Published April 7, 2015
Last week in this column we addressed the exciting promise for a Christian of "life everlasting." It's the term Jesus used in the familiar words of John 3:16: "...that whoever believes in Him [Jesus] should not perish but have everlasting life."
That "everlasting life" is something Christians are and always should be excited about, because it means life eternal with Christ.
But notice the word "perish" in John 3:16. What does it mean to "perish?" What is the other option, the alternative to "everlasting life?"
It's easy to imagine "everlasting life" life for the Christian that simply goes on and on forever in those new bodies the Lord has promised. But what about the alternative? What about what would have to be called "everlasting death?"
In common parlance, "death" is the end of life. It's over. C'est fini. Done. Nonbelievers think of death in this way the end of all awareness, the end of any being. It's "dust to dust," literally. That's one of the primary causes of suicides people wanting to put a very permanent end to their troubles. It's a very common misunderstanding in the world today.
But the concept of "death" in the Bible is quite different, and a little more difficult to understand. Although there is, of course, physical death, "death" in the larger spiritual concept is fundamentally referring to eternal separation from God. This is the "perish" the Lord referred to for the unbeliever. But it is definitely not complete annihilation. Life, the soul's conscious existence, goes on for the believer and unbeliever alike although under quite different circumstances, to say the least. "Eternal death," as one Bible dictionary puts it, is "the miserable fate of the wicked in hell...the unending duration of the penal sufferings of the lost..."1 And that's even worse than "dead."
God, speaking through Ezekiel (18:4) said, "...the soul who sins shall die." Although our souls live on, those who rejected Christ and physically died in their sins are, from God's perspective, spiritually dead as well. Paul said the Colossians had been "dead in your sins" before accepting Christ (Col. 2:13). To the Ephesians, too, he wrote, "...you He made alive, who were dead in trespasses and sins..." (2:1). They had been "dead" (unforgiven, apart from God) but now "live"(forgiven, with God).
Referring to physical death, the writer of Hebrews said, "...it is appointed for men to die once, but after this the judgment" (Heb. 9:27). If physical death were annihilation, what would be the point of the judgment? Every soul will one day stand, very much conscious and very much aware, before God.
There is no doubt in my mind that anyone everyone who winds up in hell will fervently wish that they could find actual death the complete end of awareness, the end of existence. Being fully conscious, they will wish their existence their indescribable agony, their excruciating pain, their despair, their insufferable regret at rejecting Christ could simply end. But they will find no way out because there is none. There is no end. Theirs will be a "living death" for eternity in "unquenchable fire" (Luke 3:17). And a "living death" is far worse than a death of annihilation.
Christ Himself, referring to sinners, said, "...these will go away into everlasting punishment, but the righteous into eternal life." (Matt. 25:46.) The same Greek word is used for both "everlasting" and "eternal," referring both to unbelievers and believers. Could it be any more clear?
If you're a Christian, aren't you glad your future is one of "life everlasting" and not "death everlasting?" We can rejoice with John in saying, "We know that we have passed from death unto life..." (1 John 3:14). Praise God!
But what this should do, too, is to rekindle a fire within us to accept this as an urgent and cogent challenge to be sure those around us know and believe what Christ has done for us so they can escape that horrible eternal "living death" that inevitably awaits unbelievers.
1. Easton's Bible dictionary
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