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Is Death Just Passing into Nonexistence?

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Is Death Just Passing into Nonexistence?

Answers to Jehovah’s Witnesses #20
Robert M. Bowman Jr.

Summary: The Watchtower Society teaches that when human beings die, this means that they simply cease to exist. In turn, this means that in order for people to live again, God must re-create them from his perfect memory of them. To be “re-created” after ceasing to exist is what is meant by resurrection.

This article is one of a series of articles explaining in detail the doctrines of Jehovah’s Witnesses and showing why those teachings are not in harmony with the facts and teachings of the Bible. For an overview, see our article on what Jehovah’s Witnesses believe.

What the Watchtower Teaches

Jehovah’s Witnesses’ literature gives a great deal of attention to the doctrinal issue of what happens to people when they die. This issue is directly connected to the question of whether human beings have an inner, spiritual aspect that is distinct from the body. The Watchtower Society strongly insists that there is no such thing. Human beings are simply material beings with biological life, and they cease to exist when they die physically. In the future, Jehovah God will re-create most people based on his perfect memory of their bodies and mental thought patterns. To be “re-created” after ceasing to exist is what is meant by resurrection.

In order to understand the reasoning behind the Watchtower’s doctrine concerning death, let us start with the issue of the soul. The Watchtower points out that the biblical words translated “soul” (Hebrew nephesh; Greek psuchē) can refer to people or animals, or to the life they have.1 On this basis, the Watchtower Society concludes that human beings have no immaterial soul or spirit that is distinct from the life of the body or that could exist in some way after the body dies. “When we die, we cease to exist.”2 Human beings are wholly and exclusively material, physical, biological beings. Thus, as with other animals, if the body is dead, a human being no longer exists. “Without eyes we cannot see. Without ears we cannot hear. Without a brain we cannot do anything. When a person dies, all these physical organs cease to function. We cease to exist.”3 Jehovah’s Witnesses appeal to Genesis 3:19 to support this conclusion:

Where was Adam before Jehovah created him from the dust? Nowhere. He did not exist. So when Jehovah said that Adam would “return to the ground,” he could only have meant that Adam would again become lifeless, just like the dust…. The living cease to exist at death….4

The Watchtower also leans heavily on certain statements in Ecclesiastes as proof texts for this doctrine. These passages state that human beings are no different from animals and die just like them (3:18-21; 9:4) and that the dead know nothing (9:5, 10).

The Bible explains that death is a state of absolute unconsciousness and inactivity. “For the living know that they will die,” states Ecclesiastes 9:5, “but the dead know nothing at all.” At death, our very “thoughts perish.” (Psalm 146:4) So all brain activity​—including the function of our sensory organs—​ceases when we die. Hence, we cannot act, feel, or think after death.5

The Watchtower contrasts its view that the human person completely ceases to exist at death with the doctrine commonly known as the “immortality of the soul.” Regarding other religions, including traditional forms of Christianity, the Society asserts, “Their belief in immortality of the human soul as the basis for continued life is not taken from the Bible; it has roots in ancient Babylon.”6

The Watchtower points out that the OT can refer to souls as dying or dead (Ezek. 18:20; Num. 6:6; Lev. 21:11), speak of a mother as giving birth to “souls” (Gen. 48:16), and refer to a soul as needing food (Deut. 12:20).7 If the soul can die, then obviously it is not “immortal” (which means incapable of dying).8

If human beings cease to exist when they die, then any future life they may have will require God to re-create them. This is exactly what the Watchtower teaches. In their view, the way that God will resurrect people is by re-creating them based on his precise memory of them:

Jehovah’s Witnesses…believe that the dead are conscious of absolutely nothing; that they are experiencing neither pain nor pleasure in some spirit realm; that they do not exist except in God’s memory, so hope for their future life lies in a resurrection from the dead.9

According to Watchtower doctrine, then, the dead no longer exist, but God will re-create them so that they exist again based on his remembering them in all details.10

This does not mean that quite everyone will be resurrected. After quoting two passages in the New Testament that refer to a resurrection of both those who have done good and those who have done evil (John 5:28-29), the righteous and the unrighteous (Acts 24:15), the Watchtower denies that this means that everyone will be raised from the dead. The “unrighteous” are the billions of people “who did not serve or obey Jehovah because they never knew about him,” who will be “given time” during the Millennium “to learn about the true God and to serve him.”11 When they die both the righteous and the unrighteous go to what the Old Testament in Hebrew calls Sheol and the New Testament in Greek calls Hades, which the Watchtower defines as “the common grave of dead mankind, the figurative location where most of mankind sleep in death.” Most, but not all: according to Watchtower usage, Sheol/Hades denotes the common grave of those who will be resurrected. “In contrast, the dead who will not be raised are described as being, not in Sheol, or Hades, but ‘in Gehenna.’”12 Jehovah “will never resurrect those whom he judges to be wicked and unwilling to change.”13

Biblical Response

An accurate response to the Watchtower’s doctrine concerning death, the soul, and resurrection as re-creation requires carefully sorting out what the Society gets right from what it gets wrong.

The Soul: Immaterial but Not Immortal

The Hebrew word nephesh in the Old Testament and the Greek word psuchē in the New Testament have different meanings in different contexts. Any attempt to make either word into a technical term that always has the same meaning simply won’t work.

The Old Testament does not appear to use nephesh to refer to an immaterial aspect of human nature that exists after death, because what nephesh generally denotes is physical, biological life. A human person is described in Genesis 2:7 as “a living nephesh,” often translated “a living being.” In this plain, biological sense of the word, any creature that breathes may be called a “‘soul,” including animals (Gen. 1:30). This doesn’t mean that the Old Testament views human death as total extinction; it just means that it doesn’t use the word nephesh to refer to what continues to exist after death.

A key passage using nephesh is Ezekiel 18. Here God tells Israel, “The soul [nephesh] who sins will die” (Ezek. 18:4, 20). Jehovah’s Witnesses have a fair point here: What Ezekiel calls a nephesh can die. In this sense, the “soul” (nephesh) is not “immortal.” On the other hand, this statement indicates an important possibility that the Watchtower argument overlooks. Ezekiel 18 indicates that the “soul” need not die if the soul does not sin! In context, God is saying through Ezekiel that he will hold people accountable for their own actions and will not punish children because of their parents’ sins (Ezek. 18:2-4). If a person is righteous and obeys God faithfully, he “will surely live” (18:5-9). A righteous man’s wicked son will be put to death, while a wicked man’s righteous son will not die but his wicked father will (18:13-20). In short, the soul or person in this passage is not immortal, because he can die, but he also has the possibility held out of not dying if the person is righteous.

At this point, we need to clarify some terminology. Christian theology traditionally came to use the expression “immortality of the soul” to refer to the idea that human beings have an immaterial, inner soul, spirit, or person that continues to exist after the body dies. This idea is biblical but the terminology is not, resulting in unnecessary confusion. The orthodox and biblical doctrine is the immateriality of the human soul or spirit, not the immortality of the human soul, at least not in the strict sense of the term.14

Later books of the Bible sometimes do refer to an immaterial principle or aspect of a human being that exists after the death of the body. A good example is Jesus’ statement, “And do not fear those who kill the body but cannot kill the soul [psuchē]. Rather fear him who can destroy both soul and body in hell” (Matt. 10:28). Here “soul” refers to something distinct from the body that people cannot kill. The Watchtower interprets Jesus’ statement to mean that people “cannot kill the person for all time, inasmuch as he lives in God’s purpose (compare Lu 20:37, 38) and God can and will restore such faithful one to life as a creature by means of a resurrection. For God’s servants, the loss of their “soul,” or life as a creature, is only temporary, not permanent.”15 This explanation simply does not work, because people cannot kill the body for all time either, if God can resurrect it from death.

The contrast between body and soul in Matthew 10:28 is expressed in different ways elsewhere appears in the New Testament, especially in Paul’s epistles. Paul contrasts “body” and “spirit,” or “flesh” and “spirit,” as well as “outer man” and “inner man” or “mind” (Rom. 7:18, 22-25; 1 Cor. 5:5; 7:34; 2 Cor. 4:16; 7:1; Eph. 3:16). By New Testament times, the body/soul dichotomy was a common one not only in Greek culture but among Jews, as seen in a wealth of Jewish texts from that general period.16

Sheol and Hades: The Realm of the Dead

A similar terminology problem applies to the Hebrew word Sheol and the Greek word Hades. In some contexts, the Old Testament appears to use Sheol as a synonym for the grave, but it also refers to a shadowy realm of the dead. Indeed, the term quite often refers to the appropriate end of the wicked, an expression of God’s judgment against them (Num. 16:30, 33; Deut. 32:22; Ps. 9:17; 30:3; 31:17; 55:15; 89:46-48; Prov. 1:12; 5:5; 7:27; 9:18; 14:12; 16:25; Isa. 14:15; 38:18; Ezek. 31:16). Contrary to the Watchtower argument that “unrighteous” but not “wicked” people go to Sheol when they die, all people face Sheol at death, but only the righteous may hope to be redeemed from it (e.g., Ps. 16:10; 18:5; 30:3; 49:14-15; 86:13; Prov. 15:24; Hos. 13:14). In one chilling passage, Isaiah describes Sheol as a dismal realm inhabited by shades who were once mighty men on earth (Isa. 14:9-11).

The New Testament uses the Greek word Hades ten times (Matt. 11:23; 16:18; Luke 10:15; 16:23; Acts 2:27, 31; Rev. 1:18; 6:8; 20:13, 14), typically in ways that reflect the more developed notion of Sheol as the underworld realm of the dead. In Greek, Hades referred to such an underworld, ruled according to Greek mythology by the god named Hades. The New Testament writers use the term Hades without (of course) endorsing the Greek myth, yet at the same time without finding it necessary to reinterpret the term to mean merely the common grave. As with the more developed use of Sheol, in the New Testament Hades is sometimes associated with the judgment due to the wicked. For example, Jesus warned Capernaum that it was going to “be brought down to Hades” for rejecting him despite seeing his divine miracles (Matt. 11:23; Luke 10:15).

In Jesus’ parable of Lazarus and the rich man (Luke 16:19-31), the rich man dies and goes to Hades, where he suffers torment in flames, while the poor man Lazarus is carried by angels to “Abraham’s bosom,” a place of rest for the righteous (vv. 22-23). The rich man asks Abraham to let Lazarus dip his finger in some water to cool his tongue; when he is told that is impossible, he asks Abraham to send Lazarus to warn his brothers about the place of torment (vv. 24-30). Abraham answers, “If they do not hear Moses and the Prophets, neither will they be convinced if someone should rise from the dead” (v. 31). It is true that some elements of this parable might best be understood in a non-literal way. For example, one suspects that the rich man in Hades could not carry on a literal conversation with Abraham. Nevertheless, the fact remains that the term Hades in this passage clearly means a netherworld or underworld where the dead exist. As in Jesus’ saying about Capernaum, the term here refers specifically to the destination of the wicked. Indeed, the rich man is clearly portrayed as a wicked man who will not get a chance at eternal life, contradicting the Watchtower’s claim that incorrigibly wicked people go to Gehenna rather than Hades when they die. The point here is that the New Testament simply does not use these terms in the way Watchtower doctrine dictates.

Does Death End It All?

The Bible speaks about death in a variety of ways, often using metaphors or idioms that can be understood in different ways. The most common of these expressions are to “perish,” to be “cut off” (often from one’s people or land), to be “gathered” to one’s people or one’s fathers, to “lie down” or “sleep” with one’s fathers, or simply to “sleep” or “fall asleep.” These expressions generally do not support the idea that at death a person ceases to exist. Rather, the idea is that the person joins the rest of the dead in some sort of hidden realm. The Old Testament idiom of being “gathered” to one’s fathers of people, for example, probably reflected the idea of the dead being united with their ancestors in the afterlife.17

Biblically, death means to cease living, not to cease existing.18 There is a difference. The most common biblical idiom for death, “cutting off,” which appears numerous times in 25 of the 39 books of the Old Testament, nicely expresses the basic idea of death as separation. To die is to be cut off or separated from those who are living.

Although the dead exist in some immaterial form, they are nevertheless truly dead. The Bible never describes the state of human beings who have died as “life after death.” To be a disembodied soul or spirit existing in a shadowy realm is not life. Human beings were not created or designed to live as disembodied souls. That is why the resurrection is the real hope of the Christian faith and the only hope for genuine eternal life.

The distinction between existing and living is crucial to understanding some of the proof texts that Jehovah’s Witnesses are taught prove that persons cease to exist when they die. For example, when God told Adam that as a result of his sin, “you are dust, and to dust you shall return” (Gen. 3:19), the point was not that Adam would cease to exist but that he would cease to be a living being. His natural, created state was that of an embodied human being, and that state comes to an end in death. The body eventually turns to dust, and that is the end of the person’s life. Genesis 3 does not reveal to us anything more, but as God’s revelation unfolds throughout the rest of the Bible we learn that something of the fallen, unredeemed person does continue to exist after death, though in a condition that cannot be called life.

Jehovah’s Witnesses often quote Psalm 146:4, which says, “His spirit departs, he returns to the earth; In that very day his thoughts perish” (NASB). However, to say that a person’s “thoughts perish” is not the same thing as saying that the person has no thoughts at all. In context, the Psalmist is saying that we should not put our trust in any human prince or other mortal because when he dies, his “thoughts” or intentions perish with him. In this context, the mortal prince’s “thoughts” are his plans, his intentions, what he thinks he will do. This usage is common in the Old Testament, especially in the poetic writings (see Ps. 33:10, 11; 56:5; 94:11; Prov. 6:18; 12:5; 15:22, 26; 16:3; 19:21; 20:18). Many translations actually use the word “plans” in some of these verses rather than the more literal “thoughts” (e.g., CSB, ESV, NET, NIV, NRSV).

The Watchtower misuses some of its proof texts simply by failing to pay sufficient attention to the context. The classic examples come from its citation of passages about death in Ecclesiastes. The purpose of Ecclesiastes is to reveal the bankruptcy of human wisdom and the need for God’s revelation. In the course of making its argument for this truth, this book presents opinions that from an earth-bound, human point of view seem right but that in light of divine revelation are known to be wrong. The book in its entirety is inspired and true; but, like any book of the Bible that quotes fallen human beings (or even the Devil!), not every opinion expressed in the book is true. In a surprising admission of this point, the Jehovah’s Witnesses’ Bible encyclopedia makes the following comment:

While some claim that the book contradicts itself, this is only because they do not see that the book many times sets forth the common view as opposed to the view that reflects divine wisdom. (Compare Ec 1:18; 7:11, 12.) So one must read with a view to getting the sense and must keep in mind the theme of the book.19

This overall context of the whole book is crucial to understanding many of its individual statements, not just those about death. For example, it is not true that everything is vanity (Eccl. 1:2, 14; 12:8), because for those who love God, nothing is vain but instead God works everything together for good (Rom. 8:28). It may seem like hard work is for nothing (2:11; 3:9; 5:16), but we know that work done in the Lord is never in vain (1 Cor. 15:58). Likewise, the bleak statements in Ecclesiastes about humans being no better off than animals (3:18-21; 9:4) need to be read in that same context. From an earthly perspective, these statements appear to be true, but God has revealed to us from his heavenly perspective that human beings are creatures specially created for relationship with God that transcends the mundane material needs of mortality (Matt. 6:25-30; 10:29-31).

The Hope of Eternal Life

In the New Testament, we learn that Jesus Christ came to conquer death through his own death and resurrection, so that through faith in him we might receive eternal life. This is the gospel, the good news. Perhaps the most famous verse in the New Testament makes this very point: “For God so loved the world, that he gave his only Son, that whoever believes in him should not perish but have eternal life” (John 3:16). In some sense, believers in Christ who die physically do not perish. This startling idea appears repeatedly in the Gospel of John. Whoever believes what the Father reveals through Jesus “has eternal life” and “has passed from death to life” (John 5:24). “He who believes has eternal life” (John 6:47). Jesus said regarding his “sheep” (his followers), “I give them eternal life, and they will never perish” (John 10:28). He told Martha, “I am the resurrection and the life. Whoever believes in me, though he die, yet shall he live, and everyone who lives and believes in me shall never die” (John 11:25-26).

We find the same basic idea expressed in different ways in other parts of the New Testament. When Jesus was crucified, two other men were crucified alongside of him, one of whom admitted that Jesus had done nothing wrong and then asked Jesus to remember him when he came in his kingdom (Luke 23:40-42). Jesus replied to him, “Truly I say to you, today you will be with me in paradise” (Luke 23:43).20

The implication of Jesus’ statements in both Luke and John is that for those who die as believers in him, death will not be a shadowy, dismal state as reflected in the Old Testament teaching about Sheol. Instead, believers in Christ will go immediately into his presence with eternal life already theirs. They will not be fully redeemed until the future resurrection of the body at the end of the age (1 Cor. 15:20-58), but in some way they will be alive in Christ’s presence. Paul had this expectation, as he explained to the Philippians:

“For to me to live is Christ, and to die is gain. If I am to live in the flesh, that means fruitful labor for me. Yet which I shall choose I cannot tell. I am hard pressed between the two. My desire is to depart and be with Christ, for that is far better. But to remain in the flesh is more necessary on your account” (Phil. 1:21-24).21

There is much we do not know about the nature of human existence between physical death and the future resurrection. We know that even for believers it will be a state of awaiting the consummation of our redemption in the resurrection of our bodies (Rom. 8:23). We may find comfort, however, in knowing that believers who are absent from the body will be with the Lord (2 Cor. 5:8). Death is still our enemy, but it is an enemy that Christ will defeat (1 Cor. 15:26). In the meantime, we need not fear death, because for those who truly trust in Jesus Christ, he promises them that they will never really die (John 5:24; 10:28; 11:25-26).22

 

NOTES


1. “Soul,” Glossary (Watchtower, 2019), online at https://wol.jw.org/.

2. “What Does the Bible Say?” Watchtower (Public), 2016, No. 1, 16.

3. “Does the Soul Survive Death?” Watchtower, Sept. 1, 1990, 5.

4. “A New Life for Our Ancestors,” Watchtower, May 15, 1995, 4, 5.

5. “The Bible—Accurate in All Respects,” Awake! 2017, No. 3, 6.

6. Reasoning from the Scriptures (Watchtower, 1989), 204.

7. See “The Soul,” Awake! Dec. 2015, 12.

8. See also “Soul,” in Insight on the Scriptures (Watchtower, 1988, 2015, 2018), 2:1007.

9. Reasoning from the Scriptures, 200.

10. What Does the Bible Really Teach (Watchtower, 2005, 2014), 71.

11. What Does the Bible Really Teach, 72–73.

12. What Does the Bible Really Teach, 213.

13. What Does the Bible Really Teach, 73.

14. See Thomas C. Oden, Life in the Spirit, Systematic Theology: Volume Three (Peabody, MA: Hendrickson—Prince Press, 1992), 386–87.

15. “Soul,” in Insight on the Scriptures, 2:1006.

16. See the lengthy footnote to Matthew 10:28 with numerous citations in Craig S. Keener, The Gospel of Matthew: A Socio-Rhetorical Commentary, rev. ed. (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2009), 326–27 n. 40.

17. Philip S. Johnston, Shades of Sheol: Death and Afterlife in the Old Testament (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 2002), 33–34.

18. See Oden, Life in the Spirit, 380.

19. “Ecclesiastes,” in Insight on the Scriptures, 1:675.

20. On the Watchtower’s translation and interpretation of Luke 23:43, see Robert M. Bowman Jr., Understanding Jehovah’s Witnesses: Why They Read the Bible the Way They Do (Grand Rapids: Baker, 1991), 97–108.

21. On Philippians 1:21-24, see Kenneth D. Boa and Robert M. Bowman Jr., Sense and Nonsense about Heaven and Hell (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2007), 59–61.

22. For further study, see Boa and Bowman, Sense and Nonsense about Heaven and Hell, 30–62; Robert M. Bowman Jr., Jehovah’s Witnesses (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1995), 30–38.