There is a long held belief among some, that man has an immortal soul or perhaps better understood as a “ghost being” or a metaphysical form that goes on into perpetual life after the body dies or loses its animation.
To properly understand the state of the dead, be it a conscious or unconscious state, we must first develop an understanding on what man is made of. That is, we have to fairly examine the components that make up man and woman, which will lend itself to further exploration on what the Bible has to say about life after death. Thus this topic “The state of the dead – conscious or asleep” has been divided into three sub-headings, 1. The creation of man, 2. Are the dead conscious or asleep?, and 3. Hades/Sheol, is there consciousness?
1. The creation of man
We find the creation of man laid out in Genesis 2:7 “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”
From this verse alone we can know the components that make up man. They are 1. Molded dust, and 2. God’s breath that gives life. The two brought together produces a miracle, that is, the animation/movement of the molded dust, also known as a living soul.
The Hebrew word translated as soul is “nephesh” and it literally means “that which breathes or a breathing substance/being”. It is a term applied to various forms of life in the scriptures including birds and fish (Genesis 1:20,21,24,30; Genesis 9:4-5,12,15; Revelation 8:9; Revelation 16:3) . The confusion of the word “nephesh” only exists in the English translation having inconsistently translated nephesh in various parts of scripture as soul, self, life, creature, person, appetite, mind, living being, desire, emotion, passion, etc. But even with the inconsistency, all these variations of nephesh only point to the essence of physical and nature life. None of these have anything to do with something which is metaphysical and immortal that goes out of the body to live perpetually after death. Leviticus 17:11 going as far as saying that the ‘nephesh’ of an animal is in its blood, and has been given to make atonement for the nephesh of the people’. In other words, when the blood of the animal is being drained out, one is equally said to be destroying the soul/life of the animal in exchange for one’s own life. God equates the soul to the lifeblood, something which is purely physical. Taking another look at the verse, “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”. Notice that the text says that “man became a living soul”, not that he has (or was given) a soul! Man was created an integrated, unified whole. He himself as a whole is a living soul. He once was just moulded dust until God animated that moulded dust making him an animated and living being/soul. Man is not made of body, soul and spirit in the sense of separate, distinct, and independent physical and metaphysical substances. That understanding of man is not the case, at least not in the word of God.
To further establish the notion that man is a unified whole, and a purely physical being, we turn to Genesis 2:16-17 “And the Lord God commanded the man, saying, “Of every tree of the garden you may freely eat; but of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil you shall not eat, for in the day that you eat of it you shall surely die.”
When man dies, all of him dies. There is a cessation of life and he is dead in every way. If for the sake of argument, that man’s “soul” is detached from his dead body, then only the body could be said to have died. But God said “you shall surely die”. The use of the singular personal pronoun “you” signifies the person, the whole person, not just his body. Furthermore, if death does not mean what it does, which is “the cessation of life”, why is death then said to be an “enemy” in 1 Corinthians 15:26? If death did not mean a cessation of life but that an immortal soul leaves the body and goes into the presence of God, would it not be considered a friend instead? Yet the Bible makes it clear that death is an enemy and not a friend. Any belief that leaves death neutral or a friend is a belief similar to gnostic dualism. A system of beliefs which claimed that the human body was evil, something to be freed from, while the eternal soul was good. The Gnostics were a group heavily opposed by Paul, Peter, John and Jude. The Gnostics taught many false doctrines contrary to Christ, believing that the purpose of human existence was to return to the spiritual realm from whence all originated. They saw death as a liberation of the spirit/soul from the body, when in fact the body is not separate from an immortal soul, and neither is it evil. A belief proposing the flesh as evil undermines the deity of Christ who according to Philippians 2 chose to become flesh, the very thing the Gnostics believed was evil. This belief had them teaching that Jesus Christ did not come in the flesh and according to 1 John 4:1-4, such are not of God and are antichrist.
To believe that a person continues living after the body dies is contrary to the whole cannon of God’s word. It is also a position undermining the doctrine and power of the resurrection of the body, both of the righteous and ultimately of Jesus’ own resurrection from the dead. Furthermore, it makes God and Jesus out as cruel who double-handedly brought Lazarus from the dead if he was indeed in the presence of God in joyful bliss. Why bring Lazarus back to an imperfect and disunified world if he was undeniably in perfect and harmonious bliss?
If death did not mean a cessation of life, but a separation of body and an immortal soul, would the body not be considered a prison holding in one’s true self? Would not the body, if a prison, be considered an enemy by some, who may even go as far as saying Jesus was not brought back to life in the flesh.
The possible logical conclusions of a belief in a separation of body and an immortal metaphysical substance are many. But to further establish the notion that man is wholly physical and that death is indeed a cessation of life we turn to Genesis 3:19 which records the punishment for Adam’s sin. “Then to Adam [God] said “Because you have heeded the voice of your wife, and have eaten from the tree of which I commanded you, saying, ‘You shall not eat of it’: “Cursed is the ground for your sake; in toil you shall eat of it all the days of your life. Both thorns and thistles it shall bring forth for you, and you shall eat the herb of the field in the sweat of your face you shall eat bread till you return to the ground, for out of it you were taken; for dust you are, and to dust you shall return.”
Take note that God tells Adam exactly what he is. Adam is dust, that’s all he is. He was taken out of dust and to dust he shall return. God makes it clear that the punishment for Adam’s sin is his return to what he came from which is dust. Adam’s punishment for sin is the destruction of his person and the return to the ground. There is no suggestion here of what some call “spiritual death”. That theology is not in scripture either explicitly or implicitly. God makes it clear that death is the cessation of Adam’s life as well as the return to the ground from which he was taken. There was nothing mysterious about Adam’s death and there is equally nothing mysterious about anyone else’s death. Job with much grief and pain would be expected to hope in an immortal soul rising up to God should he have died when he was in disrepair, but on the contrary he said in Job 34:14-15 “if God might want to confine and hold back his breath, all flesh will come to an end in one accord even man will return to dust”.
Here is an extract from the Jewish encyclopaedia, demonstrating the Jewish perspective of man and the idea of an immortal soul: “The belief that the soul continues its existence after the dissolution of the body is a matter of philosophical or theological speculation rather than of simple faith, and is accordingly nowhere expressly taught in Holy Scripture. As long as the soul was conceived to be merely a breath (“nefesh”; “neshamah”;), and inseparably connected, if not identified, with the life-blood (Gen. 9:4, comp. 4:11; Lev. 17:11;), no real substance could be ascribed to it. As soon as the spirit or breath of God (“nishmat” or “ruaḥ ḥayyim”), which was believed to keep body and soul together, both in man and in beast (Gen. 2:7, 6:17, 7:22; Job 27:3), is taken away (Ps. 146:4) or returns to God (Eccl. 12:7; Job 34:14), the soul goes down to Sheol or Hades, there to lead a shadowy existence without life and consciousness (Job 14:21; Ps. 6:6, 115:17; Isa. 38:18; Eccl. 9:5, 10). The belief in a continuous life of the soul, which underlies primitive Ancestor Worship and the rites of necromancy, practised also in ancient Israel (I Sam. 28:13 et seq.; Isa. 8:19;), was discouraged and suppressed by prophet and lawgiver as antagonistic to the belief in Yhwh, the God of life, the Ruler of heaven and earth…”
A number of the Old Testament writers had their hope of immortality in the resurrection only and not the separation of body and an immortal soul rising to the presence of God. David for example writes in Psalm 17:15 “As for me, I will see your face in righteousness; I shall be satisfied when I awake in your likeness.” Expressing his desire to awake from sleep in the resurrection in order to see God’s face in righteousness. This concept of awakening from sleep is an expression used in describing the state of the dead, and is consistent with numerous Old and New Testament passages.
Job also said in Job 14:11-14 “As water disappears from the sea, and a river becomes parched and dries up, so man lies down and does not rise. Till the heavens are no more, they will not awake nor be roused from their sleep. “Oh, that you would hide me in the grave, that you would conceal me until your wrath is past and would appoint me a set time, and remember me! If a man dies, shall he live having completed the days of his existence? I shall wait until I exist again”. Job’s hope as observed in this passage was in the resurrection. His sentiments of his existence was not in an immortal soul existing after his body dies but rather in an understanding that he ceases to exist altogether when he dies, thus putting his hope in a resurrection back to life.
So what then can be said of those who have died? What happened to them? We turn into the next subheading….
2. Are the dead conscious or asleep?
John 11:11-14 “He [Jesus] said to them, “Our friend Lazarus sleeps, but I go that I may wake him up. Then His disciples said, “Lord, if he sleeps he will get well.” However, Jesus spoke of his death, but they thought that He was speaking about taking rest in sleep. Then Jesus said to them plainly, “Lazarus is dead.”
Jesus likened death to sleep but not in the same sense as taking rest. The thing common between death and taking normal day-to-day rest in sleep, as far as Jesus’ perspective is being considered is that, both death and normal sleep come to an end when one awakes. Therefore awakening Lazarus was the very thing Jesus had hoped to do, that is, to raise Lazarus up from death.
David wrote in Psalm 13:3 “Consider and hear me, O LORD my God; Enlighten my eyes, lest I sleep the sleep of death”
Also in Daniel 12:2, the messenger said to Daniel that “many of those who sleep in the dust of the earth shall awake, some to everlasting life, some to shame and everlasting contempt.” Notice it says those sleeping in the dust of the earth and does not say those awake or conscious in hades/sheol/hell shall be brought up. More on hades and hell below.
Paul also in Acts 13:36 said “For David, after he had served his own generation by the will of God, fell asleep, was buried with his fathers, and saw corruption”. And speaking of Christ Paul writes in 1 Corinthians 15:20 “Christ has risen, and become the firstfruits of those who have fallen asleep”.
Peter also in 2 Peter 3:3-4 “Knowing this first: that scoffers will come in the last days, walking according to their own lusts, and saying, ‘Where is the promise of His coming? For since the fathers fell asleep, all things continue as they were from the beginning of creation.”
Were all these men including Jesus who had intended to bring Lazarus back to life from sleep alluding to a conscious immortal soul that was somewhere, and needed to be put back into a body, or were they all testifying concerning God’s power to breathe the breath of life into a body again, hence awakening the person who is taking sleep in the dust of the earth?
Ecclesiastes 3:18-21 “I said in my heart, “Concerning the condition of the sons of men, God tests them, that they may see that they themselves are like animals.” For what happens to the sons of men also happens to animals; one thing befalls them: as one dies, so dies the other. Surely, they all have one breath; man has no advantage over animals, for all is vanity. All go to one place: all are from the dust, and all return to dust. Who knows the breath of the sons of men, which goes upward, and the breath of the animal, which goes down to the earth?”
The writer likens mankind to animals, explaining that man has no advantage over animals. They are the same in every way, one made of dust and the other likewise. What happens to man at death is exactly what happens to animals, they both return to the dust but their breath goes to different places. The breath of the animal goes downwards and the breath of man upwards. The writer does not explain why the breath of man goes upward in this passage, however he explains it later in Ecclesiastes 12:6-7 saying “Then the dust will return to the earth as it was, and the breath [of man] will return to God who gave it.” The breath of man going up to God is consistent with the New Testament.
Luke 23:45-46 “then the sun was darkened, and the veil of the temple was torn in two. And when Jesus had cried out with a loud voice, He said, “Father, ‘into your hands I commit my breath.’ “Having said this, He breathed His last.” And again in Acts 7:59 “And they stoned Stephen as he was calling on God and saying, “Lord Jesus, receive my breath.” Then he knelt down and cried out with a loud voice, “Lord, do not charge them with this sin.” And when he had said this, he fell asleep.”
Notice the correlation scripture makes between committing one’s breath to God and sleeping in death. Stephen is said to have fallen asleep when he died, having committed his breath to Jesus who had previous ascended and seated at the right hand of God.
Scripture makes it clear that one sleeps when he dies. His breath returns to God who will later put it back into a body at the resurrection of the dead. Any hope of immortality rests on the resurrection to eternal life and not the existence of an immortal soul. A doctrine of an immortality of a soul is foreign to Mosaic and Jewish thought but popular amongst the ancient Greeks and Egyptians. Consider also what Paul wrote in 1 Corinthians 15:50-54 “But I am saying this, brothers, flesh and blood is powerless to inherit the Kingdom of God. Neither does the corrupt [state] inherit the incorrupt [state]. Look! I am telling you a mystery. Not all of us will be laid to sleep, but we all will be changed in an instant, in the blink of the eye, in the last trumpet. For He will sound the trumpet and the dead will be aroused non-corrupt, and we will be changed. For this corrupt thing [is] required to put on non-corruption, and this dying thing to put on immortality. But whenever this corrupt thing should put on non-corruption, and this dying thing should put on immortality, then will occur the word which has been written, “Death was swallowed into victory.” Paul makes bold statements in this passage. He not only proclaims life through the resurrection but a resurrection in which our very bodies will be changed and made incorruptible. Secondly, he refutes any belief of immortality existing before the resurrection saying “this corrupt thing should put on non-corruption, and this dying thing should put on immortality, then will occur the word which has been written, “Death was swallowed into victory.” Paul makes it clear that death is swallowed up when mortality is removed. Death is only powerful when man is a mere mortal being. The victory of death is present for as long as man is a mortal being but that victory is cancelled when man is made immortal through the glorious resurrection. The sole purpose of death being punishment for sin is that death is the cessation of life and consciousness. Life and consciousness is a precious gift from God. If death only made it easier for man to be in God’s presence by virtue of an immortal soul after the body dies, then death cannot rejoice in victory over man. But if indeed death brings life to an end and the only victory over death lies in the resurrection, then Paul is able to say “death is swallowed up in victory” when the “corrupt thing should put on non-corruption, and this dying thing should put on immortality”.
This is why the hope of the resurrection and the resurrection of Jesus is central to the Christian faith.
3. Hades/Sheol, is there consciousness?
Sheol/Hades which is the abode of the dead is commonly referred to as “the grave”. While it is not a term referring to a literal physical tomb, it nonetheless points to a state of death and nothingness. The primary definition of sheol and hades which is “the grave” has no correlation to fire and brimstone, neither does it demand that it be understood as such.
According to Jewish sources, Sheol (a Hebrew word) and its equivalent Hades (in greek), connotes a state where those that had died were believed to be congregated. The dead descend or are made to go down into it; the revived ascend or are brought and lifted up from it. An abode where the dead meet without distinction of rank or condition – the rich and the poor, the pious and the wicked, the old and the young, the master and the slave. Furthermore, nowhere in the Old Testament or in the root meaning of Sheol/hades is there an indication of consciousness or torment by fire. This understanding of hades is a modern construction drawn from greek mythology. It is only in greek mythology that the word “Hades” is said to refer to a god or ruler of an underworld of conscious souls having passed from the land of the living. Hades as a greek god was greatly feared amongst the ancient greeks.
In contrast, Shoel or hades in the Bible means grave and was never thought nor believed by the Jews including the apostles as a place of torment by fire nor as an underworld of conscious souls. There is only one passage in the New Testament, Luke 16 – The Rich man and Lazarus which seems to support this idea of consciousness and torment by fire. It is believed as such by the mere fact that Jesus said Lazarus died and was taken to Abraham’s bosom and the rich man who being in torment in hades was able to speak to Abraham. Jesus used the story as a parable to draw out the listeners’ understanding of the present circumstances of those listening to him. Those who would argue that hades/sheol is a literal place of torment by fire have to logically conclude that Abraham’s bosom is also a literal place. Thus they are forced to say that hades is a place with two separate areas. One area as a place of torment by fire, and another area (i.e. Abraham’s bosom) as a place of comfort. To further drive that theology, they argue that Abraham’s bosom can be interchanged with “paradise” on the belief that Jesus went to hades to preach when he died and before he was resurrected. And since he told the thief that he would be with him in paradise, then Jesus must have been in Abraham’s bosom, also called paradise and was preaching to those being tormented. Those holding to this view will however not endeavor to say “paradise” is in heaven because according to John 20:17, two days after Jesus’ resurrection, Jesus told Mary that he had not yet ascended to His Father who was in heaven. And since the bible according to Acts 2:27 says Jesus was in hades, they are forced to conclude that paradise is not in heaven but in hades, and Abraham’s bosom is paradise, a place of comfort in hades. These beliefs and understanding of scripture are expected if one was to follow that theology to its logical conclusions. But is that actually the theology the Bible is trying to teach? Isn’t the one passage, Luke 16 which is so heavily relied upon to support all these beliefs a parable, which ought not to be taken literally? And if taken literally, is it not in conflict with all that has been discussed so far and also in conflict with Job 21:30 and Rev 20 which make it clear that the wicked are to be judged at their resurrection and then cast into the lake of fire and not before that? What then does the bible actually teach concerning the Luke 16 passage and the other passages used to support that theology? For an in-depth exposition on Luke 16 and these other passages including Jesus and the thief on the cross and Jesus preaching to the breaths in prison, see “The state of the dead – Common objections”.
Sheol/hades means “grave” and is consistent with what one would expect from a place of silence and sleep. Psalm 115:17-18 “The dead do not praise the Lord, nor any who go down into silence. But we will bless the Lord From this time forth and forevermore. Praise the Lord!” David acknowledges that in death no one including himself can praise God and for that reason he will praise God while he still lives. Also in Psalm 6:3-5 “for I am weak; O Lord, heal me, for my bones are troubled. My soul also is greatly troubled; But You, O Lord–how long? Return, O Lord, deliver me! Oh, save me for your mercies’ sake! For in death there is no remembrance of You; In the grave [Hades] who will give You thanks?” Notice David’s plea with the Lord for salvation from death. Recognizing that he will not remember God when he dies, that when in the grave (i.e. sheol/hades), no one will be able to give thanks to God. And again He writes in Psalm 146:1-4 “Praise the Lord! Praise the Lord, O my soul! While I live I will praise the Lord; I will sing praises to my God while I have my being. Do not put your trust in princes, Nor in a son of man, in whom there is no help. His breath departs, he returns to his earth; In that very day his thoughts perish.” David tells us that in the very day a man dies, all his thoughts perish and for that reason he will praise the Lord while he is still alive. David’s sentiments are in opposition with the idea of an immortal soul harboring all the thoughts and plans of a dead person. If he still has consciousness and is not asleep as the bible constantly acknowledges, will be able to continue giving praise to God while in Hades. Yet Hades simply means grave and it is not a conscious place but a state of sleep and quietness where there is no thinking nor thanksgiving, consistent with the Law, the Psalms and the prophets.
Solomon also wrote in Ecclesiastes 9:5-6 and verse 10 “For the living know that they will die; But the dead know nothing, And they have no more reward, For the memory of them is forgotten. Also their love, their hatred, and their envy have now perished; nevermore will they have a share in anything done under the sun… Whatever your hand finds to do, do it with your might; for there is no work or device or knowledge or wisdom in the grave [sheol/hades] where you are going.”. A handful of things are expressed in this passage. Firstly, the dead do not know anything (contrary to a belief held by some that the dead who are somehow believed to be in heaven are looking down on their family members). Secondly, the dead cannot love nor hate while in sheol/hades, they are dead and have no thoughts or memories or emotions while they are in that state of sleep. Thirdly, the dead cannot work or plan, neither do they exercise any wisdom or judgment of reasoning in sheol/hades (something also contrary to the idea of praying to dead saints and family members).
Some of the confusion on hades and sheol stems from the English translation. Often times the translators leave the transliteration i.e sheol/hades, and on other occasions translate them as “hell”. The English translators have also translated other Hebrew/greek words which have nothing, not even remotely to do with sheol/hades as “hell”. Some of these other words translated as “hell” are “Tartaros” and “Gehenna”. “Tartaros” is described in 2 Peter 2:4 as a place of darkness and chains where some fallen angels are confined. A place which has no correlation to Hades – the grave. “Gehenna” is a greek word with its Hebrew origin as the “valley of the son of Hinnom”, a literal physical deep valley with rocky sides located in southwest Jerusalem. See Jeremiah 7:30-33; and Jeremiah 19:1-15 for detailed information of all the abominations the children of Israel where doing in Gehenna. God later brought judgement against Israel explaining to them when he warned them through Jeremiah that, that whole valley was going to be turned into a place of refuse, waste and burning. A place that will later at some time in the future be restored (see Jeremiah 31:31-41). Jesus often warned the Jews in his day, telling them that they also were going to burn in Gehenna if they did not repent. Gehenna was a physical place and there is no good reason for translators to translate Gehenna which is a name of a place as hell. Names of places ought only if done to be transliterated and not translated. Neither is there any good reason to suppose that Gehenna as spoken by Jesus, is a place in another unknown metaphysical world. The Jews knew Gehenna as a physical place in Jerusalem and would have understood Jesus as such. Gehenna has nothing in correlation to hades. Hades refers to the state of the dead, that is the grave and Gehenna is a physical place God set apart to burn refuse and carcasses of unrepentant sinners. A physical place where according to Jesus, the whole body of the person will be thrown and burnt (see Matthew 5:29-30). Hence also why the resurrection of the wicked in the flesh is taught by the Bible. A resurrection through which the wicked will be thrown into the lake of fire (see Revelation 20). The wicked will be thrown into Gehenna and burnt up completely with nothing left but the smoke of their corpses rising up (see Isaiah 66:24 and Mark 9:42-48). Also, for an in-depth exposition on the fate of the wicked and the condemned see “The second death – Permanent destruction or eternal suffering”.
1. The creation of man
Genesis 2:7 – Dust + breath (spirit) = Soul
Animals also called souls – Genesis 1:20,21,24,30; Genesis 9:4-5,12,15; Revelation 8:9; Revelation 16:3
Leviticus 17:11 – Soul = Blood
Death is the cessation of life and return to dust– Genesis 2:16-17; 3:19; Job 34:14-15
Hope of continuous existence in the resurrection and not in an immortal soul – Psalm 17:15; Job 14:11-14
2. Are the dead conscious or asleep?
Lazarus asleep – John 11:11-14
David’s desire to be awoken from sleep in death – Psalm 13:3
The messenger spoke to Daniel about the dead awakening from sleep – Daniel 12:2
Paul’s speech about those asleep in death – Acts 13:36; 1 Corinthians 15:20
Peter’s teaching on death and sleep – 2 Peter 3:3-4
Man and animals alike in every way, difference in where their breath goes after death – Ecclesiastes 3:18-21; Luke 23:45-46; Acts 7:59;
Death loses its victory in the resurrection – 1 Corinthians 15:50-54
3. Hades/Sheol, is there consciousness?
A silent place of sleep – Psalm 115:17-18; Psalm 6:3-5; Psalm 146:1-4; Ecclesiastes 9:5-6 and verse 10
Tartoros, a confinement for disobedient angles – 2 Peter 2:4
Gehenna, a physical place in southwest Jerusalem – Jerimiah 7:30-33; 19:1-15; 31:31-41;
Gehenna, where the body of sinners will be burnt – Matthew 5:29-30; Isaiah 66:24; Mark 9:42-48