What Really Happens at Death?
“All souls are immortal, even those of the wicked . . . Punished with the endless vengeance of quenchless fire, and not dying, it is impossible for them to have [an end] put to their misery.”—Clement of Alexandria, a writer of the second and third centuries C.E.
LIKE Clement, those who promote the teaching that hell is a place of torment assume that the human soul is immortal. Does the Bible support this teaching? Consider what God’s Word says in answer to the following questions.
Did the first man, Adam, have an immortal soul? The Protestant translation known as the King James Version, or Authorized Version, says about the creation of Adam: “The LORD God formed man of the dust of the ground, and breathed into his nostrils the breath of life; and man became a living soul.” (Genesis 2:7) Notice that this scripture does not say that Adam was given a soul.
What eventually happened to Adam after he sinned? The punishment God decreed was not eternal torment in hell. Rather, the Catholic New American Bible renders God’s pronouncement this way: “By the sweat of your face shall you get bread to eat, until you return to the ground, from which you were taken; for you are dirt, and to dirt you shall return.” (Italics ours; Genesis 3:19) God’s declaration gives no hint that any part of Adam survived his death. When Adam died, Adam the soul died.
Does any human possess an immortal soul? God told the prophet Ezekiel: “The soul who sins is the one who will die.” (Ezekiel 18:4, The Holy Bible—New International Version) The apostle Paul wrote: “Through one person [Adam] sin entered the world, and through sin, death, and thus death came to all, inasmuch as all sinned.” (Romans 5:12, NAB) If all humans sin, then the logical conclusion is that all souls die.
Does a dead soul know or feel anything? God’s Word says: “The living know that they are to die, but the dead no longer know anything.” (Ecclesiastes 9:5, NAB) Describing what happens to a man at death, the Bible states: “He returneth to his earth; in that very day his thoughts perish.” (Psalm 146:4, KJ) If the dead “no longer know anything” and their “thoughts perish,” how could they sense any torment in hell?
Jesus Christ likened death, not to some form of consciousness, but to sleep. * (John 11:11-14) Some may object, though, saying that Jesus did teach that hell was hot and that sinners would be cast into hellfire. Let us consider what Jesus actually did say about hell.
^ par. 8 For a more detailed discussion, see the article “What We Learn From Jesus—About Hope for the Dead” on pages 16 and 17.