Jehovah's Witnesses, Ecclesiastes 9, and the state of the dead

by Luke Wayne

Jehovah's Witnesses teach that humans have no soul or spiritual component to their being that in any way endures after physical death. They assert that when someone dies, they cease to exist as a person, and their lifeless body is all that remains. One of the primary texts they use to defend this belief is Ecclesiastes 9, particularly where it says:

"For the living know they will die; but the dead do not know anything, nor have they any longer a reward, for their memory is forgotten. Indeed their love, their hate and their zeal have already perished, and they will no longer have a share in all that is done under the sun," (Ecclesiastes 9:5-6).

And later:

"Whatever your hand finds to do, do it with all your might; for there is no activity or planning or knowledge or wisdom in Sheol where you are going," (Ecclesiastes 9:10).

Of course, taken at face value, if we read this passage the way the Jehovah's Witness insists that we read it, the text says far more than the Jehovah's Witness wants it to say. If this passage denies conscious existence after death, it also denies future resurrection as well, claiming that "they will no longer have a share in all that is done under the sun." The Jehovah's Witnesses try to get out of this by claiming that the verse merely means that a dead person left to his own power and ability will have no such share. It is not, they claim, denying that God will give them such a share. But again, taken at face value and read the way they claim it must be read, it says that the dead no longer have any reward because all memory of them is forgotten. Now, a human remembering them would still be unable to reward them. What power does a mere man have to reward a person who no longer exists? Remembering that they once existed doesn't do anything for them now. No, the only person who could remember them and reward them is God. The passage would have to be saying that everyone, even Jehovah, forgets the dead and will never again reward them with life under the sun. This directly contradicts the Jehovah's Witness teaching that God does remember the righteous and will reward them by creating them a second time on the future day of resurrection. So if we were meant to isolate these verses in Ecclesiastes and read them as the full and final word on the nature of death, they would not only contradict the rest of the Bible and historic Christian teaching, they would actually also contradict Jehovah's Witness teaching as well!

Of course, we are not supposed to read these verses that way. The book of Ecclesiastes is a work of ancient Jewish wisdom literature that walks the reader through a back and forth struggle through an issue before arriving at a conclusion. Chapter 9 is not that conclusion and does not represent the final word but rather a stage in the internal dialogue of the author. Note, for example, that the author earlier writes:

"So I congratulated the dead who are already dead more than the living who are still living. But better off than both of them is the one who has never existed, who has never seen the evil activity that is done under the sun," (Ecclesiastes 4:2-3).

But in chapter 9 writes:

"For whoever is joined with all the living, there is hope; surely a live dog is better than a dead lion," (Ecclesiastes 9:4).

Is it better to be dead or alive? The author wrestles back and forth on that question as he considers the nature of life "under the sun." Likewise, the author says early on:

"For the fate of the sons of men and the fate of beasts is the same. As one dies so dies the other; indeed, they all have the same breath [spirit] and there is no advantage for man over beast, for all is vanity. All go to the same place. All came from the dust and all return to the dust. Who knows that the breath [spirit] of man ascends upward and the breath [spirit] of the beast descends downward to the earth?" (Ecclesiastes 3:19-21).

But later declares:

"Then the dust will return to the earth as it was, and the spirit will return to God who gave it," (Ecclesiastes 12:7).

This is not the author sloppily contradicting himself throughout the book. This is what wisdom literature does. It dialogues back and forth on an issue to make the reader think it through rather than simply telling the reader up front what to think. Taking a random verse from the middle of such a book misses the point. It would be like taking a verse from one of the speeches of Job's friends in the middle of the book of Job and making that the final word on the matter. To do so would ignore the fact that the rest of the book helps you to see that Job's friends, while sounding very wise, actually got a lot of things wrong. Similarly, Ecclesiastes Chapter 9 is part of the discourse and is not the final word. For example, we read:

"It is the same for all. There is one fate for the righteous and for the wicked; for the good, for the clean and for the unclean; for the man who offers a sacrifice and for the one who does not sacrifice. As the good man is, so is the sinner; as the swearer is, so is the one who is afraid to swear. This is an evil in all that is done under the sun, that there is one fate for all men," (Ecclesiastes 9:2-3).

But the author later concludes:

"The conclusion, when all has been heard, is: fear God and keep His commandments, because this applies to every person. For God will bring every act to judgment, everything which is hidden, whether it is good or evil," (Ecclesiastes 12:13-14).

In chapter 9, the author is assuming that death is the end and that, therefore, reality is evil because there is no justice for the wicked or reward for the righteous. Hence, what you do in this life doesn't matter. By the conclusion, however, the author has determined (and brought you, the reader, there with him) that there will be an ultimate justice and judgment of all things before God. Therefore, the most important thing in this life is to fear God and obey His commands, believing in the future judgment we cannot now see this side of eternity. Only this gives meaning to our lives and transcends the vain meaninglessness. Chapter 9, therefore, still presents ideas from a purely human standpoint through mere earthly observation, representing things only as we see them to be here and now rather than as they ultimately are from God's perspective. We must take the Book of Ecclesiastes as a whole and read it the way it was meant to be read rather than slicing out verses that we can use to support our agendas. When we do this, we see that the book does not at all deny the existence of the human soul or the future hope of resurrection.

Inside the Bible

Jesus says
Luke 16:19-23, "Now there was a rich man, and he habitually dressed in purple and fine linen, joyously living in splendor every day. And a poor man named Lazarus was laid at his gate, covered with sores, and longing to be fed with the crumbs which were falling from the rich man’s table; besides, even the dogs were coming and licking his sores. Now the poor man died and was carried away by the angels to Abraham’s bosom; and the rich man also died and was buried. In Hades he lifted up his eyes, being in torment, and saw Abraham far away and Lazarus in his bosom."

Paul says
Philippians 1:21-26, "For to me, to live is Christ and to die is gain. But if I am to live on in the flesh, this will mean fruitful labor for me; and I do not know which to choose. But I am hard-pressed from both directions, having the desire to depart and be with Christ, for that is very much better; yet to remain on in the flesh is more necessary for your sake. Convinced of this, I know that I will remain and continue with you all for your progress and joy in the faith, so that your proud confidence in me may abound in Christ Jesus through my coming to you again."

John says
Revelation 6:9-11, "When the Lamb broke the fifth seal, I saw underneath the altar the souls of those who had been slain because of the word of God, and because of the testimony which they had maintained; and they cried out with a loud voice, saying, 'How long, O Lord, holy and true, will You refrain from judging and avenging our blood on those who dwell on the earth?' And there was given to each of them a white robe; and they were told that they should rest for a little while longer, until the number of their fellow servants and their brethren who were to be killed even as they had been, would be completed also."


Inside CARM

Jehovah's Witnesses and the Human Soul
Jehovah's Witnesses claim that there is no part of a man that continues to exist consciously after death. They insist that human beings entirely cease to exist at the moment of physical death. They deny that humans have a "soul" or any spiritual component to their being. The Bible, however, teaches otherwise.

Does the soul cease to exist after death?
No, the soul does not cease to exist after death. The Bible clearly teaches us in the New Testament that we continue on after death.

Is annihilationism true?
Annihilationism is the teaching that the unbeliever, after death, will eventually be annihilated. Annihilation is the teaching that the non-Christian ceases to exist after death. The Scriptures do not teach annihilationism.