Thinking about death often forces us to come face to face with difficult questions.
Imagine a group of people gathering around the grave of someone they lost. They speak softly, reminiscing over shared memories. They express their grief while also searching for a way to comfort one another.
Someone might say, “Don’t worry. They’re in a better place now.”
Yet these words are often not enough. It’s not enough to hear people talk about comfort and peace and being in a better place. Sometimes, we just want answers.
What happens to our loved ones once they die? Are they really in Heaven living with God, and can they see all the things going on down here? And what if they didn’t make it to Heaven…what then?
Death is a mystery. It can feel like turning to a blank page in a book, unable to know what really comes next. And that’s what makes it so frightening.
We’re hoping to find some sort of assurance that death isn’t the end of everything. We’d love to know that those we’ve lost aren’t gone forever.
Since death and what’s after it is beyond human knowledge, we can turn to the Bible, God’s word, as the place for answers.
And within its pages, we will not only find truth, but peace as well. This type of profound comfort can see us through even the most trying times.
So let’s take a look at:
- Death as sleep, according to the Bible
- Why would the Bible mention ghosts or spirits?
- God’s power over death
The Bible describes death like sleep
When the Bible talks about death, it often uses language that describes sleep.
In the Old Testament, David, Solomon, and the kings of Israel are all said to have “rested with their ancestors” once they died (1 Kings 2:10, 11:43, 14:20, 16:6, 22:50, CSB). And this is in addition to nearly 50 other times the Bible describes death as a sleep-like state, with no activity of the consciousness.
This is discussed in the books of Psalms and Ecclesiastes.
“The dead do not praise the Lord, nor do any who go down into silence” (Psalm 115:17, ESV).
“For the living know that they will die, but the dead know nothing, and they have no more reward, for the memory of them is forgotten. Their love and their hate and their envy have already perished, and forever they have no more share in all that is done under the sun” (Ecclesiastes 9:5-6 ESV).
The metaphor of sleep denotes a completely unconscious state. Simply put, once a person dies, they are no longer aware. They feel neither emotion nor pain.
Rather than being taken straight to Heaven to watch what’s happening on earth, they are laid to rest, unaware of life and all the troubles it still holds for everyone else. They are completely unconscious, just as they would be if they were fast asleep.
But even this information can feel a tad harsh. After all, many of us grew up hearing that our dead loved ones could see us from Heaven and were always watching over us. It helps us feel like we’re still connected to those we lost. And it can be a desolate feeling to know that, no matter how hard we try, we won’t be able to reach out to those we’ve lost.
And yet, hard as it may seem, this state of unconscious death is actually one of the ways God shows His mercy and kindness. Think about it.
Imagine how it would feel if, once you died, you were able to sit around in Heaven and watch the people you love back on earth going about their lives. You’d have to watch them grieve and suffer, dealing with the hole you left in their lives—but you’d have no way to reach them.
They’d miss you terribly and you would miss them, but there’d be nothing you could do about it. You’d be stuck in Heaven, unable to help. What sort of paradise would that be?
Or, even worse, suppose after you died, nothing really changed. The world went on as it always had, seemingly unaffected by your absence. Suppose fewer people showed up to your funeral than you would’ve expected. It could be tough to spend such a long time feeling forgotten.
The more we think about it, the grimmer everything looks. Who would want to spend a thousand lifetimes watching the rest of humanity sin and suffer? Who would want to watch those they love moving on without them?
God wants to spare us from unnecessary pain like that. He doesn’t want us to feel “trapped” in Heaven, having to wait for the rest of earth’s history to play out.
God is Love. That loving character dictates all His actions and decisions, including what happens to people when they die. God loves us enough to give us peace and rest after all the turmoil life throws at us.
Those suffering from disease and illness will be free from pain. Those who lived with anger and guilt in their hearts will be free from the emotional suffering. And those who put their trust in God can rest in the knowledge that He is watching over them and will raise them up again one day to live with Him.
That is the hope God’s Word offers.
So why does the Bible talk about ghosts?
Despite the Bible’s clear teachings that the dead know nothing once they die and have no contact with the living, there are a few passages in the Bible that, at first glance, seem to be saying something else.
One perplexing story, for example, takes place in the book of 1 Samuel. It involves King Saul, the first king of Israel, and a medium sometimes referred to as the “witch of Endor.”
The story goes like this. When Saul first began his kingship, he followed God’s commands and took the counsel of the wise prophet Samuel, the man who had first anointed him to become king. But, over time, Saul started disobeying God’s commands and making bad decisions, ignoring the counsel of Samuel. Eventually, Samuel died.
A couple years later, King Saul was engaged in a fierce war and he wanted God’s guidance to know what to do. But, after ignoring God’s word for so long, Saul was struggling to reconnect with Him. Saul was desperate for guidance, so he turned to the one person who had counseled him in the past: Samuel.
In the dark of night, King Saul and two of his men snuck out of the camp and went to the town of Endor to see a medium, a woman who claimed to be able to communicate with the dead.
In his early days as King, Saul had specifically set out to destroy all the mediums and necromancers in Israel. But now, he asked for their help. Saul asked the medium to bring up a dead person’s spirit so he could speak with it. She was reluctant, knowing that all forms of contact with the dead had been outlawed, but agreed to help.
“Then the woman said, “Whom shall I bring up for you?”
And he said, “Bring up Samuel for me.”
When the woman saw Samuel, she cried out with a loud voice. And the woman spoke to Saul, saying, “Why have you deceived me? For you are Saul!”
And the king said to her, “Do not be afraid. What did you see?”
And the woman said to Saul, “I saw a spirit ascending out of the earth.”
So he said to her, “What is his form?”
And she said, “An old man is coming up, and he is covered with a mantle.” And Saul perceived it was Samuel, and he stooped with his face to the ground and bowed down.
Now Samuel said to Saul, “Why have you disturbed me by bringing me up?”
And Saul answered, “I am deeply distressed; for the Philistines make war against me, and God has departed from me and does not answer me anymore, neither by prophets nor by dreams. Therefore I have called you, that you may reveal to me what I should do” (1Samuel 28:11-15 NKJV).
The ghost goes on to predict the loss of the battle, the death of Saul and his sons, and Saul’s rival, David, eventually taking the throne.
At first glance, these passages seem to contradict all the Bible’s teachings about the dead being completely unaware and unable to communicate with the living. If the dead really are asleep and know nothing, then what did Saul and the medium speak to?
A closer look offers us a few clues. First off, it’s important to remember that this medium was not a follower of God, but a practitioner of one of the many pagan religions found in Canaan during that time. She practiced seances, which God had forbidden, and when she describes the spirit, it is described as coming up out of the earth.
If the thing that appeared really had been Samuel’s spirit dwelling in heaven, then it probably should have come out of the sky rather than the earth. Plus, remember that Saul never saw this apparition. Only the medium did.
It seems clear that, whatever this thing was, it wasn’t Samuel’s ghost. Though the Bible doesn’t specifically state it, the story seems to imply that what appeared at Endor was not the spirit of a dead loved one, but a malevolent being with abilities humans do not possess. Eve ran into the same sort of being in the Garden of Eden when the snake promised her “You will not surely die.” (Genesis 3:4, ESV)
The story of the medium at Endor, rather than giving insight into the state of the dead, is really a story about how a distraught king turned his back on God and became desperate enough to seek help from anyone, even the people he helped destroy. It’s less of a story about what happens after people die and more of a lesson about how far people can fall when they reject God’s ways. Saul, weak and disheartened, did die in battle the next day, just as the apparition had told him, and King David took the throne. Not the most pleasant end to a story.
The story of the rich man and Lazarus
Apart from Saul’s encounter with the medium at Endor, there’s one other story in the Bible that causes a bit of confusion about whether the dead really can communicate with the living. And this story comes straight from the mouth of Jesus.
During Jesus’ time on earth, he spent a good deal of time traveling around the countryside, teaching the people. Most of the lessons he taught were illustrated through parables, or analogical stories that illustrate a moral.
One day, Jesus sat down and gathered the people around Him for another lesson through story:
“There was a rich man who was clothed in purple and fine linen and who feasted sumptuously every day. And at his gate was laid a poor man named Lazarus, covered with sores, who desired to be fed with what fell from the rich man’s table.
Moreover, even the dogs came and licked his sores. The poor man died and was carried by the angels to Abraham’s side. The rich man also died and was buried, and in Hades, being in torment, he lifted up his eyes and saw Abraham far off and Lazarus at his side.
And he called out, ‘Father Abraham, have mercy on me, and send Lazarus to dip the end of his finger in water and cool my tongue, for I am in anguish in this flame.’
But Abraham said, ‘Child, remember that you in your lifetime received your good things, and Lazarus in like manner bad things; but now he is comforted here, and you are in anguish. And besides all this, between us and you a great chasm has been fixed, in order that those who would pass from here to you may not be able, and none may cross from there to us’” (Luke 16:19-26 ESV).
The rich man goes on and begs that, if Lazarus cannot help him, that Lazarus’ ghost be sent to the rich man’s brothers so they can be warned and avoid ending up forever lost like he did. But Abraham again refuses.
His brothers have the biblical writings of Moses and the prophets. They can learn from them. The rich man pleads again, saying that, if someone came back from the dead to speak to his brothers, they would surely repent. Abraham replies:
“… ‘If they do not hear Moses and the prophets, neither will they be persuaded though one rise from the dead,” (Luke 16:31 NKJV).
So, what is Jesus trying to say through this parable? Is he contradicting scripture, claiming that people are aware after death and can communicate with the living, or is there something else going on?
Well, the first thing to remember is that Jesus and God think and act as one. Therefore, nothing Jesus said or did would be contrary to the scripture since it is God’s word.
The second thing to remember is that this is a parable, a fictional story. Jesus was trying to make a point and used the ideas of Heaven and Hell to illustrate it. So, what was the point?
Well, a couple verses before this parable, Jesus was rebuking the Pharisees, religious leaders who were “lovers of money” (Luke 16:14 ESV). He told them that what people often admired and exalted, God saw as an abomination because it was usually rooted in selfishness.
You see, in Jesus’ time, the Jews saw wealth and prosperity as a blessing from God. If someone was rich and had a lot of food and clothes, it meant God was pleased with them. If someone was poor or handicapped, the Jews saw it as God’s punishment because of something that person had done.
When Jesus sets up the story of the rich man and Lazarus, He knew his audience would immediately see the rich man as the hero of the story and Lazarus the beggar as suffering from a just punishment, likely from some sort of past sin.
But Jesus immediately turns the story on its head, sending Lazarus the beggar to paradise in Heaven while the rich man loses everything.
The Pharisees in the audience thought their Jewish heritage and knowledge of Scripture essentially gave them a free pass into Heaven. They thought that, since God had favor on them, they didn’t have to worry about things like kindness or having mercy on others.
Jesus immediately puts an end to this grossly mistaken way of thinking, pointing out that it is easier for a poor, humble person like Lazarus to have a place in Heaven than for someone filled with arrogance and pride.
Additionally, He was pointing out that if someone has the Scriptures within their reach and still doesn’t look at what they really mean, it won’t even matter if someone comes back from the dead to tell them otherwise. Their thinking has unfortunately already been set.
And there’s another layer of irony to this story. Some time after Jesus told this parable, he actually did raise someone from the dead. And that man’s name was Lazarus, too.
God has power over death (the story of the real Lazarus)
Over the course of Jesus’ ministry, He impacted many lives and made a number of close friends. Of these friends were Mary, Martha, and their brother Lazarus. They lived in the town of Bethany, just outside Jerusalem.
One day, Lazarus got sick. Mary and Martha immediately sent word to Jesus, knowing he could help. But instead of coming right away, as soon as He received the message, Jesus chose to remain where he was for two more days. The disciples were concerned, but Jesus told them:
“Our friend Lazarus sleeps, but I go that I may wake him up.”
Then His disciples said, “Lord, if he sleeps he will get well.” However, Jesus was actually talking about his death. But they thought He was speaking about resting in sleep.
Then Jesus said to them plainly,
“Lazarus is dead. And I am glad for your sakes that I was not there, that you may believe. Nevertheless let us go to him” (John 11:11-15, NKJV).
When Jesus and His disciples got to Bethany, Martha was the first to meet them. She ran to Jesus, crying, saying that if He had been there, Lazarus wouldn’t have died. It was then that Jesus said some of the most comforting words found in the Bible.
Jesus said to her,
“‘Your brother will rise again.’
Martha said to him, ‘I know that he will rise again in the resurrection on the last day.’
Jesus said to her, ‘I am the resurrection and the life. Whoever believes in me, though he die, yet shall he live, and everyone who lives and believes in me shall never die…’” (John 11:23-26, ESV).
Martha understood what Jesus was telling her and, when Jesus asked to be taken to Lazarus’ grave, Martha, Mary and the disciples went with Him. When Jesus reached Lazarus’ tomb, He wept. Then he asked for the stone blocking the tomb to be rolled away.
Martha told him that Lazarus had been dead for four days and by that time, the body would have started to decompose. Nevertheless, she had the stone rolled away.
Jesus took a step towards the tomb, said a prayer to His Heavenly Father, and said, “Lazarus, come out.”
Suddenly, out of the tomb stumbled a figure all wrapped in linens and burial clothes. They rushed forward, unwrapped the burial clothes, and there he was, alive and healthier than he’d ever been.
Believe it or not, this wasn’t the first time Jesus had brought someone back from the dead. He did the same for Jairus’ daughter (Mark 5:21-43) and the widow’s son in Nain (Luke 7:11-17).
The message here is that Christ, and Christ alone, has power over death. He is the only one capable of reversing sin’s great curse on the human race. He did it that day for Lazarus and promised that one day, He will do it again. He will raise up all who believe to be with Him in Heaven.
But there is one question. If Jesus knew He could raise Lazarus from the dead, why did He cry? What was He so sad about if he knew Lazarus was going to be alright?
Well, he loved Lazarus. Even though he knew the miracle that was about to happen, he still felt the pain that the loss of a friend always brings. He also felt the pain of all Lazarus’ loved ones who were grieving.
That’s something we need to remember whenever we talk about God and death. Jesus knows our pain. He grieves with everyone who has ever tasted loss. He weeps for every death as he wept at Lazarus’ grave. The loved ones we lay in the ground are His loved ones too—His precious children, His joy and treasure, created by Him. We never have to worry that God doesn’t understand what we’re going through, or that He wouldn’t feel the pain we feel. He does. Right in the moment with us.
Jesus also felt everyone’s pain, along with His own, as He was facing His death on the Cross at Calvary.
Jesus and the thief on the cross
It was a Friday afternoon. The trial had just ended and Jesus was being marched up to the hill called Golgotha, where he was to be crucified along with two thieves. The soldiers nailed his hands and feet into the wood, then hoisted him up, high above the crowd. Some in the crowd wept. Others jeered. One of the two thieves, bitter and in pain, spat out:
“‘Are you not the Christ? Save yourself and us!’ But the other rebuked him, saying, ‘Do you not fear God, since you are under the same sentence of condemnation? And we indeed justly, for we are receiving the due reward of our deeds; but this man has done nothing wrong.’ And he said, ‘Jesus, remember me when you come into your kingdom.’ And he said to him, ‘Truly, I say to you, today you will be with me in paradise’ (Luke 23:39-43 ESV).
It’s incredible to think that, even as he was dying in agony, one of Jesus’ last deeds was to offer comfort and forgiveness to someone else who was suffering. But, there’s something rather odd in the words Christ spoke to the thief. From the sounds of it, Jesus is promising that, by the end of the day, both He and the thief will be in Heaven with God.
How can that be? Jesus died that afternoon and spent a whole day in the grave before being resurrected Sunday morning. And the thief didn’t die that day at all. He was left hanging on that cross for a very long time, suffering the usual slow death that is typical of crucifixion. The soldiers even had to break the thief’s legs so he wouldn’t be able to escape (John 19:32-33).
So what’s going on here? Would Jesus really make a promise to a dying man that he knew wasn’t going to come true?
Not at all. There’s actually a fairly simple explanation for all of this. You see, ancient Greek, the language in which the gospels were first written, had no punctuation. There were no marks between sentences or words. So, when the Bible was being translated into English during the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries, punctuation had to be added, and the translators had to put periods and commas where they thought best.
The translators looked at Jesus’ promise to the thief on the cross and, according to their understanding, chose to put a comma after the word “you.” making it appear that Jesus was promising that both him and the thief would be in Heaven that very day. But, if you take that comma and shift it just one word over, Jesus’ words take on a different meaning. “Truly, I say to you today, you will be with me in paradise.”
Christ’s words to the thief were not an empty promise of an instant trip to Heaven, but an in-the-moment offer of hope for the resurrection. There is no conflict between Jesus’ words toward the thief and His teachings through the rest of the Bible. Just a human error and a misplaced comma which has caused many people a bit of confusion.
What’s after death? Why do we need to “sleep?”
The death that humanity experiences at the end of their earthly lives is not the end of humanity’s story. The dead may not be in heaven looking down at us, but they will rise again when Jesus returns to earth at His Second Coming.
Until then, everyone “sleeps.”
Death has been addressed many times throughout the Bible, and always with a sense of assurance. Solomon had no doubts about what happened after death when he wrote “the living know that they will die, but the dead know nothing” (Ecclesiastes 9:5, NKJV).
The writers who chronicled the books of 1 and 2 Kings never doubted that the rulers of Israel “rested with their ancestors” after they died. The teachings of Scripture were clear to them.
But the Bible talks about another sort of assurance as well. An assurance of something after death.
Job knew about it (Job 14:10-15). So did the prophet Daniel (Daniel 12:1-2). It’s the same assurance Jesus gave to Martha before they went to Lazarus’ tomb. He told her that her brother would rise again.
“Yes,” said Martha. “I know that he will rise again in the resurrection on the last day.”
And Jesus said to her, “I am the resurrection and the life.”
That is the assurance that Christ gives us, the promise of life beyond the power of death. A life we can only reach through him. As he said to the Jews during his ministry:
“Most assuredly, I say to you, he who hears My word and believes in Him who sent Me has everlasting life, and shall not come into judgment, but has passed from death into life.
Most assuredly, I say to you, the hour is coming, and now is, when the dead will hear the voice of the Son of God; and those who hear will live.
For as the Father has life in Himself, so He has granted the Son to have life in Himself, and has given Him authority to execute judgment also, because He is the Son of Man.
Do not marvel at this; for the hour is coming in which all who are in the graves will hear His voice and come forth—those who have done good, to the resurrection of life, and those who have done evil, to the resurrection of condemnation” (John 5:24-29).
This is the assurance we can find in the Bible. This is the promise that those who die are not gone forever. And we don’t have to be, either!
Christ, God’s son, has power over death and the grave. He is ready and willing to offer us the gift of life and raise us up again when the resurrection comes. All we need to do is acknowledge Him as our savior, accept His sacrifice and believe in His word.
Jesus loves us and wants us to join him in Heaven one day. And until He comes back to earth in all His glory, ready to wipe out sin, death and suffering forever, those who have passed away will indeed be resting in peace.