A gracEmail subscriber asks about the Bible’s frequent reference to the dead as “sleeping” and a different subscriber asks if death does not involve separation of body and spirit.
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Indeed, death involves the separation of body and spirit but a word of caution is in order. “Spirit” (from Latin, spiritus) is ruach (Hebrew) or pneuma (Greek) — “breath” or “wind” — with which our material body is living and without which it is dead (Gen. 2:7). The spirit is not some immaterial “real person” or “immortal soul” which remains conscious when the body is dead, as in Platonic thought. The notion that “death is the separation of the soul from the body” in that sense comes from Socrates and his kin, not from the Jewish or Christian Scriptures.
The most common scriptural picture of death is that of sleep, in both Old and New Testaments. The overwhelming testimony of Scripture leads me to believe that the dead person is thoroughly dead until the resurrection — which, from his or her perspective, seems to be the very next instant. (When we fall asleep, we are next aware of waking, even though several hours might pass between.) For the believer, however, this is a very safe “sleep,” for she or he is “with Christ” (Phil. 1:23), “asleep in Jesus” (1 Cor. 15:18). These phrases make us think of a toddler sleeping peacefully in a parent’s loving arms — unaware of anything that transpires but having no cause for anxiety or concern.
So far as the Bible is concerned, human beings are mortal creatures who depend totally on God for life now and who depend totally on God to raise them from the dead if they are to live hereafter. According to the New Testament, the saved will be raised “immortal” — incapable of dying (Rom. 2:7). The lost, not being made immortal, will be raised to die again in the second death (Rev. 21:8). That second death is the everlasting destruction by which Jesus will punish the willfully rebellious (2 Thess. 1:9). It is the eternal punishment of which Jesus himself warned (Matt. 25:46). It is the wages of sin which is the everlasting opposite to eternal life (Rom. 6:23).