Does Ecclesiastes teach soul sleep?

Jehovah’s Witnesses deny the so-called intermediate state, the conscious existence of the soul/spirit between death and resurrection.

Their governing organization, the Watch Tower Bible and Tract Society, teaches that the soul dies with the body and goes to “hell,” which it defines as mankind’s common grave. As the Watch Tower website states, “Scripturally, death is a state of nonexistence. The dead have no awareness, no feelings, no thoughts.”

Faithful JWs, of course, look forward to a future resurrection, at which time they populate the millennial kingdom and, if they persevere, live forever in paradise on earth.

They often focus on Old Testament passages to support their doctrine of soul sleep. Ecclesiastes 9:5 is one example: “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” (New World Translation).

While several other passages in Ecclesiastes acknowledge the inevitability of death, this verse seems to say there is no conscious afterlife. Can this possibly be true?

A wider view

If we broaden our study of the Old Testament, we find that physical death is not the end of conscious existence – a view that Jesus and the New Testament writers affirm.

Consider the Old Testament writers’ use of Sheol, which appears 65 times and refers to the realm of the dead. Ancient Israelites most certainly believed in life beyond the grave, borne out in such passages as Isa. 14:9-15, where Sheol houses “the spirits of the departed,” and 1 Samuel 28:13, where the deceased prophet Samuel temporarily appears as “a spirit form coming up out of the earth.”

Asaph the psalmist writes, “Yet I am always with you (God); you hold my right hand. You guide me with your counsel, and afterward you will take me up in glory…. God is the strength of my heart, my portion forever” (Ps. 73:23-24, 26).

The idea of “holding” is elsewhere associated with God’s presence, as David declares: “You supported me because of my integrity and set me in your presence forever” (Ps. 41:12).

As Michael Heiser writes in The Bible Unfiltered, “Although we could conclude that the psalmist here is claiming that he’ll live an everlasting life on earth or that the language here is an exaggeration, it’s better to view this passage as expressing hope of everlasting life in the presence of God – a life that transcends time.”

Yahweh’s prohibition against contacting the disembodied human dead (Deut. 18:11) also provides support for the Old Testament concept of an afterlife. In ancient times it was believed that the dead, as members of the spirit world, could provide information otherwise hidden from the living.

But the law prohibits this – not because it’s impossible; it certainly is, as we learn in the story of King Saul’s encounter with the deceased prophet Samuel (1 Samuel 28). Rather, God wants us to seek divine knowledge directly from Him or through the means He provides, such as prophets.

Further, the Old Testament often refers to the deceased as being “gathered” to their people or as “sleeping” with their fathers. Jacob tells his sons, “I am about to be gathered to my people. Bury me with my fathers in the cave in the field of Ephron the Hethite” (Gen. 49:29). 1 Kings 2:10 reads, “Then David slept with his fathers and was buried in the city of David.”

At first, the idea of sleeping seems to suggest an unconscious afterlife. But archeology demonstrates that ancient references to sleeping actually indicate the posture of the body in burial – not the denial of an afterlife.

Heiser points out that archaeological studies of burial practices show that people in the biblical period buried their dead with objects for use after death. This, along with the biblical characters’ request to be buried with the remains of their family members, suggests that ancient Israelites believed they would share an afterlife with their loved ones.

Back to Ecclesiastes

2 Kings 22:20 helps provide further context. God tells Josiah through the prophetess Huldah, “Therefore, I will indeed gather you to your fathers, and you will be gathered to your grave in peace. Your eyes will not see all the disaster that I am bringing on this place.”

This passage doesn’t say that the departed Josiah will know nothing. It simply means he won’t be aware of what’s happening on earth. Similarly, Ecclesiastes 9:5, where we began, likely refers to the dead not participating in life on earth.

Jehovah’s Witnesses, and others who argue for soul sleep, commit the error of eisegesis – inserting a preconceived interpretation into the text of Scripture.

A careful reading of Scripture makes it clear that the dead today are very much conscious and existing – either in the presence of Christ in heaven, or apart from Him in Hades (the Greek equivalent of Sheol), awaiting resurrection and final judgment.


[Learn more from What Everyone Should Know About the Afterlife, available at Amazon and from the Missouri Baptist Convention.]