teaching that there is no "hell" where evil angels and
the souls or spirits of wicked humans are in torment due to a state
of unrepentant sin,
and that the human soul/spirit simply becomes either non-existent
or is annihilated at death, has been taught by the cult group known
as the Jehovah's Witnesses (JWs)for years. It also has been proven
wrong for years by many fine pastors, preachers, and Hebrew and
Greek scholars of the Bible. But this does not deter the Watchtower
organization, and it seems that it also does not deter some in the
"evangelical" Christian community who seem to agree with
the JWs on this point.
will begin this article by critically examining the basic foundation
of arguments used to teach that the human soul does not survive
death and becomes non-existent. If it can be shown that the passages
used to teach this doctrine are being misinterpreted and otherwise
taken out of context, then it stands to reason that the doctrine
based on such passages simply cannot stand. Thus we will begin by
analyzing the passages used from the Psalms and Ecclesiastes, specifically
focusing on the arguments presented here.
Basics of Proper Biblical Interpretation
interpreting Scripture it is vitally important to understand that
there are different types of writing genres within the Bible. The
Psalms are "songs" of David and others. Many things within
them cannot be taken literally simply because they were never meant
to be. For example, are we to believe that God is a giant bird-being
because David in Psalm 17:8 asked for God to hide him "under
the shadow of Your wings"? Or are we to presume that God is
somehow made of metal because the psalmist referred to Him as a
"shield" in Psalm 33:30? Most rational people will understand
that these are simply examples of metaphorical language and thus
these passages cannot be taken as statements of literal, theological
truth about God.
must be diligent in our understanding that everything in the Bible
is not literally true because people are sometimes recorded as lying
and giving opinions that may not be "divine truth." This
is not to say that the Bible is not the God-breathed product from
God that people were moved upon to write. But it is to say that
we must be very careful how we interpret certain literature in the
Bible or we will end up creating or believing false doctrine. This
is especially true of literature contained in Psalms, Ecclesiastes,
Job, and other passages in the Old Testament which contain metaphorical,
symbolic, simile, and other forms of speech that were never meant
to be taken literally. If we make the non-literal literal, we create
error. Conversely, if we make the literal non-literal, we create
error. Thus we must rely on the Spirit and diligent study to keep
ourselves from these kinds of error.
is interesting to note that both the cult group of the Watchtower
and the "evangelical" Christians use exactly the same
passages from Psalms, Ecclesiastes, and Job to "prove"
that the human soul becomes nonexistent at death and that there
is no "hell" of eternal punishment. Not only do they both
misinterpret these texts (which I will prove shortly) but they also
use very flawed reasoning in the process. And it is no wonder to
me that the "evangelical" Christians that believe as the
Watchtower does commit the same errors in Biblical interpretation
and reasoning. If you doubt this, just go to the Watchtower official
and then compare the passages and arguments of the Watchtower with
what the "evangelical" website here
argues. It is almost as if one of them copied the other. This, in
and of itself, should give us warning that something is wrong.
Bad Theology Taught in Ecclesiastes
what's wrong with using passages from Psalms and Ecclesiastes to
"prove" that we become nonexistent at death? Let's begin
to look at the texts in context and compare them with what is said
in the rest of the Bible. We begin with the often quoted book of
Ecclesiastes. Why is it dangerous to blindly believe or create doctrine
from this book? Simply because the "preacher" is making
many statements from a point of view "under the sun."
The introduction to this book found in the Open Bible 1983 edition
the other hand, from the perspective of the natural man who
only sees life 'under the sun,' the conclusion is, 'All is
vanity'...Only when the Preacher views his life from God's
perspective 'above the sun' does it take on meaning as a precious
gift 'from the hand of God' (2:24)" (p. 656, Thomas Nelson
the Rev. Dr. Walter Martin in his classic work The Kingdom of
the Cults also pointed out this fact while dealing with the
false Seventh-day Adventist teaching of "soul sleep":
is almost universally agreed among Biblical scholars that
Ecclesiastes portrays Solomon's apostasy and is therefore
questionable for determining doctrine. It sketches man's life
'under the sun' and reveals the hopelessness of the soul apart
from God" (p. 454, revised edition, 1985, Bethany House
writer of Ecclesiastes is speaking about the vanity of life "under
the sun" without God and His commandments as the primary focus
in life. As you read the book, you find that the author is almost
speaking from a "depressed" state and is "sounding
off" about the problems he sees in the world. While doing this
he makes statements that are clearly erroneous in light of other
passages of Scripture and common sense.
example, in Ecclesiastes 1:15 he says that "what is crooked
cannot be made straight..." But is this true in a strict literal
sense? Not according to Isaiah 45:2, where God is said to be able
to "make the crooked places straight" in the context of
a prophecy about king Cyrus. Another example is found in Ecclesiastes
1:18, where it reads: "For in much wisdom is much grief, and
he who increases knowledge increases sorrow." Yet this saying
is in direct contradiction to what is said in Proverbs 4:7: "Wisdom
is the principal thing; therefore get wisdom. And in all your getting,
get understanding." And whatever happened to "Happy is
the man who finds wisdom," as found in Proverbs 3:13? Even
the writer of Ecclesiastes, who seems to have been the same writer
of Proverbs (King Solomon), seems to correct himself later by saying,
"Wisdom is better than weapons of war..." (9:18).
these are just two examples of false teaching in Ecclesiastes because
the writer is speaking from a perspective "under the sun,"
not "above the sun" from a clear perspective of God. The
writer even praises the dead more than living people made in the
image of God and then says that someone who has never existed is
better than both (4:2,3)! Why? Because the person who has never
existed has not seen the "evil work that is done under the
sun." Notice again how his perspective is clouding his judgment.
more example should suffice to provide context to my next point,
which is to show that passages from Ecclesiastes cannot be used
to prove "soul sleep" or soul nonexistence at death. This
example is found in Ecclesiastes 6:3, where the writer says that
a stillborn child (a child born dead) is "better" than
a man who has lived on earth and had many children.
in context he is contrasting the living man who has not been "satisfied
with goodness" and has no burial with the stillborn child,
but even this does not justify saying that a dead child is "better"
than a living man. If that is the case, then why aren't all people
born dead? Why give humans reproductive systems to "be fruitful
and multiply" (Genesis 1:28)? And, most importantly, that statement
directly contradicts what is said in Psalm 127:3-5 about how happy
is the man who has his "quiver" full of children, i.e.,
a living man who has many living children. So once again we are
faced with the fact that a text in Ecclesiastes is clearly not literally
true in light of the rest of the Bible.
the "proof-texts" for Unconscious, Nonexistence at Death
that this foundation has been laid, we can now begin to see how
and why texts like Ecclesiastes 3:19, 20 and 9:5, 10 cannot be used
to teach "soul sleep" or soul nonexistence upon physical
death. These are the main passages used by the Watchtower and the
"evangelical" Christians to teach "soul sleep"
or unconscious, nonexistence at death. But do these passages teach
this? And, more importantly, does the Bible as a whole support such
a view? To answer these questions we must first look at these specific
passages to determine 1) if they have been correctly interpreted
in context, and 2) if they can be trusted for literal truth in light
of the whole Bible. One page on the "evangelical" website
attempts to argue, using Ecclesiastes 3:19,20, that there is no
difference between the death of a human being and the death of an
animal (or beast). Similarly, the Watchtower website (here)
goes even further to explain:
God can reveal what happens after people die, and he has done so
in his written Word, the Bible. This is what the Bible says: 'As
the [beast] dies, so the [man] dies; and they all have but one spirit
. . . All are going to one place. They have all come to be from
the dust, and they are all returning to the dust.' (Ecclesiastes
3:19, 20) There is no mention here of a fiery hell. Humans return
to dust—to nonexistence—when they die."
Ecclesiastes 3:19, 20 Properly Interpreted
first thing we must do is determine the context of Ecclesiastes
3:19, 20. The context is not speaking about what happens after death.
It is speaking about the fact that both humans and animals suffer
from the same fate known as death. That's all. Only in this sense
can it be truly said that "man has no advantage over beasts."
This we know is a self-evident truth. Also within this context the
writer is explaining how God "tests" the sons of men so
that they may "see that they themselves are like beasts"
(3:18). God "tests" them by showing them that both humans
and animals die.
I submit that in this context this passage can only be partially
true. Why? Because the rest of the Bible teaches that only humans
were made in the "image and likeness" of God (Genesis
1:26,27). Man does have an advantage because the rest of Scripture
says so. Jesus went to the cross for humans, not animals or even
angels. Is that not an "advantage"? And we must remember
that the overall context of the book of Ecclesiastes is about the
"vanity" of life viewed from a perspective "under
the sun." Therefore everything said in this book is colored
by this perspective and must be carefully scrutinized for truth.
know from the rest of the Bible that humans do indeed have an "advantage"
over mere animals who were never made in the image and likeness
of God. Yet both die and are from the dust and return there (vs.
29). This is the "vanity" that the writer was speaking
about. But the question must be asked: Is man just dust? The Bible
answers "no." Adam was not just dust because Scripture
says that God "breathed" into his nostrils the breath
of life (Genesis 2:7). It is only then that we read that Adam became
"a living soul" or living being. So Adam's body that God
had formed from the dust was essentially lying dead until God put
something in him from Himself that gave him life.
the writer of Ecclesiastes hinted at his knowledge of the difference
between humans and animals when he went on in 3:21 to ask the question,
"Who knows the spirit of the sons of men, which goes upward
and the spirit of the beast, which goes down to the earth?"
when the writer of Ecclesiastes says that "all go to one place"
and "all are from the dust and all return to dust" in
verse 20 he is speaking in the context of physical death not the
afterlife. Therefore, in context, this passage cannot be used to
teach the nonexistence of the soul after death because the text
simply is not discussing the afterlife and also has false doctrine
that does not align with the rest of the Bible. Since the context
does not support any afterlife statements, it is evident that both
the Watchtower and the "evangelical" Christians who try
to use this passage to teach some form of "soul sleep"
or soul nonexistence after physical death are in gross error.
9:5, 10 Properly Interpreted
passage has also been misinterpreted and made to say something that
it does not say in context. Remembering that the writer is speaking
from an "under the sun" viewpoint and has already made
many false statements because of this, we must be aware that we
should be careful interpreting the words at Ecclesiastes 9:5, 10
as well. We must ask ourselves two important questions: 1) What
is being said in context? and 2) Does what was said line up with
the rest of Scripture?
in order to answer these questions more completely, we need to first
see what some people have misread the text to mean. Here is the
Watchtower understanding of the passage:
order to be tormented, a person has to be conscious. Are the
dead conscious? Once again, the Bible gives the answer: 'The
living are conscious that they will die; but as for the dead,
they are conscious of nothing at all, neither do they anymore
have wages, because the remembrance of them has been forgotten.'"
after quoting a number of Bible verses that they think prove that
human souls pass into non-existence upon death, with Ecclesiastes
9,5,10 among them, the "evangelical" Christians conclude:
fact, we may assert without fear of contradiction that the
preponderance of God's Word plainly teaches that the dead
--- represented as silent and unconscious --- have literally
passed into a state of non-being or non-existence."
they may not fear contradiction, but contradiction does exist nonetheless,
and it exists in the form of a more accurate and Biblically sound
hermeneutic. But let us first take note that these two are saying
basically the same thing. But I contend and can demonstrate that
both of them are completely wrong and have badly misinterpreted
this text. To be continued...
excellent resource on Hell and the problems with annihilationist
teaching can be found here: The
Destruction of Hell: Annihilationism Examined by Jeff