What About Death?
In the previous chapter on the biblical use of the word “destruction,” death was also briefly discussed. Jesus stated that the prodigal son, for example, “was dead, and is alive.” This statement shows death being used as figurative language to describe a state of sinfulness that prevents us from the knowledge of God. It also clearly shows the state of being dead to be impermanent. This is important to recognize because those who wish to promote the idea of eternal conscious torment will claim that death refers to a never-ending state of condemnation in hell. As an example, I recently heard Romans 6:23 being used as purported evidence for eternal hell. It says, “For the wages of sin is death, but the gift of God is eternal life in Christ Jesus our Lord.” The interpretation being given was that “death” in this passage meant “eternal hell.” There is, however, no evidence from the immediate context of the passage, nor from other parts of the Bible that such an equivalence is valid. On the contrary, there is abundant evidence against such a claim.
Let’s begin by looking at the immediate context of the verse:
What shall we say, then? Shall we go on sinning so that grace may increase? By no means! We are those who have died to sin; how can we live in it any longer? Or don’t you know that all of us who were baptized into Christ Jesus were baptized into his death? We were therefore buried with him through baptism into death in order that, just as Christ was raised from the dead through the glory of the Father, we too may live a new life.
For if we have been united with him in a death like his, we will certainly also be united with him in a resurrection like his. For we know that our old self was crucified with him so that the body ruled by sin might be done away with, that we should no longer be slaves to sin— because anyone who has died has been set free from sin.
Now if we died with Christ, we believe that we will also live with him. For we know that since Christ was raised from the dead, he cannot die again; death no longer has mastery over him. The death he died, he died to sin once for all; but the life he lives, he lives to God.
In the same way, count yourselves dead to sin but alive to God in Christ Jesus. Therefore do not let sin reign in your mortal body so that you obey its evil desires. Do not offer any part of yourself to sin as an instrument of wickedness, but rather offer yourselves to God as those who have been brought from death to life; and offer every part of yourself to him as an instrument of righteousness. For sin shall no longer be your master, because you are not under the law, but under grace.
What then? Shall we sin because we are not under the law but under grace? By no means! Don’t you know that when you offer yourselves to someone as obedient slaves, you are slaves of the one you obey—whether you are slaves to sin, which leads to death, or to obedience, which leads to righteousness? But thanks be to God that, though you used to be slaves to sin, you have come to obey from your heart the pattern of teaching that has now claimed your allegiance. You have been set free from sin and have become slaves to righteousness.
I am using an example from everyday life because of your human limitations. Just as you used to offer yourselves as slaves to impurity and to ever-increasing wickedness, so now offer yourselves as slaves to righteousness leading to holiness. When you were slaves to sin, you were free from the control of righteousness. What benefit did you reap at that time from the things you are now ashamed of? Those things result in death! But now that you have been set free from sin and have become slaves of God, the benefit you reap leads to holiness, and the result is eternal life. For the wages of sin is death, but the gift of God is eternal life in Christ Jesus our Lord.
Romans 6 discusses death quite a bit. It is quite telling, therefore, that there is no mention of eternal conscious torment whatsoever. Interpreting death to mean eternal hell demonstrates an undeniable decontextualization of the word from the passage. It cannot reasonably be interpreted this way in context and there is no evidence that it should be. Instead, death is used in 2 primary ways. It is discussed in a positive sense as well as a negative sense, but neither of these refers to eternal hell.
First, it is used in a positive sense to describe the state of believers who have died to sin and are therefore no longer slaves to it. This is what is meant by the baptism of Christians into Christ’s death so that we can live a new life, free from bondage to sin.
Second, it is used in a negative sense to describe the result of a sinful lifestyle as contrasted with the eternal holy life offered to us in Christ. As a reminder, Jesus defined eternal life for us, not in terms of its unending duration, but rather qualitatively as knowing Him and the Father God (John 17:3). Therefore, as a proper contrast, death would be the state of not knowing Him or the Father. This is a state that we all experience prior to coming to know Him and is therefore clearly temporary, not eternal. This is why the passage says to “offer yourselves to God as those who have been brought from death to life.” Notice that death was the past tense state of believers prior to coming to know Christ, but that they have been brought from death to life. It is impossible to say that death refers to eternal hell in this context because we certainly were not in eternal hell prior to knowing Christ. Instead, we were figuratively dead in our sins due to our slavery to them.
This is why we must die to our sinful natures. This is the positive sense of death, in which “our old self was crucified with him so that the body ruled by sin might be done away with, that we should no longer be slaves to sin—because anyone who has died has been set free from sin.” Notice that death to sin through Christ is the key to freedom from slavery to sin.
So we are free from sin which leads to death in the negative sense (a lack of knowledge of God) because we die to our sins in Christ. This death to sin is necessary and is the method through which we are saved from death (the negative effects of sin). This is Paul’s argument in the passage. This may seem confusing since Paul is using death in two different ways, but it is a definite biblical theme, and echoes Jesus’ statement in Matthew 17:24-25:
“Whoever wants to be my disciple must deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me. For whoever wants to save their life will lose it, but whoever loses their life for me will find it.”
Crucifixion in the Roman Empire meant death. By taking up our cross and dying to our self-centered, sinful ways, we find true life (knowing God). If instead we seek to continue in a life of selfish rebellion, we find death because we are in a state that prevents us from knowing and understanding God. But death is not permanent because repentance is available. For this reason, we can move from death to life.
The understanding that death is a figurative, temporary state representing sinfulness is endemic to Paul’s writings.
And you were dead in your trespasses and sins in which you previously lived according to the ways of this world, according to the ruler of the power of the air, the spirit now working in the disobedient. We too all previously lived among them in our fleshly desires, carrying out the inclinations of our flesh and thoughts, and we were by nature children under wrath as the others were also. But God, who is rich in mercy, because of his great love that he had for us, made us alive with Christ even though we were dead in trespasses. You are saved by grace!
Notice once again that Paul, speaking to believers in Ephesus, says that they were dead in their trespasses and sins. Death is a past state for believers, all of whom previously were dead and served our “fleshly desires.” But we are no longer dead because God “made us alive with Christ even though we were dead in trespasses” because of His rich mercy and great love.
There are many other examples of this usage of “death” language throughout the New Testament. Here are just a few:
I was once alive apart from the law, but when the commandment came, sin came alive and I died. The very commandment that promised life proved to be death to me. For sin, seizing an opportunity through the commandment, deceived me and through it killed me.
Wretched man that I am! Who will deliver me from this body of death? Thanks be to God through Jesus Christ our Lord!
2 Corinthians 4:11
For we who live are always being given over to death for Jesus' sake, so that the life of Jesus also may be manifested in our mortal flesh.
And many more…
So, in the Bible death does not refer to a permanent state of torment for the lost, but rather to a state of sinfulness that inhibits our knowledge of God. It also refers to the method by which we escape the bondage of sin that leads to this death. By dying to sin and living for God, we can be free to serve Him and enjoy His plan for us. This is true life, the aionios life that the gospel speaks of. The wages of sin, therefore, is missing out on this true life. But thank God, though we all have experienced the wages of sin in our lives, Christ came to set everyone free from our slavery to sin so that we can live in Him! He truly is “the Lamb of God, who takes away the sin of the world” (John 1:29) and for that, we can rejoice!
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