Many Christians are taught that they go to heaven, hell, purgatory, or some other place when they die. They believe that upon death the physical body ceases to function, but the person remains conscious and the soul lives on in spirit form. Is this true?
Life without a Brain?
The first question one should ask is this: Is life without a brain possible? It is not possible for us to shut off a person’s entire body and test whether or not their soul lives on, but it is possible for us to shut off one part of the physical body—the brain.
What happens when a boxer gets knocked out? He loses consciousness. He is completely unaware of anything happening around him. When someone suffers a head injury and loses consciousness, their soul does not go wandering about the earth in a conscious state. On the contrary, they enter a sleep-like state, where they cannot feel, see, or hear anything. They may exist in this state for years, and when they wake up, it seems to them that only an instant of time has passed.
Not only can we tell what happens when our body loses contact with our whole brain, but we can tell what happens when we lose part of our brain. Unfortunately, many people have suffered brain injuries, whether chemically induced, or as the result of disease or injury. In some instances, part of the brain is surgically removed. What happens to the unfortunate soul who loses part of their brain?
Now think this through. Your brain is what enables you to:
Did you know that when part of your brain is damaged it can radically alter who you are? Not only can you lose the ability to think and solve problems and manage your physical body, but when your brain is damaged you can lose the very things that make you unique as a person. You can lose your artistic or musical abilities, your creative genius. You can lose the ability to communicate with others. You can lose your sense of moral judgment so that you can no longer discern right from wrong. You can lose some or all of the memories of who you are. You can even suffer personality changes by having your brain damaged. Your brain houses everything that makes you a unique being. Without a functioning brain, there is nothing of “you” that is left.
Consider those who suffer a blow to the head and have amnesia. They may lose some or all of their memories of who they are. Why? Those memories are stored in the brain. They are not stored in the “spirit” or the “soul” or else a blow to the brain would have no effect on the memory. When your brain ceases to operate, all your memories are gone. As the Bible says, “the dead know nothing.” What good would it do for your soul to live on if your memories died and you had no idea who you were? Not only that, but as stated above, when your brain dies, so ceases all your talents, your judgment, your personality—everything that makes you who you are, is gone. As the Bible says, “….the dead know nothing…their love, their hatred, and their envy have now perished…” (Eccl. 9:5,6) There is NO EVIDENCE that any of these things exist in any way, shape, or form outside of your physical brain. Thus, even if your soul somehow lived on, it would be absolutely devoid of anything that made it uniquely you.
The Biblical view of the soul is that man consists of two parts: Body and Spirit. The Hebrew word ruwach is translated into our English Bibles as “spirit.” It is the same word also used for “breath” and “wind.” When God created man, he made man’s physical body from the dust of the earth, and then “breathed into his nostrils the breath of life, and man became a living being.” (Gen. 2:7)
SOUL = Body (Physical Matter) + Breath of Life (Spirit)
When man dies, the soul ceases to exist. The body returns to the dust, “for dust you are, and to dust you shall return (Gen. 3:19). At death the breath of life returns to God:
“Then shall the dust return to the earth as it was: and the spirit shall return unto God who gave it.” (Eccl. 12:7)
"Thou takest away their breath (spirit), they die, and return to their dust." (Ps. 104:29)
There is no indication anywhere in the Bible that the "spirit" has any consciousness. The Bible teaches that when a man dies, his very thoughts cease.
“His breath goeth forth, he returneth to his earth; in that very day his thoughts perish.” (Ps. 146:4)
Obviously the “spirit” or “breath of life” cannot think, for the thoughts of the brain cease at death. It is not a conscious being that returns to God at death but merely the spark of life.
The Old Testament is very clear that the “soul” itself dies. Ezekiel quotes God Himself who said, “The SOUL who sins shall die.” (Eze. 18:20) The idea that man contains an “immortal soul” is not found anywhere in the Bible. The Bible teaches that God “alone has immortality” (1 Tim. 6:16 NKJV). Paul said that when Jesus returns, at the resurrection of the righteous, it is then that those who have “fallen asleep” shall be raised and “this mortal [must] put on immortality” (1 Cor. 15:18,53)
It is true that when we accept Jesus as our Saviour we obtain the gift of eternal life. However, that does not mean that we are instantly immortal. Paul said that at the resurrection "this mortal must put on immortality". Prior to the resurrection we are mortal. The gift of eternal life is not bestowed until the resurrection:
"Whoso eateth My flesh and drinketh My blood hath eternal life; and I will raise him up at the last day." (John 6:54)
"Every one which seeth the Son, and believeth on Him may have everlasting life; and I will raise him up at the last day." (John 6:40)
So where did this idea of an immortal soul originate? The first lie of the Serpent touched on the very issue of mankind’s mortality:
“And the serpent said unto the woman, Ye shall not surely die.” (Gen. 3:4)
This doctrine of the serpent later found its way into Greek philosophy. The Greeks believed that the human body was a mere shell housing an eternal and immortal soul. This philosophy was widely accepted in the Roman Empire, and it crept into the church after the apostles passed away. This erroneous and unbiblical teaching has led millions of people astray, including many Christians, who have accepted this false doctrine without thoroughly examining the Biblical evidence.
In over 50 instances in the Bible death is described as “sleep.” Sleep is a state of unconsciousness, similar to that of a person whose brain has stopped functioning. Jesus, when referring to Lazarus’ death, said he was asleep. John writes:
“Jesus spoke of his death, but they [disciples] thought that he was speaking about taking rest in sleep.”(John 11:13)
Why didn’t Jesus comfort His disciples by telling them that Lazarus was up in heaven, enjoying the company of God, the angels, Abraham, and the other righteous? Certainly they would have been reassured with the thought that Lazarus’ immortal soul was still alive, enjoying the comforts and bliss of heaven. Jesus did not tell them that because it was not true. Lazarus was asleep in an unconscious state of existence in the dust of the earth. When Jesus called Lazarus back to life, He did not say “Lazarus come down” but “Lazarus come forth.” (John 11:43)
Are they in heaven? Hell? Paradise? Limbo? The Bible says the dead—both righteous and unrighteous—are asleep in the dust, awaiting the resurrection:
“And many of those who sleep in the dust of the earth shall awake, some to everlasting life, some to shame and everlasting contempt.” (Dan. 12:2)
“But man dies and is laid away; Indeed he breathes his last
If the dead went to heaven then surely they would be praising the Lord, but the Bible says:
“The dead do not praise the LORD, Nor any who go down into silence.” (Ps. 115:17)
Paul writes about the righteous who have “fallen asleep”, saying the “dead in Christ” will be raised (1 Thes. 4:14,16). Why would the dead need to be “raised up” if they are already “up” in heaven? When Stephen was stoned Luke does not tell us he went directly to heaven, but merely that he “fell asleep” (Acts 7:60) Peter said that David “did not ascend into the heavens” but “that he is both dead and buried, and his tomb is with us to this day.” (Acts 2:29,34)
Death is a great mystery to all mankind and no one has all the answers. However, if we are to take a Biblical view of death, the weight of the Biblical evidence points to death as an unconscious state of existences. When the brain dies all of our thoughts, feelings, and memories simply cease. The body returns to dust, and the mysterious energy that we call the “spark of life” or the “spirit” returns to God. From the grave we rest awaiting the resurrection, at which time we will receive our reward.
QUESTION: What about Samuel? Didn’t he come back from the dead to talk to Saul?
Saul went to see the witch of Endor, a woman who was known for having “a familiar spirit” (1 Sam. 28:7), or as the NKJV reads, “a medium.” Apparently this woman claimed an ability to communicate with the dead—a practice that God called an “abomination” and had explicitly forbidden (Deut. 18:11,12). Since God had forbidden Jews from attempting to communicate with the dead, calling it an “abomination”, why would He engage in the practice Himself by sending one of the dead down to talk with Saul? Are we to suppose that God engages in “abominations” while telling us not to? What apparently took place was a demonic séance, where the witch of Endor conjured up a spiritual being who purported to be Samuel in order to deceive Saul. We know that fallen angels can appear as angels of light (2 Cor. 11:14), so it should be no surprise that they can appear in the form of human beings.
QUESTION: What about the Rich man and Lazarus?
Jesus told a parable about a poor man named Lazarus who died and went to “Abraham’s bosom” (Luke 16:22). The “rich man” also died and went to “hell” (Luke 16:23). From this place of torment, the rich man saw Abraham and Lazarus. He called out to Abraham and begged him to have Lazarus dip his finger into water and send him to cool his burning tongue. Some Christians say this parable proves that the righteous go to paradise when they die, and the unrighteous go to hell. The question to consider is, must we take everything in this parable to be literal? If we took every Bible parable as literal, then we would believe that mountains sing and trees have hands that clap (Isa. 55:12). If we take everything in this parable as literal, then the righteous go into Abraham’s bosom when they die, from whence they can witness the suffering of the wicked, and can hear their cries. We must also assume the dead have physical bodies because the “rich man” had a “tongue”, Abraham had a “bosom” and Lazarus had a “finger.” Even those who believe in the literal nature of this parable would be forced to agree that not everything portrayed in this parable is literal. The question is, where does the literal end and the symbolic begin? Was Jesus actually teaching the dead are really alive, or was He merely using symbolic language to make another point? The bottom line is that one should not rely upon a parable to determine Biblical truth upon the point of life after death.
QUESTION: Didn’t Jesus say the thief on the cross would be with him in Paradise?
Jesus did indeed tell the thief He would be with Him in Paradise that day. Clearly Jesus did not intend to convey that the thief went to heaven that day, because Jesus did not go to heaven. After His resurrection Jesus told Mary Magdalene not to touch Him because “I am not yet ascended to my Father” (John 20:17) Jesus went to the grave the day He died. Is the grave paradise? No, it is not. However, when the thief died on his cross, he lost consciousness. The very next instant when he awakes in the resurrection, he will be in “paradise”. To him it will seem to him as if he went to “paradise” on the very day that he died.
In the Garden of Eden, God told Adam that if he ate the forbidden fruit, “in the day that thou eatest thereof thou shalt surely die.” (Gen. 2:7) Did Adam die the same day he ate the fruit? No, he died over 900 years later. He received the death sentence the day he ate the fruit, but the actual event took nearly a millennium to come to fruition. Likewise, the thief received a “life sentence” on the day that he died, but the actual fruition of that sentence will be experienced at the resurrection.
At the resurrection the righteous will be “always with the Lord” (1 Thes. 4:17). Jesus did not teach the righteous go to heaven when they die. He taught they go into the grave:
"The dead shall hear the voice of the Son of God; and they that hear shall live. . . . Marvel not at this: for the hour is coming in which all that are in the graves shall hear His voice, and shall come forth; they that have done good unto the resurrection of life and they that have done evil unto the resurrection of damnation." John 5:25-29.
Likewise, Job did not expect to see God until the resurrection day:
“For I know [that] my redeemer liveth, and [that] he shall stand at the latter [day] upon the earth: And [though] after my skin [worms] destroy this [body], yet in my flesh shall I see God.” (Job 19:25,26)
Job did not expect to see God in his spirit after he died. He expected to see Him “in my flesh” at the resurrection of the righteous.
QUESTION: What about Paul being "Absent from the Body"?
Paul talked to his Greek audience in terms they could relate to. In 1 Corinthians 5 he talked about being “absent in body but present in spirit” and able to judge the immorality taking place in the Corinthian church. Paul was not saying that his soul separated from his physical body and went floating around in Corinth. Rather it means that he was unconscious to things going on around him at his current location while God supernaturally took control of Paul’s consciousness in vision and took him to another place.
In 2 Corinthians 5 Paul talked again of being absent from the body:
“…whilst we are at home in the body, we are absent from the Lord…and willing rather to be absent from the body, and to be present with the Lord.” (2 Cor. 5:6,8)
Just as at Corinth where Paul was given a supernatural view of events taking place there while his physical body was many miles away, Paul talks to the Greeks about wanting to be absent from his physical body and present with the Lord. This is not something that Paul could do at will. He could not separate his soul from his body and float up to heaven to be with the Lord. Rather, the Lord used His supernatural power to carry Paul’s consciousness to another place in vision.
Some have claimed they can project their consciousness outside their being, but this is not a capability inherent to man. The author knows of a man who was experimenting with projecting his consciousness outside of his being, a practice sometimes referred to as “astral projection.” Unbeknown to him, his projections were not a result of his own human capabilities, but were a result of supernatural powers imbued into him by spirit beings. During one of his “astral projections” a spirit being entered his mind and possessed him. He required much prayer in order to get the evil spirit ejected from his body. He had been deceived into thinking that consciousness existed apart from his body and brain. His consciousness was not projected outside his body, but he was simply deceived by spirits into thinking he was elsewhere, and while thus distracted, the real source of his projection powers moved into his body and attempted to wrest control from him.
In Philippians 1:23 Paul talked about departing to “be with Christ”, in the same letter he said he was looking forward to attaining “the resurrection of the dead.” (Philip. 3:11) If Paul was going to be with Christ in Heaven immediately at his death, then there would be little to look forward to at the resurrection. If, however, Paul was asleep in the grave, then he had everything to look forward to at the resurrection of the dead when he would be with Christ forever. As Paul looked forward to his death, he wrote of a “crown of righteousness” that would be given him on the day of judgment at His “appearing” (2 Tim. 4:8). Examining the totality of what Paul said, and not looking at a single verse in exclusion, while it is evident that Paul used the familiar language of the Greeks when talking to them, the weight of the evidence points to Paul believing death to be a sleep, and the reward of the righteous coming at the Resurrection, and not upon death.
QUESTION: What about Near-death and After-death Experiences?
There have been a number of reports of those who have experienced near-death experiences in which they see themselves departing from this world and entering the presence of God, or in some cases, entering a place of torment. Others have had close friends or relatives pass away, and later receive visits from these deceased people who appear to them in spirit form and communicate with them. Don’t these experiences provide proof that man has an immortal soul, and that when the body dies, the soul goes to heaven or hell?
While there are some similarities in near-death experiences, there are many people who experience near-death without ever experiencing anything at all. Why do some people experience wonderful visions of God and heaven, while others experience nothing whatsoever? There are several possibilities. One possibility is that the mind enters a brief dream-like state near death, and that these visions are merely dreams. These dreams are triggered by dramatic near-death experiences in some people and are the by-product of previously-held beliefs. For example, I saw one man relate his experience of visiting heaven. He briefly described the beauties of it, then mentioned seeing the apostles, and then proceeded at great length to describe Mary, the Queen of Heaven. Obviously, this man was a fervent Catholic believer, and his “visions” of heaven were in accordance with his prior faith.
Another man I knew told me of a near-death experience he had, where he died and was ushered into the presence of a loving god. However, by his own admission this man was not living a Christian life. Was this an actual event or merely a dream?
Some have had their deceased friends and relatives appear to them, whereas others have never seen any dead relative or friend appear to them. Why the difference? Perhaps the visits are nothing more than manifestations of a person’s own grief. Or perhaps they are visits from spirits pretending to be dead relatives. No one knows for sure. What we do know for sure is that we cannot rely on such random and divergent occurrences as proof of what happens after death. Our only safety is relying upon the Word of God, which says the dead have nothing more to do with anything that happens under the sun.
QUESTION: Aren't the souls of the dead under the Altar?
Revelation 6:9-11 describes the souls of the martyrs as being “under the altar” and they “cried out with a loud voice” asking for vengeance. Some have offered this verse as proof that the righteous are conscious up in heaven, but is that the case? Are we to take the symbolic language of Revelation literally and suppose that the souls of the righteous are floating around in heaven under the altar crying out for vengeance? God told Cain that “the voice of thy brother’s blood crieth unto me from the ground.” (Gen. 4:10) Does this mean that blood has the capacity to make audible noises? Of course not! God is using a figure of speech. Likewise, John is using the symbolic figure of the martyrs’ souls under the altar crying out for vengeance. There is no reason to believe this is a literal reference to the circumstances or state of the dead.