(27) And as it is appointed unto men once to die, but after this the judgment:
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Both Hebrews 9:27 and Romans 6 make use of the same verb, apothnesko, for “die.” Additionally, the context of Hebrews 9:27 is general, providing no specific meaning of the verb “die.” It simply says everyone dies once. Logically, therefore, apothnesko in Hebrews 9:27 could refer to baptism, as it clearly does in Romans 6. Is there conclusive evidence that the general statement in Hebrews 9:27 can refer to the death of baptism?
Indeed, there is! Romans 6:9 is key: “[F]or we know that the Messiah, who was raised from the dead, will never die gain; death no longer has mastery over Him” [ISV].
Herein is the connection between Romans 6 and Hebrews 9: “Once” is at the core of the concept of both. Christ died once and was resurrected. Human beings die biologically once, their sleep to be ended by a resurrection. Through baptism, Christians die once “as far as sin is concerned,” and ascending from the water, experience a resurrection to “an entirely new life” (Romans 6:4).
Paul's enigmatic, almost oxymoronic, statement in Colossians 3:3 provides a second witness to the idea that baptism is death: “For you have died [apothnesko], and your life is hidden with Christ in God.” Manifestly, the apostle does not have biological death in mind here since, after a person physically dies, he has no life, hidden or otherwise.
Paul does not mention baptism in this verse, realizing that God's people understand this hidden life to be the new life that begins at the death of the old man. The use of the present perfect tense in Greek (rendered “is hidden” in the ESV) indicates that this life exists now. It is not a life that begins at a later time. Our new life in Christ begins at our baptism, not at the time of the first resurrection. (Our life in and with Christ continues as a result of the first resurrection, our bodies then having been changed from mortal to immortal.) We are now enjoying that new life.
Pointedly, none of this—our descent into the water, our rising from it to “newness of life” (Romans 6:4 [KJV]), or our experiencing the first resurrection—has anything to do with our biological death. Biological death may interrupt the new life that began with baptism. But, in the case of those alive at Christ's return, their new life will not be interrupted by biological death. Those individuals will simply experience a change from mortal to immortal, as Paul describes in I Corinthians 15:53, where biological death is not requisite for change to take place. No physical death will take place for those people.
Thus, the clause “it is appointed for man to die once, and after that comes judgment” has at least two valid applications:
1. In the case of those whom God has not called in this age, the verb “die” refers to biological death. After this death is the White Throne Period, evidently a period of a hundred years (Isaiah 65:20) during which those participating in the second resurrection will be "judged by what was written in the books, according to what they had done" (Revelation 20:12).
2. In the case of those whom God hascalled in this age, the verb “die” refers to the death represented by the first part of the act of baptism, the death (and burial) of the old man. Subsequent to this death as well is a period of judgment, as the apostle Peter mentions at I Peter 4:17: “For it is time for judgment to begin at the household of God.” Romans 6:4 indicates that the death of the old man in baptism is just as real, from God's viewpoint, as is biological death: “Therefore, through baptism we were buried with Him into His death.”
The Christian may or may not experience biological death, depending on circumstances, as expressed by Paul in I Corinthians 15:51. But, by definition, the Christian will experience death through baptism. From God's perspective, the death mentioned in Hebrews 9:27 can refer to the death a child of God experiences in baptism.
I Corinthians 15:51, referring to the fact that some Christians of the last days will not die, and Hebrews 9:27, referring to the fact that all die, do not contradict. For, true Christians of yesterday and today have died—or better, their old self is dead—through baptism. That death is all that is necessary in respect to God's decree that all die (at least) once.
The true Christian, alive at the time of Christ's return in power and great glory (Matthew 24:30) has already died. His proximate continuance of eternal life (as defined in John 17:3) at the time of the resurrection of the just (Luke 14:14; Acts 24:15) does not constitute a contradiction to the twofold meaning of Hebrews 9:27.
— Charles Whitaker