What Is Death?
( Originally Published Early 1900's )
Pleasing, But Not True
Death means death of the body. That is the common meaning, the plain everyday meaning. That is the biggest thing we're conscious of. It's the thing we feel most.
The body we loved so much lies lifeless. It is laid away under the sod. We do not see it. There is the utter absence of the loved one. The spirit that looked out of the bodily eyes has gone from, us. The break between body and spirit is complete. He is dead. The separation between him and us is entire.
That is the commonest meaning. And that meaning is quite correct so far as it goes. But it is a limited meaning. It's the thing that absorbs us most, if not to the exclusion of everything else. Yet there is more. And we want to talk in a purely practical way about that more.
There is a common teaching about death that is directly opposite to the Biblical teaching. It belittles death to the point of practically ignoring it. Though of course, the fact of bodily death cannot be ignored.
Death is pictured as a mere transition.. It is a natural step from one state of existence to another, it is said. It is not an enemy, and not a thing to be dreaded. This teaching is marked by vague looseness of statement. Clean-cut thinking, sharp distinctions, clear careful definitions are absent.
In their place is a mixture of partial truths expressed in beautiful language, with the clear-cut, sharp lines of truth blurred. Some-choice bits of literature have been produced. They have found their way freely into Christian circles.
Death is likened to certain changes of development that take place in the natural order. The caterpillar passes into the chrysalis form, and by and by emerges a rarely beautiful butterfly. And death among men is likened to these transitions.
The whole thing of death is made to appear as simple and natural a transition as these. This sounds very beautiful. And it is acceptable to many folks, if not most. They like it. But it entirely ignores certain facts. It is quite opposed to the plain teaching of the Book of God. And the practical effect is not only not good. It is, bad.
It tends to blur the fact that the time of death is a time of moral adjustment. And these adjustments hinge on our choices and on our character. It belittles or ignores what Jesus did for us when He died. It tends to keep us from putting choice of Christ as Saviour in the big place, where it belongs, in our thinking. And it lulls us into a sort of fool's paradise that every-thing is all right with us regardless of how we've lived, or what we've believed.
The Meaning Pictured
Now, I want to turn to the Old Book. It is very striking to find in its very opening pages a definition of death. For that is what it practically is.
It is a pictured definition. And that makes it easy for us all to get. For all the world loves and looks at a picture. And when some skilled artist who's studied it, points out the colorings, the lights and shades, and groupings and postures, it becomes fascinating.
Look at this picture. It's in a garden. Man's friendly God is walking through the garden, side by side with the man. They are fellows together in their fine friendliness of feeling. Man's Fellow is showing him about the garden, making him familiar with his new home. They stop under a tree.
And there the word is quietly and clearly spoken: "In the day thou eatest thereof thou shalt surely die."1 It's the tree of choice. It's the practical touchstone of their continued sweet companionship together. God is pleading for the man to use his power of choice right. Their fine fellowship together was the plea, a tremendous plea.. God was saying, as father to son, "Let us always keep in fullest touch."
But it was a matter for the man's decision. By using his power of choice in choosing right, constantly, he would become like God in character as well as in sovereignty of choice. That's the first time death is referred to. The actual phrase used is this, "dying, thou shalt die." There is a beginning, a process, and a finished result.
Then comes the temptation story, the yielding to temptation, and the break of fellowship. Now, note keenly, what "die" actually meant to these two early kinsfolk of oars. They ate the for-bidden fruit. At once they were conscious of some difference in themselves. There came a self-consciousness regarding their bodies which was not there before. It seems not good, for they do something to remove or correct it.
There was no actual change in them from what had been before, except mental or in spirit. The forbidden act made a change. They were separated from what they had been before. It proves to be a separation in spirit from God. Things are not between them as they had been.
Then comes a second step. They try to hide from God. Already they misunderstand Him. They think because they cannot see Him that he cannot see them. The ostrich had an early imitator. But they want to get away from God. That's the big thing.
The separation between Him and them is increasing, and it is increasing by their action. There's no difference in God. But plainly there's a longing for separation from Him. And that means there is a separation in spirit, grown wider by the longing to get away from His presence.
Then comes the third stage in the process. They are driven out of the immediate conscious presence of God. Though, as noted elsewhere, the driving out was almost certainly a moral thing, their sense of the presence of God now influencing them to leave that presence voluntarily.
Then comes the story of the awful break in the home. That inner spirit, that sought separation from God among the trees of the garden, grows strong and passionate in the home. It leads Cain to seek a forced separation from one whose presence he has come to hate.
Then comes the final stage in this pictured meaning of "die" or death. Nine hundred and some odd years later it is said of Adam "and he died." God had said, "in the day thou eatest thereof dying thou shalt die". The dying began on that day. Yet bodily death was deferred for over nine hundred years.
No Change in God
Plainly enough death here means separation in spirit from God. It has a beginning. It continues as a process, intensifying in character. It is a final result. It affects the man's spirit toward God at once. It comes, by and by, to affect his body.
The hold of the human spirit on the body in which it lives is affected. Bodily conditions are affected. And that grows and intensifies until the spirit and body can no longer hold together. The separation of spirit from God comes to include bodily conditions.
It is noticed further that there is in this picture no change of action or attitude on God's part. The separation is a grief to Him. He continues His creative sustaining touch just as far as he is allowed to. The separation is wholly on man's part. It is in his spirit. It is in his will. He wants to get away. That finally results in the full separation that eventually brings bodily death.
Let it be noted very keenly that here death is an unnatural thing. It is a break in the natural order. It clearly enough was not in the original plan. It couldn't be. It is a direct result of break of touch with God. God never planned separation of any sort from man. And, at the core, that's just what death is. Life is full contact with God. Death is the reverse, a break in that contact. Plainly if the wire's cut the current can't get through.
It will be noticed that in this pictured definition there are two stages to death. There is the present or immediate. This is in one's spirit, or inner attitude toward God. There comes a change there at once when the break with God occurs. And God calls it death.
Then there is the second stage, the death to the body. That did not come till. long after-wards. It is really a less thing than the other. Though it is the big thing in our common thought of death. The deeper, more serious thing, was in the inner spirit. That happened at once, and went on increasing in its grip and influence.
Here then is the pictured definition of what death means. It is the reverse of life. Life is full touch of spirit or heart with God. Any break in that touch means the loss of life, in some measure, and that is called death. This death is a thing of growth.
It moves from one stage to a deeper. It eventually comes to include death of the body. That is the big thing in our common thinking, but not in this Book. Now, this gives the meaning of death throughout this old Book of God. Put in so distinctly at the very beginning it dearly set the standard of meaning throughout.
Tracing the Trail
Now take a thoughtful run through the Book. Do it for yourself. Plainly it is a sheer impossibility to quote the long string of passages. But we can follow the trail of the definition. It is an easy trail to follow. And when one has followed it to the end, another run through brings to one's attention the countless illustrations. The separation of spirit which the definition emphasizes as the crucial thing colors the narrative from end to end.
Now, just a few looks at that trail. Death is separation in one's spirit from God. It affects one's spirit at once, and with a growing intensity. It affects one's body at once, imperceptibly, increasing gradually until it quite loses contact with the human spirit inhabiting it, within certain time limits.
Death is the immediate logical outcome of sin. It is not a result of arbitrary action on God's part. Sin is death in the green ; death is sin dead ripe. Sin is death begun ; death is sin in its final finished shape. Here is the grammar of the verb to sin. Present tense, to sin ; first future tense, to suffer; second future tense, death. The verb becomes a noun ; the pliable verb a hardened, set noun.
Death does not mean merely bodily death,' though, of course, it comes to include that. It is not cessation of existence. Spirit never ceases to be. It cannot. The rich man still lived, quite possibly against his will, after his body was dead. And death is as clearly not being asleep. For spirit never sleeps. The same reference covers that.
Death is not a natural thing. It is unnatural. It is a break in the natural order, and so, being a break, it is a thing painful in itself. It is natural to dread death, and to shrink from it. Death is an enemy, intruding upon a forbidden domain. That word "enemy" sums up the whole case here.
Death, from its beginning to its end, passes through three stages. The first stage is the break of spirit with God. It is the rupture of friend-ship or fellowship with Him. Man was made to be God's fellow. And his remaining in that relation depends on his own desire, his choice and action.
God eagerly longs for that fellowship, but only on the level where fellowship belongs, that is, when it is freely given. That's the first stage. It begins at once with the beginning of wrong choice. This is the worst, the most damnable stage, thus far. It is spirit death. It goes to the very roots.
It puts the dry rot of death into the very seed of life. It is death by suicide. The man cuts himself off from the source of his life. It means separation from God, separation of spirit, of heart. This reveals the bigness of what Christ must do when He's allowed to. He has to make a wholly new start.
The second stage is the thing that bulks so big with us when we speak of death, that is, death of the body. The break between the human spirit and its body becomes complete. That break of spirit with God, working imperceptibly from the moment of the break, now affects the body in the extreme degree.
This is the least part of death. It is the temporary stage. And this stage is for all, believers and others alike, up to the limit of time when Christ comes again. Then there comes a change for those in touch with Him.
There is the third stage. This is the final, the permanent stage. This is not for all. It is only for those who incorrigibly insist in their choice of leaving God and Christ out. It is called "the second death." The first death is that spirit death already mentioned. This is that same first death in its final hardened form .
Five Things Jesus Did
This brings us up sharply to just what Jesus did. It makes us see what a desperate task He undertook. It was nothing less than dealing with dead men. And the only way of doing it was to begin a new life within. In the beginning it was simply a matter of creation. But now, of a new creation, with the wreck of the old one to handle and clear away.
Man was enslaved to Satan.' That slavery must be broken. But death was the stamp of the slavery, Satan's mark of control. Death must then be put to death, and he that had the power of death must be throttled.
Sin itself, with all the long damnable heart-breaking human story that has worked out of that break with God, became a slander on God's character and on God's management of the world. For God had let things run on in their bad way, instead of clearing the whole thing up at once, as He could rightly have done.
Then, too, it must be made clear what sort of a God God is, and why He has let things run on without prompt settlement. And then our hearts had become hardened against God. That separation brought hardening. And the hardening grew steadily harder, and yet more obstinately hard. That spirit death had penetrated clear into the inner marrow of our hearts.
Now, hush your hearts, and look with bated breath and reverently bowed heads at what Jesus did. He got into touch with us men, first of all. He lived, simply lived, a simple true human life, in all its commonplace round of duty and temptation, for thirty years, ten-elevenths of his full span of life. So He got in touch with us. So He really was one of us. So He kept in fullest touch with the Father in the daily round of a common human life.
Then He voluntarily gave His life up and out for us. He took upon Himself the death that belonged to us, death of body, aye, far more, and deeper, and bitterer, the death of spirit that was bound up with separation from the Father's conscious presence. That's the meaning of that heart-breaking cry; "Why didst thou forsake me?" He took upon Himself all that was coming to us.
He went down into the jaws of death, into the belly of hell. And there He put Death to death. He throttled it past any reviving. Through going to death himself, he utterly annihilated the power of him that has the power of death, that is the devil himself.' Than having effectively dealt that death blow, He quietly rose up again, out of death's domain, back toward the true center of gravity of His own life.
And when He came up He brought something up with Him, a great priceless something. He brought up life, His own life, a new sort of deathless life that could never know any taint of death. He brought it up into plain view where all might see, and so could make their new choice, the choice of Himself, as Saviour and Redeemer and Master.
So He settled up our sin score, set us free of our slavery to sin, gave us a new eternal sort of life, vindicated God's patient enduring of sin's havoc, and broke our hearts with His untenable love.
And, now, anybody who'll get in touch of heart with Him, Christ, will escape death and have life. He will pass out of that separation which is death into the full touch that is life. Yet freedom from the smaller item of death, bodily death, is not promised. In its place is promised a rising up out of the grave for our bodies even as His rose. And then something more and greater yet is promised. That is, such victory in our spirits over the dark fearsome enemy, death, that when it does come to our bodies we shall greet it with a joyous shout of victory.!' And meanwhile there remains always with us the glad possibility that His own return to earth shall spare us that last touch with our old enemy.
But Jesus does yet more. He's not through with death yet. Twice over we are told that he has "abolished death." That is, he made it wholly inoperative, put it completely out of action.
Taking all the Scripture passages concerned, that clearly means three things. It means that spirit death is done away for all who come into touch with Jesus. It means further that during the kingdom time, actual death, meaning bodily death, will cease on earth," probably gradually until complete.
And the third meaning is this. There will he a final abolition or destroying of death for all, at the end of things on the earth That is, for all except Satan and anyone that incorrigibly insists on going his way.
Death is put to death for all who will have it so. And it is so only because Christ suffered what we are spared.