Theology of Death: Definition, Viewpoints, Why It Matters
Death is obviously a heavy topic. But as Christians, we ought to approach death differently than others do. The Bible gives us some very important things to consider when we’re thinking about death. Let’s explore the theology of death. What does the Bible say about death, and why is it important?
What is the Theology of Death? The theology of death is the study of what the Bible says about human death and what takes place in the afterlife. Generally, the topic includes why people die, how Christians should view death, and what we should expect in the afterlife.
Let’s explore Biblical answers, shedding light on the truth of the theology of death.
Why Do People Die?
Simply put, people die because of sin. Our first human parents, Adam and Eve, disobeyed God. The result? Well, their sinful choice had many ramifications, but the immediate result was their ousting from the Garden of Eden. If they had not sinned, they would have remained in the Garden, where they could have been able to avoid death.
When we examine the first few chapters of Genesis, before Adam and Eve were ousted from the Garden, we see an incredible picture of humans enjoying God’s presence and his creation, unencumbered. Yet, Adam destroyed this perfect picture when he disobeyed God. And because of Adam’s sin we were all born into a world that is very different than the world Adam and Eve came into.
The apostle Paul explains how Adam’s sin impacted all of us (cf. Rom. 5; 1 Cor. 15). We are sinners by nature. But we ought not merely blame Adam—he deserves his fair share of the blame—however, we shoulder the blame too. Each one of us have followed in Adam’s footsteps. We are not only sinners by nature, but we’re sinners by choice too.
The apostle Paul says, “All have sinned and fall short of the glory of God” (Rom. 3:23). He later states that “the wages of sin is death” (Rom. 6:23). Just like I earn a paycheck each week at my job, in the same way we all earn death with the way we live. Sin is a part of our daily routine and death is the wages we are paid.
We have all earned sin’s just punishment. Death is the paycheck that we deserve.
Two Christian Views of Death
There are two distinct ways that Christians should view death, but they are not necessarily mutually exclusive. Both of these ways to view death are important and valuable.
Negative View of Death and Its Response
We should look at death as a sorrowful thing, because it is a result of sin. Humanity has chosen to sin against the holy God, and we brought death upon ourselves. Every time we are faced with death it should cause us to be sober-minded, it should remind us of how bad our sin actually is.
Whether a family member dies, or we have a near-death experience of some sort, or if a celebrity we’ve never met passes away, or even when a family pet dies, in each instance, whenever we brush up against death, we ought to pause to reflect on how we brought death upon ourselves.
Death serves as a reminder that our actions have very real consequences, that our choices have real ramifications. It helps us to remember that we cannot live our lives without impacting others around us. The moments when we are considering or thinking about death help us to see how painful our choices can be when we neglect or ignore God’s commands.
Whenever you face death or have an experience that brings death up close to you, it is right to pause and remember sin—both the corporate sins of humanity as well as your own personal sins—and to lament.
It is right to mourn over the person we have lost, the loved one we will miss. However, when you mourn, do not forget to mourn over the fact that we as humans are sinful and that we brought death upon ourselves—it didn’t need to be this way, we could have been in the Garden, if we had only obeyed. That’s worth crying over.
Positive View of Death and Its Response
The positive way to view death is to allow it to usher us into a moment of celebration. In each instance, whenever we are faced with death, whenever we brush up against death, we ought to use that moment to reflect upon the fact that, for those of us who are in Christ, death is the end of suffering.
While death is such a sad and painful moment, it is simultaneously the glorious moment. It is the moment when Jesus’ victory of death is fully realized.
Death is the moment where the believer steps into eternity to be present with Jesus Christ, the one who suffered on our behalf so that we do not have to suffer for eternity. Christians will not ever suffer the long-term eternal consequences of their sin. Jesus has already dealt with that.
For the believer, death is the moment to experience the fulness of what God promised us. The apostle Paul says, “to be absent from the body and to be present with the Lord” (2 Corinthians 5:8). In his letter to the Philippians he says, “To live is Christ, and to die is gain” (Philippians 1:21). Paul saw death as a win! he calls it a “gain!” Wow!
Therefore, Christians let’s follow Paul’s example, let’s look at death as a gainful thing. Let’s view death as the moment when the believer steps outside of the suffering of this chaotic world and to steps into an eternity of experiencing the glory and goodness of Jesus.
For Christians, there’s a two-sided view of death that may appear strange to others. We see death as the moment to both mourn and praise, a time for both lamentations and celebrations.
Is Death Spiritual, Physical, or Both?
Earlier in this article I cited Rom. 6:23, wherein the apostle Paul says “the wages of sin is death.” This has led some people to argue that the only punishment for sin is physical death, and that there is no punishment in the afterlife.
Unfortunately, proponents of that view seem to have misunderstood what the apostle Paul means. Certainly, physical death is connected to the sins of humanity, but it’s actually much more than that.
In Rom. 6:23, the word we translate as “death” is the Greek word “thanatos” [θάνατος]. This word can refer to both a physical punishment or a spiritual punishment. Throughout church history the consensus amongst pastors and theologians has been that this word refers to a state of utter misery or to be under some form of spiritual tyranny.
Some contemporary critics claim that no one in the first century used the term thanatos to refer to a state of utter misery, but that assertion is simply uninformed.
The Greek philosopher Plutarch, the Jewish philosopher Philo, and the Epistle of Barnabas all clearly use this Greek term thanatos to refer to some form of spiritual tyranny.
We also have these key moments in the New Testament:
We have the apostle Paul saying that Jesus has saved us from “the wrath to come” (1 Thess. 1:10).
We have Jesus talking about the “eternal punishment” that comes to the unrighteous ones (Mt. 25:46).
We have the story of Lazarus and the rich man told by Jesus (cf. Luke 16:19-31), clearly giving us a picture of a punishment that is after physical death, and far worse than physical death.
We have a group of people being thrown into a “lake of fire” at the end of the age (cf. Rev. 20).
And we have Jesus telling us to not “fear those who [can] kill the body but cannot kill the soul” but instead to fear the one “who can destroy both soul and body in hell” (Mt. 10:28). Jesus is making it clear that there is something worse than just physical death.
Clearly, when the New Testament refers to death as the punishment for sin, it’s referring to something more than just physical death.
What We Should Expect in the Afterlife
This is a very important question, and the answer totally depends on your faith in Jesus… or lack thereof.
For Those Who are Not in Christ
In the heavenly ledgers there is a recording of all that you have done in this life. Every choice and thought is documented. If you are outside of Christ, if you are not a genuine believer in Christ, then you should fully expect to be held accountable for every one of those choices and thoughts.
If you are not a genuine believer, if you have not fully trusted in Christ for salvation, then you should expect to suffer the consequences of your actions. God will hold you accountable. In Hebrews 9:27, it says, “Just as it is appointed for man to die once, after that comes judgment.” So you should expect to be judged.
And if your sins have not been forgiven, then as that judgment approaches you ought to be “fearful” (Heb. 10:27).
This coming judgement is a scary thing. In Hebrews 10:31, the author proclaims, “It is a dreadful thing to fall into the hands of the living God.” We ought to be frightened to be held accountable for our choices. Quite frankly, you ought to be terrorized by the prospect that God might get his hands on you.
For Those Who Have Trusted in Christ
However, for the believer, for those who are in Christ, we know that we shall not be held accountable for our sins because Jesus has already been held accountable for our sins—at the cross. If you have fully and genuinely trusted in Christ, then Christ’s work on the cross covers your sin. Our sin and guilt were transferred (imputed) to Jesus, and his innocence was transferred (imputed) to us. The great 16th century reformer Martin Luther referred to this as the “great exchange.”
Believers are declared righteous, clean, and pure, as if we had never sinned at all. Therefore, I view entering the afterlife as a glorious moment when I will see the Father face to face, and will not be treated as my sins deserve. This is a glorious reality!
As a follower of Jesus, as someone who has trusted Christ, I should joyfully expect to enjoy the glory of God for all of eternity. If you have trusted in Christ, then you too ought to look forward to that moment, not because of anything you have done to merit God’s favor, but because of Christ’s work on your behalf.
Death is the moment when we get to experience the fullness of what Jesus Christ purchased for us. Death is gain.
Were Humans Created Immortal?
Inevitably, when the topic of death is discussed, the questions related to immortality come up. There are a few caveats that sometimes make me feel like this line of questioning is impossible to answer. But I’ll give it my best shot.
Were Adam and Eve created mortal or immortal? If Adam and Eve had never sinned, they would have never physically died. However, the book of Genesis never explicitly states whether Adam and Eve were created immortal or mortal. It is entirely possible that they were actually created mortal but were protected from death so long as they never sinned in the Garden of Eden.
View #1: Mankind was Created to Immortal
Many Evangelical Christians will say that humans were never intended to die and that we were created to be immortal beings. The idea here is that man could have lived forever on earth, when the earth was perfect, before sin, and that mankind did not possess the actual ability to die. Therefore, mankind would live forever in the presence of God on earth, in the Garden of Eden. Of course, this plan was ruined because Adam and Eve did indeed choose to disobey God, which then ended humanity’s immortality.
View #2: Mankind was Created to Mortal
This second view is less popular than the first. The belief here is that humans were created with the ability to die, even before Adam and Eve’s disobedience, but that humans were kept alive only by regularly eating from the tree of life in the Garden. Immortality was based only from the tree in the Garden.
The tree of life is first mentioned in Genesis 2:9 but we don’t really learn of the tree’s significance until Genesis 3:22 when we are told that any person who eats of this tree will “live forever” (ESV). The possibility of living forever remained, even after Adam sinned, and that is what motivated God to banish Adam and Eve from the Garden of Eden.
Once Adam and Eve sinned they were certainly different, they were now in a wicked broken sinful state. But there’s nothing in Scripture that leads us to believe that their mortal nature changed. After they sinned they were now in this new sinful state, a worse condition. Therefore, if they had stayed in the Garden, humans would have continued to eat from the tree of life and remained living in that wicked broken sinful state.
Exiled From the Garden: Gift or Punishment?
God is so gracious, he did not want humans to live forever in this wicked broken sinful state. Therefore, God exiled Adam and Eve from the Garden of Eden, to keep them from eating from the tree of life. This act would ensure their physical death and give them the opportunity to be rescued from this sinful state.
God did not want humans living forever in that state therefore he wanted to remove the possibility of humans eating from the tree of life to fully remove the possibility of humans living forever.
With this in mind, being ousted from the Garden can be see as an act of mercy, rather than punishment. God, in removing Adam and Ever from the Garden, and placing cherubim at the entrance of the Garden (cf. Gen. 3:22–24), was showing mercy and kindness, not merely being punitive. God refused to allow them to eat from the tree that would have allowed them to continue to live forever in their brokenness.
God recognizes that death, while tragic, would be better for his people than the potential of allowing them to live forever in a state of pain and suffering. While death is tough and painful, God prefers that his people die so that we can be rescued from the pain and suffering of this world.
Why the Theology of Death Matters
Understanding what God and the Bible teach us about death impacts the life of a believer in 3 specific ways:
It Shows Us the Justice of God
God means what he says. Death shows us that God hates sin and that he refuses to let things go unaccounted for. All of us hate it when a criminal goes unpunished and doesn’t suffer the consequences. All of us feel wronged and betrayed when justice is not served. But death shows us that justice is always served.
Every time we are faced with death, we are reminded that God is just and He does not allow sin to go unpaid for. This is a good thing. Think of it this way: human judges on earth that let people get away with a crime are judges that we do not respect.
God is a great judge. He does not allow crime to go unpunished. This is good.
It Gives Us Hope for the Future
Death reminds us that there is an end to the suffering found on the earth. The world in which we live is filled with pain, calamity, suffering, frustration, natural disasters, and all sorts of wickedness. We caused this. Our sin poisoned the world. But it all comes to an end, it will not last forever.
Every time someone dies, we are reminded that there will be another age to come, in which we will not face the pain of this world. For the believer, suffering comes to an end. Death is the reminder that we will not remain in this tragic state forever.
Death Gives Us Comfort
Death gives us great comfort to know that eventually, we will be with Jesus. Revelation 21:4, says that “Jesus will wipe every tear from [our] eyes. There will be no more death or mourning or crying or pain.” This is a glorious promise!
There’s a moment coming, promised by Jesus, where all pain and suffering will be gone. The knowledge that death is coming, reminds us that there will be a time when suffering is dead too.
Death hurts. It’s painful. When someone we know dies, it stings. But when a Christian dies, we don’t mourn the same. The apostle Paul says this:
Dear brothers and sisters, we want you to know what will happen to the believers who have died so you will not grieve like people who have no hope. For since we believe that Jesus died and was raised to life again, we also believe that when Jesus returns, God will bring back with him the believers who have died. —1 Thessalonians 4:13-14
Paul makes it clear that we do still grieve, death is a sad thing. And yet, we do not grieve the same way that unbelievers grieve. They do not have a hope. But we do! In fact, because of our hope we can stare down death, and speak confidently in the face of death. This is what Paul does:
Death has been swallowed up in victory. Where, death, is your victory? Where, death, is your sting? —1 Corinthians 15:54-55
Paul is staring down death, “Where’s your victory?” Paul is trash-talking at death. Paul is boasting. We get the sense of some bravado here. He is not bragging about anything he has done, but what Christ has done on our behalf. Paul is staring death in the eye and reminding it that it may attempt to do its worst, but in the end death shall have no grip on us.
A proper theology of death, and proper understanding of Christ, can give us comfort in the midst of the painful moments we face in this life. We as Christians know what is to come, therefore we have can have great joy, even when we face death. Death reminds me that this age is temporary. There is another age to come, the age when we experience Christ face to face.
Praise be to God!
Kenneth E. Ortiz (M.Div.) is a church planting resident at The Grove Church and Ph.D. student at Midwestern Seminary. He has 15+ years of vocational ministry experience. He’s also been a professor at Bethlehem College and adjunct faculty at Spurgeon College. Kenneth lives in Minneola, FL with his wife Malaina, they have two kids.