Death in the Bible: Two Contradictory Views

In broad strokes, there are two perspectives on death in the Bible, both claiming scriptural support. These perspectives are, however, mutually exclusive. So, which one is correct?

Apr 27, 2024By Eben De Jager, PhD New Testament, MTh Christian Spirituality

death bible contradictory views


Varying perspectives on death exist throughout all religions. In Christianity, however, there are only two perspectives on death in the Bible. The mainstream view is that humans possess an immortal soul and remain conscious after death. The alternative perspective is that humans are unconscious when they die and only become conscious again when Jesus raises the dead at the Second Coming.


Death in the Bible: The Immortal Soul

carracci purgatory death in the bible
An Angel Frees the Souls of Purgatory, by Ludovico Carracci, 1610, Source: Wikimedia Commons


The general view held on death in the Bible is that humans have an immortal soul, and whether it is heaven, hell, purgatory, or paradise (depending on the denomination subscribed to), the deceased individual is in a conscious state, fully aware of his/her whereabouts and condition.


In the Catholic tradition, believers subscribe to the idea that individuals who lack the merit to enter heaven first spend some time in purgatory. The Catholic Catechism states that:


“All who die in God’s grace and friendship, but still imperfectly purified, are indeed assured of their eternal salvation; but after death they undergo purification, so as to achieve the holiness necessary to enter the joy of heaven.” 


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Though Protestants often consider purgatory as a state of limbo, Catholics consider it a place of purification that allows the already saved to access heaven once their imperfections have been rectified.


follower of heronimus bosch harrowing hell
The Harrowing of Hell, by Follower of Hieronymus Bosch, circa 1450–1516, Source: Sotheby’s


During the Middle Ages, purgatory was sometimes represented as a place of suffering and torment in order to raise funds through the sale of indulgences. Ignorant believers believed that buying indulgences could shorten and or lessen the suffering of the deceased in purgatory. Though Protestants oppose the concept of purgatory, both the Catholic and Protestant perspective on death in the Bible is based on the view that souls are inherently immortal.


Scriptural Support for an Immortal Soul

paradiso marcantonio bassetti
Paradiso, by Marco Antonio Bassetti, 1586–1630, Source: Wikimedia Commons


Many of the scriptural references Catholics use to support their view of purgatory come from apocryphal books. Supporting verses include:


2 Maccabees 12:45

“And also in that he perceived that there was great favor laid up for those that died godly, it was an holy and good thought. Whereupon he made a reconciliation for the dead, that they might be delivered from sin.”

 1 Corinthians 3:14-15

“If the work that anyone has built on the foundation survives, he will receive a reward. If anyone’s work is burned up, he will suffer loss, though he himself will be saved, but only as through fire.”


Some Catholic scholars interpret these verses as indicative of a purging and purifying existence after death but before entering heaven.


Within Protestantism, the popular view is often supported by referencing the account of the rich man and Lazarus (Luke 16:19-31), as is argued in Isak Burger’s book The First Five Minutes After Death and Hank Hanegraaf’s The Afterlife. In this biblical account, Lazarus and the rich man have bodies, are aware of their environment, and even engage in conversation. The rich man expresses the pain he is suffering and longs for relief. Burger states that believers go to paradise, a place distinct from heaven, when they die.


Another oft-used text is Jesus’ words on the cross:


Luke 23:43

“And Jesus said to him, Truly I say to you, Today you shall be with Me in Paradise.”


The challenge posed to this rendering is that the original language, Koine Greek, did not have punctuation marks and the comma could, therefore, also be placed after “today” since Jesus told Maria on the Sunday that He has not yet ascended to his Father (John 20:17). According to Rev 2:7 and 22:1-2 the tree of life is in paradise by the throne of God.


The Rich Man and Lazarus, by Girolamo da Ponte, 1566–1621, Source: Wikimedia Commons


The challenge posed by the use of the rich man and Lazarus narrative is that it seems to be a parable, not a record of an actual event and that it contradicts the teaching that the faithful will only receive immortal bodies at the Second Coming (1 Corinthians 15:51-54).


Death in the Bible: Conditional Immortality 

allegory of immortality death in the bible
Allegory of Immortality, by Giulio Romano, 1540, Source: Detroit Institute of Arts


Conditional immortality is a view held in Protestantism primarily among Adventists, Christadephians, and Jehovah’s Witnesses. It is also known as “conditionalism” which is the belief that immortality is conditioned on faith in Jesus Christ as Savior. Immortality is, therefore, not an inherent attribute of the soul. Conditionalists inevitably also believe in annihilationism, which is the belief that the wicked do not suffer eternal punishment in hell, but the pool of fire destroys them. The logic is simple. If you do not live forever, how can you suffer eternal punishment in hell?


There are some slight differences among conditionalists on what happens to the soul. Jehovah’s Witnesses believe that the soul is destroyed at death and created anew at the second coming, while Adventists believe the soul is not conscious during death, which they refer to as “soul sleep.”


To Adventists, death is comparable to a deep sleep during which the person is unaware of anything happening around them and unaware of the passage of time. They do not subscribe to the idea that a person consists of body, soul, and spirit, but rather that when the body and spirit are intact, it constitutes a living soul. The moment the body and spirit are separated, there is no longer a conscious soul.


Scriptural Support for a Mortal Soul

st michael vierungsfresco auferstehung
Saint Michael parish church in Untergriesbach, Fresco on the ceiling of the Last Judgment, by Johann Georg Unruhe, 1780, Source: Wikimedia Commons


The idea that there is no active consciousness in death is supported by several Old Testament texts. Here are some examples:


Psalm 146:4

“His breath goeth forth, he returneth to his earth; in that very day his thoughts perish.”

Ecclesiastes 9:5 -6, 10

“For the living know that they shall die: but the dead know not any thing, neither have they any more a reward; for the memory of them is forgotten. Also their love, and their hatred, and their envy, is now perished; neither have they any more a portion for ever in any thing that is done under the sun.”

“Whatever your hand finds to do, do it with all your might; for there is no work, nor plan, nor knowledge, nor wisdom, in the grave where you go.”


Other verses compares death to a sleep state:


Job 14:10-12

But man dies and is cut off; and man expires, and where is he? As the waters fail from the sea, and a river falls away and dries up, so man lies down and does not rise. Till the heavens are no more, they shall not awake, nor be awakened out of their sleep.

John 11:11-14

He said these things; and after that He said to them, Our friend Lazarus sleeps. But I go so that I may awaken him out of sleep. Then His disciples said, Lord, if he sleeps, he will get well. But Jesus spoke of his death, but they thought that He had spoken of taking rest in sleep. Then Jesus said to them plainly, Lazarus is dead. 

1 Corinthians 15:6

Afterward He was seen by over five hundred brothers at once, of whom the greater part remain until this present day, but also some fell asleep.


signorelli resurrection death in the bible
Resurrection of the Flesh, by Luca Signorelli and workshop, 1450–1523, Source: Arthive


These verses seem to support the idea of death as an unconscious or sleep-like state that lasts until the Second Coming when the faithful receive immortality and incorruptible bodies.


1 Corinthians 15:51-54

“Behold, I speak a mystery to you; we shall not all fall asleep, but we shall all be changed; in a moment, in a glance of an eye, at the last trumpet. For a trumpet shall sound, and the dead shall be raised incorruptible, and we shall all be changed. For this corruptible must put on incorruption, and this mortal must put on immortality. But when this corruptible shall put on incorruption, and when this mortal shall put on immortality, then will take place the word that is written, “Death is swallowed up in victory.”


The “soul sleep” view can be challenged by pointing out that sleep serves as a metaphor for death, not a description of the state of the dead. Some scholars claim on the contrary that the rich man and Lazarus narrative is evidence of conscious thought after death.


The Role of Death in the Bible

purgatory duc de berry death in the bible
Depiction of Purgatory, from Très Riches Heures du Duc de Berry, 15th century, Source: Wikimedia Commons


Proponents of both views on death claim biblical support for their beliefs. Ultimately, it is up to the Bible student to dive deep into this important subject and to determine which view the Bible truly supports. The process involves determining which perspective uses the texts out of context and which has the most consistent and coherent support.


The concepts of an immortal soul and conditional immortality are mutually exclusive, and both cannot be correct. Considering opposing views openly and honestly and allowing the merits of each to present themselves, is the best way to eventually draw a conclusion on the subject of death in the Bible. The process may be uncomfortable, but as Aristotle said: “it is the mark of an educated person to search for the same kind of clarity in each topic to the extent that the nature of the matter accepts it.”

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By Eben De JagerPhD New Testament, MTh Christian SpiritualityEben is a theologian, presenter, author, and public speaker with more than a decade of experience in Christian apologetics. His fields of interest are the gift of tongues and eschatology, especially the books of Daniel and Revelation. He holds a PhD from North-West University, a MTh (Christian Spirituality) from the University of South Africa, a BA(Hons) in Theology from the University of Johannesburg, and a BA in Theology from the Rand Afrikaans University.