What Is Your View of the Dead?
A WOMAN stands mourning at the grave of her husband, who was killed in an accident. It is November 2, known throughout Christendom as All Souls’ Day. On this occasion millions of persons the world over visit cemeteries to decorate graves with flowers and garlands.
What is the reason for this? Many feel that their presence at the graves on that day can benefit the “souls” of dead loved ones. Roman Catholics believe that certain religious activities and prayers on All Souls’ Day can bring relief for souls suffering in “purgatory.” According to Catholic teaching, purgatory is a place of temporary punishment to purify the soul before it can gain admittance to heaven.
Though not advocating belief in purgatory, some Protestant churches also observe All Souls’ Day. In fact, it is the last of three consecutive days that Christendom views as having a special relationship to the dead. The day before, November 1, is All Saints’ Day, in honor of the souls of “saints,” who are thought to have already made it to heaven. And the previous day, October 31, is called “Halloween,” and it gets its name from being the eve of “All Hallows’ [Saints] Day.”
Halloween, too, bears a relationship to the dead. On the calendar of the ancient Celts October 31 was New Year’s Eve. The Celts with their priests, the Druids, believed that on the eve of the new year souls of the dead roamed the earth. It was held that food, drink and sacrifices could appease these wandering souls. Too, Halloween featured bonfires to drive away evil spirits.
Concerning bonfires at that time of year, we read in Curiosities of Popular Customs: “Fires were also used at different times and places on All Saints’ Night, which is the eve of All Souls’ Day, and on All Souls’ Day itself, the 2d of November. In these cases the fires were regarded as typical of immortality, and were thought to be efficacious, as an outward and visible sign at least, for lighting souls [that is, helping them get free] from purgatory.”
What is your view of the dead? Do you believe that their souls are still alive in some invisible realm, experiencing pleasure or pain? Can the dead, if not appeased by certain religious acts or sacrifices, harm persons on earth? Can the living benefit the dead in any way?
You may be surprised to know that the Bible does not say that humans have a soul that separates from the body at death. Instead, we read that “man came to be a living soul.” (Gen. 2:7) The soul is the entire person, not an invisible part of him. That means that when a person dies, the soul dies. (Lev. 23:30; Num. 31:19; Ezek. 18:4, 20; Luke 6:9) As for the condition of the dead, the Bible describes it as one of total unconsciousness, saying: “As for the dead, they are conscious of nothing at all.”—Eccl. 9:5; Ps. 146:3, 4.
But though the dead are unconscious, there is a marvelous hope for them. The Word of God assures that “there is going to be a resurrection of both the righteous and the unrighteous.” (Acts 24:15) Does that sound hard to believe? Actually, the Scriptures mention several resurrections that have already occurred. Let us consider three that were performed by Jesus Christ. Concerning the first of these, we read:
“He traveled to a city called Nain, and his disciples and a great crowd were traveling with him. As he got near the gate of the city, why, look! there was a dead man being carried out, the only-begotten son of his mother. Besides, she was a widow. A considerable crowd from the city was also with her. And when the Lord caught sight of her, he was moved with pity for her, and he said to her: ‘Stop weeping.’ With that he approached and touched the bier, and the bearers stood still, and he said: ‘Young man, I say to you, Get up!’ And the dead man sat up and started to speak, and he gave him to his mother. Now fear seized them all, and they began to glorify God, saying: ‘A great prophet has been raised up among us,’ and, ‘God has turned his attention to his people.’ And this news concerning him spread out into all Judea and all the surrounding country.”—Luke 7:11-17.
The second recorded resurrection by Jesus concerned the daughter of Jairus, presiding officer of a synagogue in Galilee. As the girl was dying, Jairus implored Jesus to enter his house to cure her illness. (Luke 8:40-42) The Biblical account relates:
“While [Jesus] was yet speaking, a certain representative of the presiding officer of the synagogue came, saying: ‘Your daughter has died; do not bother the teacher any longer.’ On hearing this, Jesus answered him: ‘Have no fear, only put forth faith, and she will be saved.’ When he reached the house he did not let anyone go in with him except Peter and John and James and the girl’s father and mother. But people were all weeping and beating themselves in grief for her. So he said: ‘Stop weeping, for she did not die but is sleeping.’ At this they began to laugh at him scornfully, because they knew she had died. But he took her by the hand and called, saying: ‘Girl, get up!’ And her spirit returned, and she rose instantly, and he ordered something to be given her to eat. Well, her parents were beside themselves.”—Luke 8:49-56.
Though Jesus resurrected both of these individuals shortly after they died, this was not the case with his friend Lazarus of Bethany, near Jerusalem. Lazarus had been dead four days and laid away in a memorial tomb. The Gospel account by John relates:
“Jesus, after groaning again within himself, came to the memorial tomb. It was, in fact, a cave, and a stone was lying against it. Jesus said: ‘Take the stone away.’ Martha, the sister of the deceased, said to him: ‘Lord, by now he must smell, for it is four days.’ Jesus said to her: ‘Did I not tell you that if you would believe you would see the glory of God?’ Therefore they took the stone away. Now Jesus raised his eyes heavenward and said: ‘Father, I thank you that you have heard me. True, I knew that you always hear me; but on account of the crowd standing around I spoke, in order that they might believe that you sent me forth.’ And when he had said these things, he cried out with a loud voice: ‘Lazarus, come on out!’ The man that had been dead came out with his feet and hands bound with wrappings, and his countenance was bound about with a cloth. Jesus said to them: ‘Loose him and let him go.’”—John 11:38-44.
Scripturally speaking, therefore, you should view the dead as simply unconscious. They experience neither joy nor hardship. However, the resurrections that Jesus performed when on earth give solid basis for faith in his encouraging words:
“This is the will of him that sent me, that I should lose nothing out of all that he has given me but that I should resurrect it at the last day. For this is the will of my Father, that everyone that beholds the Son and exercises faith in him should have everlasting life, and I will resurrect him at the last day.”—John 6:39, 40.