When attending a funeral service most of us are told by either a pastor, minister, or priest that the deceased have gone to a better place, have met God and will live joyfully forever with other loved ones or friends that have passed. They characterized heaven as a place of happiness, the ultimate paradise, where good people usually go after they die. This belief is commonly taught and believed by most religions and religious organizations, including most Christian denominations.
According to the Scriptures, no human who has died has gone to heaven in any shape or form, except for Jesus Christ who became human for a little while. We have this on His own authority: “No one has ascended to heaven but He who came down from heaven, that is, the Son of Man who is in heaven” (John 3:13). We also know that no one has yet received the gift of eternal life that God has promised us: “And this is the promise that He has promised us—eternal life” (1 John 2:25). “These all died in faith, not having received the promises, but having seen them afar off were assured of them, embraced them and confessed that they were strangers and pilgrims on the earth” (Hebrews 11:13). We also know that none of the righteous of God have yet ascended into heaven, not even the man after God’s own heart, King David (see Acts 2:29, 34). God has not yet given immortality to anyone, except to resurrection His Son, Jesus, back to eternal life. Otherwise the gifts that God promises us would be of no use if we already had eternal life.
Furthermore, the Bible does not speak of the dead going to live on forever in a place or condition of “heaven” or “hell.” All go to one place: all are from the dust, and all return to dust” (Ecclesiastes 3:19-20). The book of Daniel refers to the state of the dead in an inspiring prophecy: “And many of those who sleep in the dust of the earth shall awake, some to everlasting life, some to shame and everlasting contempt” (Daniel 12:2). This passage conveys some crucial information. For one, it offers the promise of life after death—not by people living on apart from their bodies after death but through a resurrection from death that will take place in the future. Some will receive immortality then, and some will not. So clearly we are not immortal souls at present. Moreover, the passage compares death to sleep—and explains the resurrection as waking up from that sleep. Sleep connotes unconsciousness, and the Bible draws the same analogy in other places. How could people who have died be asleep in their graves, profoundly unconscious—as revealed in the Bible—yet be residing blissfully in heaven and looking down at us on earth (or, presumably, suffering in hell and looking up)?
Solomon noted that the dead have no awareness, nor are they in some other state of consciousness: “For the living know that they will die; but the dead know nothing…for there is no work or device or knowledge or wisdom in the grave where you are going” (Ecclesiastes 9:5, 10). The person who has died is unconscious and unaware of the passing of time.
The patriarch Job contemplated the transitory nature of physical life. Man, he said, “comes forth like a flower and fades away; he flees like a shadow and does not continue” (Job 14:2). Directing his remarks to God, Job commented on the physical limitations common to all men and women, stating, “Since his days are determined, the number of his months is with You; You have appointed his limits, so that he cannot pass” (verse 5). Job noted the stark reality of death: “So man lies down and does not rise. Till the heavens are no more, they will not awake nor be roused from their sleep” (verse 12). Job understood that death was the absolute cessation of life. Notice that in Genesis 2:17 God told Adam and Eve that disobeying Him by taking from the tree of the knowledge of good and evil would lead to death. Then, in Genesis 3:4, we read that the serpent (Satan) told Eve that if she ate from that tree, she would “not surely die.” Simply put, God said that man is mortal and subject to death. Satan contradicted God and said that man would not die—that man is immortal. Isn’t it amazing that, as evidenced by the pervasive belief in the immortality of the soul, more people accept Satan’s teaching than God’s? Yet maybe that’s not so startling after all. The Bible does say that Satan “deceives the whole world” (Revelation 12:9), and he has certainly deceived many about what happens after death. The Hebrew Scriptures, commonly called the Old Testament, teach that, at death, the soul dies and consciousness ends. The soul does not live on in some other condition. It does not transmigrate into another form. It is not reincarnated into another creature. In dying, it ceases to live.
What does the New Testament say? The apostle James understood the temporary nature of life. He compared life with a mist: “You do not know what will happen tomorrow. For what is your life? It is even a vapor that appears for a little time and then vanishes away” (James 4:14). Another epistle also discusses this subject, stating that “it is appointed for men to die once, but after this the judgment” (Hebrews 9:27).
What did Peter teach? What did Jesus’ early disciples teach about death? The book of Acts records the apostle Peter’s powerful sermon in which he mentioned ancient Israel’s King David and his lack of consciousness while awaiting his resurrection. “Men and brethren,” exhorted Peter, “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). If people truly are alive in heaven with God the Father and Jesus Christ as so many believe, surely King David would be among them. But Peter said David is dead and buried and not in heaven. In contrast to Christ, who was resurrected so that “His soul was not left in Hades” (verse 31) —this being the Greek word for the grave, David remains in the grave. His hope, and ours, is to live again through the sacrificial death of Jesus Christ and the resurrection available through Him.
The apostle Paul also comments on the state of the dead. In one of his letters to the church in Corinth he compared the condition of the dead with sleep: “For this reason many are weak and sick among you, and many sleep”(1 Corinthians 11:30). Notice how Paul, like the Old Testament book of Daniel, likens death to sleep. Paul comments that many in the Corinthian church were weak and sickly. Many had died. Paul uses the word sleep to describe death as a state of unconsciousness. But that is not the end of the matter. In describing the future resurrection of Christ’s followers, Paul writes in the same letter, “Behold, I tell you a mystery: We shall not all sleep, but we shall all be changed” (1 Corinthians 15:51). This change is yet future—and Christians who sleep unconsciously in death will do so until that time. In addition, Paul specifically points out that we are now mortal—destructible—and that to receive everlasting life we must somehow become immortal—indestructible. “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 15:53-54). Paul conveyed a similar message to the church at Thessalonica: “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 if we believe that Jesus died and rose again, even so God will bring with Him those who sleep in Jesus” (1 Thessalonians 4:13-14). Paul here again describes the dead as being in an unconscious state comparable to sleep. On the basis of so much scriptural testimony, Martin Luther, leader of the Protestant Reformation, wrote at one point: “It is probable, in my opinion, that, with very few exceptions indeed, the dead sleep in utter insensibility till the day of judgment . . . On what authority can it be said that the souls of the dead may not sleep . . . in the same way that the living pass in profound slumber the interval between their downlying at night and their uprising in the morning?” (Letter to Nicholas Amsdorf, Jan. 13, 1522, quoted in Jules Michelet, The Life of Luther, translated by William Hazlitt, 1862, p. 133). Yet the Reformation did not embrace the biblical truth that the dead sleep in total unawareness.
What we’ve seen so far is that the Bible shows a dead person is in no way immortal; his life has perished. The Bible shows that the spirit in man, which originally came from the Creator God, returns to Him. “Then the dust will return to the earth as it was, and the spirit will return to God who gave it” (Ecclesiastes 12:7). This spirit that returns to God is neither the source of human life, nor is it human consciousness. Life and consciousness both perish when one dies. God does not tell us why this spirit returns to Him, just that it does. This may be the way God preserves the characteristics of each person until the resurrection. The truth is that man has no spiritual soul with conscious awareness independent of the physical body. This has been proven time and time again when individuals have gone into comas for weeks, months and sometimes years at a time, only to emerge from that comatose state with no memory or recollection of the passage of time. If one had a soul that existed independently of the human body, wouldn’t that soul have some memory of remaining aware during the months or years the body was unconscious? That would be powerful and logical proof of the existence of an independent soul within the human body—yet no one has ever reported any such thing, in spite of thousands of such occurrences.
In summary we have considered the mystery of death. The good news is that it doesn’t have to be a mystery. The scriptures we have reviewed make clear that a human being is a mortal soul and does not possess an immortal soul. Upon death, life ceases. It does not continue in some other form. Since the time of Adam and Eve, all people have died a physical death—even Jesus Christ. But death is not the end. As Paul wrote, “For as in Adam all die, even so in Christ all shall be made alive” (1 Corinthians 15:22). Even though our life is temporary, God has not left us without hope and a greater purpose for living.