Let My People Think




The purpose of this post is to examine the Scriptural notion of death, and to see in which ways it differs from the usual meaning of death, if at all. This topic bothered me for a while, since I could see that both popular and professional traditional theology definitions are not only ambiguous and fuzzy, but they also require reading into text the semantics that just aren’t there. Eventually I decided to look into the subject myself, and document what I’ve found.

A very important point to mention: theological definitions are nearly always stated as equivalency (“In the Bible, death is / means XYZ”), and not as implications (“In the Bible, death implies / entails XYZ”). It’s such equivalencies that I want to examine here. I will address the implications statements, where appropriate.


To accomplish the stated purpose, I will first address what I believe to be extra-Biblical meanings by examining what death is not equivalent to. Then we will be able to see a lot more clearly what death is.


A commonly used definition of death in evangelical circles is “separation”. There are several problems with this definition.

First – both semantically and grammatically, a notion of separation requires an indirect object (denoting “from what the subject is being separated”). That’s in addition to the subject (what / who is being separated). The indirect object has to be either directly stated, or clearly presented by the context. Depending of what the indirect object is, the range of meanings can be quite vast, and even when it’s stated, additional information (supplied either directly or from the context of what’s being said) may be required to fully understand what is being said. To illustrate, consider this somewhat awkward sentence:

– Johnny is separated.

The sentence is awkward because it’s missing a direct object. Exactly what meaning do you think the sentence is trying to convey to you? That of separation as an non-formalized divorce? Maybe. But you have just made an assumption that the indirect object of the verb “separated” is Johnny’s wife, and I didn’t say that.

Even if you assume that I meant “from his wife” (even though I didn’t say that) you would think you know what exactly I meant (separation as an non-formalized divorce). Well, maybe, but maybe not. What if the context is this: Johnny is in the armed forces, and is currently on a tour of duty in the Middle East? Would that type of separation qualify, if his wife is indeed an indirect object in this sentence? See, now we have a totally different meaning due to additional cues.

What if Johnny completes with his military service and is back home with his family, can he be described as “separated”? (Notice how I ask this question using just the verb, and I again omit the indirect object. If you are perceptive, you should immediately pick up on that, and ask “separated from who / what?”) You would say – if we are still talking about geographical separation – of course he isn’t separated, he’s back home with his wife. Oh, but that’s not what I asked. What I asked is this: can Johnny be described as “separated”? Nothing more than that. And the answer to this is yes – he can be. Johnny is, in fact, a “recently separated veteran”, according the definition of the US government. It’s no longer a marital separation, or a geographic separation, but an organizational one. He’s separated from the military. And all along you thought I’m still talking about his wife. You might ask – oh, but you didn’t say that it’s not his wife that Johnny is separated from. My point exactly – I didn’t say, and yet you did assume.

So my point here is this. You just saw that unless you supply not just the subject, but also the indirect object specifically denoting what the subject is being separated from, you will not be able to reconstruct the exact meaning of what’s being said, and if the context doesn’t unambiguously guide you, you will be forced to assume what the indirect object is, thus creating your own meaning in the process, as opposed to understanding what the author intended. Then we will have a range of candidate meanings, leaving me to choose whichever I prefer based on my biases. If we apply that process to the Scripture study, that would be eisegesis, rather than exegesis.

So that’s problem #1 with equating death with separation. Both semantically and grammatically, the notion of death never requires an indirect object, but the notion of separation does. Due to just this peculiarity, even if the meanings of these two words roughly equivalent (and they are not, as the common sense dictates, and as will be shown below) they are not mutually interchangeable, or mutually substitutable.

If the notion of death were equivalent to the notion of separation, we should be able to make a substitution, and see if the meanings are equivalent:

– Johnny is dead. Does it mean the same thing as “Johnny is separated” to a theologically uninformed person? No it doesn’t – in the scenario above Johnny was alive, and here he’s dead. But wait – you who are better theologically informed might say – if Johnny is dead, isn’t he separated from his wife? He sure is – but here you go again – you just equated “Johnny is dead” with “Johnny is separated from his wife” whereas “wife” is stated nowhere in the original sentence. The best you can do with “death = separation” equivalence is “Johnny is separated”, which leaves you in the cold as to the exact meaning of what he is separated from. Sure, your mind is looking for an indirect object, and plugging in the one that first comes to mind, depending on your culture, upbringing, and other biases.

The only thing we can safely (and sanely) state as far as implications go is that death implies that a person is separated from anything in this physical world upon death since he / she is no longer alive, but dead. They can’t interact with this world, and vice versa. So in that sense, they can be described as separated from it, if we want to persist with the separation semantics. But that’s about the extent of what can be soundly stated.

However, if A implies B, it doesn’t mean that A is equivalent to B. Eating implies swallowing, but the two aren’t equivalent. A person can be tube-fed with no swallowing involved. Having children implies having had a sex act with a partner of opposite sex, but the two aren’t equivalent. Having children can be achieved via in-vitro fertilization with no sex acts involved. Death implies being separated from one’s spouse, but the two aren’t equivalent. That type of separation can also be achieved via divorce. Death implies being separated from human society, but the two aren’t equivalent. That type of separation can also be achieved through isolation (e.g., hermitage, solitary confinement). You get the idea.

(to be continued)


Comments on: "Death according to the Scriptures – word games that grown-ups like to play in church" (5)

  1. lifewithporpoise said:

    The word Death in the NT (and other words) have been on my mind for a year or so. I have no doubt God has led me to this page to teach me something I’ve been asking Him about. Thank you for sharing this.


    • You are most welcome! I’m glad you are finding this useful. As to the topic of death, the main issue is that this simple subject got mixed up with a lot of Hellenistic philosophy, which a lot of the early “church fathers” grew up on, and post-conversion, tried to amalgamate that background with the Scriptures. Augustine, who stands behind much of the Western Christianity’s theology for the past 1600 or so years, is one solid example of that.

      The point is, God is offering to save us all from the inherited condition of death. We can unpack it a lot more, but sin and death are the core of the humanity’s problem, and the core reason for God’s remedy for it.


      • lifewithporpoise said:

        Thanks heaps. 😀
        I have some thoughts racing about this mortality issue. I’m wondering when we as believers die, do we simply ‘sleep’ in the ‘grave’ (go back to dust) until the resurrection and judgment? I’m trying to think about the physical body dying (going back to dust) and then we have our soul (our being, which get ‘snuffed out’ haha when we die). So technically, our being/soul/life goes when we die right… our body goes to mush. When we get resurrected it’s our person/being that comes back or both our body (physical) and our person/being/soul?

        haha. it’s early. I am a person of many questions. But it’s exciting learning.

        God is good.


        • NT Wright calls this state “life after death”, and what happens post-resurrection – “life after life after death”. A lot of it depends of what you make of the word “sleep” (e.g., Daniel 12:2 – “And many of those who sleep in the dust of the earth shall awake”). As our very own Bill Clinton said – “It depends on what the meaning of the word ‘is’ is.”

          So, in general, unless there’s no way an expression can be taken literally, it has to be taken figuratively. Clearly, dead people don’t sleep in the same way the the living people do. So, in which sense did Jacob, David, Saul, Stephen the martyr, the girl that Jesus rose up, and multitudes in the dust of the earth sleep / rest?


        • lifewithporpoise said:

          Thanks for this. In my mind at present I’m feeling a couple things.

          The first: I’m starting to use reason. “Why would a loving God send people who haven’t heard the Good News to an eternal place of torment?”. (the question most unbelievers throw at Christians).

          Good question too.

          “Because God MUST punish sin!”, is the standard response.

          My thoughts: Yes, exactly. God did punish sin. 2000 years ago He put Jesus on the cross and those sins were paid for. People just choose to reject that it is true, or they are yet to hear about it. (not sure if this is correct).

          When I read ‘sleep’ I just imagine people being asleep (but not waking unless God raises them). So when dead… the body perishes (naturally) but their ‘person/soul/being’ is waiting until judgment.

          When the resurrection happens we’ll see what the Lord does with the naughty ones.

          He is just so I’m OK to leave it to Him.

          I hope he doesn’t eternally torture people.

          Maybe he might be really bad and let them come to heaven and sing songs to Him forever. I’m sure some might think that’s torture, depending on the CD. haha.


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