(Based on Genesis 2-3)
So far we’ve seen that God is a Mighty Warrior against evil. And that’s good news. And bad news — for people who do evil. In other words, bad news for all of us. To some extent, we all do evil. But the bad news is just going to get “badder” before it gets better.
Yesterday, I wrote about one aspect of sin’s just and lawful wages: physical death.
Today, we’re going to be looking at a different kind of death: spiritual death. But this kind of death is also sin’s just and lawful wage.
“The soul who sins shall die …” says Ezekiel 18:20. But what can Ezekiel 18:20 mean? After all, everyone dies eventually. (Of course, it’s true that all have sinned). But why would Ezekiel 18:20 speak about a soul dying?
When we get into the New Testament and read things like, “The Lord is … not willing that any should perish …” from 2 Peter 3:9 and “… whoever believes in Him should not perish …” from John 3:16, the picture begins to come clearer that we’re not simply talking about physical death here — because, physically, all perish (or die).
Even more incredibly, John 3:16 goes on to tell us that not only will the one who believes in “Him” not perish; the believer in “Him” will have eternal or everlasting life. Plainly, then, “everlasting life” means something more than physical life — life on this earth — because we know that no one lives “everlastingly” on this earth. Whatever “perish” means in John 3:16, it is being contrasted with “everlasting life” as though they are opposites. We could call the opposite of “everlasting life” “everlasting death.”
The Bible uses other words for “everlasting life” and “everlasting death.” The ones we’re probably the most familiar with are heaven and hell.
Hell is another of those biblical concepts that raises some major theological stumbling blocks in people’s minds. However, an eternal heaven and an eternal hell are concepts that are taught very clearly in the Bible. We can’t get around them. If we’re going to take this Book seriously, we have to take all its teachings seriously, whether we like what it teaches or not.
Let’s talk a little more about this idea of “spiritual death.” It’s not an easy idea to grasp. In order to find out what “spiritual death” means, we’ll need to look back to Genesis 2 and 3 to find out where it all started.
According to Genesis 2:17, there was a tree in the garden-home God had created for the first humans that He had instructed them they were not to eat the fruit of. If they chose to disobey, in the day they ate of it, they would die!
When would that happen? “In the day that you eat of it…”
But in Genesis 3:1-5, enter “the serpent” — the villain (he goes by other names, too). And he began planting the idea in the mind of the first woman that God hadn’t told her the truth. He puts doubt into Eve’s mind that God really knows what He’s talking about. He assured her she wouldn’t die if she disobeyed. And as we read on, it begins to look as though the serpent was right (at least as far as the timing of the event God promised would happen).
Was God telling the truth? Did Adam and Eve die in the very day they ate the fruit?
Sure they did! They just didn’t look dead!
Think about that Christmas tree that you had last Christmas (unless you do the artificial tree thing). When did it die? Four weeks into the new year when all its needles have dropped on the carpet, and you’re wishing you hadn’t procrastinated getting rid of it quite so long? No, it died from the very moment it was chopped down and separated from its roots — its life source. But it didn’t begin to look dead until sometime after New Year’s Day.
I’d like us to think about what death is for a moment. We’ll start with physical death. Is it ceasing to exist? So some believe. But that’s presuming that all there ever really was to a person was his or her body. And the body’s still there. It hasn’t gone anywhere. It’s just that whatever made it alive has gone somewhere. So regardless of what you believe about the nature of reality (and us), death can’t mean ceasing to exist.
Some may get all medical if I were to ask them what death is and started describing the causes (or effects) of death, like, the cessation of a heart beat, the cessation of brain activity, the cessation of respiration. But none of those things are describing what death really is, are they? They’re describing the causes of physical death. Or its effects, however you’d like to look at it. I mean, none of those physical signs of death define death or tell us what it really is or even the real why behind it. To say, “Death occurred because the heart stopped beating or the lungs stopped working,” is to speak in tautology. It’s a little like saying, “Death occurred because death occurred.”
After we really start to think about it, I think we may have to agree that death (and, by implication, life) is still a giant mystery. It is a fact that reaches into realms beyond the merely empirical—beyond the world of sight, sound, touch, taste, and smell. We still don’t really know what makes us alive or what makes us die.
But the Bible gives us some partial answers (without entirely removing the mystery). It teaches us that physical death is nothing more nor less than the separation of the body from the real person — from the life source of a person; the part that we call a soul or a spirit.
I think the best definition for death is the one the Bible hints toward: Separation.
In physical death, it’s the separation of the body from its life source — the real person. Spiritual death is the same idea. It, too, is a separation. It’s the separation of the real person (the soul or spirit) from the Life Source. And I’m sure you can guess who that is.
And “everlasting death” (of the spiritual kind) is an everlasting separation from God, from our Life Source.
We saw in yesterday’s lesson that God must destroy sin. He is a relentless warrior against evil. He cannot allow it to continue forever (at least, not in His perfect, forever kind of a reality). And I call that a very good thing when we think about how truly evil evil is.
In the end, those who refuse to let go of their sin must be destroyed along with it. The person who insists to the bitter end that he can, must, and will be the only person running his life, that he doesn’t want any part of God being the One in charge, will not be able to live forever with God in His presence.
I hope you can see why it must be that way. I hope we’ve agreed that a forever kind of existence where Holocausts, etc. are possible would be a nightmare.
But what about all my “little” sins? Why should they keep me out of heaven?
Even if the only sins I ever commit are “little” ones, even if the only sin I ever commit is the one where I say to God, “I’m going to run my life, not You,” that sin must keep me out of heaven. Why? Because that’s the sin that opened the door to all the others in the first place. Heaven would not stay heaven for very long unless the only people who lived there were the people who had decided that God must be God! No one else! Not me, not you! Just God.
We have to get this issue settled as the one that’s of first importance. “Who is really God? Who is going to be the God of my life?”
And if we stubbornly refuse to admit to any higher authority other than our own selves, we can see that we will inevitably be destroyed along with our sin by being separated from God, the Source of all that’s good and lovely, for eternity. And that is the state that the Bible calls hell.
And can you see why hell is going to be, very literally, hell? When we look at our world, I think we can see that God has permitted us to have a little taste of hell by seeing what happens when we decide that we’re going to run the show by ourselves and cut ourselves off from Him. Not very pretty, is it? And that’s just a little taste.
He’s allowed us to make our own choices, and those choices are eternal ones. He gives us freedom. He pays us the compliment of taking that freedom that He gave us very solemnly. It was a real freedom. He abides by our choices and the consequences they bring. He doesn’t force us to do things His way, even if that means we spend eternity apart from Him.
But now we come to the Mighty Warrior’s dilemma: because He loves people, He desperately doesn’t want to see them choosing against Him and spending eternity apart from Him in hell. But we’ve all made the wrong choice. And that’s where His dilemma comes in.
What’s a Mighty Warrior to do when He also happens to love people? Well, we’ll find out tomorrow.
At last! Some good news!