Q&R: Romans 6:23 – What ‘death’ is this?
I have often heard people quote this verse only partially and then to imply that death is a metaphor for a place of eternal conscious torment and their justification for hell. I know death represents an end of physical life, but what are the other aspects that Paul is trying to convey metaphorically, especially in light of the rest of the verse?
Thank you for that all-important question.
First of all, I’m thrilled that noted how half the verse (Romans 6:23) is so often excised in order to create a misreading that actually distorts the gospel. Let’s do the due diligence of at least recalling the whole verse and its point.
“The wages of sin is death, but the gift of God is eternal life through Jesus Christ our Lord.”
A careful reading shows that wages here are set against gift, and sin is set against God. This is how Paul thinks. God sees how sin extracts a terrible price from our lives, so God in Christ comes to deliver us … freeing us from sin’s scourge, its consequences, and especially from death.
But what is this “death” to which he refers? In the Garden of Eden, God had warned Adam and Eve, “…of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil you shall not eat, for in the day that you eat of it you shall surely die” (Genesis 2:17). Yet when they ate the forbidden fruit, the archetypal couple didn’t immediately fall down dead. In fact, Genesis 5 claims Adam lived for 930 years. Was God mistaken? Not at all, but if God wasn’t talking about their physical death in that 24-hour period, what does ‘death’ mean?
I see two helpful ways to respond. First, a standard answer, and perhaps quite valid, would be to paraphrase the warning in this way: “…for in the day that you eat of it, death will be established as your end. Today you will be cut off from the Tree of Life and thereby come under the ticking clock of mortality.” Another way to say it that connects with Romans 6 is that sin carries its own death sentence. In this case, we’re still talking about the actual event of human death.
But perhaps a more helpful and accurate interpretation is that death here is referring to a new spiritual condition that we might call ‘alienation’ or ‘estrangement’ from God. In other words, in turning from perfect Love, we experience the effects of our turning away as a kind of death to our intimacy and experience of connection with God, as we do when we break fellowship with a loved one… as the prodigal son did when he left the Father’s house into self-imposed exile. That is the wages of sin to which Paul refers.
However, it’s also important that we distinguish this sense of alienation from the delusion that God has disowned us or that our heavenly Father has separated us from himself. It is simply not true that when we turn from God, God turns from us. Note well that when Adam and Eve left Paradise, God went with them. When the prodigal son left home, he was still the Father’s beloved boy.
Whenever any of us reject the love of God and refuse to relate to God’s divine care, the Father remains forever faithful, continues to count us as beloved children, and in Christ by the Holy Spirit, persists in pursuit of us (like the Good Shepherd of Luke 15 and John 10). When we think of God’s rejection of our rejection and unwillingness to disown or divorce those who disown or divorce God, Romans 6 comes into clearest focus… my paraphrase:
The consequence of turning from God is alienation, an experience we have all known. But God’s grace-gift, Jesus Christ, will never quit or fail in his love toward you… and the consequence of that love is life.
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