The fascination with death, and the realization of the impossibility of escape from death, has led many into a race to contact the dead. The phenomenon of claiming to contact the dead is becoming almost common place. With the increased interest in afterlife, it becomes necessary for every Christian to thoroughly investigate the Scriptures to see what God’s Word teaches about what happens at death. In both the Old and New Testaments, death is referred to as a sleep. In the King James Version of the Bible, similar words such as “sleep, sleepeth, asleep” are used to describe death in no less than 60 verses. The testimony of the Bible is unmistakable. “For the living know that they will die; But the dead know nothing, And they have no more reward, For the memory of them is forgotten. Also their love, their hatred, and their envy have now perished; Nevermore will they have a share In anything done under the sun. . . . Whatever your hand finds to do, do [it] with your might; for [there is] no work or device or knowledge or wisdom in the grave where you are going.” Ecclesiastes 9:5, 6, 10. Solomon, the wisest man that has ever lived upon the earth, declared, “the dead know nothing.” Obviously the sleep of death is an unconscious state. The righteous, with the wicked, are sleeping in their graves, awaiting the call of the Master.
What Happens at Death?
“Then the dust will return to the earth as it was, And the spirit will return to God who gave it.” Ecclesiastes 12:7. There are two elements to humanity—the dust and the spirit, and both return to their respective places when an individual dies. By looking in the beginning of time, it will help us to understand these two parts. “And the Lord God formed man of the dust [of] the ground, and breathed into his nostrils the breath of life; and man became a living soul.” Genesis 2:7. There we have the two elements again—the dust and the breath of life.
In the beginning God molded Adam from the dust. The Lord sculpted his shape, and there lay the lifeless Adam. He was sculpted and molded perfectly. There were his head, brain, heart, and all the necessary organs for life, but there was still no life in him. Then God worked a miracle and breathed into him the breath of life. Instantly, life surged through Adam, and he became a living being. The breath of life from God was the necessary element to give Adam life. It is the spark, the life-giving current, that each of us has.
The breath and the spirit can be used interchangeably in the Scriptures, as can be seen in the following text: “All the while my breath [is] in me, and the spirit of God [is] in my nostrils; My lips shall not speak wickedness, nor my tongue utter deceit.” Job 27:3, 4. Job is here saying that, as long as God gives him the breath, or spirit of life, he will obey Him. The breath and the spirit are used interchangeably in these texts.
The Psalmist tells us what happens at death, but also what happens when life is given. “You hide Your face, they are troubled; You take away their breath, they die and return to their dust. You send forth Your Spirit, they are created; And You renew the face of the earth.” Psalm 104:29, 30. When God takes away the breath, a person dies. When God gives His breath, or spirit, (in these two verses, spirit and breath are the same Hebrew word, ruwach) a person has life.
When we compare all of these verses, it becomes clear what the spirit is that returns to God. It is simply the life-giving force that makes the heart beat, the brain think, and the lungs breathe. It is not some conscious existence. It is the element of life that God is preserving until the resurrection. Furthermore, this breath and spirit of life is actually the same in both man and beast. “For what happens to the sons of men also happens to animals; one thing befalls them: as one dies, so dies the other. Surely, they all have one breath; man has no advantage over animals, for all [is] vanity. All go to one place: all are from the dust, and all return to dust. Who knows the spirit of the sons of men, which goes upward, and the spirit of the animal, which goes down to the earth?” Ecclesiastes 3:19–21. Solomon is comparing men and animals and tells us that both have the same breath or spirit (again, the words translated breath and spirit are the same Hebrew word, ruwach). Both die and both return to dust, but there is one fundamental difference—man’s breath, or spirit, goes upward, while beast’s breath, or spirit, goes downward. Clearly then, the spirit that returns to God is not a soul, is not conscious, or anything like that, for it is the same as the spirit of animals. The difference is that moral beings, people, will have a resurrection, while animals will not, so God preserves the life-giving force of man until the resurrection.
What happens at death? The spirit, that spark of life, returns to God, and the body decays back into dust. Man is sleeping in the grave, peacefully awaiting the resurrection.
The Nature of Man
It is a popular religious belief that the soul does not die, but that it simply takes on a new existence. This flavors more of paganism than of Christianity. It is taught that the soul cannot die, that in reality it is immortal. If this were the case, all of the above texts that we have studied would be in blatant contradiction to this. Once again, going back to the beginning of time will help to give us an understanding of the true nature of man.
“But of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil you shall not eat, for in the day that you eat of it you shall surely die.” Genesis 2:17. God said plainly and explicitly, “You shall surely die.” He did not say, “You shall probably die,” or “You shall sort of die, but actually it will only be taking on a new existence.” He said, “You shall surely die.” There was someone else that said something different, though. “Then the serpent said to the woman, ‘You will not surely die.’” Genesis 3:4. Here we have God saying one thing and the devil, speaking through the serpent, saying another. Who are we going to believe? Even though God explicitly says one thing, the devil blatantly contradicts it, and most of the religious world is choosing to believe the devil instead of God.
By saying that the soul does not die, that it simply floats to eternal bliss or eternal misery, we are in reality saying that the soul is immortal. The soul is not immortal; God alone is immortal. “Now to the King eternal, immortal, invisible, to God who alone is wise, [be] honor and glory forever and ever. Amen.” 1 Timothy 1:17. God is the eternal, invisible, immortal King. This is, in fact, the only time that the word immortal is found in the Bible, and it is clearly referring to the omnipotent God, and not a soul. “Which He will manifest in His own time, [He who is] the blessed and only Potentate, the King of kings and Lord of lords, who alone has immortality, dwelling in unapproachable light, whom no man has seen or can see, to whom [be] honor and everlasting power. Amen.” 1 Timothy 6:15, 16. The Scriptures again tell us that God is the only One who has immortality. If He is the only One that has immortality, then human souls obviously do not have immortality.
The change that takes place at Jesus’ Second Coming is what gives all of the saved immortality, but they do not have it until the change takes place. “Behold, I tell you a mystery: We shall not all sleep, but we shall all be changed—in a moment, in the twinkling of an eye, at the last trumpet. For the trumpet will sound, and the dead will be raised incorruptible, and we shall be changed. For this corruptible must put on incorruption, and this mortal [must] put on immortality. So when this corruptible has put on incorruption, and this mortal has put on immortality, then shall be brought to pass the saying that is written: ‘Death is swallowed up in victory.’” 1 Corinthians 15:51–54. It is not until the last trumpet sounds that the righteous receive immortality. Not one upon this earth has immortality; it is at the second coming that the righteous mortals will be clothed with immortality as a gift from God, the only One who has immortality.
The Bible explicitly tells us that the soul can die. “Behold, all souls are Mine; The soul of the father As well as the soul of the son is Mine; The soul who sins shall die.” “The soul who sins shall die. The son shall not bear the guilt of the father, nor the father bear the guilt of the son. The righteousness of the righteous shall be upon himself, and the wickedness of the wicked shall be upon himself.” Ezekiel 18:4, 20. There is no getting around the plain words of Scripture—the soul is not immortal; it can die. The belief that the soul is immortal, and at death simply floats elsewhere, is a doctrine straight from paganism and is found nowhere in the Bible. The Bible teaches that man’s nature is mortal, a combination of the body and the spirit forms the soul. (See Genesis 2:7.) At death, the soul is sleeping in the grave until the resurrection, because the spirit returns to God and the body returns to the dust.
The Biblical “After Death Experience”
Many people have given me very detailed descriptions of different “after death experiences” or “near death experiences” that they have had or that they have read about. They become very attached to these ideas, and no matter how plainly the Bible contradicts what they have read, it seems easier for them to believe the experiences that others have claimed to have, rather than what the Bible says. That in itself is a very dangerous mindset to get into. We are to test everything by the Bible, not test the Bible by what we have heard. But the most interesting thing to me is that, of all the “after death experiences” people have told me about, few really seem to agree. All of them seem to have little differences. That alone makes me question the truth of such experiences.
Others have asked me, “When does the soul return to God, before or after the funeral?” Once again, I have heard both answers substantiated by some sort of supernatural experience. The only way that we can know the truth is to look in the Word of God. (See John 17:17.)
There is an example in the Bible of someone who had not just a “near death experience,” but a complete “after death experience.” All of the contemporary “after death experiences” are only very short lived, usually a matter of minutes, never involving hours, but the Biblical instance was for four days. Surely, just by the length of time we would have to say that this is the most credible “after death experience” of all. This “after death experience” is found in John 11. One of Jesus’ most devoted followers and friends became deathly ill. The message was given to Jesus to come quickly that He might heal Lazarus. Strangely, though, Jesus delayed. He did not seem to have much of an interest, and then after waiting several days, he decided to go and “wake” Lazarus. Jesus had waited because this was to be the crowning miracle of His ministry before His death.
When Jesus and the disciples made it to Bethany, Lazarus “had already been in the tomb four days.” John 11:17. Jesus had waited to show His miraculous power and to give us a Biblical example of an “after death experience.” The funeral had taken place, and the friends and relatives were still in the grieving process. After talking with Martha and weeping with Mary, Jesus gave the command to move the stone. Martha is repulsed at the thought of the stench of her decaying brother, and objects, but Jesus gives the command: “Lazarus, come forth!” Lazarus comes out of the tomb and is unloosed, but to our surprise, an account of his “after death experience” is not given. Why? Lazarus was simply asleep in the grave.
Have you ever thought how cruel of an act this would have been if Lazarus was already in heaven? Can you imagine how wonderful it would have been to be in the Father’s presence in the glories of heaven for four days? Can you imagine how devastating it would be to then come back to this sin-polluted and darkened world? It would have been like returning to a dungeon cell from which you had been freed. If Lazarus were in heaven, freed from the trials and problems of this earth, why would Jesus have been so unkind as to call him back? The answer is simple. Lazarus was asleep in the grave. He had no “after death experience” because he had been sleeping and did not know anything. It was like a split second to him from the time he passed away until the time Jesus called him back, even though it had been four days. It was not cruelty for Jesus to bring him back to life, for he had not ascended to heaven.
There is another example of a man who died that we know for a certainty did not ascend into heaven. Peter, by inspiration of the Holy Spirit, gives us no room for doubt. “Men [and] brethren, let [me] speak freely to you of the patriarch David, that he is both dead and buried, and his tomb is with us to this day.” “For David did not ascend into the heavens.” Acts 2:29, 34. No one will doubt that David was a righteous man. He had indeed sinned, but his repentance was sincere, and he had been accepted. God had said that David was a man after His own heart. (1 Samuel 13:14.) Surely, if anyone goes to heaven at their death, a man after God’s own heart would. But, no, that is not what Peter says. He tells the listeners that David did not ascend into the heavens, that he is still in his tomb. Why was David still in his tomb 1,000 years after his death? Because he is asleep in the grave awaiting resurrection.
The Resurrection—Our Hope
We see all through the New Testament that the great hope of the apostles was the resurrection, and it is the resurrection that is to be our great hope as well. It is the resurrection that is to be our comfort in the time of loss. “But I do not want you to be ignorant, brethren, concerning those who have fallen asleep, lest you sorrow as others who have no hope.” ” For the Lord Himself will descend from heaven with a shout, with the voice of an archangel, and with the trumpet of God. And the dead in Christ will rise first. Then, we who are alive [and] remain shall be caught up together with them in the clouds to meet the Lord in the air. And thus, we shall always be with the Lord. Therefore comfort one another with these words.” 1 Thessalonians 4:13, 16–18. There were apparently teachers among the people who were teaching that there was no resurrection. (1 Corinthians 15:12.) Paul rebukes them for believing this error. He says we are not to sorrow as others who have no hope. Why? Because when Jesus returns, He is going to resurrect the dead as He was resurrected, and take both the dead and the living righteous to heaven with Him.
It is this truth of the resurrection that is to be our comfort. This is the very way that Jesus comforted Martha when Lazarus died, and it was what Martha was looking forward to. “Jesus said to her, ‘Your brother will rise again.’ Martha said to Him, ‘I know that he will rise again in the resurrection at the last day.’” John 11:23, 24. Martha did not say, “I know he is in heaven.” She was looking forward, by faith, to the resurrection. She knew that all the righteous dead would be resurrected at the last day, and she expected to meet her brother then, not before. Truly, God’s way is best. It may not be what we have always thought, but God knows best, and it is our part to trust implicitly in Him.
How comforting to know that our loved ones are not in heaven mourning over the trials and problems that we are going through. They are asleep in the grave, and if they have followed Jesus, they will be resurrected when Jesus comes again. What a precious comfort!