A common claim by annihilationists is that since the punishment of the unsaved is sometimes referred to as death, it helps annihilationism (since we know what dead bodies are like). Many (though not all) annihilationists are physicalists, or are dualists who believe in soul sleep, so to them, there is no conscious existence of any sort after death (until the resurrection when the body is made to be alive again). Since “death” describes the fate of the lost, you could see how this would be seen as supporting annihilationism. If they were clearly right about what death is, then we could leave it at that.
However, that is not a given. Also, since most traditionalists are dualists, it is worthy to note that, even if the immaterial soul does keep living on after death, the fact that the lost suffer “death” still fits annihilationism better than it does the traditional view. This follow is an excerpt from “The Bible Teaches Annihilationism” [as originally written at the time of the original publication of this post] from a section titled “The True Relationship Between Separation And Death”:
I don’t think I need to demonstrate to anyone that the saved inherit “life” in contrast to the damned. This is common in scripture in the Bible. We say this all the time without even thinking about it. Who doesn’t know John 3.16? Given what death and life ostensibly look like in life, it should be no surprise that annihationists across the board make reference to this fact. Although I am not entirely sure that spiritual death is in view in this passage, one could still neatly sum it up with the words of Romans 6.23: “For the wages of sin is death; but the free gift of God is eternal life in Christ Jesus our Lord” (emphasis added). Other passages, such as James 1:15 and 5.20, also speak of death as being the fruit of sin, and there it is surely speaking of it in a spiritual sense. Can the fate of “death” in contrast to “life” be reconciled to eternal torment?
It is argued, in defense of the traditional doctrine, that death is not a form non-existence, that it is not really “death” as we might have seen it as children, but that it really means separation. The first death is the separation of the body from the soul/spirit (be them one entity or two). The second death is also separation, only this time, it is the whole person being separated from God. Thus, when sinners are warned of “death,” it means separation from God.
This may surprise some, but I don’t disagree that death is separation. Really, I agree with the above premises. Death does mean a separation. When you die the first time, the spirit becomes separated from the body, (controversies over the definition of “spirit” aside). After all, according to James 2.26 (in what is also a useful reminder of what our lives as Christians should look like): “For as the body apart from the spirit is dead, even so faith apart from works is dead.” (nasb) When the Bible speaks of the “second death” (e.g. Revelation 2.11; 20.14), it probably is the body and spirit (or body, spirit, and soul), the whole person, being eternally separated from God.
However, the question is this: is biblical death the separation itself, or the result of the separation? Put another way, are both elements that are separated from one another “dead,” or does the separation of two things that occurs at death cause the death of just one? If death refers to the separation itself, then would that not mean that when a person dies physical death, their spirit is dead too (assuming dualism)? After all, both are separated from something. Furthermore, if the second death is separation from God, would that then mean that God is dead? After all, He is separated from the damned person…
As soon as we leave behind the hasty Christian cliché that death means a separation and see what the Bible says, like in James 2.26, it becomes clear that death is what is caused by separation. When separation occurs, death occurs. Both parties are separated, which causes one of the separated parties to die. A body without a spirit is dead, but a spirit is not dead without a body. God is not dead…ever, yet most would agree that you are “spiritually dead” if you are without God. Death is the result of the separation.
However, this turns the idea of death fitting with eternal existence on its head. Why? Well, if the separation of the body and spirit causes the body to die, then to have an idea of what death is like, we need only to look at a dead body. What is a dead body like? A dead body is cold, has no feeling, no thoughts, no perception, and eventually decays and decomposes. If that is what a dead body is like, what then of a person who is dead both bodily and spiritually? Why would we just assume that a dead spirit is somehow animated and conscious when a dead body is not?
This discussion has, for centuries, been muddled by human language. After all, when a person suffers physical death, we don’t say that his body died.” No, we would say that the person died. With this in mind, one mistakenly thinks that at physical death the whole person dies, and since the person does not cease to exist but is conscious as a soul/spirit, one emphasizes the fact that it is a separation. But really, the body is what dies. That’s specifically what James 2.26 says. Assuming dualism, the whole person does not die. Assuming dualism, when a saved person suffers physical death, their spirit is obviously not dead in any sense of the word. And yet, they are still dead, because their body is dead, and the corpse of a believer is as dead as anything else on this side of eternity. At physical death, a separation occurs, and thus death means separation. However, it is really like this: at physical death, a separation occurs, which causes the body to die.
This is further demonstrated by Christ’s warning to his disciples in Matthew 10.28: “Do not fear those who kill the body but are unable to kill the soul; but rather fear Him who is able to destroy both soul and body in hell.” (NASB) In context, Jesus is referring to men who might react violently to the disciples’ message. What is it that men do? They kill the body. They cannot kill the soul. I think this makes it quite clear. Physical death is when the body dies from being separated from the spirit. Now, we could say that Jesus only says that physical death inflicted by men cannot kill the soul, and that other forms of physical death could, but is anybody going to? Jesus’ disciples would understandably fear for their safety. There isn’t some metaphorical aspect here. All that men can kill is the body, not the whole person (which God can “destroy”). Physical death kills the body, not the soul.
The rest of that section goes into some related topics, including how the words for “death” apply both to men and animals, a look at Adam and Eve and their “death,” and a look at claims that the lost are already “dead” and why those don’t show show what we are told that they show. But for now, the fact that what is “dead” is only the unconscious, decomposing corpse, and not the conscious soul, should at least make us think, shouldn’t it?
(Originally published 08/20/2011: http://3-ringbinder.blogspot.com/2011/08/if-death-means-separation-between-body.html. Immaterial changes have been made).