On this program we look at life’s big questions from the biblical perspective, and we often find that what we’ve been told the Bible supposedly says “ain’t necessarily so.”
Losing a loved one is a very sad, all-too-common part of our human experience. But what is not so common is clear understanding about life after death. The book of Ecclesiastes tells us, “The living know that they will die; but the dead know nothing” (Ecclesiastes 9:5). That’s to say, there is no continuing consciousness after death.
It may also come as a surprise to learn that during His ministry, Jesus Christ declared, “No one has ascended to heaven” (John 3:13). That would include Abraham and his sons, King David of Israel, and other righteous people from the Old Testament. So how can we square these biblical statements with the concept of an afterlife in heaven when we die? The answer is, we can’t.
The book of Psalms plainly tells us that when someone dies, “his spirit departs, he returns to the earth; in that very day his thoughts perish” (Psalm 146:4, New American Standard Bible). Ecclesiastes also tells us humans and animals meet the same fate: “As the one dies so dies the other” (Ecclesiastes 3:19, Tanakh), and “The dust returns to the ground as it was, and the lifebreath returns to God who bestowed it” (Ecclesiastes 12:7, Tanakh).
Despite the seeming finality of death, termination of life was nevertheless understood by the ancient Hebrews as temporary and as a kind of sleep. The body returns to the earth as decaying physical material, often dust or ashes, and the spirit returns to God. They knew that later there would come a time of awakening when the body would be reconstituted and the spirit revived. This is what they knew as resurrection.
Job confirmed a resurrection to life when he asked, “If a man dies, shall he live again?” His answer: “All the days of my hard service I will wait, till my change comes. You shall call, and I will answer You; You shall desire the work of Your hands” (Job 14:14–15). In another place he exclaimed, “After my skin is destroyed, this I know, that in my flesh I shall see God, whom I shall see for myself, and my eyes shall behold, and not another. How my heart yearns within me!” (Job 19:26–27).
This return to conscious life is of two kinds: physical and nonphysical. The prophet Ezekiel speaks of a resurrection of physical people to physical life: “Thus said the Lord God to these bones: I will cause breath to enter you and you shall live again. I will lay sinews upon you, and cover you with flesh, and form skin over you. And I will put breath into you, and you shall live again. And you shall know that I am the Lord!” (Ezekiel 37:5–6, Tanakh).
The prophet Daniel writes about people who will be raised to live forever: “And many of those who sleep in the dust of the earth shall awake, some to everlasting life. . . .” Daniel himself was told that he would “rest [or die] and . . . arise [or be resurrected] . . . at the end of the days [far into the future]” (Daniel 12:2, 13).
But none of these references speak about an immortal soul—only about the raising of previously physical people who have ceased to exist for a period of time.
In his first letter to the church at Corinth, the Hebrew scholar Paul explains that what happened to the first human happens to all of us. He says, “In Adam all die.” But there is still a future resurrection to life. He continues, “In Christ all shall be made alive” (1 Corinthians 15:22). He makes reference to the creation of humanity when he writes, “The first man Adam became a living being”; and he expresses the means of resurrection by saying: “The last Adam [Christ] became a life-giving spirit” (verse 45).
So the Scriptures define the human being as a physical body with a limited time span, animated by a spirit given by God for the same amount of time.
What happens to us when we die? The physical body returns to dust, and the spirit returns to God for a time. Will we live again? The answer is yes, by a later resurrection from the dead, when everyone who has ever existed will be given the opportunity to live forever. All our related questions about having an immortal soul, existing in heaven, looking down on loved ones, suffering in torment after death, ever seeing our loved ones again, are answered in Scripture.