The main Watchtower Bible study book used to recruit converts is What does the Bible Really Teach? Its 6th chapter titled “Where are the Dead?” presents non-existence after death (annihilation) as a valid explanation of the afterlife.
This view of the afterlife re-emerged with some 19th century cults (Christian Science, Seventh Day Adventists and Christadelphians). This belief appeals to people trying to escape from the reality of eternity.
Since the two eternal destinations (Heaven and Hell) are well spelt-out in the Bible, the efforts of annihilationists to find their theories within the pages of the Bible is a self-induced delusion. I will be focusing on the JW arguments on this topic (since they are the most popular of the bad lot).
“Our senses, along with our thoughts, are all linked to the workings of our brain. At death, the brain stops working. Our memories, feelings and senses do not continue to function independently in some mysterious way” (What Does the Bible Really Teach?, 2005, 58).
This statement is based on false assumptions. It’s an argument also used by atheists and materialists to deny the reality of the spiritual dimension and it is based on faulty reasoning. The Watchtower writers assume that consciousness is generated by the brain, but irrefutable evidence show that consciousness is independent from the brain.
The brain is not the source of thought, it’s only the processor, so to speak. The “system” that runs the brain is the spirit and soul. It is from there that thoughts, feelings and memories come. The brain only processes them.
The brain is a physical organ that can only experience the physical world. But there is an invisible part of man that experiences the spirit realm and which departs from the physical body after death. So a person can be conscious even after his physical body has died. The above JW assertion seems logical, but it deliberately ignores some basic facts and leads to false conclusion.
They continue: “He [Jehovah] knows the truth, and in his Word, the Bible, he explains the condition of the dead. Its clear teaching is this: When a person dies, he ceases to exist. Death is the opposite of life” (ibid).
Now, there is a big difference between what the Bible says and what the Watchtower Society claims the Bible says. This is obvious to anyone who reads the Bible without their cultic interpretative grid. Man is basically a spirit being that has a soul and lives in a physical body.
Of course, death is the opposite of life. But both must be defined from the Bible, not from a handbook of Sociology. Scripture defines life not merely as an existence, but a right existence knowing the true God (Jn. 17:3, 1Jn. 1:2) and death is defined, not just as opposite of life, but as separation or a cutting off from God’s purpose.
The definition of death as cessation of existence is totally unbiblical. Death/separation is used in 3 Biblical contexts:
1. Physical death: separation of the spirit and soul from the physical body. When physical death occurs, the body (not the spirit) ceases all its physical functions (Ps. 146:4, James 2:26).
2. Spiritual death: separation of the human spirit from God due to sin. A person can be physically alive and spiritually dead. For example in Matthew 8:22, Jesus said “Follow me; and let the dead bury their dead.” He was referring to the spiritually dead unbelievers.
Ephesians 2:1: “And you hath he quickened [i.e made spiritually alive], who were dead in trespasses and sins.” Every unbeliever is spiritually separated (dead) from God until he is regenerated and reconciled by faith in Christ’s ransom at the cross (vs 13-16).
1 Timothy 5:6 says: “But she that liveth in pleasure is dead while she liveth.” Therefore, death can describe people still physically existing, but in a wrong way.
3. Eternal or Second death: eternal separation from God in the lake of fire. It’s the ultimate penalty for sin (Rev. 2:11, 20:6, 14, 21:8).
The two main ways JWs confuse people concerning death and the afterlife is by giving death a remote, unscriptural definition, and by distorting the real penalty for sin.
I. “Death – loss of life; termination of existence; utter cessation of conscious intellectual or physical activity, celestial, human or otherwise” (Make Sure of all Things, 1953, 86).
This definition of death cannot be substantiated by any reputable Hebrew or Greek lexicon. Not a single Hebrew or Greek word in the Bible means “cessation of consciousness” or “annihilation.” The major Hebrew words used for death in the OT are maveth and muth. And the most common Greek word for death in the NT is thanatos (Strong #2288).
Greek scholar, W. E. Vine in An Expository Dictionary of New Testament Words defined it as: “The separation of the soul (the spiritual part of man) from the body (the material part)…the separation of man from God” (1940, “Death”).
Another Greek scholar, Joseph Thayer defined thanatos as: “The death of the body, i.e separation…of the soul from the body by which the life on earth is ended” (Greek-English Lexicon of the NT, 282).
JWs spread their false doctrines by not distinguishing between the Biblical contexts of death, but lumping both definitions of physical and spiritual death together. Perhaps realizing that giving death the “cessation of consciousness” meaning may pose some problems, in another publication, they admit:
“The Bible shows that death can be used as a symbol, representing a great change in one’s life or course of action” (The Truth that Leads to Eternal Life, 1968, 43).
II. The penalty for sin is eternal separation from God in hell. If the penalty was physical death, then everyone who dies is automatically saved, for his penalty has been paid. Yet this is what JWs teaches, that: “Those resurrected thus come to life with a clean slate, so to speak” (Bible Teach, 214). In their own words, God’s “maximum punishment for the wicked is to revoke the gift of life” (The WT., Oct. 1, 2011, 6).
So physical death justifies you from your sins. What a horrible lie! Since death is non-existence, by their own definition, that implies that God cancels out sins by making men non-existent. He just settles it while we fizzle! The fact that some who physically die will be saved and others will be lost proves that physical death can’t be God’s “maximum penalty” for the wicked.
If the penalty of sin is spiritual death, that means sinning is the way to be saved. Since by sinning and dying spiritually, you have paid your penalty, that means all who have sinned would have eternal life. Who then needs salvation? The real penalty for sin, therefore, could not be physical or spiritual death, but eternal death (Eph. 2:1-9). A good question to ask a Witness is: what is the penalty of sin?
Two Bible texts are cited to support annihilation:
(a) Eccl. 9:5 “As for the dead, they are conscious of nothing at all“
This is true as far as the dead bodies are concerned. JWs already laid the foundation by misdefining death, so all they are doing is building on that wrong definition with a-contextual Bible verses.
Dead bodies know nothing and are not conscious at all. They came from the dust and return to the dust, but the souls and spirits of all men are immortal and continue in full consciousness between death and the resurrection of the bodies.
The other part of the verse (which JWs omitted) says “…neither have they any more reward, for the memory of them is forgotten.” If we are to take this part of the text as JWs have taken the first part, then that implies the dead have no resurrection or reward on earthly paradise. No JW would agree with this.
Verse 6 explains vs 5 “…neither have they any more a portion forever in anything that is under the sun.” In other words, the verse is saying, in relation to this world, the dead know nothing.
(b) Ps. 146:4 “[when a man dies] his thoughts do perish”
The “thoughts” here refers to unaccomplished purposes of a person on earth which ends when a person dies. The syntax or context of this verse contradicts Jehovah’s Witness beliefs.
If we interpret Isaiah 55:7 “Let the wicked forsake his way, and the unrighteous man his thoughts…” the same way, we’d conclude that an unrighteous man must cease to think and become non-existent!
“Jesus told his disciples: ‘Lazarus our friend has gone to rest.’…Notice that Jesus compared death to rest and sleep. Lazarus was neither in heaven nor in a burning hell. He was not meeting angels or ancestors…He was at rest in death, as though in a deep sleep without dreams” (Bible Teach p. 59)
Jesus indeed used the term “sleep” to describe the death of Lazarus. The apostles too used the term to describe the death of Believers (Acts 7:60, 1Cor. 11:30, 1Thess. 4:13-17, 5:6-10). They used the term “sleep” as a metaphorical expression indicating that death is only temporary for Christians, just as sleep is temporary. It pointed to the resurrection of Believers. To jump from the term “sleep” to “non-existence” is an unwarranted leap.
Of course, Lazarus was neither in heaven nor hell, he was in Abraham’s bosom. This was a temporary place the OT saints were kept before Christ’s resurrection (Lk. 16, Eph. 4:17).
It is inconsistent to say a person who is non-existent is “in a deep sleep” and is then re-created by Jehovah at some point in the future. To bring a person out of non-existence, is not “resurrection” but re-creation. How can it be the same person who died that is being brought back from cessation? This doctrine is not only unbiblical, but also unreasonable.