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Hastings' Dictionary of the New Testament

Death (2)

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DEATH.—It belongs to the profoundly spiritual character of our Lord’s thinking that He says comparatively little on the subject of physical death. His attitude towards it is indicated in the words, ‘She is not dead but slecpeth’ (Matthew 9:28 = Mark 5:35, Luke 8:52). He recognized that man’s true being was something apart from the mere bodily existence, and death thus resolved itself into a natural incident, analogous to sleep, which broke the continuity of life only in seeming. The idea is presented more definitely in the charge to the disciples, ‘Fear not them that kill the body, and after that have no more that they can do,’ etc. (Luke 12:4 = Matthew 10:28), where it is expressly declared that life resides in the soul, over which God alone has power. The accident of death, of the separation of the soul from its material body, can make little difference to the essential man.

The three recorded miracles of raising from the dead are, in the last resort, concrete illustrations of this side of our Lord’s teaching. The Johannine account of the raising of Lazarus is indeed bound up with a more complex theological doctrine; but the Synoptic miracles, in so far as they are more than works of compassion or exhibitions of Divine power, are indicative of the transient nature of death. Jesus awakens the daughter of Jairus and the youth of Nain as if from ordinary sleep. The life which to outward appearance had ceased, had only been withdrawn from the body, and could be reunited with it at the Divine word.

Attempts have been made to connect these miracles and the whole conception of death as sleep, with the contemporary Jewish belief that for three days the soul still lingered in the neighbourhood of the dead body. The earliest stage of death might therefore be regarded as a condition of trance or slumber from which the spirit could yet be recalled. It is in view, probably, of this belief that St. John emphasizes the ‘four days’ that had elapsed since the death of Lazarus, whose soul must thus have finally departed from his body when Jesus revived him. But we have no indication that our Lord Himself took any account of the popular superstition, much less that He was influenced by it. His conception of death as a passing sleep was derived solely from His certainty that man, being a child of God, was destined to an immortal life. Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob cannot be permanently dead, for God is not the God of the dead but of the living (Matthew 22:31 = Mark 12:26). In virtue of their relation to God they must have passed into a more perfect life through apparent death.

The traditional view of death as something evil and unnatural had therefore no place in the thought of Jesus. He nowhere suggests the idea which St. Paul took over from the OT and elaborated in his theology, that death is the punishment of sin. This prevailing Jewish belief is indeed expressly contradicted in the words concerning the slaughtered Galilaeans and the eighteen on whom the tower of Siloam fell (Luke 13:1-4). Jesus there insists that death, even when it comes prematurely and violently, is not to be regarded as a Divine judgment. Sin is punished, not by physical death in this world, but by a spiritual death hereafter. This is doubtless the true interpretation of the warning, ‘Except ye repent, ye shall all likewise perish.’ Destruction is in store for all sinners; and the punishment cannot therefore consist in death by violence, which falls on few. Much less can it consist in natural death, from which the good can escape no more than the wicked.

While thus regarding death as nothing but one of the incidents in man’s earthly existence, our Lord anticipates a time when it will be done away. In the perfected Messianic, kingdom ‘they cannot die any more’ (Luke 20:36). Those who survive until the Son of man returns in glory ‘will not taste of death’ (Matthew 16:28), since they will have entered on the new age in which it is abolished. Even in such passages, however, it is not suggested that death is an evil. The idea is rather that it forms part of a lower, imperfect order of things, and that this will give place entirely to a higher. Those who inherit the kingdom cannot die, ‘because they are equal unto the angels’ (Luke 20:36), and have so entered on another condition, governed by different laws. The cessation of death is conjoined with that of marriage (Luke 20:35-36). As the marriage relation is natural and necessary to man’s earthly state, but has no place in the life of higher spirits, so with death.

Jesus, it is thus evident, has broken away from the Jewish conception, according to which the death of the body possessed a religious significance as the effect of sin. His own idea of its spiritual import is of an altogether different nature, and can be gathered with sufficient clearness from certain explicit sayings. (1) The willingness to endure death for His sake is the supreme test of faith (cf. ‘Can ye drink of the cup that I shall drink of?’ etc. [Matthew 20:22 = Mark 10:38]; ‘If a man hate not … his own life also,’ etc. [Luke 14:26]). (2) Death is the fixed limit appointed by God to all earthly pleasures and activities. The thought of it ought therefore to guard us against over-anxiety about the things of this world, and to keep us always watchful, and mindful of the true issues of life (‘This night thy soul shall be required of thee’ [Luke 12:20]; parable of Rich Man and Lazarus [Luke 16:20 ff.]). (3) Above all, death marks the beginning of the true and eternal life with God. This higher life can be obtained only by sacrificing the lower, and surrendering it altogether, if need be, at the call of Christ (‘He that loseth his life for my sake shall find it’ [Matthew 10:39 = Matthew 16:25, Mark 8:35, Luke 9:24]).

In several Synoptic passages Jesus speaks of a death which is spiritual rather than physical. He recognizes that the mass of men are in a condition of moral apathy and estrangement from God, and out of this ‘death’ He seeks to deliver them. His message to John the Baptist, ‘The dead are raised up’ (Matthew 11:5 = Luke 7:22), would seem, in the light of the context, to bear this reference, as also the charge to the disciples, ‘Raise the dead’ (Matthew 10:8). The same thought is expressed more unmistakably in the saying, ‘Let the dead bury their dead’ (Matthew 8:21 = Luke 9:60), and in the words of the parable, ‘This my son was dead and is alive again’ (Luke 15:24). Such allusions are not to be explained as simply figurative. As ‘life,’ to the mind of Jesus, consists in moral obedience and communion with God, so in the opposite condition He perceives the true death. It involves that ‘destruction both of soul and body’ which is far more to be feared than mere bodily death.

The view represented by the Fourth Gospel gives a further development to this aspect of our Lord’s teaching. Death as conceived by St. John is something wholly spiritual. The idea is enforced in its full extent that physical death is only a ‘taking rest in sleep,’ and in no wise affects the real life (John 11:4; John 11:11-14). Lazarus, although he has lain four days in the tomb, has never truly died; for ‘he that believeth in me, when he is dead, continues to live’ (John 11:25-26). The miracle by which he is ‘awakened out of sleep’ is meant to show forth, under the forms of sense, the inward and spiritual work of Jesus. He is ‘the resurrection and the life.’ He has come to raise men out of the state of death in which they find themselves, and to make them inheritors, even now, of the life of God.

To understand the Evangelist’s conception, we have to remember that here as elsewhere he converts into present reality what is future and apocalyptic in the Synoptic teaching. Jesus had spoken of life as a reward laid up in ‘the world to come,’ and had contrasted it with the ‘casting out’ or ‘destruction’ (ἀπώλεια) which is reserved for the wicked. These ideas reappear in the Fourth Gospel, divested of their pictorial, eschatological form. Life is a spiritual possession here and now, and has its counterpart in ‘death,’ which is likewise realized in the present world. St. John, indeed, contemplates a future in which the life, and by implication the death, will become complete and final (John 6:39; John 6:44; John 6:54); but they will continue the same in essence as they already are on earth.

Death is thus regarded not as a single incident but as a condition, in which the soul remains until, through the power of Christ, it passes into the opposite condition of life. It is not, however, a state of moral apathy and disobedience, or at least does not primarily bear this ethical character. Life, in the view of St. John, is the absolute, Divine life, in which man, as a creature of earth, does not participate (See Life). His natural state is one of ‘death,’ not because of his moral sinfulness, but because he belongs to a lower world, and the life he possesses is therefore relative and unreal. It is life only in a physical sense, and is more properly described as ‘death.’ The work of Christ is to deliver men from the state of privation in which they are involved by their earthly nature (John 3:6). As the Word made flesh, He communicates to them His own higher essence, and makes possible for them the mysterious transition ‘from death unto life’ (John 5:24).

In this Johannine doctrine Greek-philosophical ideas, transmitted through Philo, have blended with the original teaching of Jesus as recorded in the Synoptics. The simple ethical distinction has become a distinction of two kinds of being,—earthly and spiritual, phenomenal and real. Jesus ‘raises the dead’ in the sense that He effects a miraculous change in the very constitution of man’s nature. At the same time the ethical idea, while not directly emphasized, is everywhere implied. It is assumed that the state of exclusion from the true life is also a state of moral darkness, into which men have fallen ‘because their deeds are evil’ (John 3:19). The ‘freedom’ which Jesus promises is described in one passage (in which, however, the borrowed Pauline ideas are imperfectly assimilated) as freedom from sin (John 5:33-36). In the great verse, ‘God so loved the world,’ etc. (John 3:16), the ethical conception almost completely overpowers the theological. Men were ‘perishing’ through their estrangement from God, and from this death God sought to deliver them by His love revealed in Christ.

For the teaching of Jesus in regard to the significance of His own death see the following article.

Literature.—Cremer, Lex. s.v. θάνατος; Titius, Die neutest. Lehre von der Seligkeit (1895–1900), esp. i. 57–87, iii. 17–31; Fries, ‘Jesu Vorstellungen von der Auferstehung der Toten,’ ZNTW [Note: NTW Zeitschrift für die Neutest. Wissen. schaft.] (Dec. 1900); Schrenck, Die johanneische Ansch. vom Leben (1898). See also the literature mentioned in art. Life.

E. F. Scott.

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Bibliography Information
Hastings, James. Entry for 'Death (2)'. Hastings' Dictionary of the New Testament. https://www.studylight.org/dictionaries/eng/hdn/d/death-2.html. 1906-1918.

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