The obvious answer I suppose is that it stands in opposition to Life and since God is the source of Life, Death can be thought of as Life’s opposite. Life and Death seem to define each other then it seems to me. Life and Death seem to me to be mutually exclusive: one cannot be both alive and dead at the same time and in the same sense. It makes perfect sense then that if Death is the Last Enemy and it is destroyed, the resulting state of things will be Life. (Which in itself seems a very Universalistic idea…)
What is it however that distinguishes Life from Death? To my mind the only possibility is the presence of sentience and consciousness. Or at least the potential for consciousness and sentience. (I make this distinction because we don’t consider an asleep person to be dead, nor one who is under anesthesia to be dead, though they are both in conditions of unconsciousness…)
This presents, to my mind at least, an overwhelming problem for those who deny the idea of “Soul Sleep” because for them the only other possible definition of death must necessarily refer only to the presence of a functioning body. But we hold that God has no functioning body and yet is Alive. Further, in medicine we recognize that one may be “brain dead” yet still possess a functioning body. That person is considered to be “dead.”
The reason this seems to be such a problem for those who deny “Soul Sleep” is that consciousness is never lost but is always present. This must mean that death is a word and concept that are fairly unnecessary which is troublesome to say the least given that the condition of Death is such a bad and negative thing that it is referred to as “the Last Enemy”. Which is to say that if one retains his consciousness, what’s so bad about death?
If what matters to God is our freely given love and adoration and worship, and that is accomplished by and in consciousness, and we always are in possession of that consciousness, then death can’t really be the enemy that Paul envisions it to be can it?
I realize that many believe that the death which matters is the so called “spiritual death” which means one can be dead yet fully conscious. This I find rather confusing. If that really is what Paul means by death, this should be great news for Universalism! for if spiritual death is obliterated that means all will be made spiritually alive. However, as I take the idea of Life to be a matter of having it or not having it, (ie all or nothing) and I see the issue of “spiritual life” to be a matter of degree (that is we are to be in a constant state of spiritual growth and forward movement and becoming) the whole notion of spiritual death and life work best as metaphor it seems to me.
For these reasons it seems to me that the idea of Death being the last enemy works best in the paradigm of Soul Sleep. For if consciousness and death are compatible, death really doesn’t seem such a bad thing at all.
For those who worry that death implies non-existence, I don’t see this; for we continue to “exist” in all our “personality” and complexity in the mind of God. (However that works!)
(*PS: I realize there is a lot of potential overlap with the discussion over on the Soul Sleep thread so apologies for that if necessary…)