Is There Life After Death?
“WHERE does the soul go immediately after death? We have lost a small son and we wonder.” These were the words distraught parents directed to one of America’s foremost clergymen. How did he answer? He wrote: “For me, the words of Jesus spoken to the repentant thief are significant—‘This day thou shalt be with me in Paradise.’ I think of your child . . . as being with him.”
No doubt about it, this clergyman believes that life continues after death. This is also what the ancient Greeks and Romans believed. Thus Socrates stated, “All men’s souls are immortal.” Plato followed his teacher Socrates, and hence this belief about the soul is said to be a Platonic teaching.
Why did these men believe the way they did? One of their arguments was that the human mind was too wonderful to have the same destiny as the brute creation. They also claimed that to have death end all would be weighting matters in favor of the wicked. And the ancient Roman essayist and orator Cicero argued that he himself, even as other noble men, suffered and endured only because of hope of life after death. He therefore referred to the day of his death as the “glorious day” when he would leave this earth to associate with “the divine assembly of departed spirits.”
Early church “fathers” let themselves be influenced by this pagan Greek belief, and, as a result, it has become part of many creeds in Christendom. However, the reasons given by the Greeks for their belief show that they believed as they did, not because of observable facts, but only because that is the way they wanted it to be.
What Does the Bible Teach?
Is the idea that man has a soul separate and distinct from his body, and that it lives forever, taught in the Bible? No, it is not. Thus the New Catholic Encyclopedia (Vol. 13, p. 449), under the heading “Soul (in the Bible),” states: “There is no dichotomy [division] of body and soul in the O[Id] T[estament]. . . . The term nepes, though translated by our word soul, never means soul as distinct from the body.” Thus also the New American Bible (a Roman Catholic translation), in its Biblical Theology Terms, under the heading “Soul,” states: “In the New Testament to ‘save one’s soul’ (Mk 8:35) does not mean to save some ‘spiritual’ part of man, as opposed to his ‘body,’ (in the Platonic sense) but the whole person with emphasis on the fact that the person is living, desiring, . . . in addition to being concrete and physical.”
Similarly Dr. H. M. Orlinsky, one of America’s foremost Hebrew scholars, said regarding the use of the word “soul”: “The Hebrew word in question here is ‘nefesh.’ . . . The Bible does not say we have a soul. ‘Nefesh’ is the person himself.” That God’s Word does indeed take this position is seen from Genesis 2:7:a “Then the LORD God formed a man from the dust of the ground and breathed into his nostrils the breath of life. Thus the man became a living creature [nephesh].” (Other translations read “soul” or “being.”) Since this is so, it follows that when the man dies the soul dies. And so we read: “The soul that sins shall die.”—Ezek. 18:4, 20.
It is indeed of interest that in recent years one theologian after another has come out in support of this understanding. Professor Milton Gatch, in his book Death: Meaning and Mortality in Christian Thought and Contemporary Culture, states: “Not only do the biblical writers on the whole have no conception of a soul as a separable element of human existence, but also there is agreement that death is the . . . termination of existence and that there is no such thing as an individual afterlife.” Writing in the same vein is Professor O. Cullmann, a theologian of the Universities of Paris and Basel. In his book Immortality of the Soul or Resurrection of the Dead? he states: “No other publication of mine has provoked such enthusiasm or such violent hostility.” In this book he underscores the fact that man’s hope for the future lies not in his having an immortal soul but in a resurrection.
The Issue: Life or Death
When the Creator placed man in the garden of Eden he did not place before man the alternatives of life in happiness or life in torment but simply the alternatives of life or death: “On the day that you eat from [the forbidden fruit], you will certainly die.” (Gen. 2:17) Thus also Jehovah repeatedly placed before the people of Israel the same: “I offer you the choice of life or death.”—Deut. 30:19.
According to the Greek idea, the wicked have immortality. But the Bible shows that life is a gift: “For sin pays a wage, and the wage is death, but God gives freely, and his gift is eternal life.” (Rom. 6:23) A gift is something that can be accepted or refused, rejected. Otherwise it cannot be said to be a gift. If those who refuse the gift of life everlasting are to be tormented forever, it can no longer be said that life is a gift, for one is given no choice. But God does give a choice. Anyone who refuses God’s gift of everlasting life simply chooses a state of nonexistence. Nonexistence was Adam’s choice, even as God told him, ‘dust to dust.’—Gen. 3:19.
Professor Cullmann stated that his book aroused “violent hostility” on the part of some. Yes, many professed Christians feel very strongly that man has an immortal soul. Like the clergyman that sought to bring solace to the grieving parents, they take Jesus’ words to the repentant thief to hold out such a hope: “I tell you this: today you shall be with me in Paradise.” (Luke 23:43) But does it?
Let us first note that, since the Bible does not contradict itself, there must be some misunderstanding. The fact is that Jesus himself did not go to Paradise on that day, for the Bible says that he went to Hades, the common grave of mankind, and was resurrected on the third day. (Acts 2:23-32, Revised Standard Version) Jesus himself stated that just as “Jonah was in the sea-monster’s belly for three days and three nights, . . . the Son of Man will be three days and three nights in the bowels of the earth.” (Matt. 12:40) That is why after his resurrection he said to Mary that he had not as yet ascended to heaven, to his God.—John 20:17.
Then how are we to understand Jesus’ words? Not as if he had said, “Today you will be with me in Paradise,” but, rather, “Verily I say unto thee this day: With me shalt thou be in Paradise.” (Luke 23:43, Rotherham’s translation; see also New World Translation.) The solution lies in correct punctuation. Jesus was on that day telling the repentant evildoer that at some future time he would be in Paradise. That is in harmony with the rest of the Scriptures. But may one change the punctuation? Most certainly. Why? Because punctuation was unknown when the Bible was written, it being systematized first in the sixteenth century of our Common Era. So it is up to the Bible translator to supply the punctuation, and reason would indicate that any text that can be punctuated in more ways than one be punctuated so as to make the text in harmony with the rest of the Bible.
Another common objection raised as to the dead being actually dead, unconscious, is the account of the rich man and Lazarus. It tells that the rich man died and went to Hades and that in Hades he lifted up his eyes, being in torment. (Luke 16:19-31) Seemingly this teaches life after death, but is this account historical? Did it actually happen or is it merely an allegory? It was written that Jesus “never spoke to them without a parable.” (Matt. 13:34) As A New Testament Commentary (1969) well notes, to consider it historical “ignores the element of symbolism that is quite apparent in the story,” such as “Abraham’s bosom, the great Chasm fixed and this flame.” It is also significant that Jesus said nothing about the rich man as being wicked or the poor man as being good. Considered as a parable, it cannot be used to prove life after death.
Another objection raised is that repeatedly in the book of Revelation “souls” are seen, such as “those who had been slaughtered for God’s word for the testimony they bore.” (Rev. 6:9; 20:4) But here again, are we not dealing with symbolisms, with which the Book of Revelation is filled? Surely! (See, for example, Revelation 9:7-10; 12:3.) In view of what Leviticus 17:11 says about the life or soul as being in the blood, it is quite evident that John’s words here mean that he saw the blood of faithful Christians who had been slaughtered because of their faithfulness to God and his Word. And let it be noted that there is a reasonable explanation for every other objection supposedly based on the Bible, such as the fact that some appear to have been able to talk with the dead.
Communication with the Dead
A seeming case in point is the record of unfaithful King Saul when having a witch call forth the deceased prophet Samuel. True, the witch of Endor claimed to get in touch with the dead prophet Samuel, but did she actually do so? She could not have, for the dead are unconscious, asleep in the grave. (Ps. 146:3, 4; Eccl. 9:5, 10) Then whom did the witch see? She saw a demon impersonating the prophet Samuel. (1 Sam. 28:3-25) A demon?
Yes, for throughout the Scriptures we find mention of demons, that is, wicked spirit creatures or fallen angels. Where did these come from? Obviously God did not create them as such, for all his work is perfect and righteous. (Deut. 32:4) However, just as the Bible tells of an angel’s making himself Satan the Devil by his slanderous opposition to God, so it tells of other spirit creatures who joined him in his opposition to God for selfish reasons. This was in the time before the flood of Noah’s day when these angels materialized and came to earth to enjoy the pleasures of sex by taking wives for themselves of the daughters of men. (Gen. 6:1-6) Their hybrid offspring, part angelic and part human, proved to be giants, who contributed to the wickedness and violence of those pre-Flood days. When the Flood came, these hybrid offspring perished, whereas their angelic fathers, being spirits, could dematerialize and reenter the spirit world. There they are kept in darkness and in bondage to Satan the Devil. Jesus when on earth repeatedly clashed with these wicked ones.—Luke 8:26-35; 1 Pet. 3:19, 20; 2 Pet. 2:4.
Hope Only in This Life?
Does this mean that man has no hope for the future, that death ends all? Such it will be for Adam and like willful sinners, for God did not hold out any hope for Adam when he sentenced him to return to the dust. Being a deliberate sinner, Adam justly deserved the penalty God pronounced upon him.—Gen. 3:19.
But not all of Adam’s offspring are of the same mind as was Adam. Many of these do have a love of righteousness, and yet, seemingly, they are no better off than Adam. But not so; there will be a difference and that is because of God’s provision of a resurrection. God in his goodness provided that his Son should ransom humankind that had been sold, as it were, to sin and death by the disobedience of Adam. (Rom. 5:12) This Jesus did by coming to earth, being born as a human and then laying down his life for humankind. By thus purchasing the human race, Jesus opened the way for removal of the legal disability resting upon mankind and now he has the right to raise mankind from death.—Matt. 20:28; 28:18.
So there is hope for humankind. Not in the Platonic immortality of the human soul belief, but through the resurrection of the dead, which both Jesus and his apostles believed and taught. In answering the Sadducees, who did not believe in a resurrection, Jesus said that God “is not God of the dead but of the living.” He foretold that “the time is coming when all who are in the grave shall hear his voice and come out.” (Matt. 22:31-33; John 5:28, 29) And his apostles, in particular the apostle Paul, time and again stressed the fact of the resurrection of the dead. Emphasizing the point that his hope was, not in man’s having an immortal soul, but in the resurrection, Paul wrote: “If it is for this life only that Christ has given us hope, we of all men are most to be pitied.” “If the dead are never raised to life, ‘let us eat and drink, for tomorrow we die.’”—1 Cor. 15:19, 32; Acts 17:31, 32; 24:15.
The teaching that there is life after death because man has an immortal soul contradicts the plain statements of the Scriptures and poses many dilemmas. To mention but one: ‘What happens to the heathen when they die?’ If at death all go either to heaven or to hell, what about them? The Bible says that only those who believe on Jesus can get saved. (John 3:16; Acts 4:12) Will these heathen be tormented forever? The Bible tells us that God is just and loving. Such a destiny for the heathen would be neither. Some counter, ‘Oh, God will save them because of their ignorance, so long as they did the best they knew how!’ But if God will save the heathen because of or in spite of their ignorance, why not keep all humankind ignorant and so save all? There is neither reason nor scripture for such a conclusion. But the Bible hope for the heathen who never heard of Jesus is the resurrection, at which time the heathen will have an opportunity to choose life.—Isa. 26:9.
So we see that man is not without hope. But that hope is not because man has an immortal soul but because of God’s loving and powerful provision of Christ’s ransom. By means of it future life is made possible by the resurrection of the dead under God’s kingdom.—Matt. 6:9, 10.
a All quotations unless otherwise noted are from the New English Bible.