“The Last Enemy”: A Brief Theology of Death (Part 3)


Read Part 1 and Part 2.

Eternal Death

There is one more dimension of death that we must consider before we move on to address the nature and purpose of human death in the Bible. This is what theologians often refer to as “eternal death,” or to use the phrase employed by the apostle John in the book of Revelation, “the Second Death [ὁ δεύτερος θάνατος]” (2:11; 20:6, 14; 21:8). This is the ultimate form of death—eternal separation from God and His blessings.

The OT does not provide us with a lot of explicit and detailed teaching concerning this dimension of death. Of course, we cannot conclude from this fact that the OT redemptive community was completely unaware of its reality. According to Jude, Enoch, the seventh from Adam, preached a final judgment (Jude 14, 15). According to Peter, the universal flood provided the people of the ancient world a foretaste of this final judgment (2 Pet. 3:5-7).

Not surprisingly, David alludes to this day in the Psalms (Pss. 9:17-20; 37:37-38; 49:12-15). King Solomon also spoke of this day when he concludes Ecclesiastes with the famous words, “Let us hear the conclusion of the whole matter: fear God and keep His commandments, for this is man’s all. For God will bring every work into judgment, including every secret thing, whether good or evil” (12:13-14). Solomon cannot be referring to a temporal judgment in this life since he has already concluded that such a universal and complete judgment does not happen in this life (Eccl. 3:16; 8:14; 9:1-3). Hence, he must be alluding to a final assize.

Daniel provides the most complete OT description of this great Day of Judgment in a vision:

I watched till thrones were put in place, and the Ancient of Days was seated; His garment was white as snow, and the hair of His head was like pure wool. His throne was a fiery flame, its wheels a burning fire; a fiery stream issued and came forth from before Him. A thousand thousands ministered to Him; ten thousand times ten thousand stood before Him. The court was seated, and the books were opened. (Daniel 7:9-10, ESV)

Later, Daniel speaks of a general resurrection in which “many of those who sleep in the dust of the earth shall awake, some to everlasting life, some to shame and everlasting contempt” (Dan. 12:2). So there seems to have been a general belief among the OT community in a final judgment and an eternal separation from God that would follow physical death.12

In the NT, however, we find clearer and more explicit teaching. Jesus, for example, distinguishes between mere physical death and eternal death when He cautions His disciples, “Do not fear those who kill the body but cannot kill the soul [i.e., mere physical death]. But rather fear Him who is able to destroy both soul and body in hell [i.e., eternal death]” (Matt. 10:28). This eternal destruction of “soul and body in hell” will commence after a Final Judgment to which all mankind will be summoned (Matt. 7:22; 11:22; 13:40-43; 25:31-46; John 5:27; Acts 10:42; Rom. 2:5, 16; 14:9; 2 Cor. 5:10; 2 Thess. 1:10; 2 Tim. 1:12; 4:1; 2 Pet. 3:7).

Not only will this death entail unending pain and torment (Matt. 8:12; 13:42; 22:13; 24:51; 25:30; Luke 13:28; 16:23, 28; Rev. 14:11; 18:10, 15). Most frightening will be the reality of eternal banishment from God’s presence and any possibility of hope (Matt. 7:23; 25:41; Luke 13:25, 27; 2 Thess. 1:9; Rev. 22:15). The phrase “second death” serves to highlight the ideas of ultimacy and finality.13

The Nature of Death

In addressing the nature of death in its three dimensions, we are simply highlighting the fact that human death is not just a natural process or a mere product of chance. On the contrary, the Scriptures clearly portray human death as an expression of God’s righteous wrath and judgment (Rom. 1:18-3:20; 2:5, 8; 5:9; 9:22; Eph. 5:6; Col. 3:6; 1 Thess. 1:10; 5:9; Rev. 6:16-17; 11:18; 14:10, 19; 15:1, 7; 16:1, 19; 19:15).

The Purpose of Death

In general, the purpose of human death, in all three of its dimensions is the satisfaction of God’s justice and pacification of God’s wrath. When God warned Adam not to eat of the forbidden tree upon the pain of death (Gen. 2:17), he bound himself to act in accordance with his just and holy nature. So when Adam sinned, God had no other recourse but to punish sin. The soul that sins must die (Ezek. 18:4, 20). The “wages of sin is death” (Rom. 6:23). This need for the satisfaction of justice and pacification of wrath does not change under the dispensation of grace. The soul that sins must still die. But thanks be to God that he has provided a substitute! Jesus Christ has taken our sins and propitiated God’s wrath so that God can remain just and also the justifier of the one who believes in Jesus (Rom. 3:24-26; 5:9-10; Gal. 3:13).14

If Jesus Christ has suffered God’s wrath in our stead delivering us from eternal death, and if the Holy Spirit has regenerated our hearts delivering us from spiritual death, why must we still experience physical death? Why must Christians experience suffering and physical death?

Suffering for the Christian

The Bible identifies several positive purposes for God granting his children “thorns in the flesh.” First, God uses suffering to sanctify his children. “It is good for me that I have been afflicted,” says the Psalmist, “that I may learn Your statutes” (Ps. 119:71; cf. Ps. 119:67; 2 Cor. 1:9; Phil. 3:10; Heb. 12:10-11; Rom. 8:28). Second, suffering serves to highlight our Christian graces. Consider, for example, how Job’s faith in the midst of severe trial served to accentuate his piety (Job 1:20-21; 2:3, 10; 42:1-8; James 5:11). Third, suffering provides an occasion for God to demonstrate his power and grace. Sometimes God afflicts us in order to prompt us to cry for deliverance and to answer our prayer (Ps. 18:2-19). In other cases, God afflicts us and provides us the grace we need to live with that affliction so that his grace is magnified in our weakness (2 Cor. 12:7-9). Fourth, suffering teaches God’s children to walk by faith and not by sight (2 Cor. 4:16-17; 5:7; Heb. 11:1ff.). Fifth, God allows us to suffer in order to equip us to minister to others in need (2 Cor. 1:3-4). Sixth, God sometimes uses suffering to keep us from falling away from the faith. “But when we are judged,” says Paul, “we are chastened by the Lord, that we may not be condemned with the world” (1 Cor. 11:32). Finally, God allows us to suffer in this if in order to create within us a greater longing for the glory to come (Rom. 8:18, 23; 1 Pet. 5:10).

Physical Death for the Christian

The writer to the Hebrews informs us, “It is appointed for men to die” (Heb. 9:27). Don’t we wish that we could be an exception to that general rule, like Enoch (Gen. 5:24; Heb. 11:5), Elijah (2 Kings 2:1, 11), or those living when Christ returns (1 Thess. 4:17)? Why does God allow the Christian to experience physical death? In addition to some of the same benefits listed under suffering, let me suggest two reasons why God allows us to experience physical death.

First, anticipating and experiencing physical death serves to conform the Christian to the pattern of Christ. Before Jesus could enter into glory, He had to suffer and die (Luke 24:26, 46; 1 Pet. 1:11). So too, believers are called to follow in his steps (1 Pet. 2:21). Suffering first, then glory (1 Pet. 4:12-13; 5:8-10). Thus, the apostle could aspire to “know [Christ] and the power of His resurrection, and the fellowship of His sufferings, being conformed to His death” (Phil. 3:10).

Secondly, God has chosen to use the penalty for sin as very event by which He completely frees His children from the power and presence of sin forever. As Gregory Nichols remarks, “Ironically, God turns death, the gateway to hell, into the gateway to glory. He turns death, the instrument of a sinner’s destruction, into the instrument of the destruction of indwelling sin.”15 Just as God’s curse-oracle against the Serpent contains an implicit blessing of redemption, so the experience of physical death for the Christian becomes a vehicle of ultimate blessing and unending joy. Not surprisingly, the apostle Paul can declare, “For to me, to live is Christ, and to die is gain” (Phil. 1:21).


12 Bruce Milne observes, “While the fullest and clearest teachings about the afterlife do certainly come from the lips of Jesus and the apostles in the New Testament, every last one of them was nurtured on the Old Testament. It was in effect the religious and spiritual womb within which their understanding of human destiny was conceived and nurtured.” The Message of Heaven and Hell (Downers Grove: Intervarsity, 2002), 25.

13 The word “second” is sometimes uses symbolically in contrast to “first” in order to underscore that which is final and ultimate. Accordingly, Jesus is the “second Adam” (1 Cor. 15:47). In the tabernacle, the “second curtain” veiled the “second section,” known as the “most holy place” (Heb. 9:3). The new covenant is called “the second” covenant (Heb. 10:9). Moreover, Christ’s final return is called his “second” coming (Heb. 9:28).

14 For a fuller discussion of the purpose of death for the unbeliever, see Louis Berkhof, Systematic Theology, 4th ed. (Grand Rapids: Wm. B. Eerdmans, 1941), 257-58. In addition to the vindication of divine justice, Berkhof includes the secondary purposes of reforming and deterring sinners, both of which relate to the operations of God’s common grace.

15 Lectures on the Doctrine of Man & Sin (Unpublished Lecture Notes, 2015), 370.

Bob Gonzales Bio

Dr. Robert Gonzales (BA, MA, PhD, Bob Jones Univ.) has served as a pastor of four Reformed Baptist congregations and has been the Academic Dean and a professor of Reformed Baptist Seminary (Sacramento, CA) since 2005. He is the author of Where Sin Abounds: the Spread of Sin and the Curse in Genesis with Special Focus on the Patriarchal Narratives (Wipf & Stock, 2010) and has contributed to the Reformed Baptist Theological Review, The Founders Journal, and Westminster Theological Journal. He blogs at It is Written.


Suffering molds and tests our faith (I Peter 1:6-7). The suffering and testing of our faith before the Father is more precious than anything else.

Good study (whole series) on a topic that is, as I age, increasingly important to me.

Views expressed are always my own and not my employer's, my church's, my family's, my neighbors', or my pets'. The house plants have authorized me to speak for them, however, and they always agree with me.