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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, inverse 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.

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, 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:

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.

By Tim Staples



  1. Patrick Gannon Reply

    Either argument can be supported, depending on the interpretation, and appropriate mixing and matching of scriptures to derive support for just about any position one chooses. Had this holy book actually been “inspired” one would expect an all-powerful being not to have left so much up to human interpretation. One would also expect that an all-powerful being who inspired the book would have found a way to preserve the original manuscripts so we’d know what was actually written.
    For me the interesting thing is that Sheol (which was translated to the pagan word “Hell” along with Gehenna, Hades and Tartarus), does not appear to have been a place of punishment. One languished there, good and bad alike, in permanent unconsciousness until the end of time, at which point, some Jews believed you would be judged and either rewarded or destroyed. Other Jews believed you were just dead. In order to get eternal punishment in a physical place of torment we had to await the “good news” of Jesus. Now, when we die, we are judged immediately and if we failed to believe, say or do the right things in our short lives here, we are sent to billions and trillions of years of eternal torment in hellfire. I’m really having trouble finding the “good news” here. I wonder if the “bad” people in Sheol were sent to Hell, or if they were “destroyed” as they expected, after Jesus opened the gates of Sheol. Destruction would certainly be more fair and just, regardless of the crime, than eternal torment. Only a monster could invoke such punishment, or even threaten to invoke such punishment. We know what good and evil are (Gen 3:22), and any decent human being knows that sending anyone for any reason to eternal punishment is the very epitome of evil. Fortunately Jesus was speaking allegorically about the Gehenna town dump, so he’s really not as evil as the RCC tried to make him. It was a clever way to switch attention from Jesus’ real enemies – the clergy, and to empower them to scare the crap out of the rest of us. They are the bad guys that Jesus tried to save the Jews from, and unfortunately he failed miserably. The clergy are as corrupt as they ever were. Just read the news – day after day, some member of the clergy is being called out for rape, abuse, child porn, theft, etc.
    What this ancient book of myths says about consciousness is of little value however. What matters is what science learns as we continue to explore the brain. Whether consciousness survives death is not a question that can be solved by moldy books. It may take some time yet, but we’ll figure it out. At the moment, most of the evidence indicates that consciousness does not survive the death of the brain. Rather than debating competing passages from ancient mythology books, we should exercise patience and wait to see what we discover. All we know for sure is that we don’t know.

  2. wacoi Reply

    Patrick Gannon, there is very much we can learn from this ancient book( and its not moldy)When the Lord opens up one’s mind to understand it’s amazing. Science will not tell us, we know because even science cannot explain it. (It should have by now)Believing is a choice and no one will force or scare you into believing in God. He reveals to us step by step and slowly, He says you cannot understand this until the spirit of truth, the holy spirit reveals it. Christ never failed in anything, he accomplished everything.Only he will reveal to you the truth no one else. He is loving and compassionate.

    1. Patrick Gannon Reply

      Science has proven the bible wrong again and again and again. The earth is not the center of the universe, it was not created in 6 days, there was no global flood, evolution explains how we developed and it debunks the possibility of original sin. Science tells us that natural events like volcanoes, floods, comets, etc. are not caused by Yahweh. Archaeology tells us there was no mass Exodus out of Egypt or conquest of Canaan. Science tells us that epilepsy is not caused by demons (as Jesus believed). Most of all, it tells us that Jesus had absolutely no knowledge of technology beyond his time. He even told people it was not necessary to wash their hands before eating. If he had truly been an all-knowing god and simply shared a little information about germs and sanitation, he could have saved millions of people. Jesus clearly didn’t know any more about germs than anyone else of his time – otherwise he permitted millions of people to die in unnecessary agony in the 1800+ years following his visit, until germs were discovered, and that can hardly be called loving and compassionate. If Jesus was a god and knew about germs, then he’s not a good god, and his primary objective must be to watch us die miserably of something he could have prevented.
      There are only a few things left to explain – how the Big Bang started, how life first replicated, and the hard question of consciousness and the associated question of free will. It may take time to solve these difficult questions. We really only started a couple centuries ago, and didn’t really get serious about some of these things till the last 50 years. The Abrahamic religions were getting this stuff wrong for 2800 years or so. The entire foundation for the Abrahamic religions has pretty much been washed out from beneath them.
      Today no one will force me into believing in God in the country I live in – but in some countries, they might. However in days gone by, the Church forced people to believe in God or burn at the stake, and to suffer some of the most inhumane and pornographic tortures ever devised by the minds of evil clergymen. Even today the Church scares people, especially children into believing in God, telling them they will burn in torment for eternity if they fail to do so. Don’t tell me nobody will scare us into believing in God – that’s the entire modus operandi for all the Abrahamic religions, but particularly for Christianity. I don’t think Christianity can survive without the fear – that’s what it’s based on. The very premise is that we’re born damned and have to believe, say and do the right things or suffer eternal consequences. That’s all about fear – don’t tell me nobody is going to scare us into believing in God; that’s what it’s all about.
      You say that we can’t understand things until the holy spirit reveals it. Surely you realize that means we have no free will. You’re saying that nothing is up to us – it’s up to the holy spirit or God predestined it before we were born. Sending people to eternal punishment when you know in advance that they are going, and not preventing or stopping it, is about as evil as it gets.
      You say Christ never failed in anything, but I understood that his goal was to save us all – however only those predestined to believe, say and do the right things will be saved. Jesus failed to save everyone, didn’t he? If he was loving and compassionate, he wouldn’t send anyone to Hell, but Christians are convinced that he does just that, to those who don’t believe what they believe. I am unconvinced by your argument….

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