It’s easy to understand the confusion that exists about what happens when we die. Even some of the many tombstones in graveyards reveal this confusion. For example, one tombstone might read, “Father is sleeping in the arms of Jesus” while a few graves over, another one says, “Mother is now singing on golden streets with the angels.”
So which is it? Are the dead sleeping, waiting for the resurrection, or are they alive somewhere, either praising God or burning in the hot place? For the answer, we need to turn to the Bible.
Where we came from
We’ll begin by inquiring how our human life began. Describing the creation of Adam, the Bible says that “the LORD God formed man of the dust of the ground, and breathed into his nostrils the breath of life; and man became a living soul” (Genesis 2:7, KJV). Some people, reading this text from the King James Version, interpret the word soul to mean an immaterial, conscious entity that resides within human beings and that can survive the death of the body.
However, it’s important to notice that, according to Genesis, Adam became a “living soul” only after God had breathed into his body the breath of life. In other words, the soul includes both the body and the breath of life. That’s why most modern translations of the Bible say that Adam became a living being rather than a living soul.
Also notice that Genesis doesn’t say God gave Adam a soul but rather that he became a soul. The dust from the ground (the body), combined with the vital breath of life from God, produced Adam as a living being.
And death is simply creation in reverse. Solomon said that at death “the dust returns to the ground it came from, and the spirit returns to God who gave it” (Ecclesiastes 12:7). The words spirit and breath in our English Bibles come from the same word in the Hebrew. Thus, the spirit that returns to God at death is the energizing breath of life that God gave to Adam when He created him.
The Bible also makes it clear that dead people are unconscious. For example, Solomon said, “The living know that they will die, but the dead know nothing” (Ecclesiastes 9:5), and, speaking of a dead person, David said that “in that very day his thoughts perish” (Psalm 146:4, KJV). In other words, dead people don’t know anything and they don’t think anything. That explains why David also said that “the dead do not praise the Lord, nor any who go down into silence” (Psalm 115:17, NKJV).
Death as sleep
Have you ever gone to bed and awakened thinking you had slept only a short while, but when you peeked at the clock you discovered that you’d slept two or three hours? You had no awareness of time while you were sleeping. Death is called “sleep” over and over again in the Bible, in both the Old and New Testaments. For example, David said, “O LORD, . . . give light to my eyes, or I will sleep in death” (Psalm 13:3).
And Jesus clearly referred to death as a “sleep” when, speaking of Lazarus, He said, “Our friend Lazarus has fallen asleep; but I am going there to wake him up” (John 11:11). Jesus’ disciples took Him literally, and they said, “Lord, if he sleeps, he will get better” (verse 12). So Jesus “told them plainly, ‘Lazarus is, dead’ ” (verse 14).
Jesus waited four days before going to Lazarus’s tomb, and by then his body was decomposing—turning back into dust. When Jesus asked that the stone blocking his tomb be rolled away, Martha objected that her brother would stink. However, Jesus insisted, so they rolled away the stone. Then “Jesus called in a loud voice, ‘Lazarus, come out!’ ” (verse 43). And that’s what Lazarus did.
Some skeptics suggest that in the case of other resurrections mentioned in the Bible the dead people were just in a coma. I believe Jesus allowed Lazarus to lie in the grave for four days so there could be no doubt that he was totally dead.
If Lazarus were to be resurrected today, all the news networks would interview him for a firsthand account of his experience while he was dead. They would ask questions like, “What did you see?” “What did you do?” “Who’d you meet?” “What was it like to be dead?”
If Lazarus had been alive in heaven, he could have answered the biggest question in history! But the Bible makes no mention of Lazarus commenting on his experience while he was dead. Why? Because he was asleep. From the moment he breathed his last, he didn’t know anything until, all of a sudden, he woke up wrapped up in some perfumed bandages. To him, it was like waking up from a nap.
Why it matters
You may say, What difference does it make? Whether I sleep in the grave or praise God in heaven following my funeral, I’ll find out when it happens, and until then, who cares?
There’s actually a good reason why you need to understand the truth about death today. The devil is going to use the idea that the dead aren’t really dead to deceive people just before Jesus comes again!
Paul said that “in the later times some will abandon the faith and follow deceiving spirits and things taught by demons” (1 Timothy 4:1), and writing to the Christians in Thessalonica, he said that in the last days Satan will work “all kinds of counterfeit miracles, signs and wonders, and . . . every sort of evil that deceives those who are perishing” (2 Thessalonians 2:9, 10).
The Bible clearly forbids any attempt to communicate with dead people. Leviticus 19:31 says, “Do not turn to mediums or seek out spiritists, for you will be defiled by them.” And in Deuteronomy 18:11–13, Moses warned the Israelites, “Let no one be found among you who . . . practices divination or sorcery, . . . or who is a medium or spiritist or who consults the dead. Anyone who does these things is detestable to the LORD.”
Unfortunately, today’s popular culture ignores this advice. Several prominent television programs feature people who supposedly talk to their dead loved ones. In some of these conversations, the so-called dead people reveal things that only their loved ones would know. But according to the Bible, these aren’t dead people the living are talking to. The whole thing is either trickery or a satanic deception. Satan and his angels know a lot about us—even our secrets. And they can use these bits of knowledge to trick us into thinking we’re talking to our departed loved ones.
I miss my brother Falcon and would love to talk to him, but I can’t. He’s dead. If anyone should appear to me with red hair and freckles claiming to be my brother, as much as I miss him, I would know from the Bible that this “being” was not my brother. Either my mind would be playing tricks on me or the apparition in front of me would be the devil.
So how can we avoid being deceived in these last days? The Word of God is our only sure foundation. “If they do not speak according to this word, it is because there is no light in them” (Isaiah 8:20, NKJV). It doesn’t matter whether the being you’re communicating with looks and sounds just like your departed loved one—even if it knows secrets only you and he would know, it’s either the devil or your brain isn’t functioning properly.
Is death the end?
So if death is a sleep rather than a continued conscious existence, does this mean that once you’re dead you’re gone forever? Not at all! Jesus raised Lazarus from the dead specifically to prove that dead people can live again. He told Lazarus’s sister Martha, “I am the resurrection and the life. He who believes in me will live, even though he dies” (John 11:25).
Believing in Jesus is the key. Even if you should die tomorrow, if you believe in His power to transform your life today, He will give you back your life when He comes again. And this time you will live forever in a land that is far more perfect than the one you live in now!
In 1876, a handful of mobsters botched a morbid plan to kidnap the body of Abraham Lincoln and hold it for ransom. The hapless grave robbers were arrested just a few days later. Fearing another attempt, the government secretly hid the body of the sixteenth president in an unmarked grave for 25 years. Then, in 1901, under the urging of Robert Lincoln, the president’s only surviving child, the former president’s body was dug up and placed inside a steel cage, lowered into a ten-foot-deep vault, and buried under tons of concrete. He’s still there today, in his tomb, on the grounds of Oak Ridge Cemetery. So do the dead care when their remains are disturbed? There’s no evidence that Abraham Lincoln ever complained about all the odd grave shuffling.