The writers of the Bible were not presented with the modern ethical and biological problems about what precisely constitutes human death. Is irreversible loss of vital functions necessary before it can be said that a human being is dead? Is it a persistent vegetative state with nevertheless some lower‐brain activity? Doubtless states of unconsciousness were in the 1st cent. taken to be death which could not be so defined today. Death in the Bible is presumed when all signs of life have disappeared; it is the end of natural life. But it was not part of God's original creation (Gen. 3). Sin came in and was the cause of death. There exist in the OT different views about the state of those who have died. It may be just non‐existence (2 Sam. 14: 14), or a feeble, twilight existence in sheol (Isa. 14: 10; Job 10: 21 f.) without any relationship with God (Ps. 6: 5). But there existed also a belief that departed spirits could be conjured up from sheol, as when the ‘witch’ of Endor brought up Samuel (1 Sam. 28). Later the beginning of belief in the resurrection of the dead appears in Dan. 12: 2, and this becomes clearly expressed in 2 Macc. 7: 9, 11, as also is belief in the immortality of the soul in the book of Wisdom 1–5 under the influence of popular Alexandrian Platonism.
In the NT dying is regarded as an evil from which even Jesus himself shrank (Mark 14: 33) but the belief in resurrection mitigates its horror (1 Thess. 4: 13) and there are comparisons of death with sleep (John 11: 11–13). Sleep is indeed a fairly common metaphor for death in the Bible (e.g. Dan. 12: 2). Jesus rebuked the mourners in the house of Jairus; ‘the child is not dead; she is asleep’ (Mark 5: 39). Possibly the girl was in a coma, though Luke (8: 49) interprets Mark as meaning death. Such miracles as are recorded in the gospels at any rate anticipate Jesus' own resurrection, just as his resurrection constitutes a guarantee of the resurrection of those who believe in him, to the extent that Paul can long for death (2 Cor. 5: 8).
‘Death’ is also used as a figure for the alienation brought by sin: ‘to set the mind on the flesh is death’ (Rom. 8: 6); ‘I have set before you life and death…choose life.’ (Deut. 30: 19). ‘The second death’ (Rev. 2: 11) represents the final state of those who have deliberately separated themselves from God for ever.
On the basis of the perfect tense of the Greek verb in John 11: 11 an interpretation of the raising of Lazarus has been proposed: that he was clinically dead, with no signs of life, but not biologically dead, since there was as yet no evidence of deterioration. Lazarus was in a ‘near‐death’ condition and available for resuscitation, which Jesus effected with his command ‘come out’ (John 11: 43). More probably, however, the story of the raising of Lazarus is an example of the evangelist's creative writing. It is not history but an allegory of the passion, death, and resurrection of Jesus, which are related to human experience. Lazarus represents humanity: we all may be raised by Jesus to a new life. And it was this promise that finally prompted the Jewish leaders to put such a blasphemer to death (John 11: 53).