Did Jesus Die?

Most folks, Christian or not, would answer “yes” to that question, but if you dig a little deeper, the answer is not so clear.

If Jesus was a human being, then Jesus died as all human beings do. What many Christians believe, not only about Jesus but about themselves too, is that no one really dies. There is a notion that humans are made up of two parts: a body and a soul. The body dies, but the soul is immortal. When the body does, the soul floats away, perhaps to wander the earth to complete something left undone in life, or to enter some kind of “soul sleep”, or to float up to heaven, descend to hell or maybe pass a few million years in purgatory. Jesus, in particular, is often seen as a human body with a divine soul. As one said to me, “Jesus is God, and God cannot die. The man Jesus died, but his divine nature did not.”

What do the scriptures say? Here’s Mark:

(Mark 15:37 KJV) And Jesus cried with a loud voice, and gave up the ghost.

This is an unfortunate translation for modern readers. What the text literally says is: “And Jesus, having uttered a loud cry, expired.”1 and most modern translations translate the phrase “breathed his last”. In Greek, it’s just one word, exepneusen–nothing about ghosts in there.

Enough of ghosts–what about spirits?

(Luke 23:46 NRSV) Then Jesus, crying with a loud voice, said, “Father, into your hands I commend my spirit.” Having said this, he breathed his last.

Literally, it says: “And having cried out with a loud voice, Jesus said, Father, into [the] hands of you I entrust the spirit of me.”1 and in Greek, pneuma tou. The Greek is the root we find in many modern words beginning “pneuma”, like pneumatic, or pneumonia. The word literally means “breath”, “wind” or “spirit”2, and can imply such things as “essence”, “vital principle” or “mental disposition”3. Again, there is nothing here specifically indicating a ghost-like, non-corporeal life essence that continues after death.

OK, how about that “soul”?

The word “soul” appears frequently in the Bible. Nowhere is it a disembodied spirit that wanders about after death. The word can mean “person” or “one’s deepest self”. If we come to scripture with a preconception that “soul” is something separate from the body, we may read it wrong. If we try without preconceptions, it becomes clear that “soul” is never used for a disembodied spirit. Some sample verses include:

(Gen 2:7 KJV) And the LORD God formed man of the dust of the ground, and breathed into his nostrils the breath of life; and man became a living soul.

(Gen 34:3 NRSV) And his soul was drawn to Dinah daughter of Jacob; he loved the girl, and spoke tenderly to her.

(Gen 35:18 NRSV) As her soul was departing (for she died), she named him Ben-oni; but his father called him Benjamin.

This last example is instructive. One might look and say “aha, here is the ghost leaving”. In Hebrew, the word is “nephesh”. This again implies “breath” or “vitality”.

(Deu 10:12 NRSV) So now, O Israel, what does the LORD your God require of you? Only to fear the LORD your God, to walk in all his ways, to love him, to serve the LORD your God with all your heart and with all your soul,

How about this division:

(1 Th 5:23 NRSV) May the God of peace himself sanctify you entirely; and may your spirit and soul and body be kept sound and blameless at the coming of our Lord Jesus Christ.

And just what is “dead”?

(Mark 12:25 KJV) For when they shall rise from the dead, they neither marry, nor are given in marriage; but are as the angels which are in heaven.

The Greek word, nekrwn, means “dead”, coming from a primitive root meaning “corpse”. In this text Jesus suggests that the resurrection is a future event and that whatever the the resurrected dead will one day do, they are not doing it now.

(Acts 2:24-29 NRSV) But God raised him up, having freed him from death, because it was impossible for him to be held in its power. {25} For David says concerning him, ‘I saw the Lord always before me, for he is at my right hand so that I will not be shaken; {26} therefore my heart was glad, and my tongue rejoiced; moreover my flesh will live in hope. {27} For you will not abandon my soul to Hades, or let your Holy One experience corruption. {28} You have made known to me the ways of life; you will make me full of gladness with your presence.’ {29} “Fellow Israelites, I may say to you confidently of our ancestor David that he both died and was buried, and his tomb is with us to this day.

(Acts 10:39-41 NRSV) We are witnesses to all that he did both in Judea and in Jerusalem. They put him to death by hanging him on a tree; {40} but God raised him on the third day and allowed him to appear, {41} not to all the people but to us who were chosen by God as witnesses, and who ate and drank with him after he rose from the dead.

(Eph 1:20 NRSV) God put this power to work in Christ when he raised him from the dead and seated him at his right hand in the heavenly places,

This essay remains unfinished, as is my thinking on the topic.


Notes:

1. Literal translations and Greek text are taken from The Greek English Interlinear New Testament, Translators: Robert K. Brown and Philip W. Comfort; Editor: J. D. Douglas, Tyndale House Publishers, Inc., Wheaton, Illinois 1990.

2. American Heritage Dictionary

3. Strong’s Concordance.


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