Death — Does it Mean “Separation” as Religionists Claim? (No)
There are doctrinal “sacred cows” in Christendom that aren’t actually biblical. One of these is the curious theory that death doesn’t really mean death, but rather “separation.”
Consider Paul’s unmistakable statement in this passage:
For the wages of sin is death (thanatos), but the gift of God is eternal life in Christ Jesus our Lord.
“Death” here is translated from the Greek word thanatos (THAYN-ah-tohs), which simply means “death” (Strong 35)—the absence of life or opposite of life. Greek scholar E.W. Bullinger says that thanatos refers to “The natural end of life” (207). Although this is simple to understand and commonly understood, those who teach that human damnation consists of eternal (never-ending) torment “explain” that death in this passage doesn’t really mean death, but rather “separation from God.” When you press them for details as to exactly what they mean by “separation from God,” it turns out that they really mean never-ending conscious life in fiery torment. Do you see the obvious problem with this theory? Under the guise of “interpretation” they would have us believe that death actually means the exact opposite of what it really is! In other words, since “the wages of sin” to them is not death at all, but rather immortal life in conscious torment, their definition of death means something entirely opposite to literal death! If this isn’t a blatant example of subtracting from God’s Word and adding to it, I don’t know what is.
This religious theory must be rejected for a number of obvious reasons:
1. If we take “eternal life” literally, we must also take “death” literally
God clearly declares in Romans 6:23 above, as well as numerous other passages, that the wages of sin is death and eternal life is a gift to those in right-standing with him. So death is promised as a punishment for ungodly sinners and life is promised as a gift for the righteous. In such a context as this, every law of language and common sense agrees that if we take the promise of life literally we must also take the punishment of death literally. If one is literal then both are literal. If there is to be no real death for unrepentant sinners there will be no real life for repentant saints.
Adherents of eternal torment can insist that death only means “separation” all they want, but the simple fact is that the opposite of life is death. What word could better describe the end of life than ‘death’? The only way a person can accept the view of eternal torture is to believe that death doesn’t mean death, that die doesn’t mean die, that destroy doesn’t mean destroy, that perish doesn’t mean perish, that destruction doesn’t mean destruction and that consume doesn’t mean consume.
2. Physical death is death of the body
While most Christians believe the soul (mind & spirit) survives the body, we cannot ignore the biblical fact that “the body without the spirit is dead” (James 2:26). The body is not itself separated; it is dead. It no longer has life in it because death is the opposite of life. Death means death, it’s not complicated. Thanatos, the Greek word translated as death in Romans 6:23 above, is used most often simply in reference to this death, the first death. For example:
“I found that the accusation had to do with questions about their law, but there was no charge against him [Paul] that deserved death (thanatos) or imprisonment.”
The Roman commander speaking in this verse is merely attesting that Paul committed no crime worthy of execution or imprisonment. Thanatos here simply refers to physical execution—the cessation of physical life. When a person is executed his/her conscious life expires, at least as far as physical life is concerned. Believe it or not, adherents of eternal torture suggest that “death” refers to separation even in this context. Their theory is that death would refer to separation of the inner being (mind & spirit) from the outer being (body) (Dake 619). According to this theory the Roman commander really meant to say, “There was no charge against Paul that deserved separation of the inner being from the outer being or imprisonment.” Did the Roman commander really mean to say this when he used the word thanatos? Of course not, the idea is ludicrous. The usage of thanatos here refers to literal physical death, the expiration of conscious life in the body. This is how James 2:26 above defines physical death: the body without the spirit is dead. That is, void of conscious life. Whether or not a person’s consciousness exists on a spiritual plane after physical death is a separate issue.
3. The same biblical words used in reference to the second death are also used in reference to the death of animals
In his popular lexicon (a dictionary of biblical words), W.E. Vine admits that thanatos—death—is indeed “the opposite of life,” but then completely contradicts this statement by saying that “it never denotes non-existence” (Vine 149). With all due respect, Mr. Vine would do well to forsake his sectarian bias and honestly dig a little deeper in his studies as the Scriptures blatantly disagree with this statement. Case in point: The equivalent Hebrew word for death, maveth (MAW-veth) (see 1 Corinthians 15:54-55, which combines quotes from Isaiah 25:8 and Hosea 13:14 supplanting the Hebrew maveth with the Greek thanatos). Maveth is used in reference to the death of animals in the Old Testament:
Man’s fate is like that of the animals; the same fate awaits them both: as one dies (maveth) so dies (maveth) the other.
As dead (maveth) flies give perfume a bad smell, so a little folly outweighs wisdom and honor.
Would anyone ludicrously argue that the equivalent Hebrew word for death in these verses refers to “separation” or never-ending torment? Of course not. Animals and flies that experience death (thanatos/maveth) literally die—their life ceases. They of course leave behind a dead, decaying shell, but their conscious life expires. That’s what death is. It’s plain and simple. This disproves Vine’s unscholarly theory as animals definitely cease to exist when they die, that is, their conscious life expires. If “death” (thanatos/maveth) literally means death when used in reference to animals, why would its definition mysteriously change to something completely different—actually opposite—when applied to human beings? It doesn’t, but adherents of eternal torment are forced to interpret the Bible in this bizarre manner because of their unbiblical theology. (Their reasoning is: “If people have an immortal soul and can therefore never actually die, then death can’t really mean death when used in reference to people”).
4. Numerous other biblical words besides thanatos describe the second death in strict terms of death and destruction
As we’ve plainly seen throughout this study, thanatos is supported by many other Hebrew and Greek words which are variously translated as “die,” “death,” “destruction,” “destroy,” “perish” and “consume” in reference to the fate of those cast into the lake of fire. As covered in the first three chapters of HELL KNOW, these words are backed-up by numerous crystal clear examples of literal destruction, like weeds thrown into fire (Matthew 13:40), a king’s enemies being executed in front of him (Luke 19:27) and the very word for “hell” itself, Gehenna—a symbolic reference to the lake of fire, which is the second death. Add to this the fact that the Bible says point blank that eternal life and immortality are only available through the gospel (2 Timothy 1:10 & Romans 2:7). In light of all these factors, even if thanatos had a secondary definition of “separation” — which it doesn’t — it still wouldn’t refer to separation in regards to the second death of human beings.
5. If the fate of ungodly sinners is to be some sort of life or “existence” in undying “separation” from God in misery and torment, God would have certainly expressed this repeatedly in the Bible.
He could have easily chosen words to describe damnation in explicit terms of “separation,” “existence in torment” or “perpetual life in misery,” but He did not do this. Forgive me for being redundant, but God consistently chose words that have for their usual, basic meaning “die,” “death,” “destruction,” “destroy,” “perish,” “consume” and “burn up.” This is established in Chapter One of HELL KNOW, which you can read here. God couldn’t possibly use a better choice of words to describe literal death. He then made sure to back-up these unmistakable words with multiple easy-to-understand examples of literal death and incineration, as noted above and in detail in Chapter Two.
Consider also that if thanatos really meant “separation” then why should English Bible translators even bother translating thanatos as “death” at all (which they unanimously do)? Why not rather universally translate it as “separation”? Wouldn’t this simplify matters and spare us all a lot of confusion? The obvious reason they don’t do this is because thanatos literally means death, the opposite of life, and therefore non-existence or, we could say, the state of non-being. Death is not a different form of life; it is the opposite of life. Thus the first death, which is physical death, refers at least to non-existence in the physical realm; and the second death—which entails the everlasting destruction of soul and body—refers to absolute non-existence with no hope of resurrection.
6. “Death” and “separation” are two completely different words in Hebrew and Greek, just as they are in English; these words have different meanings
The Hebrew badal (baw-DAL) and the Greek chorizo (koh-RID-zoh) are two Old and New Testament words for “separation” (see, for example, Isaiah 59:2 and Romans 8:35,39). If the wages of sin is not really death, but rather separation, then God would have used these Hebrew and Greek words to describe the ultimate wages of sin. For example, Romans 6:23 would read, “For the wages of sin is separation (chorizo)” and Ezekiel 18:4 would read, “The soul who sins will separate (badal).” But does the Bible teach this anywhere? No, “the wages of sin is death” and “the soul who sins will die” (NASB).
It is true that one of the results of sin is separation from God (Isaiah 59:2). This is spiritual death, which simply means that one’s spirit is dead to God. Those who are spiritually dead cannot have a relationship with the LORD because God is spirit, and those who worship and know him can only do so in spirit and in truth (see John 4:24). That’s why Christ taught that we need to have a spiritual rebirth in order to know God (John 3:3-6; see also Titus 3:5). Jesus experienced separation from the Father when he bore our sins on the cross. He even cried out, “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” (Matthew 27:46). He also experienced severe suffering when he was crucified. While it was horrible for Christ to experience this separation and suffering, it ended in death. The penalty Jesus paid for our sins was separation from God, temporary suffering, followed by death. This was an example of the second death to all humanity. Those who are already separated from God (i.e. spiritually dead) and reject His offer of reconciliation can likewise expect suffering that ends in death on Judgment Day (Revelation 20:11-15).
The bottom line is that the second death is consistently described in terms of literal death and utter destruction in the Bible, not “separation.” See this article for details.
7. To suggest that death means something entirely opposite of its actual definition is nothing more than a blatant case of subtracting from God’s Word and adding to it
Adherents of eternal torment subtract the word “death” (thanatos) from the numerous passages which describe the wages of sin strictly in terms of literal death, and supplant it with “eternal life in separation from God” — a definition that is, once again, completely opposite to the actual definition of death. This practice is all done under the noble mask of “interpretation,” but notice how the Bible strictly condemns this practice:
Do not add to what I command you and do not subtract from it, but keep the commands of the LORD your God that I give you.
Every word of God is flawless;…
(6) Do not add to his words,
or he will rebuke you and prove you a liar.
I warn everyone who hears the words of the prophecy of this book: If anyone adds anything, God will add to him the plagues described in this book. (19) And if anyone takes words away from this book of prophecy, God will take away from him his share in the tree of life and in the holy city, which are described in this book.
As you can see, it’s a grave offense in God’s eyes to subtract from his Word and add to it something else. As pointed out in Proverb 30 above, the God-breathed Scriptures are flawless. There’s simply no reason to make any changes. But adherents of eternal torment are guilty of this transgression in regards to the Bible’s repeated declaration that the wages of sin is death.
The scriptural arguments above are proof enough that ‘death’ simply means death in the Bible and not “separation,” but here’s additional proof…
8. A comparison of New Testament words for “death,” “perish,” “destruction,” etc. to other well-known Greek writings of the same general period offers additional support
For example, Plato argued that the human soul is immortal and can never die or cease to exist. What Greek words did Plato use to express this denial? He used the exact Greek words that Paul and others in the New Testament used to describe the everlasting destruction of unbelievers. Here are several examples to show what I mean: Plato taught that the human soul would not die (apothnesko), Paul taught that it could die (e.g. Romans 8:13); Plato taught that the human soul would never experience death (thanatos), Paul and James taught that it could experience death (e.g. James 5:20); Plato taught that the human soul would not suffer destruction (apoleia and olethros), Paul, Peter and Christ taught that it could suffer destruction (e.g. 2 Thessalonians 1:9, 2 Peter 3:7 and Matthew 7:13-14).
Plato used these various Greek words to describe absolute extinction of being, not separation of being. Since Paul and others used these very same words to describe the eternal fate of those who reject God’s message of reconciliation in Christ, we must conclude that they too were referring to absolute extinction of being (Constable 42).
Furthermore, there were people in the 1st Century who adhered to universal extinction, that is, they believed that when people died they simply ceased to exist, with no hope of resurrection for either the righteous or unrighteous. The Epicureans were Greeks who advocated this view and the Sadducees were Jews who supported it. What words did these sects use to express their belief in absolute extinction of conscious life? Why, the very same Greek words used in the New Testament to describe the everlasting destruction of the ungodly (Constable 48).
So, death simply meant death in uninspired writings—the cessation of life—just as it does in the biblical Scriptures.
In light of these eight reasons, we have no recourse but to take God at his Word and conclude that the second death will be a literal death—utter, awful, complete and final. The religious theory that death means “separation” must be categorically rejected.
‘ What about Spiritual Death? ’
This next objection goes hand in hand with the argument that death means “separation.” Under the guise of “interpretation” many sincere Christians add the word “spiritual” to the numerous plain passages that promise death to unrepentant sinners. For instance, they argue that Romans 6:23 should read: “For the wages of sin is spiritual death, but the gift of God is eternal life in Christ our Lord.” They then translate ‘spiritual death’ as “eternal separation from God because of sin” (Dake 619). The obvious problem with doing this is that none of the multitude of biblical texts that promise death and destruction as the ultimate wage of sin contain the word “spiritual.”
God wrote the Scriptures through men by the Holy Spirit (2 Peter 1:20-21 & 2 Timothy 3:16). The Bible is truly “God’s Word.” If the LORD really meant to say “spiritual death” in all these passages we’ve looked at throughout this study then He would’ve said so. I don’t think the Almighty needs our help in writing a book, do you?
Actually, adding the word “spiritual” to the numerous passages that promise death to unrepentant sinners is another case of adding to God’s word and subtracting what it really says—a practice that’s condemned in the Scriptures, as already noted.
Speaking of which, earlier in this chapter we observed that spiritual death is a legitimate doctrine. To understand spiritual death it’s necessary to understand that it’s the spiritual side of human nature that actually “connects” with God. Thus spiritual death simply means that the spirit of a person is dead to God, that is, the capacity of his/her spirit to unite or commune with God is dead. “Original sin” is the reason this capacity does not exist. In order for a person’s spirit to unite with God he or she has to be spiritually regenerated. This explains why Jesus taught that our spirit must be “born again” for us to “see the kingdom of God” (John 3:3-6).*
* The doctrine of “original sin” suggests that humanity’s fallen nature—our inclination to commit sin—was naturally passed on to all of us by our primeval parents, Adam and Eve.
So spiritual death is a present state of the non-Christian. This is why Paul described the Ephesians as “dead in transgressions” before their spiritual rebirth (Ephesians 2:5). The second death, by contrast, is a future event entailing the complete destruction of soul and body in hell. So spiritual death ultimately results in the second death, which is an absolute death described in the Bible as “everlasting destruction” (2 Thessalonians 1:9) and the destruction “of soul and body” (Matthew 10:28) wherein “raging fire will consume the enemies of God” (Hebrews 10:26-27,31) when the unrepentant wicked are discarded in the lake of fire “which is the second death” (Revelation 20:11-15).
All the relevant passages we’ve examined in this study apply to the second death, a future event. None of them refer to spiritual death, which is a present state in the non-believer’s life.
For a more detailed examination of human nature and spiritual death see Human Nature: Spirit, Mind & Body.
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