The Meaning of Life
I have lived most of my life as a dead man.
While that statement is sure to warrant at least a few raised eyebrows, I’d argue that any surprise stems from a fundamental misunderstanding of what it really means to be alive.
Occasionally, we talk about our “spiritual lives” and “physical lives” as if the two could be separated. On the one hand, we can only understand life and death as we witness it: the spark of energy that animates our bodies, which inevitably fades into certain stillness. On the other hand, God reveals to us that the concept of life transcends what we experience in our bodies. In attempts to reconcile both perspectives, it seems that we have settled on two definitions of the word “life”. But have we missed something?
Even when we refer to someone’s “physical life”, we imply that a living being can be empty of actual life. For example, what do you suppose it means when someone says, “I’ve never felt so alive!”? Wouldn’t that be an obvious and silly thing to say if a functioning brain and body was all there was to life? This raises an important question: how can we live yet not be alive? To answer this, we must return to the fundamental meaning of “living” as a concept, which God established when He created man.
The fact is, God is the only one authorized to define life because He gives it. After all, who else is better suited to clarify what constitutes life than its very Source? When we discuss how God created man in a unique way, we often refer to the pattern He used: He created man in His own image and likeness (Genesis 1:26-27). That point is crucial to understanding the entire story of the Bible because it embodies the true nature and purpose of every human being. But while this critical detail reveals to us God’s pattern, it does not explain how man actually came to be alive. The process was one God had repeated several times. When He created the heavens, He filled them with luminaries. When He created the skies, He filled them with birds. When He created the land and seas, He filled them with animals and sea creatures, respectively. What would you expect God to do when He created man? After forming man’s body from the dust of the earth, God filled him with His own breath, and man became a living being (Genesis 2:7). God always intended that man be filled with what He had breathed.
It is no coincidence that God spent time each day speaking life into existence, only to demonstrate that man’s essential life fuel was what came out of the mouth of God. Moses demonstrated this understanding as he charged Israel before they entered the promised land. He instructed them, “All the commandments that I am commanding you today you shall be careful to do, that you may live” (Deuteronomy 8:1 NAS95). He went on to remind them how God had allowed them to be hungry, that He might test them, humble them, and “make [them] understand that man does not live by bread alone, but man lives by everything that proceeds out of the mouth of the LORD” (8:3 NAS). Although the Israelites’ bodies could be functioning, taking in the words God breathed was the only way they could truly live.
Centuries later, Paul would write to Timothy, explaining, “All Scripture is breathed out by God and profitable…that the man of God may be complete” (2 Timothy 3:16-17 ESV). Is it any wonder, then, that Jesus, described by John as the living embodiment of the Word of God, says, “I am the bread of life…that comes down from heaven, so that one may eat of it and not die” (John 6:35, 50 NAS)? Peter recognized what Jesus possessed when He affirmed, “You have the words of eternal life” (6:68 NAS). The words Jesus (who is God) spoke have the same power to grant life that they carried during creation.
I can hear someone contesting now, “But what about the staunch atheist who yet lives?” My answer to that is another question: what about the soul trapped in hell where an “eternal punishment” produces “weeping and gnashing of teeth” (Matthew 25:46, 30)? Although this description is possibly a metaphorical one, Jesus gives every indication that the tormented souls are conscious and animated beings that will feel unimaginable pain forever. People who are simply dead don’t feel anything. By the reasoning we so often use, I could argue that those who are sentenced to eternal death will still be, in some sense, “living”. God creating us in His image, after His eternal nature, granted us a soul and spirit that will not end, but can certainly die. Whether in this body or another, the only difference that matters is whether we are connected to God or separated from Him. That is how those who are spiritually minded, who see life the way God has defined it, distinguish life and death.
When I read Paul’s words to the Ephesians, then, it doesn’t surprise me at all to hear him say, “And you were dead in your trespasses and sins” (Ephesians. 2:1). If to walk in sin is to be separated from God (Isaiah 59:2), then every moment we spend “living” in sin, we are actually dead. It was by redefining the definition of “death” that the serpent twisted the words of God in the garden to beguile Eve. He directed her focus to the animation of the body as what constituted her life, assuring her she would not die. When we ask, “Did Eve die when she disobeyed God?”, the answer is not “yes, technically.” When Eve and Adam disobeyed, they died immediately. They put to death their essential, God-given spiritual natures by rejecting God’s words and separating themselves from Him. And we can do the same.
So like I said, I have lived most of my life as a dead man. Thanks be to God, though, who now gives me life in Christ Jesus my Lord (Ephesians 2:4).
BJ Young (2019-02-17)