Spiritual Death – Truth or Myth?

There is a prevalent belief in Christianity that people just assume is true but which has no actual foundation in scripture —- the concept of spiritual death. This belief is nothing more than a myth built upon a handful of biblical texts and erected with the aid of an arbitrary and false definition of death. In this study we will examine the roots of this belief and the supposed biblical ground for it. I hope that you will come to see, as I have, the flimsy scriptural support for this idea and abandon it.

Defining Our Terms

The concept of spiritual death is dependent upon a definition of death which is completely arbitrary and just assumed to be true, although there is no scriptural support for it. The Got Questions website answers the question, “What is spiritual death?” in this way:

Answer: Death is separation. A physical death is the separation of the soul from the body. Spiritual death, which is of greater importance, is the separation of the soul from God.

They then go on to give what they believe is the scriptural support for this definition of death and of spiritual death, which we will examine shortly. But I will note here that none of the verses put forward actually say what they propose. Their definition is just assumed and then used to interpret the passages accordingly; their definition is not derived out of the texts.

This concept of spiritual death is very important in Reformed theology which teaches that all men are born in this state of separation from God due to the sin of Adam. We will examine this belief also to see if it squares with scripture.

The concept of spiritual death goes back to early church fathers, who were the first to define death as the separation of the soul from the body. For example, Tertullian, c. 210, said: “The operation of death is plain and obvious – it is the separation of body and soul.” Likewise Lactantius, c.304-313, wrote: “We define the first death in this manner; death is the dissolution of the nature of living beings. Or we can say that death is the separation of body and soul.” This was a commonly held meaning of death among the early church fathers and is, no doubt, the original source of the definition of death as separation, which Christians today simply take for granted. What most Christians today are unaware of, as I myself was for the first 33 yrs. of my Christian experience, is that this concept among the early Gentile Christians was derived not from Scripture, but rather from the philosophical worldview in which these men had been previously educated, i.e. the Greek metaphysics which was so ubiquitous during their times. This predominant worldview included the idea that the soul was a part of man distinct from the body, which inhabited the body and animated it.  Some believed this soul was created while others believed it to be eternal, but nearly all believed it to be immortal, i.e. incapable of dying. The soul was the true person, the body being simply an instrument which the soul used to function in this world. The common belief was that the soul lived on in conscious existence after being separated from the body in death. Some believed the soul would be reincarnated in another body, others believed it would ascend to higher realms of existence until it reached perfection or deification of some sort. We can see that while some of these ideas were rejected by the church fathers the core beliefs of this worldview concerning the soul were retained by them and incorporated into the theology of the developing orthodoxy. It must be understood that the concept of an immortal soul which continues on in conscious existence after death is not derived from the Hebraic culture and worldview, in which the Scriptures came down to us, but from the Greek philosophy which imbued the early Gentile Christian writers of the 2nd – 5th centuries. These church fathers, though sincere in their devotion to God and to Christ, interpreted the Scriptures according to the philosophical worldview of their times. Hence, much error was introduced into the common beliefs of the Christian assemblies and eventually became enshrined as orthodoxy. While the Reformation of the 15th -17th centuries removed some of the errors of ‘orthodoxy’ which had accumulated during the Middle Ages, it retained in it’s tenets the errors that had crept in early on, under the influence of the ubiquitous Greek metaphysical worldview.

The Christian world today is the inheritor of the beliefs of former times, the traditions which have been handed down from generation to generation, which are uncritically taken for granted and proclaimed from pulpits all across the world.

Now back to the definition of death. The most widely held definition of death by Christian teachers and apologists today is simply separation. This can be confirmed simply by doing an internet search for the biblical meaning of death. This definition of death is assumed and taken for granted but is in fact completely arbitrary. The concept of spiritual death is dependent upon this definition of death, especially within the Reformed tradition or what is known as Calvinism. The verse that supposedly teaches unequivocally that death means separation is James 2:26, which says, “As the body without the spirit is dead, so faith without works is dead.” We are told, based on this verse, that death equals the separation of the spirit from the body. Here, spirit (Gr. pneuma) should be understood as breath i.e. the breath of life that is in all living creatures {see Gen. 6:17}. Now lets use our reason here. When a person dies, to be sure, the breathe of life departs from them, but their death is not to be attributed to that fact. Their death is attributed to some malfunction of a bodily system, some failure of a vital bodily function. And when that occurs, when the bodily systems can no longer function as needed then the breath of life departs. This verse says nothing about death being the separation of some supposed self-conscious, immortal soul from the body. Now it may be true that separations of various kinds are the consequence of death, namely that the dead are separated from the living, but defining death as such a separation is going to far.

In Scripture death is often put in opposition to life, e.g. Deut. 30:15,19; 32:39; 2 Sam. 15:21; 2 Kings 18:32; Jer. 21:8, so that the two concepts are exact opposites. Death can be defined simply as the cessation of life. But from a biblical perspective something more needs to be said, for in scripture death is not the natural cessation of life but a judgment for sin.

Death As Judgment

Death entered into the human experience as a direct result of our first parents’ act of disobedience. When God created the first humans he put them in a lush garden in which was the tree of life {Gen.2:8-9}. Whether you take the tree of life literal or symbolic it was the source of man’s immortality, and God intended for man to freely partake of it and live forever {Gen.2:16; 3:22}. But the Lord God had given man a warning:

“You must no eat from the tree of the knowledge of good and evil, for in the day that you eat from it you will surely die.”    Gen. 2:17

Amazingly, the standard interpretation of this passage is that it refers to spiritual death. This is because it is mistakenly understood to be saying that the man would die on the very same day that he ate of the forbidden fruit, and since he obviously did not physically die until many years later, he must have died spiritually, on the day he ate of it. But is this the necessary interpretation of this passage? Part of the misunderstanding stems from the Hebrew text which reads, “dying you shall die.” This has been wrongly interpreted to mean ‘dying spiritually you will eventually die physically.’  But this meaning is unjustified. The phrase occurs dozens of times in the Hebrew scriptures and never bears such a meaning, e.g. Gen. 20:7; 26:11; Ex. 19:12; Num. 26:65; Judges 13:22; 2 Sam. 12:14; 1 Kings 2:37. The double use of the Hebrew word muth (= to die) is a Semitic idiom used to express the certainty of death and is translated in most English versions as “you shall surely die.”  The entire phrase can mean nothing more than, “in the day you eat from it your death is certain.” “In the day” need not refer to the time of the man’s death but to the certainty of it. There is no warrant in the context of the passage to assign the meaning of spiritual death to it. Later, when God confronts Adam and pronounces judgement on him, nothing is said about a separation of his soul from God, but rather that:

“By the sweat of your brow you will eat your food until you return to the ground, for from it you were taken; for dust you are and to dust you shall return.”  Gen 3:19

God then takes action to ensure the man’s death:

” … he must not be allowed to reach out his hand and take also from the tree of life and live forever.” So Yahweh God banished him from the garden of Eden … and he cast him out and he stationed cherubim at the east of the garden of Eden and a flaming sword turning about to guard the way to the tree of life. Gen. 3:22-2

In order to carry out the sentence of death God had to prohibit the man’s access to the tree of life, which was obviously the source of his immortality. Perhaps the fruit of the tree renewed the cells of the body so as to prevent degeneration and once this was taken from man his body began to degenerate until he finally died.  In this whole account there is no mention of spiritual death being the consequence of man’s sin. In fact, in the subsequent material, after the account of the fall, while man’s relationship to God, his surroundings, and other humans is altered in a negative sense, there is not the total separation from God that spiritual death proponents declare is the result of Adam’s sin. Yet it is the common belief that as a result of Adam’s sin all human’s are born in a state of spiritual death, i.e. separated from God. But after Adam’s sin we still see God conversing with the man and his offspring, in chapters 3 & 4. Though the relationship with God is strained it does not seem like a total break in the relationship occurs. To get around this, Reformed theology proposes and assumes some kind of unconditional election and regeneration of any individuals who are presented in the OT as having a relationship with God.

The apostle Paul makes reference to this first sin of man and it’s consequent judgement in Romans 5:12-21. Once again, this passage also is arbitrarily interpreted by most as referring to spiritual death. But again, this is without warrant. There is not one thing in this passage that necessitates that Paul is speaking of spiritual death. Death in this passage means what it means in the Genesis account, i.e. the deprivation of life as a consequence of sin, a returning to the ground from which we came. The Greek adjective pneumatikos (= spiritual) occurs 26 times in the NT. The Greek noun thanatos (= death) occurs 120 times in the NT. Yet there is not even one occurrence of the adjective pneumatikos being used to modify the noun thanatos. We are supposed to believe that this concept of spiritual death is so prevalent in the NT that almost every time the word death appears it means spiritual death, yet the words spiritual and death never occur together. One online article on spiritual death stated that Paul’s use of the word condemnation in Rom. 5:16 and 18 is proof that he is referring to spiritual death rather than physical death. The Greek word is katakrima and refers to the sentence handed down after a guilty verdict, the penalty to be exacted. In verse 16 the word translated judgement is krima, which refers to the verdict, whether guilty or innocent, given by the judge. The phrase means this: “the (guilty) verdict followed one man’s sin and resulted in the sentence (of death).”

Further proof that the result of Adam’s sin was real death, i.e. a deprivation of life and a returning to the dust from which he came, is seen in 1 Cor. 15:20-23:

But Christ has indeed been raised from the dead, the firstfruits of those who have fallen asleep. For since death came through a man, the resurrection of the dead comes also through a man. For as in Adam all die, so in Christ all shall be made alive. But each in his own turn: Christ the firstfruits; then, when he comes, those who belong to him.

If the death spoken of here is spiritual death then the resurrection must also be spiritual and not bodily. Paul is clearly saying that death, i.e. the deprivation of continued life in this world, came into the world through a man; and so the restoration of that life, by means of resurrection, comes also through a man. We can see how our understanding of what the consequence of Adam’s sin was affects our understanding of Messiah’s redemptive work. The standard evangelical notion is that Adam’s sin caused us to be separated from God and so Jesus’ death brings us back into union with God; this is what salvation is supposed to mean. But the biblical picture is different. Adam’s sin resulted in the privilege of living on in this world forever being taken from him and from his descendants through death. Jesus’ atoning sacrifice and subsequent resurrection provides the forgiveness of sin and the eventual immortalization of the believing ones, fitting them for everlasting life in this world.

Misunderstood Passages

What about verses which speak of people, who are alive, as dead. We are told that such verses must be referring to spiritual death since the persons in view are physically alive. The one most resorted to by the spiritual death proponents is Ephesians 2:1,5:

And you being dead in your transgressions and sins … we being dead in our transgressions, he (God) made us alive together with Christ; by grace you are the saved ones.

Along with this passage is Colossians 2:13:

And you being dead in your sins and in the uncircumcision of your flesh, (God) made you alive together with (Christ), forgiving us all those sins.

Do these verses teach the concept of spiritual death or is that concept being read into these passages? Can these verses admit of any other interpretation? I believe Paul is simply using an idiom, prolepsis, where something which is future is spoken of as a present reality, because of the certainty of it’s fulfillment. Because the judgement of death is the certain destiny of all who do not know God and his Messiah, men can be said to be dead, even now while they still live. This figure of speech is meant to heighten the awareness of the inevitable consequences of sin. Even in our culture and language we use such expressions. We might say of someone, “he’s a dead man” meaning that death is near and certain. In our prisons, one who is on his way to his execution is called a ‘dead man walking.’  Another example of this idiom in Paul’s writing is found in Rom. 8:10: “But if Christ is in you, indeed your body is dead because of sin, yet the Spirit is life because of righteousness.” Paul speaks prolepticly of the Christian’s body as dead, in anticipation of it’s eventual death because of sin, i.e. Adam’s sin. In the next verse Paul assures the believers of the certainty of the resurrection. This idiom is also found in the OT. In Genesis 20 we have the story of Abraham and Sarah’s stay in Gerar, where he requested of her to say that she was his sister. This resulted in Abimelech, the king of Gerar, taking Sarah for his harem. Verse 3 reads:

But God came to Abimelech in a dream one night and said to him, “You are a dead man because of the woman you have taken; she is a married woman.”

This use of prolepsis, by God himself, is explained in verse 7:

“Now return the man’s wife, for he is a prophet, and he will pray for you and you will live. But if you do not return her, you may be certain that you and all yours will die.”

Other examples can be found in Gen. 48:21; 50:5, 24; Ex. 12:33; Is. 38:1; Ez. 18:18, in the Hebrew, but the English versions do not translate the prolepsis. In each of these cases, in the original Hebrew, persons literally alive are spoken of as dead, because the prospect of death was looming over them.

Another passage is 1 Timothy 5:6: “But the widow who lives for pleasure is dead even while she lives.”  Paul is supposed to be saying that such a widow is spiritually dead. But this could be understood in a proleptic sense, i.e. the widow who lives for pleasure is headed for certain death. The same could be said for Matthew 8:22: “But Jesus said to him, ‘Follow me, and leave the dead to bury their own dead.'” Although this could refer to the spiritually dead there is nothing in the verse that necessitates that interpretation, especially in light of the fact that the term spiritual death (sd) does not occur even once in scripture. Taking it as another example of prolepsis is a viable way of reading it and would mean something like, “let those who are doomed to die bury their own dead.”

Death As Metaphor

Passages where death is used as a metaphor are often read as a reference to spiritual death. For example, Rev. 3:1 reads: “I know your deeds; you have a reputation for being alive, but you are dead.Here death is likely being used metaphorically and it’s meaning would depend upon the meaning of “being alive,” for it would be in contrast to that. Now if the sd proponents want to say that dead here refers to spiritual death, then being alive must be in contrast to that. And since sd is defined as separation from God, the condition of all men before they are saved, then being alive here must refer to being saved i.e. being reconciled to God. This would mean that Jesus is addressing  an assembly of Christians like this: “I know your deeds; you have a reputation for being saved, reconciled to God, but you are separated from God.” This seems like a rather strange thing for Jesus to say to a congregation. Can a congregation be saved and reconciled to God; can a congregation be separated from God?

The congregation at Sardis had a reputation for being alive, i.e. from an outward perspective it was a thriving, vital community of believers. But beneath the surface something wasn’t right. Verse two certainly must throw light on the meaning of verse one: “Wake up! Strengthen the things that remain, which are about to die …” Obviously there were some things that had already died, and the congregation was being called upon to strengthen the things which had not yet died but which were on the verge of doing so. We may never know exactly what these things were but the deadness of the congregation of Sardis must be directly related to the things which had died and the things which were about to die. Therefore dead is used here as a metaphor for the condition into which this congregation had fallen.

Another verse that is commonly  pointed to as a proof text for sd is in the parable of the prodigal son in Luke 15. In verses 24 & 32 the father characterizes his relationship to his once erring but now repentant son by stating that his son was dead and is alive again; he was lost and is found.” If dead here means spiritually dead i.e. separated from God, then alive must mean no longer separated from God. But the major purveyors of the sd concept, the Calvinists, will find themselves in trouble here, for they teach that all men are born in this state of sd and need to be made alive by God. But the text says unambiguously that the repentant son is considered alive again. This does not fit the Reformed doctrine at all, which would never say that one who has been made alive is alive again. Plus, there is another metaphor in play here – that of being lost and found. Both of these metaphors, dead & alive again and lost & found, are meant to convey something about the relationship between this father and son. From the father’s perspective it was as if his son had died or was lost when he left home. As far as the father knew, he might never see his son again, the relationship was over. When the son returned it was as if he had come back from the dead; the relationship the father had thought was forever over was now renewed.

Now the application of this parable is primarily concerning the children of Israel who had, as it were, left the Father’s house and squandered away their inheritance on profligate living – the prostitutes and tax collectors and drunkards, the ‘sinners’ of society. Many of these had been turning back to God under the preaching of John and the Messiah { see Matt 21:31-32}. From the perspective of God his wayward children were returning home. The point of the parable is the same as the two parables which precede it i.e. there is great joy in heaven over the repentance of even one sinner. This parable and the two preceding ones all depict the restoration of a relationship which was lost, which doesn’t fit well at all with the Reformed notion of all men being born spiritually dead.

Another passage where death is used as a metaphor, but which is taken to mean sd, is Romans 7:9-13:

Once I was alive apart from the law; but when the commandment came, sin sprang to life and I died. I found that the very commandment that was intended to bring life actually brought death. For sin, seizing the opportunity afforded by the commandment, deceived me, and through the commandment put me to death… Did that which is good, then, become death to me? By no means. But that sin might be recognized as sin, it produced death in me, through what was good, so that through the commandment sin might become utterly sinful.

Paul here refers to the time of his childhood, before the full force of his obligation to the law was etched upon his conscience. He refers to this time, metaphorically, as being ‘alive.’ But “when the commandment came” i.e. when he first understood his personal obligation to the law and the law’s condemnation for disobedience, then “sin came alive” in him, i.e. he became keenly aware of his own disobedience to the law. As a result he “died” i.e. he felt himself under the law’s condemnation.

This passage should not be read as if it were a theological explanation, but rather as a testimony of his personal experience with the law and sin. The whole passage is highly metaphoric.

Separation from God

I do believe in the concept of separation from God, but the Scripture never calls this spiritual death, nor does it teach the idea that all men are born in the state of sd due to Adam’s sin. Rather it teaches that all are born under the condemnation which came upon Adam as a result of his sin, which was death. This is why all men die. Scripture speaks of two deaths. In the book of the Revelation we are told of the second death, which implies a first death {see 2:11; 20:6, 14}. While it is true that the book of Revelation is replete with symbolism and imagery, I think we should take the term second death literally because we are told in 20:14 that “the lake of fire is the second death.” In other words, the imagery of the ‘lake of fire‘ is interpreted to mean ‘the second death.’ Often throughout the book the symbols are explained by the angel, e.g.  1:20;12:9; 17:9-10,12,15,18. Just like in all of these instances, where a symbol in the imagery is interpreted as something literal, so is the symbol ‘lake of fire’ interpreted to be literally the ‘second death.’

Now the first death is interpreted by sd proponents as physical death, and the second death as eternal separation from God. But this is an arbitrary interpretation, based not on the grammar or context of these passages, but based on the presuppositions of the theological system. There is no reason not to understand the death in the term ‘the second death’ as literal death, except for presuppositional bias. Here is how I see the situation as revealed in Scripture. All men are doomed to die the first death as a direct result of Adam’s sin {Rom. 5:12-14; 1 Cor. 15:21-22}. The only exception to this are those believers who are alive at the time of Messiah’s return in glory, these will be transformed i.e. made immortal, without ever experiencing death {1 Cor. 15:51-53; 1 Thess. 4:15-17}. All who have died will be physically raised from the dead, but not all at the same time {John 5:28-29; Acts 24:15; 1 Cor. 15:21-23}. Those who are in Messiah will be raised immortal, to live forever in the renewed earth. Those who have not believed the truth but had pleasure in unrighteousness will be raised only to be judged and condemned to die a second time, this time not because of Adam’s sin but because of their own iniquities. From the second death there is no escape, no further resurrection. Therefore the second death is only experienced by those who have refused to love the truth. In other words, the first death is experienced by all because of Adam’s sin, but the second death is experienced only by those who do not know God, because of their own sin. The redemption of Messiah is salvation from death, both the first death and the second death. The forgiveness of sins is not the ultimate goal of redemption, but the means by which we can be reconciled to God, which then puts us in position to receive the promised immortality. All who die the first death while in a state of separation from God will experience the second death. But let me say categorically, no one has ever experienced separation from God or eternal condemnation as a result of Adam’s sin. The Scriptures no where teach such a concept.

There are only a few verses which speak of separation from God and these are used to bolster the idea of sd — Is. 59:2; Eph. 4:18; and Col. 1:21. But if you carefully read these passages you will see that in each case the separation is the result of the personal sins and iniquities committed by those who are thus separated from God. There is no hint in these passages that anyone is spiritually dead i.e. separated from God, because of Adam’s sin. In Is. 59:2 it is specifically the Israelites, as a covenant people, who are in view. Their many sins, enumerated throughout this  chapter, had caused a separation between them and their God. God would no longer hear their prayers for blessing or their cries for help {see also Is. 1:14-17}. In Eph. 4:18 it is Gentiles who are in view. But this verse does not say that they are separated from God, but rather from the life of God, i.e. the immortality that God had intended for man but which was forfeited by Adam. The Greek is strange here, reading ontes (present active participle of eimi) apellotriomenoi (perfect passive participle of apallotrioo) and literally meansbeing in a state of having been estranged from the life of God.’ The word apallotrioo is better rendered as estranged or alienated or excluded rather than separated. One of Strong’s definitions is ‘to be a non- participant.’ Now the combination of two verbs, the first being a present active participle and the second a perfect passive participle, is strange indeed. The present active verb is referring to a present state or condition in which the subjects of the verb are active in maintaining. The perfect passive is referring to a completed past action in which the subjects were passive, i.e. the action was done to them. So then the Gentiles (unsaved according to context) are continuing, by their own action, in a state of exclusion from the life (immortality) that God had intended for man originally. The initial exclusion from this life was not the direct result of their actions (it is the result of Adam’s sin, i.e. death), but their continued exclusion from that life is because of their actions (their refusal to acknowledge the true God and turn from sin to him). This verse has nothing to say about some supposed spiritual death.

Col. 1:21 is addressed to Gentile believers, whom Paul says were once in the same condition described in the Eph. 4:18 passage. The same two Greek verb forms are used here and so Paul is saying these Gentiles were once in that same state. The NIV says “alienated from God” but the ‘from God‘ is not in the Greek text. Most versions translate the Greek correctly as “alienated and enemies in mind.”  There is no reason, exegetically, to read into this the concept of sd. Of course, their “evil deeds” had estranged them from God and excluded them from his promise of immortality. Now, however, they have been reconciled “in the body of his flesh through death.” This reconciliation is typically viewed  as simply the removal of the enmity, i.e. sin, but there may be more involved here. The purpose of the reconciliation is so that we may be presented before God holy, unblemished and blameless (v. 22). Holy speaks of being set apart unto God; blameless speaks of having nothing against us for which we can be accused, and refers to the fact that our sins have been forgiven. But what exactly is meant by unblemished? Though the word can be used in an ethical or moral sense, since that idea seems to be covered by the word blameless, I think we can understand it to be referring to the our physical condition after the resurrection. This word (Gr. amomos) is used in the LXX to refer to unblemished animals for the use of sacrifice. In this regard it means without physical defect. Our being presented before God takes place only after the resurrection {see 2 Cor. 4:14; Jude 1:24}, when the corruption we inherited from Adam is annulled and we are made incorruptible and immortal {1 Cor. 15:50-55}. Part of our reconciliation therefore, is the bringing of our physical bodies into line with God’s purpose {see Rom. 8:20-25; Phil. 3:20-21} so that God’s original plan for man, immortality, may be realized.

Conclusion

It is easy to see how a misconception in one area can lead to misconceptions in other areas. If we imagine man’s problem to be spiritual death then we will view God’s solution to be primarily about that. Scripture teaches us that our problem is sin and death, alienation and deprivation of immortality. God’s solution, through Messiah’s atoning sacrifice, is reconciliation and life everlasting through resurrection from the dead.

In my next article we will study the question of whether or not man has an immortal soul that lives on consciously even after we die. We will answer the question of what happens to believers in God when they die. Is the hope of the Christian to die and go to heaven to be with  Jesus? May God enlighten us through his word.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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Author: Troy Salinger

I am 55 yrs. old. I live with my wife of 32 yrs. in Picayune MS. I have been a believer in the Lord Jesus since August of 1981. I have no formal theological education, but have been an ardent student of Scripture for 36 yrs. I am a biblical Unitarian i.e. I believe the Father is the only true God (John 17:3) and Jesus is His human Son, the Messiah.

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