8. The Consciousness of the Soul After Death
Is the soul conscious after death? This is not a new question. For centuries there have been certain religionists who have contended that the soul existed after death but that it was not conscious. Upon investigation, some of you may be surprised to know of the wide-spread belief in the teaching of the sleeping of the soul. Because of the universal interest in the whereabouts of the dead, false sects prey upon the public, claiming complete knowledge of the subject. Such groups as Jehovah’s Witnesses, spiritualists and others have spread the sophistical conclusion that at death the body returns to dust and the soul becomes unconscious.
Such statements as the following are but a few of the distortions and perversions of the Holy Scriptures that have to do with the soul after death. “At death, it is not the body but the soul which dies.” “The interim from death until the soul is resurrected is one of unconsciousness.” “Even the apostles were unconscious for centuries.” These assertions are being made by the advocates of the teachings of Russell and Rutherford, but they are the views of the men themselves, imposed upon the Holy Scriptures. These ideas were read into the Bible, but were never in the mind of the inspired writers.
Man Is Created to Endless Existence
Every human being enters the world possessed with endless existence. It is true that at death the soul is separated from the body. It is not consistent with the teaching of the Bible to say that at death the soul lapses into a state of complete unconsciousness or even into a deep sleep. If at first glance it would seem that the Bible teaches this, then we will do well to examine those passages where death is referred to as sleep. The few texts that mendacious scholars have dislodged from their context in order to prove that physical death is the cessation of all consciousness can be easily and understandingly explained when interpreted in the light of the many other passages that deal with this subject.
In Ecclesiastes we read “The dead know not anything” (Ecclesiastes 9:5). Certainly we all agree that a dead and deteriorating body has absolutely no consciousness of anything past, present, or future. But are the advocates of “soul-sleep” justified in using the above text as evidence of the unconscious state of the soul after death? We believe that this method using a text to support a false theory that elsewhere is denied in Scripture, proves that those who stoop to such methods either are untruthful or deficient. Those who teach “soul-sleep” will find it quite difficult to harmonize their views with other statements that are made by the same writer of Ecclesiastes:
Then shall the dust return to the earth as it was: and the spirit shall return unto God Who gave it (Ecclesiastes 12:7).
All go unto one place; for all are of the dust, and all turn to dust again (Ecclesiastes 3:20).
Now we know that this verse is speaking of the body, for in the next verse we read:
Who knoweth the spirit of man that goeth upward? (Ecclesiastes 3:21).
Only Man’s Body Dies (or sleeps)
In Scripture we read that man sleeps, but the sleep always is identified with the body. Never once does the Bible refer to the soul sleeping. Where some fall into danger is in identifying man merely with his body and in ignoring the fact that he is a triune being. Man is a trinity; body, soul and spirit. Now the body is not the whole man. Therefore it cannot be concluded that the death of the body is the death of the whole man.
Another misconstrued verse is found in the prophecy of Daniel where we read:
And many of them that sleep in the dust of the earth shall awake, some to everlasting life, and some to shame and everlasting contempt (Daniel 12:2).
Some scholars question whether this verse has anything to do with physical resurrection. Dr. A. C. Gaebelein in his commentary on Daniel says that if physical resurrection were taught in this verse, the passage would clash with the revelation concerning resurrection in the New Testament, for there is no general resurrection for the righteous and wicked together. “We repeat the passage has nothing to do with physical resurrection. Physical resurrection is, however, used as a figure of the national revival of Israel in that day. They have been sleeping nationally in the dust of the earth, buried among the Gentiles. But at that time there will take place a national restoration, a bringing together of the house of Judah and of Israel.
It is the same figure as used in the vision of the dry bones in Ezekiel 37. This vision is employed by men who have invented the theory of a second chance and larger hope for the wicked dead to back up their evil teaching; but anyone can see that it is not a bodily resurrection, but a national revival and restoration of that people. Their national graves, not literal burying places, will be opened and the Lord will bring them forth out of all the countries into which they have been scattered. The same distinction holds good which we have already pointed out. The great mass of Jews, who cast their belief in God and His Word to the winds, who accepted the man of sin and acknowledged the wicked King, will face everlasting contempt, but the remnant will possess all things promised to them and become the heirs of that Kingdom, which is prepared from the foundation of the world. And besides the national blessing which they receive, they will be in possession of everlasting life, for they are born again.” We have given this rather lengthy quotation for the reason that some readers may not be acquainted with this view.
However, even if the above interpretation of verse two is not correct, but a physical resurrection is intended, certainly Daniel would not be referring to anything except the resurrection of the body. We are not to conclude for his body.
The New Testament Teaches
Man’s Endless Conscious Existence
The citation of a few New Testament verses make it clear that man’s conscious existence is endless.
And the graves were opened; and many bodies of the saints which slept arose (Matthew 27:52).
Please notice how the Holy Spirit says that the “bodies” slept. Jesus said:
Our friend Lazarus sleepeth; but I go, that I may awake him out of sleep . . . Then said Jesus unto them plainly, Lazarus is dead (John 11:11, 14).
Death to our Lord was never anything more than sleep. It is a figure of speech that the Bible applies, for there is never a pause in our consciousness. It was the body of Lazarus that was dead. It was his body that Martha said “stinketh: for he hath been dead four days.” When Jesus said plainly that Lazarus was dead, He could mean only his body, for when He added: “I go, that I may awake Him out of sleep,” He did this by raising the body of Lazarus from death and the grave. We read in verse forty-four: “And he that was dead came forth, bound hand and foot with grave clothes.” The part of Lazarus that was dead was that part of him that was bound “hand and foot, and his face.”
Since the soul of man never dies, and the soul is as much a part of man as is his body, then we may say that the dead are alive. The writer became convinced that there was never a pause in man’s consciousness while thinking upon the last words of dying men. Think for a moment of our Lord’s last words as He hung dying upon the Cross. He said: “Father, into Thy hands I commend my spirit: and having said thus, He gave up the ghost” (Luke 23:46). Only a little over three decades before, Christ had come from the presence of the Father, His spirit having taken its abode in the body prepared by God in the womb of the Virgin. He came to bring life and immortality to light through His Gospel. He came, not to bring immortality, but to reveal it and to show man that he could have everlasting life.
By finishing His task He fulfilled every demand of God’s righteous law. He offered His life a ransom for sin, and then departed this life. Jesus knew that His Father was watching, listening eagerly and intently; so with every confidence He spoke to the Father with the consciousness that His task was well done. Then His words, “Into Thy hands I commend My Spirit,” is the doctrine of immortality. Here Christ is teaching the world the survival of the spiritual part of man after his physical body has died. Death to Jesus was but a passage into the presence of God, not a cold unconscious condition. He knew all about life and death, and He left us with divine assurance that only the body dies. The spirit continues to exist in a conscious state.
Another of our Lord’s last words from the Cross proves that death touches only the physical part of man. Let us give consideration to the malefactor hanging on the cross next to the Lord Jesus. This man had not joined the jeering mob, but instead he acknowledged Christ in the face of the Roman opposition. With a contrite spirit and simple faith he said: “Jesus, Lord, remember me when Thou comest into Thy kingdom” (Luke 23:42). The world shall never forget the words which Jesus answered the dying thief. With the soul of this criminal at the very portals of Hell, the dying Saviour said to the dying sinner: “Today shalt thou be with me in Paradise.” They were killing his body to be sure, but Jesus promised him that there would be no time of waiting, no pause of sleep or unconsciousness of the soul. Jesus assured him that before that very day had come to a close, he would still be alive and with Christ in Paradise. These words of Christ from the Cross manifest the supreme confidence that He had in a place of blissful life immediately after the believer takes his departure from this earth. If we are called away from this earth today, then “today”--not at some distant period--but immediately, on that very day we shall ascend into His presence. The death of the body is the gateway into a fuller and larger life into which the soul passes.
There will be no sluggishness nor insensibility after death. Dr. Rimmer writes: “The phenomenon of sleep is peculiar to the flesh alone. The soul, the spirit, and the mentality never sleep, and that is why we dream. In that great study that is called the psychology of dreams, it is conceded that all dreams are the result of past experience. The past experiences may be either mental or physical, but all dreams are predicated upon some past event. When the body succumbs to the influence of sleep, the spirit or soul, in which is resident the consciousness of self, goes off on the amazing peregrinations that men call dreams.” There is a remarkable power of the subconscious mind even when the body is asleep.
The martyrdom of Stephen is a strong argument in favor of the supremacy and the survival of the spiritual part of man. When they stoned Stephen to death, we read that “he fell asleep.” This could have no reference whatever to the soul, for it was his body they had pummeled with rocks. As Stephen’s body went to its death, earth was receding but Heaven’s gate approaching. He knew that he was entering into another sphere of the living. He prayed: “Lord Jesus, receive my spirit” (Acts 7:59). This disciple of Christ did not seek to postpone death or to fight it off. His murderers held no fear for him. He remembered the words of Jesus: “Be not afraid of them that kill the body, and after that have no more that they can do” (Luke 12:4). It is the assurance of immortality and eternal life that enables the servants of Jesus Christ to bear suffering, face all opposition, and die if they are called upon to do so. The scoffing and the scorning of the enemies of Christ can never cheat us out of the presence of our Lord and the place that He has prepared for us.
The Apostle Paul gives us a glimpse into his inner life in an experience that appears only once in all of his writings.
It is not expedient for me doubtless to glory. I will come to visions and revelations of the Lord. I knew a man in Christ above fourteen years ago, (whether in the body, I cannot tell, or whether out of the body, I cannot tell: God knoweth;) such an one caught up to the third heaven. And I knew such a man, (whether in the body, or out of the body, I cannot tell; God knoweth;) How that He was caught up into paradise, and heard unspeakable words, which it is not lawful for a man to utter (2 Corinthians 12:1-4).
In this singular but rich experience of Paul’s there is valuable material that bears upon our subject. So personal and sacred was this experience that Paul is reticent to tell. There is no doubt that the mighty Apostle is referring to himself, although he refers to himself in the third person. Fourteen years before the writing of this Epistle, Paul says that he was caught up into the “third heaven,” also called “paradise.” The Bible speaks of three heavens. There is the atmospheric heaven in which the birds fly, the heaven where the stars shine, and the third heaven, called paradise, where God is and where His glory is set forth. It was into the third heaven, into the presence of God, where the great apostle was taken. If we study the chronology of Paul’s journeys and labors we find that a little more than fourteen years before he wrote his Epistle to the Corinthians he was laboring at Lystra (Acts 14:19). There the Jews stoned him and dragged him outside the city supposing he had been dead. It is generally believed that his experience in paradise to which he refers took place at Lystra while he lay unconscious. He tells us that he was so enraptured by the glories that he saw in Heaven that he did not know whether or not he was there in body--“whether in the body, I cannot tell; or whether out of the body, I cannot tell: God knoweth.” Do not overlook the teaching here. It is possible to be fully conscious and yet be absent from the body. Such clear and unmistakable teaching as this of the Apostle Paul defies and defeats the theory of “soul-sleep.”
There are three accounts of our Lord’s raising the dead. Each time He approached the dead and spoke to him as if he were alive. To the son of the widow of Nain He said: “Young man, I say unto thee, Arise” (Luke 7:14). When Christ came to the daughter of Jairus, we are told: “He took her by the hand, and called, saying, Maid, arise” (Luke 8:54). Finally, He said to the brother of Mary and Martha: “Lazarus, come forth” (John 11:43). In each case Jesus speaks to the person as if he were alive. We can only answer that each was alive. As G. Campbell Morgan says: “The body was dead. The man was not dead. No man is ever dead when his body lies dead!” The soul of man will never enter into a state of non-existence nor unconsciousness.
In Christ’s account of the rich man and Lazarus we have the matter summed up and settled that the soul is conscious after death. Both men died and were buried. Though their bodies were in the graves, each of them was alive and conscious. The rich man in Hell could see, hear, speak, and feel (Luke 16:19-31).
Let the unsaved heed God’s warning. There is a life after death. The unsaved and the saved will be separated from each other. The lost will doubtless carry with them some memories of the past, and their retribution for rejecting Christ will be endless.
But let the believer take courage and be comforted. When we move out of this tabernacle, the real man will leave the body and enter into the presence of the Lord.