The State of the Dead
One of the doctrines I was taught in the ministry I was involved with was that the dead are not currently alive in another realm somewhere, but are unconscious in the grave, and will remain so until the return of Christ. This is one of the few things I was taught that actually turns out to be correct Biblically. Those who are of similar background may recognize most of the points made here, although there are a few differences. However, those from a mainstream "Christian" background may find this section quite challenging. I only ask that you consider the Scriptures carefully, and don't let preconceived notions blind you to the simple straightforward reading of the Bible.
As pointed out in the article, In the Beginning, God said that the penalty for man's sin was death, and Satan directly contradicted Him by telling Eve, "Ye shall not surely die" (Genesis 3:4). The same lie, that when you die you're not really dead, has been propounded for centuries. The majority of non-Christians believe there is some form of life after death, whether it be reincarnation, survival as a "ghost," or becoming an "angel." Our culture is full of references to these things. Even in the cartoons we watched as children, when a character died he grew wings and a halo and rose into the sky playing a harp. It is so prevalent, it's nearly impossible to escape it. But where did these images come from? Are they in the Bible, or did they come from another source?
Those ideas are common among non-Christians, but most people who call themselves Christians also believe in survival after death. They call it “going to heaven,” but is this idea in the Bible? The notion that a person goes either to heaven or hell immediately upon death is based on the idea that man has an immortal soul and will spend eternity in one place or the other. But the Bible says that only God has immortality (I Timothy 6:16) and that it will be conveyed upon believers as a gift, in the future (Romans 2:7; I Corinthians 15:53-54). The time that this will happen is described as a resurrection in many places in the Bible. The resurrection of Jesus Christ, which is the cornerstone of the Christian faith, was a foretaste of the resurrection to come, Jesus Christ being the first fruits from the dead (I Corinthians 15:20,23).
Most Christians agree with the idea that death came about because of man’s sin, but then they say that man has an immortal soul that survives death. When a loved one dies, they say "he's with the Lord now" or "he's gone on to a better place" or "he's in heaven." This is inconsistent with the Biblical view of death, for if it were the point of passage into the presence of God in heaven, it would be a welcome friend. Yet death is described as an enemy in I Corinthians 15:26. Death is the end of life, and only through resurrection will life be restored in the future, when Christ returns.
Most Christians will agree with the view that Jesus is going to return to earth in the future, but they generally hold that believers who have died are with him now in heaven. However the Bible describes the state of those who have died as "sleep" and says that they will remain unconscious until the resurrection in the future. There is a serious discrepancy here between traditional beliefs and what the Bible actually says. Most Christians will misquote one particular Scripture, saying that "to be absent from the body is to be present with the Lord." But if you read that verse (II Corinthians 5:8), you'll find it does not say that (see Common Proof Texts, below). If the dead are already with Jesus in heaven, what would be the point of a resurrection in the future? And if those who died are already consigned to either heaven or hell, what is the purpose or meaning of the future resurrection to judgment? Hebrews 9:27 tells us that "...it is appointed unto men once to die, but after this the judgment." Please note, however, that it does not say immediately after death.
In discussing whether or not man has an immortal soul, we must first define what a "soul" is. It is commonly thought that a man’s soul is his essence that lives on after he dies. On the other hand, I was taught in the past that man's soul was his life force (that which makes him alive) and that his spirit was that part of man which was created in God's image, and which allowed him communion with God. It was this spirit, I was taught, that made man unique from the animals.
But the Scriptures teach that rather than man having a soul, man is a soul.
So “soul” (nephesh) is not the "breath of life" that makes man alive. It is what man became when the “breath of life” was breathed into him. That “breath of life” that God breathed into man is the spirit, not the soul. (See The Three Parts of Man Fallacy)
Animals are described as "living souls" as well. In Genesis 1:21 and 24, the phrase "living creature" (chai nephesh in Hebrew) is literally a living soul. In Genesis 1:20 the phrase "the moving creature that hath life" is translated "swarms of living creatures" in other versions. A soul is a living creature. But a soul can die as well (Ezekiel 18: 4 and 20). When people died, they would be called dead souls. This is contrary to the popular concept of an “immortal soul.” But no such phrase exists in the Bible, and the word soul is never used as an entity that is housed in a body and released to live on at death. Such an idea was not a part of Hebrew thinking in Old Testament times.
This is also true of the Greek word psuche in its Biblical usage (though not in the secular use of the word). Psuche is the Greek equivalent of the Hebrew word nephesh. Nigel Turner writes the following in Christian Words (T&T Clark):
Another example that can be added to that list is Revelation 20:4, which refers to "the souls of them that were beheaded for the witness of Jesus." This does not refer to disembodied souls, as many understand this passage. It simply refers to those persons who had been beheaded, and it is describing them being raised, to live and reign with Christ. Verse 6 refers to this as a resurrection, implying that they were dead, not previously existing in a disembodied state.
We saw from Genesis 2:7 that man became a living soul when he was infused with the breath of life. This breath, or spirit, of life is common to man and animals. (Not to be confused with the spirit of God, which is the same Hebrew word, ruach, but identified as God's spirit in the context.) Animals are identified as having the breath or spirit of life in Genesis 7:15. "And they went in unto Noah into the ark, two and two of all flesh, wherein is the breath (ruach) of life (chai)." Both man and animals have a common fate, according to Ecclesiastes.
Verse 21 is sometimes misread as a description of man going to heaven when he dies. Chapter 12, verse 7 is similarly misread.
These verses are frequently used to prove that we “go to heaven” when we die. But both of these verses must not be set against the many clear verses that say otherwise. They are not talking about a man’s consciousness, or about his soul as a separate entity. They are talking about the spirit (ruach) which is the breath of life, or life force, that makes man alive.
Remember that God breathed into man's nostrils the breath of life and man became a living soul. That life force was added to a body and it became a living creature. Death can be seen as the reverse of this process. When a soul dies, the breath is gone ("he took his last breath"). The body returns to the earth, and the life force returns to God who gave it. But this life force is not man's consciousness. If it were, then all living creatures would be said to go to God at death, whether saved or unsaved. This would even contradict the other fundamental doctrines of those who profess to believe in conscious life for believers in heaven after death. For further discussion of this concept, see the Closer Look article The Three Parts of Man Fallacy.
When a person dies, the spirit (breath life) is gone and the body corrupts in the grave ("Thou takest away their breath, they die, and return to their dust." - Psalm 104:29). Nowhere does it say that they are conscious on another plane of existence. This makes sense when you consider that consciousness and thought are the product of a functioning brain, and the brain is no longer functioning after the breath of life is gone.
Some have suggested that this passage is only dealing with things "under the sun" and not with spiritual realities. But the phrase "under the sun" is a common expression that refers to everything in life. For it to mean only that which happens on earth in contrast to that which happens in heaven, there would have to be references somewhere to life in heaven. But while heaven is used to describe both the physical space above the earth and the spiritual abode of God and angels, there is nothing in the Bible about the dead going there. Besides, if the dead were alive in heaven they would still have knowledge, but this passage points out that it is perished.
Others say that it is unwise to base a doctrine on something in Ecclesiastes, for it represented Solomon's complaining and philosophizing, and not divinely inspired doctrine. In a similar manner, some claim that the things Job said represent the words that were spoken by a person, and not necessarily divinely inspired doctrine.
While it is true that one must be aware of who is speaking in a given passage, the determining factor for whether it is true doctrine is that it must fit with other sections of Scripture. These words in Ecclesiastes and Job may not prove anything by themselves, but they are consistent with the view that is presented in other Scriptures.
Certainly if the dead were alive in heaven they would be praising God, but the above verses state clearly they do not. The word for "grave" is the Hebrew word sheol which refers to more than just a physical grave. It is the abode of the dead, and is described as a state of unconsciousness where there is no thought or activity. It is never a place where the dead continue to exist in a disembodied form, nor is there any hint that some other part of the person goes to heaven and is conscious with the Lord. It says that the whole person dies and at that time their thoughts perish, they do not praise the Lord or give Him thanks.
In addition, death is described as sleep many places in the Bible, such as Psalm 13:3 ("...lighten mine eyes, lest I sleep the sleep of death"[see NASB]) and the many references to the Kings of Israel, about whom it says when they died that they "slept with their fathers." Jesus described Lazarus as sleeping at first, but then said plainly, "Lazarus is dead" (John 11:11-14). Combine this with the basic definition of man's soul, which is nowhere described as immortal, but something that can die, and you see a consistent testimony from the Scriptures that death is the end of life and will only be overcome by resurrection. Remember Job said that "man lieth down, and riseth not: till the heavens be no more, they shall not awake..." (Job 14:12). He also said in verse 14 of that chapter, "If a man die, shall he live again? all the days of my appointed time will I wait, till my change come." [see NASB] When will Job's change come?
Job believed that death was the end of life, and would be permanent except for a resurrection to come "at the latter day." David, Daniel, and Jesus himself, all described the same thing.
It was resurrection in the coming Kingdom, not going to heaven, that was the hope of Israel in the Old Testament. And that same hope is spoken of and confirmed throughout the New Testament as well.
The overall picture of resurrection (especially as described by Paul in I Corinthians 15) is that of dead people being raised to life. The Roman Catholic creed refers to the "resurrection of the body." This implies that only the body is raised, since the soul has been living in heaven since death. In contrast, Scripture speaks of the whole person being raised. Nowhere does the Bible say anything about living consciously in a disembodied state after death. This whole concept originated from Greek philosophy and was gradually introduced, first into Jewish thinking, and later into Christian doctrine.
So the original concept in the Hebrew Scriptures did not see the soul as immortal or living in consciousness after death. Such an idea originated in Greek philosophy and gradually entered into Judaism in the century before Christ. Some of the books of the Apocrypha, as well as such extrabiblical writings as the book of Enoch, provide a glimpse of these ideas. This is where the Pharisees and Sadducees and other Jewish sects got their ideas that were common at the time of Christ. The same Greek philosophical concepts crept into the Christian Church eventually, but not right away. The New Testament is in agreement with the Hebrew concept, and there are also early church writings, before the Apologists, which indicate an awareness of the wrong doctrine and a condemnation of it.
The idea of an immortal soul is derived from Greek philosophy, and is foreign to the Bible.
Despite the overwhelming evidence of the Scriptures, there are a small handful of passages that are repeatedly cited as proof that a believer goes immediately to be with the Lord at death. One of the most common is Paul's statement in II Corinthians 5:8, "We are confident, I say, and willing rather to be absent from the body, and to be present with the Lord." This verse is almost always misquoted as, "To be absent from the body is to be present with the Lord." It is generally assumed Paul meant that to be absent from the body (i.e. at death) equals being present with the Lord. Similarly, Paul wrote in Philippians 1:23, "For I am in a strait betwixt two, having a desire to depart, and to be with Christ; which is far better." Did Paul mean that when he departed he would be immediately with Christ? Does being absent from the body mean being present with the Lord? If this was what he meant, it would contradict not only the Hebrew understanding of death which we just discussed, but even many things that Paul himself wrote elsewhere.
These verses are consistent with the view of death and resurrection we have been discussing. Paul fully expected to be raised from death at the return of Christ, and not before. There is no suggestion of immediately being with the Lord, and no implication that the resurrection consists of reuniting an already conscious spirit with its body. In I Thessalonians 4, there had been a question about the state of "them which are asleep." If the departed believers were now "in a better place with the Lord," it would have been the most comforting thing that Paul could have said. But of course he said no such thing. The words with which he comforted them, and with which we are to comfort one another, concerned the coming of the Lord, and that "the dead in Christ shall rise first: Then we which are alive and remain shall be caught up together with them in the clouds, to meet the Lord in the air: and so shall we ever be with the Lord" (verses 16-17). If the believers who had died were already with Christ in heaven, Paul's statement that "we which are alive and remain unto the coming of the Lord shall not prevent them which are asleep"(verse 15) would be pointless. Of course we wouldn't prevent (precede) them that sleep if they are already there! The point Paul was making was that those that were asleep would not be at a disadvantage, because they would be raised first, then we will join them.
So in conjunction with what Paul has written elsewhere, could II Corinthians 5:8 mean that one goes immediately to be with the Lord at death? It can't mean that and fit with the rest of Scripture. The context of this section of Paul's epistle is dealing with the overall theme of contrasting this life with that which is to come. "Knowing that he which raised up the Lord Jesus shall raise up us also by Jesus, and shall present us with you" (II Corinthians 4:14). We do not faint because any temporary suffering is insignificant in comparison with the great glory that is to come. "For we know that if our earthly house of this tabernacle were dissolved, we have a building of God, an house not made with hands, eternal in the heavens" (II Corinthians 5:1). Considered in conjunction with Paul's other writings, this can't be talking about a building of God that we will go to in the heavens, but one that is now prepared for us in the heavens. We long to put on that new body which will be from heaven (verse 2, "For in this we groan, earnestly desiring to be clothed upon with our house which is from heaven.") While we are in this present body, we are absent from the Lord (verse 6). Like Paul, we have a desire to leave that home (our present body) and be with him, which will happen when he returns, "For we must all appear before the judgment seat of Christ" (verse 10). The whole point Paul was making was the contrast between our state now and our state when Christ returns. The new body is symbolized as clothing which we will put on, so that we will not be naked. To be disembodied in the interim was a condition that Paul rejected as unthinkable. "If so be that being clothed we shall not be found naked. For we that are in this tabernacle do groan, being burdened: not for that we would be unclothed, but clothed upon, that mortality might be swallowed up of life" (verses 3 and 4).
Similarly, Paul was discussing the furtherance of the gospel in Philippians 1:12-30, regardless of whether he lived or died. "Christ shall be magnified in my body, whether it be by life, or by death" (Philippians 1:20). Paul did not say in verse 23 that he believed that when he departed he would be with Christ; he merely said that he had a desire to depart and be with Christ. For him, when he died, his next conscious thought would be the return of Christ, since there would be no consciousness of time passing. But he still viewed his goal as the resurrection (Philippians 3:11) which from the perspective of the living, is yet future.
Another commonly used "proof-text" is Luke 23:42-43, where Jesus spoke to the thief on the cross. One of the thieves railed on Jesus, but the other said, "Lord, remember me when thou comest into thy kingdom." Jesus replied to him, "Verily I say unto thee, To day shalt thou be with me in paradise." How could this be possible? According to the Bible, paradise is not in "heaven" but a place on earth. It will be the location of the future Tree of Life (Revelation 2:7). Jesus made this promise in response to the request concerning his Kingdom, which is in the future. Besides, even if it meant heaven, Jesus himself wasn't going to be there that same day. He was to be in the heart of the earth for three days and three nights. Even the day after he was resurrected, he had not yet ascended to the Father (John 20:17).
A simple solution to this problem is found in the punctuation. Since there was no punctuation in the original manuscripts, the placing of a comma is subject to the interpretation of the translator. The adjective translated "today" frequently follows the verb it modifies, and is often used to show great solemnity. Phrases such as "I say unto you today" or "I command you this day" are not uncommon. Some examples include Deuteronomy 6:6; 8:11; 10:13; 11:8,27,32; 13:18; 19:9; 27:4; 30:19. Paul uses a similar expression in Acts 20:26 ("Wherefore I take you to record this day, that I am pure from the blood of all men.") The verse in Luke can then be punctuated as, "Verily I say unto you today, thou shalt be with me in paradise." The passage then makes sense and does not contradict any other Scripture. The thief said, "Lord, remember me when thou comest into thy kingdom" (which will be in the future) and Jesus assured him that he would be in paradise in that future Kingdom.
Another occurrence of the word paradise is quite illuminating. Paul wrote in II Corinthians 12:1ff about a vision he had been given, describing "such an one caught up to the third heaven." A great many commentators interpret this as referring to a view of the heavens that was held by some Jews in that day. They believed that there were several levels to heaven, and that the highest one was the abode of God. Scriptural passages that refer to "the heaven of heavens" are usually cited as being proof of this. There are different variations of this, with varying numbers of levels. The one most commonly referred to in this context defines three levels: The first heaven, according to this interpretation, is the visible portion, with clouds and birds, etc. The second is what we call “outer space,” the portion which contains the sun, moon, and stars. Finally the third heaven is the "heaven of heavens" beyond the stars, which is the abode of God and his angels, and of those departed saints that have gone to be with God. However, Deuteronomy 10:14 says, "Behold, the heaven and the heaven of heavens is the LORD’S thy God, the earth also, with all that therein is." God is not limited to a supposed third level of heaven.
The "third heaven" to which Paul refers, he also calls "paradise" in verse 4, which Jesus identified with his Kingdom in Luke 23:42-43, and which Revelation 2:7 describes as a place on earth in the future. The word for "caught up" is harpazo which is also translated "caught away" or "carried off." The meaning of the word does not automatically imply "up" although it is sometimes used that way. The paradise that Paul was caught away to is called the third heaven, because the Bible speaks of three. We saw in the article on the Gap Theory that II Peter 3 describes the heavens which were of old and the world that perished (verses 5-6), the heavens and earth which are now (verse 7), and a new heavens and new earth (verse 13), wherein dwelleth righteousness. Paul was caught away to that future heaven, and given a vision of the coming Kingdom.
The parable of the rich man and Lazarus in Luke 16 is probably the primary passage that on the surface appears to support the popular notion that judgment, with resulting punishment and reward, is meted out before the resurrection. But this would contradict the rest of Scripture, which says that judgment will take place after the resurrection at the return of Christ (Daniel 12:2; John 5:28,29; Revelation 20:11-15).
The word ‘hell’ in verse 23 is the Greek word hades. In Greek mythology Hades was the god of the underworld, and the name came to be applied to the abode of the dead. Its New Testament usage, however, makes no mention of rewards, punishments, or even consciousness, with the exception of this one verse. The word hades was used to translate the Hebrew word sheol in the Septuagint (Greek translation of the Old Testament), and as such its New Testament usage follows the Hebrew view of a place of unconsciousness.
It is important to recognize that this passage is a story with a moral, and not intended to be a literal discourse on the state of the dead. The whole point of the story is given in verse 31, "If they hear not Moses and the prophets, neither will they be persuaded, though one rose from the dead." Jesus was not telling the story in order to teach what happens after you die. F. W. Farrar wrote, "It is inconceivable to ground the proof of an important theological doctrine on a passage which confessedly abounds in Jewish metaphor" (Smith's Dictionary of the Bible, vol. 2, p. 1038). G. M. Gwatkin wrote, "Let me only warn you that parable is parable and not literal fact. It is good for the lesson our Lord means to teach, but we cannot take for granted that He means to teach everything He seems to say, for example that in Paradise we shall sit in Abraham's lap" (The Eye for Spiritual Things, p. 41). And a Hebrew professor, Dr. C. H. Wright, held a similar view, "To suppose it to be our Lord's object here to give a doctrine of Intermediate State is entirely to misunderstand the parable" (The Intermediate State, p. 278).
Anthony Buzzard, in What Happens When We Die?, p. 52, makes the following observation.
He also writes that it would be "quite possible to understand the entire conversation between the dead as poetic imagery similar to the passage in Isaiah 14:9-11 where the dead are represented as speaking to each other" (What Happens When We Die?, p. 53). In any case the passage cannot be used to prove that Jesus endorsed the Platonic view of life after death as a disembodied spirit. (Listen to a detailed handling of this by Sean Finnegan on The Byte Show.)
In I Samuel 28 we read of a supposed appearance of Samuel after his death. But the woman which Saul consulted had a familiar spirit, according to verses 7 and 8, which impersonated Samuel. Having familiar spirits or consulting anyone who did was condemned in the Law of Moses. In the vision Samuel seemed to be speaking for God, even predicting Saul's defeat and death. But if God actually wanted to deliver a message to Saul, would He have used a method which He Himself had condemned? Familiar spirits are lying spirits, and continue to give the illusion of communication with the dead, which is contrary to the truth of God's Word.
Frequently the workings of the devil and of demons will appear to be on behalf of the true God. Paul says that even "Satan himself is transformed into an angel of light" (II Corinthians 11:14). There are those even today who claim to have been to heaven and seen the dead living with and worshipping God and Jesus. But if a vision is contrary to the clear teaching of Scripture, can it be truly of God? We are warned of false prophets and teachers, and told specifically to "believe not every spirit, but try the spirits whether they are of God" (I John 4:1). The devil is a master of deception, and one of his primary goals is to further his original lie, that man does not truly die.
When Peter, James and John went up the mountain with Jesus and witnessed the transfiguration in Matthew 17:1-9, they saw Moses and Elijah talking with Jesus. Many people assume that this means they were alive in heaven and came down at this time. However, it is described as a vision in verse 9, and so cannot be used to prove that Moses and Elijah are actually alive. Hebrews 11:13 and 39 both state that the Old Testament heroes of faith died, not having received the promises, and John 3:13 states that no one has ascended up to heaven except Jesus.
At the Transfiguration, Peter, James, and John saw a vision (Matthew 17:9) of Jesus in his glory, accompanied by Moses and Elijah. It was a vision of Christ's glory which will come to pass when he returns to reign in his Kingdom. We know this because Peter specifically states in II Peter 1:16-18 that they were eyewitnesses of his majesty, related to his power and coming (parousia).
Was Elijah translated into heaven without dying, as many believe? According to II Kings 2:1 and 11, he was taken up "into heaven" by a whirlwind. But in the Bible, "heaven" is used in more than one way. Sometimes it refers to the dwelling place of God as in John 3:13, but sometimes it just means the space above the earth, as in "the fowls of heaven" (Genesis 1:20, Revelation 19:17, etc.). The context must determine which meaning is meant.
The sons of the prophets did not believe that Elijah was gone to a place "beyond the sky" or that he was in the presence of God. If they had believed that, they would not have been looking for him just in case the Spirit of the Lord had "taken him up, and cast him upon some mountain, or into some valley." King Jehoram receives a letter from him in II Chronicles 21:12. When you compare the chronology of kings outlined in II Kings 1-3 with II Chronicles 21, you see that this was after Elijah was taken up in the whirlwind. He was taken up and brought somewhere, but the Bible does not say where he was taken. The historian Josephus describes it that way as well. "Elijah disappeared from men and no one knows to this day of his end" (Antiq. ix. 2:2). Eventually he died just as everyone else does.
Another Old Testament figure who is thought to have been taken directly to heaven is Enoch. Hebrews 11:5 says that he was "translated, that he should not see death." But the writer of Psalm 89:48 asks, rhetorically, "What man is he that liveth, and shall not see death?" And Hebrews 9:27 says that "...it is appointed unto men once to die, but after this the judgment." There is no exception to this; everybody dies. Genesis 5:24 tells us that Enoch "walked with God: and he was not; for God took him." The use of the phrase "was not" does not imply that he was "caught up to heaven." It is frequently used in the Old Testament as a euphemistic way of saying that someone was dead (Joseph's brothers and father both used it this way referring to the presumed death of Joseph. See Genesis 42:32,36.)
Genesis simply says that God "took" Enoch. Hebrews 11:5 tells us that God translated him. The Greek word for "translated" is metatithemi which is translated "carried over" in Acts 7:16 and "removed" in Galatians 1:6. The word simply means that, like Elijah, he was carried from one place over to another. We are told that God did this so that he would not "see" death. The word used here is eido which can mean literally "to see" with the eyes, or figuratively "to know or perceive." As is so often the case, the meaning is determined by the context, as well as other related Scriptures. Hebrews 11, after talking about Abel, Enoch, Noah, Abraham, and Sara, says in verse 13, "These all died in faith." Therefore Enoch is included in those who have died, which also fits with Hebrews 9:27, I Corinthians 15:22, and Psalm 89:48 (everybody dies) as well as John 3:13 (no one has ascended to heaven except Jesus Christ). So Enoch must have been translated so that he would not literally see death with his eyes. Both he and Elijah are dead and awaiting the resurrection.
When Jesus said that God is not the God of the dead but of the living (Mark 12:27), it was in the context of the resurrection (note especially verses 18, 23, 25, and 26). Yet many commentators still take it out of context and try to use it to prove that the dead are alive in heaven. Similarly, some take the reference to the "great cloud of witnesses" in Hebrews 12:1 out of context and use it to refer to the dead in heaven. But it is simply referring to the example of faith of those spoken of in chapter 11. The Scriptures must be considered as a whole, and allowed to speak for themselves. The Platonic concepts of an immortal soul and life after death as a disembodied spirit have no place in Christian doctrine. The promises made to Abraham will have their fulfillment when he is resurrected at the end of this age when Christ returns to set up his Kingdom. At that time the dead in Christ shall be raised, and the rest of the dead will be raised after the thousand year reign. Until then, the dead remain unconscious in a state of non-existence. This is the clear teaching of Scripture, despite Satan's continual attempts to undermine it.
For further reading: