ I am not debating with you only seeking a source for something else that I am working on.

  8. Pastor Easter, I understand. I have heard that ever since I have been a Christian, but a good source that I use for a source of commentary is John MacArthur’s Commentary on the Whole Bible. If you have it lookup the Atonement, etc.

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