“Your Word Is Truth”
‘The Spirit Returns to God’
REGARDING the death of man, Ecclesiastes 12:7 states: “Then the dust returns to the earth just as it happened to be and the spirit itself returns to the true God who gave it.” What is this spirit? Does it have personality? How does it return to God?
Since man’s death is linked with the return of the spirit (Hebrew, ruʹahh) to God, manifestly man’s life depends on the spirit. This is confirmed by other passages in the Holy Scriptures. Psalm 104:29 says: “If you [Jehovah] conceal your face, they get disturbed. If you take away their spirit, they expire, and back to their dust they go.” And the disciple James wrote: “The body without spirit is dead.” (Jas. 2:26) The spirit is therefore that which animates the body, namely, the invisible life-force.
But note this: The spirit or life-force is active, not only in man, but also in animals. With reference to the destruction of human and animal life in the global flood of Noah’s day, Genesis 7:22 reports: “Everything in which the breath of the force [ruʹahh, spirit] of life was active in its nostrils, namely, all that were on the dry ground, died.” Ecclesiastes 3:19 highlights the same truth: “There is an eventuality as respects the sons of mankind and an eventuality as respects the beast, and they have the same eventuality. As the one dies, so the other dies; and they all have but one spirit, so that there is no superiority of the man over the beast.” So, then, God’s Word shows that man is not superior to the animals insofar as the spirit or life-force is concerned. The same invisible spirit is common to both. Thus the spirit could not have personality but must be an impersonal force.
The invisible spirit or life-force active in both man and the animals might be compared with electricity, also an invisible force. Electricity may be used to run various types of machines and appliances. Stoves can be made to produce heat, fans to produce wind, computers to solve problems and television sets to reproduce figures, voices and other sounds. The same invisible force that produces sound in one appliance can produce heat in another. The electric current, however, never takes on the characteristics of the machines or appliances in which it functions or is active.
Likewise, the spirit or life-force that makes it possible for man to carry on functions of life in no way differs from the spirit that enables animals to carry on functions of life. On leaving man’s body at death, the spirit does not retain any of the characteristics of the cells. For example, in the case of brain cells, the spirit does not retain the information stored there and continue thought processes apart from these cells. The Bible tells us: “His spirit goes out, he goes back to his ground; in that day his thoughts do perish.” (Ps. 146:4) “If he [the Almighty] sets his heart upon anyone, if that one’s spirit and breath he gathers to himself, all flesh will expire together, and earthling man himself will return to the very dust.”—Job 34:14, 15.
That the spirit or life-force is impersonal is evident in the case of persons that were resurrected from the dead. Nowhere do we read of their remembering a conscious existence during the period of their death. Lazarus, who was dead for four days, said nothing of a conscious existence. Surely, if he had experienced even a semblance of conscious existence, he would have spoken about this, as it would have been of great interest to others, revealing otherwise unknown information.
It should not be overlooked that the now-dead person himself was never previously in heaven with God, so it could not be the personality (minus the body) who ‘returns to God.’ Only Jesus Christ had a prehuman existence in the heavens. On one occasion he said: “No man has ascended into heaven but he that descended from heaven, the Son of man.” (John 3:13) Jesus could not have made this statement if the spirit of those who died prior to his coming perpetuated their personality in heaven. Thus even the Son of God provided testimony to the effect that the spirit is an impersonal life-force.
But does the impersonal spirit or life-force return to God’s very presence in the heavens? No. This is because we humans did not receive that life-force directly from God. It was passed on from our parents to us through conception. Since the spirit or life-force had not come directly from God’s presence, it could not “return” to a place where it had not been before.
Then, too, the way the word “return” is used in the Bible does not require an actual movement from one place to another. For example, 2 Chronicles 30:6 says: “You sons of Israel, return to Jehovah the God of Abraham, Isaac and Israel, that he may return to the escaped ones.” Israel’s ‘returning’ to Jehovah meant a turning around from a wrong course and again conforming to God’s way. And Jehovah’s ‘returning’ to Israel meant his turning favorable attention to his people once again. The return in both cases involved an attitude, not a literal movement from one location to another.
A modern illustration might be the transferal of a business or a property from the control of one party to another. For instance, in a certain country the control of the railroads might be shifted from private enterprise to the government. When such a transferal takes place the railroad equipment remains where it is, but the authority over it changes hands.
Similarly, in the case of the spirit or life-force, no actual movement from the earth to the heavenly realm takes place. But the grant of existence as an intelligent creature as enjoyed once by the dead person now reverts back to God. That which is needed to animate the person, namely, the spirit or life-force, is in God’s hands. It has returned to Him, for it is no longer in the possession of the deceased. God determines whether the person should have the spirit restored to him by means of a resurrection.
The fact that in the case of one whose spirit ‘returns’ to God the future life prospects of the individual rest entirely with the Creator also explains the words of Psalm 31:5: “Into your hand I entrust my spirit.” The individual expressing himself in this way would be calling upon God to guard or care for that spirit or life-force while he slept in death. (Job 14:13-15) He would be placing his hope in God for the future restoration of such life-force to himself through a resurrection.
The testimony of the Bible about the condition and hope of the dead is thus revealed to be harmonious. ‘The dead are conscious of nothing at all, neither do they anymore have wages, because the remembrance of them has been forgotten.’ (Eccl. 9:5) The fact that the ‘spirit returns to God,’ however, points to the one Source and Giver of life, who can also restore life. If a person has lived in such a way as not to be rejected by God, the life-force will be restored to him through Christ; he will be resurrected from the dead.