What Happens to Us When We Die
1. Why do we all die? (Romans 5:12)
AS SINNERS, inheriting imperfection from Adam, we all die.
“The wages sin pays is death.” (Romans 6:23)
But do you really want to die? Especially if you are in good health, surely you want to go on enjoying life.
2. (a) Why should we want to keep on living? (b) What suggests that man was made to live longer than seventy or eighty years? (Genesis 2:9)
2 There is much in life that can make us happy—wholesome companions, a loving family, healthful exercise, enjoyment of the creation about us. What delight is to be found in viewing the grandeur of mountains or of fiords, a glorious sunrise or sunset, or a panorama of lakes and woodlands! Why, some of the trees in those forests have lived hundreds, even thousands, of years! Yet we humans, whom God created for a far nobler purpose than trees, must be content with a life-span of about seventy or eighty years. Did our Creator purpose it to be that way?
3. What experience caused one person to conclude that death is the end? (Psalm 104:29)
3 All of us must face the eventuality of death. During the Pacific War (1941-1945), the enemy death became very real to many persons in that area. On the island of Okinawa, during the fierce battle that raged there, casualties totaled more than 203,000, including 132,000 civilians.
One of the surviving Okinawans describes how she took refuge with her forty-day-old son. This was inside her family’s large ancestral tomb on a hillside. Contrary to local superstition, her son did not lose his soul on approaching the tomb. During long hours spent in there, she observed that the remains of her ancestors looked no different from the ground outside, and concluded that they must be completely dead. Shortly after the war she met Jehovah’s Witnesses, who showed her from the Bible that the dead do indeed “return to the ground,” with nothing surviving. She became the first native Okinawan to proclaim “good news” of the real hope for those “sleeping in death.”—Genesis 3:19; 1 Thessalonians 4:13.
4. How does the Bible describe the condition of the dead?
4 What else did this Okinawan person read in the Bible that confirmed her view of the condition of the dead? Here are some scriptures that she read and which bear directly on the matter:
“For the living are conscious that they will die; but as for the dead, they are conscious of nothing at all, neither do they anymore have wages, because the remembrance of them has been forgotten. All that your hand finds to do, do with your very power, for there is no work nor devising nor knowledge nor wisdom in Sheol [gravedom], the place to which you are going.” (Ecclesiastes 9:5, 10)
“O Jehovah, . . . save me for the sake of your loving-kindness. For in death there is no mention of you; in Sheol [gravedom] who will laud you?” (Psalm 6:4, 5)
“What able-bodied man is there alive who will not see death? Can he provide escape for his soul [Hebrew, neʹphesh] from the hand of Sheol [gravedom]?” (Psalm 89:48)
“Earthling man . . . goes back to his ground; in that day his thoughts do perish.”—Psalm 146:3, 4.
5. What are Sheol and Hades, and what is the condition of those who go there? (Psalm 115:17)
5 The above texts include three of the more than sixty occurrences in the Bible of the Hebrew word Sheol, which literally means “gravedom.” A corresponding word in the Greek Scriptures, Hades, which appears just ten times, means the same. Both of these words always refer, not to individual tombs, but to the “common grave,” where Adam’s sinful descendants go at death. This is a place of nonexistence, unconsciousness, where the dead must remain until God resurrects them. They are completely dead, but not without hope.
WHAT IS THE “SOUL”?
6. (a) What is the “soul,” according to common belief? (b) What are the Hebrew and Greek words that are translated “soul”?
6 However, many people believe that man has a “soul” that departs from the body at death, to live elsewhere. Some persons think that the Bible teaches this. One reason is that the Hebrew and Greek words in the Bible (neʹphesh and psy·kheʹ) are translated into other languages by words that allow for spirit life after death. In English, this word is “soul.” It is most important, therefore, that we understand the real meaning of these Hebrew and Greek words that are translated “soul.”
7. (a) How many times does this Hebrew word occur in the Bible, and what is its actual meaning? (b) What other souls are there besides human souls, and do souls die? (c) How is the Greek word for soul used with respect to Adam? (d) How did Adam become a living soul, and what reverse process took place later? (Job 34:15)
7 The Hebrew word, neʹphesh, which occurs about 750 times in the Bible, means actually “a breather.” As we have already seen, fish, birds, animals and humans are all called “souls [neʹphesh]” in the Bible. They do not have souls. They are souls, breathing creatures. And as the psalms quoted above show, the “soul” cannot escape the hand of gravedom. It dies. Examination of the 102 occurrences in the Greek Scriptures of the corresponding word psy·kheʹ likewise shows that man is a soul.
“The first man Adam became a living soul [psy·kheʹ].” (1 Corinthians 15:45)
God made this “soul” by blowing the breath of life into the nostrils of the man that he had formed out of dust from the ground. Thus man became a “breather,” or living soul. When Adam rebelled, God passed sentence of death on him, saying:
“You [will] return to the ground, for out of it you were taken. For dust you are and to dust you will return.” (Genesis 3:19)
When that sentence was carried out, Adam ceased to be “a breather,” or a soul, and went back to the lifeless dust from which he had been taken. It was the reverse of the creation process. No part of him lived on. He went completely into nonexistence.
8. (a) How do Hebrew scholars define neʹphesh? (b) How do Greek-English lexicons define psy·kheʹ? (c) What words of Jesus prove that the soul is not immortal? (Matthew 26:38)
8 The “soul” is the physical, living person himself, not just a spiritual part of him. Many authorities present this viewpoint. For example, one of America’s foremost Hebrew scholars, Dr. H. M. Orlinsky, said regarding the word soul”:
“The Bible does not say we have a soul. ‘Nefesh’ is the person himself, his need for food, the very blood in his veins, his being.”
As for the Greek word psy·kheʹ, Greek-English lexicons give such definitions as “life,” and “the conscious self or personality as centre of emotions, desire, and affections,” “a living being,” and show that even in non-Biblical Greek works the term was used of “animals.”a That “a living being” is not immortal is shown by Jesus’ saying at Matthew 10:28 that God “can destroy both soul [psy·kheʹ] and body in Gehenna.”
9. (a) What is “Gehenna”? (b) Is anyone conscious there? (Matthew 18:9)
9 However, what is this “Gehenna”? Since it is translated “hell” in a number of languages, is it not a place of conscious torture after death? No. Ancient “Gehenna,” outside the walls of Jerusalem, was a valley used as a rubbish dump, where the corpses of executed criminals were often thrown to be destroyed among the burning refuse. “Gehenna” is thus used twelve times in the Greek Scriptures as a symbol of the everlasting destruction of grossly wicked souls. It signifies annihilation, not eternal torment. Those destroyed in Gehenna were no more tormented than are the bodies that are burned in a modern-day crematorium.
PERPETUATION OF A LIE
10. What survives after man’s death? (Isaiah 53:12)
10 No, there is nothing that survives after man’s death. Where, then, did this teaching that man has an immortal soul originate?
11. (a) How did Nimrod defy Jehovah? (b) How did Babylon become the “mother” of false religion throughout the earth? (Revelation 17:5)
11 After the flood of Noah’s day, his great-grandson Nimrod became a tyrant, “in opposition to Jehovah,” one who hunted men and animals. He regimented the people and had them build cities for him, including Babel, or Babylon, which became the “mother” of false religion. There Nimrod started to erect a tower in defiance of God. So Jehovah confused the people’s language, and scattered them, according to their language groups, “over all the surface of the earth.” (Genesis 10:8-10; 11:5-9) As they went they took Babylon’s religion with them, establishing “daughter” religions throughout the earth.
12. (a) What teaching has always been prominent in Babylonish religion? (b) But what does the Bible teach?
12 The Encyclopædia Britannica (1910 ed., Vol. 3, p. 115) says of the ancient Babylonian religious teaching about the condition of the dead:
“The conception prevailed of a large dark cavern below the earth . . . in which all the dead were gathered and where they led a miserable existence of inactivity amid gloom and dust.”
Thus, earth wide, Babylon’s “daughter” religions have perpetuated this teaching that “the soul” is immortal, and that it lives on after death in a spirit world. This is far different from the Bible’s plain statement concerning sinner man: “The soul . . . it itself will die.”—Ezekiel 18:20.
13. How do authorities confirm the Bible teaching on the soul?
13 Greek philosophers, such as Plato, also taught that the soul is immortal. In this connection, the French newspaper Le Monde of November 8, 1972, quotes French author 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.”
Even the New Catholic Encyclopedia (Vol. 13, p. 449) admits, under the heading “Soul (in the Bible)”:
“There is no dichotomy [division] of the body and soul in the [Hebrew Scriptures]. . . . The term nepes, though translated by our word soul, never means soul as distinct from the body.”
14. What proves that Christendom has been teaching a great lie? (1 Timothy 4:1, 2)
14 The religions of Christendom and of other lands have therefore been teaching a lie in saying that the soul survives the death of the body. In all of the 850 or more occurrences of neʹphesh and psy·kheʹ in the Bible, there is not one case where they are modified by such terms as immortal, indestructible, imperishable, deathless, or the like.
“The soul [neʹphesh] that is sinning—it itself will die.” “Any soul [psy·kheʹ] that does not listen . . . will be completely destroyed.” (Ezekiel 18:4; Acts 3:23)
The soul (neʹphesh, psy·kheʹ) does not live on after death.
HOPE FOR THE DEAD
15. (a) What eventually happens to both men and animals? (Psalm 49:12) (b) What is the “spirit” referred to at Ecclesiastes 12:7, and what happens to it at death?
15 What, then, is the hope for dead persons? Unless God made some provision, they would remain dead, just like the animals.
“For 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 . . . All are going to one place. They have all come to be from the dust, and they are all returning to the dust.” (Ecclesiastes 3:19, 20)
Yes, it is quite plain that man dies the same as the animals. But note what the same Bible writer says later about the “spirit,” or life-force, that God has placed in humankind:
“The dust returns to the earth just as it happened to be and the spirit itself returns to the true God who gave it.” (Ecclesiastes 12:7)
So, God takes back that person’s life-force.
16. (a) What illustrates that God could easily re-create a person? (Job 14:13) (b) How does God restore the “spirit”?
16 What if the true God decides to restore the “spirit” of life to that person? With His perfect memory, God can remember exactly what the person was like. It is similar to what men today do when they use magnetic tapes to record the voices and actions of people and reproduce these by radio or on a video screen long after these persons have died. Truly it will not be difficult for God, the Creator, with His infinite memory, to remake a human from the dust of the earth, incorporate in him every detail of his previous personality and mind, and restore his spirit, or life-force, so that he lives again. To God, this will be no more difficult than his creating the first man. And the Bible assures us that God “raises the dead up and makes them alive.”—John 5:21.
17. (a) What is it that God ‘raises up’? (b) So, what firm assurance can we have? (Mark 12:26, 27)
17 What is it that God ‘raises up’? In most cases, nothing remains of the dead person’s body. The corpse may even have been burned or perhaps devoured by beasts. However, in the resurrection, God will create an entirely new body from the elements of the earth, implant therein the personal identity of the individual’s former life, and restore the life-force to make that soul live again. If we remain in our Creator’s love, we may have strong assurance that, even in the event of our death, God will restore us to life in the resurrection. This he will do for mankind after he has cleaned up this earth, making it a fit place in which to live forever.
a Liddell and Scott’s A Greek-English Lexicon, 1968, ninth ed., pp. 2026, 2027; Donnegan’s A New Greek and English Lexicon, p. 1404.
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God purposes a happier outlook for mankind
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During the Pacific War, Okinawan civilians kept alive by sharing tombs with the dead
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Body + Life-Force = Living Soul
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Gehenna, outside Jerusalem, where bodies of executed criminals were cremated
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Man can reproduce actions and voices of those dead; God can bring the dead back to life