In my last article, we began to look at what the Bible teaches about death and dying. The Bible addresses issues of life and death at the very beginning (Gen. 1–3). In this article, we are going to build on that testimony. We will explore what Scripture tells us about the many dimensions of death, the certainty of death, and the fear that comes with death.

The Dimensions of Death

What do we mean by the “dimensions” of death? When we think of death, we typically think of a friend or a loved one dying. Certainly, the Bible speaks of death that way. The Bible also has a broader understanding of death than biological or natural death. It can speak of death in terms of a person’s relationship with God. We may call this “spiritual” death. Third, the Bible understands death in its fullest dimension in light of eternity. Those who die impenitent enter into “eternal” death. These three dimensions are not separate from one another. They are very much interrelated. Let’s look at these three dimensions of death: biological, spiritual, and eternal.

Biological, or natural, death is the kind of death that is most familiar to us. 1 This death is the temporary dissolution of the bond between a person’s soul and body. As a result, the body undergoes corruption. This is how Solomon speaks of death in Ecclesiastes 12:7: “The dust returns to the earth as it was, and the spirit returns to the God who gave it.” Compare Elihu’s words: “If [God] should set his heart to it and gather to himself his spirit and his breath, all flesh would perish together, and man would return to dust” (Job 34:14–15). God had threatened Adam after he had sinned, “You [will] return to the ground, for out of it you were taken; for you are dust, and to dust you shall return” (Gen. 3:19). Ecclesiastes reminds us that death is not the end of the soul’s existence. The soul is not annihilated at death. On the contrary, at the moment of death the soul goes into the presence of its Creator. To begin to understand what happens at that meeting of the soul and its God, we need to think about the two other biblical dimensions of death.

The second dimension of death is spiritual death. There is a sense, according to Scripture, in which every person outside of Jesus Christ is already dead. That is to say, death takes grip of a person’s life in the here and now, before that person’s decease. Paul describes unbelieving people as “dead in the trespasses and sins” (Eph. 2:1; compare Col. 2:13). Paul can describe an ungodly widow to Timothy as “dead while she lives” (1 Tim. 5:6).

This kind of death is not biological but relates to our disposition toward God. Those who are “dead” in this sense “walk” in the “trespasses and sins” that characterize their spiritual death (Eph. 2:1). Whereas the bodies of those who have died a natural death are inactive, spiritual death is quite active, exhibiting itself in rebellion and disobedience to God. In the verses that follow, Paul describes believers’ former existence in spiritual death along three lines: the world, the devil, and the flesh. First, we once “follow[ed] the course of this world”—that is, we joined in solidarity with human beings in rebellion against God (Eph. 2:2). Second, we once “follow[ed] the prince of the power of the air, the spirit that is now at work in the sons of disobedience.” The devil and his demonic followers are active—invisibly but truly—to entice and to encourage sinners to live up to their name, “sons of disobedience.” Third, we once “live[d] in the passions of our flesh, carrying out the desires of the body and the mind” (Eph. 2:3). “Flesh,” for Paul, describes our fallen humanity, bound over to the service of sin. Sin had complete mastery of our whole person, “body” and “mind.”

At the moment of death the soul goes into the presence of its Creator.

We see evidence of spiritual death in the garden immediately after Eve and Adam fell into sin. Our first parents had been in fellowship with God, hearing and responding to His Word (see Gen. 2:15–16; 3:8a). But once they sinned against God, what did they do? First, they covered themselves with fig leaves that they had sewn together (Gen. 3:7). Then, they “hid themselves from the presence of the Lord God among the trees of the garden” (Gen. 3:8b). The response of sinners to the presence of God is to cover and hide. Spiritual death, then, is a running away from God and a running into sin, with the encouragement and support of others and of Satan.

The third dimension of the Bible’s testimony to death is eternal death. This dimension follows on from biological and spiritual death. Biological death is not the cessation of our existence. The soul is separated from the body and goes immediately into the presence of God. If that person dies outside of Jesus Christ, then that person dies in a state of rebellion and hostility toward God. Death does not change that reality. He enters God’s presence as His enemy, justly deserving His punishment. The Bible uses the word “death” to describe that person’s condition in eternity. In the Revelation, John speaks of “the second death,” which has no power over believers, but is the condition of unbelievers in eternity (Rev. 20:6). A few verses later, John connects “the second death” with “the lake of fire,” the place of the eternal torment of the wicked and of the devils (Rev. 20:14; see also Rev. 20:10). In “hell,” the impenitent will suffer the wrath of God in their whole person, “both soul and body” (Matt. 10:28).2

God’s punishments do not change the heart (see Rev. 16:10–11). If a person enters eternity as the enemy of God, nothing will change that. He loves sin and hates God. God’s majesty and splendor, God’s punishment and wrath will not change his heart. Therefore, God justly judges and punishes him, forever. This helps us understand why Jesus speaks of that punishment as “eternal punishment” (Matt. 25:46; compare Dan. 12:2).

There are, then, three interrelated dimensions of death. Biological death describes the separation of the soul from the body, the entrance of the soul into the presence of God, and the dissolution of the body into the dust of the ground. Spiritual death relates to the deadness of sinners in their sins. They are sinners from conception. Dead toward God in their hearts, they are most active in their sinning. Every additional sin they commit merits “death” from God (Rom. 6:23). Eternal death is the ultimate dimension of death in Scripture. It describes the eternal condition of unreconciled sinners. It is a state of eternal punishment by a just God. Sadly, the justice of God and the punishment of the sinner will not break his love for sin or bring him to love God. That is one important reason that we may speak of death in this sense as “eternal.”

The Certainty of Death

Many of us are familiar with the Benjamin Franklin quote “In this world, nothing is certain except death and taxes.” Certainly, experience testifies that all people will die. Scripture confirms this testimony. The author of the epistle to the Hebrews tells us that “it is appointed for man to die once” (Heb. 9:27). All men will die. No one escapes death. This is not accidental. It is a matter of God’s decree (“It is appointed”). God has decreed that all people will die. That decree is fixed and unchangeable. God is not passive in the execution of His decree, as Moses writes: “You return man to dust and say, ‘Return, O children of man!’ ” (Ps. 90:3).

God has also appointed the exact day and time of a person’s death. In Psalm 139, David says to God that “in your book were written, every one of them, the days that were formed for me, when as yet there was none of them” (Ps. 139:16). Every one of our days, from first to last, has been eternally appointed by God. For that reason, our life and death are entirely subject to God’s will. James tells us: “Come now, you who say, ‘Today or tomorrow we will go into such and such a town and spend a year there and trade and make a profit’—yet you do not know what tomorrow will bring. What is your life? For you are a mist that appears for a little time and then vanishes. Instead you ought to say, ‘If the Lord wills, we will live and do this or that’ ” (James 4:13–15). James’ point is clear: life is short and transient. We have no ultimate say or control over the length of our days—whether we will be alive tomorrow or not. The end of our days is set by the Lord’s will. We need to live mindful of that reality. The rich fool of Jesus’ parable is a fool because he lives as though he has many days to pursue his selfish pleasure. “But God said to him, ‘Fool! This night your soul is required of you’ ” (Luke 12:20). The wise person is the one who knows that the length of his days is fixed by the decree of God and lives in light of that reality. This is why Moses teaches us to pray, “Teach us to number our days” (Ps. 90:12).

Every one of our days, from first to last, has been eternally appointed by God. For that reason, our life and death are entirely subject to God’s will.

So, death is certain to come to all, and it comes to each person at the exact time that God has eternally appointed it to come. That raises the question, Why? Why is it that all people die, without exception? Young, old; rich, poor; men, women; virtuous, wicked; devout, irreligious—all people die sometime.

God is a just God. He is not arbitrary or capricious. He always acts according to His own just and righteous character. If all people die, and if all people die according to God’s eternal and unchangeable purpose, then God must have a righteous reason for purposing their deaths.

We may start with Paul’s words to the Corinthians: “In Adam all die” (1 Cor. 15:22). Adam sinned and died; we sin and die. What is the connection between Adam’s sin and death and our sin and death? Romans 5:12–21 helps us understand that connection.3 In those verses, Paul tells us that God established a representative relationship between Adam and all human beings descending from him by ordinary generation (see Westminster Confession of Faith 6.3). 4 Adam stands as the representative of every human being (Jesus excepted). When Adam sinned, Paul argues, he sinned not as a private person but as the representative of multitudes of human beings. Adam’s sin is imputed (credited or transferred) to all those people whom he represents. In God’s courtroom, Adam’s sin is our sin. We have legal responsibility for that sin. We are liable to God’s justice for that sin. Therefore, we die. Adam sinned and died. We are in Adam. Therefore, Adam’s sin is our sin, and Adam’s death penalty is our death penalty.

You may pause at this point. “I thought you said that God is just in everything He does. But this seems unjust. Why am I being punished for something that someone else did? I didn’t ask to be in Adam, and I didn’t ask for Adam’s sin. Why should I die?”

Answering these questions requires us to understand that God is just in everything that He does. His justice (and His goodness) shines forth in the covenantal relationship that He established between Adam and human beings. We may see this along five lines.

First, we need to remember that we are God’s creatures. He has made us. We did not make ourselves. As our Creator, He has full rights to do with us as He pleases (Rom. 9:20). If He wants to establish a representative relationship among human beings, that is His sovereign prerogative. We see this in His free choice to establish this kind of relationship with some creatures and not others. For example, He didn’t do this with the angels. Note as well that our representative, Adam, was created righteous, without sin. He is just the sort of representative whom we would have chosen ourselves. There is nothing, therefore, at all unjust about God’s setting up this relationship within humanity at the creation.

Second, we should remember that we have many examples of representative relationships in daily life. For example, those of us who live under democratically elected governments often elect officials who represent us (and all their constituents) in regional or national legislatures. I have a state representative and a state senator who represent me in Jackson. I have a congressman and two senators who represent me in Washington, D.C. What my state legislature or the U.S. Congress does is the action of the entire state or the nation. If Congress declares war against another country, then I and my fellow citizens have acted through our elected representatives. This is not a perfect analogy, of course, but it is one illustration of how the action of a few justly becomes the action of the many. Under Adam, the action of the one man, Adam, was credited to the many—all the people whom Adam represents.

Third, we should remember that God’s intentions in the garden were only good. God set Adam in paradise, surrounded by plenty. Adam was already in fellowship with God, who was near him and who spoke to him. When God threatened “death” to Adam for sinning, He was also offering him “life” for continuing in obedience to Him—confirmed, heightened, eternal life, and fellowship with the triune God. All Adam had to do was not eat fruit from a single tree (among many). If Adam had done that, then all humanity would have benefited from the reward of Adam’s obedience—everlasting life and fellowship with God. The whole arrangement is stamped with the generosity and kindness of a good God.

Fourth, if we insist on objecting to the justice of God in establishing this relationship between Adam and human beings, thereby holding us accountable for Adam’s action, then we need to pause and examine ourselves. Our actions speak far louder than our words. If we are sinners by nature, then we love to sin. How can we protest this arrangement when, every day, we show both our love and preference for sin? Surely, our protests ring hollow.

God is just in everything that He does. His justice (and His goodness) shines forth in the covenantal relationship that He established between Adam and human beings.

Fifth, to look at what Paul says about Adam in Romans 5:12–21 (or 1 Cor. 15, for that matter) is only half the story. Paul is not telling us only about Adam. He is comparing the person and disobedience of Adam with the person and obedience of Christ. Paul is helping us see the gracious depths of the gospel. In mercy, God unites sinners to Christ. Christ stands as their representative before God. Their disobedience is counted to Him at the cross. That is why He dies an accursed death on the cross (see 2 Cor. 5:21, Gal. 3:10, 13; see Deut. 21:22–23). But Christ’s life of perfect obedience and His sacrificial death for sin are counted to them the moment they put their trust in Christ as He is offered in the gospel. This transfer of righteousness is the free gift of God. No sinner deserves it. God treats them in His courtroom in just the same way that He treats His glorified Son. Because of our sin, Jesus was treated as a sinner. Because of Jesus’ obedience, we are treated as righteous. We get the life and glory that Jesus earned for us.

None of this, of course, is “fair”—God is not treating us the way that we deserve. Sinners really don’t want fairness from God. That is to say, if God dealt with us fairly—according to our own record—then we would all perish (Ps. 130:3). As sinners, we should want mercy from God. We really don’t want from God what we deserve. We really don’t want to stand on our own before a righteous, holy, all-seeing, and all-powerful God. We should want to stand on the work of another, the work of the God-man, Jesus Christ. That is exactly what God is pleased to give in the gospel. Our life and destiny are not earned by anything that we have done, are doing, or ever will do. It has been finally and unchangeably earned by the work of Christ, which the Father has accepted and in which the Father takes unspeakable delight. It is graciously given to all who come to Christ. Even to be able to receive the work of Jesus for life and salvation is the free gift of God (see Eph. 2:8; Phil. 1:29). Salvation is all of grace, from start to finish. No one can boast in the presence of God. The one who understands his sins and who understands what Christ has done for sinners would have it no other way.

The Fear of Death

Death is a certainty, and death also inspires fear and dread in the hearts of human beings. As I write, the COVID-19 pandemic that spread across the globe in 2020 has claimed hundreds of thousands, perhaps millions, of lives. Death has become real and palpable to so many people in ways that it was not before the pandemic. The response, to put it mildly, has not been one of joy and serenity. People are afraid, and the possibility of death is no small part of that fear.

This reality raises two questions. First, is death a genuinely fearful thing? Second, if it is, why is that the case? The answer to the first question is “Yes, death is a genuinely fearful thing in itself,” especially to human beings who are estranged from God and unreconciled to Him.5 Hebrews powerfully testifies to the fear that death brings to human beings. Sinners are held in “lifelong slavery” because of the “fear of death” (Heb. 2:14). Satan holds the “power of death” insofar as he tempts people to sin, accuses sinners of their sins, and, in God’s providence, wields a certain power over death. Sinners are powerless to free themselves from the enslavement of the fear of death and from the vise grip of the power of death. That bondage can be broken only in one way—through the death of the incarnate Son of God (Heb. 2:14).

This fear of death helps to account for the world’s strategy of distraction and diversion that we considered in the last article. Death is something that is intolerable to think about. However, death is real and cannot be avoided, so the world flees to a refuge from despair: “We can’t make it go away, so let’s try not to think about it. ” Distract the mind. Divert the mind. Don’t think on matters of eternal consequence. The shadow or pall that death casts on fallen humanity prompts our second question. Why does death inspire fear in the minds and hearts of people? We can identify at least three reasons why that is so.

First, while the day and hour of one’s death is fixed by the eternal counsel of God, it is unrevealed to human beings. What Paul says of the suddenness of the arrival of the day of judgment is true of the arrival of our own deaths: it comes upon us “like a thief in the night,” “as labor pains come upon a pregnant woman” (1 Thess. 5:2, 3). In other words, it comes unannounced. The unwelcome and unpleasant certainty of death strikes us in a time, place, and manner that we (usually) don’t know in advance. From our perspective, it can seem random and unpredictable. More than that, death is final. No one ever returns from death to life. Death ends our present form of existence—the lives we have on this earth—in every real sense of the word.

The gospel tells us that Christ has conquered and subdued death. That is the only way that we can face death with hope or confidence.

Second, death is not only fixed and final, but it is also loss. Death deprives us of what is familiar and dear to us. Death takes from us our family and friends, our jobs and hobbies, our pursuits and ambitions. In the words of Job, “Naked came I from my mother’s womb, and naked shall I return. The Lord gave, and the Lord has taken away” (Job 1:21; compare Ps. 49:17). The English Puritan William Bates puts it graphically: “There is a natural love of society in man, and death removes from all. The grave is a frightful solitude . . . Every one among the dead is confined to his sealed, obscure cell, and is alone an entertainment for the worms.”6

Death is loss in an even more profound sense. Death ruptures the bond between a person’s soul and body. Paul describes this condition as being “naked” or “unclothed” (2 Cor. 5:3–4). God created us body and soul. The severing of that bond touches us at the core of what we are as human beings. 7

Third, death is penal. This is the deepest reason that death inspires fear. Death comes as the penalty for sin. It is inflicted by a God who is just, righteous, and holy. Whether death is prolonged or instant, full of pain or free of pain, death ushers us into the presence of God. In that sense, death is like a warrant issued for a person’s arrest. That person will be brought before the bar of justice to give an account for himself. In the same way, death is God’s summons to bring a human being into His presence that he may give to God an account of himself. That is why Hebrews reminds us that “it is a fearful thing to fall into the hands of the living God” (Heb. 10:31).8


The matters we have raised in this article are difficult matters, but matters that we have to face. We have to face them because they are true, because they are revealed in the Word of God to human beings, and because they affect the life and destiny of every human being. One thing that we have seen is that no one can truly understand death without first understanding God. The inescapability of death reflects the fact that we are, by nature, “dead in trespasses and sins”—in rebellion against the living God (Eph. 2:1). The time and circumstances of one’s death have been fixed by the eternal, unchangeable decree of God. Death is not a biological inevitability or the turning of the wheels of a mechanical and impersonal universe. It is the penalty inflicted by a just, personal God. Death is fearful for just that reason—it is the punishment for sin. Death is not good and can never be enjoyable or desirable in itself.

As believers, we should view death as an opportunity to encourage people to think about God, eternity, and themselves in a biblical way (see Eccl. 7:2). If death is a raw wound, then only the medicine of the gospel will bring true and lasting healing. Death exposes the vanity and futility of people who try to live without God and to live for the pursuit of self and pleasure. Death intrudes and gives the lie to such a mindset and lifestyle. Are we ready to speak a good word to someone whose life has been turned upside down by the death of a loved one or by the news of their own impending death? Are we prepared to help them understand it and to point them to the Savior who conquered death?

What difference does being a Christian make to the reality and experience of death? For now, we can say that while death is not good in itself, for those who are in Christ death will be for our good. For His people, Christ brings an end not to the experience of death but to the fear of death. That is to say, death and its terrors no longer hold us in bondage. Why is that? Because Christ died, experiencing death in all its terrors, pains, horrors, and agonies of soul and body. Because Christ, in His death and resurrection, defeated death. He did this for us. As we approach death, we need to see it through the spectacles of the finished work of Christ. The gospel tells us that Christ has conquered and subdued death. That is the only way that we can face death with hope or confidence.

Only in Christ can we say with Paul that “for me to live is Christ, and to die is gain” (Phil. 1:21). Notice that only those who can say “For me to live is Christ” can say “to die is gain.” When we are brought from Adam to Christ, we exchange death for life, condemnation for justification (Rom. 8:1). If you are in Christ, then His obedience and death belong to you. You are counted righteous in Christ, through faith alone apart from anything that you have done, are doing, or ever will do (Rom. 3:21–26). This gift of imputed righteousness gives you a lasting title to life and glory (Rom. 5:17, 21).

The gospel completely changes our anticipation and experience of death. While the time and circumstances of our deaths are uncertain to us, we know that they have been eternally fixed by our heavenly Father. Our Father, who wants nothing for us but what is for our everlasting good, has appointed those details in His love and wisdom. Death is loss, in some important senses, but it is greater gain. Death ushers us into the riches of heaven and glory, our “inheritance that is imperishable, undefiled, and unfading” (1 Peter 1:4)—an inheritance, Peter goes on to say, that God has kept in heaven for us and for which God is keeping us through faith. When death brings us into the presence of God, we approach One who is our friend, One who welcomes us with open arms, One who delights in our presence with Him. The God whom we know and love here on earth is the God whose presence we will enjoy more fully in heaven above. In fellowship with God, there is no death, only life.

Editor’s Note: This post is part of a series on death. Previous post.

  1. Here, we use the word natural not to mean that God created human beings to die. Death is the result of sin, after all. But natural refers to death as relating to our nature, the temporary separation of a person’s soul and body. ↩︎
  2. Before the resurrection, the wicked will suffer in hell in soul. After the resurrection and final judgment, the wicked sufferings in hell will be in soul and body. ↩︎
  3. I have addressed these verses more fully in my The Life and Theology of Paul (Orlando, Fla.: Reformation Trust, 2018), 61–69. ↩︎
  4. The phrase “ordinary generation” is critical here. It refers to the fact that human beings descend from Adam, having been conceived through the (sexual) union of their parents. There is one true human being who traces his descent from Adam, but not by “ordinary generation.” That man, of course, is Jesus Christ, who was “conceived by the power of the Holy Ghost in the womb of the Virgin Mary, of her substance, and born of her” (Westminster Larger Catechism 37). Thus, He was conceived and born “without sin” (WLC 37). Jesus is descended from Adam, but He is not in Adam because He is the last Adam, the second man (1 Cor. 15:45, 47). ↩︎
  5. The thought and reality of death can prompt genuine Christians to fear. In a later chapter, we will think about why that is, and how Christians can face those fears in faith. ↩︎
  6. William Bates, The Whole Works of the Rev. W. Bates, D.D., ed. W. Farmer (n.d.; repr. Harrisonburg, Va.: Sprinkle, 1990), 3:247. ↩︎
  7. Bates, Works, 3:246. Bates notes that even Jesus shrank from death for this reason, “Our blessed Saviour, without the least impeachment of the rectitude and perfection of his nature, expressed an averseness from death, and with submission to the divine will desired a freedom from it. His affections were holy and human, and moved according to the quality of their objects.” Works, 3:246. ↩︎
  8. Bates, Works, 3:249. ↩︎

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