An organ softly plays “Amazing Grace” as a flower-covered casket is wheeled down the center aisle of the church. All around, relatives and friends brush away tears. They’re certain of one thing: someone they love is no longer there to see, to touch, to talk.
Death is a reality no one can evade, yet most people are unsure about what death means and what, if anything, comes afterward. The world’s great religions offer a variety of teachings on death—from an afterlife of eternal bliss to eternal torment to an endless cycle of reincarnations. Meanwhile, many skeptics and atheists expect nothing more than nonexistence after death has closed their eyes.
It’s no wonder people hate and fear death. Death separates loved ones, divides families, and offers no certainty of future reunion. But what does God’s Word say about death? You may be surprised to discover what the Bible has to say about this important subject, because it’s not necessarily what many Christians believe and teach.
The apostle Paul felt that we should be and can be certain about what happens after death. He wrote to the Thessalonian believers, “We want you to know the truth about those who have died, so that you will not be sad, as are those who have no hope” (1 Thessalonians 4:13, TEV).
Can we know what happens after death? Can we know when we’ll become immortal? The Bible says we can!
No immortal soul
The popular image—the one that’s probably in the minds of many mourners at funerals—is that human beings are composed of two parts: a physical body and a “spirit” or “soul” that somehow lives on after the body has died. Most people believe that at death the body stays in the grave, but the human “soul” goes on to heaven or to hell, depending on the kind of life the person lived on this earth. Many also believe that this “spirit” can interact with the living.
Yet this popular idea—that human beings are made up of a physical body and an immortal soul—is not biblical at all. It’s an ancient pagan idea that was adopted by the Christian church after the Bible was written. The Bible presents quite a different explanation of what makes up a human being.
In the Bible the word soul is translated from the Hebrew word nephesh and the Greek psyche. (Remember that the Old Testament was written in Hebrew and the New Testament in Greek.) There’s no simple English equivalent for the word nephesh, but it doesn’t carry the idea of an immortal, independent identity that can go on living after a person’s body dies. The Hebrew word ruach, translated as “spirit,” can also mean “breath” or “wind.”
It was the Greeks who brought into Christianity the idea of an immortal soul. As a result, when we read the words soul and spirit in the Bible today, we think of the Greek idea of an immortal human soul. But this idea wasn’t in the minds of the Bible writers when they wrote the words ;nephesh, ruach, or psyche.
Never, in all the 1,600 times the words soul and spirit occur in the Bible, are they ever called “immortal.” However, the Bible does tell us that God is “the King eternal, immortal, invisible” (1 Timothy 1:17, NIV). In fact, it says of Him that He “alone has immortality” (1 Timothy 6:15, 16, ESV).
The only way human beings can ever be immortal—live forever— is by a gift of God. That’s the gift of salvation that comes through Jesus Christ, “who has destroyed death and has brought life and immortality to light through the gospel” (2 Timothy 1:10, NIV). Jesus promised that whoever believes in Him will “have eternal life” (John 3:16, NIV).
The apostle Paul painted a picture of how this will happen:
“Listen, I tell you a mystery: We will not all sleep, but we will all be changed—in a flash, in the twinkling of an eye, at the last trumpet. For the trumpet will sound, the dead will be raised imperishable, and we will be changed. For the perishable must clothe itself with the imperishable, and the mortal with immortality. When the perishable has been clothed with the imperishable, and the mortal with immortality, then the saying that is written will come true: ‘Death has been swallowed up in victory’ ” (1 Corinthians 15:51–54, NIV).
The very first lie
Immortality is not the normal condition of the human soul—it is a gift given to human beings because of Jesus’ death on the cross. It is a gift we will receive at Jesus’ second coming, when our bodies are raised from the grave.
Why, then, do so many Christians think our “immortal souls” will go straight to heaven or hell when we die—and stay there for all eternity? This mistaken belief originated with the very first lie in all human history—the serpent’s words to Eve in the Garden of Eden. Eve told the serpent that God had told Adam and her not to eat the fruit of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil lest they die.
“That’s a lie,” the serpent hissed. “You will not die! God knows very well that the instant you eat it you will become like Him, for your eyes will be opened” (see Genesis 3:1–5).
But it was the serpent who lied when he said, “You will not die.”
God had planned to give human beings the gift of eternal life, but once they chose to rebel, He could not offer that dangerous gift. Instead, all human beings were destined to die. Yet Satan told Eve that humans are not mortal—not destined to die. And throughout the millennia since, most human beings have believed this lie.
The Bible tells us that when God created Adam, He “formed a man’s body from the dust of the ground and breathed into it the breath of life. And the man became a living person” (Genesis 2:7, NLT). The human body plus the breath of life equals a living human being.
When a person dies, the process is simply reversed. The body, without the breath of life, is no longer a living being. There’s no room in the Bible for the idea that when our eyes close in death, our spirit ascends to a higher, more exalted state.
The book of Ecclesiastes makes this point clearly: “The living at least know they will die, but the dead know nothing. They have no further reward, nor are they remembered. Whatever they did in their lifetime— loving, hating, envying—is all long gone. They no longer have a part in anything here on earth. . . . Whatever you do, do well. For when you go to the grave, there will be no work or planning or knowledge or wisdom” (Ecclesiastes 9:5, 6, 10, NLT, italics added).
In His life here on earth, Jesus referred to death as a “sleep,” as did the apostles John (see John 11:11–14) and Paul (see 1 Thessalonians 4:13–16). In death, as in sleep, we are not conscious, and we can't communicate. And no one but God—no psychic, no medium, no mystic—has the power to awaken us from that sleep.
The next time you watch a funeral procession pass, you need not wonder if the deceased is enduring the flames of hell or hovering up in heaven, watching the suffering of his grieving family below. With the breath of life gone, the dead person rests in a dreamless sleep—a sleep that will not be disturbed until Jesus comes again to resurrect to eternal life those who await His return.
That’s when you and I will become immortal!