If we want to understand how life ends, I suggest that we understand how it began. Life is, after all, a bigger mystery than death. We struggle to explain it. We can describe the chemical processes that keep us ticking from day to day, right down to the cellular level, but we’re not entirely sure what life actually is. What makes us self-aware and conscious? What is the spark that actually gives us life?
The biblical account of human origins is remarkably simple: “The Lord God formed man of the dust of the ground, and breathed into his nostrils the breath of life; and the man became a living being” (Genesis 2:7).
We are carbon-based life forms. My eighth-grade biology teacher said that, essentially, we’re “made of the same stuff you find in your chimney.” Though he was not a believer, that teacher might have been surprised to discover that he was agreeing with the author of Genesis, who tells us that human beings were made from “the dust of the ground.”
We understand and can explain that we are made of the same chemical elements as the ones that make up the earth and all that’s found on it. What we don’t understand is how inorganic elements become walking, talking, thinking beings with distinct personalities. How does a collection of chemicals laugh, cry, hate, and love? How can someone make you and me from a pile of dirt?
The Bible writers present God as the One who provided the spark of life, the One who breathed into Adam’s nostrils “the breath of life.” Thus, the formula for life is simple:
Dust of the ground + the breath of life (the God-given spark) = a living being
And, surprisingly (or not so surprisingly), the biblical formula for death is simply a reversal of the formula for life:
Dust of the ground – the breath of life (the God-given spark) = a dead being
David put it this way: “You hideYour face, they are troubled; You take away their breath, they die and return to their dust” (Psalm 104:29, NKJV).2 Genesis says much the same thing: “By the sweat of your face you shall eat bread, till you return to the ground, for out of it you were taken; for you are dust, and to dust you shall return” (Genesis 3:19, ESV).3 And the book of Ecclesiastes says something similar, but with a small twist: “The dust will return to the earth as it was, and the spirit will return to God who gave it” (Ecclesiastes 12:7, NASB).4
At this point some confusion starts to build. Just what is this “spirit” that goes back to God?
Spirit and breath
Popular theology today says that human beings have a conscious soul that inhabits the body during life, and it departs the body at death. And the author of Ecclesiastes seems to say the same thing—that our bodies turn to dust and our “spirits” head for the higher realms, to be in the presence of God. But in the language in which Ecclesiastes was written, that’s not what the verse is saying.
The Hebrew word that’s been translated “spirit” in English is ruach. This word can actually mean several things—wind, breath, mind, and spirit among them. But the primary sense of the word is simply “breath.” That’s why, in the King James Version, we find this odd passage: “All the while my breath is in me, and the spirit of God is in my nostrils” (Job 27:3, KJV).
Was Job actually telling us that a ghost was living in his nose? No!
The word translated “spirit” here is ruach, which, as we’ve noted, can also mean “breath.” If we take Job to mean some sort of disembodied ghost, we run into the ridiculous assertion that Job had a ghost up his nose.
The ancient Hebrews often communicated their thoughts through parallel assertions, a pattern that is especially frequent in the book of Psalms. In this case, Job’s expressions, “the breath that is in me,” and “the spirit of God that is in my nostrils,” mean the same thing. Job is acknowledging that his ability to live is a gift that only God can give. When God withdraws that gift, we stop breathing, and then we die.
And that’s what the author of Ecclesiastes was saying: the dust returns to the earth, and the spirit—the breath—returns to God. In fact, in the New American Standard Bible, the translators went to the trouble of creating a marginal note to let us know that “spirit” can be translated “breath.” And for the sake of our modern Western minds, it probably should have been translated that way in this case. Ecclesiastes is saying the same thing that Genesis and Psalms say: When you live, it’s because God has granted the gift of life. When that gift is gone, you stop breathing and turn back into dust.
Of course, this isn’t the picture that was presented to me growing up. I was told that my spirit was a ghost, and that when I died, my “spirit” would immediately go to be with God. My body was just a shell in which my spirit lived for a time, and once my body was gone, I would live more freely.
But that idea, prevalent though it has become in Western society, is at odds with the picture actually given in the Bible. It’s a concept that seems more likely to have come from Greek mythology than from the biblical psalmist, who quite clearly emphasized that we do not move to another conscious existence when we die.
“While I live I will praise the Lord; I will sing praises to my God while I have my being. Do not put your trust in princes, nor in a son of man, in whom there is no help. His spirit departs, he returns to his earth; in that very day his plans perish” (Psalm 146:2–4, NKJV).
The word translated “plans” is ‘eshtonah, which literally means “thought.” Some of the more literal translations, such as the New American Standard Bible and the King James Version, translate the verse to say “in that very day his thoughts perish,” which is the same as what some of the less literal translations say: your thoughts come to a screeching halt the moment you die, and by extension, so do all of your plans.
In other words, when you die, your conscious existence ends.
No praise from the dead
Think about this carefully for a moment: as a Christian, I absolutely plan to be with God after I die, and yet the Bible says that all of my plans and all of my thoughts stop the moment I expire. I can assure you that if I were suddenly whisked into the presence of God at the moment of death, I’d be having some thoughts: I can’t believe I’m here! But the psalmist expected no such thing; he declared that all thinking stops the moment I die. And he says it more than once. Note, for instance, Psalm 115:17: “The dead do not praise the Lord, nor any who go down into silence” (NKJV).
Of course, that flies in the face of what I was told as a kid—that when I died, I’d immediately be in heaven.
No such luck. According to the Bible, dead people do not praise God. The Bible says this again and again. Here’s another instance: “As the cloud disappears and vanishes away, so he who goes down to the grave does not come up. He shall never return to his house, nor shall his place know him anymore” (Job 7:9, 10).
So much for the dead returning to haunt their homes! The Bible says they are forever disconnected from life on this earth—which, of course, makes you wonder what was going on that made people claim that someone was visiting them from beyond the grave. According to the Bible, that someone isn’t a dead relative—which raises the chilling question of who else could this apparition be that disappears like a cloud evaporating into the atmosphere. Here are a couple more biblical texts on the topic:
“The living know that they will die; but the dead know nothing, and they have no more reward, for the memory of them is forgotten. Also their love, their hatred, and their envy have now perished; nevermore will they have a share in anything done under the sun” (Ecclesiastes 9:5, 6, NKJV; emphasis added). “Whatever your hand finds to do, do it with your might; for there is no work or device or knowledge or wisdom in the grave where you are going”(verse 10, NKJV; emphasis added).
Admittedly, it’s a bleak picture. When you’re dead—you’re dead. You don’t praise God, you’re silent, your consciousness ceases, your wisdom is gone, and you never again have anything to do with life under the sun. It comes as a surprise to many people who’ve been reared in the Judeo-Christian tradition that the Old Testament says nothing about an ethereal afterlife. Nowhere do you find a record of people who are whisked off to heaven at the time of death. There are no ghosts.
In fact, there’s only one single reference in the entire Bible that says anything about an immortal being, and this Being isn’t human. He’s “the King of kings and Lord of lords, who alone has immortality, dwelling in unapproachable light, whom no man has seen or can see, to whom be honor and everlasting power. Amen” (1 Timothy 6:15, 16, NKJV; emphasis added).
Of all the beings in the universe, only God possesses natural immortality. Human beings had immortality before they sinned, but it was reliant on God. The moment human beings sinned, they no longer had immortality.
Fortunately, that doesn’t mean there’s nothing after death. A few verses earlier, Paul was encouraging Timothy to “lay hold on eternal life” (verse 12, NKJV), so we know that the Christian talk about living forever does have a basis in the Bible. We do have hope. It’s just that our hope is not found in death, because death is exactly what it sounds like: the complete absence of life. Our hope comes after the grave, at a time when death will be reversed.
Here’s how the apostle Paul explained it: “The Lord himself [Jesus] will come down from heaven, with a loud command, with the voice of the archangel and with the trumpet call of God, and the dead in Christ will rise first. After that, we who are still alive and are left will be caught up together with them in the clouds to meet the Lord in the air. And so we will be with the Lord forever” (1 Thessalonians 4:16, 17).
So you don’t have to be afraid of death. All you need to do is tell Jesus you’re sorry for the wrong things you’ve done and ask Him to forgive you. He’ll welcome you into His everlasting kingdom when He comes again.