The question “Doesn’t death just mean separation from God?” needs to be addressed. Let’s start with the strange theory that death doesn’t really mean “death,” but “separation.” For example, consider Paul’s unmistakable statement in this previously viewed passage:
For the wages of sin is death (thanatos), but the gift of God is eternal life in Christ Jesus our Lord.
As we’ve already seen in What is Sheol, “death” here is translated from the Greek word thanatos which simply means “death” (Strong 35)—the absence of life or opposite of life, hence, the cessation of conscious existence. The Greek scholar E.W. Bullinger states that thanatos refers to “The natural end of life” (207). Although this is simple to understand and commonly understood, adherents of the eternal torment theory “explain” that death in this passage does not really mean death but rather “separation from God.” When you press them for details as to exactly what they mean by “separation from God,” it turns out that what they really mean is never-ending conscious life in fiery torment. Do you see the obvious problem with this theory? Under the guise of “interpretation” they would have us believe that death actually means the exact opposite of what it really is! Since “the wages of sin” to them is not really death at all, but immortal life in conscious torment, their definition of death means something entirely opposite to literal death! If this is not a blatant example of subtracting from God’s Word and adding to it, I don’t know what is. This religious theory must be rejected for a number of obvious reasons:
1. If we take “eternal life” literally, we must also take “death” literally. God clearly declares in Romans 6:23 above, as well as numerous other passages, that the wages of sin is death and that eternal life is a gift to those in right-standing with him. So death is promised as a punishment for ungodly sinners and life is promised as a gift for the righteous. In such a context as this, every law of language and common sense agrees that if we take the promise of life literally we must also take the punishment of death literally. If one is literal then both are literal. If there is to be no real death for sinners there will be no real life for saints (McFarland 25, 27).
Adherents of eternal torment can insist that death only means “separation” all they want, but the simple fact is that the opposite of life is death. What word could better describe the end of life than ‘death’? The only way a person can accept the view of eternal torture is to believe that death does not mean death, that die does not mean die, that destroy does not mean destroy, that perish does not mean perish and that destruction does not mean destruction.
2. Physical death is death of the body. While most Christians believe the soul (mind and spirit) survives the body, we cannot ignore the Biblical fact that “the body without the spirit is dead” (James 2:26). The body is not itself separated; it is dead. It no longer has life in it because death is the opposite of life. Death means death, it’s not complicated. Thanatos, the Greek word translated as death in Romans 6:23 above, is used most often simply in reference to this death, the first death. For example:
“I found that the accusation had to do with questions about their law, but there was no charge against him (Paul) that deserved death (thanatos) or imprisonment.”
The Roman commander speaking in this text is merely attesting that Paul committed no crime worthy of execution or imprisonment. Thanatos here simply refers to physical execution—the cessation of physical life. When a person is executed his/her conscious life expires, at least as far as physical life is concerned. Believe it or not, adherents of eternal torture suggest that “death” refers to separation even in this context. Their theory is that death here would refer to separation of the inner being (mind and spirit) from the outer being (body) (Dake 619). According to this theory the Roman commander really meant to say, “There was no charge against Paul that deserved separation of the inner being from the outer being or imprisonment.” Did the Roman commander really mean to say this when he used the word thanatos? Of course not, the very idea is ludicrous. The use of thanatos here refers to literal physical death, the expiration of conscious life in the body. This is how James 2:26 above defines physical death: the body without the spirit is dead, that is, void of conscious life. Whether or not a person’s consciousness exists on a spiritual plane after physical death is a separate issue (touched on in Appendix B and thoroughly examined in Part II, the latter not included in this edition).
3. The same Biblical words used in reference to the second death are also used in reference to the death of animals. In his popular lexicon (a dictionary of Biblical words), W.E Vine admits that thanatos—death—is indeed “the opposite of life,” but then completely contradicts this statement by stating that “it never denotes non-existence” (Vine 149). With all due respect, Mr. Vine would do well to forsake his sectarian bias and honestly dig a little deeper in his Biblical studies as the scriptures blatantly disagree with this statement. Consider that the equivalent Hebrew word for death, maveth (maw’veth), is used in reference to the death of animals in the Old Testament:
Man’s fate is like that of the animals; the same fate awaits them both: as one dies (maveth) so dies (maveth) the other.
As dead (maveth) flies give perfume a bad smell, so a little folly outweighs wisdom and honor.
Would anyone ludicrously argue that the equivalent Hebrew word for death in these texts refers to “separation” or eternal conscious torment? Of course not. Animals and flies which experience death (thanatos/maveth) literally die—their life ceases. They of course leave behind a dead, decaying shell, but their conscious life expires. That’s what death is. It’s plain and simple. This completely disproves Vine’s unscholarly theory as animals definitely cease to exist when they die, that is, their conscious life expires. If “death” (thanatos/maveth) literally means death when used in reference to animals, why would its definition mysteriously change to something completely different—actually opposite—when applied to human beings? It doesn’t, but adherents of the eternal torment theory are forced to interpret the Bible in this bizarre manner because of their unbiblical theology (their reasoning is: “If people have an immortal soul, and hence can never actually die, then death can’t really mean death when used in reference to people”).
4. Numerous other Biblical words besides thanatos describe the second death in strict terms of death and destruction. As we’ve plainly seen throughout this study, thanatos is supported by many other Hebrew and Greek words which are variously translated as “die,” “death,” “destruction,” “destroy” and “perish” in reference to the fate of those cast into the lake of fire. As we have also seen in chapters Two, Three and Four these words are, in turn, backed up by numerous crystal clear examples of literal destruction. In light of these facts, even if thanatos had a secondary definition of “separation”—which it doesn’t—it still would not refer to separation in reference to the second death of human beings.
5. If the fate of ungodly sinners is to be some sort of life or “existence” in undying “separation” from God in utter misery and torment, God would have certainly expressed this somewhere in the Bible. He could have easily chosen words to describe damnation in explicit terms of “separation,” “existence in torment” or “perpetual life in misery,” but He did not do this. Instead, as we’ve clearly seen, He consistently chose words that have for their general, usual or basic meaning “die,” “death,” “destruction,” “destroy,” “perish,” “consume” and “burn up.” God couldn’t possibly use a better choice of words to describe literal death. He also made sure to back up all these unmistakable words with a multitude of easy-to-understand examples of literal death and incineration.
Consider also that if thanatos really means “separation” then why should English Bible translators even bother translating thanatos as “death” at all (which they all unanimously do)? Why not rather universally translate it as “separation”? Wouldn’t doing such simplify matters and spare us all a lot of confusion? The obvious reason Bible translators do not do this is because thanatos literally means death, the opposite of life, and therefore non-existence or, we could say, the state of non-being. Death is not a different form of life; it is the opposite of life. Thus the first death, which is physical death, refers at least to non-existence in the physical realm; and the second death—which entails the everlasting destruction of soul and body—refers to absolute non-existence with no hope of resurrection.
6. “Death” and “separation” are two completely different words in Hebrew and Greek, just as they are in English; these words have different meanings. The Hebrew badal (baw-dal’) and the Greek chorizo (kho-rid’zo) are two Old and New Testament words for “separation” (see, for example, Isaiah 59:2 and Romans 8:35,39). If the wages of sin is not really death, but separation, then God would have used these Hebrew and Greek words to describe the ultimate wages of sin. For example, Romans 6:23 would read, “For the wages of sin is separation (chorizo)” and Ezekiel 18:4 would read, “The soul who sins will separate (badal).” But does the Bible teach this anywhere? No, “the wages of sin is death” and “the soul who sins will die” (NASB).
It is true that one of the results of sin is separation from God (Isaiah 59:2). This is spiritual death, which simply means that one’s spirit is dead to God. Those who are spiritually dead cannot have a relationship with God because God is spirit, and those who worship and know him can only do so in spirit and in truth (see John 4:24). That’s why Jesus taught that we need to have a spiritual rebirth in order to know God (John 3:3-6). Jesus experienced separation from the Father when he bore our sins on the cross. He even cried out, “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” (Matthew 27:46). He also experienced severe suffering when he was crucified. While it was horrible for Jesus to experience this separation and suffering, it ended in death. The penalty Jesus paid for our sins was separation from God, temporary suffering, followed by death. This was an example of the second death to all humanity. Those who are already separated from God (i.e. spiritually dead) and reject His offer of reconciliation can likewise expect suffering that ends in death on judgment day.
The bottom line is that the second death is consistently described in terms of literal death and utter destruction in the Bible, not “separation.” We’ve seen this throughout our study.
7. As already briefly stated, to suggest that death means something entirely opposite of its actual definition is nothing more than a blatant case of subtracting from God’s Word and adding to it. In this specific case adherents of eternal torment subtract the word “death” (thanatos) from the numerous passages which describe the wages of sin strictly in terms of literal death, and supplant it with “eternal life in separation from God”—a definition that is, once again, completely opposite to the actual definition of death. This practice is all done under the noble mask of “interpretation,” but notice how the Bible strictly condemns this practice:
Do not add to what I command you and do not subtract from it, but keep the commands of the LORD your God that I give you.
Every word of God is flawless;… (6) Do not add to his words or he will rebuke you and prove you a liar.
I warn everyone who hears the words of the prophecy of this book: If anyone adds anything, God will add to him the plagues described in this book. (19) And if anyone takes words away from this book of prophecy, God will take away from him his share in the tree of life and in the holy city, which are described in this book.
As you can plainly see, it’s a grave offense in God’s eyes to subtract from his Word and add to it something else. As it states in the Proverb text above: the God-breathed scriptures are flawless. There’s simply no reason to make any changes. But adherents of the eternal torment view are guilty of this very transgression in regards to the Bible’s repeated declaration that the wages of sin is death.
8. The scriptural arguments above are certainly proof enough that ‘death’ simply means death in the Bible not “separation,” but a comparison of New Testament words for “death,” “perish,” “destruction,” etc. to other well-known Greek writings of the same general period offers additional support.
For example, Plato argued that the human soul is immortal and can never die or cease to exist. What Greek words did Plato use to express this denial? He used the exact Greek words that Paul used to describe the everlasting destruction of unbelievers in the New Testament: Plato taught that the human soul would not die (apothnesko), Paul taught that it could die (e.g. Romans 8:13); Plato taught that the human soul would never experience death (thanatos), Paul taught that it could experience death (e.g. James 5:20); Plato taught that the human soul would not suffer destruction (apoleia and olethros), Paul taught that it could suffer destruction (e.g. 2 Peter 3:7 and 2 Thessalonians 1:9).
Plato used these various Greek words to describe absolute extinction of being, not separation of being. Since Paul used these very same words to describe the eternal fate of those who reject God’s message of reconciliation in Christ, we must conclude that he too was referring to absolute extinction of being (Constable 42).
Furthermore, there were people in Paul’s era who adhered to universal extinction, that is, they believed that when people died they simply ceased to exist, with no hope of resurrection for either the righteous or unrighteous. The Epicureans were Greeks who advocated this view and the Sadducees were Jews who supported it. What words did these sects use to express their belief in absolute extinction of conscious life? Why, the very same Greek words used in the New Testament to describe the everlasting destruction of the ungodly (Constable 48).
So, death simply meant death in uninspired writings—the cessation of life— just as it does in the Biblical scriptures.
In light of these eight reasons, we have no recourse but to take God at his Word and conclude that the second death will be a literal death—utter, awful, complete and final. The religious theory that death means “separation” must be categorically rejected.