The Mystery of Death

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The Mystery of Death

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Many are confused about this, and this has led to great misunderstandings about death. Does the Bible provide answers?

Death is a fearful, often traumatic event. Sometimes it is preceded by suffering, the result of the infirmities of age, disease or injury. Often death is shocking and unexpected. Family and friends suffer the pain of loss. The Scriptures refer to death as "the last enemy" to be conquered (1 Corinthians 15:26) and point out mankind's innate fear of death (Hebrews 2:15). Death remains one of life's greatest mysteries.

Often death is shocking and unexpected. Family and friends suffer the pain of loss.

Religions offer a variety of answers, some seemingly credible and some beyond belief. Their explanations often contradict one another, adding to the confusion and uncertainty about what happens after death. A very common idea is that people are born with immortal souls. Many believe that after death the soul is conscious and proceeds to a literal place or condition of bliss or torment. Others teach that at death the soul is absorbed into a "greater consciousness." Some expect to be reincarnated, coming back to earth as another person or as an animal.

Can we pinpoint just what death is? Do we have immortal souls? Are we conscious after we die? Are we destined to go somewhere to experience some form of reward or punishment? What is really going to happen when we die?

To understand, let's continue with the biblical account of the first human beings.

God personally instructed Adam and Eve, but they chose to disobey Him. They let Satan influence them into choosing their own will rather than obeying God's instructions. God informed them that, because they had disobeyed Him, their lives would grow difficult and, as He had warned, they would die. "In the sweat of your face," God said to Adam, "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" (Genesis 3:19).

Our lives are physical; we age and eventually die. Like Adam and Eve, we eventually return to dust. Solomon made a simple but profound observation when he wrote that there is "a time to be born, and a time to die" (Ecclesiastes 3:2). Look around the world at the example of nature. All living processes eventually break down and cease, then the physical remains begin to decay.

Solomon, after observing the cycles of life, noted that we human beings yearn for an eternal existence (Ecclesiastes 3:11). Knowing that death is inevitable, we search for a deeper meaning of life.

What is a soul?

Much misunderstanding about death is directly related to confusion concerning the "soul." What is a soul? Does it exist? If it exists, is it separate from the physical body? Does it live on after death?

The Hebrew word most often translated into English as "soul" or "creature" in the Bible is nephesh. Strong's Exhaustive Concordance of the Bible succinctly defines this word as "a breathing creature." When used in the Bible, nephesh does not mean a spirit entity or the spirit within a person. Rather, it usually means a physical, living, breathing creature. Occasionally it conveys a related meaning such as breath, life or person.

Surprising to many, this term nephesh is used torefer to human beings and animals. In the Old Testament, man is referred to as a "soul" (nephesh) more than 130 times. But the same Hebrew term is also applied to sea creatures, birds and land animals, including cattle and "creeping" creatures such as reptiles and insects. All are "souls."

For example, notice the account of the creation of sea life: "And God created great whales, and every living creature that moveth, which the waters brought forth abundantly, after their kind, and every winged fowl after his kind: and God saw that it was good" (Genesis 1:21, King James Version). The Hebrew word translated "creature" in this verse is nephesh. In the biblical account, these particular "souls," creatures of the sea, were made before the first human beings were formed and given life.

Nephesh and man

Let's further see how this word is used to refer to mankind in the Scriptures. The first place we find nephesh in reference to mankind is in the second chapter of Genesis: "And the LORD God formed man of the dust of the ground, and breathed into his nostrils the breath of life; and man became a living soul" (Genesis 2:7, KJV).

The word translated "soul" in this verse is again the Hebrew word nephesh. Other translations of the Bible state that man became a living "being" or "person." This verse does not say that Adam had an immortal soul; rather it says that God breathed into Adam the "breath of life," and Adam became a living soul. At the end of his days, when the breath of life left Adam, he died and returned to dust.

The soul (nephesh) is not immortal, because it dies. This is clear in the Bible. For example, through the prophet Ezekiel God proclaimed, "Behold, all souls are Mine; the soul of the father as well as the soul of the son is Mine; the soul who sins shall die" (Ezekiel 18:4, see also verse Ezekiel 18:20). Again, the Hebrew word translated "soul" here is nephesh. Indeed, the same word is even used of corpses—dead bodies (see Leviticus 22:4; Numbers 5:2; Numbers 6:11; Numbers 9:6-10).So Scripture plainly states that the soul can die. It is mortal—it is in no way immortal—because it is subject to death and decay.

What happens to the dead?

Superstitions and assumptions, all kinds of beliefs, abound about the state of the dead. Many enjoy being frightened by books and movies about ghosts and other weird twists on the afterlife. Movies and television programs portray apparitions and angels sent back to earth to accomplish some final good deeds or rescue people from difficult situations. Cartoons entertain our children with ideas about animals going to heaven and the antics of friendly ghosts.

On the other hand, of course, many religious groups teach that at death a person goes immediately to his reward or punishment.

But the reality of what happens after death is quite different from all of these ideas. There are no disembodied spirits of dead people wandering about frightening or taking revenge on people—or even helping them.

Furthermore, the Bible does not speak of the dead going to live on forever in a place or condition of "heaven" or "hell." Solomon observed that mankind and animals are destined for, in death, a common fate. "For what happens to the sons of men also happens to animals; one thing befalls them: as one dies, so dies the other . . . All go to one place: all are from the dust, and all return to dust" (Ecclesiastes 3:19-20).

The book of Daniel refers to the state of the dead in an inspiring prophecy: "And many of those who sleep in the dust of the earth shall awake, some to everlasting life, some to shame and everlasting contempt" (Daniel 12:2).

This passage conveys some crucial information. For one, it offers the promise of life after death—not by people living on apart from their bodies after death but through a resurrection from death that will take place in the future. Some will receive immortality then, and some will not. So clearly we are not immortal souls at present. Moreover, the passage compares death to sleep—and explains the resurrection as waking up from that sleep.

Sleep connotes unconsciousness, and the Bible draws the same analogy in other places. How could people who have died be asleep in their graves, profoundly unconscious—as revealed in the Bible—yet be residing blissfully in heaven and looking down at us on earth (or, presumably, suffering in hell and looking up)?

Solomon noted that the dead have no awareness, nor are they in some other state of consciousness: "For the living know that they will die; but the dead know nothing . . . for there is no work or device or knowledge or wisdom in the grave where you are going" (Ecclesiastes 9:5-10). The person who has died is unconscious and unaware of the passing of time.

Life is transitory

The patriarch Job contemplated the transitory nature of physical life. Man, he said, "comes forth like a flower and fades away; he flees like a shadow and does not continue" (Job 14:2). Directing his remarks to God, Job commented on the physical limitations common to all men and women, stating, "Since his days are determined, the number of his months is with You; You have appointed his limits, so that he cannot pass" (Job 14:5).

Job noted the stark reality of death: "So man lies down and does not rise. Till the heavens are no more, they will not awake nor be roused from their sleep" (Job 14:12). Job understood that death was the absolute cessation of life.

Notice that in Genesis 2:17 God told Adam and Eve that disobeying Him by taking from the tree of the knowledge of good and evil would lead to death. Then, in Genesis 3:4, we read that the serpent (Satan) told Eve that if she ate from that tree, she would "not surely die." Simply put, God said that man is mortal and subject to death. Satan contradicted God and said that man would not die—that man is immortal.

Isn't it amazing that, as evidenced by the pervasive belief in the immortality of the soul, more people accept Satan's teaching than God's? Yet maybe that's not so startling after all. The Bible does say that Satan "deceives the whole world" (Revelation 12:9), and he has certainly deceived many about what happens after death.

The Hebrew Scriptures, commonly called the Old Testament, teach that, at death, the soul dies and consciousness ends. The soul does not live on in some other condition. It does not transmigrate into another form. It is not reincarnated into another creature. In dying, it ceases to live.

What does the New Testament say?

The apostle James understood the temporary nature of life. He compared life with a mist: "You do not know what will happen tomorrow. For what is your life? It is even a vapor that appears for a little time and then vanishes away" (James 4:14). Another epistle also discusses this subject, stating that "it is appointed for men to die once, but after this the judgment" (Hebrews 9:27).

The New Testament uses a word similar in meaning to nephesh to characterize the life or vitality of our physical existence, the Greek word psyche or psuche. (We will use the latter spelling here, as the Greek y, the letter upsilon, was pronounced as a u, and the spelling psyche, now used in English, typically conveys a different sense from the word's original meaning.)

According to Strong's Exhaustive Concordance of the Bible, this word meant "breath" when the New Testament was written. It could be used in the same sense as the Hebrew word nephesh. Recallthat nephesh occurs in reference to the creation of Adam in Genesis 2:7, where the word is translated "soul" or "being." This verse is paraphrased in the New Testament as "The first man Adam became a living being" (1 Corinthians 15:45), and the Greek word substituted for nephesh here is psuche.

Both of these words often translated "soul" convey the concept that man is a living, breathing creature subject to death. Notice Christ's use of the word psuche: "For whoever desires to save his life [psuche] will lose it, but whoever loses his life [psuche] for My sake will find it. For what profit is it to a man if he gains the whole world, and loses his own soul [psuche]? Or what will a man give in exchange for his soul [psuche]?" (Matthew 16:25-26).

Notice that Jesus, as recorded by Matthew, uses psuche four times in this passage. It is translated into English as both "life" and "soul." Christ was simply saying that following Him and His message is more important than life itself. What good is it if you gain the whole world and then lose your existence? Jesus knew that the soul, one's physical being with its consciousness, was temporary and mortal. It could be lost or sacrificed for something of less value.

What did Peter teach?

What did Jesus' early disciples teach about death? The book of Acts records the apostle Peter's powerful sermon in which he mentioned ancient Israel's King David and his lack of consciousness while awaiting his resurrection. "Men and brethren," exhorted Peter, "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 . . . For David did not ascend into the heavens . . ." (Acts 2:29-34).

If people truly are alive in heaven with God the Father and Jesus Christ as so many believe, surely King David would be among them. But Peter said David is dead and buried and not in heaven. In contrast to Christ, who was resurrected so that "His soul was not left in Hades" (verse 31)—this being the Greek word for the grave, as we will later see—David remains in the grave.

His hope, and ours, is to live again through the sacrificial death of Jesus Christ and the resurrection available through Him.

Paul's teachings about death

The apostle Paul also comments on the state of the dead. In one of his letters to the church in Corinth he compared the condition of the dead with sleep: "For this reason many are weak and sick among you, and many sleep" (1 Corinthians 11:30). Notice how Paul, like the Old Testament book of Daniel, likens death to sleep. Paul comments that many in the Corinthian church were weak and sickly. Many had died. Paul uses the word sleep to describe death as a state of unconsciousness.

But that is not the end of the matter. In describing the future resurrection of Christ's followers, Paul writes in the same letter, "Behold, I tell you a mystery: We shall not all sleep, but we shall all be changed" (1 Corinthians 15:51). This change is yet future—and Christians who sleep unconsciously in death will do so until that time.

In addition, Paul specifically points out that we are now mortal—destructible—and that to receive everlasting life we must somehow become immortal—indestructible. "For this corruptible must put on incorruption, and this mortal must put on immortality. 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'" (1 Corinthians 15:53-54).

Paul conveyed a similar message to the church at Thessalonica: "But I do not want you to be ignorant, brethren, concerning those who have fallen asleep, lest you sorrow as others who have no hope. For if we believe that Jesus died and rose again, even so God will bring with Him those who sleep in Jesus" (1 Thessalonians 4:13-14). Paul here again describes the dead as being in an unconscious state comparable to sleep.

On the basis of so much scriptural testimony, Martin Luther, leader of the Protestant Reformation, wrote at one point: "It is probable, in my opinion, that, with very few exceptions indeed, the dead sleep in utter insensibility till the day of judgment . . . On what authority can it be said that the souls of the dead may not sleep . . . in the same way that the living pass in profound slumber the interval between their downlying at night and their uprising in the morning?" (Letter to Nicholas Amsdorf, Jan. 13, 1522, quoted in Jules Michelet, The Life of Luther, translated by William Hazlitt, 1862, p. 133). Yet the Reformation did not embrace the biblical truth that the dead sleep in total unawareness.

Is the spirit in man the immortal soul?

Earlier we noted a special spiritual aspect of the human mind that gives us our intellectual abilities, separating us from animals in function and purpose (see 1 Corinthians 2:11).

What we've seen so far is that the Bible shows a dead person is in no way immortal; his life has perished. So what happens to the spiritual essence that separates man from animal? Does it continue as a conscious, immortal soul independent of the physical body? Certainly not!

The Bible shows that the spirit in man, which originally came from the Creator God, returns to Him. "Then the dust will return to the earth as it was, and the spirit will return to God who gave it" (Ecclesiastes 12:7). This spirit that returns to God is neither the source of human life, nor is it human consciousness. Life and consciousness both perish when one dies. God does not tell us why this spirit returns to Him, just that it does. This may be the way God preserves the characteristics of each person until the resurrection.

The truth is that man has no spiritual soul with conscious awareness independent of the physical body. This has been proven time and time again when individuals have gone into comas for weeks, months and sometimes years at a time, only to emerge from that comatose state with no memory or recollection of the passage of time.

If one had a soul that existed independently of the human body, wouldn't that soul have some memory of remaining aware during the months or years the body was unconscious? That would be powerful and logical proof of the existence of an independent soul within the human body—yet no one has ever reported any such thing, in spite of thousands of such occurrences.


In this chapter we have considered the mystery of death. The good news is that it doesn't have to be a mystery. The scriptures we have reviewed make clear that a human being is a mortal soul and does not possess an immortal soul. Upon death, life ceases. It does not continue in some other form; a dead person does not transmigrate to be reincarnated as another being.

Since the time of Adam and Eve, all people have died a physical death—even Jesus Christ. But death is not the end. As Paul wrote, "For as in Adam all die, even so in Christ all shall be made alive" (1 Corinthians 15:22). Even though our life is temporary, God has not left us without hope and a greater purpose for living.

Another vital step we have mentioned here and will take up more fully in the next chapter, the resurrection, brings us from death back to life.