Death is a continual dilemma and concern for humankind. The ancient Egyptians would mummify the body of the deceased in anticipation that this assured safe passage to the life beyond death. Many religions believe that there is some sort of paradise beyond this mortal coil and that death is the gateway to getting there – whether that be the happy hunting grounds of the American Indians, Valhalla of the Norse, or the 72 virgins of Islam. Many Christian denominations believe that the soul is immediately transferred to Heaven – hopefully, that is, for the alternative is just a little hot – at death.
In fact, one could conceive of a scene at a funeral where a man has died in mid-life. And front and center are his grieving widow and several children ranging in age from very young to the teens. And the preacher is saying something like, “Yes, George here was a good ole boy. But God has other plans for him now, and George is right now in Heaven in eternal bliss and looking down on us. He is in a better place now – a place so good, that even if he could, he would not come back to us.”
This is small comfort for the widow who has lost the breadwinner of the household and is now faced with the very difficult prospect of providing for and raising the kids on her own. How could her husband be so selfish as to no longer care about the plight of his family? Why wouldn’t the family consider jumping off a bridge so that they, too, could be immediately transformed into this eternal bliss of Heaven that is so great that they would not come back to Earth even if they could?
What happens to the soul at death? Can the dead speak to us? Are they watching us? Are they happy? In short, the question really is: Are the dead really dead?
Are there answers to these questions? And can they be found in the Bible?
There seem to be so many uses of the word “soul.” For instance, folks debate whether or not the soul is immortal? That we are mortal in the flesh, but that somehow our soul is not mortal but is immortal instead. Is there support for this kind of belief from the Bible?
Let us begin by asking the question: What is a soul?
In fact, let us take this one step further and ask: Has anyone here ever seen a soul? (wait for show of hands)
Okay, so now the question becomes: How many would like to see a soul right here and right now?
And the LORD God formed man of the dust of the ground, and breathed into his nostrils the breath of life; and man became a living soul. Genesis 2:7
So right here we have a formula for what makes up the soul: Body + Breath = Soul
So if you’ve never seen a soul before, just look in the mirror or the person sitting next to you, and you can see one to your heart’s content.
So, obviously at death, we have a body – sometimes referred to as “corpse” or “cadaver” – but this body is no longer animated. It does not breathe or respond to stimulus or exhibit signs of life. What has happened to the soul?
Let us take an illustration: let’s imagine that there is a stack of small boards and some nails before us. One of us comes along with a hammer and bangs the nails into the boards and makes a box. Then another comes along and takes the hammer in reverse and pulls the nails out and lays the boards and the nails back to the way they once were. The question is: what happened to the box? Answer: it ceased to exist. And that is what happens to the soul at death – it ceases to exist.
Let us look at some Scriptural texts on this matter:
Solomon tells us what happens to the body at death:
All go unto one place; all are of the dust, and all turn to dust again. Ecclesiastes 3:20
In Psalms we find out what happens not only to the body but also to the breath:
Put not your trust in princes, nor in the son of man, in whom there is no help.
His breath goeth forth, he returneth to his earth; in that very day his thoughts perish. Psalms 146:3-4
In the book of Job we have a further definition of what the breath really is:
all the while my breath is in me, and the spirit of God is in my nostrils. Job 27:3
In fact, Zechariah tells us that it is God who forms the spirit of man within us:
The burden of the word of the LORD for Israel, saith the LORD, which stretcheth forth the heavens, and layeth the foundation of the earth, and formeth the spirit of man within him. Zechariah 12:1
And God Himself acknowledges that all life is a function of having the breath of life – which as we have seen comes from Him:
And, behold, I, even I, do bring a flood of waters upon the earth, to destroy all flesh, wherein is the breath of life, from under heaven; and every thing that is in the earth shall die. Genesis 6:17
Now, a few passages back we just read in Psalms that at death, our “thoughts perish.” Let us read more about what happens to sentience at death:
Hopes and plans perish:
When a wicked man dieth, his expectation shall perish:
and the hope of unjust men perisheth. Proverbs 11:7
Also perishing are our emotions:
For to him that is joined to all the living there is hope: for a living dog is better than a dead lion.
For the living know that they shall die: but the dead know not any thing, neither have they any more a reward; for the memory of them is forgotten.
Also their love, and their hatred, and their envy, is now perished; neither have they any more a portion for ever in any thing that is done under the sun. Ecclesiastes 9: 4-6
What the Bible is telling us here is that there is no sentience in death – that all involvement with the world of the living ceases, and the dead have no thoughts, no emotions, no hopes, and no dreams.
So okay, maybe that is saying that the dead do not interact with us here on Earth, but surely they are in Heaven with God, right? Well, let us see what the Bible has to say about that:
For in death there is no remembrance of thee:
in the grave who shall give thee thanks? Psalms 6:5
Let me not be ashamed, O LORD;
for I have called upon thee:
let the wicked be ashamed,
and let them be silent in the grave. Psalms 31:17
The dead praise not the LORD,
neither any that go down into silence. Psalms 115:17
So here we see that the dead have no part with God. They don’t thank Him, they are silent, and they do not praise Him.
In fact, the Bible compares the state of the dead to the state of sleep:
Consider and hear me, O LORD my God:
lighten mine eyes, lest I sleep the sleep of death; Psalms 13:3
And this is exactly what Jesus compared it to:
Story of Lazarus – John 11:1-44
In the context of this story from the Gospel of John when compared to our picture of the funeral at the beginning, why wouldn’t Lazarus be upset for being resurrected? Why wouldn’t he say, “Why did you bring me back from that wonderful paradise of eternal bliss?”
But Jesus says that Lazarus sleeps and that He goes to wake him out of sleep. Jesus states that He is the resurrection and the life.
And indeed, we have the hope of deliverance from death in the resurrection and eternal life in the New Earth to come:
For the Lord himself shall descend from heaven with a shout, with the voice of the archangel, and with the trump of God: and 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. Wherefore comfort one another with these words. 1 Thessalonians 4:16-18
Behold, I show you a mystery; We shall not all sleep, but we shall all be changed,
in a moment, in the twinkling of an eye, at the last trump: for the trumpet shall sound, and the dead shall be raised incorruptible, and we shall be changed.
For this corruptible must put on incorruption, and this mortal must put on immortality.
So when this corruptible shall have put on incorruption, and this mortal shall have put on immortality, then shall be brought to pass the saying that is written, Death is swallowed up in victory. O death, where is thy sting? O grave, where is thy victory?
The sting of death is sin; and the strength of sin is the law.
But thanks be to God, which giveth us the victory through our Lord Jesus Christ. 1 Corinthians 15:51-57
These wait all upon thee;
that thou mayest give them their meat in due season.
That thou givest them they gather:
thou openest thine hand, they are filled with good.
Thou hidest thy face, they are troubled:
thou takest away their breath, they die,
and return to their dust.
Thou sendest forth thy spirit, they are created:
and thou renewest the face of the earth. Psalms 104: 27-30
And John saw a vision of this state of affairs:
And I saw a new heaven and a new earth: for the first heaven and the first earth were passed away; and there was no more sea.
And I John saw the holy city, new Jerusalem, coming down from God out of heaven, prepared as a bride adorned for her husband.
And I heard a great voice out of heaven saying, Behold, the tabernacle of God is with men, and he will dwell with them, and they shall be his people, and God himself shall be with them, and be their God.
And God shall wipe away all tears from their eyes; and there shall be no more death, neither sorrow, nor crying, neither shall there be any more pain: for the former things are passed away. Revelation 21:1-4
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