For this article, scriptural references are taken from the New World Translation (NWT), and the Kingdom Interlinear Translation (KIT) of the New Testament, which are both published by the Jehovah’s Witnesses.
Some non-Catholic groups, such as the Jehovah’s Witnesses, teach that there is no afterlife between death and the resurrection. They believe that we are only composed of a material body, and that the soul is simply a life-force, a breath, which ceases to exist at death. They believe that spirits refer to angels, or to resurrected human beings who do not have their earthly bodies.
They might base this on Ecclesiastes 9:5.
“For the living know that they will die, but the dead know nothing at all, nor do they have any more reward, because all memory of them is forgotten.” (Ecclesiastes 9:5 NWT)
This statement may reflect the ancient Jewish understanding of death, because the fullness of revelation had not yet been given. Even at the time of Christ, Jews were divided over the belief in an afterlife and a resurrection.
Regardless, if we go back to verse 9:2 it is clear that no Christian can take this chapter literally.
“All have the very same outcome, the righteous and the wicked, the good and the clean and the unclean, those sacrificing and those not sacrificing. The good one is the same as the sinner; the one who swears an oath is the same as the one who is cautious about swearing an oath.” (Ecclesiastes 9:2 NWT)
No Christian believes that the righteous and the wicked will come to the same end. The good and the sinner are absolutely not the same. Christ says He will judge the living and the dead and reward them according to their works. Therefore, from a Christian perspective, Ecclesiastes 9 is not an appropriate text on which to base a theology of the afterlife or eschatology.
A Jehovah’s Witness may respond that this wouldn’t take away from the inspired meaning of the text. This is true. But, the inspired purpose of much of the book of Ecclesiastes is to use hyperbole to instill in the reader a sense of the futility of human effort. The book begins, “‘The greatest futility!’ says the congregator, ‘The greatest futility! Everything is futile!’” (Ecclesiastes 1:2 NWT) Is the worship of God really futile?
Jesus uses hyperbole when He says;
“If anyone comes to me and does not hate his father and mother and wife and children and brothers and sisters, yes, and even his own life, he cannot be my disciple.” (Luke 14:26 NWT)
Jesus does not want us to hate anyone. The point of this hyperbole is to make the point that every other love must be subordinate in comparison to love of God. Likewise, the dead have consciousness, and life isn’t completely meaningless. But God wants us to see the futility of a mere human life, and the meaninglessness of a life lived without union with God in Christ Jesus.
The Belief of the Pharisees
The first century Jewish historian Josephus wrote of the Pharisees that;
“They also believe that souls have an immortal rigor in them, and that under the earth there will be rewards or punishments, according as they have lived virtuously or viciously in this life; and the latter are to be detained in an everlasting prison, but that the former shall have power to revive and live again; on account of which doctrines they are able greatly to persuade the body of the people; and whatsoever they do about Divine worship, prayers, and sacrifices, they perform them according to their direction; insomuch that the cities give great attestations to them on account of their entire virtuous conduct, both in the actions of their lives and their discourses also.” (Antiquities of the Jews, XVIII, Chapter 1, Paragraph 3).
The Teaching of Christ
Jesus, knowing full well what the Pharisees taught, told the people;
“The scribes and the Pharisees have seated themselves in the seat of Moses. Therefore, all the things they tell you, do and observe, but do not do according to their deeds, for they say but they do not practice what they say.” (Matthew 23:3 NWT)
Jesus never condemned the Pharisees for their teaching about immortal souls, and reward and punishment in the afterlife. In fact, He reinforced this teaching with His own teaching in the parable of Lazarus.
“There was a rich man who used to dress in purple and linen, enjoying himself day after day with magnificence. But a beggar named Lazʹarus used to be put at his gate, covered with ulcers and desiring to be filled with the things dropping from the table of the rich man. Yes, even the dogs would come and lick his ulcers. Now in the course of time, the beggar died and was carried off by the angels to Abraham’s side.
“Also, the rich man died and was buried. And in the Grave he lifted up his eyes, being in torment, and he saw Abraham from afar and Lazʹarus by his side. So he called and said, ‘Father Abraham, have mercy on me, and send Lazʹarus to dip the tip of his finger in water and cool my tongue, for I am in anguish in this blazing fire.’ But Abraham said, ‘Child, remember that you had your fill of good things in your lifetime, but Lazʹarus for his part received bad things. Now, however, he is being comforted here, but you are in anguish. And besides all these things, a great chasm has been fixed between us and you, so that those who want to go over from here to you cannot, neither may people cross over from there to us.’ Then he said, ‘That being so, I ask you, father, to send him to the house of my father, for I have five brothers, in order that he may give them a thorough witness so that they will not also come into this place of torment.’ But Abraham said, ‘They have Moses and the Prophets; let them listen to these.’Then he said, ‘No, indeed, father Abraham, but if someone from the dead goes to them, they will repent.’ But he said to him, ‘If they do not listen to Moses and the Prophets, neither will they be persuaded if someone rises from the dead.’” (Luke 16:19-31 NWT)
It is clear that Jesus affirmed the Pharisees’ position regarding the afterlife. St. Paul, who was a Pharisee taught that life goes on after death.
We know that St. Paul was a Pharisee. But St. Paul teaches that even now we are composed of a body, a soul, and a spirit.
“May the God of peace himself sanctify you completely. And may the spirit and soul and body of you brothers, sound in every respect, be preserved blameless at the presence of our Lord Jesus Christ.” (1 Thessalonians 5:23 NWT)
St. Paul’s words elsewhere demonstrate that he believed the soul or spirit of man could exist outside of the body. He wrote;
“I know a man in union with Christ who, 14 years ago—whether in the body or out of the body, I do not know; God knows—was caught away to the third heaven. Yes, I know such a man—whether in the body or apart from the body, I do not know; God knows—who was caught away into paradise and heard words that cannot be spoken and that are not lawful for a man to say.” (2 Corinthians 12:2-4 NWT)
This demonstrates that St. Paul recognized the possibility of existing “out of the body,” which means that the soul, spirit, or at least consciousness of a person, can exist without the body.
St. Paul says three times that it is better for Christians to die, because then they can be with Christ.
“But we are of good courage and would prefer to be absent from the body and to make our home with the Lord. So whether at home with him or absent from him, we make it our aim to be acceptable to him. For we must all appear before the judgment seat of the Christ, so that each one may be repaid according to the things he has practiced while in the body, whether good or bad.” (2 Corinthians 5:8-10 NWT)
“For in my case, to live is Christ and to die is gain. Now if I am to live on in the flesh, this is a fruitage of my work; yet what I would choose, I do not make known. I am torn between these two things, for I do desire the releasing and the being with Christ, which is, to be sure, far better. However, it is more necessary for me to remain in the flesh for your sakes. So, being confident of this, I know I will remain and continue with all of you for your advancement and your joy in the faith, so that your exultation may overflow in Christ Jesus because of me when I am again present with you.” (Philippians 1:21-26 NWT)
“He died for us, so that whether we stay awake or are asleep,* we should live together with him.” (1 Thessalonians 5:10 NWT) (*Or “asleep in death.” NWT’s Footnote)
Saint Paul even says that we are surrounded by the dead. We are surrounded by “a great cloud of witnesses.” After listing the examples of holy forefathers in Hebrews 11:1-38 Paul says,
“And yet all of these, although they received a favorable witness because of their faith, did not obtain the fulfillment of the promise, because God had foreseen something better for us, so that they might not be made perfect apart from us. So, then, because we have such a great cloud of witnesses surrounding us, let us also throw off every weight and the sin that easily entangles us, and let us run with endurance the race that is set before us, as we look intently at the Chief Agent and Perfecter of our faith, Jesus (Hebrews 11:39 – 12:1 NWT)
When are we made perfect, and when are the faithful deceased made perfect? They are made perfect together. St. Paul spoke of this event in the present tense.
“For it is by one sacrificial offering that he has made those who are being sanctified perfect for all time.” (Hebrews 10:14 NWT)
He goes on in Hebrews 12 to say that;
“But you have approached a Mount Zion and a city of the living God, heavenly Jerusalem, and myriads of angels in general assembly, and the congregation of the firstborn who have been enrolled in the heavens, and God the Judge of all, and the spiritual lives of righteous ones who have been made perfect, and Jesus the mediator of a new covenant, and the sprinkled blood, which speaks in a better way than Abel’s blood.” (Hebrews 12:22-24 NWT)
The NWT says that we have approached “the spiritual lives” of the righteous ones who have been made perfect. The Kingdom Interlinear Translation makes it clear that it should read, “the spirits of the righteous having been perfected.” This clearly refers to the same righteous ancestors listed in Hebrews 11, and their perfection has already been accomplished by Christ at the same time we are being perfected by Christ.
St. Peter tells us that after He died Christ went to preach to the spirits in prison.
“For Christ died once for all time for sins, a righteous person for unrighteous ones, in order to lead you to God. He was put to death in the flesh but made alive in the spirit. And in this state he went and preached to the spirits in prison, who had formerly been disobedient when God was patiently waiting in Noah’s day, while the ark was being constructed, in which a few people, that is, eight souls, were carried safely through the water. Baptism, which corresponds to this, is also now saving you (not by the removing of the filth of the flesh, but by the request to God for a good conscience), through the resurrection of Jesus Christ.” (I Peter 3:18-21 NWT)
Since they do not believe that the dead are conscious, Jehovah’s Witnesses believe that this refers to the Nephilim, whom they believe to be fallen angels. They believe these angels fell by mating with human women in the days of Noah. Here is the relevant passage from Genesis:
“Now when men started to grow in number on the surface of the ground and daughters were born to them, the sons of the true God began to notice that the daughters of men were beautiful. So they began taking as wives all whom they chose. Then Jehovah said: “My spirit will not tolerate man indefinitely, because he is only flesh. Accordingly, his days will amount to 120 years.” The Nephʹilim were on the earth in those days and afterward. During that time the sons of the true God continued to have relations with the daughters of men, and these bore sons to them. They were the mighty ones of old times, the men of fame. Consequently, Jehovah saw that man’s wickedness was great on the earth and that every inclination of the thoughts of his heart was only bad all the time. Jehovah regretted that he had made men on the earth, and his heart was saddened. So Jehovah said: “I am going to wipe men whom I have created off the surface of the ground, man together with domestic animals, creeping animals, and flying creatures of the heavens, for I regret that I have made them.” But Noah found favor in the eyes of Jehovah.” (Genesis 6:1-8 NWT)
Nephilim means fallen ones, but it refers to fallen humans. The idea that the Nephilim were angels who mated with human women is actually an old idea, but it was rejected by both Rabbis and the early church fathers. As we shall see, it was also rejected by Christ.
The idea that Nephilim are angels is based on their title “sons of God.” In the book of Job, most commentators interpret this to mean angels. However, in the genealogy of Luke’s Gospel, Adam is called “son of God.” (Luke 3:38 NWT). In context, Genesis, like the Gospel of Luke, is referring to the ancestry of mankind. The fallen ones refers to the sons of Cain, who were either of great stature and/or great earthly rulers. The sons of God refers to those who were faithful to the worship of God. Genesis 6 is speaking about the corruption of mankind, and how the holy men, “sons of God” were corrupted by marrying sinful descendants of Cain.
Christ confirms this interpretation when He says;
“For just as the days of Noah were, so the presence of the Son of man will be. For as they were in those days before the Flood, eating and drinking, men marrying and women being given in marriage, until the day that Noah entered into the ark, and they took no note until the Flood came and swept them all away, so the presence of the Son of man will be.” (Matthew 24:36-39 NWT)
The men and women of Noah’s day were marrying without any thought to their sanctity, and it will be the same way in the end times. Christ does not teach that angels mated with human women. Otherwise, how could they be called sons of God when they are fallen? The sons of Seth can be called sons of God to distinguish them from the sons of Cain, highlighting their corruption overtime.
Christ’s preaching to the spirits in prison, was preaching to the souls who had not heard His gospel. Peter says that the flood washed them and their sins away, just as baptism now wipes away our sins. The spirits of the deceased from Noah’s day had the opportunity to be saved by Christ’s preaching. St. Peter confirms this, when in the next chapter he writes;
“But these people will render an account to the one who is ready to judge those living and those dead. In fact, this is why the good news was declared also to the dead, so that although they are judged in the flesh from the standpoint of men, they might live in harmony with the spirit from God’s standpoint.
Jehovah’s Witnesses try to explain this verse by saying that “the dead” referred to in this instance are not the physically dead who will be resurrected and judged (John 5:28-29 NWT), but those who are spiritually dead (Ephesians 2:1). This interpretation does not fit with the text, because it says that “although they are judged in the flesh by the standpoint of men, they might live in harmony with the spirit from God’s standpoint.” Ephesians 2:1 refers to those who were spiritually dead in the past, but were now made alive with Christ. Peter would not describe in the present tense those who are now alive in the spirit as “spiritually dead.” The contrast Peter is drawing is between physical death and spiritual life. Those He preached to are dead in the flesh, yet might be alive in the spirit.
The New Testament makes it clear that between now and the resurrection, the dead are capable of knowing, seeing, experiencing, feeling, and even repenting.” (1 Peter 4:5-6 NWT)