Death. We fear it. We fixate on it. Mostly, we just don’t understand it. To understand death we need to understand life and the One who created it (Job 33:4; Act 17:24-28).
On the 6th day of creation week God formed a body from the dust of the earth, but it was not until He breathed into it the breath of life that the body became a living being, the man He called Adam (Gen 2:7; 1:26-31; 5:2). Thus, body + breath = living being. The breath or the body alone was not Adam, but it was the union of the two that completed God’s greatest creation. This formula for creating life applies when life ends: separate the breath from the body and it is no longer a living being (Gen 3:19b, Job 34:14-15; Ecc 3:20).
In the Garden of Eden God warned Adam and his wife Eve what would happen if they chose to separate from Him: “You shall surely die” (Gen 2:17). Because God is the only Source for life, there is no life (nor goodness) apart from Him (Ps 100:3; Luk 18:19). However, Satan wanted to claim the new creation for his own kingdom. He countered God’s warning with the first lie ever recorded (John 8:44): “You shall not surely die,” claiming they could live as God lives but without Him, and planting doubt about the righteousness and sovereignty of the Creator (Gen 3:1-5).
The greatest tragedy of history is that Adam and Eve chose to believe the lie (Gen 3:6). They doubted their divine Maker who had provided only good for them, aligned with Satan, and severed their connection with the Life Giver. They began to die the moment they broke away from God, but He had a plan in place and intervened to save them (Gen 3:15; Mat 1:23; 1Jo 4:9; 3:8; Heb 2:14).
Still, there were consequences. Man became at enmity with God and lost eternal life (Rom 8:7; Ecc 12:7). Thus, by one man the nature of sin came on every person, and because “all have sinned,” all will die (Rom 5:12; 3:23). But God’s plan of salvation breaks the enmity and restores righteousness and eternal life through the life and death of His Son Jesus (John 3:14-17).
But Satan’s plan worked so well that he has continued his lie: “You shall not surely die.”
What exactly then is death? The Bible describes death as a “sleep” (Ps 13:3; Joh 11:11-14; Act 13:36). Just as the living can fall into a deep sleep and not realize anything until morning, so the dead have no thought, no feelings, no reward (Ecc 9:5-6). When Adam died his body returned to the dust and his spirit returned to God. The record of Adam’s life is preserved in the books of heaven until the resurrection (Joh 5:28-29; Dan 12:2).
Death then is not a state of being. Death is the absence of the state of being alive. Both the righteous and wicked dead sleep unconsciously in the grave unaware of their condition (Ecc 9:10; Ps 146:4; 6:5; 115:17; Isa 26:14; 38:18-19). They neither become angels in heaven nor disembodied spirits tormented in hell. Our dearly departed are not watching us or interfering in our lives. God has given us peace to know that for now they are at rest, asleep in the grave, awaiting their future reward (Act 24:15). What determines that reward, be it eternal life or eternal death, is whether we have been born again and received the life of Christ Jesus or not (Joh 3:3; 1Joh 5:12).
It is at the Second Coming that the righteous receive their reward (Mat 16:27; Rev 22:12). The righteous dead are raised in perfect immortality when Christ returns the spirit of life, and they once again become “a living being”: this is the first resurrection (Rev 20:6; 1Cor 15:51-57; Luk 14:14). These will join the righteous living to meet the Lord in the air (1Th 4:13-18). The wicked living are slain by the brightness of His coming and join the wicked dead (2Th 2:8; 1:7-9). Both continue to sleep in the grave; their reward is not for another 1000 years at the second resurrection (Rev 20:4-5).
There can’t be a hellfire where the wicked burn throughout eternity. The reward of the wicked is not eternal life, not even in torment. Those cast into the lake of fire are forever separated from the only Source of life, destroyed, never to live again (Rev 20:15; 21:8). Eternal life is reserved as a gift for the righteous and received only in Jesus (1Jo 5:11). To live forever, we must accept Christ and be restored into the kingdom of righteousness, the kingdom of God and His Son.