The word “death” (thanatos) occurs 22 times in the Book of Romans. (The word “dead” [nekros] occurs 16 times.) Often times, when people hear the word “death” they think the Bible is talking about eternal death or what happens when a person goes to hell. The verse in which this most often is the case is Rom 6:23, in which Paul says that the “wages of sin is ‘death’”. This is often used in evangelistic appeals. We all have seen the verse used this way in gospel tracts. It is maintained that if a person does not believe in Jesus Christ, he will die with unforgiven sins and go to hell. Hell is the second “death” and what a person earns for his sins.
There are a number of reasons to reconsider this view of Rom 6:23. In this blog I will discuss a couple of those reasons. First, the leading Greek lexicon for the NT says that the most common use of the word “death” refers to physical, not eternal, death. Secondly, when we look at how the word is used in Romans, that is what we find.
The reader can look for himself at how the word is used in Romans (1:32; 5:10, 12 [2x], 14, 17, 21; 6:3, 4, 5, 9, 16, 21, 23; 7:5, 10, 13 [2x], 24; 8:2, 6, 38). It is clear that the vast majority of times, the word clearly means physical death. Many recognize this fact, but feel that in 6:16, 21, 23 Paul uses it to describe eternal death in hell. In these verses it refers to spiritual death.
I would argue, however, that the word in these verses means the same thing the word means in the other instances it is used. If we look at when the word is used in the book, we see that in all but one of them (1:32), the word occurs in the sanctification part of the Book of Romans. In chapters 5–8, Paul discusses how we should live after believing.
Paul’s point in this section is that there are serious consequences of sin. Sin can even lead to physical death. Every time we sin, as believers, we experience the deadly consequences of sin. Sin leads us in that direction. James uses the word this way, for example, in Jas 5:20.
Paul has this concept in mind when he describes his own experience with sin. After becoming a believer, when he sinned, he had an experience of death (7:9-10). Paul did not go to hell! He did not experience eternal death.
This view of the word “death” makes sense even in 6:16, 21, and 23. Paul is talking to believers and says that when believers sin, there is an experience of death (6:16). He says the same thing in 6:21. Sin in the life of the believer is an experience of death and can even lead to physical death.
Romans 6:23 is probably the hardest verse to understand in this light. But surely we should understand verse 23 in light of how the word is used in verse 21. God has given us eternal life. When we as believers walk in obedience through the power of the Spirit, we have an experience of that life. But when we sin, our experience is one of death. In that act, we have turned away from enjoying the life we have. Since Paul is talking to believers, we also know that he is not talking about spiritual death/hell. It is impossible for believers to experience eternal death.
Paul’s point in the Book of Romans is not that sin leads to hell. What causes a person to go to hell is that the person does not have eternal life. Eternal life is obtained as a free gift by faith alone in Christ. However, there are consequences of sin. When the believer sins, there is an experience of death. Perhaps we could say that every act of sin is not an experience of walking in the life we have as believers. Sin always produces death. If not repented of, it can even lead to physical death.