In the New Testament, the fires of hell are described as the “second death.” The picture painted in Revelation 20 tells of a burning lake of fire in which the devil and all his cohorts will be cast, including wicked humans whose names are not written in the Book of Life. Verse 14 of chapter 20 declares: “Then Death and Hades were cast into the lake of fire. This is the second death.” The inspired writer James remarked that if one of the Christians turns away from Christ, and someone turns the wayward brother back, he will “save a soul from death” (James 5:20). James’ statement speaks to the fact that the sinning soul is destined for spiritual death. In John 6, Jesus described Himself as the bread that came down from heaven. Those who eat this “living” bread will “live forever” and not die (John 6:48-51,58). All who will not eat this living bread will die. Jesus’ comments here clearly refer to the second death in hell.
What Does the Word “death” Mean?
All those involved in the debate about afterlife issues understand that hell is called the second death, and that a person’s soul is said to die in hell. But what does the word death actually mean? Those who advocate annihilationism put forth the idea that the word death must mean “to go out of existence.” Along these lines, F. LaGard Smith wrote:
Those whose names are found written in the book [of life—KB] will inherit life with God forever. For those whose names are missing, there is no lasting life whatsoever, tormented or otherwise. “Only death...[t]he second and final death....” As the greater weight of scriptural evidence indicates, the only option is eternal life versus eternal death. Blessed existence versus non-existence (2003, pp. 189,190).
From statements peppered throughout his book, and especially from the final two parallel sentences in this quotation, it is obvious that Smith defines the word death as nonexistence.
In truth, however, the concept of death as used in the Bible does not mean nonexistence; rather, it means “separation.” In regard to physical death, it refers to the separation of the soul from the physical body. In regard to spiritual death, in connotes separation of the soul from God.
The Enhanced Strong’s Lexicon gives the following primary definition of the Greek word that is translated “death” (thanatos): “(1) the death of the body (1a) that separation (whether natural or violent) of the soul and the body by which life on earth is ended” (“Thanatos:2505,” 1999). That physical death is viewed in the Bible as separation is evident from several scriptures. The inspired writer James offered the clearest picture of this idea of death when he wrote: “For as the body without the spirit is dead, so faith without works is dead also” (James 2:26). According to James, faith that is separated from works is a dead faith in the same way that a body which is separated from the soul is a dead body. Notice that a body separated from a soul is not a nonexistent body. On the contrary, the body still exists and lies lifeless, but is separated from the soul and thus presumed dead.
The narrative describing Rachel’s death in Genesis provides further evidence that the Bible depicts physical death as the separation of the soul from the body. As Rachel was giving birth to Benjamin, her labor became so intense that her life was in danger. The text reads: “Now it came to pass, when she was in hard labor, that the midwife said to her, ‘Do not fear; you will have this son also.’ And so it was, as her soul was departing (for she died), that she called his name Ben-Oni; but his father called him Benjamin. So Rachel died and was buried on the way to Ephrath (that is, Bethlehem)” (Genesis 35:17-19, emp. added). Rachel’s death occurred when her soul departed, leaving her physical body. Her body continued to exist for some time and was buried, but it was recognized as a dead body as soon as it was separated from Rachel’s soul, not when the body eventually decayed in the tomb. Here again, the biblical picture of death revolves around the concept of separation, rather than nonexistence.
Luke 8 contains additional evidence that separation of the soul and physical body is the meaning of physical death. Jairus came to Jesus pleading for the life of his sick daughter. While en route to the house, someone came from Jairus’ house explaining that the girl had already died. Jesus encouraged Jairus not to doubt, and continued toward the house. Arriving at the ruler’s house, Jesus sent everyone out except Peter, James, John, and the parents of the child. He approached the child’s dead body, took her hand and said, “Little girl, arise.” Immediately after this comment, the text states: “Then her spirit returned, and she arose immediately” (Luke 8:40-55). Note that both the girl’s body and her spirit existed at the time Jesus entered the room. Her body, however, was dead because her spirit had departed from it. When her spirit returned to her body, it was made alive again. Here again, the biblical text presents the idea that the concept of death is not one of nonexistence, but of separation.
John 19:30 provides another example that establishes physical death as separation of the soul and body. In the final moments of Christ’s life during the crucifixion, after all of the prophecies had been fulfilled, Christ cried, “It is finished.” Immediately following this last cry, the Lord bowed His head, and “He gave up His Spirit.” At this point, when His soul departed from His body, He (i.e., His body) was dead. Joseph and Nicodemus buried the dead (still existent) body of Christ, while the soul of Christ had departed.
Even after looking at these biblical examples, some annihilationists might continue to argue that physical death still means “nonexistence,” because those who die no longer exist in the physical world. But notice what the Bible describes as dead—the body. James says that “the body without the spirit is dead.” The body continues to exist for some time, but is said to be dead immediately when the soul leaves it. And the spirit is not said to be “dead.”
While the idea that physical death is defined by separation and not nonexistence is clear from the Bible, the idea that spiritual death is defined by a soul’s separation from God and not by a soul’s nonexistence is even more clearly set forth in Scripture. In Paul’s letter to the Ephesians, he wrote: “And you He made alive, who were dead in trespasses and sins, in which you once walked according to the course of this world.... But God, who is rich in mercy, because of His great love with which He loved us, even when we were dead in trespasses, made us alive together with Christ...” (Ephesians 2:1-2,4-5). When the Ephesians committed sins in their unsaved condition, they were described as “dead.” Obviously, however, they were not nonexistent. They were separated from God by those sins. In fact, verse 12 of the same chapter says that during their time of sinfulness, they were “without Christ, being aliens from the commonwealth of Israel and strangers from the covenants of promise, having no hope and without God in the world.” The Ephesians were spiritually dead in their sins. This spiritual death was a separation from God, Christ, and hope, yet it was not a state of nonexistence. In chapter four of the same epistle, Paul told the brethren that they should “no longer walk as the rest of the Gentiles walk, in the futility of their mind, having their understanding darkened, being alienated from the life of God” (Ephesians 4:17-18). Those sinful Gentiles described here were in the same state of spiritual death as the Ephesians were before they became Christians. That death was an alienation (or separation) from the life of God, yet, here again, it was not a state of nonexistence.
The inspired Paul also wrote to Christians in Colossi, declaring, “And you, being dead in your trespasses and the uncircumcision of your flesh, He has made alive together with Him, having forgiven you all trespasses” (Colossians 2:13). Paul obviously did not mean that the Colossians had been physically dead in their sins. Neither did he intend to assert the nonsensical idea that at one time, while they were sinning, their souls were in a state of nonexistence. On the contrary, their souls existed, but were separated from God because of their sins, and thus they were labeled as dead. The Old Testament prophet Isaiah explained this principle clearly when he wrote: “Behold, the Lord’s hand is not shortened, that it cannot save; nor his ear heavy, that it cannot hear, but your iniquities have separated you from your God; and your sins have hidden His face from you, so that He will not hear” (Isaiah 59:1-2, emp. added).
Paul presents very clearly in 1 Timothy 5:6 the idea that spiritual death is separation from God, not nonexistence. In this chapter, Paul instructed the young Timothy about which widows should receive assistance from the church treasury. In his discussion, Paul mentioned widows who trusted in God and continued in prayer. He contrasted those widows with one who “lives in pleasure” or indulgence of the flesh. Concerning such a widow, he said: “But she who lives in pleasure is dead while she lives.” As is the case throughout the New Testament, individuals who live in sin are considered spiritually dead. They are called dead by the Holy Spirit because they have separated themselves from God by their sin. The sinning widow continued to exist physically, and her soul continued to exist, yet she was called dead. The biblical picture of spiritual death is not one of nonexistence, but one of a miserable existence separated from God.
The antithesis of death is “life” (zoe). As we have seen from numerous passages, one way that the word “life” is used in the Bible is to describe the state in which the physical body is joined or connected to the soul of a person. Furthermore, spiritual life, the opposite of spiritual death, is used in the New Testament to describe the condition in which a separated soul is brought back to, and joined with, its Creator. Paul described this condition when he wrote: “And you, who once were alienated and enemies in your mind by wicked works, yet now He has reconciled in the body of His flesh through death, to present you holy, and blameless, and irreproachable in His sight” (Colossians 1:21-22). Sin alienates one from God, and leads a person into spiritual death. God, through Christ, allows those dead, separated souls to be cleansed of that sin and have spiritual life, which reconciles them to Him. That is why John wrote: “He who has the Son has life; he who does not have the Son of God does not have life” (1 John 5:12).
It is evident, then, from a close look at the Scriptures that the word “death” does not mean a state of nonexistence, either in the physical realm or the spiritual realm. The Bible describes bodies that were dead, yet still very much in existence. The inspired record describes individuals who were spiritually dead, yet existing in that dead condition nonetheless. The misguided ploy to define “the second death” (Revelation 20:6,14; 21:8) as a state of nonexistence is simply an attempt to get around the actual meaning of the biblical text. The second death describes nothing more or less than the total separation of wicked, unsaved souls from the God Who created them. Of all the wicked who will say to the Lord “in that day” (i.e., the Judgment Day), “Lord, Lord, have we not prophesied in Your name, cast out demons in Your name, and done many wonders in Your name?” (Matthew 7:22), Jesus, the righteous Judge (John 5:22; 2 Timothy 4:8), will sentence them to their second death, declaring, “I never knew you; depart from Me, you who practice lawlessness!” (Matthew 7:23, emp. added). Of those wicked who neglect the needy, He will say, “Depart from Me, you cursed, into the everlasting fire prepared for the devil and his angels” (Matthew 25:41, emp. added). “Eternal destruction” awaits those who are cast away “from the presence of the Lord and from the glory of His power” (2 Thessalonians 1:9, emp. added). As both Jesus and the apostle Paul declared, the second death is not annihilation, but eternal separation “from the presence of the Lord.” Death in no way implies a state of nonexistence.
Smith, F. LaGard (2003), After Life (Nashville, TN: Cotswold Publishing).
“Thanatos: 2505” (1999), Enhanced Strong’s Lexicon (Bellingham, WA: Logos Research Systems)
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