Did Solomon Teach the Doctrine of Soul-Sleeping?

A critic writes to argue that the book of Ecclesiastes teaches that the dead are not conscious. What are the real facts of the case?
By Wayne Jackson | Christian Courier

No narration available

A passage in the book of Ecclesiastes reads as follows:

“For that which befalleth the sons of men befalleth beasts; even one thing befalleth them: as the one dieth, so dieth the other; yea, they have all one breath; so that a man hath no preeminence above a beast: for all is vanity. All go unto one place; all are of the dust, and all turn to dust again. Who knoweth the spirit of man that goeth upward, and the spirit of the beast that goeth downward to the earth? Wherefore I perceive that there is nothing better, than that a man should rejoice in his own works; for that is his portion: for who shall bring him to see what shall be after him?” (3:19-22).

A reader, who subscribes to the notion that the dead are “unconscious,” appeals to this passage and draws from it the following conclusions.

  1. The dead have no knowledge.
  2. They have neither memory nor feelings.
  3. Man and beast have one breath and all go to one place, to the dust of the earth.
  4. A dead man cannot be brought to see what will be after him.

We are happy to respond to the gentleman’s comments.

In logic, there is a principle known as the “law of rationality,” which simply suggests that, in analyzing a position, one must draw only such conclusions as are warranted by the evidence. Our respondent has seriously ignored this concept. He has drawn drastic inferences that are not justified by any fair analysis of this text.

Let us consider each of the four points argued above.

“The dead have no knowledge.”

There is absolutely nothing in this context that asserts or implies that the dead are bereft of all knowledge. There is a passage, later in the book, which states that “the dead know not anything” (9:5). But the phrase is qualified by the immediate context which shows that the writer has in mind events that occur “under the sun” (vv. 3,6). That text merely affirms that once a person is dead, he is no longer an observer of what transpires upon the earth.

Verse 5 also says: “. . . neither have they any more a reward.” Are we to surmise that this phrase denies any reward following death? Of course not; such a view would contradict numerous passages of clearest import.

Again, the meaning obviously is this — those who have died have no further reward relative to achievements being accomplished on this planet.

“They have neither memory nor feelings.”

This assertion similarly finds no support in the context cited. It most likely has been borrowed from 9:5b as well. Again, though, the text does not provide the evidence coveted by our critic. It simply says that men die and, as a rule, soon are forgotten. It is not that “their memory” is erased by death; it is the “memory of them” that soon fades. Admittedly, it reflects a rather dismal view of life (not uncommon in that day of limited revelation); it is not, however, an affirmation of materialism.

“Man and beast have one breath and all go to one place, to the dust of the earth.”

Solomon does suggest that both man and beast have a common appointment — death. Just as animals expire, so do human beings. All are subject to the consequences of the introduction of sin into earth’s environment (see Rom. 5:12; 8:20ff).

Note that in Psalm 49:12, the writer says that man “is like the beasts that perish,” and yet, only three verses later he affirms that “God will redeem my soul from the power of Sheol.” (See also Psalm 73:22,24).

What if one were to extract the expression — “man hath no preeminence above the beasts” — from this context, and argue, on the basis of that phrase, that human beings are no better than beasts? There are horrible implications flowing from that premise! But such a procedure would reflect the same sort of interpretative fallacy of which our critic has been guilty.

“A dead man cannot be brought to see what will be after him.”

It is quite true that the dead cannot be “brought” back to earth’s domain in a post-mortem state to observe what is transpiring in this environment. But what does that have to do with the matter of his perception in the realm of the dead? Not a thing.

Two Common Mistakes

Those who are determined to argue the dogma of “soul-sleeping,” from passages in the Old Testament, commit two common mistakes.

First, they do as the gentleman under review did — they wrest the passage from its context and thrust upon it an application not intended by the original author. The old saying: “A text out of context is but mere pretext,” was never truer than in this case.

Second, materialists frequently fail to recognize the principle of progressive revelation. In this case, they appear to be unaware of the fact that those of the Old Testament era did not have nearly the insight into the subject of the state of the dead as was revealed later by the illumination of the New Testament.

Paul speaks to this very point when he declares that Christ, by means of his redemptive mission, “brought life and immortality to light through the gospel” (2 Tim. 1:10). While the hope of immortality was not completely absent in earlier ages, it was shrouded in considerable obscurity (cf. Job 14:7-14; 19:23-27).

The New Testament makes it emphatically clear that the dead are conscious.

For further study, see:

  • “Are the Dead Conscious?”