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Understanding physical and spiritual death

Stained glass window depicting Adam and Eve in the Garden of Eden. jorisvo / Shutterstock.com

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Question: The Book of Wisdom says: “For God formed man to be imperishable; the image of his own nature he made him. But by the envy of the devil, death entered the world, and they who are allied with him experience it” (2:23-24). Does this mean that if someone belongs to the devil, he will die, or does it mean that he will die spiritually by going to hell when he dies?

Jim Mader, via email

Answer: Your second interpretation is best. While we will all die physically, not all who die can be said to belong to the devil. But let’s look at these verses carefully since there are some important nuances and developments.

In the first place, we are taught that God formed us to be immortal since we are made in God’s image. Therefore, one of the preternatural gifts that Adam and Eve had was that they, and we their descendants, would never die. God also warned them not to eat of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil, lest they die. God wanted them to trust him to teach them what was good and evil, not seek to know and experience this for themselves. As we sadly know, Adam and Eve did sin by eating from that tree and lost the gift of immortality. Death would one day be their lot, and ours too. This sin and its harm has reached us all. Scripture says, “Therefore, just as through one person sin entered the world, and through sin, death … thus death came to all, inasmuch as all sinned” (Rom 5:12). So, death is related to sin. St. Paul says, “The wages of sin is death” (Rom 6:23).

We are also taught by this passage that the envy of the devil led him to tempt Eve and to draw both Adam and Eve into sin. He saw their excellence and that they were made in the image of God. Despising them for this excellence, he set out to destroy it in them. Sadly, he was successful by getting them to sin.

So death comes to us by sin and by the envy of the devil; it is all connected. Hence, the Wisdom text speaks of this connection and describes all who die as being somehow in the grip or company of Satan. But this should not be understood in the absolute sense that all who have died are, by that fact alone, friends of Satan. Rather, it means that death has reached us all since we have all sinned and by it have kept at least some company with the devil. For even the just man sins seven times a day (cf. Prov 24:16).

Since the coming of Christ we can now add your idea of not dying spiritually. Jesus Christ has saved our souls from eternal death. Right now, however, our bodies are still subject to death until the second coming of the Lord when our bodies will be restored to us, gloriously transformed. This means that the Wisdom text takes on a clearer meaning. While physical death still occurs to the faithful now, eternal life is already available for our souls. Eternal life does not merely begin when we enter heaven, it is available even now. Eternal life refers to the fullness of life, not only its length. And, on account of the grace of salvation, a fuller, richer, happier and increasingly sin free life is offered to us here and will be perfected in heaven. But this is for the redeemed of Christ, not those in the company of the devil. If we are in a state of grace, we are alive. But if we are in mortal sin, we are dead in our sins. Though our bodies may still be alive our soul is moribund and heading for what Scripture calls “the second death” (cf. Rev 20:14; 21:8), which is the descent into hell. The second death is the opposite of eternal life. While the damned are “alive” in the strict sense of being aware and even one day having their bodies restored, their life is like death compared to the full and eternal life of the just.

Hence, the Wisdom text read in the context of the New Testament teaches us that the just in a state of grace have received and are increasingly experiencing eternal and full life. Those in the company of Satan, however, are in the grip of death and darkness, and it is getting worse for them all the time until they repent.

Msgr. Charles Pope is the pastor of Holy Comforter-St. Cyprian in Washington, D.C., and writes for the Archdiocese of Washington, D.C. at blog.adw.org. Send questions to msgrpope@osv.com.

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