ARE THE DEAD CONSCIOUS?
GENESIS 3:1 Now the serpent was more cunning than any beast of the field which the LORD God had made. And he said to the woman, “Has God indeed said, ‘You shall not eat of every tree of the garden’?” 2 And the woman said to the serpent, “We may eat the fruit of the trees of the garden; 3 but of the fruit of the tree which is in the midst of the garden, God has said, ‘You shall not eat it, nor shall you touch it, lest you die.’ ” 4 Then the serpent said to the woman, “You will NOT surely die.” (NKJV)
That serpent of old, Satan, is the father of lies and there is no truth in him (John 8:44). However, today mainstream Christianity believes and tenaciously clings to Satan’s original lie to Eve. The idea that the dead don’t really die, but instead remain conscious after death, is one of the fundamental beliefs of most Christian denominations. Funeral services for the religious are routinely filled with platitudes about the dearly departed watching over their still-living loved ones from heaven. Any who dare contradict this belief in the status of the dead are generally vilified and said to be part of a truth-twisting cult.
But we, as believers, should be guided by the Scriptures and not by satanically-inspired human tradition. This article is going to examine what the Bible clearly and repeatedly says about death, the status of the dead, and the only hope for the dead (the resurrection). Additionally, it will address some commonly misunderstood verses used to support the position that the dead are conscious after death.
First, let’s understand that humans would have avoided physical death if they had obeyed God from the beginning. If Adam and Eve had followed God’s instructions and not partaken of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil, they could have remained in the Garden of Eden. There they would have been able to eat from the tree of life (a tree which was not originally forbidden to them) and they would have lived forever. But when they disobeyed and believed Satan’s lie (Gen. 3:4), physical death became part of the human experience.
ROMANS 5:12 Therefore, just as through one man sin entered the world, and death through sin, and thus death spread to all men, because all sinned — (NKJV)
The Bible teaches that there are three distinct parts to man: (1) body, (2) spirit, and (3) soul (I The. 5:23). These three are interrelated, but different.
(1) The body is the fleshly part of man: skin, bones, and organs. The body is composed of the same physical elements that make up the earth; that’s why it is called “dust” (Gen. 2:7). When a person dies, their body eventually decays and reverts back to its component elements (Gen. 3:19). In the Old Testament, the Hebrew noun basar is the primary word translated “body” or “flesh,” while the Greek words soma (“body”) and sarx (“flesh”) are most commonly used in the New Testament.
Through the miracle of resurrection, God brings back to life those who have died. The Bible tells us that the bodies of those resurrected will be of two kinds: renewed mortal bodies such as that of Lazarus (John 11:1-45) and the host of Israelites (Eze. 37:1-14), or enhanced spiritual bodies such as the one Yeshua received at his resurrection (I Cor. 15:39-54).
The difference in these two types of bodies is one of quality. There are six instances of resurrection recorded in the Bible prior to the raising of Yeshua: the widow’s son from Zarephath (I Kings 17:17-23); the Shunammite’s son (II Kings 4:17-37); the widow’s son from Nain (Luke 7:11-16); the daughter of Jairus (Matt. 9:18-25; Mark 5:22-42; Luke 8:41-55); Lazarus (John 11:1-45); and the saints raised in Jerusalem when Yeshua died on the cross (Matt. 27:50-53). However, although they all preceded Yeshua, he is called the firstborn from the dead (Col. 1:18; Rev. 1:5) and the firstfruits of those who have fallen asleep (I Cor. 15:20). This is because he is the only human ever to be brought back to life and given an immortal body. This won’t occur again until the resurrection of the saints at the last trumpet (I Cor. 15:50-54).
(2) The human spirit is the nonphysical part of man. It is the human counterpart to the Holy Spirit, which is God’s mind (I Cor. 2:9-16). Combined with the brain, the spirit gives us consciousness. It is referred to in the Scriptures as the “mind” (Deu. 30:1; I Chr. 22:7; Psa. 26:2; 73:21) or “heart” (Gen. 6:5; Job 17:4; Dan. 2:30; Mark 7:21; Heb. 4:12). “Spirit” comes from the Hebrew word ruach and the Greek word pneuma. These words can also mean “breath” or “wind,” things which, like the spirit, can be felt but not seen (John 3:8).
A good way to picture the relationship between the body and the spirit is to draw a comparison to a computer system. The human body is like computer hardware (CPU, motherboard, hard drive, speakers, monitor, etc.) and the human spirit is like computer software (operating system, word processing, spreadsheet, web browser, etc.). Just as computer hardware without software is worthless, computer software can only function when working in combination with the hardware.
So also it is with the human body and spirit. When a person dies, their spirit returns to God who gave it (Ecc. 12:7; Matt. 27:50; John 19:30; Acts 7:59). The body without the spirit is dead (Jam. 2:26). Without a living human body (either mortal or spiritual) to interact with, the human spirit is unconscious, in a state similar to sleep. This is why the Bible so often speaks of death being like sleep. At the time of resurrection, God sends the spirits of the dead back to inhabit their bodies once again (Eze. 37:10; Luke 8:55).
(3) The soul is the combination of flesh and spirit. It is the whole person; their character, nature, disposition, temperament, and personality. Man does not have a soul, man IS a soul, as the Scriptures clearly tell us:
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 [nephesh]. (RWB)
I CORINTHIANS 15:45 So also it is written, “The first MAN, Adam, BECAME A LIVING SOUL [psuchen].” The last Adam became a life-giving spirit. (NASB)
The word most commonly translated “soul” in the Old Testament is the Hebrew noun nephesh and its variant forms. This word is also often translated “life.” The corresponding Greek word psuche is translated “soul” in the New Testament.
A soul is not something that can be separated from a person. Man is a soul. God creates a human spirit within every man (Zec. 12:1). When God puts a spirit within a person, they become a living soul. When a person dies, that spirit is taken back by God (Ecc. 12:7; Psa. 104:29).
The Bible plainly teaches that souls can die:
EZEKIEL 18:4 “Behold, all souls are Mine; the soul of the father as well as the soul of the son is Mine; the soul [nephesh] who sins shall die. (NKJV)
EZEKIEL 18:20 “The soul [nephesh] who sins shall die. The son shall not bear the guilt of the father, nor the father bear the guilt of the son. The righteousness of the righteous shall be upon himself, and the wickedness of the wicked shall be upon himself. (NKJV)
NUMBERS 31:19 “And as for you, remain outside the camp seven days; whoever has killed any person [nephesh], and whoever has touched any slain, purify yourselves and your captives on the third day and on the seventh day.” (NKJV)
EZEKIEL 13:19 And will ye profane Me among My people for handfuls of barley and for pieces of bread, to slay the souls [nephashot] that should not die, and to save the souls [nephashot] alive that should not live, by your lying to My people that hear your lies? (RWB)
I PETER 3:20 . . . When once the Divine longsuffering waited in the days of Noah, while the ark was being prepared, in which a few, that is, eight souls [psuchai], were saved through water. (NKJV)
Most Christians accept the Greek belief that man has a dual nature; spiritual and physical. To these dualists, death is the separation of the immortal soul from the mortal body. However, the Scriptures above and many others clearly show that both the soul and the body are mortal and can die. The soul is extinguished at death, and the body begins to decay. The spirit, which was initially given by God, returns to Him. But since the spirit cannot function without the body, the spirit has no consciousness in death.
Many of those who teach that man remains conscious after death ridicule and mock the doctrine of the dead being unconscious, which they commonly call “soul sleep.” They claim that only the body sleeps in death, while the soul is awake in either heaven or hell. A review of their position shows that they generally misunderstand the nature of the three components of humans. They often use soul and spirit interchangeably, even though the Scriptures clearly show there is a difference in the two:
HEBREWS 4:12 For the word of God is living and powerful, and sharper than any two-edged sword, piercing even to the division of soul and spirit, and of joints and marrow, and is a discerner of the thoughts and intents of the heart.(NKJV)
Now that we are armed with the basic scriptural knowledge of what the body, spirit, and soul are, let’s see what the Scriptures really teach about the status of the dead.
Let’s begin in the book of Job. Job has quite a lot to say about death. After the physical and material misfortunes brought by Satan befell him, Job cursed the day of his birth and wished that he had died at birth. Here is what he says about the dead, a group that he longs to be among:
JOB 3:11 “Why did I not die at birth? Why did I not perish when I came from the womb? 12 Why did the knees receive me? Or why the breasts, that I should nurse? 13 For now I would have lain still and been quiet, I would have been asleep; then I would have been at rest 14 with kings and counselors of the earth, who built ruins for themselves, 15 or with princes who had gold, who filled their houses with silver; 16 Or why was I not hidden like a stillborn child, like infants who never saw light? 17 There the wicked cease from troubling, and there the weary are at rest. 18 There the prisoners rest together; they do not hear the voice of the oppressor. 19 The small and great are there, and the servant is free from his master. (NKJV)
Job tells us quite distinctly about the status of the dead. He informs us that the dead are asleep, a condition death is compared to numerous times in the Scriptures. Job further discloses to us that ALL the dead, both distinguished and insignificant, are in this state.
JOB 7:21 And why dost Thou not pardon my transgression, and take away my iniquity? For now shall I sleep in the dust; and Thou shalt seek me in the morning, but I shall not be. (RWB)
Job continues on later with his contemplations on death, but he adds a significant detail:
JOB 14:10 But man dies and is laid away; indeed he breathes his last and where is he? 11 As water disappears from the sea, and a river becomes parched and dries up, 12 so man lies down and does not rise. Till the heavens are no more, they will not awake nor be roused from their sleep. 13 Oh, that You would hide me in the grave, that You would conceal me until Your wrath is past, that You would appoint me a set time, and remember me! 14 If a man dies, shall he live again? All the days of my hard service I will wait, till my change comes. (NKJV)
Here we see that Job had some knowledge of the resurrection. A little further on, he speaks of the resurrection in more detail:
JOB 19:25 For I know that my Redeemer lives, and He shall stand at last on the earth; 26 And after my skin is destroyed, this I know, that in my flesh I shall see God, 27 whom I shall see for myself, and my eyes shall behold, and not another. How my heart yearns within me! (NKJV)
Job knew that even after his body decayed in the grave, he would see God in his flesh. He knew of the resurrection of the dead and was anxiously looking forward to it. Why? Because he understood that the resurrection was mankind’s only hope of defeating death. If there were no resurrection, the dead would continue to sleep in their graves forever.
King Solomon shared the same understanding that Job had regarding the fate of those who were dead. Solomon, the wisest man in the world during the time he lived (I Kings 4:29-31), clearly comprehended the finality of death:
ECCLESIASTES 9:2 All share a common destiny — the righteous and the wicked, the good and the bad, the clean and the unclean, those who offer sacrifices and those who do not. As it is with the good man, so with the sinner; as it is with those who take oaths, so with those who are afraid to take them. 3 This is the evil in everything that happens under the sun: The same destiny overtakes all. The hearts of men, moreover, are full of evil and there is madness in their hearts while they live, and afterward they join the dead. 4 Anyone who is among the living has hope — even a live dog is better off than a dead lion! 5 For the living know that they will die, but the dead know nothing; they have no further reward, and even the memory of them is forgotten. (NIV)
ECCLESIASTES 9:10 Whatever your hand finds to do, do it with all your might, for in the grave, where you are going, there is neither working nor planning nor knowledge nor wisdom. (NIV)
The meaning of these words of Solomon is pretty obvious, if taken at face value. Unfortunately, those who believe and teach that immortal souls consciously continue on after death do not accept these clear comments written by Solomon. Instead, they attack the inspired nature of his words in this passage and claim that Solomon, the wisest man in the world, did not know what he was talking about.
The weight of numerous other plain Scriptures support Solomon’s words about the state of the dead, however. Let’s look at some passages from the book of Psalms to see if Solomon was speaking contrary to the Scriptures regarding death and the state of the dead:
PSALM 6:5 No one remembers You when he is dead. Who praises You from the grave? (NIV)
In Psalm 6, David makes the clear statement that no one remembers God when they are dead.
PSALM 13:3 Consider and hear me, O LORD my God; enlighten my eyes, lest I sleep the sleep of death; (NKJV)
David compares death to sleep in Psalm 13.
PSALM 17:15 As for me, I will see Your face in righteousness; I shall be satisfied when I awake in Your likeness. (NKJV)
In Psalm 17, David speaks of awaking from death in the likeness of God at the resurrection. This parallels Job’s comments about the resurrection (Job 19:26-27).
PSALM 30:2 O LORD my God, I cried out to You, and You healed me. 3 O LORD, You brought my soul up from the grave; You have kept me alive, that I should not go down to the pit. 4 Sing praise to the LORD, You saints of His, and give thanks at the remembrance of His holy name. . . . 9 “What profit is there in my blood, when I go down to the pit? Will the dust praise You? Will it declare Your truth? 10 Hear, O LORD, and have mercy on me; LORD, be my helper!” (NKJV)
In this song for the dedication of the house of David, the psalmist gives God thanks for saving his life. The questions he asks in verse 9 emphasize that if he were dead, he would not be able to praise God for His works and declare His truth.
PSALM 88:1 O LORD, God of my salvation, I have cried out day and night before You. 2 Let my prayer come before You; incline Your ear to my cry. 3 For my soul is full of troubles, and my life draws near to the grave. 4 I am counted with those who go down to the pit; I am like a man who has no strength, 5 adrift among the dead, like the slain who lie in the grave, whom You remember no more, and who are cut off from Your hand. 6 You have laid me in the lowest pit, in darkness, in the depths. 7 Your wrath lies heavy upon me, and You have afflicted me with all Your waves. Selah 8 You have put away my acquaintances far from me; You have made me an abomination to them; I am shut up, and I cannot get out; 9 My eye wastes away because of affliction. LORD, I have called daily upon You; I have stretched out my hands to You. 10 Will You work wonders for the dead? Shall the dead arise and praise You? Selah 11 Shall Your lovingkindness be declared in the grave? Or Your faithfulness in the place of destruction? 12 Shall Your wonders be known in the dark? And Your righteousness in the land of forgetfulness? (NKJV)
In Psalm 88, Heman the Ezrahite speaks of the affliction he has suffered. He pleads with God to save him before he dies, because he knows that if He doesn’t, he has no hope. His rhetorical questions (vv. 10-12) are designed to rouse God to action before he dies and all hope is lost.
PSALM 115:17 The dead do not praise the LORD, nor do any who go down into silence; (NASU)
The psalmist here flatly states that the dead do not praise God. “Silence” here is used to describe the grave, just as it also does in Psalm 94:17.
PSALM 146:3 Do not trust in princes, in mortal man, in whom there is no salvation. 4 His spirit departs, he returns to the earth; in that very day his thoughts perish. (NASU)
Here the psalmist tells us that a mortal man’s thoughts perish on the day that he dies.
As we have just seen, the Psalms are full of insight into the state of the dead. In every case, the dead are portrayed as being asleep in the grave, unconscious and unable to do anything.
God told Moses of his impending death before the Israelites entered the Promised Land, describing it as sleep:
DEUTERONOMY 31:16 And the LORD said to Moses, “Behold, you are about to sleep with your fathers; then this people will rise and play the harlot after the strange gods of the land, where they go to be among them, and they will forsake me and break my covenant which I have made with them. (RSV)
The language used to describe the deaths of the kings of Israel and Judah also supports the view that the dead are asleep and at rest in their graves:
II SAMUEL 7:12 And when your [David’s] days are over and you fall asleep with your ancestors, I shall appoint your heir, your own son to succeed you (and I shall make his sovereignty secure). (NJB)
I KINGS 2:10 Then David slept with his fathers and was buried in the City of David. (NASU)
The apostles Peter and Paul confirm this understanding in the book of Acts, going so far as to say that David did not go to heaven when he died:
ACTS 2:29 “Men and brethren, let me speak freely to you of the patriarch David, that he is both dead and buried, and his tomb is with us to this day. . . . 34 For David did not ascend into the heavens” . . . (NKJV)
ACTS 13:36 “For David, after he had served his own generation by the will of God, fell asleep, was buried with his fathers, and saw corruption;” (NKJV)
The phrase “slept with his fathers” is used 36 times in the Tanakh to describe the death of the kings of Israel and Judah. It is applied to both the good kings and the wicked kings alike. There is no differentiation between the fate of the kings, whether good or evil. All are said to be sleeping with their forefathers in death.
The New Testament speaks of death as sleep many times also:
JOHN 11:11 These things he said, and after that he said to them, “Our friend Lazarus sleeps, but I go that I may wake him up.” 12 Then his disciples said, “Lord, if he sleeps he will get well.” 13 However, Jesus spoke of his death, but they thought that he was speaking about taking rest in sleep. 14 Then Jesus said to them plainly, “Lazarus is dead.” (NKJV)
ACTS 7:59 And they stoned Stephen as he was calling on God and saying, “Lord Jesus, receive my spirit.” 60 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. (NKJV)
I CORINTHIANS 11:29 For he who eats and drinks in an unworthy manner eats and drinks judgment to himself, not discerning the Lord’s body. 30 For this reason many are weak and sick among you, and many sleep. (NKJV)
I CORINTHIANS 15:6 After that he was seen by over five hundred brethren at once, of whom the greater part remain to the present, but some have fallen asleep. (NKJV)
II PETER 3:3 knowing this first: that scoffers will come in the last days, walking according to their own lusts, 4 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.” (NKJV)
The angel who revealed end-time events to Daniel (Dan. 10-12) confirms the scriptural understanding of the status of the dead with his words to him regarding his fate:
DANIEL 12:13 “But you, go your way till the end; for you shall rest, and will arise to your inheritance at the end of the days.” (NKJV)
Daniel is told by the angel that he will rest in death until the time of the end, and then he will arise in the resurrection to claim his inheritance. This awakening from the sleep of death at the resurrection is spoken of many times in the Bible:
DANIEL 12:2 And many of those who sleep in the dust of the earth shall awake, some to everlasting life, some to shame and everlasting contempt. (NKJV)
ISAIAH 26:19 Your dead shall live; together with my dead body they shall arise. Awake and sing, you who dwell in dust; for your dew is like the dew of herbs, and the earth shall cast out the dead. (NKJV)
JOHN 5:28 Do not marvel at this; for the hour is coming when all who are in the tombs will hear his voice 29 and come forth, those who have done good, to the resurrection of life, and those who have done evil, to the resurrection of judgment. (RSV)
EPHESIANS 5:13 But all things that are exposed are made manifest by the light, for whatever makes manifest is light. 14 Therefore He says: “Awake, you who sleep, arise from the dead, and Christ will give you light.” (NKJV)
As we have seen over and over, the Bible speaks of death as a condition of unconsciousness similar to sleep. Many quote the apostle Paul’s writings (Phi. 1:20-24; II Cor. 5:1-9) to supposedly disprove “soul sleep.” However, it is from Paul that we receive the most emphatic declaration of the resurrection from the dead as the only hope for those who have died.
Let’s examine Paul’s comments about the resurrection from the 15th chapter of I Corinthians in detail:
I CORINTHIANS 15:12 Now if Christ is preached that he has been raised [egegertai] from the dead, how do some among you say that there is no resurrection of the dead? (NKJV)
Here Paul begins to dispute a teaching brought to Corinth that denied the bodily resurrection of the dead. This heresy likely took root among the Corinthian church due to the strong cultural influence exerted by the dualistic Greek view of human nature. The Greek view that the body and soul are separate, and that the soul lives on after the body dies, has influenced Christian doctrine since the 1st century. This view apparently had caused some Corinthian believers to falsely conclude that a resurrection from the dead was not necessary, since the souls of departed believers were already with Christ in heaven.
However, Paul, coming from a Pharisaic Jewish background (Acts 23:6; 26:5; Phi. 3:5), viewed the afterlife in a completely different way. The Dictionary of Paul and His Letters (DPHL) has this to say about Paul’s beliefs regarding the resurrection:
Paul’s teaching about the bodily resurrection arises out of a Jewish anthropology in which the “soul” (Heb nephesh, Gk psyche) is the animating principle of human life. In mainstream Jewish thought human beings do not have souls, they are souls. . . . Given this background it is perfectly understandable how in Romans 8:23 Paul describes the effects of the resurrection in terms of the ultimate “redemption of our bodies” . . . (p. 810)
As a side note, the Greek word egegertai (“raised”) found in verse 12 is a form of the Greek verb egeiro. The Exegetical Dictionary of the New Testament states: “The basic meaning of egeiro is (trans.) to wake from sleep . . . or (intrans.) awaken, rise . . . (p. 372, vol. 1). Literally, Paul’s comment could be translated: “He has been awakened from the dead . . .”
I CORINTHIANS 15:13 But if there is no resurrection of the dead, then Christ is not risen [egegertai]. 14 And if Christ is not risen [egegertai], then our preaching is empty and your faith is also empty. 15 Yes, and we are found false witnesses of God, because we have testified of God that He raised up [egeiren] Christ, whom He did not raise up [egeiren] — if in fact the dead do not rise [egeirontai]. (NKJV)
Paul attacks the very heart of this false doctrine in verse 13. He firmly links the future resurrection of the dead with the past resurrection of Christ. If the dead aren’t going to be awakened from their sleep at the resurrection, then Paul says that neither has Christ been awakened from death. If Christ has not been awakened from death, then their hope is in vain. Additionally, Paul and the other apostles have been spreading a false message!
I CORINTHIANS 15:16 For if the dead do not rise [egeirontai], then Christ is not risen [egegertai]. 17 And if Christ is not risen [egegertai], your faith is futile; you are still in your sins! (NKJV)
For emphasis, Paul again states in verse 16 that if the dead are not going to wake up from the sleep of death in the future, then Christ has not already been awakened. If this is the case, Paul tells them that their faith is useless and there has been no forgiveness for their sins.
I CORINTHIANS 15:18 Then also those who have fallen asleep in Christ have perished. 19 If in this life only we have hope in Christ, we are of all men the most pitiable. (NKJV)
Now Paul takes his case a step further. If there is no resurrection, then those believers who have died while believing in Christ have ceased to exist! If there is no resurrection, then believers only have hope in Christ during their mortal life on this earth.
There is no ambiguity in Paul’s argument. He clearly states that the only hope for life after death is the resurrection. Paul’s position here totally negates the Hellenistic belief that the disembodied souls of the dead saints are in heaven with Christ.
I CORINTHIANS 15:20 But now Christ is risen [egegertai] from the dead, and has become the firstfruits of those who have fallen asleep. 21 For since by man came death, by man also came the resurrection of the dead. 22 For as in Adam all die, even so in Christ all shall be made alive. 23 But each one in his own order: Christ the firstfruits, afterward those who are Christ’s at his coming. 24 Then comes the end, when he delivers the kingdom to God the Father, when He puts an end to all rule and all authority and power. 25 For he must reign till He has put all enemies under his feet. 26 The last enemy that will be destroyed is death. (NKJV)
After laying out the ultimate consequences the rejection of the resurrection had on their theology, Paul goes on to state the facts to the Corinthians. Yeshua had indeed been awakened from the sleep of the dead. When God roused him from the sleep of death to glorious eternal life, Messiah became the firstfruits of all those who will be awakened from death at a later time. Since death originally entered the human race because of Adam’s sin, the resurrection of the dead to immortality came by way of a man’s perfect obedience. But there is to be an order to the resurrection to immortality: Yeshua the Messiah first, then those messianic believers at the coming of Yeshua. More detail than this we are not given, but Paul does tell us the end result; Messiah will reign until the last enemy, death, is destroyed.
Paul sums up his dissertation on death and the resurrection toward the end of chapter 15:
I CORINTHIANS 15:50 Now this I say, brethren, that flesh and blood cannot inherit the kingdom of God; nor does corruption inherit incorruption. 51 Behold, I tell you a mystery: We shall not all sleep, but we shall all be changed — 52 in a moment, in the twinkling of an eye, at the last trumpet. For the trumpet will sound, and the dead will be raised incorruptible, and we shall be changed. 53 For this corruptible must put on incorruption, and this mortal must put on immortality. 54 So when this corruptible has put on incorruption, and this mortal has put on immortality, then shall be brought to pass the saying that is written: “Death is swallowed up in victory.” (NKJV)
Paul begins here with a statement that is often overlooked; flesh and blood mortals cannot INHERIT the Kingdom of God. As numerous other Scriptures show, however, they will be in the Kingdom of God. He goes on to say that not all believers will die before Messiah Yeshua returns. But when he returns, all believers will be changed instantly at the sounding of the last trumpet (Rev. 11:15-18). At the sounding of this trumpet, the dead saints will awake from their sleep in new, spiritual bodies, and the bodies of those believers then living will be changed to spirit. When this happens, “death is swallowed up in victory!”
Paul spoke of this same event in his first letter to the Thessalonians:
I THESSALONIANS 4:13 But we do not want you to be uninformed, brethren, about those who are asleep, so that you will not grieve as do the rest who have no hope. (NASU)
In verse 13 he defines for the church at Thessalonica why he is writing; to give them comfort and hope regarding the fate of those believers who had died (“fallen asleep”).
I THESSALONIANS 4:14 We believe that Jesus died and rose again and so we believe that God will bring with Jesus those who have fallen asleep in him. (NIV)
Verse 14 is an affirmation of faith in the resurrection. Paul says that just as we believe God raised Yeshua from the dead, so also we believe that God will resurrect those who died believing in Christ at his return.
There are those who say this verse teaches that Jesus will bring the conscious souls of the dead believers with him from heaven to be reunited with their resurrected bodies at his coming. However, this interpretation of verse 14 totally misses the point of what Paul is saying. If that understanding of the state of the dead was to be the Thessalonians’ consolation and hope, Paul would have had no need to address the resurrection at all. He simply could have stated that the souls of the dead believers were at that time alive and with Christ in heaven. What more consolation would they have needed regarding the fate of their dead brothers and sisters?
But that is not at all the message Paul presents. The hope for the dead, as Paul presents it to the Thessalonians, is the resurrection of Messiah. Just as he told the Corinthians, Paul emphasizes that Yeshua’s resurrection is the guarantee of the future resurrection of the “sleeping” saints, who will awake at the time of his return.
I THESSALONIANS 4:15 According to the Lord’s own word, we tell you that we who are still alive, who are left till the coming of the Lord, will certainly not precede those who have fallen asleep. 16 For the Lord himself will come down from heaven, with a loud command, with the voice of the archangel and with the trumpet call of God, and the dead in Christ will rise first. 17 After that, we who are still alive and are left will be caught up together with them in the clouds to meet the Lord in the air. And so we will be with the Lord forever. 18 Therefore encourage each other with these words. (NIV)
Paul’s consolation to the Thessalonians is the expectation that they will be reunited with their sleeping brethren at the resurrection of the dead. This resurrection will occur when Yeshua comes down from heaven as the last trumpet is blown. The dead will rise from their graves first, and together with them those believers who remain alive will be changed into spirit and will ascend to meet Yeshua in the air (Matt. 24:31). Paul is telling the Thessalonians to have hope in the resurrection, not to have hope in being a disembodied, conscious spirit in heaven.
In I Corinthians 15 and I Thessalonians 4, Paul speaks specifically about the resurrection to immortality. But as we mentioned earlier, the Bible also shows a resurrection to mortal life. The widow’s son from Zarephath (1 Kings 17:17-23); the Shunammite’s son (II Kings 4:17-37); the widow’s son from Nain (Luke 7:11-16); the daughter of Jairus (Matt. 9:18-25; Mark 5:22-42; Luke 8:41-55); Lazarus (John 11:1-45); the saints raised in Jerusalem when Yeshua died on the cross (Matt. 27:50-53); Tabitha (Acts 9:36-41); and Eutychus (Acts 20:9-12) all experienced this resurrection back to physical life. The prophet Ezekiel speaks of this type of resurrection for the majority of Israel:
EZEKIEL 37:1 The hand of the LORD came upon me, and He led me out in the spirit of the LORD and set me in the center of the plain, which was now filled with bones. 2 He made me walk among them in every direction so that I saw how many they were on the surface of the plain. How dry they were! 3 He asked me: Son of man, can these bones come to life? “Lord GOD,” I answered, “you alone know that.” 4 Then He said to me: Prophesy over these bones, and say to them: Dry bones, hear the word of the LORD! 5 Thus says the Lord GOD to these bones: See! I will bring spirit into you, that you may come to life. 6 I will put sinews upon you, make flesh grow over you, cover you with skin, and put spirit in you so that you may come to life and know that I am the LORD. 7 I prophesied as I had been told, and even as I was prophesying I heard a noise; it was a rattling as the bones came together, bone joining bone. 8 I saw the sinews and the flesh come upon them, and the skin cover them, but there was no spirit in them. 9 Then He said to me: Prophesy to the spirit, prophesy, son of man, and say to the spirit: Thus says the Lord GOD: From the four winds come, O spirit, and breathe into these slain that they may come to life. 10 I prophesied as He told me, and the spirit came into them; they came alive and stood upright, a vast army. 11 Then He said to me: Son of man, these bones are the whole house of Israel. They have been saying, “Our bones are dried up, our hope is lost, and we are cut off.” 12 Therefore, prophesy and say to them: Thus says the Lord GOD: O my people, I will open your graves and have you rise from them, and bring you back to the land of Israel. 13 Then you shall know that I am the LORD, when I open your graves and have you rise from them, O my people! 14 I will put my Spirit in you that you may live, and I will settle you upon your land; thus you shall know that I am the LORD. I have promised, and I will do it, says the LORD. (NAB)
Just as her spirit returned to Jairus’ twelve-year old daughter when Yeshua resurrected her to life (Matt. 9:18-25; Mark 5:22-42; Luke 8:41-55), so also we see here that the spirits of the dead Israelites return to their reconstituted mortal bodies to bring them back to life. These Israelites will live in the land of Israel during the millennial rule of Yeshua. They will be subjects of the Kingdom of God, but unlike resurrected believers, they will not have inheritance in the Kingdom at that time (I Cor. 15:50).
Now that we have thoroughly covered what the Bible says about the state of the dead, I’m going to explain the Scriptures used by those who believe that souls live on after death to support their contention.
Probably the biblical text most used to “prove” that the soul survives death are the words of Yeshua to the thief on the cross:
LUKE 23:42 Then he said to Jesus, “Lord, remember me when you come into your kingdom.” 43 And Jesus said to him, “Assuredly, I say to you, today you will be with me in Paradise.” (NKJV)
“Case closed!” say the conscious soul advocates after quoting this passage. But is it really as cut and dried as appears?
There are several factors that should cause one to pause and reconsider what this passage appears to say. The first is the request made by the thief. He asked Yeshua to remember him WHEN he came into his kingdom. The thief apparently understood the messianic kingdom in the same way most 1st-century Jews did; he knew that it would be a physical kingdom ruling on the earth.
When will Yeshua come into his earthly kingdom? When he returns from heaven and rules over all nations from Jerusalem with a rod of iron (Psa. 2:7-9; Rev. 2:26-27; 12: 5; 19:15), as the prophet Isaiah foretold:
ISAIAH 2:1 The word that Isaiah the son of Amoz saw concerning Judah and Jerusalem. 2 Now it shall come to pass in the latter days that the mountain of the LORD’s house shall be established on the top of the mountains, and shall be exalted above the hills; and all nations shall flow to it. 3 Many people shall come and say, “Come, and let us go up to the mountain of the LORD, to the house of the God of Jacob; He will teach us His ways, and we shall walk in His paths.” For out of Zion shall go forth the Law, and the word of the LORD from Jerusalem. 4 He shall judge between the nations, and rebuke many people; they shall beat their swords into plowshares, and their spears into pruning hooks; nation shall not lift up sword against nation, neither shall they learn war anymore. (NKJV)
Since Yeshua has not yet established the Kingdom of God in Jerusalem, he cannot yet have granted the thief his request.
Also, for Yeshua’s statement to be literally true the way it is presented by the dualists, the thief had to follow Yeshua to “Paradise” the very day they died. As other Scriptures clearly show, Paradise is located in heaven (II Cor. 12:2-4), where the tree of life is (Rev. 2:7). However, we know from Christ’s own words that he did not go to heaven at his death:
JOHN 20:15 Jesus said to her, “Woman, why are you weeping? Whom are you seeking?” She, supposing him to be the gardener, said to him, “Sir, if you have carried him away, tell me where you have laid him, and I will take him away.” 16 Jesus said to her, “Mary!” She turned and said to him, “Rabboni!” (which is to say, Teacher). 17 Jesus said to her, “Do not cling to me, for I have not yet ascended to my Father; but go to my brethren and say to them, ‘I am ascending to my Father and your Father, and to my God and your God.’ ” (NKJV)
After his resurrection, Yeshua told Mary not to cling to him, because he had NOT YET ascended to heaven to his Father. Instead, he had just spent parts of three days and three nights dead and asleep in the garden tomb (for additional information on the crucifixion and resurrection, see my article “When Was Christ Resurrected?“). The Scriptures show that he didn’t go to heaven until 40 days later (Acts 1:3, 9-11). If Christ didn’t ascend to Paradise until 40 days after his resurrection, there’s no way the thief could have joined him there that same day they both died on a stake.
If Yeshua and the thief did not ascend to heaven the day of their death, what did Yeshua mean by his statement? There is no punctuation in the original Greek text of this passage. When the King James translators placed a comma before “today,” they did so because of their belief (influenced by the traditional teachings of the Roman Catholic Church) in the immortality of the soul. For the same reason, modern translators have followed suit.
Grammatically, this sentence in Greek can also be read as: “Truly I say to you today, you will be with me in Paradise.” Since this understanding removes numerous difficulties and apparent scriptural contradictions, it should be the preferred rendering. Unfortunately, the traditions of men die hard.
If Yeshua’s words to the thief on the cross are most often used to support a conscious existence after death, the parable of Lazarus and the Rich Man runs a very close second:
LUKE 16:19 “There was a certain rich man who was clothed in purple and fine linen and fared sumptuously every day. 20 But there was a certain beggar named Lazarus, full of sores, who was laid at his gate, 21 desiring to be fed with the crumbs which fell from the rich man’s table. Moreover the dogs came and licked his sores. 22 So it was that the beggar died, and was carried by the angels to Abraham’s bosom. The rich man also died and was buried. 23 And being in torments in Hades, he lifted up his eyes and saw Abraham afar off, and Lazarus in his bosom. 24 Then he cried and said, ‘Father Abraham, have mercy on me, and send Lazarus that he may dip the tip of his finger in water and cool my tongue; for I am tormented in this flame.’ 25 But Abraham said, ‘Son, remember that in your lifetime you received your good things, and likewise Lazarus evil things; but now he is comforted and you are tormented. 26 And besides all this, between us and you there is a great gulf fixed, so that those who want to pass from here to you cannot, nor can those from there pass to us.’ 27 Then he said, ‘I beg you therefore, father, that you would send him to my father’s house, 28 for I have five brothers, that he may testify to them, lest they also come to this place of torment.’ 29 Abraham said to him, ‘They have Moses and the prophets; let them hear them.’ 30 And he said, ‘No, father Abraham; but if one goes to them from the dead, they will repent.’ 31 But he said to him, ‘If they do not hear Moses and the prophets, neither will they be persuaded though one rise from the dead.’ ” (NKJV)
All who cite this narrative as evidence for the existence of consciousness after death staunchly assert that it is a true story. However, a close examination will show that this tale is a parable, not the account of a real occurrence.
But even if we accept the untenable position that the account of Lazarus and the rich man actually happened, this story presents conscious soul advocates with several problems. First, the position of dualists is that all the Scriptures referring to the dead sleeping are actually speaking ONLY of their bodies. So dualists believe that the bodies of the dead sleep, while their conscious souls are either in heaven or hell.
If that is the case, then how could the rich man lift up his eyes in Hades (which literally means “hidden” in Greek)? Additionally, if this rich man’s body was asleep while his soul was being tormented, why did he need Lazarus to put a drop of water on his tongue to cool it? Does a disembodied soul have a tongue? Also, would physical flames cause pain to a nonphysical entity? And would the disembodied soul of Lazarus have a finger to use to dip the requested water with?
In truth, Yeshua was using a common 1st-century misconception about the afterlife to make a point to the Pharisees he was addressing. For an in-depth analysis of the true spiritual message Yeshua was delivering with this parable, see my article “Lazarus and the Rich Man.”
The timing of Lazarus’ reward and the rich man’s punishment is another serious problem with taking the account literally. In this story, we see that Lazarus obtained his reward and the rich man received his punishment right after their deaths. But the Bible clearly teaches that rewards and punishments will be given after the Messiah’s return from heaven:
ISAIAH 40:10 See, the Sovereign LORD comes with power, and his arm rules for him. See, his reward is with him, and his recompense accompanies him. (NIV)
ISAIAH 62:11 The LORD has made proclamation to the ends of the earth: “Say to the Daughter of Zion, ‘See, your Savior comes! See, his reward is with him, and his recompense accompanies him.'” (NIV)
MATTHEW 16:27 “For the Son of Man will come in the glory of his Father with his angels, and then he will reward each according to his works.” (NKJV)
I CORINTHIANS 3:11 For no other foundation can anyone lay than that which is laid, which is Jesus Christ. 12 Now if anyone builds on this foundation with gold, silver, precious stones, wood, hay, straw, 13 each one’s work will become clear; for the Day will declare it, because it will be revealed by fire; and the fire will test each one’s work, of what sort it is. 14 If anyone’s work which he has built on it endures, he will receive a reward. 15 If anyone’s work is burned, he will suffer loss; but he himself will be saved, yet so as through fire. (NKJV)
REVELATION 11:15 Then the seventh angel sounded: And there were loud voices in heaven, saying, “The kingdoms of this world have become the kingdoms of our Lord and of His Christ, and He shall reign forever and ever!” 16 And the twenty-four elders who sat before God on their thrones fell on their faces and worshiped God, 17 saying: “We give You thanks, O Lord God Almighty, the One who is and who was and who is to come, because You have taken Your great power and reigned. 18 The nations were angry, and Your wrath has come, and the time of the dead, that they should be judged, and that You should reward Your servants the prophets and the saints, and those who fear Your name, small and great, and should destroy those who destroy the earth.” (NKJV)
REVELATION 22:12 “And behold, I am coming quickly, and my reward is with me, to give to every one according to his work.” (NKJV)
Finally, some will argue that Yeshua would certainly not have used an untrue story to teach the Pharisees a lesson because it would have amounted to an endorsement of that position. However, Yeshua was referencing a Hellenistic belief about the afterlife that had found its way into Judaism by the 1st century. This belief, despite the fact that it was not scriptural, would have been well known by the Pharisees. Immediately before he told the story of Lazarus and the rich man, Yeshua recounted the parable of the unjust steward (Luke 16:1-12). He clearly did not endorse the specific actions of this unscrupulous manager, but Yeshua was able to use the story to teach a spiritual lesson. So also did he do with the parable of Lazarus and the rich man.
Three Scriptures from Paul are likewise often cited as “proof” that souls live on after the body dies. First, let’s look at a passage from Paul’s second letter to the Corinthians:
II CORINTHIANS 5:1 For we know that if our earthly house, this tent, is destroyed, we have a building from God, a house not made with hands, eternal in the heavens. 2 For in this we groan, earnestly desiring to be clothed with our habitation which is from heaven, 3 if indeed, having been clothed, we shall not be found naked. 4 For we who are in this tent groan, being burdened, not because we want to be unclothed, but further clothed, that mortality may be swallowed up by life. 5 Now He who has prepared us for this very thing is God, who also has given us the Spirit as a guarantee. 6 So we are always confident, knowing that while we are at home in the body we are absent from the Lord. 7 For we walk by faith, not by sight. 8 We are confident, yes, well pleased rather to be absent from the body and to be present with the Lord. 9 Therefore we make it our aim, whether present or absent, to be well pleasing to Him. (NKJV)
If we simply go back to Paul’s first letter to the Corinthians, we find that “our earthly house” (v. 1), our physical body, will be “swallowed up by life” (v. 4) at the resurrection (I Cor. 15:50-54). This is the context in which Paul writes here. When Paul says that “while we are at home in the (physical) body we are absent from the Lord,” he is simply saying that we can’t be with the Lord until we receive our immortal bodies at the resurrection (I Cor. 15:50).
When understood correctly, Paul here confirms that it’s only at the resurrection that the saints will be alive with Yeshua. When Paul speaks of being “absent from the body to be present with the Lord,” he is speaking of the resurrection of the dead, when his mortal body will be replaced by the “building from God” (v. 1).
Biblical scholars have attempted many explanations for Paul’s apparently contradictory teaching about the intermediate state of the believer between death and the resurrection. They postulate that Paul came to grasp more about the state of the dead as his eschatological understanding increased. This supposedly explains the difference in views between his earlier writings (I The. 4; I Cor. 15) and those later on (Phi. 1, II Cor. 5). However, some scholars conclude that any perceived deviations are simply due to differences in emphasis caused by the different circumstances under which each letter was written.
In DPHL, we find this insightful comment regarding Paul’s apparent change in position from I Corinthians to II Corinthians:
. . . Both letters assert a transformation of the believer in Christ; but what of the timing of that transformation? F.F. Bruce remarks wisely on this matter: “The tension created by the postulated interval between death and resurrection might be relieved today if it were suggested that in the consciousness of the departed believer there is no interval between dissolution and investiture, however long an interval might be measured by the calendar of earthbound human history.” (p. 440)
In other words, a believer whose consciousness ended at death would not be aware of the passage of time on the earth upon awakening in the resurrection. This would allow Paul to say that he would rather be absent from his mortal body and present with the Lord and still not invalidate those things he had earlier written about the dead being in a state of sleep.
Now let’s examine a passage from his epistle to the church at Philippi:
PHILIPPIANS 1:21 For to me, to live is Christ, and to die is gain. 22 But if I live on in the flesh, this will mean fruit from my labor; yet what I shall choose I cannot tell. 23 For I am hard pressed between the two, having a desire to depart and be with Christ, which is far better. 24 Nevertheless to remain in the flesh is more needful for you. (NKJV)
Based on Paul’s understanding as presented earlier in I Corinthians 15 and I Thessalonians 4, why would he say that it would be gain for him to die? How would departing allow him to be with Messiah?
Based on Paul’s view of the state and resurrection of the dead as outlined in the passages we’ve already covered, it would be gain for him to die because he would be asleep and would no longer be suffering in the flesh. In the sleep of death, there is no comprehension of the passage of time. The next moment of consciousness for Paul after his death would be at his resurrection, when Yeshua returns for the saints. In view of these considerations, it’s easy to see what Paul meant here.
Finally, let’s examine another passage from Paul’s first epistle to the Thessalonians:
1 THESSALONIANS 5:9 For God did not appoint us to wrath, but to obtain salvation through our Lord Jesus Christ, 10 who died for us, that whether we wake or sleep, we should live together with him. (NKJV)
The only way to use this text to support the conscious soul theory is to ignore its context. Remember, only a few short verses earlier, Paul is speaking about the awakening of the dead from sleep at the resurrection (I The. 4:13-17). In this verse, Paul is merely saying that whether a believer is awake (alive in the flesh) or asleep (dead in the grave), eventually we will live with Yeshua the Messiah after the resurrection.
Conscious soul advocates prominently use these three passages by Paul to try and substantiate their claim that the righteous dead are alive in heaven with Yeshua. In doing so, they have to discard or explain away many clear Scriptures, from Paul and others, which refute this position. One such obvious Scripture is found in Paul’s second letter to Timothy, written just before his death:
II TIMOTHY 4: 6 For I am already being poured out like a drink offering, and the time has come for my departure. 7 I have fought the good fight, I have finished the race, I have kept the faith. 8 Now there is in store for me the crown of righteousness, which the Lord, the righteous Judge, will award to me on that day — and not only to me, but also to all who have longed for his appearing. (NIV)
Here Paul plainly tells Timothy that he is about to die, and his reward won’t be received from the Lord until the day of his appearing – the day Yeshua returns from heaven to resurrect the saints. That’s about as direct a statement as you will get from the apostle Paul on any topic, and it refutes the belief that the saints are rewarded at death by being consciously present with Christ in heaven.
Now let’s examine the account of the transfiguration, which is commonly held up as proof that souls remain conscious after death:
MATTHEW 16:28 “Assuredly, I say to you, there are some standing here who shall not taste death till they see the Son of Man coming in his kingdom.” 17:1 Now after six days Jesus took Peter, James, and John his brother, led them up on a high mountain by themselves; 2 and he was transfigured before them. His face shone like the sun, and his clothes became as white as the light. 3 And behold, Moses and Elijah appeared to them, talking with him. 4 Then Peter answered and said to Jesus, “Lord, it is good for us to be here; if you wish, let us make here three tabernacles: one for you, one for Moses, and one for Elijah.” 5 While he was still speaking, behold, a bright cloud overshadowed them; and suddenly a voice came out of the cloud, saying, “This is My beloved Son, in whom I am well pleased. Hear him!” 6 And when the disciples heard it, they fell on their faces and were greatly afraid. 7 But Jesus came and touched them and said, “Arise, and do not be afraid.” 8 When they had lifted up their eyes, they saw no one but Jesus only. 9 Now as they came down from the mountain, Jesus commanded them, saying, “Tell the vision [horama] to no one until the Son of Man is risen from the dead.” (NKJV)
Dualists claim that the only way Moses and Elijah could have appeared on the mountain with Yeshua is if they were alive in heaven and came down from there. Unfortunately, that claim is not substantiated by the Scripture. In fact, the Greek text of verse 9 literally invalidates that belief.
First, we must understand that this event took place to fulfill Yeshua’s promise that some of the apostles would “not taste death until they saw the Kingdom of God after it had come with power” (Mark 9:1; Matt. 16:28). It has been nearly 2,000 years since Yeshua walked the earth as a man, and the Kingdom of God still has not come in power. It will not come in power until the Messiah returns from heaven to rule the nations with a rod of iron. So how could any of the twelve apostles see that event before they died?
The key to properly understanding this passage is to realize that what Peter, James and John saw was a supernatural vision of the future, not a present reality. The word translated “vision” in Matthew 17:9 is the Greek noun horama. Regarding the meaning of this word, Friberg’s Analytical Lexicon of the Greek New Testament says: “in the NT, [horama is] a supernatural vision, given as a means of divine communication . . .”
This same word (horama) is used to describe Peter’s vision of the great sheet filled with all kinds of four-footed animals of the earth, wild beasts, creeping things, and birds of the air (Acts 10:9-17) and Paul’s vision of the Macedonian man pleading for the gospel to be preached to them (Acts 16:9-10). Additionally, in the Septuagint Greek translation of the Old Testament, horama is used to describe the supernatural visions of the future given to Daniel (Dan. 7:1; 8:13; 10:1), as well as others.
Clearly the transfiguration on the mountain was a vision of the future Kingdom, given to Peter, James and John to fulfill Yeshua’s pledge. They were granted a glimpse of the Messiah in his glory, with two of the saints who will be there with him in the Kingdom (Moses and Elijah). Scripturally, it’s very difficult to make a convincing case that Moses and Elijah had to be alive at that very time in order to be seen in a vision of the future.
Next, let’s examine Yeshua’s claim that the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob is not the God of the dead but of the living. Some proponents of the conscious soul theory claim that this statement is proof that Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob were alive at the time Yeshua said this.
First, we need to realize that the premise for Yeshua’s statement was to disprove the Sadducees contention that there is no resurrection. With the understanding of why Yeshua said this, let’s look at what the Scriptures really say:
MATTHEW 22:31 “But concerning the resurrection of the dead, have you not read what was spoken to you by God, saying, 32 ‘I am the God of Abraham, the God of Isaac, and the God of Jacob’? God is not the God of the dead, but of the living.” (NKJV)
MARK 12:26 “But concerning the dead, that they rise, have you not read in the book of Moses, in the burning bush passage, how God spoke to him, saying, ‘I am the God of Abraham, the God of Isaac, and the God of Jacob’? 27 “He is not the God of the dead, but the God of the living. You are therefore greatly mistaken.” (NKJV)
LUKE 20:37 “But even Moses showed in the burning bush passage that the dead are raised, when he called the Lord ‘the God of Abraham, the God of Isaac, and the God of Jacob.’ 38 For He is not the God of the dead but of the living, for all live to Him.” (NKJV)
Clearly, Yeshua was pointing out to the disbelieving Sadducees the reality of the resurrection in these parallel passages. Even though Abraham, Isaac and Jacob were dead at the time Yeshua made this statement, God had promised to resurrect them. God gives life to the dead and calls those things which do not exist as though they did (Rom. 4:17). Therefore Yeshua could confidently state that Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob were alive, because he knew that God would keep His promise to resurrect them.
The book of Hebrews twice clearly tells us that these three (as well as all the other Old Testament saints) are dead, awaiting their perfection and reward at the resurrection of the righteous:
HEBREWS 11:13 These all [including Abraham-v. 8, Isaac-v. 9, Jacob-v. 9] died in faith, not having received the promises, but having seen them afar off were assured of them, embraced them and confessed that they were strangers and pilgrims on the earth. (NKJV)
HEBREWS 11:39 And all these [including Abraham-vv. 17-19, Isaac-v. 20, Jacob-v. 21], having obtained a good testimony through faith, did not receive the promise, 40 God having provided something better for us, that they should not be made perfect apart from us. (NKJV)
Some try to use the words of the “souls under the altar” in Revelation 6 to support their belief in conscious souls in heaven:
REVELATION 6:9 When he opened the fifth seal, I saw under the altar the souls of those who had been slain for the word of God and for the testimony which they held. 10 And they cried with a loud voice, saying, “How long, O Lord, holy and true, until you judge and avenge our blood on those who dwell on the earth?” 11 Then a white robe was given to each of them; and it was said to them that they should rest a little while longer, until both the number of their fellow servants and their brethren, who would be killed as they were, was completed. (NKJV)
First and foremost, we have to realize that the book of Revelation was written in symbolic language. No scholar that I know of expects four horsemen to literally ride throughout the world at the time of the end, wreaking havoc when the first four seals are opened (Rev. 6:1-8). These horsemen and their mounts are understood to be allegorical representations of events that will take place. So why would we interpret the fifth seal in a strictly literal sense when the first four are clearly symbolic?
The altar is the place where sacrifices are presented. Its appearance here is representative of those martyrs who sacrificed their lives in the service of God. The question asked by these “souls” is used to symbolically introduce the final great martyrdom of believers at the end of this age.
Even this illustrative event shows the true status of the dead. These slain saints are told to REST a while longer, until the last massive slaughter of believers is finished. They are to return to resting in the sleep of death until the resurrection of all believers occurs at the seventh trumpet (Rev. 11:15-18).
Lastly, let’s examine the account of Saul conjuring up the spirit of Samuel. Saul was facing the Philistine army, and because of his disobedience, God had forsaken him. Since he was afraid of the Philistine army and God would not answer his inquiries about the coming battle, Saul resorted to the use of a medium to contact the dead prophet Samuel. The account is found in I Samuel 28:
I SAMUEL 28:11 The woman asked, ‘Whom shall I conjure up for you?’ He replied, ‘Conjure up Samuel.’ 12 The woman then saw Samuel and, giving a great cry, she said to Saul, ‘Why have you deceived me? You are Saul!’ 13 The king said, ‘Do not be afraid! What do you see?’ The woman replied to Saul, ‘I see a ghost [Heb. ‘elohim, lit. “god”] rising from the earth.’ 14 ‘What is he like?’ he asked. She replied, ‘It is an old man coming up; he is wrapped in a cloak.’ Saul then knew that it was Samuel and, bowing to the ground, prostrated himself. 15 Samuel said to Saul, ‘Why have you disturbed my rest by conjuring me up?‘ Saul replied, ‘I am in great distress; the Philistines are waging war on me, and God has abandoned me and no longer answers me either by prophet or by dream; and so I have summoned you to tell me what I ought to do.’ 16 Samuel said, ‘Why consult me, when Yahweh has abandoned you and has become your enemy?’ 17 Yahweh has treated you as he foretold through me; he has snatched the sovereignty from your hand and given it to your neighbour, David, 18 because you disobeyed Yahweh’s voice and did not execute his fierce anger against Amalek. That is why Yahweh is treating you like this today. 19 What is more, Yahweh will deliver Israel and you too, into the power of the Philistines. Tomorrow you and your sons will be with me; and Yahweh will hand over the army of Israel into the power of the Philistines.’ (NJB)
Those who believe that souls continue to live after the body dies sometimes use this passage to try and prove their point. However, if they really considered what “Samuel” says here, they might choose to ignore it.
One school of thought holds that this appearance by “Samuel” was only a demon disguised as the dead prophet. However, since the text seems to treat the ‘elohim which appeared as the actual Samuel, we will analyze the passage in that light.
Notice the very first thing Samuel says to Saul through the medium: “Why have you disturbed my rest by conjuring me up?” (v. 15). It certainly sounds like the dead Samuel was asleep in death, and wasn’t too happy about being bothered by Saul and his medium.
From the Scriptures, we know that Samuel was a righteous man, a servant of God who judged Israel all his life. We also know that Saul was originally selected by God to be the king of Israel, but was later rejected by Him because of rebellion and disobedience (I Sam. 15:23).
Dualists believe the souls of saints go to heaven upon death, while the souls of those who reject God go to hell. Surely then, Samuel would have been in heaven and Saul would have gone to hell after his death under that scenario. But let’s look at what Samuel tells Saul about his fate: “Tomorrow you and your sons will be with me” (v. 19).
If we assume the entity conjured up was actually Samuel and not a deceptive demon, it’s apparent that Samuel was called up by the medium from the sleep of death. He wasn’t happy about having his rest disturbed. He told Saul that he and his sons would be dead after the next day’s battle with the Philistines, and then they too would be asleep in sheol (“the grave”) with him.
There is nothing in this encounter to suggest that souls remain conscious after death. In fact, the words of Samuel seem to clearly contradict that position. The best use for this passage of Scripture is to reiterate why God condemns mediums (Lev. 20:27; Deu. 18:11) and outlaws consulting the dead through them (Isa. 8:19).
Satan’s first lie to Eve is still alive and well here on planet earth. However, a review of all pertinent Scriptures clearly shows that the dead are unconscious and “asleep” until they are resurrected. Their souls are not conscious in heaven or hell. All passages touted by dualists as showing otherwise can be reconciled to this understanding so that the Scriptures are in harmony.
Death is the end of life. If it weren’t for the promises of God, we would have no hope. But our heavenly Father has promised to raise us from the dead and give us eternal life in His son, Yeshua the Messiah. Baruch Hashem!
Bryan T. Huie
June 8, 2001