What does the Bible say about death? The biblical writers give us a comprehensive and nuanced description of death. We learn that, from God’s perspective, death is both menacing and merciful. It is both an ending and a beginning. It can be both a separation and a reunion. Here are ten truths about death from the teachings of the Bible.
#1 – What does the Bible say about death? It’s a punishment.
Death makes its first entrance into the Bible as a punishment. God tells the first humans not to “eat from the tree of the knowledge of good and evil, for when you eat from it you will certainly die” (Gen. 2:17). Death continues to be threatened as punishment throughout the opening books of the Bible. Because humans are made in the image of God, “Whoever sheds human blood, by humans shall their blood be shed” (Gen. 9:6). In the law of Moses, the death penalty is prescribed for crimes such as murder (Ex. 21:14), kidnapping (Ex. 21:16), sexual immorality (Lev. 20:11-15), witchcraft (Lev. 20:27), blasphemy (Lev. 24:16), and Sabbath desecration (Ex. 31:14).
On the one hand, some of these death penalty prescriptions will seem like overkill to many modern readers. It is good to be reminded that ancient Israel is the only earthly theocracy (direct rule by God) sanctioned in the Bible, until we get to heavenly realities described in Revelation. On the other hand, we shouldn’t assume that the death penalty was a common feature of everyday life in Israel. The bar for whether a person was put to death could be quite high; for example, when it could only proceed on the evidence of two or three direct eyewitnesses to the crime (Num. 25:30; Deut. 17:2-6). These penalties of death were meant to “purge the evil” in this nation God had called forth to be his holy people, a light to the other nations (Deut. 17:12; 21:21).
“These penalties of death were meant to “purge the evil” in this nation God had called forth to be his holy people.”
Death and life were presented as the fundamental choice God set before ancient Israel. Together, these signified the beautiful blessings and chilling curses which they would choose between, depending on whether they stayed faithful to their covenant with God (Deut. 30:15, 19).
#2 – What does the Bible say about death? It’s a mercy.
Although the first mention of death in the Bible is as a punishment, the first actual example of death is in the context of mercy. When Adam and Eve ate from the forbidden tree, God did not sentence them to death on the spot, as he had implied (“when you eat from it you will certainly die,” Gen. 2:17). Instead, God found them, asked them what had happened, pronounced curses (e.g., the ground would yield thorns, childbirth would be painful), but then killed animals to make skins to cover over their nakedness—an act of mercy. This death of something innocent to cover over the guilt of the wicked would become a theme tracing from Genesis 3 through the animal sacrifices of ancient Israelite law to the sacrifice of the Messiah for the sins his people had committed (see Isaiah 53).
Interestingly, the story of Adam and Eve’s sin mentions another couple of deaths by way of a prophecy. He spoke the prophecy to the serpent who had tempted Eve into sin: “And I will put enmity between you and the woman, and between your offspring and hers; he will crush your head, and you will strike his heel” (Gen. 3:15). At some point in the future, this serpent was going to be crushed, but not without fatally wounding the person crushing it.
“At some point in the future, this serpent was going to be crushed, but not without fatally wounding the person crushing it.”
Then, we see another fascinating passage about death at the end of this story. These verses describe death in a way that seems to mix punishment with mercy:
And the Lord God said, “The man has now become like one of us, knowing good and evil. He must not be allowed to reach out his hand and take also from the tree of life and eat, and live forever.” So the Lord God banished him from the Garden of Eden to work the ground from which he had been taken. After he drove the man out, 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. (Genesis 3:22-24)
At first glance, this strikes us as merely the language of punishment: unable to live forever, driven out, a flaming sword preventing reentry. And as noted earlier, death is very much a punishment. Romans 6:23 says, “For the wages of sin is death.” But it’s not being overly idealistic to see mercy in this passage as well. Imagine if humans, now with an evil, rebellious bent, could be just as cruel as our imaginations could take us—without ever feeling the need to make things right with God.
“Imagine if humans, now with an evil, rebellious bent, could be just as cruel as our imaginations could take us—without ever feeling the need to make things right with God.”
Having a lifetime limits the evil we’re able to do and draws us to make something good of our lives before we stand before our Maker. In this light, “He must not be allowed to reach out his hand and take also from the tree of life” is as much in humanity’s own interests as it is the dictate of divine justice.
#3 – What does the Bible say about death? It’s an inevitability.
Death is inevitable. Everybody experiences it. Although the second part of the verse brings the good news, 1 Corinthians 15:22 puts the bad news bluntly: “In Adam all die.” And not only is death inevitable, but it’s inevitable that, after death, we will stand before God, righteous judge, and be judged by him. Hebrews 9:27 says that “people are destined to die once, and after that to face judgment.” In Ecclesiastes 7:2, the preacher says something a bit morbid but very true: “It is better to go to a house of mourning than to go to a house of feasting, for death is the destiny of everyone; the living should take this to heart.” It’s because death is inevitable that Psalm 90:12 prays, “Teach us to number our days, that we may gain a heart of wisdom.”
#4 – What does the Bible say about death? It’s an equalizer.
The preacher in Ecclesiastes reflected on how death reduces all humans to the same ignoble destiny of decomposition. This goes for the rich and poor, the good and the evil, the religious and the irreligious:
“All share a common destiny—the righteous and the wicked, the good and the bad, the clean and the unclean, those who offer sacrifices and those who do not. As it is with the good, so with the sinful; as it is with those who take oaths, so with those who are afraid to take them. This is the evil in everything that happens under the sun: The same destiny overtakes all.” (Eccl. 9:2-3a)
#5 – What does the Bible say about death? It’s a separation.
Death at root is a separation. In humans, it’s what happens when the physical body and the immaterial part of us (called the spirit or soul) separates. As James 2:26 puts it, “The body without the spirit is dead.” When people we love die, the rest of us feel the separation too. The separation that happens at death can also have another, more fearsome and final layer. Revelation 21:8 talks about hell as a “second death,” in which those who persistently practice evildoing are eternally separated from God.
#6 – What does the Bible say about death? It’s a battlefield.
The four Gospels tell the story of Jesus, and each of them shows Jesus’ persistence in getting to Jerusalem at the end of his ministry. Why did he have to get to Jerusalem?
“Jesus began to explain to his disciples that he must go to Jerusalem and suffer many things at the hands of the elders, the chief priests and the teachers of the law, and that he must be killed and on the third day be raised to life.” (Matt. 16:21)
Have you ever wondered why Jesus had to die? It’s a good question, and we find the answer in Hebrews 2:14. The verse actually answers two theology questions for us: Why did Jesus have to die and why did God need to come as a human in the first place? Here’s the answer:
“Since the children have flesh and blood, he too shared in their humanity so that by his death he might break the power of him who holds the power of death—that is, the devil—and free those who all their lives were held in slavery by their fear of death.” (Heb. 2:14-15)
“He too shared in their humanity so that by his death he might break the power of him who holds the power of death.”
The devil uses the stain of our sin and the inevitability of our death to keep us in fear. Yet Jesus met the devil on the battlefield in order to conquer him and free us from our captivity to sin and our fear of death. What battlefield did this take place on? It was on the battlefield of death itself. Jesus beat the devil on the devil’s own turf. He beat sin and death by taking our sins and dying.
#7 – What does the Bible say about death? It’s a gateway.
At the cross, Jesus took our sins upon himself, thus freeing us from the penalty and guilt for our sins. That was on a Friday, and then on Sunday, Jesus sealed our salvation by rising from the dead. Because he rose from the dead to a new life, nevermore to die, Jesus pioneered the path for his followers, so that we too will live a resurrected life even after we die.
One day, Jesus was comforting friends of his who had just lost their brother. Even though he was about to raise their brother from the dead, Jesus told one sister something which can comfort us all:
“I am the resurrection and the life. The one who believes in me will live, even though they die; and whoever lives by believing in me will never die. Do you believe this?” (John 11:25-26)
“Whoever lives by believing in me will never die.” What was Jesus talking about? This side of Jesus’ own resurrection, we can see that his victory at the cross and resurrection shrank our scariest enemy—death—to a paper-thin wall between life and life for those who trust in him (John 11:25-26). For the believer in Jesus, death is nothing but a gateway between life and life.
“For the believer in Jesus, death is nothing but a gateway between life and life.”
As the apostle Paul put it, for the person who trusts and follows Jesus, death is nothing scarier than being “at home with the Lord” (2 Cor. 5:8). And even the spirit departing the body and being “at home with the Lord” isn’t as good as it gets. As 1 Corinthians 15 describes, our spirits are only temporarily separated from our bodies. When Jesus returns someday, our spirits will be united with bodies which are “imperishable,” like Jesus’ own resurrection body—a body which will never again die or decay.
#8 – What does the Bible say about death? It is defanged.
Because of Jesus’ resurrection, his followers don’t have to speak about diseases and disasters and death in hushed tones, hoping not to awaken our destiny prematurely. Death may still intimidate us, hovering and swooping like a bumblebee. But the bee has lost its sting. So, rather than cower from death, the apostle Paul can feel justified in smack-talking it: “Where, O death, is your victory? Where, O death, is your sting?” (1 Cor. 15:55). The all-devourer has itself been swallowed up: “Death has been swallowed up in victory” (1 Cor. 15:54).
#9 – What does the Bible say about death? It’s an enemy.
Death doesn’t somehow transform into a friend. Believers in Jesus still grieve when people they love die and beautiful stories are cut short. The separation from those we love can be agonizing. When his friend died and the man’s family and friends were grieving, Jesus himself became deeply moved in spirit and troubled, weeping (John 11:33-35). Death is not the way things were meant to be, and Jesus, of all people, knows it.
Yet even as we grieve, we “do not grieve like the rest of mankind, who have no hope” (1 Thess. 4:13). Paul in 1 Corinthians 15:26 calls death an enemy, but its time is coming: “The last enemy to be destroyed is death.”
#10 – What does the Bible say about death? Death will die.
Because it is God who writes the final chapter of history, life ends up having the last laugh as death ends up the target of history’s greatest irony. As Revelation 20:14 puts it: “Then death and Hades were thrown into the lake of fire.” Someday, death will be utterly and completely destroyed with the same finality it is accustomed to wielding on everybody else. Revelation 21:4 describes the reality of the new creation: God “will wipe every tear from their eyes. There will be no more death or mourning or crying or pain, for the old order of things has passed away.”
As the poet John Donne wrote in his poem “Death, Be Not Proud,”
“Death, be not proud, though some have called thee
Mighty and dreadful, for thou art not so….
One short sleep past, we wake eternally
And death shall be no more; Death, thou shalt die.”