During the 2016 presidential election in the United States, numerous candidates other than those in the major parties ran for the highest office. Among them was Zoltan Istvan, who drove around the United States in a bus made to look like a coffin. He dubbed it the “Immortality Bus.” Why? Because he wanted to draw people’s attention to the reality of death as well as let them know that, if elected president, he would allocate a lot of money to science in order to try to beat death.
However crazy it seems, Istvan’s Immortality Bus demonstrates the fact that we humans hate death and the whole idea of dying. However, as we all know, there’s nothing we can do about it. Death awaits us all.
Yet in spite of the universality of death, a great deal of ignorance exists regarding the dead. Are they in heaven looking down upon us? Or are they in hell suffering torment? Are they floating around in some ethereal realm, seeking to contact us? Or are they nothing but dust and doomed to remain that way forever?
In view of the fact that we and everyone we love will die sooner or later, wouldn’t it be nice to know what the Bible says about the dead and what happens to them? This topic becomes even more important in the context of the last days, because unless we know the truth about the dead, we will have little or no protection against the kind of demonic deceptions that the Bible warns will precede earth’s final events.
So, what does the Bible say about the dead, and what should we be wary of, especially given the biblical cautions about end-time deceptions?
The immortality error
For all of recorded human history, the living have pondered the dead and their fate. Unfortunately, for thousands of years, many of the living have fallen prey to the idea that their beloved dead are not really dead but rather are in another realm of existence. This error was especially promoted among the Greeks, including the philosopher Plato (ca. 428–348 B.C.), whose teachings greatly influenced Jewish, Christian, and Islamic thinking through the centuries. The notion of an immaterial, immortal soul that at the death of the body either soars upward to bliss or goes downward into the netherworld has its foundation, not in the Bible but in teachings from pagan antiquity.
In contrast, the Bible, which knows nothing of an immortal soul, teaches that at death people are asleep, awaiting the resurrection at the end of the age. Paul, in 1 Corinthians, makes this fact plain when he warns that if there is no resurrection of the dead, then the believer’s faith is futile (from a Greek word that means “groundless,” “deceptive,” “fruitless”). He writes: “If the dead do not rise, then Christ is not risen. And if Christ is not risen, your faith is futile; you are still in your sins! Then also those who have fallen asleep in Christ have perished” (1 Corinthians 15:16–18, NKJV).1
In other words, without a bodily resurrection at the end of time, those who have fallen asleep in Christ will remain in the ground where they were laid. These words make no sense if the faithful dead are already enjoying the bliss of heaven with Jesus! Instead, Paul clearly understands that the dead are in an unconscious state, and without the resurrection of the body at the end of the age, they will stay that way—hardly the great hope that Christians are looking for. Hence, his warning that unless the dead rise, their faith is futile.
The sleep of death
That text fits very well with these other texts that also speak of the state of the dead:
- “In death there is no remembrance of You: in the grave who will give You thanks?” (Psalm 6:5).
- “When their breath departs, they return to the earth; on that very day their plans perish” (Psalm 146:4, NRSV).2
- “The dead do not praise the LORD, nor any who go down into silence” (Psalm 115:17).
- “For the living know that they will die: but the dead know nothing” (Ecclesiastes 9:5).
Nothing in these verses suggests the idea that the dead immediately soar off to bliss in heaven or descend into some subterranean punishment. Instead, they reveal the Bible’s consistent testimony that the dead remain in an unconscious state until Jesus returns.
Speaking specifically about His second coming, Jesus said, “Behold, I am coming quickly, and My reward is with Me, to give every one according to his work” (Revelation 22:12; emphasis added). Notice that Jesus is bringing His reward with Him? Don’t the faithful dead get their reward immediately at death by going to be with Jesus in heaven? After all, many Christian believers have been dead for centuries, even longer. Shouldn’t they have been enjoying their reward long before now, and certainly before the time of Christ’s second coming? Yet Jesus said that Jesus will bring their reward with Him when He comes, an idea that makes no sense if the dead have been with Him already in heaven.
On the other hand, if His faithful followers are dead, asleep in the grave, and know nothing, as the previous texts teach, Christ’s words make perfect sense. The dead are in an unconscious sleep, and only when Jesus returns and raises them will they receive their reward.
Why, then, are so many confused about the dead? Why, even among Christians, does the idea remain popular that the dead are really alive and conscious in another state of existence? This belief actually goes to the heart of the cosmic conflict between Christ and Satan. In fact, this false teaching about death has been part and parcel of Satan’s plans for deceiving humanity since the start, and it will only increase as we near the end of time.
The Bible reveals not only the reality of the devil but that he’s a deceiver as well. “So the great dragon was cast out, that serpent of old, called the Devil and Satan, who deceives the whole world; he was cast to the earth, and his angels were cast out with him” (Revelation 12:9). How much plainer could the Word of God be, not only about Satan’s existence here on earth but about his plan to deceive “the whole world”? And clearly, among those deceptions is the massive one about the dead and where they are.
Also, many modern minds have been programmed to dismiss the concept of demons and Satan as nothing but superstitious silliness. Yet this may be the greatest deception of all, especially when the Bible is so clear about the reality of these dark forces, whose activities become even more malevolent as we near the end.
In a clear reference to the end time and the deceptions that will come with it, the Bible warns that Satan “performs great signs, so that he even makes fire come down from heaven on the earth in the sight of men. And he deceives those who dwell on the earth by those signs which he was granted to do in the sight of the beast, telling those who dwell on the earth to make an image to the beast who was wounded by the sword and lived” (Revelation 13:13, 14).
In another place the Bible teaches that just before Christ’s second coming, “three unclean spirits like frogs [will come] out of the mouth of the dragon, out of the mouth of the beast, and out of the mouth of the false prophet. For they are spirits of demons, performing signs, which go out to the kings of the earth and of the whole world, to gather them to the battle of that great day of God Almighty” (Revelation 16:13, 14).
These texts clearly warn about demonic, supernatural powers performing miracles that will be involved in deceiving the human race, especially about the final climactic issues before “that great day of God Almighty.”
Indeed, Paul warns not only that demonic spirits will work “with all power, signs, and lying wonders, and with all unrighteous deception” (2 Thessalonians 2:9, 10), but that “Satan himself transforms himself into an angel of light” (2 Corinthians 11:14). Satan as an angel of light? Considering all the confusion about death, and with some people thinking that angels are actually the souls of the dead, it’s clear that only those who have the assurance from the Bible that the dead are in an unconscious sleep until the second coming of Jesus will be protected from these last-day deceptions by demons.
The promise of immortality
The Bible unquestionably warns that believers need to be aware of demonic forces unleashing powerful deceptions upon the whole world as we near the end of time. And with so many people confused, even outright deceived, regarding the immediate fate of the dead, spiritualism and the occult will surely play a major role in perpetrating the spiritual fraud that these texts so graphically warn about. Satan as an angel of light, the spirits of demons performing signs, demonic powers unleashing “lying wonders”—the Bible depicts a time of massive supernatural confusion and errors that, unfortunately, will ensnare millions of people. Only a close walk with Jesus and a firm reliance on the Bible can ensure the spiritual safety of those who will be confronted by these confusing deceptions.
As the Immortality Bus showed, we do hate death. However, even if he had been elected president of the United States, Zoltan Istvan would not have been able to beat death. The good news, however, is that he doesn’t need to. Two thousand years ago, at the cross and Resurrection, Jesus defeated death for us. And at His second coming “the dead in Christ will rise first” (1 Thessalonians 4:16), and then they will be given the immortality that we all long for. Until then, the dead rest in peace, regardless of every deception that would tell us otherwise.
1. Bible texts marked NKJV are taken from the New King James Version®.
2. Bible verses credited to NRSV are from the New Revised Standard Version of the Bible, copyright © 1989 by the Division of Christian Education of the National Council of the Churches of Christ in the USA. Used by permission. All rights reserved.