Thursday, January 23, 2014

Where death came from

Exodus: Death of the First Born
(Part of a series on death and the hereafter)

Defining Life to understand Death

Knowing what the Bible defines as life helps us to understand what the Bible teaches about death. While the field of medicine increasingly views humans and life in only physiological and chemical terms, the Bible views people holistically. The Bible has a very high view of the body, but it does not view the body as possessing life itself. Rather, life and death happen to the body. There is something else that possesses life.

In Genesis 2:7, we have an important point for understanding life. The body is inert until
God gives the gift of life. Only after God breathes life into the body does man become a living being (nephesh), a soul. What makes a human living is not what chemicals or electrical activity there is in the brain, but the presence of the nephesh, a non-physical reality (even though Lev. 17:11 associates life with blood, which is medically accurate.) Life, though, is not distinctive to humans. 
Genesis 1:21 uses the same word to describe the living creatures of the sea. The word nephesh does not indicate an eternal existence for fish, but only affirms that they have the God-given gift of life. What is distinctive about human life is its possession of a spirit (ruach).

Physical death

Death occurs when that non-physical reality (nephesh, ruach) which animates the human body departs. In Genesis 35:18, “she breathed her last” is literally, “her soul was going forth.” The same idea is found in 1 Kings 17:21-22 where nephesh is translated “life.” Death is the departure of the nephesh and life is the nephesh returning. Elsewhere, death is seen as separating spirit (ruach) and body (Eccles. 12:7; cf. 7:12). At the departure of the soul/spirit (nephesh/ruach), the body is left dead. Then what about brain death? The spirit departs when the brain can no longer act.

Spiritual death

What happens with the non-physical part(s) of a human? What is spiritual death? God warns Adam in Genesis 2:17 that he will die the day he eats of the tree. Some say “the day” is emphasizing the certainty of death (thus the NIV “when”), but Adam died spiritually the very day he ate of the tree. That is, the spirit as the capacity for relationship with God died. 

It remains within human nature because man is made in the Trinitarian “three-in-one” image of God, but the spirit now needs new birth through salvation in Jesus Christ. The spirit needs regeneration, but the mind and body still operate. The New Testament brings out the implications more clearly between spiritual and physical death (Rom. 6:23; Eph. 2:1), and the terror of the ‘second death’ (Rev. 20:14-15).

The Origin of Death

The first mention of death in the Bible is Genesis 2:16-17 where it is the consequence of sin. Adam’s spirit died immediately. He did not die physically that same day as he ate the fruit, but in the curse of Genesis 3:19, physical death came as a consequence of the Fall. What did happen physically at the moment of the Fall was physical mortality. Physical death began slowly in Adam and he began for the first time to age.

Aging helps us to see two things. First, we can see that death is coming and that we need to prepare for it. Second, aging helps us let our loved ones go on to their reward, to give them relief from the bondage of their bodies with their pains and problems.

The cure for physical death is the resurrection of the body. The cure for spiritual death is the resurrection of the new birth.