Death (properly, מָוֶה, θάνατος). No logical definition of death has been generally agreed upon. This point was much contested in the 17th century by the Cartesian and other theologians and philosophers. Since death can be regarded in various points of view, the descriptions of it must necessarily vary. If we consider the state of a dead man as it strikes the senses, death is the cessation of natural life. If we consider the cause of death, we may place it in that permanent and entire cessation of the feeling and motion of the body which results from the destruction of the body. Among theologians, death is commonly said to consist in the separation of soul and body, implying that the soul still exists when the body perishes. Among the ecclesiastical fathers, Tertullian (De Anima, c. 27) calls it "the disunion of the body and soul." Cicero (Tusc. Dis. i) defines death to be "the departure of the mind from the body." The passage Heb 4:12, is sometimes cited on this subject, but has nothing to do with it. Death does not consist in this separation, but this separation is the consequence of death. As soon as the body loses feeling and motion, it is henceforth useless to the soul, which is therefore separated from it. SEE DEAD.
Scriptural representations, names, and modes of speech respecting death. —
(1.) One of the most common in the O.T. is to return to the dust, or to the earth. Hence the phrase the dust of death. It is founded on the description in Ge 2:7; Ge 3:19, and denotes the dissolution and destruction of the body. Hence the sentiment in Ec 12:7, "The dust shall return to the earth as it was, the spirit unto God, who gave it."
(2.) A withdrawing, exhalation, or removal of the breath of life (Ps 104:29). Hence the common terms to "give up the ghost," etc.
(3.) A removal from the body, a being absent from the body, a departure from it, etc. This description is founded on the comparison of the body to a tent or lodgment in which the soul dwells during this life. Death destroys this tent or house, and commands us to travel on (Job 4:21; Isa 38:12; Ps 53:6). Hence Paul says (2Co 5:1), "our earthly house of this tabernacle" will be destroyed; and Peter calls death a "putting off of this tabernacle" (2Pe 1:13-14). Classical writers speak of the soul in the same manner. So Hippocrates and AEschines. Compare 2Co 5:8-9.
(4.) Paul likewise uses the term ἐκδύεσθαι, to unclothe one's self, in reference to death (2Co 5:3-4), because the body is represented as the garment of the soul, as Plato calls it. The soul, therefore, as long as it is in the body, is clothed, and as soon as it is disembodied is naked.
(5.) The terms which denote sleep are applied frequently in the Bible, as everywhere else, to death (Ps 76:5; Jer 51:39; Joh 11:13 sq.). Nor is this language used exclusively for the death of the pious, as some pretend, though this is its prevailing use. Homer calls sleep and death twin brothers (Il. 16:672). The terms likewise which signify to lie down, to rest, also denote death.
(6.) Death is frequently compared with and named from a departure, a going away. Hence verbs of that import signify to die (Job 10:21; Ps 39:4). The case is the same in the New Testament (Mt 26:24), and even among the classics. In this connection we may mention the terms ἀναλύειν and ἀνάλυσις (Php 1:23; 2Ti 4:6), which do not mean dissolution, but discessus (comp. Lu 12:36).
Death, when personified, is described as a ruler and tyrant, having vast power and a great kingdom, over which he reigns (Job 18:14). But the ancients also represented it under some figures which are not common among us. We represent it as a man with a scythe, or as a skeleton, etc.; but the Jews, before the exile, frequently represented death as a hunter, who lays snares for men (Ps 18:5-6; Ps 91:3). After the exile they represented him as a man, or sometimes as an angel (the angel of Death), with a cup of poison, which he reaches to men. SEE DESTROYER. From this representation appears to have arisen the phrase, which occurs in the New Testament, to taste death (Mt 16:28; Heb 2:9), which, however, in common speech, signifies merely to die, without reminding one of the origin of the phrase. The case is the same with the phrase to see death (Ps 89:48; Lu 2:26). See Knapp's Christian Theology, by Dr. Wood; Waltirer, De origine phrasium I videre et gustare mortem" (Giess. 1745).
The "gates of death" (Job 38:17; Ps 9:13; Ps 107:18) signify the grave itself; and the "shadow of death" (Jer 2:6) denotes the gloomy silence of the tomb. See Wemyss's Clavis Symbolica, s.v.; Zeibich, De vocibus, צִלמָוֶת, σκία θανάτου (Vitemb. 1739).
Death may be considered as the effect of sin (Ro 5:12). In Heb 2:14, Satan is said to have the power of death; not that he can, at his pleasure, inflict death on mankind, but as he was the instrument of first bringing death into the world (Joh 8:44), and as he may be the executioner of God's wrath on impenitent sinners where God permits him. Death is but once (Heb 9:27), yet certain (Job 14:1-2), although uncertain as to the time (Pr 27:1); universal (Ge 3:19); necessary, in order that God's justice may be displayed and his mercy manifested; desirable to the righteous (Lu 2:28-30). The fear of death is a source of anxiety and alarm to many, and to a guilty conscience it may indeed be terrible; but to a good man it should be obviated by the consideration that death is the termination of every trouble; that it puts him beyond the reach of sin and temptation; that God has promised to be with the righteous, even to the end (Heb 13:5); that Jesus Christ has taken away the sting (1Co 15:55-56); and that it introduces him to a state of endless felicity (2Co 5:8).
Death, when applied to the animal nature, properly signifies a dissolution or failure of all its powers and functions; so, when applied to the spiritual nature, or souls of men, it denotes a corresponding disorder therein, a being spiritually dead in trespasses and sins (Ro 8:6; Eph 2:1,3; Col 2:13; Jude 1:12).
The term death is metaphorically applied to denote an utter failure of customary functions, so that the thing spoken of can no longer act according to its nature. Thus, in Am 2:2, "Moab shall die with tumult" — that is, the king and government shall lose their power, and the nation be brought into subjection and slavery. So in Ro 7:8, "Without the law, sin was dead" — that is, without the law, sin does not exert its power; and, on the other hand, it is said (ver. 9), "Sin revived and I died" — "Sin got strength to act, and I lost my power to resist. I was not the same man as before; sin destroyed my power." The "second death" (Re 2:11) is so called in respect to the natural or temporal as coming after it, and implies everlasting punishment (Re 21:8).