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Holman Bible Dictionary
The Old Testament does not, however, teach that persons were annihilated at death. Rather, the dead in some sense remained in Sheol, the place of the dead located deep beneath the earth. This belief is expressed in the Genesis 25:8 report of Abraham's death. Abraham survived after a fashion with and in the vicinity of his ancestors because he was buried in the family grave ( Genesis 15:15; Genesis 35:29; Judges 8:32 ). Existence in Sheol was a “shade” existence, symbolized by the bones which remained and survived in the grave.
To the Israelite, death and Sheol were both acceptable and unacceptable. Especially when life was long and blessed (Abraham, Genesis 25:8; David, 1 Chronicles 29:28 ), the Israelites accepted death with some degree of grace. They found consolation in long life, many children, remembrance of the family name, and burial in the family grave (Genesis 15:15 ).
When death occurred in the prime of life or without children or without proper burial, it was strictly understood as a curse. In fact, because of the Hebrews' love of life and conviction that Yahweh was the Author of life, death and Sheol always represented either a potential or actual threat. The Old Testament calls Sheol “the pit” (Isaiah 38:17-18; Ezekiel 26:19-21; Jonah 2:1-6 ), personifies it as “the king of terrors” (Job 18:13-14 ), and describes it as a house or city with bars (Job 17:16 ) where gloomy darkness prevails (Psalm 88:12 ).
Furthermore, because of the Hebrews' emphasis on group identity, death could be accepted in that the group survived. Injustice could be accepted in individual lives (for example, prosperity among the wicked, misfortune among the righteous) because it was assumed that justice eventually prevailed in the group . By the time of the Babylonian Exile, this pattern of passive acceptance began to change. Job and Ecclesiastes questioned the idea that justice is always served in this life. Ezekiel and Jeremiah affirmed that God's justice could not be satisfied simply by reference to the group, but had to apply to the individual (Jeremiah 31:29-30 ,Jeremiah 31:29-30,31:33-34; Ezekiel 18:19-20 ). Finally, the Book of Daniel teaches that to serve justice in individual lives, the dead had to be raised by God, “some to everlasting life, and some to shame and everlasting contempt” (Daniel 12:2 ). Some Bible students see resurrection hope suggested or even clearly taught in other Old Testament passages. See Resurrection .
The Old Testament recognized the theological meaning of death as well as its physical meaning. The account of Adam and Eve in the Garden of Eden (Genesis 2:1;b13 ) clearly points to sin as the reason humans must experience death (Genesis 2:17; Genesis 3:3 ). Other passages echo the same teaching (Numbers 18:22; Proverbs 6:12-19; Jeremiah 31:29-30; Ezekiel 18:1-32 ).
Death in the Synoptic Gospels and Acts Several passages in the Synoptic Gospels (Matthew, Mark, and Luke) and Acts imply a positive, or at least neutral, attitude toward death. In Luke's birth narrative, for example, Simeon asked God to let him “depart in peace” because he had seen God's salvation (Luke 2:29 ). Similar to the Old Testament accounts of some of the partriarchs, Simeon's death would be the peaceful resignation of a life dedicated to God. In a Sermon on the Mount saying (Matthew 6:27; Luke 12:25 ), Jesus counseled His hearers with a rhetorical question, “and which of you by being anxious can add a single cubit to his life's span?” (NAS). If this translation is correct (some interpreters prefer “stature” to “span of life”), the teaching implies that mortality is a fact which must be accepted by Jesus' followers and entrusted to God.
In other passages death is seen as ominous and threatening. In the account of the stilling of the storm (Matthew 8:23-27; Mark 4:35-41; Luke 8:22-25 ), the disciples cried out desperately against the raging water. In Acts 5:1-11 Ananias and Sapphira died because they committed perjury against the Holy Spirit. Luke 1:79 and Matthew 4:16 use the phrase “shadow of death” as a negative image. In Luke 7:22-23 , Jesus vindicated His ministry in the face of John the Baptist's question by revealing His power against the realm of death: the dead are raised, the demons are cast out, the lame walk, the deaf hear, the blind see.
The most striking feature of the Synoptic Gospels' understanding of death is the central place given to Jesus' death. In His death the positive and negative aspects just discussed come together: Jesus overturned death in the community and ran toward His own death; He agonized over His fate in Jerusalem and wished it were already accomplished; He announced with word and deed the Resurrection Age, but He could not completely welcome His own accursed death which resurrection would vindicate. Above all else, death in the Synoptic Gospels is interpreted by the paradoxical death of the Servant who found life through the means of death.
Death in the Letters of Paul Paul's understanding of Jesus' death and resurrection determined his depiction of death as a quality of human existence. The most fundamental facet of this understanding is that death has been defeated (1 Corinthians 15:26; 2 Timothy 1:8-10 ). Paul's conviction was confirmed: (1) through his assurances to the Thessalonians that their dead were not disadvantaged (1 Thessalonians 4:13-18 ); (2) through his concept of the firstfruits (Romans 8:23; 1 Corinthians 5:20 ); (3) through his doctrine of the eventual transformation of the resurrection body (1 Corinthians 15:35-58 ), and (4) through his conviction that the proper Christian response to death and all of its signs is an indomitable hope (Romans 8:31-38; 1 Corinthians 15:58; 1 Thessalonians 4:18 ). Simply put, Paul pictures the Christian's death as nonfinal and nonthreatening.
Death is nonetheless an enemy. It is intimately connected with sin (Romans 3:23; Romans 5:12-21 ). Paul used death imagery to characterize sinful existence (Romans 6:13 , Romans 7:7-25 , Romans 8:6-8; Ephesians 2:1 , Ephesians 2:5; Colossians 2:13 ). If the “old” existence should be thought of as death, conversion to Christ is nothing less than rebirth (Romans 6:5-11; Galatians 2:20 ). Paul's image of rebirth is realistic to the extent that he acknowledged the incompleteness of our death and resurrection with Christ. In the same paragraph that he announced our union with Christ, he felt compelled to remind Christians that they should consider themselves dead to sin but alive to God in Christ (Romans 6:11 ).
Death in the Writings of John As much or more than Paul, John redefined death (and life) in relationship to Jesus. In the fourth Gospel especially, how the hearers respond to Jesus is a matter of life and death: “Verily, verily, I say unto you, He that heareth my word, and believeth on him that sent me, hath everlasting life, and shall not come into condemnation; but is passed from death unto life” (John 5:24 ). The account of Lazarus' resuscitation in John 11:1 makes this point more dramatically. Jesus waited until Lazarus had been dead four days and declared to Martha, “I am the resurrection, and the life: he that believeth in me, though he were dead, yet shall he live: And whosoever liveth and believeth in me shall never die” ( John 11:25-26 ). Jesus went on to call Lazarus from the tomb; but in doing so, he ironically sealed His own death in the plans of the Jewish authorities (John 11:45-53 ).
Conclusions The New Testament assumed the Old Testament concept of body-soul unity and the late Old Testament and intertestamental concept of resurrection. Unlike Greek philosophers who downplayed the significance of death by emphasizing the immortality of the soul, the biblical writers affirmed that death is real. Because the Bible also affirms the value of life as a gift from God, death is sometimes depicted as threatening and never entirely desirable. The doctrine of resurrection is an affirmation that even the realm of the dead belongs to God and that death is overcome only at His gracious command.
The distinctive contribution of the New Testament is that it relentlessly defines human life, death, and resurrection in light of Jesus' life, death, and resurrection. Thus death is removed from its normal context at the end of life and placed in the very middle of life; in Christ we die and are raised as we commit our lives to Him.
These dictionary topics are from the Holman Bible Dictionary, published by Broadman & Holman, 1991. All rights reserved. Used by permission of Broadman & Holman.
Butler, Trent C. Editor. Entry for 'Death'. Holman Bible Dictionary. https://www.studylight.org/​dictionaries/​eng/​hbd/​d/death.html. 1991.