“Though he were dead” – A Controversial Understanding of John 11:25-26

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Jesus said unto her, I am the resurrection, and the life:
 a. he that believes in me, though he were dead [i.e. 1st Death], yet shall he live [i.e. 2nd Life]:
 b. And whosoever liveth [i.e. 1st Life]and believes in me shall never die [i.e. 2nd Death].
 Believest thou this?

John 11:25-26 KJV

John 11:25-26 – The Problem of a Superfluous Verse

Like many other verses in the bible, John 11:25-26 uses certain words in multiple senses. This means that the reader needs to be extra careful when trying to understand such verses in order to avoid ending up with the wrong interpretation. What I am about to say will no doubt shock many readers, but after much study, I strongly believe that John 11: 25-26 is referring to the idea that it is possible for (at least some of) the dead to believe the gospel in that state. I hope to demonstrate this discovery by carefully revealing what I believe to be the true meaning of key terms in this passage. Specifically, I believe that the term “dead” (in v.25) does not mean the same as “die” (in v.26) nor does “live” (in v.25) mean the same as “liveth” (in v.26). In other words, the verbs die and live are words to which these two verses have ascribed multiple meanings. Of course, when John 11:25-26 employs different meanings for the same word, this is not done in order to engage in equivocation (i.e. the accidental or deliberate use of a key term in an ambiguous way) but for the sake of achieving contrast through the use of a biblical literary device known as an antithetical parallelism. According to Biblical scholar E.W. Bullinger’s Figures Of Speech Used in the Bible, the antithetical parallelism is used to demonstrate an antithesis, or contrast between certain words in each part of a symmetry . Verses which comprise an antithetical parallelism will therefore join opposing ideas in a noticeable contrast. Instead of repeating the same thing twice (as is done in a synonymous parallelism), an antithetical parallelism will say one thing in the first line and then a different thing in the next. Yet, most explanations of John 11:25-26 which I have encountered miss Christ’s glaring attempt at creating a contrast, and end up with what is effectively the same proposition for both verses. For instance, respected Bible commentators Albert Barnes and Adam Clarke both suggest that John 11:25 refers to the granting of eternal life to those who happen to die in a state of belief, while John 11:26 refers to the granting of eternal life to believers who are currently alive (but will also eventually die) [ref]. But if this is the case, then why is Jesus saying what is effectively the same thing, twice? What is the difference? No, there has to be something else going on in this passage. It is for these reasons that I have concluded that John 11:25-26 requires greater scrutiny.

Because the usual meaning of the verbs “die” and “live” seem inadequate to account for the contrast required between verses 25 and 26, we need to consult the Scriptures for more guidance. It’s as if the word “dead” (in verse 25) and “die” (in verse 26) require two different types of death, and the words “live” (in verse 25) and “liveth” (in verse 26) require two different notions of what it means to live.

Interestingly enough, the bible does tell us that there are actually two types of life and death that a person can experience. Let us first examine the two deaths.

The First Death vs. The Second Death

The first kind of death is simply called death and refers to the bodily death that all men are appointed to face (e.g. Genesis 2:16-17, Genesis 3:19, Psalms 89:48). Hereafter (and for the sake of disambiguation), we will call this death the first deathThat this particular death is the first is also implied from the fact that there is a “second death” mentioned in Revelation 2:11. Virtually everyone should be familiar with the first death since it has befallen every member of the human race, since the beginning of creation, starting particularly with Adam and Eve. The only exceptions (apart from those that will be raptured) are Enoch (Hebrews 11:5) and Elijah (2 Kings 2:11) and the jury is still out concerning whether their deaths are yet to occur (Revelation 11:3, Malachi 4:5). In rare instances, certain members of the human race have experienced the first death more than once.  Two examples are the son of the Zarephathian widow who was raised from the dead during the ministry of Elijah (1 Kings 17:10-22) and Lazarus who was raised from the dead during the ministry of Christ (Mark 5:41-42). As a disease which gradually becomes worse, the first death has already befallen all members of the human race because the first death is a progressive process which begins at birth and culminates in one’s final breath. That the first death occurs gradually is understood from its inaugural use in Genesis 2:17. There, the word death is repeated twice in the Hebrew phrase “moth tahmuth” which literally means “dying thou shalt die.” However, most of the time when the first death appears in Scripture (including John 11:25-26) it refers to a final state of being—the lifeless state of a person who has succumbed to bodily decay. On several occasions, the Bible employs the word sleep as a euphemism for the first death (e.g. Daniel 12:2, Matthew 9:24, John 11:11-14, Acts 7:60; 13:36, 1 Corinthians 11:30; 15:18-20 15:60, Ephesians 5:14, 1 Thessalonians 4:13-15, 2 Peter 3:4).

The second kind of death is appropriately called the second death and refers to the act of experiencing everlasting destruction from the presence of God in the Lake of Fire as described in Matthew 25:41, 2 Thessalonians 1:9, & Revelation 20:14-15; 21:8. The second death applies to anyone who has disobeyed the Gospel, thereby having their names excluded from the Lamb’s Book of Life (Revelations 20:11-15, 21:8). The second death is probably less familiar to folks since it is only explicitly spoken of four times in the entire Bible (Revelation 2:11; 20:6,14; 21:8). On the other hand, the second death is implied in dozens of other verses. For example, when the famous Bible verse John 3:16 tells us that those who believe in God’s only begotten Son will never perish, the word “perish” is really a synonym for the second death.

The second death is somewhat of a paradox in that it involves the perpetual destruction of an immortal body. Therefore, in order to fully grasp its meaning, we must set aside any notion of destruction that pertains to the natural body and allow our minds to embrace the type of destruction that would pertain to a spiritual body (1 Corinthians 15:42-44).

The First Death and the Second Death: Pre-judgement vs Post-judgment

One important difference between the first and second death is that the first death is a pre-judgment death while the Second Death is a post-judgment death. The bible informs us that “it is appointed unto men once to die, but after this the judgment.” Since the word “die” in Hebrews 9:27 is referring to the first death and since it occurs before judgment  then this means that everyone is appointed to die the first death.

The second death, the bible tells us, happens after and is the result of the final judgment which occurs before God’s great white throne (called G.W.T. hereafter) in Revelation 20:11-15, 21:8; for there we read:

“I saw a great white throne…and I saw the dead, small and great, stand before God…and the dead were judged out of those things which were written in the books, according to their works…and whosoever was not found written in the book of life was cast into the lake of fire…which is the second death.”

One interesting thing about the first death is that the bible tells us it will eventually relinquish its power over all men only to itself face the irony of being subjected to the second death (Revelation 20:13-14). Looking to the time when this will be accomplished, 2 Timothy 1:10 informs us that Christ has already “abolished death.” The first death’s future demise is something so certain that it is expressed as having already occurred! Of course, this certainty is rooted in verses such as 1 Corinthians 15:26 which tell us that “the last enemy that shall be destroyed is [the first] death.”

One interesting thing about the second death is that it does not rely upon the meaning of the first death. Matthew 10:28 offers a nice contrast between these two deaths. For there we read:

And fear not them which kill the body, but are not able to kill the soul [i.e. first death]: but rather fear him which is able to destroy both soul and body in hell [i.e. second death].

In the first death, the immortal soul and the mortal body are permanently separated, but in the Second Death both the soul and the resurrected body are immortal (1 Corinthians 15:53-55) and will remain intact to face everlasting punishment (Matthew 25:46) and everlasting destruction (2 Thessalonians 1:8-9). Therefore, when Matthew 10:28 uses the word apollumi [i.e. destroy] for the second death instead of apokteinō [i.e. kill] as He does for the first death, this reminds us that though the second death involves destruction, it precludes the possibility of annihilation (Mark 9:44-48). Since the Bible promises that the first death will itself be consumed by the second death (Revelation 20:13-14) it is no longer possible for resurrected persons to be killed again in the sense of the first death.

Two Types of Resurrection and Two Resurrection Events: The First Resurrection vs. The Second Resurrection

As with the pattern of a two-fold death and life, according to verses like Daniel 12:2John 5:29 & Acts 24:15 there are also two types of resurrection and two distinct resurrection events. Each of theses two events perpetrate the mass resurrection of individuals who are either part of the Resurrection of Life or the Resurrection of Damnation. Hence, the two types of resurrection are distinguished by those who will either rise to receive eternal life or rise to await the second death. According to 1 Corinthians 15:20, the first resurrection event began with Christ’s own resurrection (since He was “the firstfruits of them that slept”) and according to Revelation 20:5-6 it will end right before the start of Christ’s Millennial reign. The second resurrection event will occur after those thousand years have expired (Revelation 20:5; 20:11-15). Interestingly, “the dead” in Revelation 20:11-15 are those whose bodies are raised in the second resurrection in order to stand before God in judgment (c.f. Revelation 20:5).

By the way, it is not necessary to assume that all those present at the G.W.T. Judgment are the same number of persons who will face the second death. Though “the dead” in Revelation 20:11-15 largely refers to those who were not part of the first resurrection, it is likely that this number will also include believers. For instance, those without glorified bodies who are still living at the end of Christ’s millennial reign along with anyone who may have died during this period must, according to 1 Corinthians 15:53, still “put on incorruption, and…immortality.”

Because those who participated in the first resurrection are not among those who are present at the G.W.T. judgment (Revelation 20:4-5, 12), it follows that the second death does not apply to them (Revelation 2:11; 20:6). This means that unlike the first death, the second death is not appointed unto all men.

The Cause of the First Death vs. the Cause of the Second Death

The bible tells us in verses like Romans 3:19 & Romans 5:12-21 that the first death is the result of the condemnation which is carried out upon all flesh by the Law. Through Adam’s disobedience (and subsequently ours), our indwelling Sin used the Law to confer upon us all the first death (Romans 7:11, 2 Corinthians 3:7). But afterwards, the glorious appearance of Christ and His sacrifice on the cross would ultimately render this death-issuing aspect of the Law inoperable (Colossians 2:14, 1 Corinthians 15:56-57). It’s not that the Law no longer issues the death penalty against us—it still does. Rather, the good news is that this death-issuing aspect of the Law is now considered inoperable because the first death‘s reign is coming to an end, and afterwards it will be destroyed (1 Corinthians 15:26, 54-55, Revelation 20:14). This means that ALL those who have died the first death shall not remain in the state of death but will rise again. By the way, there are still several other aspects of the Law which are both operable and beneficial such as the Law’s ability to bring about wisdom (Psalms 19:7), prosperity (Joshua 1:7-8) and the preservation of life (Deuteronomy 6:24). In Psalm 19:11, the Psalmist proclaims that “in keeping of them [i.e. the statues of the Law] there is great reward.” Christ, in Matthew 23:23 reminds us that judgment, mercy and faith are among the Law’s most important purposes. Perhaps this is why Romans 3:31 informs us that the our faith establishes Law.

Nevertheless, after Christ’s sacrifice, the second death becomes universally relevant because now the Gospel is being preached to all men and anyone who yet engages in the life-long act of disobeying the gospel is designated as a recipient of the second death. In Revelation 21:7-8, a distinction is made between those who are subject to the second death and those who aren’t. Those who are exempt from the second death are called overcomers in Revelation 2:11; 3:5Revelation 21:7. In Revelation 2:7; 2:11, 2:17; 2:26; 3:5; 3:12; 3:21; 21:7, the overcomer is made a pillar in God’s temple (3:12), called the heir of all things (21:7), and is given many blessings including: hidden manna (2:17), fruit from the Tree of Life (2:7), power over the nations (2:26), the Messiah’s autograph and His other engravings (3:12), white raiments (3:5), a white stone containing a new God-given name (2:17), a seat in Christ’s throne (3:21) and most importantly, inclusion in the Book of Life (3:5) which also means exemption from the second death (2:11). On the other hand, those whose names are not written in the Book of Life, are those who have chosen not to obey the Gospel and are therefore recipients of the second death (Revelation 21:8). This is understood because, by contrast, 1 John 5:4-5 defines overcomers as those who obey the Gospel, while Revelation 3:5 tells us that these same overcomers are those whose names are irrevocably written in the Book of Life. In Hebrews 2:3, had the disobeyers of the Gospel not “neglected so great a salvation” by remaining in unbelief (Romans 11:23), then their names would have also been “written in the book of life.” Therefore, the second death‘s condemnation is not because of Adam’s “original sin”, nor the Law’s “ministration of condemnation” (in 2 Corinthians 3:9), but because of the active and life-long rejection of Christ’s salvation which is made available to all through the preaching of the gospel. This unforgivable sin which is described in verses such as John 15:22-24, Matthew 12:32, and Mark 3:29) is ultimately the reason why unbelievers are subjected to the horrors of the second death. Accordingly, John 3:19 succinctly describes the entire reasoning behind the second death‘s condemnation in one poignant verdict:

“Light [i.e. Christ & His Gospel] is come into the world, and men loved darkness rather than light, because their deeds were evil.”

The second death, unlike the first, will not be destroyed but will last forever (Matthew 25:41, Mark 9:43-48).

Two types of Hell: the First Hell vs. the Second Hell

The words of Mark 9:43-48 & Revelation 20:13 compel the reader to discern that, just as there are two different types of life, death and resurrection, so also are there two different types of Hell. According to verses such as Luke 16:22-25Revelation 20:13, the first Hell  (i.e. Hebrew: Sheol, Greek: Hades) contains a temporary place of torment [1]. For at the end of Christ’s Millennial reign, the first Hell will relinquish all of its prisoners in order for them to be judged at the G.W.T Judgment of God and then it will itself be thrown into the Lake of Fire which is the second Hell (i.e. Hebrew: Ge-Hinnom, Greek: Gehenna). So, when Matthew 10:23 talks about a Hell in which the unbeliever’s resurrected body and soul will be perpetually destroyed (2 Thessalonians 1:9) or when Mark 9:43-48 talks about a Hell in which there is “fire that never shall be quenched” we are able to distinguish this permanent place called Hell from the temporary Hell mentioned in Revelation 1:18 and Revelation 20:13. This differentiation between the two Hells is important because in most English bibles (and especially in the KJV) the same word Hell is used to describe both the first and second Hell which may confuse the reader into consuming the appertaining verses without distinction.

The biblical theme of there being two types of a thing is not just restricted to life, death, resurrection and Hell. For the Bible also tells us that there are two heaven and earths (Isaiah 66:22, Revelation 21:1), two Jerusalems (Galatians 4:25-26, Revelation 21:2) and two Adams. In speaking of the one who caused the first death, the bible refers to Eve’s husband Adam, as the First Adam (1 Corinthians 15:45-47). By contrast, Jesus—the one who freely offers us the second life—is referred to as the second and Last Adam (1 Corinthians 15:45, 47). This dichotomy of the Adams is instructive because it may be summarized that the first death came upon all flesh due to the disobedience perpetrated by the First Adam, while the second life is made available to all because of the obedience of the Second Adam (Romans 5:18-19). It is fitting then that the second death only comes upon all those who disobey the Second Adam‘s gospel.

Two Types of Life: the First Life vs. the Second Life

As there are two types of death which are spoken of in the bible, there are also two types of life. What we are referring to as the first life is simply called life and every human has lived it to one extent or another. What we are calling the second life is what the Bible refers to as eternal or everlasting life and it begins when a person is “born again” (John 3:3). According to John 3:3-7 & 1 Peter 1:23-25, the term “born again” refers to being reborn by the Spirit of God through faith in the Gospel. All men experience a natural birth (i.e. being born of the flesh—in John 3:6) which is the first birth but not all men will experience the second birth because it is only reserved for believers. As with the second death, the second life is not applicable to all; only those “overcomers” whose names are written in the Lamb’s Book of Life are entitled to the second life (1 John 5:4-5, Revelations 3:5). Since the bible doesn’t use the terms “first life” and “second life” we must determine which one is in scope based upon synonyms or context (e.g. John 5:39-40). Many times the bible refers to the second life without even using the key words eternal or everlasting. In these cases, the context must provide clues necessary to make this determination.

For example, when we read in John 6:33 that “the bread of God is he [i.e. Jesus] which cometh down from heaven, and giveth life unto the world” we understand that the “life” given unto the world must be the second life, because of the context which is established in John 6:39-40. In John 5:24, Jesus clearly describes the second life as not coming into condemnation. This is understood from the parallelism: “hath everlasting life, and shall not come into condemnation.” This instructive verse helps us to see that the most notable aspect of the second life is not partaking of the second death. This verse also permits us to speak of the second life in terms of the second death. All those who are living the second life are those who will never die the second death. One way to remember the relationship between the two births and two deaths is: if you are only born once then you will surely die twice, but if you are born twice then you will only die once.

If it Precludes the Possibility of Death, then it is the Second Death

Hopefully by now it is evident that in order to understand any verse which employs the terms “live” or “die,” one must first ensure that he or she has resolved the correct sense in which these terms are used so that there is no confusion about which meaning is in scope and which one isn’t. To help us achieve this goal, a simple rule emerges. Whenever we encounter verses like John 11:26 which preclude the possibility of death (i.e. “he shall never die”), then we should quickly understand that it is not the first death that is in view but the second. After all, all persons are appointed to die (the first death) but not all are appointed to die the second (Hebrews 9:27). Therefore, the phrase “he shall never die” in John 11:26 really means “he shall never die the second death.” There are other phrases in the bible that should be understood in the same way, some of which include: “should not perish, but have eternal life” in John 3:15, “he shall never see death” in John 8:51, or “is passed from death unto life” in John 5:24.

That bodily death (i.e. the first death) is not meant in John 11:26, is also understood from the fact that many times in the bible, we are already considered and spoken of as dead. For example, since in 1 John 3:14 we read that the unbeliever already “abideth in death”, or in Proverbs 21:16 we read that the sinner due to his ongoing unbelief “shall remain in the congregation of the dead,” it then follows that all sinners are already considered “dead in trespasses and in sins” (Ephesians 2:1, Colossians 2:6), even though all sinners have not yet experienced the first death. The person who believes in Jesus Christ will never face the eternal condemnation that is the second death. On the other hand, “he that believes not is condemned [to die the second death] already” regardless of whether or not he has actually died the first death (John 3:18).

Does John 11:25-26 refer to the Rapture?

There is an exception to the mandate that all must undergo the first death. As mentioned earlier, sometimes the Bible uses the word sleep as a euphemism for the first death, especially when referring to the death of a believer (John 11:11-14, 1 Corinthians 15:18). The bible also tells us that not all believers shall sleep (1 Corinthians 15:51). This means that though it is appointed unto all men to die (the first death), some men won’t actually get to do so. When Christ comes back to rapture his people (John 14:3, 1 Thessalonians 4:16-17), those believers who are alive at that time will not die in the conventional sense; though they’ll still relinquish their mortal bodies as all others who experience the first death (1 Corinthians 15:36,51-55). So, while the raptured do not “give up the ghost” like the other first death recipients, they still shed their corruptible body of flesh—an action which is emblematic of the first death (1 Corinthians 15:36,54).

It is important to consider this caveat carefully because some bible commentators have suggested that the phrase “he shall never die” in John 11:26 does not refer to the second death, but instead to the Rapture. If this is true, then verse 26 only applies to those who will never die as a consequence of being raptured. For instance, regarding John 11:25-26, Dr. Henry Morris says:

Those who “sleep in Jesus” shall be raised from the dead when He returns. Those who are still living when He returns will never die, but will be immediately changed and immortalized…
Source: [Dr. Henry Morris, The Defender’s Study Bible, John 11:25-26]

Similarly, Dr. John Gill says:

Whoever will be found alive at Christ’s second coming, and is a believer in him, shall never die, but shall be changed, and shall be for ever with Christ…
Source: [Dr. John Gill, John Gill’s Exposition of the Entire Bible, John 11:26]

If the context of John 11:25-26 were about events that will occur when Jesus appears in the Rapture, then Dr. Morris’s explanation would seem to have some merit. After all, in Dr. Morris’ explanation, a contrast is maintained from verse 25 to 26 between those who have died (the first death) and those who haven’t. Other explanations have glossed over this distinction to their own peril. Also, in verse 24 of John 11, Martha does speak of the Last Day, and since one can deduce from the Scriptures that the Rapture is the beginning of the Last Day (John 6:40, 1 Thessalonians 4:14-17, 1 Corinthians 15:51-52), then this point has to be taken into account as well. By the way, the phrase “Last Day” does not refer to a literal day but actually to a period that spans several days (See Logic in the Scriptures).

Nevertheless, the fact is that when the propositions of John 11:25-26 are placed into categorical form, it becomes plain to see that they do not employ the correct tense required for the Rapture view to fit. Specifically, John 11:25-26 says that:

John 11:25 ⇒   ALL dead-men-who-believe ARE men-who-will-live-again.

John 11:26 ⇒   ALL living-men-who-believe ARE men-who-will-never-die.

But the tense, voice and mood of the Greek word pisteuo—interpreted as “believe” in the KJV—is the present-active-participle. This means that verse 25’s subject is the group of all dead-men-who-chose-to-believe-while-dead. Yet, if John 11:25-26 were referring to Dr. Morris’ interpretation, the subject of verse 25 should be all dead-men-who-have-already-believed! For example, Galatians 3:6, Hebrews 3:18, Hebrews 11:31 and Jude 1:5 all refer to dead men who have either believed or not, and in a each case the verb believe [i.e. pisteuo] appears in the past tense.

Since we live in a world where every other scholar seems to be a deconstructionist (i.e a critic who undermines an established teaching by redefining its key words), virtually all languages are plagued with needless debate and disagreement as to the rules of grammar, their precision, and whether it is permitted to appeal to these rules when drawing exegetical conclusions. Nevertheless, because the bible is effectively a completed induction, students of the bible are able to achieve an independent certainty as to which rules of grammar are being employed, by examining other verses that employ the same terms, and compare them for the sake of consistency. In the case of the Greek word pisteuo, the Scriptures frequently use the Greek language’s aorist indicative tense (as used for example in John 11:45) to express events that have happened in the past or events that do not assert a particular time period. Therefore, if John 11:25 wanted to refer to a deceased believer, the bible would have probably employed the aorist indicative so that the reader would understand that the subject’s verb (i.e. his belief) occurred in the past.

However, even if we were to entertain the possibility that the context of John 11:25-26 is the Rapture, and that the tense of the verb pisteuo is not relevant to making this case, another inconsistency emerges. According to the Rapture point of view, John 11:25 promises that its dead subject will not experience the second death (i.e. “yet shall he live”) while John 11:26 only promises that its living subject will not face the first death (i.e. “shall never die”). Hence, the symmetry of belief rewards that was once evident in the comparison of verse 25’s dead to verse 26’s living is no longer evident. Jesus provides resurrection and life to the dead person in verse 25 but the living person in verse 26 is only promised that he will escape the first death. The belief of the man in verse 25 results in a reward that, on the surface, is significantly greater than the belief of the man in verse 26. And while it is true that all those who are raptured will also never die the second death, John 11:26’s “shall never die” cannot simultaneously refer to escaping both the first and the second death, otherwise the proposition in verse 26 would be classified as an amphiboly. In logic, amphibolies are considered fallacious because they introduce ambiguity to statements which are supposed to be univocal. It is impossible to imagine that Jesus (Who is the logos i.e. the foundation for logic itself) would commit a logical fallacy, so we must conclude that the incongruity of rewards made possible by the Rapture point of view is not what the Author intended to communicate. Therefore, that the phrase “he shall never die” in John 11:26 does not refer to the Rapture should be clearly understood from two observations:

1. The fact that John 11:25 refers to dead men who will choose to believe as opposed to dead men who have already believed.
2. The fact that the Rapture point of view eliminates the symmetry of belief rewards that was originally present in John 11:25-26.

Many Christians think that there are actually three types of human death in Scripture. As we have only discussed two types of death so far, the reader may wonder if and where spiritual death fits into the picture since we often hear and read about it in popular bible literature. In most Christian commentaries that I have encountered, when spiritual death is mentioned, it usually refers to the loss of direct fellowship with God, experienced by Adam and Eve in the garden of Eden, because of the Fall. This loss of fellowship is then equated with the “separation of the soul from God” which leads to the idea of spiritual death [Got Questions]. According to those who embrace this particular notion of spiritual death, “in Genesis 2:17, [when] God tells Adam that in the day he eats of the forbidden fruit he will ‘surely die’ …[since] “Adam’s physical death doesn’t occur immediately; [then] God must have had another type of death in mind—spiritual death.” Of course, if God did have spiritual death in mind, it seems odd that He would not mention it directly anywhere else in the Scriptures. Even odder is the fact that God’s Spirit still “strived with man” after the Fall, when there was supposedly no fellowship (Genesis 6:3). Still, some may object and assert that the inference of spiritual death is obtainable from other verses such as Ephesians 2:1 or Colossians 2:13, but there are many reasons why these verses are also unsuitable as the basis for the notion of spiritual death.

As for Genesis 2:17, the main reason why its supposed spiritual death inference is problematic is because it’s unnecessary. First of all, the corresponding Hebrew for the phrase “surely die” in Genesis 2:17 is “moth tamuth“, and as it turns out it’s a polyptoton. The polyptoton is a figure of speech, in which the same verb is repeated but in different moods or tenses.[CB Notes, Bullingers] In the case of Genesis 2:17, different moods of the verb muth (die) are employed in order to strongly affirm or intensify the sense of the word. Specifically, the conjugated verb “muth” which appears in the imperfect mood as “die” is strengthened and emphasized by the infinitive “dying” that precedes it. Therefore , the literal English rendition of “moth tamuth” is “dying thou shalt die”, which means that though the death is certain, it is not necessarily instantaneous. Accordingly, we see that Adam began to die physically, “with the initiation of decay processes in his body which would ultimately end in his physical death”(Henry Morris DSB). Of course, if “moth tamuth” did require the meaning of instantaneous death, then we should all be disturbed by the fact that in Numbers 26:65, it is again translated as “shall surely die” even though the deaths of the rebellious Israelites in question actually took place over a 40-year period (Numbers 14:32-35). Since Numbers 26:65 contains the same Hebrew phrase and grammatical construction as Genesis 2:17 and it allows for moth tamuth to refer to a gradual death, then we can rest assured that Genesis 2:17 does not require Adam to have died on the exact day that he ate of the forbidden fruit. Another objection that one might raise regarding Genesis 2:17 is that the phrase “in the day that thou eatest” requires Adam’s death to occur on the exact day of the transgression. However, the Hebrew term beYom [ בְּי֨וֹם] that this phrase is translated from, does not require the word day to refer to a 24 hour period of time. In fact, there are several times in the Scriptures where beYom is used of a larger period of time. For instance, in Genesis 2:4, when beYom is used, it actually refers to the entire creation week of six 24-hour days. Also, in Exodus 19:1-8, we read that God made a covenant with Israel three months after He led them out of the land of Egypt. Yet when we read the Jeremiah 31:32 or Jeremiah 34:13 account of Exodus 19:1-8:

Jeremiah 31:32
Not according to the covenant that I made with their fathers in the day that [ בְּי֨וֹם] I took them by the hand to bring them out of the land of Egypt; which my covenant they brake, although I was an husband unto them, saith the LORD:

Jeremiah 34:13
Thus saith the LORD, the God of Israel; I made a covenant with your fathers in the day that [ בְּי֨וֹם] I brought them forth out of the land of Egypt, out of the house of bondmen, saying,

we find that the covenant is spoken of as occurring “in the day” that God led them out of Egypt. Therefore, the use of the Hebrew term beYom to represent the Exodus 19:1-8 time span of three months, demonstrates that its semantic range can include a period of time that surpasses 24 hours. Because of all this, we must again assert that there is nothing in Genesis 2:17 that requires Adam’s instantaneous death.

Secondly, Scripture frequently refers to the living as already being dead. For example and as mentioned earlier, in 1 John 3:14, we read that the unbeliever already “abideth in death”, while in Proverbs 21:16, we read that “The man that wandereth out of the way of understanding shall remain in the congregation of the dead.” Regarding living believers, Colossians 3:3 says that we “are dead, and our [second] life is hid with Christ.” It therefore follows that all sinners, whether saved or not, are already considered “dead in trespasses and in sins” (Ephesians 2:1,5 Colossians 2:13), though not all have actually experienced the first death yet. (See “What does it mean to be dead in trespasses and sins.“) These reasons render the inference that Genesis 2:17 requires the notion of spiritual death, unnecessary and thus invalid. It is therefore safe to conclude that the concept of spiritual death is not something that is required by the Genesis 2:17 text, but rather imposed on it.

Calvinists, on the other hand, are known for using the phrase “spiritual death” to convey a state which they refer to as unregenerate. According to Calvinists, an unregenerate person is incapable of believing the gospel (). So, to the Calvinist, spiritual death most notably means the inability to obey the gospel. This comprehension of the Calvinist approach to spiritual death is based upon the teachings of its popular adherents. Of course, the problem with this concept of spiritual death is that it’s based upon a misapprehension of verses such as Ephesians 2:1,5 and Colossians 2:13, and leads to all sorts of absurdities when drawn to its logical conclusion. For more information about this see: What does it mean to be dead in trespasses and sin?

Yet, to others, perhaps spiritual death is simply a metaphor for the second death, but if so, then I must contend that it’s a really bad choice for a metaphor. The word “spiritual” and the word “death” simply do not mix. Actually, it’s almost an oxymoron, since the spirit of man DOES NOT die! God created the spirit of man, and so it follows that He can also eliminate man’s spirit, but nowhere in Scripture does it mention that He WILL extinguish man’s spirit. In fact, in 1 Corinthians 15:22,42-46, we read that the bodies of ALL men become “incorruptible” at the resurrection, and are thereafter considered spiritual bodies, though still tangible (Luke 24:39). Furthermore, when we read in Matthew 10:28 that God CAN destroy man’s body and soul in hell, we know that if this verse refers to the second death, then it cannot also mean that man’s soul will be eliminated, since the terms attributed to the second death (i.e. everlasting destruction—2 Thessalonians 1:9, everlasting fire—Matthew 18:8, everlasting punishment—Matthew 25:46, everlasting contempt—Daniel 12:2,  and undying worm—Isaiah 66:24) imply penal actions against both body and soul that will never end. So, despite the fact that some Christians adhere to the doctrine of Annihilationism, it is apparent by verses such as Daniel 12:2, Isaiah 66:24, Matthew 25:46, Mark 9:44-48 and 2 Thessalonians 1:9, that though the body is susceptible to death, the spirit never dies. Consequently, in regard to its use as a metaphor, the term “spiritual death” ends up being a misleading example of this figure of speech. Nevertheless, whatever is meant by the phrase “spiritual death”, we must at least admit that it is not at all found in the Scriptures. Not even once does the bible use the word “spiritual” to refer to death of any sort. Nor does the bible use the word “death” to refer to any notion of the word “spiritual.” Nor are there any verses that call for the notion of “spiritual death” as a necessary inference. For example, it is often said that despite its indispensability, the word “Trinity” is not found in the bible; but at least we can show that its meaning is repeated throughout the Scriptures. However, in the case of spiritual death, none of the meanings that we have discussed so far are found in the Scriptures. We must therefore conclude that there are no times in the bible when spiritual death (as defined in the scenarios above) is in scope.

Back to John 11:25-26

John 11:25-26 presents us with an opportunity to apply what we have just learned about the first and second death. Depending upon which bible version you’re reading from, simply accepting the words “die” or “live” in their plain and ordinary sense, without any attempt at resolving any overlapping senses of these words, immediately presents the prudent reader with an awkward interpretation, especially in light of related verses in the Scriptures. For instance, one question that arises is whether Jesus, in John 11:25, is using the words “dead” and “live” in a different sense than in John 11:26. After all, how can it be said that the believer who is currently alive (in verse 26) will also never die, if the word “die” only refers to the first death? Is it not true that everyday believers die earthly bodily deaths? Therefore, since Scripture cannot contradict Himself (2 Timothy 2:3), it is incumbent upon the reader to adopt an understanding of John 11:25-26 that is in harmony with all other doctrines in the bible, and yet, this is not to be done at the expense of violating any rules or constructs of the language in which Scripture arrives at us.

Using the King James Version of John 11:25-26 as a baseline, I believe Jesus’ point is that when a man is confronted with the gospel, it doesn’t matter whether he has died the first death or not. If that man believes in Christ, then he will never experience the second death. Jesus conveys this conclusion using two separate verses which are each meant to contrast one another by covering both scenarios: the bodily dead man who believes unto eternal life and the bodily living man who believes unto eternal life. Eternal life in verse 25 is represented as obtaining the second life, while in verse 26 it is represented as escaping the second death. Putting these verses into categorical form, we end up with the following propositions:

John 11:25 ⇒   ALL dead-men-who-choose-to-believe-while-dead ARE men-who-will-live-the-second-life.

John 11:26 ⇒   ALL living-men-who-choose-to-believe-while-living ARE men-who-will-never-die-the-second-death.

How a bodily dead man can hear the gospel and believe, is best left to other verses such as 1 Peter 3:19 and 1 Peter 4:6. Consequently, it is important to emphasize that according to my understanding of the text, the subject of John 11:25 is a person who has already died the first death, not a person that “may die” or “will die” the first death. If the subject of John 11:25 is someone that “may” or “will” die, then John 11:26 becomes unnecessary, since it’s subject is also someone who “may” or “will” die the first death. We should not adopt an interpretation of Scripture that portrays Jesus communicating so badly that it befuddles the audience, especially when there is a better alternative.

If one were to merely add elucidating commentary to John 11:25-26 it would read:

John 11:25
he that believes in me, though he were dead [having already died the first death], yet shall he live [i.e. he shall live the second life].

John 11:26
And whosoever liveth and believes in me [though he will still die the first death] shall never die [the second death].

If one were to go a bit further and put the KJV’s rendering of John 11:25-26 into first death vs. second death parlance, it would read:

John 11:25
he that believes in me, though he has died the first death, he shall never die the second death.

John 11:26
And whosoever has not yet died the first death and believes in me shall never die the second death.

As the reader can see, the first death is clearly what is meant by verse 25’s “though he were dead.” It cannot refer to the second death because those who die the second death shall not “live” again, but will reside in the Lake of Fire and brimstone forever (Revelation 21:8). Furthermore, since the subjects of both verses escape the second death, verse 25’s “yet shall he live” and verse 26’s “shall never die” are both referring to those on whom “the second death hath no power” (Revelation 2:11, 20:6). The only contrast which remains is between those who have died the first death and those who haven’t. Other bibles (apart from the KJV) which also describe the subject of verse 25 as already being dead include: Wycliffe, Bishops, Geneva, IAV, ACV, Darby 1889, Webster 1833 and the Douay Rheims bible. Yet, this way of understanding John 11:25 has not been widely adopted.

I suspect that one of the main reasons why the plain reading of John 11:25 is often spurned for an alternate rendition is because of the implication that the “gospel [is] preached also to them that are dead” as we are told in 1 Peter 4:6. For many theologians , the idea that the Gospel was (or is being) preached on the other side of the grave, is quite unacceptable and in many cases is confused with the unrelated notion of second chances after death. Yet, it is abundantly clear from the context of 1 Peter 4:5, that those to whom the Gospel was preached, were those who had died the first death. In fact, this is confirmed eight verses earlier in 1 Peter 3:19.

As this understanding of John 11:25-26 invites the controversial topic about what exactly Christ said when he “preached unto the spirits in prison” (1 Peter 3:19), many bibles have chosen to interpret John 11:25-26 as saying something else. For instance, in the AMP, MEV, NKVJ, NET, NASB, NIRV, NRSV, YLT, NRSVCE, OJB, TLB and NHEBYE bibles, the phrase “though he were dead” in verse 25 of John 11 is instead made to say “though he may die” or something equivalent. This means that the person spoken of by Christ is currently alive but may die in the future. The second part of verse 25 then explains that, if this person dies in a state of belief, then this person will live again. Putting this version of John 11:25-26 into first death vs. second death parlance, this rendition would read:

Verse 25:
He who believes in Me, though he may die the first death, he shall live the second life.

Verse 26:
“And whoever lives the first life and believes in Me (though he may die the first death) shall never die the second death

Putting this version of John 11:25-26 into categorical form produces the following propositions:

John 11:25 ⇒   ALL living-believers-who-may-die-the-first-death ARE men-who-will-live-the-second-life.

John 11:26 ⇒    ALL living-believers-(who-may-die-the-first-death) ARE men-who-will-never-die-the-second-death.

Of course, as the reader can see, the problem with this rendition of verse 25 is that, the same fate of the person in verse 25 seems to also befall the person in verse 26. In other words, “whosoever liveth and believes” in verse 26, is also someone who “may die” like the person in verse 25. The term “die” in verse 25 is obviously referring to earthly death which the bible again defines as the first death. Therefore, both verses end up basically saying the same thing, namely, that all those who believe in Christ before dying the first death shall never die the second death. In this view of John 11:25-26, what was originally a dichotomy between an individual who has experienced the first death versus one who hasn’t ends up as two consecutive verses which employ meaningless redundancy.

Another variation of the above interpretation replaces the phrase “though he were dead” with “even though he dies” or something equivalent (See the following bibles: ASV, NIV, ISV, NLT, GNT, RV, RSV, NIVUK, NWT, MSG, PHILLIPS, Jerus, LITV, ESV, HCSB and WEB). Therefore, in this rendition of John 11:25-26, it is no longer a question of “if” the person dies but rather “when” he dies. However, this rendering also leaves us with the problem of the person in verse 26 who will also certainly die. Again, it seems quite unacceptable that Christ is merely trying to convey the exact same proposition in John 11:25, as He is in John 11:26. Such a technique would have surely left Martha confused.

Yet, another exegetical problem emerges. These variant English readings of John 11:25-26 call into question the validity of the hermeneutical guidelines which are being followed. In John 11:25apothnēskō, the Greek term for the verb die appears in the subjective mood which indicates that the encompassing sentence is a hypothetical one. Yet, in some interpretations have instead made the actual verb a hypothetical (e.g. may die). Other interpretations have altered the common practice of rendering Greek aorist verbs as English past tense verbs by employing the verb in its present tense(e.g. he dies). Naturally, this breaks the contrast with v26’s liveth [zaō] which is already in the present. In either case, each hermeneutic represents an inconsistency and a departure from common practices. For example, if one were to apply the same guidelines to Romans 7:2 which also employs apothnēskō in the aorist tense and the subjunctive mood, one would end up with the following interpretation:

For the woman which hath an husband is bound by the law to her husband so long as he liveth; but if the husband may die, she is loosed from the law of her husband.

instead of:

For the woman which hath an husband is bound by the law to her husband so long as he liveth; but if the husband be dead, she is loosed from the law of her husband.

The Take-Home Message

In conclusion, my exposition of John 11:25-26 has presented the reader with what is probably an unfamiliar understanding of this frequently quoted text. In the past, I too have often quoted these verses (e.g. putting them on bereavement cards sent to the family of dead loved ones), all the while thinking that they simply conveyed the idea that believers will rise again. I ignored the nuances in these verses which called for the reader to recognize a contrast between the subject of verse 25 and verse 26. In the traditional way of understanding John 11:25-26, there is really no difference between these two persons. Once I resolved the meaning of the words “live” and “die,” it became very clear that the message conveyed by these verses was quite profound, controversial and yet substantiated by other passages in the scriptures. And that message is:

John 11:25 ⇒   ALL dead-men-who-choose-to-believe-while-dead ARE men-who-will-live-the-second-life [2].

John 11:26 ⇒    ALL living-men-who-choose-to-believe-while-living ARE men-who-will-never-die-the-second-death.

References

  1. Sheol (Greek: Hades) also contains a place of comfort referred to as “Abraham’s Bosom’ (e.g. Luke 16:22-25). It is thought that Christ in “settings the captives free” emptied out Abraham’s bosom before He arose from the grave (Psalms 68:18,  Ephesians 4:7-9).
  2. My understanding of John 11:25‘s subject does not deny that it also encompasses dead men who died in a state of belief. I am merely asserting that it is not necessary for the state of belief to have only been acquired before death. In that sense, I am concentrating on when the state of belief came about. There are obviously many who were already in a state of belief before dying. These persons can also be represented by John 11:25’s subject.
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