One of the central descriptions of the fate of the unsaved in the Bible is death, contrasted with life for the saved. We see this for example in Romans 6:23: “For the wages of sin is death, but the free gift of God is eternal life in Christ Jesus our Lord.” James 5:20 speaks of saving a sinner’s soul from death. Death there is not only the general fate of the lost but of their souls; that is, the very soul of the lost will die! John warns three times in Revelation of the “second death” (2:11; 20:14; 21:8). Many passages that don’t mention death per se nonetheless make the point by emphasizing the fate of the saved in contrast to the wicked—which is life. 1 Whatever is meant by death—and its opposite, life—it must have been pretty important to get across. So what does the Bible mean when it talks about the ultimate fate of the unsaved being death? 2
Two views on death
For some, death is taken simply and at face value. They look at what happens when a person dies, how the person becomes a corpse, and say that such is death and such is what happens when a person dies “the second death.” It isn’t literal annihilation, but that doesn’t matter. From the existence of a corpse we are not led to conclude that it can be tormented for eternity. We take for granted that corpses have no consciousness. When a person dies they become an unfeeling and unconscious blob of inert matter which decays away, and that is what’s going to happen to the unsaved. (Whether they decay and decompose or are killed and destroyed as in a raging inferno doesn’t matter here; the ultimate lifeless outcome is the same.) This approach is taken quite often by those who hold to physicalism, which many annihilationists do. Physicalism, briefly, is the belief that there is no separate immaterial component to a human person that continues to live beyond bodily death, that there is no separate component that makes up a person beyond the body. There are some important nuances but that is the gist of it for our purposes here. If the whole person is constituted by the body and not the body and a separate immaterial soul, then the turning of a body into a corpse is essentially the turning of the whole person into a corpse, with their only hope for life again being the resurrection. Of course, one need not be a physicalist to contemplate how, outside of a theology class, the mental picture of a decomposing corpse intuitively underscores the annihilationist view. However, it is the physicalist who can, upon seeing death, think of de facto annihilation of a person and remain self-consistent in doing so (since there is nothing to live on after death).
But, as I discussed in a previous post, nobody can just take everything at face value, and traditionalists do have a response that must be considered. The argument is usually made that there is more to death than what is observed, an argument which assumes dualism or that a person is both a body and a separate immaterial soul or spirit. (There is also the tripartite view of body, soul, and spirit, but it is subject to this same criticism.) It also assumes that the person and the soul are essentially one and the same being, that apart from the body a person can and does exist. Given that assumption it is argued that if we have a conscious immaterial element that remains alive and conscious after bodily death, then the person does not cease to consciously exist after that first or bodily death. The spirit leaves the body and we, as spirits or souls, live apart from the body until the resurrection. So when the second death is pictured in terms of physical death, one will suppose that the person will continue to exist consciously. Therefore the Bible, when it speaks of death, does not mean it in the way that one might think if they just opened up the Bible for the first time and read Romans 6:23. A key passage that is appealed to here is James 2:26, “For as the body apart from the spirit is dead, so also faith apart from works is dead.” Death is the totally conscious spirit leaving the body, not an end to a person’s conscious existence. Therefore, “death is a separation of two things.” 3 The first separation is the body from the spirit. The second death must be the whole person being separated from God.
It would seem, then, that to determine whether or not talk of death helps conditionalism or hurts it, one would have to make a case for physicalism or for traditional dualism. However, I will now explain why either way the fact that what happens to a person when they die is used to describe the second death only helps the case for conditionalism/annihilationism.
Why death is ultimately the same under either view
Let us assume for the sake of argument here that dualism is correct (for if physicalism is true then I don’t need to say anything more). Let us assume that when a person dies, their conscious spirit leaves the body and lives on somewhere else (i.e., intermediate state) until the resurrection. But that still does not show that the person (being the spirit) is dead but still conscious. Why is that?
Simple: The spirit does not die at physical death.
Nor does the soul, for those who see them as two distinct parts. It is the body that dies at physical death. This gets confused by language because when someone dies we say that the person died and not just their body. According to the Bible, however, it is specifically the body, and only the body, that dies. To a physicalist, that is synonymous with the person dying, but to a dualist it is an important distinction. Failure to make this distinction leads to the following logically incorrect argument: the person dies, but the person is still conscious (as a spirit or soul), so therefore death includes consciousness. But the whole person doesn’t die (unless physicalism is true, which would only help my case). What is true of the body here is not true of the the spirit or the soul. Whatever the spirit is, and whatever the soul is, they don’t die at physical death! The only thing that dies at bodily death is the body.
In other words, that which dies becomes a corpse. A body dies and it becomes a corpse. A corpse has no consciousness, no ability to suffer or think of feel or be tormented or sad in any way at all. Therefore, with the first death, with physical death, we see what death means. That which dies becomes a corpse! It doesn’t matter if the person is conscious as a spirit; the person, their spirit, is not dead. Only the body is dead, and we know what a dead body is like. If that is what happens to the whole unsaved person, body and soul, at the second death, then that is annihilationism.
Now, how do we know that the body dies but the spirit does not? For starters, it seems to be widely assumed by traditionalists already. It must be kept in mind that most theologians do not consider the spirit and soul to be two distinct and separate parts of a three-part person. Thus, it is the immaterial part of the two-part human that lives on past death that is spoken of when countless theologians throughout church history have talked about the immortal soul. Since it is immortal it cannot be killed. One specific examples of this include Kenneth Boa and Robert Bowman, Jr. who said, “Killing the body does not result in the death of the soul.” 4
More importantly, the Bible tells us specifically that it is the body that dies at physical death, not the whole person (by the dualist definition). Remember James 2:26? It is written: “For as the body apart from the spirit is dead, so also faith apart from works is dead.” This passage is used by traditionalists to argue that death is separation, but the passage proves too much. It doesn’t just vaguely say that death is separation. It tells us that the body is dead without the spirit. Specifically, the spirit is gone, and so the body dies. Whatever the spirit is, it doesn’t die. The absence of it kills the body. The Bible does not ever say that the spirit dies at physical death, but it does specifically say that the body dies. Furthermore, we are specifically told about the soul that it does not die at physical death. Remember Jesus’ words to his follower as he sends them out: “And do not fear those who kill the body but cannot kill the soul. Rather fear him who can destroy both soul and body in hell” (Matthew 10:28; emphasis added). Aside from telling us that God will destroy the soul in hell, which is kind of significant to annihilationists, this passage tells us that when men kill the body they, unlike God, can kill only the body. They are unable to kill the soul. Unless one is to make the completely arbitrary and absurd claim that murder cannot kill the soul but natural or accidental death can, this passage affirms what I have been saying. The body dies, not the soul. Whatever happens to the soul after physical death, it isn’t dead and therefore its consciousness is irrelevant. Only the body dies at physical death. And if the death of a body is anything like the death of the whole person at the second death, then conditionalism is confirmed.
A theoretically possible rebuttal
I suppose it is possible that some person somewhere is going to not only argue that the soul and spirit are completely distinct parts of a three-part person (which isn’t an unheard-of position) but that the Bible only says that the soul will never die. Thus, maybe the spirit, which is the conscious person after death, is dead as well as the body.
Now, in order for this to be the case a number of things must all be true. First of all, it must be the case that the body and soul are completely distinct parts of a person, so that Jesus’ declaration in Matthew 10:28 has no impact on the spirit. If this is not the case, then the whole argument fails. It must also be the case that the spirit and not the soul is the conscious part of the person. If the soul is the part that is conscious in heaven or hell, then this falls apart. Along those lines, if the soul and spirit, despite being distinct, are still in unison to form the conscious person, it at best gets muddled. It would further have to be the case that the spirit is considered “dead” when the person suffers physical death, even though the Bible never says so. The only time the spirit is specifically mentioned, it is mentioned as the cause of the body’s life, not something that dies without the body. This causes further trouble because we would have to come up with a new definition of “death” and being “dead.” It couldn’t mean becoming like a corpse, because the spirit would still be conscious. However, it also couldn’t mean separation, because the soul isn’t “dead” at physical death, yet it is as separated from the body as the spirit is, and as separated from the spirit as the body is. We’d have to come up with some sort of definition of death that could actually fit. And even if we grant all of that, what we are left with is a dead body that is a corpse, and a dead spirit that is conscious, leaving us at draw (if even that). Is the person who suffers the second death like the dead body (which the Bible speaks of as being dead), or like the dead spirit (which the Bible never says is dead)? I have a feeling not a lot of people are going to make this argument…
Summing it all up
So what are we left with? First, people on both sides look to physical death as a model of the second death. This makes perfect sense since there are two deaths, of which physical is the first one (and if you follow Jesus, it is the only one). Physicalists see physical death as simply the turning of a person into a corpse. Thus, the fact that the eternal fate of the unsaved is called death is huge. Traditionalists tend to counter that a person is still conscious after death (as a spirit/soul), and therefore, death includes consciousness which can only help traditionalism. In the end, however, neither physicalism or traditional dualism change the fact that physical death is, in fact,the turning of what was alive into a corpse. That which dies, according to the Bible, is the body, and the body is turned into a corpse. Whether a person can consciously exist outside of the body is irrelevant. The person may be conscious, but that which has died, the body, is not.
Therefore, even if the soul survives the first death, the nature of death as we see it on earth greatly helps the annihilationist case. Does it prove it beyond a reasonable doubt? No, but if I were to pick a term to use, I sure wouldn’t have picked one that is used to describe what happens to the body when the spirit leaves and it becomes a corpse…
- For example, Matthew 7:14, John 3:16; Galatians 6:8.
- Unless otherwise indicated, all scripture comes from The Holy Bible, English Standard Version (ESV). Copyright 2000 by Crossway Bibles.
- “Death Is A Separation of Two Things,” The Interactive Bible. December 11, 2009.,www.bible.ca/d-death=separation.htm
- Kenneth Boa and Robert M. Bowman, Jr. Sense & Nonsense about Heaven & Hell. Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 2007), 51