Death in modern biological terms is the process by which an organism ceases to live. It is marked variously by the end of breathing, heartbeat, metabolism, and brain function, depending on which functions an organism has during life. It has been said that "death is more universal than life, because not all things live, but all living things must die". Death, however, is not the absence of life. It is the cessation of life in a once-living system or organism.
Death has a very specific definition in Scripture. For example, flowers fade and grass withers but they do not "die" (James 1:11, Isaiah 40:7-8). The death of a living creature with the breath of life "Hebrew:nephesh" is what Scripture recognizes as Biblical Death.
Secularists only recognize one form of Life, that is basic biological life "Hebrew:chay", but Scripture extends this definition beyond naturalistic terms.
Death In History
With two exceptions, all humans in recorded history that are not currently alive have suffered death. Those recorded exceptions are:
- Enoch, who lived in antediluvian times: "Enoch walked with God; then he was no more, because God took him away." Genesis 5:24.
- Elijah, a prophet of Israel: "As [Elijah and Elisha] were walking along and talking together, suddenly a chariot of fire and horses of fire appeared and separated the two of them, and Elijah went up to heaven in a whirlwind." 2 Kings 2:11.
A number of resuscitations have been recorded: in recent times, people have been medically revived after having been dead for times ranging from seconds to several minutes. The Bible records the resuscitation of a number of people. An important distinction in these resuscitations is that they are well-past the ability of humans to revive them. The person who was revived however, later died. So these are not resurrections.
- Elisha revives a little boy (2 Kings 4:32-35)
- Jesus revives Lazarus (John 11:14-44)
- Jesus revives a little girl (Matthew 9:23-26)
- A man revives after being thrown on Elisha's bones (2 Kings 13:21)
Only one person Jesus has ever resurrected. He is called the first fruits of the first resurrection (1 Corinthians 15:20). At the end of the present age, all humans will be resurrected. Some to eternal life and some to damnation (John 5:29).
Before Jesus revived Lazarus and the little girl, he told all those around that the subject was "only sleeping". The people who heard this attempted to correct him with their knowledge of the case. Do we imagine that Jesus did not know of the true condition of the body? Jesus was told of Lazarus' sickness when he was less than half-a-day's walk from him, yet he waited four days before coming to the home.
Whenever Jesus restored withered arms or legs, blind eyes etc, he was organically activating dead or atrophied tissue that no clinical process could ever accomplish. However, he was not violating any of the laws of the creation in making this happen. He was following rules of medical science. Perhaps these particular rules were only available to him, but they were rules nevertheless. That he could use his holy power within these rules and affect such a resuscitation is what onlookers would call a miracle, but at no time has a miracle required the violation of God's created laws. Jesus did not have to bend, break or suspend laws. Rather he leverages higher laws. Just as humans leverage aerodynamics to overcome the effect of gravity (but does not suspend or set aside gravity), so Christ leveraged higher laws to overcome the effects before him. Whenever a person performs a miracle in Scripture, the miracle is not for the miracle's sake (the person will eventually get sick again, or will die, etc.) but to herald the miracle-worker as being a spokesperson for God. The miracle validates that the miracle-worker speaks for God, provided that the miracle-worker or prophet does not require that onlookers follow after other gods (Deut 13:1-2).
This is perhaps why he told the onlookers that they were only sleeping, because he was about to clinically restore them to health. As noted, they were not resurrected, but they showed that Christ has greater power over our earthly existence and its obvious constraints.
Causes Of Death
As we examine living things, we see that the biological processes are a harness for a wide range of very harmful and toxic chemical reactions (e.g. biochemistry). After the reaction, the living process shepherds the good products to useful ends and the toxic products toward waste elimination. These processes are of course guided by genetic instructions as to what-when-how etc.
Through Genetic Entropy John Sanford ties genetic mutation to aging. As the human's cells replicate, they gradually lose information. In each human therefore, all of the cells ultimately gain a unique copy of DNA. It is very close to the original but has been slowly accumulating mutations from its ancestor cells in each new generation of cells within the tissue it occupies. The mutations cause a loss-of-information ultimately exhibited in a loss of function. Cancer is the result of mutations as well.
In early Scripture, each patriarch's time of birth and age are recorded. If these are placed on a chart, they create an exponential decay curve. John Sanford in Genetic Entropy has noted that this curve follows the tolerance of a standard exponential decay curve so tightly that we have only two options: either the people of the time had access to advanced mathematics to use in artificially applying it to concoct a story for things (genetics) about which they knew nothing, or they were just reporting the ages and deaths as diligent historians.
Tree Of Life
One conjecture concerning the original Tree of Life is that its fruit had the capacity to repair and restore human genetic systems to their original pristine information content. If there is no loss of information, then no loss of function and ultimately no aging or death. When we examine the process of food ingestion, we recognize that "we are what we eat". That the chemicals in our bodies are essentially "swapped out" with the chemicals of the food we ingest. Over a year or two, these chemicals may be swapped out completely. The only thing that remains constant is the human soul and the information in the genome. It is conceivable therefore that the Tree of Life acted not on protein synthesis but at the biochemical level, a biochemical synthesis.
Death from Loss-of-Function
As cells replicate in the body, over time they will accumulate mutations in their genetic instructions. Living processes depend on these instructions to properly manage the chemical reactions. Over time however, genetic instructions are gradually lost. When enough genetic information is lost, these chemical reactions start to have an adverse effect on the body. The living processes, following flawed instructions, do not operate at the same integrity as they did in the organism's youth. For example, skin that was once supple and unblemished gradually gains wrinkles, liver spots, moles, tags and other blemishes. The living processes might act on mutated genes and start forming mutations themselves (cancer) or may allow the buildup of waste products that require other chemicals (medicines) to assist in managing them.
This loss-of-information is externally exhibited as "aging". As a person ages, the increasing need for artificial chemical assistance (medicines) is a telltale sign that the genetic loss of information is causing the living processes to fall behind the organism's needs. When only one critical process ceases to function properly (or at all) this can cause catastrophic failure in its dependent processes, ultimately leading to the death of the organism. Timely intervention may forestall the organism's death but ultimately cannot prevent this eventuality.
Ultimately a state of "death" is reached when the chemistry of the body wins against the body's biological processes. Understanding this is critical to understanding why life could not have arrived spontaneously through chemical processes of any kind. Chemistry is the organism's enemy. The organism dies when chemistry wins.
Death did not Pre-Exist Mankind
In evolutionary terms, mankind arrived on Earth by a series of mutations through natural selection. This process involved millions of years of death and struggle. It means that death was on the earth long before mankind was ever on the earth.
Creationists on the other hand, track the ultimate cause of death back to the Fall of Man. There are different views about how death entered at the Fall.
Some say that even though God told Adam he would "surely die" if he ate of the fruit, God did not kill him, so Adam must have experienced a "spiritual death". However, Jesus Christ had to physically die. The Scripture says that "without the shedding of blood, there is no remission (of sin)" (Hebrews 9:22). While Adam may have spiritually died, God immediately instituted substitutionary death, something that he had already provided for (Revelation 13:9) by clothing the humans with coats of skins, the first blood-covering for sin. The very next chapter accounts of Cain and Abel coming to God with ritual sacrifices. God had to bring his pre-ordained plan concerning his Son to fruition (Revelation 13:9), so killing Adam and Eve immediately would have ruined this plan.
- Some believe that prior to the fall of man, there was no death, for humans or animals. They believe that God brought some physiological or spiritual change to life on Earth as part of the punishment for eating the fruit. This would of course require God to respond as though it had not anticipated this possibility (a "tinkering" God).
- Others believe that prior to the fall, animals died just as they do today, but humans were spared from death by the Tree of Life, a tree in the garden of which Adam and Eve were allowed to eat, and which healed their bodies, allowing them to live forever. However, "after [Jehovah] drove the man out [of the Garden], he placed on the east side of the Garden of Eden cherubim and a flaming sword flashing back and forth to guard the way to the tree of life." (Gen 3:24). According to this view, Adam and Eve underwent no physical or spiritual change after they ate the fruit which caused them to die. God simply denied them (and all future generations) access to the Fruit of the Tree of Life which would have permitted us to live forever.
Death of Jesus Christ
William Lane Craig notes that in terms of apologetics, the death of Christ was at least as important as his resurrection. This is because if a person claims to have resurrected, our first presumption is that we were mistaken about their death, or that the death was falsified.
Therefore, if Jesus had died in his sleep, or mauled by a bear, or choking on food, one could presume that the witnesses of the death may have been mistaken. Additionally, if the witnesses of the death had a vested interest in promoting someone having raised from the dead, this too would be suspect.
Christ was killed by the Romans in a formal political execution, publicly carried out and verified by an executioner, essentially applying all of the infrastructure and verification required to dispute anyone who may claim he had not actually died. This in hand, Christ's death is perhaps one of the most historically reliable events of antiquity. The high-circumstance, visibility and operational integrity with which it was carried out, literally voids any objection to its reality.
The Death of Christ is the fulcrum for God's wrath and judgment. In the afterlife, humans will experience one of two judgments. For believers, the Judgment Seat of Christ (Romans 14:10, 2 Corinthians 5:10) where Christ will judge the works of the believer whether they are good or bad. For unbelievers, the Great White Throne (Revelation 20:11) where Christ will judge the works of the believer whether they are good or bad. In both cases, the human soul is judged for their works, not their sins. In the former case, believers will be variously rewarded for their works. In the latter case, unbelievers will receive justice.
God judges sin however, in only one place: the Cross of Jesus Christ (Colossians 2:14).
After death, an organism's body begins to undergo decay: cells and tissues break down, and (in many cases) other organisms begin to feed on the dead organism.
Evolutionary thinkers assert that the fossil record was formed by gradual deposition. When an animal dies, it falls over and gets covered with silt. Later we find it as a fossil. We know however, that when an animal dies it rapidly decays and/or is scavenged such that little of the animal is left to fossilize. Not only this, but the continents do not today exhibit the propensity to accumulate silt in this manner. The universal observation is of erosion, not deposition.
The fossil record is filled with billions of dead animals, most of which are very well-preserved and some better-preserved than the capacity of a modern laboratory to replicate. These were all deposited in water-laid stone, the majority of which exhibit signs of rapid, even sudden capture and deposition. This is evidence that the Flood of Noah rapidly interred these animals.
Life after Death
Beyond the obvious observable decay of the body, there are a number of different views about what occurs to humans after death:
- Some believe that a human's soul or spirit is sent instantly to a spiritual Heaven, Hell, or Purgatory. The Bible asserts that all human souls are resurrected. Some to eternal life and some to damnation, but there is no third choice. (John 5:29)
- Others believe that after death, humans await the final resurrection, at which time we will have glorified, physical bodies. When Jesus was resurrected, he had a physical body that the disciples were able to touch through which he spoke and ate food. In addition, Jesus also had abilities we lack, like the ability to appear in rooms without walking through doors, and the ability to physically ascend to heaven. Also, according to Mat 27:52, when Jesus died, "the graves were opened; and many bodies of the saints which slept arose, and came out of the graves after his resurrection, and went into the holy city, and appeared unto many."
- Others believe that after death, organisms simply cease to exist. This is consistent with an acceptance of basic biological life "Hebrew:chay" while rejecting the higher forms of life recognized in Scripture.
Human science does not yet have the tools to empirically test or verify any of these possibilities. Creationists typically hold to one of the first two views, because of their faith in the words and promises of Jehovah, Jesus, and the prophets. Those who hold to the last view do so because they do not put credence in the promises of God or the prophets, and have no tangible first-hand evidence of life after death. Both views are claims of faith that can only truly be realized at the point of death.
- The Bible asserts that babies of Christian believers are considered "holy" and in the same spiritual status as a believer (1 Corinthians 7:14). As such if they die, they will go to heaven. God offers no such comfort to parents who are unbelievers. It is the position of many that God in his sovereign mercy may spare the babies of unbelievers, but there is no promise from God that he will do so.
- In keeping with the above, the believer is urged to train their children in spiritual matters so that when they first understand the concepts of right-and-wrong, they will be able to choose God as a believer independently of their parents. This is loosely called "the age of accountability" but is never mentioned in Scripture.
The living creatures have a "Hebrew:nephesh" soul or spirit that is the breath-of-life for that animal. When these animals die, both their bodies and their souls cease to exist.
Humans however, are recipients of the "Hebrew:neshamah" living soul (Genesis 2:7). This is a rational, reasoning capability that separates humans from common living creatures. The neshamah is what gives a human soul "Hebrew:nephesh" eternal existence. This does not necessarily translate to eternal life. The Bible says (John 5:29) that all humans are resurrected, some to eternal life and some to eternal damnation.
This eternal damnation is what the Bible calls "second death". (Revelation 2:11,20:6,20:14,21:8). The Second Death is when a soul is cast into the Lake of Fire. It is not when a soul first dies and is sent to Hell (Luke 16:23). This afterlife is a temporary existence in the belly of the Earth, and cannot be permanent because the Earth and Heavens will be destroyed and replaced with a new Heaven and Earth (Revelation 21:1). The Lake of Fire however, transcends the existence of the current heaven-and-earth in the same manner that neshamah souls transcend this present physical existence.
The Gospel of Jesus Christ carries a message of hope to deliver humanity from the eventuality of the Second Death. It is therefore not surprising that Christ directly equated salvation to a Second Birth (John 3:3). When a person first enters life, they are born to a "body of death" (Romans 7:24) but through salvation, humans are born-again into eternal life (John 3:16), over which the Second Death has no power.
A number of what are called "near-death experiences" have been recorded by doctors throughout the world. In a near-death experience, a person who is very near death (as in a coma) or is medically dead experiences a floating sensation, as if they move out of their bodies and are able to see things that they shouldn't be able to see if they were unconscious. Often people have had a vision of traveling upwards through a tunnel with a light at the end, and when they get to the end it is usually a peaceful, pleasant place which is claimed to be heaven. However, some have experienced hell (those who have not experienced salvation). These experiences are usually taken as evidence for the afterlife, although some skeptics claim that it is scientifically explainable. But these have had extremely difficult times explaining near-death experiences, and often they choose to believe in the spiritual explanation.
Near-death experiences are generally rejected by both believers and unbelievers and so have become subjects of film and television horror. The near-death experience is no more verifiable than death itself. Some people claim to have seen relatives or others in the afterlife, and saw them in younger form that they had never otherwise been exposed to. Deeper investigation reveals that the individual had already been exposed to photographs, descriptions etc. at a much younger age, but had forgotten. One young woman said she had a vision of her grandmother and related her grandmother's words in Gaelic, a language she had never studied. Further investigation revealed that the young woman, as a toddler had been around her grandmother all the time, and would hear bedtime stories from her in Gaelic.
A universal theme of Scripture in general and life in particular is that "the dead don't come back". Without supernatural intervention from God, a person who dies, stays dead.
- Death by Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy
- Death and Suffering Questions and Answers by Creation Ministries International