In the first chapter of Life, Death and Destiny, a whole Christian doctrine of death was sketched. It is time to investigate in detail the question: According to the Bible, what becomes of a person at death?
What Happens at Death?
The answer is likely to surprise many who assume that, being a “religious” book, the Bible “spiritualises” the whole issue. Not at all. Here is the answer: At death, the whole person ceases, and would go out of existence forever, were it not for the fact that “there will be a resurrection of both the righteous and the unrighteous” (Acts 24:15)
In the Bible (and I contend that the Bible is entirely consistent on these matters), death is “the death of the whole person”.1 A leading Evangelical Bible dictionary has stated: “…nowhere in the Bible do we get a view of man as existing apart from the body, even after death in the future life…”2 George Carey, who was recently Archbishop of Canterbury, wrote, in an excellent study: “…it is a false trail to look within the human body for an immortal ‘soul’, mind or residual self which somehow survives the destruction of the flesh.”3 Death is entirely real. Only through Jesus Christ, by resurrection, is there any solution to it.
ADAM AND EVE
The essentials of a biblical view of humanity, life and death are presented right at the outset, in Genesis 1 – 3. Here, in one sense, is a “high” view of mankind:
So God created humankind in his image,
in the image of God he created them;
male and female he created them.
Human beings are created “in the image of God” (Gen. 1:26-28), with a calling and potential far grander than is possible to conceive on any pagan or merely humanistic premise! However, the “image of God” is not a separable part of us, but a description of what we are as a whole.
Later, under the influence of Greek philosophy, many came to understand the “image of God” as an immortal, even divine, soul within us. This is how it is seen in some non-biblical Jewish writings (e.g. The Wisdom of Solomon, 100-130 B.C. – not actually by Solomon, of course!) and later in many early Christian writings (e.g. Tertullian’s The Soul, c.200 A.D.). As the great Old Testament scholar Walther Eichrodt protests, this approach is an “invasion of an alien spirit into the world of Old Testament thought”.4 What Genesis 1:26-28 means is that, in our entirety, whether male or female, we humans are intended for a relationship with God, to know Him and to represent Him in the world. A human being as a whole is “created as the counterpart of God”.5
In Genesis 2:7, the Bible continues to envisage the human person as a unity, not as a temporary conjunction of “soul” and “body”, but as an indivisible “living soul” (KJV), or “living being” (NRSV),6 animated by the “breath of life”:
Then the LORD God formed man from the dust of the ground, and breathed into his nostrils the breath of life; and man became a living being.
Claus Westermann comments: “This sentence is very important for the biblical understanding of humanity: a person is created as a (living soul); a ‘living soul’ is not put into one’s body. The person as a living being is to be understood as a whole and any idea that one is made up of both body and soul is ruled out.” “The breath of life, then, means simply being alive, and the breathing in of this breath, the giving of life to humans, nothing more (cf. Ps. 104:28-29; Gen. 7:22). And so there are no grounds for the opinion that God created humans immortal…” “…it is not at all permissible…to read into the sentence that something of the divine was given to humans at creation….”7
Certainly we are created “in the image of God”, with an exceptional God-given purpose. But we are in no sense divine. We are creatures, part of God’s creation, not part of God. Furthermore, we are indivisibly whole “living beings”. The clear implication, as far as death is concerned, is that the death of the body must mean the death of the whole person. Whether or not our mind and our brain are the same thing, the point is that, in any case, according to the Bible, functionally at least we are inseparable whole beings and there can be no question of personal activity or consciousness after the death of the body.
What happens at death?
Genesis 2:7 tells us three things about ourselves. Let us examine each in turn, in the light of Bible teaching in general.
First: “man” (Hebrew ‘adham) was “formed” by God “of dust (‘aphar) from the ground (‘adhamah)”. “Man” (in the generic sense), not only “man’s body”, was so formed. This insight is echoed throughout Scripture: “we are dust” (Ps. 103:14; see Gen. 3:19, 18:27; Job 10:9).
Now, the same is true of the animals, according to Gen. 2:19. In fact, the creation of the animals, in Gen. 2:19, closely parallels that of humans, in Gen. 2:7, and the animals, like man, are said to have been “formed out of the ground” (as in Ecclesiastes 3:20, Ps. 104:29).
The New Testament offers no contradiction. On the contrary, in the definitive statement on death and resurrection, I Corinthians 15, Paul fully reaffirms Gen. 2:7: “The first man was from the earth, a man of dust” I Cor. 15:47) . Further, “As was the man of dust, so are those who are from the dust” (that is, all of us: I Cor. 15:48). We “have borne the image of the man of dust” (49). As Paul explains, this means that we are “flesh and blood”, “perishable”, “mortal” (50, 53). It also means that, unless there is a resurrection, there is no hope for anyone beyond death (29-32) : “If the dead are not raised, ‘Let us eat and drink, for tomorrow we die’.”
However, writes Paul, Jesus Christ is the man “from heaven” (47-48) . All those in Christ “will also bear the image of the man from heaven” (49) . How? By a resurrection change (51-55, 42). When? At the return of Jesus Christ (21-23) : “for as all die in Adam, so all will be made alive in Christ. But each in his own order: Christ the first fruits, then at his coming those who belong to Christ.” As Murray Harris concludes, “Immortality is not a gift bequeathed to all by the first Adam, but an inheritance won for the righteous by the second Adam (Christ).”8
Second, Genesis 2:7 says that we are alive in virtue of “the breath (neshamah) of life”. As a leading Bible scholar explains: “Today, one of the simplest tests of life is to see whether a person is still breathing; so also for the ancient Hebrew the breath or spirit was the principle of life.”9
Actually, the Old Testament uses three different words for “the breath of life”, or the life principle. In Isaiah 42:5, and in Job 27:3, 33:4 and 34:14, neshamah is parallel and synonymous with ruach (NRSV “spirit”). Once again, it is vital to note that this “breath” or “spirit” is also active in all animals. Animals, too, have “the breath (ruach) of life” (Gen. 6:17, 7:15). In Gen. 7:21-22, both words are used together, of humans and animals equally: “…all flesh…that moved on the earth, birds, domestic animals, wild animals, all swarming creatures…and all human beings; everything on dry land in whose nostrils was the breath of life…” Emphatic enough! Similarly, the book of Ecclesiastes insists that humans and beasts “have all the same breath (ruach)” (3:19).
All this confirms that, when speaking of the “breath of life” “breathed into (man’s) nostrils”, Gen. 2:7 is certainly not speaking of a personal, immortal substance. Rather, this “breath in their nostrils” is an indication of human frailty and mortality, not of human divinity and immortality.10
By the same token, the ruach (RSV “spirit”,11 NRSV “breath”) which, according to Ecclesiastes 12:7, returns to God at death, is not a conscious, personal entity, but the breath or power of life: “the dust returns to the earth as it was, and the breath returns to God who gave it.” This text, often grossly misunderstood, simply describes death in terms of the undoing of Gen. 2:7. This is not an intimation of the survival of a personal spirit. The context is about closure, not hope: “Vanity of vanities, says the Teacher; all is vanity” (v8)! What is said of humans here is said of all God’s creatures in Psalm 104:29:
When you (God) take away their breath (ruach), they die and return to their dust.
As Edmond Jacob observes:
No biblical text authorises the statement that the ‘soul’ is separated from the body at the moment of death. The ruach, ‘spirit’, which makes man a living being (cf. Gen. 2:7), and which he loses at death, is not, properly speaking, an anthropological reality, but a gift of God which returns to him at the time of death (Eccl. 12:7) .12
This is how we should understand Psalm 31:5 (ruach) and New Testament equivalents such as Luke 23:46 and Acts 7:60, where the corresponding Greek word is pneuma: “Into your hand I commit my spirit.” Luke 23:46b actually explains what is meant: “he breathed his last” (the verb in Greek here is derived from pneuma). The “spirit” which the Psalmist, Jesus and Stephen are entrusting to God is their life-breath. The only difference here, from Eccl. 12:7, is the attitude of trustfulness. The expression means: “Even in death, I trust you, God. I am in your hands.” Similar texts are Matthew 27:50 and John 19:30.13 James 2:26 explains simply: “…the body without the spirit (pneuma, NEB “breath”) is dead.”14
A third Hebrew word for this “breath”, or life principle, or simply life itself, is nephesh. In Gen. 1:30, . it is this word which is used for “the breath (nephesh) of life”, which animals also have. This, then, is the key to such texts as Gen. 35:18 (“soul”), . or I Kings 17:21-22: . “the life (nephesh) of the child came into him again, and he revived.” A close New Testament parallel is Acts 20:10 . (NRSV “life” – the Greek word is psuche). Both nephesh and psuche are very often translated “soul” in English versions, but this practice can be very misleading. Biblically, the nephesh or psuche that leaves us at death is not a personal “soul”, but the life principle, the power to live, which is God’s to give or take.
Third, Genesis 2:7 tells us that man is (not has) “a living soul (nephesh)” (KJV; NRSV “being”). Again, the word is nephesh, just as the New Testament Greek counterpart is psuche (see I Corinthians 15:45). .
Once again, the same is equally true of all the animals in general. Again, compare Gen. 2:19. There the animals are called “living souls” (nephesh; NRSV “creature”). Similarly, water creatures (Gen. 1:20-21) and land animals generally (Gen. 1:24; Gen 9:10, 12, 15, 16). An exact New Testament parallel is Revelation 16:3, where water creatures are called “living souls” (psuche; NRSV “thing”). In such cases, nephesh and psuche clearly mean: the organism as a whole, the whole human or non-human creature, without remainder.
In I Corinthians 15:45, Paul not only quotes the Genesis verse, asserting its normative status for a biblical understanding of the human person, but also confirms its significance: that the human person is to be regarded as an indivisible unity and, as such, wholly mortal. “The first man, Adam, became a living being (psuche),” writes Paul, and as such he was “a physical (psuchikon) body” (v44), “from the earth, a man of dust” (v47) ; and so are we, who bear “the image of the man of dust” (v49) , “flesh and blood”, “perishable” (v50). It is only through Christ, “the man from heaven” (v48), that we will “put on imperishability” (v55).
It will be useful, at this point, to outline the range of meanings that nephesh and psuche both have in Scripture.
(a) As we saw earlier, both words often mean “breath” or “life principle” or simply “life”, whether of humans or of animals. A few more examples: II Samuel 4:8, II Chronicles 1:11 (NRSV “life”); Rev. 8:9 (NRSV “living”).
In some important texts, the nephesh is said to reside in, or consist of, the blood: “For the life (nephesh) of every creature – its blood is its life (nephesh)” (Leviticus 17:14) .15 This usage also explains Isaiah 53:10 and 12, where the Lord’s Servant is said to give his “life” or “himself” (nephesh, KJV “soul”) as a sin offering. Accordingly, in Mark 10:45, Jesus explains that He came “to give his life (psuche) as a ransom for many.”16
In Matthew 10:39, Jesus declares: “Those who lose their life (psuche) for my sake will find it”; that is, they will “keep it for eternal life” (John 12:25), “in the age to come” (Matt. 10:30; as in Matt. 25:46). So then, this is also undoubtedly what Jesus means in Matthew 10:28, in the same context, where He insists that human beings “cannot kill the soul (psuche)”: not that we have indestructible, personal “souls” which survive death (psuche cannot possibly mean this in Matt. 10:39); but rather that, despite death, the Christian’s life is not ultimately lost, because God can and will restore it in the resurrection age to come. Only God has ultimate power of life and death (Luke 12:4) . He may indeed destroy life ultimately (“in hell”, Matt. 10:28) , or restore life through resurrection.17 “What survives death is not some substantial part of us, but rather, God’s faithfulness in his partnership with us.”18
One passage frequently taken to refer to living, personal “souls” of the dead, is Revelation 6:9-11, which refers to “the souls of those who had been slaughtered for the word of God”, “under the altar”, crying to God for vengeance. However, there are good reasons not to take the passage this way.
The key is to observe four things. (1) The book of Revelation is very largely visionary in character and symbolic, rather than literal, in meaning. In this passage, for example, surely neither the word “altar” nor the word “robes” is meant literally. (2) According to Leviticus 17:11 and 14, as we have seen, the “soul” is in, or consists of, the blood. (3) The “souls” (psuche) of the martyrs are located “under the altar”, which is where the blood of sacrifices was poured in Old Testament times (Lev. 4:7, 18, 30, 34, etc.). Now, this vision concerns people who have sacrificed their lives for their faith.19 (4) According to Gen. 4:10, the blood of Abel, the first martyr, “is crying out to God”, figuratively speaking, for justice. Clearly the passage in Rev. 6 is in the same tradition. It graphically symbolises the urgent need for the coming of God’s final Kingdom, in order to vindicate the people slaughtered on His behalf, but tells us nothing literal about the state of the dead, other than this: that for some, at least, it is a state of “rest” (Rev. 6:11; compare 14:13) .
(b) As in Gen. 2:7, and its New Testament counterpart I Cor. 15:45, nephesh and psuche frequently refer to the creature as a whole, human or animal, alive or even dead. A few obvious examples: Jeremiah 52:29 (“he took into exile eight hundred thirty-two persons”); Ezekiel 47:9 (“every living creature”); Leviticus 7:27 (“any one of you”); Acts 2:41 (“about three thousand persons were added”); Romans 13:1 (“Let every person be subject”). “Man is described as a soul by the Hebrew word nephesh and the corresponding Greek word about 152 times in the Old Testament and about 16 times in the New.”20
Note Ezekiel 18:4, 20, where a nephesh, in this sense, can certainly “die”: “The person who sins shall die.” A nephesh can be killed: Joshua 10:28 (“he utterly destroyed every person”); Ps. 78:50 (“he did not spare them from death”). Sometimes it is described as “dead” and it may even be translated “body” (Lev. 21:11, Num. 6:6, Haggai 2:13: “contact with a dead body”)! Even by itself, nephesh can mean “dead person” or “dead animal” (Lev.21:1 – “dead person”; Lev. 22:4, Num. 6:11 – “corpse”)!
Often, nephesh occurs in a weaker sense, as merely a solemn version of the personal or reflexive pronoun. For example, in Gen. 27:19, where KJV translated literally “thy soul”, NRSV quite correctly translates simply “you”: “so that you may bless me.” Similar instances are Ps. 7:5 (NRSV “my soul”, NIV “me”); Ps. 30:3 (NIV “me”); Ps. 89:48 (NIV “himself”).
So with psuche. Of I Peter 1:9, J. N. D. Kelly writes: “…‘salvation of your souls’…is virtually equivalent to ‘your salvation’, just as in, e.g., 4:19 ‘your souls’ simply means ‘yourselves’.”21 Another recent commentator, Ernest Best, explains the verse as follows: “This is not a special part of man’s physical or mental structure, or a divine spark within him, but man as a whole…It is almost the equivalent of the personal pronoun (it can be so replaced at 1:9, 22; 2:25; 4:19).”22 Likewise, in English usage, the classic distress signal S.O.S., “Save Our Souls”, simply means, “Save Us”.
Against this background, we can now make sense of a very important text: Ps. 16:10, quoted by Peter in Acts 2:27, with reference to the resurrection of Jesus:
For you will not abandon my soul to Hades,
or let your Holy One experience corruption.
In NIV and TEV,23 “my soul” is translated simply as “me”. Quite appropriately. There is no thought here of a living, personal entity separate from the body. On the contrary, the two lines of the text are synonymous. The point is, that the “soul”, used here to mean the whole person, does normally “experience corruption” in death. That is why Peter can argue that the Psalm text can be strictly true only as a prophecy of the resurrection of Christ, precisely because resurrection is the only answer to death. Even David, says Peter, “did not ascend to heaven” (Acts 2:34) ! Like everyone else, David “both died and was buried, and his tomb is with us to this day” (Acts 2:29) . That is, David, body and “soul”, is still dead. In Acts 13:36-37, Paul makes the point even more emphatically: David “died, was laid beside his ancestors, and experienced corruption”. However, there is one person, just one, who has been raised from the dead: Jesus: “but he whom God raised up experienced no corruption’ (Acts 13:37) . Thus the resurrection of Jesus has identified Him, both as the Messiah, and as the one and only answer to death.
(c) Both nephesh and ruach, like psuche and pneuma, very often refer to psychological states, attitudes, dispositions or capacities: to the inner personality. A few examples: nephesh – Proverbs 23:2 (“appetite”), Exodus 23:9 (“heart”) , Deuteronomy 6:5 (“soul”); ruach – I Kings 21:5 (“depressed”), Joshua 2:11 (“courage”); psuche – Acts 4:32 (“soul”), Acts 14:2 (“minds”); pneuma – II Corinthians 2:13 (“mind”), I Cor. 2:11 (“spirit”).
However, never do any of these words refer to anything which survives the death of the body. Regarding nephesh, for example, Lawson G. Stone concludes: “What is striking is that, while the Old Testament duplicates every known use of nefesh [sic] documented in the cultures of the ancient Near East, it does not duplicate the use of nefesh to refer to the personal existence of the dead in another realm.”24 On the contrary, death means “silence”, even for the soul (Psalm 115:17) .25 “The dead know nothing” (Ecclesiastes 9:5-6) . “There is no work or thought or knowledge or wisdom in Sheol to which you are going” (Ecclesiastes 9:10) .26
Hebrews 12:22-23 speaks of “the spirits (pneumata) of the righteous made perfect”. Now, whether the writer is speaking of a current experience or of a future prospect guaranteed in Christ,27 his use of the word “spirits” here does not necessarily imply that these “righteous men” are disembodied. This use is merely a matter of emphasis. As in Heb 9:9-10, 9:13-14 and 10:11-14, the writer’s main point is to contrast the inadequacy of the old covenant to achieve real salvation, with what Christ has achieved for us. In 7:19, he declares that “the law made nothing perfect….” Whereas the old covenant was a matter of outward forms and mere shadows of reality, and could not “make perfect” the worshiper (10:1, 9:9), through Christ’s “greater and perfect” ministry (9:11), His “once for all” sacrifice (9:26) , our “consciences” are truly “purified” (9:14) and we have been “made perfect for ever” (10:14) . This emphasis on the inward, the spiritual, the real and the heavenly, as against the merely outward and earthly, accounts for the use of the word “spirits” in 12:23. The writer is not denying that the “righteous” have bodies as well (whether here and now or at the resurrection), but merely wishes to emphasise that the salvation enjoyed and the worship offered under the new covenant is genuinely effective for a real relationship with God – not merely external.
The famous passage about Christ preaching to “the spirits in prison”, I Peter 3:18-20, depicts the resurrected Christ announcing His triumph to fallen angels confined in “Tartarus” (see II Peter 2:4, Jude 6), not to a dead Christ preaching to departed human “spirits” in “hell” or “limbo” or anywhere else.28
To sum up:
Life is given to man as a psycho-somatic unity…. Thus soul may be paralleled with flesh (Ps. 63:1; cf. Matt. 6:25, Acts 2:31), life (Job 33:28) , or spirit (Ps. 77:2-3; cf. Lk. 1:46-47), and all terms viewed as the self or ‘I’. It is the ‘I’ which lives – and which dies (cf. Gen. 7:21, Ezek. 18:4).29
So then, what happens at death? The human being yields, or God withdraws, the gift of life (the “breath” or “spirit”), which God has given, and the whole person, who is “of dust from the ground” (Gen. 2:7), is dissolved. Our creation is reversed. “You are dust, and to dust you will return” (Gen. 3:19). “When their breath (ruach) departs, they return to the earth” (Ps. 146:4) . We “sleep in the dust of the earth” (Daniel 12:2). Without “the catalytic agency of God’s spirit”,30 we perish.
The basic picture holds for humans and animals alike. “When you take away their breath, they die and return to their dust” (Ps. 104:29) . As Ecclesiastes 3:19-20 insists, “as one dies, so dies the other… All go to one place; all are of the dust and all return to dust again”. So also Job 10:9; Psalm 49:12 and 20, 90:3, 103:14-15. These are not pessimistic exceptions to biblical thought generally, as is sometimes suggested. Rather, they accord exactly with Genesis 1 – 3. And the same holds for both “the righteous” and “the wicked”: “the same fate comes to all, to the righteous and the wicked…” (Eccles. 9:2) . “…the dust returns to the earth as it was, and the breath (ruach) returns to God who gave it” (Eccles. 12:7).
The essential difference between humans and animals is that God has created us “in His image”: to live in personal relationship with Him and to represent Him in the world. For this reason, He has determined that human death, though all-embracing, is not final, but provisional. There is a judgment to follow (Eccles. 12:14, Hebrews 9:27-28) and a Saviour, through Whom we may gain resurrection to eternal life.
“Thanks be to God, who gives us the victory through our Lord Jesus Christ.”31 .
- F. J. Taylor, “Immortal”, in A. Richardson (Ed), A Theological Wordbook of the Bible, London: S.C.M. Press, 1975, p.111.
- B. O. Banwell, “Body”, in J. D. Douglas (Ed), The New Bible Dictionary, London: I.V.P., 1963, p.162.
- George Carey, I Believe in Man, London: Hodder and Stoughton, 1980, pp.171-2.
- W. Eichrodt, Theology of the Old Testament, London: S.C.M. Press, E.T. 1972, Vol.2, p.150.
- C. Westermann, Genesis 1-11: A Commentary, London: S.P.C.K., E.T. 1984, p.158.
- KJV, King James (or Authorised) Version, 1611; NRSV, New Revised Standard Version.
- C. Westermann, Genesis 1-11: A Commentary, p.207.
- M Harris, Raised Immortal, p.204.
- R. E. Brown, The Gospel According to John I-XII, New York: Doubleday, 1978, p.140.
- See Isaiah 2:22: “Turn away from mortals, who have only breath in their nostrils, for of what account are they?”
- Revised Standard Version, London and New York: Collins, 1952.
- E. Jacob, “Death”, in G. A. Buttrick et al. (Ed.), The Interpreter’s Dictionary of the Bible, Nashville: Abingdon, 1980, Vol. 1, p.802.
- See also Luke 8:55.; Rev 11:11, 13:5. ..
- NEB, New English Bible, Oxford and Cambridge University Presses: Oxford, 1970.
- Also Lev. 17:11, Deuteronomy 17:23.
- Other New Testament examples: Acts 15:26 (NRSV “lives”), John 10:11, Acts 20:24, Philippians 2:30.
- Compare Matt. 16:24-27; John 10:17, 11:25-26. Matthew 10:28 will come up for further discussion in Chapters 7 and 8.
- H. Thielicke, Living with Death, pp.111-112.
- G. E. Ladd comments: “The fact that John saw the souls of the martyrs under the altar has nothing to do with the state of the dead or their situation in the intermediate state; it is a merely a vivid way of putting the fact that they have been martyred in the name of their God.” A Commentary on the Revelation of John, Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1972, p.103.
- B. F. C. Atkinson, Life and Immortality, Taunton: Phoenix Press, n.d., p.3.
- J. N. D. Kelly, A Commentary on the Epistles of Peter and Jude, Grand Rapids: Baker Book House, 1982, p.58.
- E. Best, First Peter, London: Oliphants, 1971, p.58.
- Today’s English Version (or Good News Bible), United Bible Societies, 1976.
- Lawson G. Stone, “The Soul: Possession, Part, or Person?” in Joel B. Green, What About the Soul?, Nashville: Abingdon Press, 2004, p.56.
- Ps. 115:17; compare Ps. 6:5, 94:17; Isaiah 38:18.
- Job 14:22 refers to the pain of old age, not to a post-mortem existence.
- After all, the “city”, of which the passage speaks, is still “to come”, according to 13:14, 11:16.
- This passage is dealt with fully in an appendix. My interpretation coincides with that of the Anglican J. N. D. Kelly, A Commentary on the Epistles of Peter and Jude, pp.146-164; and also that of the Roman Catholic J. A. Fitzmyer, “The First Epistle of Peter”, in The Jerome Bible Commentary, New Jersey: Prentice-Hall, Inc., 1968, who explains: “The Risen Christ proclaimed his triumph to the imprisoned…angelic spirits…” (p.366).
- E. E. Ellis, “Life”, in The New Bible Dictionary, p.735.
- R. E. Brown, The Gospel According to John I – XII, p.140. Brown’s brilliant phrase captures it exactly. Compare also Job 34:14-15:
If he should take back his spirit to himself,
and gather to himself his breath,
all flesh would perish together,
and all mortals return to dust.
- I Corinthians 15:57