The three ways the Bible refers to death

by Mike Ratliff

1 And you were dead in your trespasses and sins, 2 in which you formerly walked according to the course of this world, according to the prince of the power of the air, of the spirit that is now working in the sons of disobedience. 3 Among them we too all formerly lived in the lusts of our flesh, indulging the desires of the flesh and of the mind, and were by nature children of wrath, even as the rest. Ephesians 2:1-3 (NASB) 

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. 

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

The Greek word translated “death” in this passage is θανατος (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 (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 us 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.

27 And inasmuch as it is appointed for men to die once and after this comes judgment, 28 so Christ also, having been offered once to bear the sins of many, will appear a second time for salvation without reference to sin, to those who eagerly await Him. Hebrews 9:27-28 (NASB) 

The Greek word the writer of Hebrews used that is translated here as “to die” is αποθανειν (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.

11 Then I saw a great white throne and Him who sat upon it, from whose presence earth and heaven fled away, and no place was found for them. 12 And I saw the dead, the great and the small, standing before the throne, and books were opened; and another book was opened, which is the book of life; and the dead were judged from the things which were written in the books, according to their deeds. 13 And the sea gave up the dead which were in it, and death and Hades gave up the dead which were in them; and they were judged, every one of them according to their deeds. 14 Then death and Hades were thrown into the lake of fire. This is the second death, the lake of fire. 15 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 (NASB)

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 (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!

One thought on “The three ways the Bible refers to death

  1. The word “death” simply means “separation.” The word “life” simply means “connection.” It is as uncomplicated as that.

    When Adam ate the forbidden fruit he was “separated” from the LORD [the self-existent One]. When Adam physically died, his spirit was “separated” from his physical body. All who physically die in their sins will be eternally “separated” from the presence of God after the “Great White Throne Judgement.” This is known as the “second death.” All should be able to comprehend this biblical teaching!


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