Is there something in you that flinches at the mention of the word death? Is your first reaction to stop reading? If so, that is a sure indication that you, in particular, need to open your heart to this message.
In our contemporary culture, there has been an unadvertised effort to remove anything that might be unpleasant or painful from the concept of death. We no longer speak about a cemetery, instead we use a phrase such as “a memorial garden.” And when the body of a dead person is displayed for view before burial, everything possible is done to minimize the changes caused by death.
Still, I believe it is important that we do not allow ourselves to forget one simple, objective, unchanging fact: death is real and it is unpleasant. It is painful and cruel. Any view of life that cannot accept this fact is deceptive and unrealistic. Any philosophy or religion that does not have a redemptive answer to the harsh reality of death is inadequate to meet the needs of humanity. What distinguishes the Christian faith from all other religions and philosophies is that it has a positive, proven answer to death.
When modern medicine encounters a physical problem it seeks to provide three statements: a diagnosis, a prognosis, and a remedy. The diagnosis reveals the cause; the prognosis predicts the course that the disease will take; and the remedy, of course, is the answer to the disease.
When we face the topic of death, the Bible offers us all three of these. The diagnosis is stated very simply in Scripture: “Therefore, just as through one man sin entered the world, and death through sin, and thus death spread to all men, because all sinned” (Romans 5:12 NKJ).
So, death came through sin. If there had never been sin, there never would have been death. But because all men have sinned, death comes to all men.
In its prognosis, the Bible indicates that death comes in three successive stages. The first is spiritual death. God said to Adam, as He warned him about the tree of knowledge of good and evil: “But of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil you shall not eat, for in the day that you eat of it you shall surely die” (Genesis 2:17 NKJ).
God told Adam “in the day that you eat you will die.” As we understand death, Adam lived another 900 years and more. But in the very day that he sinned he was cut off, or alienated from, a life with God. In that moment he died spiritually. In Ephesians 2:1 Paul reminds the Christians in Ephesus what their spiritual condition was before they knew Christ: “And you He made alive, who were dead in trespasses and sins” (NKJ, emphasis added).
Paul was not speaking of a physical death, but a spiritual death—alienation from God. Once man’s spirit was cut off from God by sin, his physical life was like a battery that could not be recharged. It continued to function for quite a while, but ultimately it would run down.
The second phase is physical death. This is what we actually call “death”—the separation of the soul from the body. There is a visible result in the condition of the body. It begins to decay. But the condition of the soul remains unchanged.
The third phase is what the Bible calls “the second death.” This is something that is known only through the revelation of Scripture: “This is the second death. And anyone not found written in the Book of Life was cast into the lake of fire” (Revelation 20:14–15 NKJ).
As we study this picture, we see two important elements. First, this second death is final, eternal, irrevocable banishment from the presence of God. From the second death there is no way back. Second, it is not a cessation of consciousness, for there is never a cessation of consciousness. Personality remains conscious both in this life and afterward. We never escape our own consciousness.
The remedy for death is, of course, Jesus—the One who came to avenge our death at the hand of Satan. He did this by taking our death upon Himself, by paying our penalty. In this way, He set us free from the fear of death.
John 10 says Satan was the thief who came to steal. But Jesus said, “I have come that they may have life, and that they may have it more abundantly.” So Jesus gave us back our inheritance. In our relationship to Jesus, we become pleasing and acceptable to God. Condemnation is gone. Fear is gone. We can say with the apostle John, “The darkness is passing away, and the true light is already shining” (1 John 2:8 NKJ).