The word “death” is used in the Bible to refer to several states and admittedly, this can cause, and has caused some amount of confusion when there has been a failure to properly distinguish between the various kinds of death referred to. We will examine the four kinds of death most often mentioned in the Bible and for the sake of convenience we will refer to them as:
a. The first death
b. Spiritual death
c. Death to sin
d. The second death
When we understand the issue of death as the Bible presents it, we discover that there is a relationship between all four kinds of death. We also come to a better understanding of what happened when Jesus died and why He had to die.
The First Death
The first death is the one which we call sleep. It is the death which came upon all mankind as a result of Adam's sin. Paul speaks of this death and says,
Wherefore, as by one man sin entered into the world, and death by sin; and so death passed upon all men, for that all have sinned: (Rom 5:12)
Mankind in general is not responsible for this death. It is entirely the fault of one man, our great foreparent, Adam. It was he who brought it into the world when he introduced sin, and as a result, it passed upon all men. Death, in this sense, refers to the time when the breath ceases and the body returns to the dust. All men die this death excepting those rare few who have been and will be translated. In the normal course of things, this death would have been the end of man. When a man had lived out his appointed years and died at the end of them, that would have been the end of his story. Sin would have brought death upon him and this death would have been an eternal death if Christ had not made provision for a resurrection. As Paul again tells us,
For since by man came death, by man came also the resurrection of the dead. For as in Adam all die, even so in Christ shall all be made alive. (1 Cor 15:21-22)
The next death mentioned is “spiritual death.” It is not referred to by this name in the Bible, but it refers to the state where a person is without the spirit of God and is totally controlled by sin. The Bible says such a person is “dead in trespasses and sins.”
And you hath he quickened, who were dead in trespasses and sins: (Eph 2:1)
How does a man get into this condition? Is it by his own choice or are all born in this state? Again, this condition is the result of Adam's sin. When Adam sinned in the garden, the spirit of God departed from him and his nature changed. He became selfish and unhappy. This condition has been passed on to all his descendants who are all born unregenerate. That is, they are all born without the spiritual life imparted by the holy spirit. This is why all men need to be born again. (John 3:3).
This condition of spiritual death refers to the state of a man's relationship with God. A person cannot be saved in this condition and so, such a person may be physically alive, but since his spirit is not united with the spirit of God, he is spiritually dead.
But she that liveth in pleasure is dead while she liveth. (1 Tim 5:6)
Death to Sin
The next death is where we die with Christ, or we enter into the death of Christ. This death was accomplished for all mankind on the cross and reverses the consequences of the spiritual death which was imposed on us by Adam. In this death we die to self or to the sin-nature.
Knowing this, that our old man is crucified with him, that the body of sin might be destroyed, that henceforth we should not serve sin. (Rom 6:6)
This death is accomplished by the holy spirit which is restored to us when we are born again, thus setting us free from the law of sin and death so that we are no longer dead in trespasses and sins. In other words, by the power of the holy spirit, by the life of Christ, this death becomes the reality of our experience so that we receive Christ's life in which sin has been crucified and righteousness is the reality. This death is for all men, but can only be experienced by those who will believe it, who will enter into Christ by faith. This death is in Christ. It is Christ's death and can only be experienced when we become a part of His life.
The Second Death
The second death is the final experience of death, and is the experience which has caused some amount of controversy. What is this second death and why is it necessary? In the simplest understanding, the second death is the final destruction of the wicked as well as of all things which are destructive and harmful. It is mentioned in Revelation in four places (Rev 2:11; Rev 20:6; Rev 20:14; Rev 21:8).
But the fearful, and unbelieving, and the abominable, and murderers, and whoremongers, and sorcerers, and idolaters, and all liars, shall have their part in the lake which burneth with fire and brimstone: which is the second death. (Rev 21:8)
It is clear that this second death represents a total end from which there is to be no return. Here, this final destruction is referred to as “the lake of fire.”
As we look at the relationship between these four deaths we can see that all men die the first death. All men are also born into the state of spiritual death. However, those who choose, will experience the death of Christ, which is a death to sin. The condemnation which they experienced in Adam will be taken away when they experience the death and resurrection of Christ. (Rom. 6:8). Because of this, they will not experience the second death.
All men must die to sin forever. The righteous experience this eternal death to sin in Christ. The unrighteous experience this death to sin in themselves when they are destroyed finally and forever at the end. Those who will not choose to die in Christ, will have to die the second death because they will retain that condemnation in the flesh, the sinful body and mind of death.
Christ's Gift For All Men
Romans 6:23 says,
For the wages of sin is death; but the gift of God is eternal life through Jesus Christ our Lord. (Rom 6:23)
Most people understand this verse to be saying that when we die without repenting of our sins, then we will be sentenced to die the second death. Therefore, the second death is regarded as the wages of sin. But this is not the true meaning of the verse.
What is this death, the wages of sin, which comes upon all men? Firstly this is referring to spiritual death, or separation from God. This death is a natural consequence of sin. It is a part of sin and wherever sin goes it follows automatically. All men, being sinners have this spiritual death working in them at birth.
But the fact is that this spiritual death means that man must also die physically - removed from the sustaining presence of God, man, spiritually dead, must lose his physical life also. The truth is, all men receive the wages of sin because all men have sinned. This is the same thing which Paul says in Romans 5:12. “Death came upon all because all sinned.” But God gives a gift and provides an answer to sin's wages. He has provided eternal life for all men in Christ.
In the normal course of things this death, (physical) would have been immediate and would have occurred at the same time as spiritual death. But Christ purchased a probationary life for man, that is, man's death was to be delayed for a while. He gave all men a probationary physical life, a period of time in which it would be possible for man to have an opportunity of finding his way back to faith and to spiritual life. Since this life is only probationary and only to enable man to make his choice, it is not permanent - it is limited in duration. It eventually ends for all men whether they live good or evil lives.
It changes our perspective on life when we realize that death is now our natural state. We are only alive because through Christ God has set up an unnatural situation to allow us to live for a time as sinners. In the natural course of things, sin cannot exist in the universe and utter destruction would have been our destiny from the inception of sin, if Christ had exercised His power in restraining the forces which would have surely destroyed the sinner.
Which Death Did Jesus Die?
In addition to a life of probation, Christ obtained something else for all men. He obtained a resurrection from physical death. The death which Christ died to save us from, is the death which came upon us because of Adam's sin. This includes both spiritual and physical death. Christ conquered death by submitting to its power, by becoming its victim and then breaking its chains when He was resurrected, thus breaking its power. Now He says,
I am he that liveth, and was dead; and, behold, I am alive for evermore, Amen; and have the keys of hell and of death. (Rev 1:18)
Now He has the power and the right to deliver us from death, to break the chains by which it holds all men, because He has conquered it. But let us note, it is not the second death that He frees men from. If Jesus had died to set men free from the second death then at least some would be brought back from the second death. But no, Jesus has nothing to do with the second death. It was death pure and simple that was mankind's problem, the death which was imposed upon us by Adam, and so, Jesus came, the second Adam to undo the damage done by the first Adam. First, to give us spiritual life, to resurrect us from spiritual death, and secondly to resurrect us from physical death.
… our Saviour Jesus Christ, … hath abolished death, and hath brought life and immortality to light through the gospel: (2 Tim 1:10)
We have taken the first death lightly because we have not appreciated the fact that if it were not for Christ, there would have been no resurrection from this death. If Christ had not died for us, every man who was ever born would have gone to the grave and that would have been the end of his existence. Forget about the judgment, forget about the second death. Such things would not have been necessary if not for Christ's provision which provided a resurrection from the dead. Jesus undid the damage caused by Adam. Now, the first death is only a sleep but this is so only because of the provision which Christ has made. Notice what the Bible says so clearly:
For as in Adam all die, even so in Christ shall all be made alive. (1 Cor 15:22)
All die in Adam. That is, everyone who has come of Adam's life dies. Even so in Christ all shall be made alive.
For since by man came death, by man came also the resurrection of the dead. (1 Cor 15:21)
The experience of death came by man. All who experience death have Adam to thank for it. Likewise all who experience resurrection have Christ to thank for it.
Why Resurrect The Wicked
You may be thinking, “well, why bother to resurrect the wicked?” The fact is, all men are resurrected by Christ's provision. He is the second Adam. He came to undo the damage done by the first Adam and that includes death. Let us note that whatever Christ has done for mankind has been done for all men. God does not deal in predestination and so His provisions are made for every single human being. In other words, God makes the provision on the assumption that every person will be saved. This includes the provision of a resurrection.
The question is, since Christ has undone the damage caused by Adam, why is it that all men are not saved? Since Christ will resurrect all men, why are not all men to receive eternal life?
When Adam sinned, he made a choice as to whom he would believe, whom he would worship. His descendants, although born in a state of sin, also needed to be given that choice. Through Christ, God provided a life of probation for Adam's children during which time He would fill their lives with blessings in an effort to make His love and His way known to them. Men would be able to see the need to believe in and to trust in God. In Christ, God would provide a way that it would be possible to recover from all the effects of Adam's sin. But since man's choice must always be respected, this way of recovery would only be accessible to those who would believe in God's gift in Christ. During this life of probation man would be faced with this great challenge, to believe God and receive His life in Christ, or to disbelieve Him as Lucifer and Adam did, and to remain in the lost life of Adam.
So we see that Adam and his offspring are faced with similar, but radically different choices. Adam's natural state was life. All he had to do was to retain what he already had by continuing to live in faith. To lose life he had to step into the way of unbelief. But his offspring's natural state is death. They only have to continue to live in unbelief and they will retain death which is already their natural state. Their challenge is to escape the clasp of death through faith in Christ.
Those who accept the remedy will escape the disease, those who reject it will retain the disease and so, will eventually suffer the second death because Christ's provision of resurrection for them will be of no avail while the disease of sin is still present in them.
A Judgment necessary
But between the first and the second death, a judgment intervenes. What is the purpose of this judgment? What is the question which it is intended to settle?
Since not all men choose Christ, there is the necessity of demonstrating that men either have chosen Christ or chosen to remain in Adam. At the end, the judgment demonstrates which choice men have made. Those who believe are not condemned but those who have not believed retain their condemnation.
He that believeth on him is not condemned: but he that believeth not is condemned already ... (John 3:18)
But the question of whether or not men have believed in Christ is proven by an examination of mens' works because true faith always produces works. If a person has believed in Christ the sure evidence will be the works which he has done. (Matt. 7:17-20; James 2:17).
Said the Judge, “All will be justified by their faith, and judged by their works.” (Christian Service - 88)
However, though judgment is on the basis of works, the real issue is not, “what kind of works did I do?” but rather, “am I in Adam or in Christ.”
So all men go down to death with the question still to be finally settled: During the time of probation on earth did they choose Christ or did they choose to remain in Adam?” For those who made a profession of Christianity during their lifetimes, the question is settled in a judgment, before Christ returns, for the righteous are not to be brought back from the dead at the coming of Christ to face an investigation, but only to experience the joy of eternal life.
Those who never possessed true faith in Christ will also be judged while dead, but later during the millennium. When they are brought back to life at the end of the thousand years by the power of Christ, the evidence has already been examined. All that remains is for them to see it for themselves.
They are raised to life with Adam's condemnation, the seed of sin still in them. They never chose to give up sin, or to accept the gift of life in Christ. They demonstrated that Adam's way was more pleasing to them. Death is still working in them in spite of their resurrection and inevitably, in spite of Christ's work for all men, they must return to death, for they never escaped its condemnation. If Christ should resurrect them a thousand times they would return to death every time because the life in them is a dying life.
In the context of the judgment, in the framework of the law, they are condemned for their sinful actions. However, the law and the record of sin have only demonstrated that they never chose Christ, that they never let go of Adam's life with its condemnation. This is the real reason why they must die.
As God finally removes the restraints by which He had preserved this planet and its inhabitants in their sinful state, those with sin still in them cannot survive. As germs cannot live in sunlight, so the wicked and everything which is sinful, cannot survive God's unveiled presence and they are destroyed by the “fire” which comes from God.
By a life of rebellion, Satan and all who unite with him place themselves so out of harmony with God that His very presence is to them a consuming fire. The glory of Him who is love will destroy them. (DA 764)