Life After Death—What Does the Bible Say?
“Dust you are and to dust you will return.”—GENESIS 3:19.
1, 2. (a) What different ideas about the Hereafter are there? (b) What do we need to examine in order to determine what the Bible teaches about the soul?
“THE theory of everlasting suffering is inconsistent with belief in God’s love for created things. . . . To believe in the eternal punishment of the soul for the mistakes of a few years, without giving it a chance for correction, is to go against all the dictates of reason,” observed Hindu philosopher Nikhilananda.
2 Like Nikhilananda, many today are uncomfortable with the teaching of eternal torment. By the same token, others have difficulty understanding such concepts as the achieving of Nirvana and being at one with nature. Even among those who claim to base their beliefs on the Bible, there are differing ideas about what the soul is and what happens to it when we die. But what does the Bible really teach about the soul? To find out, we need to examine the meanings of the Hebrew and Greek words that are translated “soul” in the Bible.
The Soul According to the Bible
3. (a) What word is translated “soul” in the Hebrew Scriptures, and what is its basic meaning? (b) How does Genesis 2:7 confirm that the word “soul” can denote a whole person?
3 The Hebrew word translated “soul” is neʹphesh, and it occurs 754 times in the Hebrew Scriptures. What does neʹphesh mean? According to The Dictionary of Bible and Religion, it “usually refers to the entire living being, to the whole individual.” This is borne out by the Bible’s description of the soul at Genesis 2:7: “Jehovah God proceeded 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.” Note that the first man “came to be” a soul. That is to say, Adam did not have a soul; he was a soul—just as someone who becomes a doctor is a doctor. The word “soul,” then, here describes the whole person.
4. What word is translated “soul” in the Christian Greek Scriptures, and what is the basic meaning of this word?
4 The word translated “soul” (psy·kheʹ) appears more than a hundred times in the Christian Greek Scriptures. Like neʹphesh this word often refers to the whole person. For example, consider the following statements: “My soul is troubled.” (John 12:27) “Fear began to fall upon every soul.” (Acts 2:43) “Let every soul be in subjection to the superior authorities.” (Romans 13:1) “Speak consolingly to the depressed souls.” (1 Thessalonians 5:14) “A few people, that is, eight souls, were carried safely through the water.” (1 Peter 3:20) Clearly, psy·kheʹ, like neʹphesh, refers to the whole person. According to scholar Nigel Turner, this word “signifies what is characteristically human, the self, the material body having God’s rûaḥ [spirit] breathed into it. . . . The emphasis is on the whole self.”
5. Are animals souls? Explain.
5 Interestingly, in the Bible the word “soul” applies not only to humans but also to animals. For example, in describing the creation of sea creatures, Genesis 1:20 says that God commanded: “Let the waters swarm forth a swarm of living souls.” And on the next creative day, God said: “Let the earth put forth living souls according to their kinds, domestic animal and moving animal and wild beast of the earth according to its kind.”—Genesis 1:24; compare Numbers 31:28.
6. What may be said of the Bible’s use of the word “soul”?
6 Thus, the word “soul” as used in the Bible refers to a person or an animal or to the life that a person or an animal enjoys. (See box above.) The Bible’s definition of the soul is simple, consistent, and unencumbered by the complicated philosophies and superstitions of men. That being the case, the urgent question that must be asked is, According to the Bible, what happens to the soul at death?
The Dead Are Unconscious
7, 8. (a) What do the Scriptures reveal about the condition of the dead? (b) Give examples from the Bible that show that the soul can die.
7 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) The dead are unconscious, inactive.
8 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, he returned to that state. His punishment was death—not a transfer to another realm. What, then, happened to his soul? Since in the Bible the word “soul” often simply refers to a person, 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,” The Jerusalem Bible). And Nazirites were told not to come near “any dead soul” (“a dead body,” Lamsa).—Numbers 6:6.
9. What does the Bible mean when it says that Rachel’s “soul was going out”?
9 What, though, about the statement at Genesis 35:18 regarding the tragic death of Rachel, which occurred as she gave birth to her second son? There we read: “As her soul was going out (because she died) she called his name Ben-oni; 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 Bible translations render the phrase “her soul was going out” as “her life was ebbing away” (Knox), “she breathed her last” (JB), and “her life went from her” (Bible in Basic English). There is no indication that a mysterious part of Rachel survived her death.
10. In what way did the soul of the widow’s resurrected son ‘come back within him’?
10 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.
What About 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,” The New English Bible). 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) 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” may refer to the life-force that is active in all living creatures, both humans and animals, and that is sustained by breathing.
13. How does the spirit return to God when a person dies?
13 What, then, does it mean when Ecclesiastes 12:7 states 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. Since the spirit is the life-force, it “returns to the true God” in the sense that any hope of future life for that person now rests entirely with God. Only God can restore the spirit, or life-force, causing a person to come back to life. (Psalm 104:30) But does God purpose to do so?
“He Will Rise”
14. What did Jesus say and do to bring relief and comfort to Lazarus’ sisters after the loss of their brother?
14 In the small town of Bethany, about two miles [3 km] east of Jerusalem, Mary and Martha were mourning the untimely death of their brother, Lazarus. Jesus shared their grief, for he had affection for Lazarus and his sisters. How could Jesus console the sisters? Not by telling them some convoluted story, but by telling them the truth. Jesus simply said: “Your brother will rise.” Jesus then went to the tomb, and he resurrected Lazarus—restoring life to a man who had been dead for four days!—John 11:18-23, 38-44.
15. What was Martha’s response to what Jesus said and did?
15 Was Martha surprised by Jesus’ statement that Lazarus would “rise”? Apparently not, for she answered: “I know he will rise in the resurrection on the last day.” She already had faith in the promise of a resurrection. Jesus then told her: “I am the resurrection and the life. He that exercises faith in me, even though he dies, will come to life.” (John 11:23-25) The miracle of Lazarus’ restoration to life served to reinforce her faith and instill faith in others. (John 11:45) But exactly what is meant by the term “resurrection”?
16. What does the word “resurrection” mean?
16 The word “resurrection” is translated from the Greek word a·naʹsta·sis, which literally means “a standing up again.” Hebrew translators of the Greek have rendered a·naʹsta·sis with an expression that means “revival of the dead” (Hebrew, techi·yathʹ ham·me·thimʹ).* Thus, resurrection involves raising the person from the lifeless condition of death—restoring and reactivating the life pattern of the individual.
17. (a) Why will the resurrection of individuals pose no problem for Jehovah God and Jesus Christ? (b) What promise did Jesus make regarding those in the memorial tombs?
17 Being infinite in wisdom and perfect in memory, Jehovah God can easily resurrect a person. Remembering the life pattern of dead ones—their personality traits, their personal history, and all the details of their identity—is not a problem for him. (Job 12:13; compare Isaiah 40:26.) Moreover, as the experience of Lazarus indicates, Jesus Christ is both willing and able to resurrect the dead. (Compare Luke 7:11-17; 8:40-56) In fact, Jesus Christ said: “The hour is coming in which all those in the memorial tombs will hear his [Jesus’] voice and come out.” (John 5:28, 29) Yes, Jesus Christ promised that all those in Jehovah’s memory will be resurrected. Clearly, according to the Bible, the soul dies, and the remedy for death is the resurrection. But billions of people have lived and died. Who among them are in God’s memory, awaiting the resurrection?
18. Who will be resurrected?
18 Those who have pursued a righteous course as Jehovah’s servants will be resurrected. Yet, millions of other people have died without showing whether they would comply with God’s righteous standards. They either were ignorant of Jehovah’s requirements or lacked sufficient time to make needed changes. These others too are in God’s memory and thus will be resurrected, for the Bible promises: “There is going to be a resurrection of both the righteous and the unrighteous.”—Acts 24:15.
19. (a) What vision did the apostle John receive about the resurrection? (b) What is “hurled into the lake of fire,” and what does that expression mean?
19 The apostle John had a thrilling vision of resurrected ones standing before the throne of God. Describing it, he wrote: “The sea gave up those dead in it, and death and Hades gave up those dead in them, and they were judged individually according to their deeds. And death and Hades were hurled into the lake of fire. This means the second death, the lake of fire.” (Revelation 20:12-14) Think of what that means! All the dead who are in God’s memory will be released from Hades, or Sheol, mankind’s common grave. (Psalm 16:10; Acts 2:31) Then “death and Hades” will be hurled into what is called “the lake of fire,” symbolizing complete destruction. The common grave of mankind will cease to exist.
A Unique Prospect!
20. Millions now dead will be resurrected to what kind of surroundings?
20 When millions are raised in the resurrection, they will not be brought back to life on an empty earth. (Isaiah 45:18) They will awaken in beautifully improved surroundings and will find that living quarters, clothing, and an abundance of food have been prepared for them. (Psalm 67:6; 72:16; Isaiah 65:21, 22) Who will make all these preparations? Clearly, people will have to be living in the new world before the earthly resurrection begins. But who?
21, 22. What unique prospect lies ahead for those living in “the last days”?
21 The fulfillment of Bible prophecy shows that we are living in “the last days” of this system of things.* (2 Timothy 3:1) Very soon now, Jehovah God is going to intervene in human affairs and wipe out wickedness from the earth. (Psalm 37:10, 11; Proverbs 2:21, 22) At that time, what will happen to those who are faithfully serving God?
22 Jehovah will not destroy the righteous along with the wicked. (Psalm 145:20) He has never done such a thing, and he will not do it when he cleanses the earth of all badness. (Compare Genesis 18:22, 23, 26.) In fact, the last book of the Bible speaks of “a great crowd, which no man was able to number, out of all nations and tribes and peoples and tongues,” coming out of “the great tribulation.” (Revelation 7:9-14) Yes, a great multitude will survive the great tribulation in which the present wicked world ends, and they will enter God’s new world. There, obedient mankind can fully benefit from God’s marvelous provision to free mankind from sin and death. (Revelation 22:1, 2) Thus, the “great crowd” need never experience death. What a unique prospect!
Life Without Death
23, 24. What must you do if you want to enjoy life without death in Paradise on earth?
23 Can we have confidence in this astounding hope? Absolutely! Jesus Christ himself indicated that there would be a time when people would live without ever dying. Just before resurrecting his friend Lazarus, Jesus told Martha: “Everyone that is living and exercises faith in me will never die at all.”—John 11:26.
24 Do you want to live forever in Paradise on earth? Do you yearn to see your loved ones again? “The world is passing away and so is its desire, but he that does the will of God remains forever,” says the apostle John. (1 John 2:17) Now is the time to learn what God’s will is and be resolved to live in harmony with it. Then you, along with millions of others already doing God’s will, can live forever in Paradise on earth.
Do You Remember?
□ What is the basic meaning of the original-language words translated “soul”?
□ What happens to the soul at death?
□ According to the Bible, what is the remedy for death?
□ What unique prospect awaits faithful ones today?
[Box on page 15]
“Soul” as the Life of a Creature
At times, the word “soul” refers to the life that a person or an animal enjoys. This does not alter the Bible’s definition of the soul as a person or an animal. To illustrate: We say that someone is alive, meaning that he is a living person. We might also say that he possesses life. In the same way, a living person is a soul. Yet, while he is alive, “soul” may be spoken of as something that he possesses.
For example, God told Moses: “All the men who were hunting for your soul are dead.” Clearly, Moses’ enemies were seeking to take his life. (Exodus 4:19; compare Joshua 9:24; Proverbs 12:10.) Jesus used the word in a similar way when he said: “The Son of man came . . . to give his soul a ransom in exchange for many.” (Matthew 20:28; compare 10:28.) In each case, the word “soul” means “life of a creature.”
[Pictures on page 15]
They are all souls
Hummingbird: U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, Washington, D.C./Dean Biggins
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Jesus demonstrated that the remedy for death is the resurrection
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“Everyone that is living and exercises faith in me will never die at all.”—John 11:26