Where are the Dead –
According to the Bible?
To someone influenced by Darwinian evolution this is a silly question, for “death” has been ongoing “as a part of life” from the beginning in the primordial soup. Though this is an interested proposition, we limit ourselves in this work to the Bible’s answer, whether it disagrees with an atheistic outlook or not. An agnostic or atheist might be interested in what the Bible really says.
When, or where, did “death” first come into the picture? According to the Bible? We do not have to read the Bible far from its opening words, ‘In the beginning God created,’ to find the answer. The Bible’s explanation is found within the first three chapters of the book called Genesis. Get your copy of the Bible and turn to these first pages of Genesis 2:15-17: ‘The LORD God took the man and placed him in the garden of Eden, to till it and tend it. And the LORD God commanded the man, saying: “Of every tree of the garden you are free to eat; but as for the tree of knowledge of good and bad, you must not eat of it; for as soon as you eat of it, you shall die.”’ ((JPS) That is the very first mention of the word group “die” or “death” in the Bible.2
|2||BIBLE. When we quote what is called the Old Testament or the Hebrew Bible in this work we use one of two Jewish manuscripts: the Jewish Publication Society’s Tanakh (JPS) or the Greek Septuagint (LXX) by Bagster. When quoting the so-called New Testament or Christian Bible our own literal rendering of the Greek is normally used. Other translation will be noted by abbreviations.|
Now think upon this for a moment. What logically follows if Adam would only “die” if he disobeyed and ate from this “Tree of Good and Bad Knowledge”? Would he not live forever in Eden’s paradise? So “death” would come only as a result of disobedience to God, a rejection of God’s sovereignty over his human creation. That continual, ongoing, or everlasting life on earth as a human is what God purposed is shown later after Adam disobeyed. It was then God said: ‘What if (Adam) should stretch out his hand and take also from the tree of life and eat, and live forever?’ (JPS)
Adam was “hard-wired” by his Creator to live forever as a human being. This is shown by the Bible in a number of places. Note Ecclesiastes 3:11, ‘(God) also puts eternity3 in their mind.’ (JPS) The basic nature of the human creature demonstrates this as well. Who wants to die? How many have thought they were immortal and would never die? When does a young child first learn they are not deathless? Does not “eternity” rest in the human bosom? To what lengths will most go to continue alive by extraordinary medical means?
|3||ETERNITY. Some may limit this word “eternity” to the Almighty and choose instead “unending life” or “everlasting life.”|
The result of Adam and Eve’s transgression is shown in the third chapter of Genesis, verses 18 and 19, ‘By the sweat of your brow shall you get bread to eat, until you return to the ground – for from it you were taken. For dust you are, and to dust you shall return.’ (JPS) From this first mention of death the Bible goes on to use the word group “death”4 or “die” many hundreds of times. The Bible is very much a book about Death.
|4||DEATH. The Hebrew word for “death” is MOWTH or MAVETH. The Greek words are thanatos. The word “death” occurs 586 times beginning with Genesis 18:25 and occurs most often in the book of First Samuel. The word “die” occurs 323 times occurring first at Genesis 2:17 and most often in the book of Ezekiel.|
However, someone will suggest that this death only involved Adam’s physical or natural body. They will argue that Adam had already existed before in a spiritual realm and upon his death he returned there. Where do they get this notion for it is not stated in the first three chapters of Genesis? It is very much the cyclic or circular idea of the Eastern religions, that all life is in a continuous cosmic state of being recycled. This belief has been absorbed by many Christian sects and adorned with “Christian” terms.
It is our rule in questions like these which deal with the interpretation of a specific text to seek and find an inspired quotation or application. Can we find something here in the context of early chapters of Genesis where a later writer gave an interpretation? Yes, we can. It deals with the very root of the matter of what Adam was as a being, where he came from, and where he returned at death. But, first what can we learn from just the context of Genesis chapters 2 and 3?
First, Adam will “die” if he eats of the Tree. Is it fair to conclude, then, that he will continue to live as long as he does not disobey? Second, having disobeyed, God’s judgment was ‘to dust you will return.’ (Genesis 3:19) Now, God could have stated this any way He wanted. If Adam had existed before as an “immortal soul”, then God could have stated that Adam would return to this state. If God purposed some eternal torment in a hell-fire, then God it would not have been impossible for God to state such a judgment upon Adam. It is important to note that there is no preliminary explanation or definition about the after-life on God’s part any where in the book of Genesis. It is easy to see, however, that Adam came into being with his creation from the dust of Eden’s forested ground; and, upon his disobedience and that Divine Judgment, he was to return to that state. But, what do later inspired commentators have to say on this very subject?
Again, take your Bible and read Genesis chapter two, verse 7 in the King James Version (KJV): ‘And the LORD God formed man5 of the dust of the ground, and breathed into his nostrils the breath6 of life; and man became a living soul.’7
|5||MAN. The word “man” in Hebrew is ha-’a-dham from which “Adam” is drawn as a name.|
|6||BREATH. This has all the imagery of resuscitating a drowning victim. The lifeguard or paramedic breathes into the victim his own expiration, which is carbon dioxide which in turn triggers the breathing mechanism in the human throat and starts the breathing process. “Breath of life” is the Hebrew from nesha-mah’ chai-yim’. This phrase is unique to Genesis 2:7 though a similar phrase occurs at Genesis 7:2. The word “breath” occurs 67 times in the Bible, most often in the book of Job.|
|7||A LIVING SOUL. (Hebrew הח שפנל) In Hebrew this can be transliterated into English as lene’phesh chai-yah; or, in the Greek LXX, ψυχην ζωσαν (psuche zosan). This means “a living breather.” This is not the first occurrence of these words for they are found in relation to animals and fish at Genesis 1:20, 21, 24 so that these are also “living souls” because they are breathers. Most Hebrew and Greek lexicons agree that the original meaning of these words has to do with “breath” or “breathing” so that a “soul” is a breather. It is interesting that when the Romans came to these Hebrew and Greek words they translated them as animas or “animal” whether mammal, bird, reptile or fish, for they all breathe. The Greek word for “soul” occurs 900 times in the LXX. The Hebrew nephesh (שפנ) and the Greek psyche (ψυχη) (or, “soul") occurs about 860 times with the first occurrence Genesis 1:21 and most often (154) used in the Psalms.|
First, what can we learn from this text alone? Did God put a “soul”8 in man? That is, something immaterial and separate from his body, which could survive the death of the body if that should occur?
|8||SOUL. The English word “soul” has been lost. Most dictionaries or books on English roots do not list “soul” for its root meaning is unknown. “Behind the word Soul lies the ancient notion of the Soul as something fleeting or mercurial. For its prehistoric Germanic ancestor, saiwalo was related to Greek aui’los (quick moving). Its modern Germanic cousins include German steele, Dutch ziel, Swedish sjal and Danish sjael.” (Dictionary of Word Origins, J Ayto) If this meaning “quick moving” can be relayed by the Latin animas or something “animated” there may be some connection. But, generally, this idea falls short of the original Hebrew and Greek as a “breather” or “animal.” We must rely on the Hebrew word nephesh (שפנ) and the Greek psyche (ψυχη) for the real meaning of “soul.”|
Well, does this verse seem to say that to you? Can you set aside that indoctrination and programming we have all been exposed to and just read the text with an open mind? Examine the formula which was Man or Adam. The man was formed from two components: a) dust; and, b) breath of life. That is, DUST + BREATH = Adam. And what was Adam? The verse says, “a living soul.”9 Adam was not given a “soul”. He became a soul. Later we will deal with this subject of “soul” in depth, but here it seem sufficient to state that Adam became “a living soul” when God combined the “dust” of Eden’s earth with that spiritual principle, the Divine Spark, God’s own Breath, which ignited the physical mechanism that was Adam into “a living soul.” Of course, if there is a “living soul” there may just possibly also be a “dead soul.”
|9||LIVING SOUL. Some have translated this as “being” but it obscures the real meaning of the original words. We prefer to be consistent throughout and always use “soul” for the Hebrew nephesh (שפנ), the Greek (ψυχη) psyche, and the Latin animas. In this way a clear and thorough understanding of “soul” can be reached. The phrase “dead soul” or corpse does occur at Leviticus 21:1, 11; 22:4.|
Now, how can we know what the Bible says on this subject of Adam and what he was? Whose interpretation will we accept? Well, we have two inspired commentators who allude or quote this famous verse in Genesis 2:7. Note, first, Solomon at Ecclesiastes 3:19-21 from the Jewish Greek Septuagint (LXX): ‘One event befalls (both man and beast): as is the death of one, so also the death of the other; and there is one breath to all: and what has the man more than the brute? nothing; for all is vanity. All go to one place; all were formed of the dust, and all will return to dust. And who has seen the spirit of the sons of man, whether it goes upward? and the spirit of the beast, whether it goes downward to the earth?’
There is language here very similar to that found in Genesis chapter three. All are animated or energized by the same source, their common “one” breath. Solomon compares the outcome of man as beast to be the same: all go to one place, dust. This “dust” (Hebrew min-he’a-phar) is the same as that of Genesis 2:7. This “breath” (Heb weru’ach and Greek pneu’ma) is the same as that of Genesis 2:7. The rhetorical question presents a challenge to anyone who can suggest that “the spirit” of man ascends to heaven, as it were, and the “spirit” of the beast descends into the ground. Wherever the beast goes, man goes also, for they ‘all will return to dust.’
However, the most extraordinary and definitive quotations of the account in Genesis 2:7 and Adam’s creation, are those of the Nazarene’s disciple, Paul. Under the subject of the resurrection and the after-life in First Corinthians, chapter fifteen, Paul quotes Genesis 2:7 and gives it his inspired explanation. Note what Paul10 says, ‘It is sown a soul-like11 body, it is raised a spirit-like12 body. If there is a soul-like body, there is also a spirit-like one. So also it has been written: (now quoting Genesis 2:7): “The first man Adam became a living soul.” The last Adam13 into a life-giving spirit. But, first, not the spirit-like, but the soul-like, afterward the spirit-like. The first man Adam from the earth’s dust, the Second man from heaven.’ (1 Corinthians 15:44-47)
|10||PAUL. When quotations are made from the Christian Bible they are renderings from literal Greek unless otherwise indicated by an abbreviation.|
|11||SOUL-LIKE. This is the Greek psy-khi-kon’ or in Latin a-ni-ma’le, that is a breathing creature. Most translate this “natural body” (KJV, PME, NIV) but some others say: “human bodies” (LB), “physical bodies” (RSV, TEV), “animal body” (NEB). The Jerusalem Bible (JB, or NJB) renders the phrase: ‘When it is sown it embodies the soul, when it is raised it embodies the spirit’ – with a high degree of interpretive paraphrase deviating from the literal Greek in the text.|
|12||SPIRIT-LIKE. In Greek this is pneu-mati-kon’ and is generally rendered “spiritual” though some use interpretive paraphrase which go beyond the literal meaning.|
|13||LAST ADAM. Meaning the Christ. [See Romans 5:14.]|
This may read slightly different from your own translation because we have adhered to the Greek text. (See footnotes) But, this is enough, even from your own copy of the Bible, to see that Paul is paraphrasing Genesis 2:7 and stating that the first man was ‘a living soul’, that is, he was “soul-like.” Also, Paul argues that this first man was in no wise spirit or spiritual first, that is in some pre-existence, as the cyclic or circular view would hold. Rather, the soul-like, or physical, comes first, and thereafter, the possibility of coming into a spirit-like existence or form. We will discuss these details in a thorough consideration of First Corinthians.
A bit later in Paul’s discussion he gives three synonyms for “soul” and they are “dust,” “corruption,” and “mortal.” (1 Corinthians 15:48, 53) This is virtually the opposite of the general view held by most people. He also uses three synonyms for “spirit”: “heavenly,” “incorruptible,” and “immortal.” What do we learn from all of this? Is it fair to state that something is wrong according to the normal circular interpretation that we were all once spirit-like and then when we came to earth we became physical or natural (soul-like) according to Paul and upon our deaths we can return in the great cycle to another spirit-like existence? Paul seems to make clear there was no first spirit existence, but only that initial life as a breathing creature, that is “a living soul” like Adam. Paul equates this soul-like existence to the physical, earthly, corruptible and mortal. This is far different than the view we all grew up with. And, we have this view, not of our own imagination, but that of the inspired writer Paul.14 But, it appears, to solve this correctly, we are going to have to look at the whole Bible see what it says about the dead.
|14||PAUL. This is opposed to the view of the Greek Plato.|
For the moment, however, we return to the first chapters of Genesis. We see how animals, birds and fish were “living souls” (Genesis 1:20, 21, 22, 24) and that Adam “became a living soul.” God himself says Adam “came from the dust” not from a spirit existence somewhere. God himself says upon Adam’s death “for dust you are and to dust you shall return.” (Genesis 3:19) If God intended Adam to return to heaven and a spirit-like existence, this would have been an excellent time to say so, for it would give an altogether different view from the one present in Genesis now. Adam did not exist as some other entity before he was made from the dust and the divine spirit was breathed into his lungs. After he returned to the dust he became dust again and passed into non-existence and thus unconsciousness just as he was before. Also, if God purposed that Adam would descend into some “hell” this would have been a most excellent time to state that truth, if it be so. So, for all apparent purposes it seems evident that Adam was created from non-existence where clearly he had no consciousness, and upon his “death” he was to return to the same state of unconscious non-existence. That was and is death.
However, what about the rest of the Bible? What does the Bible go on to say about such subjects as “death” and “soul” or “spirit” and, yes, “hell” or “heaven”? Let us find out where the dead are according to the Bible.
Nazarene Commentary 2000©
Mark Heber Miller
©2000 All Rights Reserved