2.18 Death is Total Unconsciousness; Hell is the Grave

2.18 Death is total unconsciousness; hell is the grave; " like sheep they are laid in the grave" , all those with whom we mix. " And the upright shall have dominion over them in the morning" . There is no immortal soul; the Hebrew word nephesh or ‘soul’ refers to the life / person.

The neo-Platonists showed the moral danger of believing in an immortal soul. They reasoned that since body and soul are totally different from each other, therefore immoral conduct by the body doesn’t affect the inner man. Yet once we realize that the same Hebrew word nephesh is translated both ‘soul’ and ‘body’, it becomes apparent that the actions of our body cannot be separated from our ‘soul’ or essential being. The Bible faces us up to the death issue. To consider the reality of one’s own death, and that death is truly total unconsciousness, marvelously focuses the mind. It cuts through the chatter and noise and distraction of our mind, refocusing us upon the things that ultimately matter. Many religions, wrong and confused as they may be on many other issues, have correctly discerned that contemplation of one’s own death is a vital part on personal transformation. What would happen if you were to die today…? What would your gravestone look like… These are the sorts of questions we can profitably meditate upon, once we grasp true Bible teaching about the death state and the hope of resurrection.


As in our own day, literature and thought of Bible times tried to minimize death. Yet in both Old and New Testaments, death is faced for what it is. Job 18:14 calls it "the king of terrors"; Paul speaks of death as the last and greatest enemy (1 Cor. 15:26). Humanity lives all their lives "in fear of death" (Heb. 2:17). Facing death for what it is imparts a seriousness and intensity to human life and endeavour, keeps our sense of responsibility to God paramount, and the correct functioning of conscience all important. We see this in people facing death; but those who've grasped Bible truth about death ought to live like this all the time, rejoicing too that we have been delivered from it. Because we do not have an immortal soul that is somehow recycled into us through reincarnation, our soul / life is given to us by God. In the parable of the rich fool, the Lord says that in the day of his death, his soul was “required” of him (Lk. 12:20). The Greek word for ‘required’ means ‘to ask back, to request to be given again’. The fact we have life [a ‘soul’] makes us responsible to God; and at the judgment we will be asked to give that life back to Him with an account. And, as the parable shows, this utterly precludes a focus upon material acquisition. The Lord goes on to say that therefore we should take no anxious thought about what our soul will eat or wear- because our soul / life is in fact God’s soul / life, and He will care for it until He takes it back to Himself (Lk. 12:22). The soul is greater than food and clothes (Lk. 12:23 Gk.). The wonder that we are alive, with God’s life in us, should be far greater to us than what we feed or clothe it with. Because we can’t take that life out of ourselves until God does, nor can we give it to another person, nor can we make our body / soul grow taller, therefore we should not take anxious thought for the material things related to it, which are all peripheral compared to the wonder of the fact that we have life from God: “why take ye thought for the rest [Gk. ‘the things that are left over / extraneous’]?” (Lk. 12:26). And to drive the point home, we are bidden “consider” (s.w. ‘discover’) the birds and plants, who are simply content with the life God has given them. This was the Lord’s way of doing what Solomon did in Ecc. 3:17-20- showing that man and plants and animals are all possessed of the same God-given spirit / life. As Gen. 2:7; Ecc. 12:7 make clear, the spirit / life is given by God to our bodies; it doesn’t come from anywhere else. There is no reincarnation. And this is no painless Bible fact; it demands that we live lives that are His, and not lived out as if our spirit / life / soul is ours. The fact that God “holdeth our soul inlife”, a reference to Gen. 2:7, means that David wanted to “make the voice of his praise to be heard” (Ps. 66:8,9). This was the meaning of the basic facts of creation for David!

Preservation Of Others

The fact God has given us life and preserves our soul (the Hebrew word nephesh) means that we likewise should seek to save and preserve the life of others, through our preaching and spiritual care of them: “If thou forbear to deliver them that are drawn unto death, and those that are ready to be slain; if thousayest, Behold, we knew it not; doth not he that pondereth the heart consider it? and he that keepeth thy soul, doth not he know it? and shall not he render to every man according to his works?” (Prov. 24:11,12). The emphasis is surely upon God keeping our soul meaning that we must keep the soul of others. Paul Tournier has argued that the [false] doctrine of an immortal soul has resulted in a devaluing of the human person: “Almost all of our contemporaries have a view of man which is far more Platonic than Christian, a view that sets a naturally immortal soul over against a body which has been reduced to the role of a transitory, noxious, contemptible garment”(1). The Christian salvation is “the salvation of the body”; our real, present person and body really matters; who we are and how we live, using the talents of our health and bodies, is of crucial importance. Sickness and death become positive, rather than negative, for the true believer. For they are all in the context of God’s hand in our hands.


There was once a master butcher, working in Harrod's- one of the most prestigious butcheries in central London. He was an earnest Christian, and over the counter there was a simple hand-written notice: " Like sheep they are laid in the grave" . And many noticed that, and over the years, came to accept the Faith. Realizing the tragic brevity and ultimate vanity of the human experience " under the sun" will motivate us to bring this to the attention of the perishing millions with whom we rub shoulders daily. If we see the tragedy of life under the sun and realize we have been redeemed from it, we must say something to somebody! And on a personal level, the fact David knew that after death he would not go on praising God in Heaven, resulted in him wanting to live his mortal life only to utter forth God's praise. The only reason he wanted to stay alive was to praise God (Ps. 6:5; 115:17,18). And Hezekiah too had something of this spirit.

We shouldn't see the mortality of man and the true meaning of the Hebrew word nephesh as a negative thing that we unfortunately have to tell people who believe their loved ones are alive in Heaven. " The voice" tells Isaiah to cry. " And I said, What shall I cry?" (Is. 40:6 LXX; RVmg.). What was to be the message of Isaiah's Gospel? The voice addresses Isaiah as " O thou that tellest good tidings" , and tells him the good news he is to preach. It is that " All flesh is grass…the people is grass. The grass withereth, the flower fadeth: but the word of our God shall stand for ever" . The reality of man's mortality is the backdrop against which we can see the eternity of God and the offer made to us through His abiding word that we really can escape from our condition. Christian preaching about " man is mortal" need not be bad news. The message can be turned into good news! For it was this message of mortality which prepared the way for men to accept Christ (Is. 40:3-5); the mountains of human pride are made low by this message so that we can accept salvation in Christ. 1 Pet. 1:24 RVmg. quotes these verses and concludes that we are being offered salvation through " the word of the God who liveth for ever" - the Gospel that is prefaced by the message of human mortality. God's eternity and man's mortality are placed side by side- and thus the way is prepared for the wonder of the fact that through " the word" of Jesus, of the Gospel, we the mortal are invited to share in that immortality.

The fact that sin really does result in eternal death, and that death is really unconsciousness, there is no immortal soul, the Hebrew word nephesh doesn't mean that, leads us to preachthe hope of resurrection which we have. It must do- for otherwise we would be plain selfish. And it makes us realize for ourselves the decisiveness and finality of this life's decisions for the determining of eternal destiny. The hope of resurrection is the first and most basic need of our fellows.

Not Being Materialistic

Ps. 49:16-20, in its context, warns against striving for material things and not envying the rich, because death for them is an eternal unconsciousness. And more positively, because there can be no activity, mentally or physically, in the grave...therefore now is the time to live a life active to the absolute maximum possibility in the Lord's service (Ecc. 9:10-12). Much of the Preacher's message is built on the tragic finality of death being an imperative to present action. He has some fine images of this finality; the silver cordbreaks in just one link, and the beautiful bowl of life, of this body, crashes to the dusty floor and smashes; the rope holding the bucket breaks and it plunges irretrievably into the well; and as David observed, in death we are as water spilt on the ground on a hot day, which cannot be gathered up. We are as children who have dropped their precious sweets in the dust, fraught with the realization they are spoilt for good and there are no more. They may look up to us for more, and with as much pain in our eyes as is in theirs, we turn out our pockets to show there are no more. And so the tragedy of the human experience teaches us to live life in the Lord's service to the full, not frittering it away on the crosswords and telly and time-wasters of this world. Moses pleaded with God to make time-frittering Israel see the implications of their mortality; having eloquently spoken of the tragedy of our mortality, he concludes: " So teach us to number our days, that we may apply our hearts unto wisdom" (Ps. 90:12). Ps. 39:4-6 has the same theme: because of the mortality of man, there is utterly no point in being " disquieted in vain" on account of amassing wealth.

Because we brought nothing into the world and can carry nothing out, i.e. because of our very nature, we shouldn't be materialistic and should be content (1 Tim. 6:7,8). In saying this, Paul is alluding to how Job faced up to the reality of our condition by saying that we entered this world naked and return naked (Job 1:21). Paul is saying that we are all in Job's position, facing up to the loss of all things, and should count it a blessing to have even clothing. David said that just because " our days on the earth are as a shadow, and there is none abiding" , therefore he wanted to be as generous as possible in providing for the work of God's house (1 Chron. 29:14-16). So sure is the hope of resurrection that the Lord interpreted God being the God of Abraham as meaning that to Him, Abraham was living. Death is no barrier to God's continuing identity with His people. His faith in the resurrection is so sure that He speaks of death as if it is not. And in our weakness, we seek to look beyond the apparent finality of death likewise. Because David firmly believed in a resurrection, " my heart was glad and my tongue rejoiced; moreover also my flesh shall tabernacle in hope" (Acts 2:26 RV). His whole life 'tabernacled in hope' because of what he understood about resurrection. This was and is the power of basics. Yet we can become almost over-familiar with these wonderful ideas such as resurrection.


Perhaps the Lord was speaking in a kind of soliloquy when He mused that " the night cometh, when no man can work" , and therefore man should walk and work while he has the light (Jn. 9:4, quoting Ecc. 9:10). He was speaking, in the context, not only of His own zeal to 'work' while He had life, but also applying this to His followers.

It’s only when faced with death that we realize the crucial and wonderful importance of every hour which we’ve been given to live. Facing death as he thought, Job reflected upon the tragic brevity and speed of passing of human life, and the true meaning of the Hebrew word nephesh: “My days sprint past me like runners; I will never see them again. They glide by me like sailboats…” (Job 9:25). Life is indeed racing by; time management, and freeing our real selves from all the myriad things which compete to take up our time, become of vital importance once we realize this. There is only one ultimate thing worth studying, striving after, labouring for, reading about, working towards… and grasping the mortality of man inspires us in living out this understanding. TV, novels, endless surfing of the internet, engagement in pointless communication and discussion in this communication-crazy world… all this beguiles us of life itself.

Maturity In Behaviour

The tragic brevity of life means that " childhood and youth are vanity" , we should quit the time wasting follies of youth or overgrown childhood (and the modern world is full of this), and therefore too " remove anger from thy heart and put away evil from thy flesh" (Ecc. 11:10 AVmg.). Ecclesiastes uses the mortality of man not only as an appeal to work for our creator, but to simply have faith in His existence. Likewise: " We had the sentence of death in ourselves [" in our hearts we felt the sentence of death" , NIV], that we should not trust in ourselves, but in God which raiseth the dead" (2 Cor. 1:9). The fact we are going to die, relatively soon, and lie unconscious...drives the man who seriously believes it to faith in the God of resurrection. It seems that at a time of great physical distress, Paul was made to realize that in fact he had " the sentence of death" within him, he was under the curse of mortality, and this led him to a hopeful faith that God would preserve him from the ultimate " so great a death" as well as from the immediate problems. Death being like a sleep, it follows that judgment day is our next conscious experience after death. Because death is an ever more likely possibility for us, our judgment is effectively almost upon us. And we must live with and in that knowledge.

We know very well that sin brings death. But we sin. Smoking brings lung cancer. We know. But we humans do it. We can know that sin brings death as theory; and we can really know it. Ez. 18:14 RVmg speaks of the son who " seeth all his father's sins, which he hath done, and seeth, and doeth not such like" . He sees the sins, and then he really sees them, and doesn't do them. This is how we must be in our registering of the fact that sin really brings death.

Humble Attitude To Others

In God's judgment of men it will be made apparent that it was so inappropriate for man who is made of dust to oppress his fellows (Ps. 10:18 RV). Respect of others is sorely lacking in our selfish natures. But the more we reflect upon our own insignificance, as creatures of dust, the more we will see that abuse of others in any form is inappropriate. And we don't have to wait till judgment day to perceive this- for we know the mortality and constitution of man from basic Bible teaching. This link between our mortality and humility is brought out in Paul's description of our present state as being " the body of our humiliation" (Phil. 3:21 RV). Believing we are mortal ought to be a humbling thing.

Control Of Our Words

Ps. 39:1-6 makes a connection between appreciating our mortality, and controlling our words in the presence of those who provoke us. David calmed himself down when “my heart was hot within me” by asking God to remind him of “mine end, and the measure of my days, what it is; that I may know how frail I am” (Ps. 39:4). Again, a very basic Bible principle resulted in something poignantly practical. In the very moment of hot blood, under provocation, David silently asked to appreciate personally the mortality of man; so that he wouldn’t respond with hard words, and would ‘keep his mouth with a bridle’.

Care For The Body

Nephesh is indeed translated both 'soul' and 'body'. The false dichotomy made between the two by believers in the wrong notion of an 'immortal soul' leads to a neglect of the body, even an abuse of it. And of course, if this life isn't so important, the body is merely a box in which the 'immortal soul' is stored- then the tendency will be to abuse or disregard the body. Recognition that we don't have an immortal soul heightens the wonder and importance of the human body.

Faith In God

Our faith in God is mitigated against by our misplaced faith in humanity. We would rather trust a doctor, a repair man, a kind neighbour, before throwing ourselves upon God as a last resort. " Cease ye from man, whose breath is in his nostrils: for wherein is he to be accounted of" (Is. 2:22) compared to the great God of Israel? Job 27:9,10 seems to be saying [although the Hebrew text and use of the Hebrew word nephesh is rather obscure] that every man on his deathbed cries to God in some kind of prayer; but a belief in the mortality of man will result in the righteous man having lived a life of prayerful crying to the Father, which will be in context with his final cry to God in his time of dying. A true sense of our mortality will lead to our prayerful, urgent contact with the Father all our days. Thus destruction and death give insight into the true wisdom (Job 28:22). The spirit / life force is given by God and taken back by God. Hence man is unconscious after death. But this very basic fact is used by Elihu as reason to believe that the God who is so in control of men is therefore a just and righteous God, who means only good for us and not evil (Job 34:14,15,17). These conclusions and the comfort they contain are based by Elihu upon a simple understanding of the fact that it is God who gives the spirit / life-force, and it is God who takes it away again.

Freedom From Fear

The Bible has so much to say about death, depicting us as having a “body of death” (Rom. 7:24). And yet humanity generally doesn’t want to seriously consider death. Yet death is the moment of final truth, which makes all men and women ultimately equal, destroying all the categories into which we place people during our or their lives. If we regularly read and accept the Bible’s message, death, with all its intensity and revelation of truth and the ultimate nature of human issues, is something which is constantly before us, something we realistically face and know, not only in sickness or at funerals. And the realness, the intensity, the truth… which comes from this will be apparent in our lives.

And yet the fear of death grips our society more than we like to admit. The Swiss psychologist Paul Tournier observed the huge “number of people who dream that they are locked in, that everywhere they come up against iron-bound and padlocked doors, that they absolutely must escape, and yet there is no way out” (2). This is the state of the nation, this is how we naturally are, this is the audience to which we preach. And we preach a freedom from that fear. Because the Lord Jesus was of our human nature- and here perhaps more than anywhere else we see the crucial practical importance of doctrine- we are freed from the ranks of all those who through fear of death live their lives in bondage (Heb. 2:15). For He died for us, as our representative. How true are those inspired words. “To release them who through fear / phobos of death were all their living-time subject to slavery” (Gk.). Nearly all the great psychologists concluded that the mystery of death obsesses humanity; and in the last analysis, all anxiety is reduced to anxiety about death. You can see it for yourself, in how death, or real, deep discussion of it, is a taboo subject; how people will make jokes about it in reflection of their fear of seriously discussing it. People, even doctors, don’t quite know what to say to the dying. There can be floods of stories and chit-chat… all carefully avoiding any possible allusion to death. This fear of death, in which the unredeemed billions of humanity have been in bondage, explains the fear of old age, the unwillingness to accept our age for what it is, our bodies for how and what they are, or are becoming. I’m not saying of course that the emotion of fear or anxiety is totally removed from our lives by faith. The Lord Jesus in Gethsemane is proof enough that these emotions are an integral part of being human, and it’s no sin to have them. I’m talking of fear in it’s destructive sense, the fear of death which is rooted in a lack of hope.

Death is not only a master which keeps humanity in servitude; it does this because in many ways it remains a mystery. It’s not only that doctor’s don’t know what to really say to the dying; the mass of efforts in the world’s religions to deal with it have in some ways all ended in failure in practice. The enigma and mystery of death continues for so many. Robert Lifton very extensively studied attitudes to death, and concluded that we have “no adequate way to relate to death’s reality and potential, so it is dealt with by a numbness that denies” (3). This seems true for the world in general; but if we understand Bible teaching about death, it will not be the case for us. We’ll be able to face death in the eye, without any of “the numbness that denies” which is so popular.

All this explains why there is in this world what Walter Brueggemann called “a dread of endings” (4). Mankind generally prefers to live in an “eternal now”, where the final end- death- isn’t thought of; as if the whole world is turned in their minds into a Las Vegas casino with no clocks and without time. But sometime, the gambler must walk out of the casino and glance at his watch or see the time displayed somewhere, one day too we each come to our human end. For us who understand not only Bible teaching about death, but also the insistent Biblical emphasis upon it, we don’t live life in an eternal now. We live now for tomorrow, joyful in our awareness of the eternal consequence of our actions and personalities beyond the grave, knowing that all our beliefs, actions, faith, character developments- all come to their ultimate term before the judgment seat of Christ. 


(1) Paul Tournier, The Whole Person In A Broken World (San Francisco: Harper & Row, 1964 ed.), p. 165.

(2) Paul Tournier, Learn To Grow Old (New York: Harper & Row, 1972) p. 169.

(3) See R.J. Lifton & Eric Olson, Living And Dying (New York: Praeger, 1974) p. 137; R.J. Lifton, Survivors Of Hiroshima (New York: Random House, 1967) p. 474 and R.J. Lifton, History And Human Survival (New York: Random House, 1961) p. 175.

(4) Walter Brueggemann, The Prophetic Imagination (Philadelphia: Fortress, 1978) p. 50.

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