LIFE AND DEATH
AS WE turn now to the Bible to examine its inspired teachings regarding the condition of man in death, let us make sure our definitions are correct. No one should accept either forced and unusual meanings for the basic terms which are examined or the figurative meanings of traditional theology. The words “life” and “death” are Bible words. The Bible should place its own meaning on them and all is well. But all is not well if they are given meanings that force them into supporting preconceived theological dogmas. The plain, simple, literal meanings of the words themselves should be allowed to prevail.
With regard to the words “life” and “death,” however, they are among the phenomenal words which require no definition or explanation. They designate and describe phenomena which are quite familiar. Etymologists and metaphysicians may analyze their derivation and interior signification, and argue about the real source, essence, and meaning of the terms. But for all practical purposes these words require no definition. Their meaning is so obvious that any attempt to define only obscures and confuses.
Life is a phenomenon of nature. It is everywhere visible. So is death. They are all about. The one is set over against the other. Consequently, they are called antithetical terms. They explain each other. If one is known, so is the other.
The Antithesis of Life
Death, however, is not merely the antithesis of life as darkness is of light, and cold is of heat. It is more. Death implies a previous life. It denotes the loss of what was once possessed. It would not be accurate to predicate the death of a stone or a lump of clay. They were never alive. Consequently, they never die. Rather than being dead they are lifeless. Lifeless is the proper negation of life.
Death is also an absolute and ultimate term. Degrees of death cannot be predicated as many other terms can. Nothing is dead that contains any life. It may be almost dead, or about to die, or dying; but it is not dead until all life is gone, completely extinguished.
No words of the Bible have suffered more than the two words “life” and “death.” They are its very important words. If they are allowed to have their plain, obvious meaning, no difficulty is experienced in ascertaining the meaning, nature, and condition of death. But when the literal and ordinary meaning is taken out, and they are tortured into meaning something else, then confusion and error are bound to ensue.
Why should anyone be unwilling to believe that Scripture means exactly what it says when it employs the words “life” and “death”? It sets forth death as the certain result of sin. It declares perpetuity of life to be the portion only of the righteous. When God promised Adam perpetuity of life on one condition—obedience—He meant just what He said, and just what Adam must have understood Him to mean.
Adam could not have understood these words in any sense other than simple life and death. Nor did he understand them otherwise until the great deceiver, the liar from the beginning, suggested another meaning, a figurative meaning, which has come to be accepted by many of Adam’s descendants, and, unfortunately, has found its way into the theology even of Christian churches.
God plainly meant, and Adam understood Him to mean, that when men die as a consequence of sin, they actually die. They do not live on somewhere else. They die, really die. And death is the exact opposite of life.
Man Not Deathless
But the devil’s philosophy meant, and still means, that God was wrong, that man would never die but live on with the perpetuity of life like that of God. “Ye shall not surely die”; but ye “shall be as gods.” (Genesis 3:4, 5.)
The devil taught that man is a deathless being, that he is not mortal and transitory like all other things in nature with which we are acquainted. He cannot lose his life. Whether sinful or holy, saved or unsaved, man will live on and on as long as God Himself shall live.
That teaching originated with the devil. He has met with the most phenomenal success in having it accepted. It is taught now in Christian churches. But it is just as much the devil’s lie now as it was when he originated it. It was a lie to begin with. It has been a lie ever since. It is a lie now. No amount of acceptance in the creeds of Christendom will ever make it anything else but a lie.
The Christian Scriptures teach the exact opposite—and they teach the truth. In the plainest possible words they teach that man, though he might have lived forever had he lived without sin, fell under the sentence of death the moment he sinned. When death overtook him as a consequence of sin, and he passed into its realm, he would not live somewhere else, he would not live in torment and misery, he would not live at all, in any condition whatever.
The Scriptures plainly teach that man possesses no hope at all of continuing life save through redemption from death by a divine Saviour; that under sentence of death as he is, he may nevertheless find a new life, but only through Christ, who has died in his stead.
The Bible Easily Understood
The Scriptures plainly teach that all those who die un-redeemed, all the wicked, are “lost,” shall be “cost away,” shall be “blotted out of the book of life,” “shall be destroyed,” “shall be burned up,” “shall be consumed,” “shall utterly perish in their own corruption.” This is taught in a variety of language throughout the whole Bible, from beginning to end, and in the plainest words that can be used.
It takes no special learning or education to understand words such as the Bible uses to explain the meaning and condition of death. The reader of Holy Scripture does not require a theological training to take in the meaning of the plain words of the Bible. The Word of God was not written especially for preachers or philosophers or theologians or poets, but for men of all classes and conditions of life. Its teachings are for all men, and it is adapted to the understanding and mental grasp of all men. Although it contains poetry, prophecy, parables, and proverbs in which the use of figures of speech, symbols, and types should be expected, such as are common in other similar writings; nevertheless, by far the larger part of the Bible is in clear, simple, easily understood prose. It was written for the people generally; and it may be, and should be, understood without the aid of highly trained exegetes and metaphysicians.
Unfortunately, many theological schoolmen, commentators, and creed makers have contrived to make “the word of God of none effect” by inventing fantastic meanings for plain, simple words of Scripture, meanings directly contrary to the words themselves. It is an old device. Christ denounced it in His day. Jehovah condemned it in Job’s time when He asked the searching question, “Who is this that darkeneth counsel by words without knowledge?”
As a matter of fact, the practice may be traced back to the beginning of the human race, to the Garden of Eden, where the great adversary of truth is seen endeavoring to convince the first parents that God falsified when He declared death to be the consequence of sin. The liar from the beginning did this by construing the threat of death to mean, “Ye shall not surely die: … ye shall be as gods,” who are immortal. That lie is being taught as truth today—and in Christian churches and Christian creeds. Instead of being believed, it should be driven out of existence, certainly out of the Christian church, by the plain testimony of the Word of God.
The Devil’s Lie
Many Christians have been led to believe the devil’s lie that death does not mean death but rather life somewhere else. Man, they are told, is immortal, just as Satan declared. He cannot actually die. The death which the Creator threatened cannot mean actual death. It must mean something in the nature of “an unchanging, eternal state of misery and wretchedness” or something else. Anything but death.
But Jehovah said death, not life in misery or in any other condition, but death. And death is not life—anywhere.
It was against this sort of perversion of the plain meaning of the Word of God that Paul warned the early believers when he wrote: “Beware lest any man spoil you through philosophy and vain deceit, after the tradition of men, after the rudiments of the world, and not after Christ.” Colossians 2:8.
Paul refers specifically to this very act of the devil by writing: “I fear, lest by any means, as the serpent beguiled Eve through his subtilty, so your minds should be corrupted from the simplicity that is in Christ.” 2 Corinthians 11:3.
Honest treatment should be given the Word of God. One may be warranted in indulging his fancy when fiction or poetry is read. The authors intend this. But when a volume of history or law or science or biography is read readers are bound to construe the language in its plain, literal sense. That is what should be done when the Bible is read. No man will be led into paths of error who will make that the rule of his reading.
Who would think of giving a fanciful, “spiritual” meaning to the Constitution of the United States or to the laws of the country? When the law declares death to be the penalty for capital crimes, who understands that to be a figurative expression for some other punishment? When a judge solemnly pronounces the sentence of death upon a guilty criminal, who understands him to mean perpetual and lifelong imprisonment with torture?
A False Theology
But when many read the constitution of God’s government and the laws which He has instituted and declared in the most solemn manner, they, because of a false theology, construe His words in exactly this fanciful way. They understand the penalty of death which He threatens as meaning not death at all, but rather “the destruction of the sinner’s well-being,” “a forlorn and wretched existence endlessly perpetuated.”
Some understand death to be endless torment in the fires of hell; others, endless life in the bliss of heaven; others, the wretchedness of purgatory. What a strange understanding it is that requires death to mean life somewhere! But that is what follows the practice of putting strange and fanciful meanings on the plain words of Scripture.
The salvation which is offered in the gospel is not salvation from torment, from suffering; it is salvation from death. “Sin, when it is finished, bringeth forth death.” James 1:15. There are pains and sorrows and miseries, of course, that sin produces, that are sin’s inevitable accompaniments and results. But these are not the death which is threatened.
And it is from this death that Christ saves those who accept Him. These two words, “life” and “death,” are the crucial words, the principal words, the distinctive words that mark the difference between the two classes of mankind known in the Scriptures: the righteous and the wicked. These are referred to by a large variety of titles, such as the righteous and the wicked; the children of God and the children of the world, of or the devil; spiritual men and natural men; the saved and the lost; the elect and the reprobate. But the specific reward promised to the saved is life, life forevermore, life without end; and the specific doom of the lost is death, death. These are the words used throughout all the Bible to declare the lot, the portion, the end of these two classes. The word signifying “to die,” or “death”, occurs at least one thousand times in the Scriptures; and the word signifying "to live," or "life," occurs nearly as many more.
Though there are examples in Scripture of the figurative use of “life” and “death,” because there are parts of the Bible which are wholly figurative and use metaphors, it does not follow that because figures of speech are employed in the poetry and prophecies and parables of the Word of God, that its plain, sober prose, its didactic instructions, its judicial utterances, its gospel promises are to be treated as tropes and metaphors, and that the plain, ordinary meaning is to be taken out of them and another put in.
The Bible demands of its readers honest, reverent treatment. They should come to its perusal saying, “I will hear what the Lord will speak,” and be determined to lay aside all human philosophies and traditional dogmas, and come as children to the reading of the Scriptures, desiring to know what the Master Himself would teach. Then they will believe the Divine Word that “the wages of sin is death; but the gift of God is eternal life through Jesus Christ our Lord.” Romans 6:23.
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