What Happens to the Soul at Death?
“The doctrine that the human soul is immortal and will continue to exist after man’s death and the dissolution of his body is one of the cornerstones of Christian philosophy and theology.”—“NEW CATHOLIC ENCYCLOPEDIA.”
1. What does the New Catholic Encyclopedia admit regarding the soul’s surviving death?
THE above-quoted reference work, however, admits that “the notion of the soul surviving after death is not readily discernible in the Bible.” What, then, does the Bible really teach about what happens to the soul at death?
The Dead Are Unconscious
2, 3. What is the condition of the dead, and what scriptures reveal this?
2 The condition of the dead is made clear at Ecclesiastes 9:5, 10, where we read: “The dead know nothing . . . There is no pursuit, no plan, no knowledge or intelligence, within the grave.” (Moffatt) Death, therefore, is a state of nonexistence. The psalmist wrote that when a person dies, “he goes back to his ground; in that day his thoughts do perish.”—Psalm 146:4.
3 So the dead are unconscious, inactive. When pronouncing sentence upon Adam, God stated: “Dust you are and to dust you will return.” (Genesis 3:19) Before God formed him from the dust of the ground and gave him life, Adam did not exist. When he died, Adam returned to that state. His punishment was death—not a transfer to another realm.
The Soul Can Die
4, 5. Give examples from the Bible that show that the soul can die.
4 When Adam died, what happened to his soul? Well, remember that in the Bible the word “soul” often simply refers to a person. So when we say that Adam died, we are saying that the soul named Adam died. This might sound unusual to a person who believes in the immortality of the soul. However, the Bible states: “The soul that is sinning—it itself will die.” (Ezekiel 18:4) Leviticus 21:1 speaks of “a deceased soul” (a “corpse,” Jerusalem Bible). And Nazirites were told not to come near “any dead soul” (“a dead body,” Lamsa).—Numbers 6:6.
5 A similar reference to the soul is found at 1 Kings 19:4. A severely distressed Elijah “began to ask that his soul might die.” Likewise, Jonah “kept asking that his soul might die, and he repeatedly said: ‘My dying off is better than my being alive.’” (Jonah 4:8) And Jesus used the phrase “to kill a soul,” which The Bible in Basic English renders “to put to death.” (Mark 3:4) So the death of the soul simply means the death of the person.
“Going Out” and ‘Coming Back’
6. What does the Bible mean when it says that Rachel’s soul was “going out”?
6 But what about the tragic death of Rachel, which occurred as she gave birth to her second son? At Genesis 35:18, we read: “As her soul was going out (because she died) she called his name Benoni; but his father called him Benjamin.” Does this passage imply that Rachel had an inner being that departed at her death? Not at all. Remember, the word “soul” can also refer to the life that a person possesses. So in this case Rachel’s “soul” simply meant her “life.” That is why other Bibles render the phrase “her soul was going out” as “her life was ebbing away” (Knox), “she breathed her last” (Jerusalem Bible), and “her life went from her” (Bible in Basic English). There is no indication that a mysterious part of Rachel survived her death.
7. In what way is it that the soul of the widow’s resurrected son “came back within him”?
7 It is similar with the resurrection of a widow’s son, recorded in 1 Kings chapter 17. In 1Ki 17 verse 22, we read that as Elijah prayed over the young boy, “Jehovah listened to Elijah’s voice, so that the soul of the child came back within him and he came to life.” Once again, the word “soul” means “life.” Thus, the New American Standard Bible reads: “The life of the child returned to him and he revived.” Yes, it was life, not some shadowy form, that returned to the boy. This is in harmony with what Elijah said to the boy’s mother: “See, your son [the whole person] is alive.”—1 Kings 17:23.
The Dilemma of the “Intermediate State”
8. What do many professed Christians believe will happen during the resurrection?
8 Many professed Christians believe that there will be a future resurrection at which time bodies will be joined with immortal souls. Then, the resurrected ones will be consigned to their fate—either a reward for those who led a good life or retribution for the wicked.
9. What is meant by the term “intermediate state,” and what do some say happens to the soul during this period?
9 This concept sounds simple. But those who adhere to belief in the soul’s immortality have trouble explaining what happens to the soul between the time of death and the time of resurrection. Indeed, this “intermediate state,” as it is often called, has stirred speculation for centuries. Some say that during this period the soul goes to purgatory, where it can be purified of venial sins so as to become fit for heaven.*
10. Why is it unscriptural to believe that souls linger in purgatory after death, and how does the experience of Lazarus confirm this?
10 However, as we have seen, the soul is simply the person. When the person dies, the soul dies. Hence, there is no conscious existence after death. Indeed, when Lazarus died, Jesus Christ did not say that he was in purgatory, Limbo, or any other “intermediate state.” Rather, Jesus simply said: “Lazarus has fallen asleep.” (John 11:11, New English Bible) Clearly, Jesus, who knew the truth about what happens to the soul at death, believed that Lazarus was unconscious, nonexistent.
What Is the Spirit?
11. Why could the word “spirit” not refer to a disembodied part of a person that survives death?
11 The Bible says that when a person dies, “his spirit goes out, he goes back to his ground.” (Psalm 146:4) Does this mean that a disembodied spirit literally departs and lives on after a person’s death? That could not be, for the psalmist next says: “In that day his thoughts do perish” (“all his thinking ends,” NEB). What, then, is the spirit, and how does it ‘go out’ from a person at the time of his death?
12. What is implied by the Hebrew and Greek words translated “spirit” in the Bible?
12 In the Bible the words translated “spirit” (Hebrew, ruʹach; Greek, pneuʹma) basically mean “breath.” Thus, instead of “his spirit goes out,” the translation by R. A. Knox uses the phrase “the breath leaves his body.” (Psalm 145:4, Knox) But the word “spirit” implies much more than the act of breathing. For example, in describing the destruction of human and animal life at the time of the global Deluge, Genesis 7:22 says: “Everything in which the breath of the force [or, spirit; Hebrew, ruʹach] of life was active in its nostrils, namely, all that were on the dry ground, died.” So “spirit” can refer to the life-force that is active in all living creatures, both humans and animals, and that is sustained by breathing.
13. In what way may the spirit be likened to electric current?
13 To illustrate: Electric current powers a piece of equipment. If the current stops, the equipment ceases to function. The current does not take on a life of its own. Similarly, when a person dies, his spirit ceases to animate the body cells. It does not leave the body and move on to another realm.—Psalm 104:29.
14, 15. How does the spirit return to God at death?
14 Why, then, does Ecclesiastes 12:7 state that when a person dies, “the spirit itself returns to the true God who gave it”? Does this mean that the spirit literally travels through space into God’s presence? Nothing of the sort is implied. Remember, the spirit is the life-force. Once that life-force is gone, only God has the ability to restore it. So the spirit “returns to the true God” in the sense that any hope of future life for that person now rests entirely with God.
15 Only God can restore the spirit, or life-force, causing a person to come back to life. (Psalm 104:30) But does God intend to do so?
According to the New Catholic Encyclopedia, “the [Church] Fathers in general are clear in their affirmation of the existence of purgatory.” Yet, this reference work also admits that “the Catholic doctrine on purgatory is based on tradition, not Sacred Scripture.”
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Memories of a Previous Life
IF NOTHING survives the death of the body, then what about the memories of a previous life that some claim to have?
Hindu scholar Nikhilananda says that ‘experiences after death cannot be demonstrated by reason.’ In the lecture “Models of Belief in Eternity in the Religions,” theologian Hans Küng points out: “None of the accounts—mostly coming from children or from the countries where there is a belief in reincarnation—of a recollection of a previous life could be verified.” He adds: “Most of [the researchers working seriously and scientifically in the field] admit that the experiences established by them do not provide the basis for a really convincing proof of a repetition of earthly life.”
What if you feel that you have personal memories of a previous life? Such feelings could be due to various factors. Much of the information we receive is stored away in some hidden corner of our subconscious mind because we have no direct or immediate use for it. When forgotten memories surface, some people interpret these as evidence of a former life. Nevertheless, the fact is that we have no verifiable experiences of life other than that which we live now. The majority of people alive on earth have no recollection at all of having lived before; neither do they think that they could have lived earlier lives.