Cyclopedia of Biblical, Theological and Ecclesiastical Literature
Death, Theological Aspects of.
On this topic we present some views different from those usually entertained, but which modern science appears to justify and even to demand.
"Death may be defined as the termination of life. Beyond question, it had been possible for God, if such had been his pleasure, to have made all creatures under a law of life. Scripture assures us that man at least was at first placed conditionally under this law. There is, however, decisive evidence that, from the beginning, all other terrestrial life was constituted under the law of death. The reproductive and assimilating organs and powers common to all living creatures, and the destructive organs, instincts, and habits of birds and beasts of prey, unmistakably contemplate, as they provide for, a system or constitution of things in which death should reign. It was long and generally held, indeed, that this law in the natural economy supervened upon the introduction of sin. But this idea, which Scripture does nowhere assert or sanction, is hard to be reconciled with the conclusion which physiology and anatomy have deduced from powers and organs of the animal frame, with the same certainty that any final cause is inferred from any of the works of God. And it must be regarded as conclusively refuted by the discoveries of geology, which demonstrate the prevalence of death in ages long anterior to the creation of man, or, so far as is known, to the existence of sin. The earth's strata are now found to be full of the buried remains of extinct life; and it is made evident by the state in which many of these fossils are found, that then, as now, life was sustained by death. Nor can it well be doubted that this state of things obtained even in the days of man's primeval innocence. If we try, we shall find ourselves baffled in the attempt to conceive how even then death could be strange or unknown. Must not the revolving year have been marked by the opening and the fall of the earth's foliage, the ripening consumption and decay of earth's fruits? Could our first parents drink of the rivers of paradise, or tread its verdant surface, or keep and dress its trees and plants, without in every draught, at every step, by every stroke quenching or cutting down myriads of animalcular or insect as well as vegetable life? Although the flesh of animals was not yet given to man for food, is it supposable that the laws of animal life itself were all the while in abeyance Ñ its instincts restrained, its powers unused, its appropriate pleasure withheld or denied? We know that from the day of man's creation he had given to him the idea of death. It was set before him as the just desert and consequence of disobedience. And whence should he have derived his conception of the import of the threatened evil so readily as from death's visible domain over the fowls of the heaven and the beasts of the field?
"With regard to creatures of mere instinct or animal nature, there can be nothing judicial or of the nature of punishment in their ordination to death. It is beyond question that for man's sake a curse had ‘ been brought upon the ground,' and the ‘ whole creation groaneth and travaileth in pain together until now.' Still man himself is by this means the greatest sufferer; and so far as it affects the other creatures, it can be only a physical evil, equally without moral cause or penal effect, of which, by their nature, they are unsusceptible. How this appointment is to be reconciled with the benevolence of the Creator is a hard question, which no light yet given to man enables him fully to resolve. So far, however, it may relieve the mystery that, as a general rule, the enjoyments of the inferior creatures greatly exceed their sufferings that death is but little, if at all, the object of their fear, or much even a cause of pain. That the sum of animal enjoyment quenched in death is amply compensated by the law of increase and succession, which both perpetuates life and preserves it in the vigor of its powers and the freshness of its joys, is certain;' also (as bearing on the physical and moral condition of man, to whose behalf, as chief in this lower world, all arrangements and disposals affecting the lower forms of life were subordinated), that their subjection to death has enlarged immensely the extent of man's physical resources, and multiplied manifold the means of his moral development and discipline.
"But man himself is involved in the common doom. It is appointed unto all men once to die. The reigning fact, man's death, seems to force upon us the conclusion that death is a physical necessity, or a universal law extending to all material organizations, however otherwise psychologically distinguished or divinely allied. And this opinion has generally obtained among men of pantheistic and materialistic views in philosophy, and of Pelagian and Socinian views in theology. But surely it is impossible, consistently with God's omnipotency, to allege the necessity or the power of this law, as existing in despite of his pleasure and purpose, to constitute our nature under a law of life. It is more than probable that the other orders of creatures who dwell in life immortal in the, heavenly places are not all spirit, or without their own mode and form of organized existence. We are assured that the bodies of the risen saints are clothed with incorruption and immortality. We know that, even as now constituted, the life of these frail bodies in antediluvian age was prolonged to the verge of a millennium. And why should it be thought impossible for God, if so it had pleased him, to endue them with the powers, or provide for them the means of repairing the wear and waste of life, so as to preserve their powers and sensibilities in unabated vigor and freshness, ‘ even to length of days forever and ever?' This, Scripture informs us, was in the beginning provisionally ordained. The threatening of death as the penalty of a breach of the covenant is rightly understood to imply the promise of deathless and incorruptible life so long as the covenant should stand.
And the tree of life in the midst of the garden, if not by its physical virtue the means of perpetual renovation, was certainly the sacramental pledge of God's purpose to preserve life inviolate while man was steadfast to the covenant. Thus runs the tenor of the covenant, or the constitution under which man's life was originally given and held ‘ Thou shalt not eat of the tree of knowledge of good and evil, for in the day thou eatest thereof thou shalt surely die.' And, in terms equally explicit to the transgression of the law is the entrance and reign of death over man ascribed: ‘ By one man sin entered into the world, and death by sin; and so death passed upon all men, for that all have sinned.' Let it be observed that this declares the cause of death as it reigns over all men only. It affirms nothing respecting the cause of death as it reigns over other orders of creatures in the present or in preceding stages of the world's existence. Whether, in any way, they may have been constituted under a law of death by anticipation, and as in keeping with a state of things in which death should reign over man, we do not venture to pronounce. That indirectly, as a consequence of their relation to man as a sinner against God, their sufferings have been increased and their lives shortened, it is impossible to doubt or deny. But if, in this view, sin be the occasion of their death, it cannot be the cause of it. They are incapable of sin, and cannot die judicially for sin. The contrary opinion, which long and generally prevailed, that the creatures were immortal until man sinned, has as little to justify it in Scripture as in science.
Death, it is there said, is the law of their being; and the true doctrine of the Scripture is not that they die because man has sinned, but that man, because he has sinned, has forfeited his original and high distinction, and has become like ‘ the beasts that perish.' It is unnecessary here to multiply Scripture proofs of this awful and humbling truth. Every one is familiar with the frequent and equivalent testimonies that death is ‘ the fruit,' ‘ the wages,' the ‘ end' and consummation of sin; and the circumstances which attend and induce it impressively connect it with sin as its cause. How, if not through guilty forfeiture, should the life of man have been abbreviated in its term so much more than that of many of the inferior creatures, and in so many instances still further shortened by disease and by calamity? To how great extent is it consumed by the fire of evil passion, smitten by the stroke of vengeful violence, taken away by the arm of judicial authority? in all these cases sin visibly working death. And while embittered and burdened by manifold pain and sorrows, how irresistibly does conscience within disquiet and alarm us by the conviction of guilt and the terror of righteous judgment? "But now what is death, or what does it import as an appointed doom?
To answer this question rightly, we require to ascertain the true constitution of our nature. Obviously death must be very different in the view of the materialist, who regards man as only a higher species of animal, whose mental and moral distinctions are the result of a higher physical organization, and in the judgment of those who consider man as the possessor of a soul distinct from the body, the subject and seat of a higher nature. If the body be the whole of man, death is the end of his conscious existence. If he consist of body and spirit, death may prove but his birthday into another and more important state of being. Now this point, which till the present hour has proved too hard for man himself to clear up, Scripture decides conclusively for all who will receive its testimony. Man is both body and spirit, the first placing him in communion with the outward world, the second allying him to God and his spiritual creation. The record of his primeval state exhibits the reality and effect of this complex being. While his earthly paradise yielded its riches and pleasures to every sense and sensibility of his animal nature, his higher life found its appropriate and preeminent occupation and delight in the service and communion of the ‘ Father of his spirit.' These views, as they magnify the life which God gave us, must be felt to complicate the nature and effects of death. How, then, does it affect us? Does it reach the whole man, body and spirit? If so, how are they severally and together affected by it? and in what order, and by what process does it consummate its work?
"1. Death extends to the entire man, and to every part of his nature. Against himself the threatening was directed, ‘ In the day thou eatest thereof thou shalt die.' Beyond doubt the outward man perisheth, and surely the inner man, the subject of that sin of which the body is but the instrument, cannot have escaped the force of the dread sentence. God's word assures us that the soul that sinneth it shall die. Nay, it speaks of man as already dead who yet lives in the body; dead, therefore, spiritually. On the other hand, it speaks of men now alive through grace who shall never die, while yet the graves are ready for them. Men who walk after the course of the world and live in pleasure are pronounced ‘ dead in sin,' dead while they live. And while whoso loveth his brother has ‘ passed from death unto life, he that hateth his brother abideth in death.' These Scriptures, while they distinguish between bodily and spiritual death, represent both as included in the sentence, and threatened and executed against the sinner.
"2. To what effect, then, does death exert its power upon the body and the spirit severally and together? It is not unimportant to observe that this is not extinction of existence or annihilation either of the one or the other. For a time the body retains its form, and its substance, however changed, is never lost; much more, may it be presumed, shall the spirit survive. Not, indeed, that spirit more than body is immortal independently of God's will, but that, seeing he preserves our inferior part, he will much more preserve the higher and more kindred product of his creative power. The effects of death upon the body itself are a matter of common observation; it quickly turns its comeliness into corruption, and finally reduces its form and structure into shapeless dust. The effect of bodily death on the spirit of the man whose nature is thus divided it may be more difficult to estimate. This may depend in part on the value of the earthly portion he has lost, and partly on the future portion on which he has entered, but it cannot be indifferent either to the child of sorrow or to the subject of grace, more than to the heir of this world, whom it has stripped of his whole inheritance of good. While we look on the deserted and impassive corpse and say, ‘ It is all over with him now,' the disembodied spirit must still find itself the subject of a maimed and imperfect nature. Consciousness belongs to its nature, and must endure while it has being. Its proper life lies in the harmony and subjection of its powers and dispositions to the nature and will of God; its death in contrariety and enmity to him. This involves the disruption of a holy and dutiful relation to the Father of spirits, and, by inevitable consequence, a deprivation of the fruits of his love and favor, on which life and blessedness depend. ‘ Your sins have separated between you and God.'
"3. It may tend further to clear this subject to notice briefly the order and process through which the work of death is consummated. Though incurred instantaneously on the act of transgression, its effects follow by successive stages, and at several more or less distant intervals. As caused by sin, the spiritual man, as the proper subject and source of the evil, first feels its power. Its very touch intercepts all happy intercourse with a holy God. This was felt and seen on the day that Adam sinned. His fear and flight at the voice of the Lord God in the garden was the unmistakable symptom of a soul already dead in sin, which dared not live with God, while his expulsion from God's presence marked no less clearly that God had ceased to live with him. Thus was executed to the letter the word which God had spoken, ‘ In the day thou eatest thou shalt surely die.' But the work of death thus begun does not stop here. The disruption of the creature's relation to God, it may well be conceived, must introduce disorder into all the relations and interests of its being; nor, unless with a view to some ulterior design of signal judgment or of more signal mercy, might its full development and consummation be long delayed. But in subserviency to this end does man live on in the body for a season, though as to God ‘ he is dead while he liveth.' Yet it is but for a little time. Whatever be the result of this day of forbearance, the work of death goes on; ‘ the body is dead because of sin' Ñ the mortal crisis which awaits every individual man in his own time. As distinguished from spiritual, it is called temporal death, as superadding exclusion from the things of earth and time to the loss of all happy interest in God. There remains but one further stage ere it reach its complete and final issue, both in the individual and the race. When the designs of the divine administration in our world are finished, the bodies of all who sleep in dust shall be reorganized. There shall be a resurrection of the just and of the unjust. While the just, by faith through grace, shall be raised to life incorruptible and glorious, the unjust, impenitent, and unbelieving shall awake to the resurrection of damnation. The whole man shall go away from the glory and joy of God's presence into everlasting punishment. This is the second death." See also Fletcher, Works (N.Y. ed.), 1:158 sq.; Wesley, Works (N. York ed.), 1:401; 2:34, 404; Edwards, Works (N.Y. 1848, 4 vols. 8vo), 2:372, 390 sq.; Watson, Institutes, 2:48, 55; Martensen, Christian Dogmatics (Edinb. 1867), § 108- 112. (See ESCHATOLOGY).
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McClintock, John. Strong, James. Entry for 'Death, Theological Aspects of.'. Cyclopedia of Biblical, Theological and Ecclesiastical Literature. https://www.studylight.org/encyclopedias/eng/tce/d/death-theological-aspects-of.html. Harper & Brothers. New York. 1870.