Studies In New Testament Eschatology: No. 3: Death: Unconsciousness Annihilation or Separation?
The subject of death has captivated the minds and imaginations of men for countless generations. Physicians, medical and psychiatric authorities, preachers and funeral directors have written much and have made every effort possible to prepare the public's mind for the grief and bereavement most people face when confronted with this major emotional crisis in their lives. Over against this aspect of death, there is the religious implication which involves more than pent-up interest or curiosity. Looking at death from a religious standpoint, involves a true attitude based upon what the Bible teaches. Since various theories about death which are strictly taboo have been in existence for some time and since these theories tend to cloud and block proper understanding to truth with reference to death, it would be well to study carefully what the New Testament teaches about death.
Theories Concerning Death
Among present-day theories, one will find the earliest to be invented by man, is the theory known as "psychopannychia," which claims that at death the soul of man sleeps in a state of unconsciousness. The founder of Seventh-Day Adventism (Ellen G. White) borrowed this idea from the Reformation period and made it a pillar in her system. "At death," Adventists say, "man becomes unconscious. During the time between death and the resurrection, he is asleep." When Jesus come the second time, the claim is that only the "saints are raised, clothed with immortality and borne to their glorious home in the city of God" (The Bible and the Immortal Soul, Pacific Press Pub. Assoc., Mountain View, Calif., p. 8). As for the wicked, Seventh-Day Adventism teaches that they are annihilated! Another group known as Christian Scientists teach that "matter, sin, sickness and death have no reality;" therefore, they deny the existence of death. Jehovah's Witnesses claim that man is wholly mortal, and that he is annihilated at death. Death, they say, "is utter cessation of conscious, intellectual or physical activity, human or otherwise" (Make Sure of All Things, N.Y., Watchtower Bible and Tract Society, 1953, pp. 86-90).
What Is Death?
The theories stated above, if true, place our English and American scholars in a bad light. If death is unconsciousness or annihilation, then various reputable lexicographers have erred greatly, for not a single recognized New Testament scholar defines death as unconsciousness or annihilation. Such is, therefore, purely an assumption offered without truth.
"Death" is the translation of the Greek word thanatos, which conveys the primary idea of "separation." First, let us notice the definition of the word: W.E. Vine says that "death" has reference to the following: (1) "the separation of the soul (the spiritual part of man) from the body (the material part), the latter ceasing to function and turning to dust;" (2) "the separation of man from God . . . `conscious existence in communion with God,' so spiritual death is `conscious existence in separation from God"' (An Expository Dictionary of the New Testament, Vol. 1, p. 276). Thayer says that death means "separation (whether natural or violent) of the soul from the body by which the life on earth is ended" (Greek-English Lexicon, p. 282).
When used in a spiritual sense, death means the separation of man in sin from God (Gen. 2:17; 1 Tim. 5:6; Matt. 8:22). When used in a physical sense it has reference to the separation of the soul of man from the body, "for the body without the spirit is dead . . ." (Jas. 2:26). When the soul is separated from the body, the body goes back to the dust and the soul returns to God (Eccl. 12:7).
That man in death is not unconscious is proven by Matthew 23:32: "I am the God of Abraham and the God of Isaac, and the God of Jacob. God is not the God of the dead, but of the living." Though Abraham, Isaac and Jacob had passed from the earth in death, their spirits returned to God and they were not out of existence, nor in a state of unconsciousness. God is a God of the living; God is the God of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob; therefore, Abraham, Isaac and Jacob live! While many other passages could be cited to demonstrate further the inconsistencies of psychopannychia, this one is sufficient to show that unconsciousness is not a part of death. Neither is physical death annihilation. One passage will be sufficient to clearly point this out. In Luke 16:19-31, we have the record of. a rich man and Lazarus. The rich man died and was in torment, while Lazarus, who also died, was carried to Abraham's bosom. If these two were annihilated in death, how do we account for the fact that they still existed after death? The rich man could see (v. 23), he could speak (v. 24), could feel pain (v. 25), and could remember (v. 27-28). These two men were dead, yet perfectly conscious of their surroundings, able to talk about things remembered on earth and they realized that they were in a different place from that of their former existence (vv. 27-28). Can anyone produce the passage that teaches that the spirits of men are unconscious or cause to exist at death?
Ecclesiastes 9:4-5 is often cited in an effort to disprove the account of the rich man and Lazarus. It reads, "For him that is joined to all the living there is hope: but the dead know not anything, neither have they any more reward; for the memory of them is forgotten" (emphasis mine, J.T.). To chant that "the dead know not anything," is unfortunate, in that it fails to take into consideration the fact that verse six of his context modifies the sense in which the dead know not anything, i.d., "neither have they any more a portion for ever in any thing that is done under the sun." The meaning is this: when men pass from this life and dwell no longer under the sun, they can no longer attain to a reward because their period of probation is past. They can do nothing, their reward and their destiny is sealed. This is the very point demonstrated by our Lord in the account of Luke 16.
Death, which entered into the world because of sin (Gen. 2:17; 3:19, 22-24), universally reigns (Heb. 9:27). "Death passed upon all men, for that all have sinned" (Rom. 2:12). For every birth there will be a death some day, for death is the fate of all descendants of our first parents. However, the picture is not so dark after all, for the work of Jesus on earth brought about our deliverance from death (Jn. 10:10). "Forasmuch then as the children are partakers of flesh and blood, he also himself likewise took part of the same; that through death he might destroy him that had the power of death, that is, the devil; and deliver them who through fear of death were all their lifetime subject to bondage" (Heb. 2:14). Christ, through His resurrection, demonstrated His mastery over death (Rev. 1:18). Now through Christ one can say, "O death, where is thy sting? O grave where is thy victory?" If one is a chili- of God through obedience to the commands of Jesus (Mk. 16:15-16), he can view death calmly and mildly, and not share with the world the fear of death. "Blessed are they who die in the Lord" (Rev. 14:13).
Truth Magazine XXIV: 45, pp. 742-743