In a conversation with a friend today the topic of death came up, he’s getting ready to lead a mid-week class on it. Before our conversation he thought that a Christian view of death was about distinguishing between physical and spiritual death, physical happened at the end of our life. While not denying the importance of the distinction between physical and spiritual death I also urged him to consider that the wider story of scripture seems to speak about physical death in a more nuanced fashion, that it doesn’t just happen when we’re buried. That someone can be completely dead, mostly dead, mostly alive, and completely alive depending on whether or not they were in the land of promise and in covenant community with God and his people. At least that’s how the Bible talks about death throughout its story. While understanding the difference between physical and spiritual death is a very significant truth we hold while thinking about salvation and sanctification, understanding how that distinction relates to the land and community gets us closer to reading the story of the Bible on its own terms.

We fleshed out the different ways these perspectives work by looking at Adam and Eve’s death in Genesis: what did God mean when he said “if you eat of the this fruit you will surely die“? My friend said that they did die, but that there death was spiritual and not physical right away. I suggested to him that while they certainly died spiritually, their physical death also took place immediately because they were removed from the land of promise – the garden of Eden – and they were taken out of communion with God which had immediate impact on their own family community but did not erase it entirely – ie Cann killed Abel and was exiled from his family. These things were indications that Adam and Eve did die physically, in the sense that they lost their land and their community. They were mostly dead. Why don’t most Christians understand physical death in this manner? I think its because most of us don’t understand the larger story of the Hebrew Bible (OT); and because what grips us most about death is the grave. 

One of the richest parts of my education at Westminster has been their Old Testament department. I am forever indebted to Al Groves, Peter Enns, Doug Green, Mike Kelly, and Trempor Longman; they’ve taught me the importance of stoping and asking myself this question: do I really understand the message of the Old Testament? Because the Old Testament is the foundation of all our beliefs, without it the New Testament doesn’t make sense.