What Is This Thing Called Death?
MANY people consider that death is but the door to another life. They believe that the kind of existence a person will enjoy in the next life depends upon how he lives now. On the other hand, there are those who think that death rules out all possibility of ever living again.
In view of such conflicting ideas about death, can one be sure about what happens when a person dies? Certainly if we had a revelation from man’s Maker about this, we could be sure. The Bible claims to be just that revelation. Hence, what it tells us about death should put an end to any uncertainty about the subject.
The opening book of the Bible, Genesis, informs us that the first humans, Adam and Eve, had set before them the prospect of endless life. Their continuing to live depended upon perfect obedience to their Maker and God, Jehovah. To test their obedience, Jehovah God required that they refrain from eating of the tree of knowledge of good and bad. It was vital that Adam and Eve be tested in this way. Only by having proper respect for God’s right to set the standard of right and wrong, good and bad, could they instill the same respect in their offspring.
It was in connection with the command about not eating fruit from the tree of knowledge of good and bad that God told Adam: “In the day you eat from it you will positively die.” (Gen. 2:17) Then, When Adam ate of the forbidden fruit the sentence of death was pronounced upon him in these words: “In the sweat of your face you will eat bread until you return to the ground, for out of it you were taken. For dust you are and to dust you will return.” (Gen. 3:19) Accordingly, the death of Adam meant his ceasing to live and eventually returning to the elements of lifeless dust from which he had been created.
What About the Soul?
But was there some invisible part of Adam—a soul—that continued living after he died? If Adam had a soul, there might well be a basis for a “yes” answer. But did he? Describing the creation of Adam, the Bible reports: “Jehovah God proceed to form the man out of dust from the ground and to blow into his nostrils the breath of life, and the man came to be a living soul.”—Gen. 2:7.
Note that nothing is said about Adam’s having a soul. Rather, he “came to be a living soul” when his lifeless body was animated with the “breath of life.” So, then, Adam was himself a living soul, and that soul died. Ezekiel 18:4 confirms this understanding of matters by saying of the soul: “All the souls—to me [God] they belong. As the soul of the father so likewise the soul of the son—to me they belong. The soul that is sinning—it itself will die.”
After carefully investigating the belief about the soul’s being a separate part of man that survives the death of the body, many persons have learned that this is not a Biblical teaching. They have found that this concept has its origin in Grecian philosophy.
Le Monde of November 8, 1972, (p. 13) quotes French author and philosopher Roger Garaudy as saying that Greek philosophy “led Christianity astray for centuries.” We further read: “The dualism of soul and body and the consequent myth of immortality of the soul . . . are Platonic theories that have nothing to do with Christianity or the Bible.”
Professor Claude Tresmontant, in his book Le problème de l’âme, observes: “It is absurd to say, as has all Platonic and Cartesian tradition, that man . . . is composed of a soul and a body. . . . One should not say, ‘I have’ a soul, because this would make the possessor different from the soul he possesses. One should say, ‘I am a living soul.’”—Pp. 180, 181.
In a publication used for Evangelical instruction, Ernst Busch acknowledges: “The teaching that death is the separation of body and soul found its way into the church from Grecian philosophy. . . . Man cannot be divided into body and soul so as to make death affect the body but not the soul. The entire man is a sinner, the entire man with body and soul goes into death according to the teaching of Paul in 1 Cor. 15.”
The way in which the Bible describes the condition of the dead provides additional evidence that the soul does not survive the death of the body to continue conscious existence. Lamenting his pitiable state, faithful Job exclaimed: “Why from the womb did I not proceed to die? . . . by now I should have lain down that I might be undisturbed; I should have slept then; I should be at rest.” (Job 3:11, 13) At Ecclesiastes 9:5, 6 we read: “The living are conscious that they will die; but as for the dead, they are conscious of nothing at all . . . Also, their love and their hate and their jealousy have already perished.”
Note that the Scriptures liken the unconscious state of the dead to sleep. Just as one who is sound asleep remains unaware of what may be going on around him, so, too, the dead are not conscious of anything. Giving support to this is what has been observed by persons who were revived after suffering what would have been a fatal heart attack. Asked how it felt to be dead, a doctor who had this experience some years ago in Cleveland, Ohio, answered: “You just don’t feel. There is no thought, no memory.”
Other people whose hearts stopped beating claim to have experienced blissful sensations. Concerning such persons, this doctor concluded: “I’m sure they must be confused. They are talking about how they felt during the period between consciousness and unconsciousness, during the period of semi-coma. When your vital functions cease, you just don’t feel.”
No Literal Torment
Since the dead are not conscious of anything, they cannot experience any physical torment. Nothing conscious that could be subjected to literal pain survives the death of the body.
Then, too, Adam was not told about any place of torment. His punishment for disobedience was to be, not torment, but death. If, in reality, his punishment was to have been eternal torture in a fiery hell, would it not have been an injustice on God’s part to have withheld this information from the first man?
God, however, cannot be accused of any injustice in this regard. Death was indeed the full penalty for Adam’s transgression and for all his offspring who have inherited death-dealing weaknesses and imperfections. The Bible says: “The wages sin pays is death,” not torment. (Rom. 6:23) Also, “he who has died has been acquitted from his sin.” (Rom. 6:7) If, though, a person continued to be tortured after his death, he could not be spoken of as having been “acquitted from his sin.” He would then still be paying for his transgressions.
Furthermore, the idea that God submits the souls of wicked persons to eternal torment is contrary to the inward sense of love and justice inherent in man. For example, if you heard that a father tormented his son by pouring boiling water on him, would you feel that this was proper punishment? Regardless of how bad the son may have been, would it be easy for you to have tender feelings for that father? Would you not, rather, have a revulsion of feeling at what the father did? Is it not also true that only fiendish persons would want to see others tortured?
The fact that people generally abhor the torturing of humans and even of animals, regardless of what these might have done, should be given due weight. According to the Bible, man was created in “God’s image.” (Gen. 1:27) This means that he was endowed with Godlike qualities. Hence, people’s general abhorrence of cruel torture has its source in God-given qualities passed on through the first man Adam to all members of the human family. In view of this, how inconceivable it is that the One responsible for our general revulsion toward torture would submit humans to the worst tortures imaginable for all eternity!
The Bible reveals that God does not want to see bad come to any of his creatures. He finds no delight in having to punish anyone. We read: “He does not desire any to be destroyed but desires all to attain to repentance.” (2 Pet. 3:9) “‘I do not take any delight in the death of someone dying,’ is the utterance of the Sovereign Lord Jehovah. ‘So cause a turning back and keep living, O you people.”’ (Ezek. 18:32) If this is how God feels about those who deserve punishment. for wrongdoing, how could he at the same time look approvingly upon the terrible anguish of those confined to a place of everlasting conscious torment? Manifestly he could never do so, for “God is love.”—1 John 4:8.
Since all people die, how, then, are corrupt, hateful persons punished? The writer of the Bible book of Hebrews compares their fate to what happens to an unproductive field that is overgrown with thorns and thistles: “It ends up with being burned.” (Heb. 6:8) By being burned over, that field ceases to exist as an unproductive area covered with thorns and thistles. Accordingly, the punishment of those who willfully persist in going contrary to God’s ways is everlasting destruction. They will remain dead forever.
But what of those who are seeking to do what is right? The writer of the letter to the Hebrews continues: “In your case, beloved ones, we are convinced of better things and things accompanied with salvation . . . God is not unrighteous so as to forget your work and the love you showed for his name.”—Heb. 6:9, 10.
Clearly, then, there must be a hope for humans who have not become so set in bad ways that they could not be helped to change. Their death simply could not mean that all has ended for them. Otherwise their situation would be no different from that of those who persist in callously disregarding the rights and welfare of their fellowmen. This logically gives rise to the question, What hope is there for billions now dead?