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Do the “Dead Know Nothing?”

The toughest texts to deal with concerning the natural immortality of the soul are found in the Old Testament. These are the go-to verses for Adventists, Jehovah’s Witnesses, and others who deny it. One way you can go about explaining things to them is to go to the manifold and obvious texts in the New Testament that clearly teach the human soul to be immortal. These would include Jesus’ teaching about the afterlife in his parable of Lazarus and the rich man in Luke 16:19-31 (there Jesus indicates there is an immediate or “particular” judgment and either reward or punishment at the point of death), the various texts that teach of the eternity of Hell (Matt. 25:41; 46; Rev. 14:9-11; Rev. 20:10-15, etc.), etc.

These and more texts we could use from the New Testament are crucial to the discussion, but not necessarily compelling, I have found, unless one can also deal with those “go-to” texts from the Old Testament. We will examine three of them here:

Man that is born of a woman is of few days, and full of trouble. He comes forth like a flower, and withers; he flees like a shadow, and continues not… For there is hope for a tree, if it be cut down, that it will sprout again, and that its shoots will not cease… But man dies, and is laid low; man breathes his last, and where is he?… Oh, that thou wouldst hide me in Sheol, that thou wouldst conceal me until thy wrath be past, that thou wouldest appoint me a set time, and remember me! If a man die, shall he live again?… His sons come to honor, and he does not know it; they are brought low, and he perceives it not. He feels only the pain of his own body, and he mourns only for himself (Job 14).

“His sons come to honor, and he does not know it?” To many, this text is clear: there is no consciousness after death. Further, the author compares the death of a man to a tree getting cut down. He says the tree has the advantage! The tree continues to live, whereas a man will not. Seems like an open and shut case. But not so fast! If we examine the context here we see quite a different story. Job is speaking of death being the final end to this life. He is not denying that there is an afterlife. There are three points to consider in order to clear up this apparent difficulty:

1.  Job compares man to a tree, which continues to blossom again; or “return” to this life. Man does not. He is not denying an afterlife. Job obviously believes man will be resurrected. He says as much in Job 19:25: “For I know that my redeemer lives, and at last he will stand upon the earth; and after my skin has been thus destroyed, then from my flesh I shall see God.” Job simply declares what all Christians believe: a man that dies will not return to this life.

2. In verses 13-14, as Fr. William Most has said, in his book, Apologetics Today, “[Job] indulges a fanciful wish, saying he would like to hide, without dying in Sheol, the underworld, until God’s wrath has passed.” This is an understandable wish in the midst of terrible suffering. It is in this context that he says, in verse 14, “If a man dies shall he live again?” Job knows that you cannot go to Sheol and return to this life. We know this is what he is referring to because, as we have seen, in Job 19:25, Job explicitly teaches that there will be a resurrection of the body. So the dead will return, but not to this life.

3. What about the part that says the sons of the dead man “come to honor, and he does not know it; they are brought low, and he perceives it not?” Job is writing at a time, before the advent of Christ, when the dead did not experience the Beatific Vision. The “limbo of the fathers” as it is called was somewhat mysterious.

Again, Fr. Most says:

Job talks of the future life as he knew it, and as Jews thought of it. Job and his people thought of life [after death] as a drab survival—which is what it really was before the death of Christ. It was a dim limbo of the fathers, in which they had no means of knowing what transpired on earth, whether their children suffered or prospered [barring a special revelation given by God to the souls in Sheol for a special purpose as we see in the cases of Samuel (I Samuel 28:15), perhaps Rachel (Jeremiah 31:15), certainly Jeremiah and Onias (II Maccabees 15:11-15), and Moses and Elijah on the Mountain of the Transfiguration (Luke 9:30-31)]. By way of the beatific vision of God [the holy soul of the departed] can know what goes on on earth. But without that vision he cannot. And that vision was not to be had in the days of Job, not until Jesus died.

It is interesting to note, as Fr. Most also points out, this text from Job 14 is far from disproving a belief in the afterlife; it actually demonstrates it to be true:

So, Job says that the dead man feels only his pain. The fact that he feels pain shows his continued existence. So there is an afterlife.

The “limbo of the fathers” was a shadowy sort of existence that we just do not know everything about. And neither did Job. This “pain” in the afterlife of which he speaks may well be a reference to the separation of body and soul at death and the longing for the resurrection. This makes sense when we again consider Job 19:25. Job said, “I know that my Redeemer lives, and at last he will stand upon the earth; and after my skin has been thus destroyed, then from my flesh I shall see God.” It would certainly make sense that Job would communicate a sense of “pain” in that the righteous dead are awaiting that which will finally complete them as human persons. Most important however is the fact that Job indicates “feeling” after death.

Psalm 6:3-6:

My soul is sorely troubled. But thou, O Lord—how long? Turn, O Lord, save my life; deliver me for the sake of thy steadfast love. In death there is no remembrance of thee; in Sheol who can give thee praise?

“’In death there is no remembrance of thee?’ How can it get any clearer than that?” says the Adventist. Fr. Most, quoting Scripture scholar Mitchell Joseph Dahood, S.J., responds:

The psalmist suffers not because of the inability to remember Yahweh in Sheol [Hell], but from being unable to share in the praise of Yahweh which characterizes Israel’s worship.

Psalm 6 is a Psalm of David written “to the choirmaster” in order for it to be sung in the context of the liturgical worship of the People of God. This is the worship of God that David loved so much. In Sheol there would be no Tabernacle, no Temple, no choir and no grand communal worship. There would be no “remembrance” of God in the liturgy. No “praise” of God in the assembly. This was the desire of David’s heart all of his life as we see here in Psalm 27:4:

One thing have I asked of the Lord, that will I seek after; that I may dwell in the house of the Lord all the days of my life, to behold the beauty of the Lord, and to inquire in his temple.

David does not want to be deprived of the glorious praise of God. Fr. Most continues:

Isaiah 38:18 also has similar language: “For Sheol will not thank you [nor] death praise you.” The verb for praise, hallel, in Hebrew is precisely the same verb used in I Chr. 16:4 and II Chr. 5:13 and 31:2 for the liturgical praise of God. That of course would not take place in Hell [sheol].

A good way to see vividly the difference between the after-life occasioned by the life, death, burial and resurrection of Christ in the New Covenant verses the after-life in the Old Covenant is to note the different ways death is viewed in each Testament. David, in Psalm 6, does not want to die because in death existence was less appealing than life in this world. Not just for the damned—of course that would be true—but for the just. In the New Covenant, we see just the opposite. St. Paul says:

For to me to live is Christ, and to die is gain. If it is to be life in the flesh, that means fruitful labor for me. Yet which I shall choose I cannot tell. I am hard pressed between the two. My desire is to depart and be with Christ, for that is far better. But to remain in the flesh is more necessary on your account (Phil 1:21-24).

Only an understanding of the immortality of the soul and the glory of the beatific vision awaiting the faithful after the resurrection of Christ can make sense of this text. If there is nothing—but nothing—in death, then St. Paul should be saying with David, “I don’t want to die!” St. Paul says plainly that death in friendship with Christ is “far better” than life in this present world.

Eccl. 9:10:

For there is no work or thought or knowledge or wisdom in Sheol, to which you are going.

That sounds like we should join the local Seventh-day Adventist community, doesn’t it? What gives? As always, the key is context. Beginning at verse 5 of this chapter, we read:

For the living know that they will die, but the dead know nothing, and they have no more reward; but the memory of them is lost. Their love and their hate and their envy have already perished, and they have no more for ever any share in all that is done under the sun. Go, eat your bread with enjoyment… Enjoy life with the wife who you love… which he has given you under the sun. Whatever your hand finds to do, do it with your might; for there is no work or thought or knowledge or wisdom in Sheol, to which you are going. Again, I saw that under the sun the race is not to the swift…

Notice how many times the inspired author said “under the sun?” Three times in these few short verses! The inspired author does not say the dead have no existence at all. The context reveals that he was saying the dead have nothing to do with, and no knowledge of, what is happening “under the sun” as I’ve said before. But, in the end, the writer of Ecclesiastes knows that justice is coming in the next life. So certain is he of this that he can say in the final two verses of the book (Eccl. 12:13-14):

The end of the matter; all has been heard. Fear God, and keep his commandments; for this is the whole duty of man. For God will bring every deed into judgment, with every secret thing, whether good or evil.

The writer of Ecclesiastes is focusing upon what happens “under the sun” until the very end when he tells us that the after-life is the place where everything will finally make sense. He does not attempt to give us an in-depth teaching of the nature of the after-life. He simply assures his readers that ultimate justice awaits in God’s good time.

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