Thesis: The purpose of this article is to explore the three aspects of death (spiritual, physical, and eternal) with a view to understanding the nature of “death” that is “the wages of sin” mentioned in Romans 6:23. It is my view that this “death” is not so much an event as it is a status or package involving a progression of events (a “process,” if you will)—namely, spiritual death + physical death = eternal death.
Death is defined by its connection to life, and then only in negative terms. For example, the dictionary defines death as “a permanent cessation of all vital functions: the end of life.” Therefore, to be dead is to be “no longer alive or living: no longer having life.” To die is “to stop living.” Consequently, the very definitions of “death,” “dead,” and “die” imply that the original, and thus normal, state of any dead thing is its former living state. In other words, dead things always begin as living things which, once dead, never come alive again. It is, thus, correct to say that life is the normal state of animate things. Death, on the other hand, is the absence of life, the removal of the life principle, or separation from the source of life. The obvious conclusion of all this is that man, a “living being” (Gen. 2:7), was created by God to be alive, not dead. From this, it’s easy to conclude it was God’s intent that man live with Him forever in intimate, uninterrupted fellowship. But, when sin entered the picture, so did death (Gen. 2:17; Rom. 5:12). As a result, man, the spiritually alive and physically living creature, became man, the spiritually dead and physically dying creature. Sin not only separates us from God (cf. Isa. 59:2a), but is the very antithesis of God—namely, it’s a direct contradiction of God’s own holy nature (cf. Psa. 5:4-6; Isa. 6:3-5; Hab. 1:12-13; 1 Pet. 1:15-16). Sin, then, requires God to turn away from or separate Himself from the sinner (Isa. 59:2b; 64:7). Cut off from the very One who “has life in Himself” (Jn. 5:26), the sinner is “Alienated from the life of God” (Eph. 4:18; Col. 1:21) and is, thus, both spiritually dead and physically dying.
As stated in the above thesis, I have come to believe that the Bible teaches “death” is not so much an event as it is a status or package involving a progression of events (a process, if you will)—namely, spiritual death + physical death = eternal death. But when it comes to exactly what the “death” is that is “the wages of sin” (Rom. 6:23), as well as the “death through sin” that came in connection with Adam and “spread to all men, because all sinned” (Rom. 5:12,14), there is much controversy among brethren. So, before we can have any hope of coming to the right conclusion on this matter, it will be necessary to examine a bit more closely the three kinds of death of which the Bible speaks.
It’s called “spiritual death” because it principally affects the spirit or soul of the sinner. It’s what the New Testament calls being “dead in trespasses and sin” (Eph. 2:1,5; Col. 2:13). Therefore, it does not surprise us to hear the prodigal son described as being “dead” while living his rebellious lifestyle (Lk. 15:24,32). Likewise, it does not surprise us to hear a self-indulged, pleasure-seeking widow described as being “dead while she lives” (1 Tim 5:6). Furthermore, if Paul is indeed writing autobiographically in Romans 7, and I believe he was, we are not surprised to hear him say, in essence, that when he reached the age of accountability while under the law of Moses, “sin came alive and I died” (Rom. 7:9, ESV). He followed this with, “For to set the mind on the flesh is death” (Rom. 8:6). At the same time, John made it clear that when a spiritually dead sinner is born again, he has passed “from death to life” (1 Jn. 3:14). Finally, it’s called “spiritual death” because the sinner becomes separated from God who is the only true Source of life (Isa. 59:2; Eph. 4:18). Even though there is more that can be said about this, this must suffice for now.
“Physical death” is the kind of death most of us think of when the subject of death comes up. Man is created a unity of spirit and body, and as long as the two remain united, the body is alive. Hence, the presence of the spirit is inextricably linked to the life of the body, for “the body without the spirit is dead” (Jas. 2:26; Jn. 19:30). Even so, there is a sense in which the body is already dead prior to the spirit’s departure, for as Paul says, “the body is dead [present tense] because of sin” (Rom. 8:10a). This could be a reference to the indwelling sin that continues to permeate our bodies (Rom. 7:17-18,23)—namely, the body, which has not yet been fully redeemed, remains so much in sin’s grip that it’s called a “body of death” (Rom. 7:24). It may also refer to the physical death (viz., the process of dying) it is already a prisoner to, for even when the body is presently alive, it is under the curse of death and doomed to die (unless, of course, the Lord comes, and then it will not die, but be “changed,” 1 Cor. 15:52). As such, it is experiencing disease, deformity, infirmity, aches, and pains, etc. Of course, it also seems plausible that Paul could have had both senses in mind in Romans 8:10.
The third kind of death is called “eternal death.” As such, it is identified as the “everlasting destruction from the presence of the Lord and from the glory of His power” (2 Thess. 1:9) that the unredeemed sinner will experience in “the everlasting fire prepared for the devil and his angels” (Mt. 25:41). Such a death will be experienced only after the final judgment of all the spiritually dead whose bodies have died as well. They will do so with their sinful unredeemed spirits and resurrected, but unredeemed, sinful bodies very much intact (Matt. 10:28). In such a state, unredeemed sinners will experience the full impact of “triple ‘D’ death,” which is eternal, irreversible separation from God, the only true Source of life. Among the last words these unredeemed will hear from God is, “Depart from Me, you cursed, into the everlasting fire prepared for the devil and his angels” (Mt. 25:41; 7:23). Although we are unable to plumb the full depth of this subject here, it is safe to say that when we begin to come to grips with the full scope of triple “D” death, we’ll appreciate to some extent what Leon Morris had in mind when he wrote: “[D]eath is not simply an event, it is a state, it is the sphere in which evil has its sway, and sinners are, and must be, within this sphere with all that that means, until they are redeemed from it” (The Wages of Sin: An Examination of The New Testament Teaching On Death, 1955, p. 20). It seems safe to say that when a sinner, in spite of all God has done to redeem him, continues to walk in darkness, he will continue to abide in death not just now in this lost and dying world, but forever.