Death: What Happens When We Die?

Humans have been dying for a really long time. While there’s no doubt that we’ve gotten better at avoiding it, it seems it can’t be put off indefinitely. Even the most mild and mediocre of lives may get us to a grand old century or more, but old age catches up with us in the end.  Dying is one of life’s great certainties.

’Tis impossible to be sure of any thing but Death and Taxes. – The Cobbler of Preston by Christopher Bullock (1716)

But where do we go when we die? What really happens to us? And why can’t we escape death?

Death and DNA

In pre-industrial times, environmental factors such as disease, accidents, and malnutrition contributed to death rates in young or middle age. Deaths from childbirth were common for women, and many children did not live past infancy. However, since 1840, life expectancy has been slowly rising for both men and women, albeit at a lesser rate for men. Despite this, we are all still subject to aging, a process that cannot be halted, and which inevitably results in death.

A concept called the Hayflick Limit was put forward in 1965 by Leonard Hayflick which explains the mechanisms behind cellular aging. The concept states that a normal human cell can only replicate and divide forty to sixty times before it cannot divide anymore. It will then break down by programmed cell death or apoptosis.

During cell replication, telomeres, sequences of DNA which protect against irregularities in normal DNA functions, begin to shorten at the end of the chromosomes. These telomeres act like a buffer zone but gradually shorten over time until eventually the cells themselves become degraded and can no longer replicate correctly. Telomeres, therefore, are part of the built-in biological clock that causes aging, body deterioration and death.

Integral to this process is telomerase, which is an enzyme that repairs telomeres and is present in various cells in the human body, especially during human growth and development. However, this enzyme is ‘switched off’ in adult humans. Although a telomerase-activating compound was recently discovered, telomerase rejuvenation in adults is directly linked to the development and spread of cancers throughout the body.

While it might be possible to reactivate telomerase in humans, this would also increase the development and growth of cancers – certainly not an optimal outcome. So, despite advances in science and medicine, the ‘cure for death’ alludes us. It seems that death is hard-coded into our DNA and we cannot fight against it.

Dying Started In Eden

Death is the unfortunate consequence of an event that happened long ago, in the garden of Eden – the place where human history begins.

The creation of humanity was not accidental or incidental, but purposeful. We were created to “be like” God – made in His image and after His likeness and with the potential to be a true reflection of Him in every way. Yet God’s purpose – to populate earth with people He could call His family, who were like Him in every way – wasn’t to be achieved by coercion. From the very beginning, God established the principle of free choice. He wanted us to choose Him, to want to be like Him.

He established Adam and Eve, the first man and woman, in the garden of Eden and gave them dominion over all things. Mankind was created ‘very good’ (Genesis 1:31), formed from the dust of the earth by the fingers of God. There was only one condition that God placed on Adam and Eve, together with a warning about the catastrophic consequences of not obeying that command:

“And the LORD God commanded him [Adam], “You may eat freely from every tree of the garden, but you must not eat from the tree of the knowledge of good and evil; for in the day that you eat of it, you will surely die.”- Genesis 2:17 (NIV)

The book of Genesis proceeds to lay out the grim story of Adam and Eve’s fall; from ‘very good’ creatures (the logical conclusion from careful reading is that they were neither mortal nor immortal when first created (Genesis 3:22), to dying, mortal creatures. This terrible consequence came as a result of their disbelief of God’s warning and their disobedience of His command (Genesis 3:1-22).

Mankind and Mortality

The phrase used in Genesis 2:17;  “in the day that you eat of it, you will surely die“, has the idea, in the hebrew language, of “dying, you will die“. Its meaning is not of an immediate effect but a continuous, gradual one leading to death; an apt description of the inevitable result of cellular aging that we see at work in the human body. (For a more detailed explanation of the hebrew phraseology and how it is translated, you can read this article).

Adam and Eve were banished from the garden and from God’s presence. From that time, humans became ‘dying creatures’, subject to disease, aging and mortality. Dying became hard-coded into our DNA.

“By the sweat of your brow you will eat your food until you return to the ground, since from it you were taken; for dust you are and to dust you will return.” – Genesis 3:19 (NIV)

But What About My Soul?

“Then the LORD God formed a man from the dust of the ground and breathed into his nostrils the breath of life, and the man became a living soul.” (Hebrew: nephesh). – Genesis 2:7 (NIV)

The word nephesh, translated ‘living soul’ here in Genesis, occurs 754 times in the Hebrew Bible. The first four times is used exclusively to describe animals: Genesis 1:20 (sea life), Genesis 1:21 (great sea life), Genesis 1:24 (land creatures), Genesis 1:30 (birds and land creatures). In Genesis 2, nephesh is used as a description of mankind.

Traditionally translated “soul” in English language Bibles, nephesh refers to a living, breathing conscious body, not an immortal soul. In fact, the concept of an immortal soul, distinct from the body, cannot be found in Judaism before the Babylonian exile (circa 605 BCE). Rather, this concept developed as a result of later interaction with Persian and Hellenistic philosophies.

Nepes [v,p,n] (nephesh) in the Old Testament is never the “immortal soul” but simply the life principle or living being. Such is observable in Genesis 1:20, 21, 24, where the qualified (living) nepes [v,p,n] refers to animals and is rendered “living creatures.” The same Hebrew term is then applied to the creation of humankind in Genesis 2:7, where dust is vitalised by the breath of God and becomes a “living being.” Thus, human beings share ‘soul’ with the animals. It is the breath of God that makes the lifeless dust a “living being” person. – Baker’s Evangelical Dictionary of Bible Theology

The word nephesh is often also used in the expression of physical needs such as hunger and thirst (Deuteronomy 12:20, 1 Samuel 2:16, Proverbs 25:25),  excessive desires (Proverbs 23:2), unfulfilled desires (1 Samuel 1:15) or spiritual/volitional desires, such as the desire for God (Psalm 42:1-2), justice (Isaiah 26:8-9), evil (Proverbs 21:10), and political power (2 Samuel 3:21). Emotions are expressed by nephesh, such as hate (Isaiah 1:14), grief (Jeremiah 13:17), joy and exultation, disquietude (Psalm 42:5), and unhappiness (1 Samuel 1:15).

“Clearly, then, in the Old Testament, a mortal is a living soul rather than having a soul. Instead of splitting a person into two or three parts, Hebrew thought sees a unified being, but one that is profoundly complex, a psycho-physical being.” – Baker’s Evangelical Dictionary of Bible Theology

Dust To Dust

Humans were formed from the dust of the earth, in the same way that the animals were created, and all were animated by God’s spirit. Our life force comes from Him and when we die, that life force returns to Him.

“So our bodies return to the earth, and the life-giving breath returns to God.” – Ecclesiastes 12:7 (NIV)

In death, our consciousness ceases, the breath of life that sustained us returns to God who gave it and our physical body returns to organic matter, as does all living things once death has occurred. In the state of death, there is neither memory (Psalm 88:12), purpose (Ecclesiastes 9:10), or thought (Psalm 115:17). There is no immortal soul, that wends its way to either heaven, hell or purgatory. At the physical moment of death, we simply cease to exist.

Death Does Not Have To Be The End…

If death really is the final outcome for all of humanity, it would seem that God’s purpose has been seriously thwarted and life, as we know it, is something of a farce.

Yet the Bible promises this is not the end – not for those who truly seek to be part of God’s purpose and part of His family.

The Bible preaches a message of hope – of good news – in which Jesus came to save the world from sin, mortality and death.

Jesus came to restore the relationship between God and humanity, which was severed in the garden of Eden. By his death and resurrection, believers also have the hope of life after death – to live again through resurrection. In fact, the Bible boldly states that Jesus’ resurrection is the proof that God can and will do what we may think is humanly impossible.

“For as in Adam all die, so in Christ all will be made alive” – 1 Corinthians 15:22 (NIV)

“And if Christ weren’t raised, then all you’re doing is wandering about in the dark, as lost as ever…but the truth is, Christ has been raised up, the first in a long legacy of those who are going to leave the cemeteries.” 1 Corinthians 12-20, MSG

This teaching of the good news of the resurrection – that man can escape the power of the grave – was what set early, first-century Christianity apart from other religions and philosophies. Jesus himself confirms this truth, saying:

“I am the resurrection and the life. He who believes in Me, though he may die, he shall live” (John 11:25) (JB 2000)

The hope of life after death is one of the key components of the gospel message and its promise is the reversing of the sentence of mortality and death, passed in Eden.

The good news promised by the gospel is that death doesn’t have to be the end!

The most startling characteristic of the first Christian preaching is its emphasis on the resurrection. The first preachers were sure that Christ had risen, and sure, in consequence, that believers would in due course rise also. This set them off from all the other teachers of the ancient world…Nothing is more characteristic of even the best thought of the day than its hopelessness in the face of death. Clearly, the resurrection is of the very first importance for the Christian faith” – The New Bible Dictionary 1996, p. 1010, “Resurrection”.


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