What is the meaning of “death?”

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01 Sep 2015 (modified 20 Mar 2019)

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This posting arises from comments made by Erik Hallendorf in response to the article, ‘Did Jesus Really Die?‘ For the sake of completeness, I’ll begin with his original post…

Erik Hallendorff

Let us take the biblical accounts and common Christian interpretations of the accounts of Jesus death as a given. These include that Jesus’ body was horribly mutilated and died a relatively quick death.

By death we mean there is no brain activity and no heart function.

Let us also take the resurrection story as a given i.e. he was alive again after 3 days, bearing only the marks of the piercings in his sides, feet and hands, but fully recovered from the horrific wounds. Since a dead body cannot have any healing ability, we must take it that Jesus reappeared in a new body or a miraculously healed body, save for some marks to convince doubters.
In the light of the above accepted Christian beliefs about Jesus, I would like to ask: In what sense did Jesus really die?

Let me modify the above definition of death in an entirely reasonable way:

By death we mean there is no brain activity and no heart function as a permanent state. In other words, the most basic understanding of death is that it represents a permanent end to life. Jesus “death” does not satisfy this understanding of death simply because there is no permanence. Christian doctrine is at pains to prove that his “death” was only temporary, and in doing so, provides the answer to the question, did Jesus really die? Clearly he did not.

We do not need to argue about whether he simply swooned or fainted, or whether his heart and brain actually stopped, whether he was clinically dead or not for 3 days. All of that becomes irrelevant.

So much is made of the ultimate sacrifice of Jesus. When is wasn’t ultimate at all. Especially since he knew ahead of time he would only be gone for 3 days. He knew before he “died” he would be “undead” in the blink of an eye.

Here is what it boils down to. If you were to offer me a deal that enables me to secure world peace forever, and all I have to do is be executed (for real), remain dead for 3 days, and then by some miraculous mechanism, which is guaranteed to me, I would return to live without any after-effect from my execution, I would accept it without question. No sacrifice at all to sleep through just one weekend, especially if forever after my great sleep is given to everyone as a long weekend to remember my great non-sacrifice.

Bottom line: In what way does Jesus “death” satisfy the basic definition of a permanent ceasing of life? By its own accounts the most important Christian doctrine is also its greatest con. It would be more truthful to say: “After suffering horrific torture for a part of a day, Jesus died for just 3 days for your sins, but was then made undead again as he knew he would, fully healed except for some marks to show he was tortured. He sacrificed 3 days of his life for you. Now you need to give your whole life for him”.

admin says:

Hi, Erik!

Thanks for your comments. I note that you seem quite willing to concede the main point about the historicity of the gospel accounts of Jesus’ death and resurrection. But your point is a very interesting one to which I will very briefly respond here: but which I think merits a much fuller discussion elsewhere. If you do not object, I should like to reproduce your message and offer a fuller response elsewhere on this site in the very near future. I will, of course, send you a link when I do so.

In brief, if you once embrace the premise that death ‘represents a permanent end to life’ then your argument makes good sense. Indeed, if it were true not only I, but every Christian who has ever lived is, in the words of St. Paul, ‘most to be pitied’ (1 Corinthians 15:19). But one of the foundational Christian teachings is that this is not the case.

But there are much bigger issues here. If death is not a permanent end to life, what is it? And what was the real nature and purpose of Jesus’ suffering? I’d like to discuss this more fully later.

Erik Hallendorff

Greetings and thank you for your response. I am glad you have not attempted a quick answer as indeed the question requires a measured response and I am more than happy for you to take up the question elsewhere. It represents a conundrum, doesn’t it?

In Christian terms, death means a permanent end to life on earth and the simultaneous beginning of an afterlife, or, a new life in a different form.

– Jesus death was not a permanent end to life on earth … so what was his “death” then?

– Jesus knew he would be “undead” after 3 days, so what does that do to the concept of “ultimate sacrifice”. And in what sense is there any sacrifice at all when he knew he would be completely reunited with his father in heaven following the ascension, this time without the burden of a human form?

– I have noted a tendency among evangelists to portray Jesus’ suffering in very graphic terms, where it becomes apparent that they are motivated by the need to show Jesus’ physical suffering was far greater than had ever been experienced by any human before and would be experienced by any human in future. Is this indeed a pivotal requirement? If not, then why make so much of his suffering? If yes, then it would seem hard to back up in the face of evidence of far more extreme individual suffering over the ages for extended periods of time at the hands of sadistic torturers, dictators, warmongers, genocidal maniacs, diseases etc.

These are critical questions because Christianity regards the Suffering, Death and Resurrection as the cornerstones of it’s faith, without which there is nothing remarkable at all.

I should point out I do not have a vested interest in the answers to these questions either way; I am merely interested in the integrity of any argument presented.

My response:

Apologies for the delay responding: but I’ve been working to a deadline on a job and only just finished… But I felt it necessary to try and present an overview of the issue to avoid getting bogged down in details.

The issue I think we need to address first is what Christians believe about life and death: and I’d better start by pointing out that there were 2 differing viewpoints amongst the Jews of Jesus’ day. The Sadducees, whilst believing in God, did not believe in life after death: whereas the Pharisees believed both in a spiritual world beyond our normal perceptions and that man would somehow enter that realm when their current mortal life ended. So, even in Jesus’ day, many were in doubt about this subject. But, despite his disagreement with the Pharisees on many other issues, Jesus (and his disciples) always came down firmly on their side in this respect (c.f. Mt 22:23-32 & Acts 23:6-9).

The question of what life after death is like is a complex one, on which Christians do not necessarily entirely agree. But it is much easier to establish a few basic facts about death. Let us start with the very first biblical reference to human death – the story of Adam and Eve. Jesus himself cited this account when arguing the biblical case against divorce (Mt 19:3-8); so we know he took it very seriously. God had warned Adam, ‘… in the day you eat of [the forbidden fruit] you will surely die’ (Gen 2:17). Now Adam did not die physically until many, many years later: yet something very important did happen immediately: he was barred from the Garden of Eden and the ‘Tree of Life,’ to which he formerly had free access. So the death that Adam suffered was first and foremost relational – cut off from the presence and life of God. Physical death and decay was an eventual by-product.

Even today, people do not normally immediately cease to exist when they die. The entire body and organs remain, and may be medically resuscitated before too much decay has occurred. But at death communication with the corpse ceases and our previous relationship with the person is abruptly ended.

So, what I am saying is that, if you want to understand what is really meant by death and resurrection in Biblical terminology, you need to start thinking more in terms of communication and relationships than modern clinical definitions. This perspective is critical to a full understanding of the significance of Jesus’ crucifixion.

The primary problem Jesus came to address was the alienation of man from God. This had resulted in a number of secondary problems:

  • Loss of understanding about the character of God

  • Loss of understanding about our own place and purpose in the Universe,

  • Moral degradation. (Every child is now born in a corrupted environment which begins making its impressions on their character before they even know it.) The most serious aspect of this is pride and self-centredness (the very opposite of love).

  • Guilt and shame arising from hurts which we have (with varying degrees of intent) inflicted on others.

  • Disease, decay and, ultimately, physical death.

  • Doubt and fear about what might await us after death.

As you examine the ministry of Jesus, you will see how he addresses himself to all of the above issues in people’s lives; claiming to be able to provide, not just a philosophical bandage, but an actual cure.

But there was a secondary problem: justice. And it wasn’t simply an issue of God having been wronged by man’s rebellion. That was an issue too: since mankind had openly rebelled against God in spite of His warnings about the consequences. So if He just said, ‘Forget the consequences,’ that would make Him a liar. But there were also two other groups involved in this. Mankind was one of them. People who have been hurt by others often demand retribution or recompense: and God, who is the moral source of all justice, will not simply ignore that claim.

But the third party is a claimant far more subtle and far less open to doing deals. Man is not the only sentient being with powers of choice. Satan, one of the most powerful of these (though puny in comparison to God) had demanded independence and been expelled from God’s presence in a fall far greater than that of Adam. It was he who had sown mistrust in the minds of Adam and Eve. His goal was simple: to establish a legal claim to the human race and the world they had been given to control; taking the human race hostage to secure a place for himself.

Now the old adage says, ‘Justice must not only be done: it must be seen to be done.’ To Satan, it seemed he had God over a barrel, morally speaking. God had given man authority over the entire planet. But by obeying Satan’s suggestions, rather than God’s, man had unwittingly but voluntarily made himself Satan’s servant: so now Satan, not man, was the legal master of earth and all its inhabitants (c.f. Lk 4:5-7).

One further point: your understanding of God, the Universe, eternity and Jesus himself are far too small. We will see why this is so important shortly.

Now, as to your specific questions…

Jesus death was not a permanent end to life on earth … so what was his “death” then?

Jesus’ death and resurrection was both a demonstration and a sacrificial gift far greater than we can ever properly conceive.

  • By physically resurrecting the dead body of Jesus, it showed us that there is life on the other side of death.

  • It demonstrates that Jesus, uniquely amongst all the world’s religious leaders, was who he claimed to be, knew exactly what he was talking about and had the ultimate power to put his words into effect.

  • It demonstrates the astonishing love of God; that he would do this for those who were, after all, self-centred rebels against His law, with no right to expect anything from Him.

  • It established a mechanism that was capable of anulling the legal claim that Satan had established over the human race.

  • It paid a price greater than the sum total of all and every claim for justice and recompence for mankind’s wrongdoings that ever has or ever could be laid against us.

I think that the first 3 points are fairly self-explanatory: but now let me enlarge upon the last in relation to your other 2 questions:

Jesus knew he would be “undead” after 3 days, so what does that do to the concept of “ultimate sacrifice”.

and …

I have noted a tendency among evangelists … where it becomes apparent that they are motivated by the need to show Jesus’ physical suffering was far greater than … any human before and … in future. Is this indeed a pivotal requirement?

Yes, it is. As the Apostle John puts it, “It is he who is the atoning sacrifice for our sins, and not for ours only, but also for the whole world’s.” (1 Jn 2:2) Most of us are familiar with the old adage, ‘An eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth.’ If anyone is to pay for the sin of the whole world, then it must mean that their suffering must be greater than the sum total of every single case of the most ‘extreme individual suffering over the ages for extended periods of time at the hands of sadistic torturers, dictators, warmongers, genocidal maniacs, diseases etc.

And that ‘sum total’ is not just massive beyond our ability to conceive. It is potentially infinite: because the effect of our rebellion was to leave us permanently separated from God and hostage to Satan.

I have heard some pretty graphic sermons and watched Mel Gibson’s ‘The Passion of the Christ.’ It’s brutal and gut-wrenching: but in terms of what Jesus actually had to endure it’s not even remotely close. If I could produce a film to attempt to convey what was involved, I think I would start with scenes slowly and graphically displaying the kind of scenes you describe, then gradually accelerate into a rushing kaleidoscope of seemingly never-ending horrors, perhaps ending with that ear-splitting scream of ‘My God, My God, why have you forsaken me?’ But nothing could ever come close to the reality of that billions-multiplied mass of agony – particularly as we could only watch it, whereas Jesus had to actually feel it all.

How could this be? If Jesus were just a man, it couldn’t. But Jesus claimed to be God. The apostle John describes him as the One through whom all of creation came into being (Jn 1:1-3 & 14). Opinions may differ as to how much sentience and capacity for pain a fish, or a worm or microbe may have: but most would accept that the greater and more complex the mind, the greater its probable capacity for suffering. How great, then, is that of the One who is bigger than the Universe and inhabits eternity? And, whereas you and I can only empathise with another’s pain as, having no direct connection to their mind, we cannot actually feel it; God, who knows our thoughts better than we know ourselves, can and does feel it. (I’ve discussed this at more length in a posting I made on ‘The Connectedness of God’ at http://tbl.liegeman.org/the-connectedness-of-god (now hosted here on this site).)

But, given that God is the infinite and eternal creator of all things, how could such vast suffering – even though, from our limited, temporal perspective, it seems to have been only for a finite period of our time – not be a full and sufficient settlement for all the debts we owe?

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