The biblical concept of death is complex, like the reality it seeks to describe. Death is both natural and intrusive; it occasions no undue anxiety except in unusual circumstances such as premature departure, violence, or childless demise, and it is the greatest enemy facing humankind. In Genesis 3, death acts as punishment for primeval rebellion (see Fall, The). In the New Testament, one special death, that of Jesus, cancels every claim against guilty persons; hence each negative feature regarding death is balanced by its opposite. Ultimately, death is robbed of its power, and its elimination is anticipated (see Hos. 13.14; 1 Cor. 15.55–56).
Belief in the solidarity of the family enabled ancient Israelites to accept death calmly, for in death a person simply slept with one's ancestors. Nevertheless, this sleep was subject to disturbance, prompting a cult of the dead and the effort to contact the departed. Official Yahwism condemned both activities (Lev. 19.31; 20.27; Deut. 18.11), while implicitly acknowledging their efficacy (1 Sam. 28; cf. 1 Chron. 10.13). The conviction that a deed was met with an appropriate consequence gained ascendancy, particularly in prophetic and wisdom literature. This popular notion eventuated in an understanding of death as punishment (Gen. 2–3), theoretically implying that humankind could have lived forever. A Ugaritic text, Aqhat, denies the seductive suggestion that a mortal could live forever. Such reflection about death, though rare, does occur elsewhere, especially in 2 Esdras 7 and in Paul (Rom. 5.12–21). A mythological idea of Death as combatant lies behind this development. Yahweh does battle with Mot, the Canaanite name for this foe, and subjugates the enemy. Henceforth death acts on orders from Israel's God, the ultimate source of good and evil. The result is a problem of monumental proportions, that of theodicy.
References to death in the Bible presuppose a worldview that differs from modern concepts. Life consists of well‐being, and death signifies diminished life. Consequently, one must speak about degrees of death. A sick person, or a persecuted one, described the peril as death and characterized deliverance as emergence from death's grip; this convention clarifies much of the languages of the Psalms. A symbolic meaning of death thus developed. The Deuteronomist urges Israel to choose life, not death (Deut. 30.19), and Ezekiel denies that God desires death for anyone (Ezek. 18.31). This powerful imagery for death carries over into the New Testament, where baptism (Rom. 6.3) and discipleship are illuminated by speech about dying (2 Cor. 4.11; 1 Pet. 2.24; Rev. 12.11).
At first Israelites assumed that death was the end, at least of life as we know it. This somber message underlies the epic of Gilgamesh, a story about a heroic king's efforts to obtain eternal life. Once water was spilled on the ground, none could retrieve it, to use a metaphor employed by the woman of Tekoa (2 Sam. 14.14). Emerging individualism and harsh political realities forged a bold hope that a resurrection would take place, at least in rare instances (Isa. 26.19; Dan. 12.2, prefigured by Hos. 6.2 and Ezek. 37). Greek belief in body and soul as separate entities enabled this hope to become strong conviction by Roman times (see Human Person).
Israel's theologians believed that God alone had authority to terminate life; those responsible for executing criminals acted in God's behalf. Suicide is rarely mentioned in the Bible (1 Sam. 31.4; 2 Sam. 17.23; 1 Kings 16.18; Matt. 27.5; Acts. 1.18), in contrast to texts from Egypt and Mesopotamia, in which suicide occurs in dire straits occasioned by shame or impending torture. In his misery Job entertains thoughts of suicide (Job 3.21; 7.15), and the author of Ecclesiastes has a fascination for death (Eccles. 4.2–3), but neither opts for early departure. Sirach recognizes that personal circumstances determine one's attitude toward death (41.1–2). Occasional death wishes occur—Elijah (1 Kings 19.4), Tobit (3.6), Jonah (4.8)—and Paul confesses to having mixed feelings about death, which held many attractive features for him, in that he would then be with Christ (Phil. 1.23).
Apocalyptic thinking posits the dawn of a new age, a resurrection, and a final reckoning. The gospel of John views Jesus' presence as proof of the resurrection, and the book of Revelation proclaims the complete eradication of death (21.4), which Paul also declares (1 Cor. 15.54). Christians therefore need not fear the isolation of death, for nothing can separate the believer from God (Rom. 8.38–39). This attitude is not a denial of death, the plague of the human spirit, but a recognition of the sovereignty of the covenant of God despite the grim fact of death.
James L. Crenshaw