Are the Dead Conscious?

In our previous study we saw the Bible revealing that at death the spirit of a person lives on in a conscious state, retains memory of life on earth, communicates with other spirits, experiences comfort or torment (see study on What Happens When We Die?).

There are a few denominations however, Seventh Day Adventists, the Advent Christian Church, the Christadelphians, the Jehovah Witnesses, and others, that teach that death is a condition of unconsciousness, a condition that will remain unchanged until the resurrection at Christ’s second coming. Among these, some believe that departed souls or spirits continue to exist, but are in an unconscious state until the resurrection. This belief is called the doctrine of soul sleep. And then others believe that there is no consciousness until the resurrection because there is no existence at all. They believe death means you totally cease to exist and that at the resurrection God recreates you.

Let’s consider their arguments.

It’s asserted by some that, “The spirit of a person cannot function without a body and so the spirit has no consciousness in death.”

I read one proponent of the “soul sleeping” idea illustrating a person’s body and spirit this way. He said, “A good way to picture the relationship between the body and the spirit is to draw a comparison to a computer system.  The human body is like computer hardware (CPU, motherboard, hard drive, speakers, monitor, etc.) and the human spirit is like computer software (operating system, word processing, spreadsheet, web browser, etc.). Just as computer hardware without software is worthless, computer software can only function when working in combination with the hardware. So also it is with the human body and spirit… Without a living human body (either mortal or spiritual) to interact with, the human spirit is unconscious, in a state similar to sleep.”

But the author did not establish from the scriptures that the spirit of a person cannot function or have consciousness apart from a body.

Seems to me that Scripture is very clear that spirit entities certainly can function consciously without bodies, including human spirits. God is spirit (Jn 4:24). Angels are spirits (Heb 1:14). Demons are spirits (Lk 11:24-26). And they are all conscious and active without bodies. In II Corinthians 12:1-4 Paul describes a visionary experience, being caught into paradise and hearing inexpressible words, which a man is not permitted to speak. And he says that he doesn’t know if he had the experience “in the body or apart from the body“. His statement implies that he believed that it’s quite possible to have a conscious experience apart from the body. Isaiah 14:9-11 pictures the spirits of the dead talking. Jesus’ story in Luke 16:19ff presents dead individuals conscious, feeling, recognizing each other, communicating, remembering. Revelation 6:9-11 pictures “souls of those who had been slain” asking God a question and receiving an answer.

Another argument for “soul sleeping” is that…

The Bible often describes death as sleep.

(Dan 12:2; Matt 27:52; John 11:11-13; Acts 7:60; I Cor 15:6,18,20; I Thess 4:13; etc.)

But does the sleep metaphor for death mean that the spirit of a person is unconscious and unaware of anything? Is that what the metaphor is intended to teach?

Let’s look at how the metaphor is used in a few places and see if we can’t see what the point of it is.

Daniel 12:2, “Many of those who sleep in the dust of the ground will awake, these to everlasting life, but the others to disgrace and everlasting contempt.” This is talking about the future bodily resurrection of the righteous and the wicked (see also John 5:28-29; Acts 24:15). Well, in that verse death is clearly like sleep in the sense that it’s not a final irreversible condition. It’s a temporary condition. It’s something that we will eventually wake up from.

Another occasion where the metaphor is used is Luke 8:52. Before Jesus raised Jairus’ daughter from the dead, He told those mourning over her, “Stop weeping, for she has not died, but is asleep.” Was He talking about the condition of her spirit? Would it have made any sense for Jesus to say, “Stop weeping because her spirit is totally unconscious”? They would have said, “Yeah, we know. That’s why we’re weeping.” What Jesus was saying was, “Stop weeping because her condition right now is only temporary. She’s going to wake up.” The point of the metaphor seems to be the same as it was in Daniel 12:2 – the temporariness of death.

Another use of the metaphor is in John 11:11. Before Jesus raised Lazarus from the dead, He told His disciples, “Our friend Lazarus has fallen asleep; but I go, so that I may awaken him out of sleep.” The death of Lazarus was like sleep in the sense that his body lying motionless and unresponsive was but a temporary condition.

So I think it’s a misapplication of the metaphor to say that it’s describing the condition of one’s spirit after death. From the way it is used in the Scripture it appears to be simply an encouragement that death is not a final irreversible condition.

Ecclesiastes has verses that seem to support the idea of unconsciousness in death.

Ecclesiastes 3:18-22, “I said to myself concerning the sons of men, “God has surely tested them in order for them to see that they are but beasts.” 19 For the fate of the sons of men and the fate of beasts is the same. As one dies so dies the other; indeed, they all have the same breath and there is no advantage for man over beast, for all is vanity. 20 All go to the same place. All came from the dust and all return to the dust. 21 Who knows that the breath of man ascends upward and the breath of the beast descends downward to the earth? 22 I have seen that nothing is better than that man should be happy in his activities, for that is his lot. For who will bring him to see what will occur after him?” The Jehovah’s Witnesses claim based upon this passage that “there is nothing that humans have as a result of birth that gives them superiority over beasts when they die” (Reasoning from the Scriptures, p. 383). In other words they assert from this passage that when we die, we’re dead like Rover, dead all over.

Ecclesiastes 9:5, “For the living know they will die; but the dead do not know anything, nor have they any longer a reward, for their memory is forgotten.” 9:10, “Whatever your hand finds to do, do it with all your might; for there is no activity or planning or knowledge or wisdom in Sheol where you are going.” Well, granted it does sound like Solomon is viewing death as the end of all consciousness and activity.

But understand that in the book of Ecclesiastes Solomon is not writing stuff that was revealed to him by God. The book of Ecclesiastes records Solomon’s own observations and conclusions about life under the sun from his own human perspective and his own experiences. Notice 1:13 where Solomon tells us where his observations and conclusions in the book come from. 1:13, “And I set my mind to seek and explore by wisdom concerning all that has been done under heaven.”  His observations and conclusions in the book come from his own search and exploration, not by revelation from God. For example, Solomon’s conclusion that all is vanity and futility and a striving after the wind, how did Solomon come to that conclusion? It wasn’t that God told him that. Solomon experimented and investigated. He says that he set his mind to know wisdom and knowledge and found it to be a striving after wind (1:17-18). He indulged in pleasure, in wine, women and song. He accumulated all the possessions that a man could want. He says, “All that my eyes desired I did not refuse them. I did not withhold my heart from any pleasure…” Then he came to the conclusion that all that stuff is vanity and striving after wind (2:11). Notice how Ecclesiastes 3:18 begins, “I said to myself concerning the sons of men…” Solomon’s statements at the end of ch3 were not said to him by God. He said them to himself. It was Solomon’s perspective on death from a strictly a human perspective. Without revelation from God about what happens when we die it does look like the fate of the sons of men and the fate of beasts is the same. It looks like we all just end up in the dust. All throughout the book of Ecclesiastes you find Solomon repeatedly making statements like, “I have seen under the sun…” and “Then I looked at…” and “behold, I saw…” and “I again saw under the sun…” and “I saw…” and “I came to see…”  and “I discovered…” and “I have found…” (3:16; 4:1,4,7,15; 5:13,18; 6:1; 7:15; etc.). Because Solomon is speaking from a strictly human perspective in Ecclesiastes, it is not the place to go to for morals or doctrine about the afterlife. It’s like basing doctrine on statements made by Job’s so-called friends Eliphaz, Bildad and Zophar.

If we accept everything Solomon says in Ecclesiastes as truth, notice some other false doctrines that we will come up with.

  • Ecclesiastes 7:16-17, “Do not be excessively righteous and do not be overly wise. Why should you ruin yourself? 17 Do not be excessively wicked and do not be a fool. Why should you die before your time?” Sounds like he’s just saying be average in when it comes to morality and righteousness. Hmmm. I thought we were to be holy like God is holy (I Pt 1:15). I thought we were to be diligent to add to our faith moral excellence (II Pt 1:5). I thought we were to strive to be blameless and innocent, children of God above reproach, shinning as lights in the world (Phil 2:15).
  • Ecclesiastes 8:15, “So I commended pleasure, for there is nothing good for a man under the sun except to eat and to drink and to be merry…” Really? That’s all the good there is for us to do, just eat, drink and be merry?
  • Ecclesiastes 9:2-3, “There is one fate for the righteous and for the wicked; for the good, for the clean and for the unclean; for the man who offers a sacrifice and for the one who does not sacrifice. As the good man is, so is the sinner; as the swearer is, so is the one who is afraid to swear. This is an evil in all that is done under the sun, that there is one fate for all men…” Really? Our fate will be the same whether we serve God or not? I thought Jesus said, “The wicked will go away into eternal punishment, but the righteous into eternal life” (Matt 25:46) (see also Malachi 3:13-4:3).

You might ask then, why is this book in the Bible? Well, there are many valuable truths to be gleaned from Solomon’s experience and observations. Like the fact that it’s not worth it to labor and chase after wealth. Solomon had all the wealth you could want. He would know. But he says it’s better to just enjoy the simply blessings of life like eating and drinking and do a job you enjoy doing (2:10,18,24; 3:22; 5:10-18). The book is full helpful observations about life and practical advice that can benefit our lives on earth, like “It is better to listen to the rebuke of a wise man Than for one to listen to the song of fools” (7:5). “If the axe is dull and he does not sharpen its edge, then he must exert more strength.” But the main big lesson that the book gets across is the vanity of life lived apart from God. Even a man who had it all and saw it all could not find meaning and happiness apart from God. He came to realize that the only meaningful actually significant thing a man can do is reverence God and keep His commandments (12:12-13). The book is intended to spare us from wasting our lives searching, like Solomon, for meaning and fulfillment in earthly pursuits.

What about Psalm 146:4?

In the NASB it reads, “His spirit departs, he returns to the earth; In that very day his thoughts perish.” The way that reads in the NASB could be taken to mean that the dead have no more thoughts.

But most respectable modern translations do not have the word “thoughts,” but rather “plans” or “purposes.”

  • NKJV – “… In that very day his plans perish.”
  • NIV – “… on that very day their plans come to nothing.”
  • ESV – “… on that very day his plans perish.
  • RSV – “… on that very day his plans persih.
  • NRSV – “… on that very day their plans perish.”
  • NLT – “… and all their plans die with them.”

Well, we would all agree that if we died tonight it would put an end to all our plans for tomorrow and the next day and however far out we planned.

The same thought is expressed in I Maccabees 2:62-63, ” 62 Do not fear the words of a sinner, for his splendor will turn into dung and worms. 63 Today he will be exalted, but tomorrow he will not be found, because he has returned to the dust, and his plans will perish.

There are passages in the Old Testament that say there is no thanking or praising God in the realm of the dead.

  • Psalm 6:5, “For there is no mention of You in death; In Sheol who will give You thanks?
  • Psalm 30:9, “What profit is there in my blood, if I go down to the pit? Will the dust praise You? Will it declare Your faithfulness?
  • Psalm 88:10-12, “Will You perform wonders for the dead? Will the departed spirits rise and praise You? Selah. 11 Will Your lovingkindness be declared in the grave, Your faithfulness in Abaddon? 12 Will Your wonders be made known in the darkness? And Your righteousness in the land of forgetfulness?
  • Psalm 115:17, “The dead do not praise the Lord, Nor do any who go down into silence;
  • Isaiah 38:18-19, “For Sheol cannot thank You, Death cannot praise You; Those who go down to the pit cannot hope for Your faithfulness. It is the living who give thanks to You, as I do today; A father tells his sons about Your faithfulness.

The Psalmists and Hezekiah who is speaking in Isaiah 38 clearly seemed to have viewed the condition of departed spirits as one in which they do not thank God or praise God or declare His lovingkindness or faithfulness.

But why did they think that the dead don’t thank or praise God? Notice how they describe Sheol, the realm of the dead. They describe it as the pit (Ps 30:9; Is 38:18), Abaddon, which means place of ruin or destruction (Ps 88:11), the darkness (Ps 88:12), the land of forgetfulness (Ps 88:12), a place of silence (Ps 115:17; see also Ps 94:17). Sounds like Job’s view of the realm of the dead. He described it as “the land of darkness and deep shadow… the land of gloom… without order… where even the light is like darkness” (Job 10:21-22). And they viewed the dead as being without hope of anything better. Ps 88:10, “Will You perform wonders for the dead?” Is 38:18, “Those who go down to the pit cannot hope for Your faithfulness.” They had no expectation of anything good from God. So the reason that they say departed spirits do not thank or praise God is not because they viewed departed spirits as unconscious or nonexistent. It’s rather because they viewed the realm of departed spirits as a dark, silent, dismal region where they have no hope of anything better, where they have nothing to thank or praise God for.

But was their view of the condition of the dead correct? You notice that in every verse where it speaks of how the dead do not praise or thank God it is a man speaking. And he doesn’t preface his words saying, “Thus says the Lord.”  And they were men without the insight that the Lord Jesus has brought us about the afterlife (II Tim 1:10). The Lord revealed to us that at death the redeemed go to “paradise” (Lk 23:43), they join Abraham in a place of comfort (Lk 16:22,25), they join the Lord Himself (II Cor 5:6-8; Phil 1:23), they reign with Him (Rev 2:26; 3:21; 20:4; I Cor 6:2-3). These wonderful truths were revealed by Jesus. They were unknown to Job and the Psalmists and King Hezekiah.

Is Luke 23:43 translated correctly in most of our English versions?

Those who believe that there is no consciousness or existence between death and the resurrection believe that most our English versions have wrongly punctuated Luke 23:43. They assert that there should be a comma immediately after the word “today” and not one before it. So instead of reading, “Truly I tell to you, today you will be with Me in Paradise,” they say it should read , “Truly I tell to you today, you will be with Me in Paradise.” (This is the translation found in Jehovah Witnesses’ translation, “The New World Translation.”) It’s a minor change, but it changes the meaning of Jesus’ words. If the comma comes before the word “today” Jesus is telling the thief where they would be later that very day that they died. If the comma comes after the word “today” Jesus is not necessary talking about where they would be later that day, just that eventually they would be together in paradise. Jehovah Witnesses and others would say that when they would be together in paradise is when the dead are raised on the last day.

In the original texts of the Bible there were no punctuation marks. So punctuation in our English translations is based on the translators interpretation.

But our translators for very good reason placed the comma before the word “today”. The expression “Truly I say to you” in the NASB or “I tell you the truth” in the NIV or “Verily I say unto thee” in KJV, occurs very often in statements from Jesus. The NASB expression occurs in statements of Jesus 76 times in the gospels. And every single time a comma belongs right after that expression before the next word. It was an expression Jesus used to basically say, “You may find this difficult to believe, but it is true, nevertheless.” Here are the occurrences in the gospel of Luke if you’d like to look at a few – Luke 4:24; 12:37; 12:44; 18:17; 18:29; 21:3; 21:32. Never once do we ever find Jesus adding the word “today” to the expression. So the translators of most of our Bibles simply understand Jesus to be talking like He often did, prefacing amazing statements with the expression, “Truly I say to you”.

Also, consider that talking was very difficult for Jesus at the moment. One struggled to breath while hanging from a cross. It begs the question of those who want to put the comma after the word “today,” why would Jesus painfully add an unnecessary word to His statement? The thief did not need to be informed that it was today that Jesus was speaking to him. Of course it was today. When else would Jesus be saying it?

It is much clearer to believe that Jesus was comforting the believing thief by telling him that on that very day they would be together in paradise, a promise that implies the continuance of consciousness after death.

– James Williams

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