Jehovah's Witnesses, the Psalms, and the state of the dead

by Luke Wayne
6/23/17

Jehovah's Witness teach that death is the complete cessation of conscious existence. There is no soul or spirit of a man continues to exist when the body dies. When we breathe our last, we are completely wiped out of existence. Perhaps their most compelling argument in defense of this doctrine is to turn to a variety of verses in the Psalms which, on the surface, seem to imply that man is, at best, wholly unconscious after death. The reality is, however, that these verses are not denying the existence of the human soul. In each instance, the context shows that they do not contradict the rest of Scripture which clearly affirms the reality of the conscious, spiritual component of man's existence that endures beyond death. Many of them do, however, emphasize the importance of bodily life and thus shed light on the centrality of the biblical doctrine of our future physical resurrection.

His Thoughts Perish?

One of the most common verses to which Jehovah's Witnesses turn is in Psalm 146:

"His spirit departs, he returns to the earth; In that very day his thoughts perish," (Psalm 146:4).

This verse, they will say, clearly testifies that when a man dies, he is no longer a conscious being. His thoughts perish. He can no longer think. They claim that the phrase "his spirit departs" merely means that his breath or his life leaves. He dies. His body rots. His thoughts are no more. He is gone. This is not, however, what the Psalmist is trying to communicate. When we read in context, we see:

"Do not trust in princes, In mortal man, in whom there is no salvation. His spirit departs, he returns to the earth; In that very day his thoughts perish. How blessed is he whose help is the God of Jacob, Whose hope is in the Lord his God, Who made heaven and earth, The sea and all that is in them; Who keeps faith forever; Who executes justice for the oppressed; Who gives food to the hungry. The Lord sets the prisoners free," (Psalm 146:3-7).

The idea in this Psalm of praise is not to describe what kind of existence man has after death, but rather to show that man cannot help you after he dies. A powerful prince may well intend to protect and support you if you honor and serve him, but he cannot actually give you what he intends. The schemes of men are as mortal as they are. When he dies, all his intentions die with him. His corpse can offer you no support. His mortality is an inescapable limit to his ability to be a trustworthy protector. Mortal man will fail you. Do not put your hope in them. God, on the other hand, is the immortal, almighty creator. If you rest in Him as your support, He will never fail you. This is the message the Psalm intends to send. It is not a treatise on the nature of human death and the soul. It is a contrast between trusting in even the most powerful of mortal men and trusting in Jehovah God. It is not, therefore, claiming that the man is unconscious or has wholly ceased to exist, but rather that any thought or plan he had against your enemies or to your benefit is now gone. This is why most translators render the word here "plans" rather than "thoughts." For example:

  • "on that very day their plans come to nothing," (NIV).
  • "In that very day his plans perish," (NKJV).
  • "on that very day his plans perish," (ESV).
  • "on that very day their plans perish," (NRSV).
  • "on that day his plans die," (HCSB).

Similarly, the explanatory note in the 1599 Geneva Bible interprets "their thoughts" as "their vain opinions, whereby they flattered themselves and so imagined wicked enterprises." It is the schemes and intentions of the man that die with him. That is why you cannot rely on him for your salvation and must trust wholly in God.

The Dead do not Praise the Lord?

Perhaps the strongest argument put forward by Jehovah's Witnesses is the recurring theme in the Psalms that God must deliver His faithful alive because He cannot be praised or thanked by the dead. In prayers and cries for deliverance, the Psalmist implores God to save his life in words like:

"For there is no mention of You in death; In Sheol who will give You thanks?" (Psalm 6:5).

And:

"The dead do not praise the Lord, Nor do any who go down into silence," (Psalm 115:17).

At first glance, this seems fairly compelling. How could it be that the righteous dead could be conscious and yet not praise God and or give Him thanks? If they are self-aware spirits who still love God, why would they not glorify Him in death as much as life? On closer examination, however, we realize that these passages are talking about physical acts of worship by which one honors God. They do not use verbs of thoughts, intentions, or affections. They use verbs of physical speech and action. God does not merely desire passive adoration in the mind that is disconnected from our deeds any more than He wants mere ritual worship that doesn't flow from a heart that truly loves Him. God desires to be worshiped in every aspect of the lives of men and women, not merely to be acknowledged in the disembodied thoughts of dead souls. The souls of the dead are silent and cannot speak to praise or even mention God. They have no lips to sing his praises nor hands and feet to serve Him. Notice, for example, what the Psalmist says of the wicked:

"Let me not be put to shame, O Lord, for I call upon You; Let the wicked be put to shame, let them be silent in Sheol. Let the lying lips be mute, which speak arrogantly against the righteous with pride and contempt," (Psalm 31:17).

People who have ceased to exist in unconscious oblivion cannot be ashamed. The Psalmist wants the wicked to experience shame in Sheol, in the place of the dead. In death, they will have no lips to speak their lies or boast in their arrogance. They will be reduced to silence. In death, they will be humbled, but they will be there to feel their shame. Sheol is a place where the wicked are silenced for they have no bodies with mouths and lungs to speak, but it is not a place of total nonexistence where they are unable to be humiliated in the lowliness of their dead state. The faithful can do no bodily acts of worship, and the wicked can do no bodily acts of sin, but there is no claim here that the faithful and the wicked no longer exist. Indeed, the presence of shame would indicate that their souls do exist.

Elsewhere, the desperate Psalmist cries to God:

"What profit is there in my blood, if I go down to the pit? Will the dust praise You? Will it declare Your faithfulness?" (Psalm 30:9).

Notice, again, that the emphasis here is on the body. What profit is there in my blood if I go down to the pit? The human body without the soul is but dust. If my body returns to dust, will the dust still praise you? The author here is not describing what reality will be for him in the pit. He is describing what will be lacking in the physical world. If he dies, his body will not be able to worship God. The author clearly believes that God desires such bodily worship and audible praise on earth, and so he appeals to God for deliverance on this basis, but nothing in this denies conscious existence for the soul. Indeed, such souls are referenced in a similar cry:

"Will You perform wonders for the dead? Will the departed spirits rise and praise You? Selah. Will Your lovingkindness be declared in the grave, Your faithfulness in Abaddon? Will Your wonders be made known in the darkness? And Your righteousness in the land of forgetfulness?" (Psalms 88:10-12).

The term translated here as "departed spirits" is rendered in the Jehovah's Witnesses' New World Translation as "those powerless in death." However, the word literally means "ghosts"1 or as some translations render it, "shades."2 It is the idea of an ethereal shadow or spiritual remnant of a man after he dies, and captures the incompleteness of a person left in this state. Men still exist as departed spirits, but this is not the ideal or proper state of man's existence. This is why the hope of resurrection is so important. At any rate, this word is not merely a euphemism for nonexistence, as we see in its use elsewhere:

"Sheol from beneath is excited over you to meet you when you come; It arouses for you the spirits of the dead, all the leaders of the earth," (Isaiah 14:9).

The term translated here "spirits of the dead" is the same word. So the Psalmist does not deny that such spirits exist. He is, indeed, affirming that they do. He is pointing out, however, that they cannot see or delight in God's mighty works. They cannot serve Him and sing His praises. Reduced to bodiless death, they are a wholly inadequate congregation of worshipers. God deserves the active and vocal praise of the living, and it is on this basis that the Psalmist pleads with God to let him live so that he can continue to praise God.

God in the Grave?

The Psalmist affirms conscious existence after death in other ways as well. Singing of the vast and inescapable presence of the infinite God, the Psalmist writes:

"Where can I go from Your Spirit? Or where can I flee from Your presence? If I ascend to heaven, You are there; If I make my bed in Sheol, behold, You are there," (Psalm 139:7-8).

Even in Sheol, in the place of the dead, God's presence is there with him. If Sheol is merely a term for non-existence, this statement would be absurd. If I am snuffed out into oblivion, and there is no longer any me that remains, God cannot be there with me. There is no me, and we are not even talking about a "there." If Sheol is merely a description of cessation of personal existence, then it is not a place where God can be with me. It is not a place at all, and no one can be with me because there is no more "me." God cannot join me in non-existence. That doesn't make any sense. If God is still with me when I go to the grave, the grave is something more than an unconscious end of my being.

Far from teaching that there is no human soul or conscious spirit of man that endures after death, the Book of Psalms further validates this biblical truth. The Bible never teaches that man is meant to remain merely a disembodied spirit. Our ultimate hope is in future resurrection to eternal human life. The Bible affirms, however, that in between death and rising again, the soul of a man continues to exist.

 

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.

Jehovah's Witnesses, Ecclesiastes 9, and the state of the dead
Jehovah's Witnesses teach that humans have no soul and 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. They ignore, however, the context of this chapter, the flow of the book, and the rest of biblical teaching.

 

 

  • 1. William L. Holladay, A Concise Hebrew and Aramaic Lexicon of the Old Testament (Eerdmans, 1988) 344
  • 2. see, for example, the NRSV