Are the Dead Really Dead?

Death captivates people. Its mysteries inspire stories, books, and films that explore our ultimate fate. Some stories and religions suggest that some part of us survives death, lingering on—living in paradise, suffering in hell, haunting the living, or even reincarnating into a new personality.

Ironically, death arose in a most unexpected place—Eden—and it was God who first brought up the subject. When God warned Adam and Eve that eating of the Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil would lead to death (Gen. 2:17), He laid down a marker in the sand. Death is a real phenomenon, and it began to set in when the first humans disobeyed God.

Adam and Eve fell when they believed Satan’s lie that eating the forbidden fruit would not lead to death (Gen. 3:4). Satan has used variations of this lie to convince many that their deceased loved ones are still alive in another form, even though the Bible is clear that the dead don’t know anything (Eccles. 9:5).

The Bible teaches that when the body dies, it remains in the grave. It decays back into the “dust”—the elements that God fashioned it from (Gen. 3:19). The “breath” that God animated it with (Gen. 2:7) He then takes back (James 2:26).

But what about the soul? Do people’s souls, for instance, return to God at death? The answer to that question hinges on the meaning of the word “soul.” According to Scripture, we don’t have souls; we are souls. The Bible teaches that the soul consists of two things—a physical body plus “breath.” Those two elements make up a living soul or a living person. Genesis 2:7 states that when God breathed into the first man’s body, he became a “living being” (as it is translated in the NKJV) or “living soul” (KJV). The Hebrew word translated in that text as “soul” or “being” is nephesh, and is used 754 times in the Old Testament (the equivalent Greek term, psyche, is used in the New Testament). It is translated in several other ways as well, including “creatures” (Gen. 1:24), “thing” (Lev. 11:10), and “life” (Gen. 1:30).

Science is increasingly revealing the unity of the mind (or personality) and the physical body. Its findings underline what the Bible tells us about personhood. While we still have much to learn, it is undeniable that who and what a person is is intricately linked to the neurons and other structures of the physical brain. Any damage to its delicate tissues alters or destroys an individual’s personhood. The insidious condition of Alzheimer’s, for example, progressively erases one’s personhood. Personality consists of those memories and habits stored in the physical structure of the nervous system. Just as anything that damages a computer’s hard-drive causes it to cease to work, so neurological injury eradicates personhood—who we are.

Do living persons (souls) die? Absolutely. Ezekiel 18:20 says, “The soul who sins shall die.” Souls are not immortal—only God is (1 Tim. 6:15-16). All life consists of continuous biochemical activity. Scripture describes that activity through the symbol of breath. For people in biblical times, it was easy to see that when an animal or human being died, it stopped breathing and its body began to disintegrate. God is the source of that breath—that life force. The Hebrew word nephesh means “throat,” the place where the ancients could see breathing taking place (see Isa. 5:14, in which it is translated as “mouth” or “throat”). At death, in the words of Ecclesiastes 12:7, “the dust will return to the earth as it was, and the spirit will return to God who gave it.” Or as the NRSV puts it, “the breath returns to God who gave it.”

Do those who have died take part in anything happening on earth? Ecclesiastes 9:6 states clearly that “their love, their hatred, and their envy have now perished; Nevermore will they have a share in anything done under the sun.”

Everything perishes when we die, except our breath which returns to God. How do we explain sightings of dead loved ones or ghosts? Sometimes grief and remorse may play tricks on our minds. We may see and hear what we desperately want to believe: that our loved ones are not gone forever but are still with us. In other cases, demons impersonate the dead (as in the case of Saul’s visit to the medium of Endor in 1 Samuel 28) and use other apparitions to keep people fearing death (Heb. 2:14-15). But there is good news to come.

The Bible teaches that one day God will bring the righteous dead back to life, to live with Him for eternity: “For the Lord Himself will descend from heaven with a shout, with the voice of an archangel, and with the trumpet of God. And the dead in Christ will rise first. Then we who are alive and remain shall be caught up together with them in the clouds to meet the Lord in the air. And thus we shall always be with the Lord” (1 Thess. 4:16-17). God will create a new, more magnificent resurrection body (1 Cor. 15:35-54), animate it with the life force that only He can give, and fill its perfect brain with the memories and personality traits He has lovingly preserved in His unfailing memory. Then we will again be us—but an even greater us.