What is the nature of death according to the Bible?


(image courtesy ChristArt)

By Spencer D. Gear

Monday, 4 June 2012

Two days ago, Chris, my friend of 35 years, died suddenly of a stroke in a nearby hospital. It was only last Thursday, 9.15am, that he was sitting in the lounge room at home when he started making what his wife thought were funny faces. However, something far more serious was going on.

An ambulance was called. It arrived within 10 minutes and he was taken to the stroke unit at a local hospital. He had suffered a massive stroke and the right side of his body was paralysed. He was still conscious. His wife’s email stated that the drugs that were used in the hope of dispersing the clot did not work. He was stable, resting, but exhausted. All he could speak was a vague ‘yes’ or ‘no’ because of the paralysis.

Within 2.5 days, Chris, a committed Christian, had died and was present with his Lord Jesus Christ. The apostle Paul stated it this way, ‘We are confident, I say, and would prefer to be away from the body and at home with the Lord’ (2 Corinthians 5:8 NIV). That is the Christian hope and understanding of what happens at death for believers.

However, what is the nature of his death according to Scriptures for all people?

Before we get to the Bible, we note the words of leading scientist, Stephen Hawking, who has suffered from a disability for the majority of his adult life and has stated some disparaging perspective on life after death. Here is one report:

SCIENTIST Stephen Hawking has dismissed heaven as a “fairy story for people afraid of the dark”.

And he insisted that, rather than advance to an afterlife, people’s brains switch off like “broken-down computers” when they die.

Renowned physicist Hawking, 69, admitted his views were partly influenced by his long battle with motor neurone disease, which has left him wheelchair-bound.[1]

He has stated that,

“I have lived with the prospect of an early death for the last 49 years. I’m not afraid of death, but I’m in no hurry to die. I have so much I want to do first,” he said.

“I regard the brain as a computer which will stop working when its components fail. There is no heaven or afterlife for broken down computers; that is a fairy story for people afraid of the dark,” he added.[2]

Is British astrophysicist (cosmologist), Stephen Hawking, correct about death and life after death? Read the tribute to Stephen Hawking by Christian leader, Albert Mohler Jr., ‘Professor Stephen Hawking at 70’. Stephen Hawking has been suffering motor neurone disease from about age 21. He was born in 1942.[3]

Photo Hawking with University of Oxford librarian Richard Ovenden (left) and naturalist David Attenborough (right) at the opening of the Weston Library, Oxford, in March 2015. Ovenden awarded the Bodley Medal to Hawking and Attenborough at the ceremony. Courtesy Wikipedia 2019. s.v. Stephen Hawking). Hawking died on 14 March 2018.

Another motor neurone disease (ALS) sufferer, Michael Wenham, has a completely different perspective to Hawking. He said: ‘I’d stake my life that Stephen Hawking is wrong about heaven. Hawking says some admirable things, but the idea that I believe in life after death because I’m afraid of the dark is insulting’.[4] As indicated above, Hawking has compared death to computers: ‘There is no heaven or afterlife for broken-down computers — that is a fairy story for people afraid of the dark’.[5]

Stephen Hawking is one famous scientist who opposes any view of life after death as he approaches his own death.

When it comes to discuss the nature of what happens to a person at death, Christian or non-Christian, there are those who bring these kinds of accusations:

  • ‘The debate on eternal hell fire is an interesting one because both sides of the debate quote scripture. What’s the solution, or what’s the problem.
    It seems illogical to form a conclusion based on some scripture and not all. That’s the problem?’[6]
  • Timothew responded to this post ‘You are asking “How does immortality put on mortality?” Assuming we are all naturally immortal. Let me ask you, How does mortality put on immortality? I’ll answer it, by putting our faith in Jesus Christ. The bible says that death entered the world through sin. The wages of sin is death. Don’t let yourself be deceived by those who say that death is not really death. Death is death, but we can receive eternal life by faith in Jesus Christ. We can become immortal by receiving immortality from God, who alone is immortal. (1 Timothy 6:15-16).

The question is really ‘Will you receive eternal life from Christ or reject Christ and therefore reject eternal life?’ [7]

  • Timothew responded again, ‘I wonder why so many are offended that there is no eternal torture, only death? Why are so many offended that the wages of sin is death? The message of the cross is foolishness to those who are perishing, but it is the power of God to us who are being saved’.[8]
  • Then came this correction of Timothew: ‘Why do so many people refuse to let their minds be a little bit bigger so as to accept that fact that the fate of unbelievers is both? Clearly Scripture says both death and torment are eternal. Could it be you need to redefine “death” in your minds?[9]
  • Timothew’s retort was, ‘Yes, I think that if a person believes that someone can be both “dead” and “living forever in torment” they probably do need to redefine the word “death” in their mind’.[10]

How do we respond? We turn to the Scriptures to determine the definitions of death. Yes, ‘definitions’. However, before we get to an understanding of the nature of death, we need to understand the nature of human beings.

Are we just blobs of flesh with breath and when death comes and the last breath is taken, the body is left in the grave to rot and there is no such thing as life after death? Is it as Bertrand Russell, the British philosopher and logician, stated, ‘I believe that when I die I shall rot, and nothing of my ego will survive’? (Russell 1957:43).[11] He now knows the truth of what happens at death, as he died of influenza on 2 February 1970 at the age of 97.

If human beings are simply flesh that rots, then death means the cessation of existence. That’s the end for each one of us. But if human beings are more than flesh and bone, then death presents a different situation. Let’s go to the Scriptures for an understanding of human nature.

I hope that I do not have to convince you that human beings have flesh, blood and bone. However, it is the other dimension that can become more contentious. What is the true nature of a human being?

1. A human being is more than flesh, blood and bone

We know from the Christian Scriptures that human beings are more than flesh, blood and bone. Why turn to the Bible for an understanding of human nature? The internal evidence from the Bible is that all Scripture is ‘breathed out by God’ (2 Tim. 3:16 ESV). In this context it is referring primarily to the Scriptures from before the time of the apostle Paul, which is referring to the Old Testament. However, the apostle Peter, compared the writings of Paul with the ‘other Scriptures’ (2 Peter 3:16). Therefore, Peter placed the Paul’s epistles on the same level as the Old Testament Scriptures, which originate from God Himself.

Therefore, if I want to know the true nature of human beings, I don’t go to Confucius , Aristotle, Tertullian, St. Augustine, Descartes, John Calvin, Jonathan Edwards, Bertrand Russell, Richard Dawkins, William Lane Craig, Ravi Zacharias, D A Carson, or another other leading thinker. I would be foolish to go to any other than God Himself to determine your and my nature. However, this is built on the presupposition that the one and only true God of the Judeo-Christian faith exists and that the Bible is a trustworthy document. For further discussion of these points of theology and apologetics, see:

1.1 The soul [12]

A human being has an inner, immaterial dimension and an outer, material dimension. The inner dimension is often called “soul” or “spirit” and the outer dimension is usually called body.

Often in the Bible, the term, “soul,” is used to refer to more than the spiritual dimension of a human being and sometimes even includes the body (e.g. Gen. 2:7; Psalm 16:10).

However, the Bible presents examples of the soul being distinguished from the body as in Gen. 35:18: “And as her [Rachel’s] soul was departing (for she was dying), she called his name Ben-oni; but his father called him Benjamin” (ESV).

In I Thess. 5:23 the soul is noted as different from the body: “Now may the God of peace himself sanctify you completely, and may your whole spirit and soul and body be kept blameless at the coming of our Lord Jesus Christ” (ESV).

Rev. 6:9 indicates that souls are totally separated from the bodies for the saints: “When he opened the fifth seal, I saw under the altar the souls of those who had been slain for the word of God and for the witness they had borne” (ESV).

So, the “soul” means “life” as the principle of life in a human being. It is what animates the body of a human being. In fact, the word “soul” can sometimes refer to a dead body as in Lev. 19:28; 21:1; 23:4 in a way similar to the contemporary expression, “that poor soul.” However, the primary meaning of “soul” is probably best stated as meaning “person” which is usually in a body but is sometimes in a disembodied state.

Therefore, with this kind of understanding, it makes sense to state: “Behold, all souls are mine; the soul of the father as well as the soul of the son is mine: the soul who sins shall die” (Ezek. 18:4 ESV). It fits in with the biblical data, so long as we understand that this fits with “under the altar the souls of those who had been slain for the word of God” (Rev. 6:9). “Souls” are not extinguished at physical death.

1.2 What about the spirit?

In both Hebrew (ruach) and Greek (pneuma), spirit normally refers to the immaterial dimension of human beings. Often “spirit” and “soul” are interchangeable, as in a verses such as Luke 1:46-47, “And Mary said, ‘My soul magnifies the Lord, and my spirit rejoices in God my Savior . . .” (ESV).

James 2:26 speaks of the body without the “soul” as dead, while Jesus said at his death, “When Jesus had received the sour wine, he said, ‘It is finished,’ and he bowed his head and gave up his spirit” (John 19:30).

So, “spirit” is the immaterial dimension of human beings, as Jesus emphasised with his disciples: “And he said to them, ‘Why are you troubled, and why do doubts arise in your hearts? See my hands and my feet, that it is I myself. Touch me, and see. For a spirit does not have flesh and bones as you see that I have’” (Luke 24:38-39).

According to John 4:24, the invisible God “is spirit” and whose who worship him must worship “in spirit and in truth”.

1.3 The heart

In both the Hebrew (leb) and the Greek (kardia), the heart has a meaning so broad that at times it includes the “mind.”

In Prov. 23:7, the NASB translates, “For as he thinks within himself . . .”, where “himself” is leb = heart. The NET Bible captures this meaning, “For he is like someone calculating the cost in his mind.”

The heart, biblically, refers to the whole inner person. It is the place from which true faith in God springs, as we see from Rom. 10:9, “Because, if you confess with your mouth that Jesus is Lord and believe in your heart that God raised him from the dead, you will be saved” (ESV).

It is the heart which we use to worship and love God: “You shall love the LORD your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your might” (Deut. 6:5 ESV).

But the heart can be the set of evil also: “For out of the abundance of the heart the mouth speaks” (Matt. 12:34 ESV). Jeremiah 17:9 confirms that the heart can be the seat of evil: “The heart is deceitful above all things, and desperately sick; who can understand it?” (ESV).

So, the heart seems to reflect the whole inner being of a person.

1.4 The mind

The mind refers to that immaterial dimension of a person by which he/she thinks or imagines. It is included in the commandment given by Jesus: “And you shall love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind and with all your strength” (Mark 12:30).

It is the mind that also needs God’s sanctifying renewal power: “Do not be conformed to this world, but be transformed by the renewal of your mind….” (Rom. 12:2). Why is this needed? Rom. 8:6-7 explains: “To set the mind on the flesh is death, but to set the mind on the Spirit is life and peace. For the mind that is set on the flesh is hostile to God, for it does not submit to God’s law; indeed, it cannot.”

Therefore there is this kind of need for ever believer: “We destroy arguments and every lofty opinion raised against the knowledge of God, and take every thought captive to obey Christ” (2 Cor. 10:5).

1.5 There is another dimension: the inner nature

Sometimes, the spiritual dimension of human beings is called “the inward man” (KJV), which is spoken of in 2 Cor. 4:16: “So we do not lose heart. Though our outer nature is wasting away, our inner nature is being renewed day by day” (ESV). Here the “inner nature” is what the KJV translates as: “the inward man,” which is related to “the things that are unseen,” which “are eternal” (2 Cor. 4:18).

These are my biblical understandings of soul, spirit, heart, mind and the “inward man.”

Therefore, a human being, in addition to being flesh, blood and bone, has a soul/spirit/heart/mind/inward being.

When a human being dies, we know that the flesh and bone go into the ground to rot or to be consumed by a crematorium fire to become ash. But what happens to the ‘inner being’ at death? Before we get there, we have to examine the meaning of death from God’s perspective, as summarised in the Bible.

2. What is the nature of death from God’s point of view

When the first human beings committed the original sin, one of the consequences of that sin is:

  • Physical death is part of the penalty of original sin from Genesis 3 (see Gen 3:19; Job 4:18-19; 14:1-4; Rom 5:12; 6:23; 1 Cor 15:21f; 15:56; 2 Cor 5:2, 4; 2 Tim 1:10). Paul stated it clearly in 1 Cor 15:22, ‘As in Adam all die’. But there is another dimension to death,
  • Spiritual and eternal death. This is what theologian Charles Hodge calls, ‘all penal evil, death spiritual and eternal, as well as the disillusion of the body’ (Hodge:1972:147).[13] This explanation is based on: (a) This is the consequence of sin from Gen. 3; (b) It is the common term used by writers throughout Scripture for the penal consequences of sin (e.g. Gen. 2:17; Ezek 18:4; Rom. 1:32; 6:23; 7:5; James 1:15 Rev. 20:14; etc.); (c) Throughout Scripture we have the constant interchange of ‘life’ with ‘death’. In ‘life’ there are rewards of the righteous; in ‘death’ there is punishment for disobedience (e.g. Deut 30:15; Jer 21:8; Prov. 11:19; Ps. 36:9; Matt 25:46; John 3:15; 2 Cor 2:16; etc.); (d) In Romans 5 there is a contrast of life by Christ and death by Adam (5:15, 17, 21). As Rom. 5:13-14 makes clear, death ‘means the evil, and any evil which is inflicted in punishment of sin’ (Hodge 1972:148). Rom. 5:12 is clear that this view of death ‘came to all people’ (NIV).

2.1 Biblical indications that death is more than physical dying of the body

2.1.1 An overview of verses from Old and New Testaments

Genesis 35:18: “And as her soul was departing (for she was dying), she called his name Ben-oni; but his father called him Benjamin” (ESV).

Ecclesiastes 12:6-7: “Before the silver cord is snapped, or the golden bowl is broken, or the pitcher is shattered at the fountain, or the wheel broken at the cistern, and the dust returns to the earth as it was, and the spirit returns to God who gave it”.

James 2:26: “For as the body apart from the spirit is dead, so also faith apart from works is dead”

From these 3 verses, we cannot conclude that death is a state of annihilation or non-existence. As a person is dying, the soul or spirit, which is unseen by human eyes, is departing and returning to God who gave this soul/spirit to a human being. Also, the body that no longer has the spirit is dead. So, to speak of death as being non-existence of the person is meaningless. That’s not what these verses teach.

2.1.2 Further support from the Old Testament

Genesis 2:17: “But of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil you shall not eat, for in the day that you eat of it you shall surely die”.

Genesis 3:3: “but God said, ‘You shall not eat of the fruit of the tree that is in the midst of the garden, neither shall you touch it, lest you die’”.

Genesis 3:8: “And they heard the sound of the Lord God walking in the garden in the cool of the day, and the man and his wife hid themselves from the presence of the Lord God among the trees of the garden”.

Genesis 3:23: “therefore the Lord God sent him out from the garden of Eden to work the ground from which he was taken”.

In these 4 verses we see that “death” happened, from the moment that Adam and Eve ate of the fruit, but they did not die physically at that point. The fellowship with God ceased, but though they were still living and could hear the voice/sound of God. So “death” here could not mean non-existence or extinction. It meant separation.

2.1.3 Further New Testament support for death being more than physical dying

Ephesians 2:1: “And you were dead in the trespasses and sins”.

Ephesians 2:12-13: “Remember that you were at that time separated from Christ, alienated from the commonwealth of Israel and strangers to the covenants of promise, having no hope and without God in the world. But now in Christ Jesus you who once were far off have been brought near by the blood of Christ”.

1 Timothy 5:6: “But she who is self-indulgent is dead even while she lives”.

Eph. 2:1 describes the nature of a human being’s physical death to demonstrate spiritual death as human beings are “dead” in sin. Then in Eph. 2:12-13, this spiritual death is explained as being separated from Christ. For 1 Tim 5:6, a widow is described as being “dead” even though she is alive. So, death in here described as other than non-existence or annihilation.

What could Jesus mean when he stated, “Leave the dead to bury their own dead” (Luke 9:60)? It is blatantly obvious that he was not saying, “Let the non-existent, annihilated, unconscious or soul-sleep ones bury the non-existent, annihilated, unconscious, soul-sleeping ones”.

Jesus is making it clear that those who are separated from God are “dead” even they are still living.

Then we read:

1 Corinthians 15:26: “The last enemy to be destroyed is death”.

1 Corinthians 15:54-56: “When the perishable puts on the imperishable, and the mortal puts on immortality, then shall come to pass the saying that is written:

“Death is swallowed up in victory.”
“O death, where is your victory?
O death, where is your sting?”

The sting of death is sin, and the power of sin is the law”

Hebrews 2:14-18:

“Since therefore the children share in flesh and blood, he himself likewise partook of the same things, that through death he might destroy the one who has the power of death, that is, the devil, 15 and deliver all those who through fear of death were subject to lifelong slavery. 16 For surely it is not angels that he helps, but he helps the offspring of Abraham. 17 Therefore he had to be made like his brothers in every respect, so that he might become a merciful and faithful high priest in the service of God, to make propitiation for the sins of the people.18 For because he himself has suffered when tempted, he is able to help those who are being tempted”.

Philippians 1:21-24:

“For to me to live is Christ, and to die is gain. 22 If I am to live in the flesh, that means fruitful labor for me. Yet which I shall choose I cannot tell. 23 I am hard pressed between the two. My desire is to depart and be with Christ, for that is far better. 24 But to remain in the flesh is more necessary on your account”.

Here in 1 Cor. 15:26, death is spoken about as “the last enemy”. Could we call it the huge enemy? 1 Cor. 15:54-56 speaks of death as a blend of the good and the bad and of the perishable (human body) putting on the imperishable, the immortal. How about that? Death involves immortality! Because of Christ’s death on the cross, death will eventually be destroyed – but not yet (Heb. 2:14-18).

Then Jesus’ death dealt with the one who has the power of death, the devil. For the believer, to “die” is “gain”, which means to be in relationship with Christ: “My desire is to depart [die] and be with Christ”.

In these latter verses, we see death as the last huge enemy which will be destroyed when Jesus returns, but there is no hint in any of the verses above that death means extinction, annihilation, non-existence.

This should get us thinking about the biblical nature of death, but this is only a start. There are many other verses that demonstrate that the biblical view of ‘death’ is more than the end of physical breath and life.

2.1.4 The second death

There’s a third aspect to death that is described in the Bible. This is known as the ‘second death’ or eternal death and is expressed in Scriptures such as, Revelation 21:8, ‘But the cowardly, the unbelieving, the vile, the murderers, the sexually immoral, those who practice magic arts, the idolaters and all liars —they will be consigned to the fiery lake of burning sulfur. This is the second death’ (NIV).

This ‘second death’, also known as eternal death, is the final state of unbelievers. ‘The second death is an endless period of punishment and of separation from the presence of God, the finalization of the lost state of the individual who is spiritually dead at the time of physical death’ (Erickson 1985:1170).

We know from Revelation 20:6 that Christian believers will not experience the second death.

3. Where will you be one second after your last breath?

What happens at death for all people? Richard Dawkins claims that for him there will be ‘no death bed conversion’. He wants a tape recorder at his bedside when he dies so that nobody will be able to say he had a death bed conversion. He sees ‘death as terminal’ (2006:400), which is not unlike Bertrand Russell’s, ‘When I die I shall rot’ (1957:43).

What do the Scriptures state will happen to those who die, whether believer or unbeliever?

Wayne Grudem’s Systematic Theology (1994) provides an exposition of “What happens when people die?” (Grudem 1994:816ff).

3.1 Death for the Christian believer

Wayne Grudem explains:

a. The souls of believers go immediately into God’s presence.

Death is a temporary cessation of bodily life and a separation of the soul from the body. Once a believer has died, though his or her physical body remains on the earth and is buried, at the moment of death the soul (or spirit) of that believer goes immediately into the presence of God with rejoicing. When Paul thinks about death he says, “We would rather be away from the body and at home with the Lord” (2 Cor 5:8). To be away from the body is to be at home with the Lord. He also says that his desire is “to depart and be with Christ, for that is far better” (Phil 1.23). And Jesus said to the thief who was dying on the cross next to him, “Today you will be with me in paradise” (Lk 23:43), The author of Hebrews says that when Christians come together to worship they come not only into the presence of God in heaven, but also into the presence of “the spirits of just men made perfect” (Heb 12:23). However, as we shall see in more detail in the next chapter, God will not leave our dead bodies in the earth forever, for when Christ returns the souls of believers will be reunited with their bodies, their bodies will be raised from the dead, and they will live with Christ eternally…. (Grudem 1994:816-817).

b. The Bible does not teach the doctrine of purgatory Here is what Grudem states (1994:817-819):

The fact that the souls of believers go immediately into God’s presence means that there is no such thing as purgatory. In Roman Catholic teaching, purgatory is the place where the souls of believers go to be further purified from sin until they are ready to be admitted into heaven. According to this view, the sufferings of purgatory are given to God in substitute for the punishment for sins that believers should have received in time, but did not.

Speaking of purgatory, Ott says:

Suffrages operate in such a manner that the satisfactory value of the good works is offered to God in substitution for the temporal punishment for sins which the poor souls still have to render. It operates by way of remission of temporal punishments due to sins [Ott 1955:322].

But this doctrine is not taught in Scripture, and it is in fact contrary to the verses quoted immediately above. The Roman Catholic Church has found support for this doctrine, not in the pages of canonical Scripture as we defined it in chapter 3 above, and as Protestants have accepted it since the Reformation, but in the writings of the Apocrypha, particularly in 2 Maccabees 12:42–45 (RSV):

[Judas Maccabeus, the leader of the Jewish forces] also took a collection, man by man, to the amount of 2,000 drachmas of silver, and sent it to Jerusalem to provide for a sin offering. In doing this he acted very well and honorably, taking into account the resurrection. For if he were not expecting that those who had fallen would rise again, it would have been superfluous and foolish to pray for the dead. But if he was looking to the splendid reward that is laid up for those who fall asleep in godliness, it was a holy and pious thought. Therefore he made atonement for the dead, that they might be delivered from their sin.

Here it is clear that prayer for the dead is approved, and also making an offering to God to deliver the dead from their sin. But in response it must be said that this literature is not equal to Scripture in authority, and should not be taken as an authoritative source of doctrine. Moreover, it contradicts the clear statements about departing and being with Christ quoted above, and thereby opposes the clear teaching of New Testament Scripture. Furthermore, when it talks about the offering of Judas making “atonement for the dead” it contradicts the explicit teaching of the New Testament that Christ alone made atonement for us. Finally, this passage in 2 Maccabees is difficult to square even with Roman Catholic teaching, because it teaches that soldiers who had died in the mortal sin of idolatry (which cannot be forgiven, according to Catholic teaching) should have prayers and sacrifices offered for them with the possibility that they will be delivered from their suffering.

Roman Catholic theology finds support for the doctrine of purgatory primarily in the passage from 2 Maccabees quoted above, and in the teaching of the tradition of the church. Other passages cited by Ott in support of the doctrine of purgatory are 2 Timothy 1:18; Matthew 5:26; 1 Corinthians 3:15; and Matthew 12:32. In 2 Timothy 1:18, Paul says, concerning Onesiphorus, “When he arrived in Rome he searched for me eagerly and found me—may the Lord grant him to find mercy from the Lord on that Day—and you well know all the service he rendered at Ephesus” (2 Tim. 1:17–18). The claim of those who find support for the doctrine of purgatory is that “Onesiphorus … apparently was no longer among the living at the time of the Second Epistle to Timothy.” This seems to be based on the fact that Paul refers not to Onesiphorus himself but “the household of Onesiphorus” (2 Tim. 1:16); however, that phrase does not prove that Onesiphorus had died, but only that Paul was wishing blessings not only on him but on his entire household. This would not be unusual since Onesiphorus had served in Ephesus where Paul had worked for three years (2 Tim. 1:18; cf. 4:19). To build support for purgatory on the idea that Onesiphorus had already died is simply to build it on an assumption that cannot be supported with clear evidence. (It is not unusual for Paul to express a wish that some Christians would be blessed in the Day of Judgment—see 1 Thess. 5:23.)

In Matthew 12:32, Jesus says, “Whoever speaks against the Holy Spirit will not be forgiven, either in this age or in the age to come.” Ott says that this sentence “leaves open the possibility that sins are forgiven not only in this world but in the world to come.” However, this is simply an error in reasoning: to say that something will not happen in the age to come does not imply that it might happen in the age to come! What is needed to prove the doctrine of purgatory is not a negative statement such as this but a positive statement that says that people suffer for the purpose of continuing purification after they die. But Scripture nowhere says this.

In 1 Corinthians 3:15 Paul says that on the Day of Judgment, the work that everyone has done will be judged and tested by fire, and then says, “If any man’s work is burned up he will suffer loss, though he himself will be saved, but only as through fire.” But this does not speak of a person being burned or suffering punishment, but simply of his work as being tested by fire—that which is good will be like gold, silver, and precious stones that will last forever (v. 12). Moreover, Ott himself admits that this is something that occurs not during this age but during the day of “the general judgment,” and this further indicates that it can hardly be used as a convincing argument for purgatory. Finally, in Matthew 5:26, after warning people to make friends quickly with their accusers while they are going to the court, lest the accuser hand them to the judge and the judge to the guard and they be put in prison, Jesus then says, “You will never get out till you have paid the last penny.” Ott understands this as a parable teaching a “time-limited condition of punishment in the other world.” But surely there is no indication in context that this is a parable—Jesus is giving practical teaching about reconciliation of human conflicts and the avoidance of situations that naturally lead to anger and personal injury (see Matt. 5:21–26). Other passages of Scripture that have sometimes been referred to in support of the doctrine of purgatory simply do not speak directly about this idea at all, and can all easily be understood in terms of punishment and deliverance from distress in this life, or of a life of eternal blessing with God in heaven in the life to come.

An even more serious problem with this doctrine is that it teaches that we must add something to the redemptive work of Christ, and that his redemptive work for us was not enough to pay the penalty for all our sins. But this is certainly contrary to the teaching of Scripture. Moreover, in a pastoral sense, the doctrine of purgatory robs believers of the great comfort that should be theirs in knowing that those who have died have immediately gone into the presence of the Lord, and knowing that they also, when they die, will “depart and be with Christ, for that is far better” (Phil. 1:23).

You can listen to Dr. Francis Beckwith’s support of purgatory. He is a convert from Protestantism to Roman Catholicism.

b.  The Bible does not teach the doctrine of “soul sleep”

(Grudem 1994:816-821). For a rebuttal of the false doctrine of soul sleep, see my article, ‘Soul sleep: A refutation’.

3.2 Death for unbelievers

Death for the non-Christian is in stark contrast with those who do not trust Jesus Christ as their Lord and Saviour. Grudem explains:

The Souls of Unbelievers Go Immediately to Eternal Punishment. Scripture never encourages us to think that people will have a second chance to trust in Christ after death. In fact, the situation is quite the contrary. Jesus’ story about the rich man and Lazarus gives no hope that people can cross from hell to heaven after they have died: though the rich man in hell called out, “Father Abraham, have mercy upon me, and send Lazarus to dip the end of his finger in water and cool my tongue; for I am in anguish in this flame,” Abraham replied to him, “Between us and you a great chasm has been fixed, in order that those who would pass from here to you may not be able, and none may cross from there to us” (Luke 16:24-26).

The book of Hebrews connects death with the consequence of judgment in dose sequence: “just as it is appointed for men to die once, and after that comes judgment….” (Heb. 9:27). Moreover, Scripture never represents the final judgment as depending on anything done after we die, but only on what has happened in this life (Matt. 25:31-46; Rom. 2:5-10; cf. 2 Cor. 5:10). Some have argued for a second chance to believe in the gospel on the basis of Christ’s preaching to the spirits in prison in 1 Peter 3:18—20 and the preaching of the gospel “even to the dead” in 1 Peter 4:6, but those are inadequate interpretations of die verses in question, and, on closer inspection, do not support such a view.

We should also realize that the idea that there will be a second chance to accept Christ after death is based on the assumption that everyone deserves a chance to accept Christ and that eternal punishment only comes to those who consciously decide to reject him. But certainly that idea is not supported by Scripture: we all are sinners by nature and choice, and no one actually deserves any of God’s grace or deserves any opportunity to hear the gospel of Christ—those come only because of God’s unmerited favor. Condemnation comes not only because of a willful rejection of Christ, but also because of the sins that we have committed and the rebellion against God that those sins represent (see John 3:18).

The idea that people have a second chance to accept Christ after death would also destroy most motivation for evangelism and missionary activity today, and is not consistent with the intense missionary zeal that was felt by the New Testament church as a whole, and that was especially exemplified in the missionary travels of the apostle Paul.

The fact that there is conscious punishment for unbelievers after they die and that this punishment goes on forever is certainly a difficult doctrine for us to contemplate. But the passages teaching it appear so clear that it seems that we must affirm it if we are to affirm what Scripture teaches. Jesus says that at the day of final judgment he will say to those at his left hand, “Depart from me, you cursed, into the eternal fire prepared for the devil and his angels,” and he says that “they will go away into eternal punishment, but die righteous into eternal life” (Matt. 25:41, 46).

These passages show that we cannot accept as faithful to Scripture the doctrine annihilationism. This is a doctrine that says that unbelievers, either immediately upon death, or else after suffering for a period of time, will simply cease to exist— God will “annihilate” them and they will no longer be. Although the idea initially sounds attractive to us, and it avoids the emotional difficulty connected with ‘firming eternal conscious punishment for the wicked, such an idea is not explicitly affirmed in any passages of Scripture, and seems so clearly to be contradicted by those passages that connect the eternal blessing of the righteous with the eternal punishment of the wicked (Matt. 25:46) and that talk about punishment extending to the wicked day and night forever (Rev. 14:11; 20:10). Although unbelievers pass into a state of eternal punishment immediately upon death, their bodies will not be raised until the day of final judgment. On that day, their bodies will be raised and reunited with their souls, and they will stand before God’s throne for final judgment to be pronounced upon them in the body (see Matt. 25:31-46; John 5:28-29; Acts 24:15; and Rev. 20:12, 15).[Grudem 1994:822-824].

4. Summary

Death does not mean extinction. There is more to death than ‘When I die I rot’. Grudem’s statement is a sound basic understanding of what happens when the last breath ceases, ‘Death is the temporary cessation of bodily life and a separation of the soul from the body’ (1994:816). Millard Erickson put is this way, ‘Life and death, according to Scripture, are not to be thought of as existence and nonexistence, but as two different states of existence. Death is simply a transition to a different mode of existence; it is not as some tend to think, extinction’ (1985:1169).

We learn from the Scriptures that there are three aspects to death (based on Theissen 1949:271-272). These are:

  • Physical death. This is the separation of the soul from the body and this is the penalty of sin (see Gen. 2:17; 3:19; Num 16:29; 27:3; John 8:44; Rom 5:12, 14, 16, 17; 1 Peter 4:6).
  • Spiritual death. This is the separation of the soul from God which is a penalty from the fall into sin in the Garden of Eden (see Gen 2:17; Rom 5:21; Eph 2:1, 5; Luke 15:32; John 5:24; 8:51).
  • Eternal death (the second death). This is the completion of spiritual death, the eternal separation of the soul from God which is accompanied by eternal punishment (see Matt 10:28; 25:41; 2 Thess 1:9; Heb 10:31; Rev 14:11).

5. How to avoid eternal death and experience eternal life

It would be remiss of me not to give a way out of this eternal death. However, the decision to avoid eternal death is made in this life. To put it simply, we live in the church age when salvation through Christ is made available to all people (yes, I believe in unlimited atonement).

Second Peter 3:9 is abundantly clear on what God makes available to all people NOW: ‘The Lord is not slow in keeping his promise, as some understand slowness. Instead he is patient with you, not wanting anyone to perish, but everyone to come to repentance’ (NIV).

By Christ’s death, He has made atonement for the sins of all Old Testament believers and for all those since Christ’s death as well (see Romans 3:21-26). All that is required is:

  • You must understand God’s holiness;
  • You must understand the seriousness of your sin before this holy God;
  • Confess your sin to God, seeking his forgiveness;
  • Repent of your sin (as in 2 Pet 3:9). Repentance means a turn around – a u-turn from sinful behaviour;
  • Receive Jesus Christ by faith as your Lord and Saviour;
  • You will be regenerated from the inside of your being;
  • Then, join with other Christians for fellowship and growth in your faith;
  • Become a disciple of Jesus Christ and grow in your faith (Matt. 28:18-20).

For more biblical details of these points on how to become a Christian, see this summary, ‘Content of the gospel & some discipleship’.


Patrick Zukeran, ‘What happens after death?‘ (Probe Ministries). It has a section on different perspectives on death.


Dawkins, R 2006. The God delusion. London: Black Swan (Transworld Publishers).

Erickson, M 1985. Christian theology. Grand Rapids, Michigan: Baker Book House.

Geisler, N L 2004, Systematic theology: Sin, salvation, vol. 3. Minneapolis, Minnesota: BethanyHouse, Minneapolis.

Grudem, W 1994. Systematic theology: An introduction to biblical doctrine. Leicester, England: Inter-Varsity Press / Grand Rapids, Michigan: Zondervan Publishing House.

Hodge, C 1972. Romans (Geneva Series Commentary). London: The Banner of Truth Trust.

Ott, L 1955. Fundamentals of Catholic dogma. Ed by J C Bastible. Tr by P Lynch. St Louis: Herder.[14]

Russell, B 1957. Why I am not a Christian. New York: Simon & Shuster.


[1] Alex Peake 2011. ‘Hawking: Heaven is a fairy story’, The Sun [UK], 17 May. Available at: http://www.thesun.co.uk/sol/homepage/news/3583956/Stephen-Hawking-on-death.html (Accessed 31 May 2012).

[2] Ian Sample 2011. ‘Stephen Hawking: There is no heaven, it’s a fairy story’, The Guardian [UK], 15 May. Available at: http://www.guardian.co.uk/science/2011/may/15/stephen-hawking-interview-there-is-no-heaven (Accessed 4 June 2012).

[3] See ‘Stephen Hawking’ in Wikipedia, available at: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Stephen_Hawking (Accessed 31 May 2011).

[4] Headlines from Michael Wenham’s article, The Guardian, 17 May 2011. Available at: http://www.guardian.co.uk/commentisfree/belief/2011/may/17/stephen-hawking-heaven (Accessed 31 May 2012).

[5] Alex Peake op cit (as in endnote #1).

[6] Christian Forums, Christian Apologetics, ‘The debate on eternal hell fire’, Precepts #1, available at: http://www.christianforums.com/t7618877/ (Accessed 31 May 2012).

[7]Timothew, ibid., #3.

[8] Ibid., #8.

[9] WinbySurrender, ibid., #18.

[10] Ibid., #19.

[11] This was originally from Bertrand Russell’s booklet, ‘What I believe’, first published in 1925 that has been incorporated into Russell (1957). This quote is also cited in Richard Dawkins (2006:397).

[12] The following exposition of the nature of human beings is based on Geisler (2004:46-48).

[13] It was first published in 1835.

[14] This was ‘first published in German in 1952. A standard textbook of traditional Roman Catholic theology’ (Grudem 1994:1228).

Copyright © 2012 Spencer D. Gear. This document last updated at Date: 12 September 2019.