Does Ecclesiastes Deny The Afterlife?

Does Ecclesiastes Deny The Afterlife? June 18, 2017

I received an e-mail about an older blog post of mine that I linked to in a recent post, and thought I would share it, and my response here.


I read your “Just Sayin” post today and clicked through your link to your post from 2010 about Eccles 2:

Not sure if you’ve had any dialogue about it over the past seven years, but I hold to Biblical inerrancy and I don’t see it at odds with any Christian doctrine about the afterlife. The author is talking about the seeming meaningless of life. “All share a common destiny”: DEATH.

In 40 Questions About Interpreting the Bible by Robert Plummer, he writes, “Inerrancy respects the authorial intent of the passage and the literary conventions under which the author wrote” (42). It doesn’t seem that the intent of the author of Eccles was to deny the afterlife, but rather merely to state that when people die “they have no further reward [under the sun/on earth].” Maybe you reject the bracketed part; but to think it teaches the rejection of the afterlife, you also have to add something in those brackets—and what you add is the presupposition you’re bringing that it rejects the afterlife.

People live and then people die and then “never again will they have a part in anything that happens under the sun.”

If you think the author rejects the afterlife, then what do you do with the very end: “Fear God and keep his commandments, for this is the whole duty of man. For God will bring every deed into judgment, with every secret thing, whether good or evil.” If we die and that’s it, where does this judgment come into play?

This article from TGC has been helpful to me in understanding Ecclesiastes:


Here is what I wrote in reply:

Hi! Thanks for reading my blog post from this morning, and being interested enough to click further and read the older one that I linked to! As Tremper Longman says in the Gospel Coalition piece you linked to, “Qohelet has no confidence in an afterlife.” The statements in 9:5 do not require the additions you wish to make, and are not obviously compatible with them, since “the dead know nothing [under the sun]” is not an obvious way of understanding it. Whether the epilogue is an attempt to make an earlier text more orthodox, or simply means that deeds are judged by God, neither view requires us to understand the author to envisage something at the end of the book that was not envisaged in the earlier passages.

We see the same point of view in the Book of Job 7:7-10, where Job says:

Remember that my life is a breath;
my eye will never again see good.
The eye of him who sees me will behold me no more;
while your eyes are on me, I shall be gone.
As the cloud fades and vanishes,
so he who goes down to Sheol does not come up;
10 he returns no more to his house,
nor does his place know him anymore.

The idea of an afterlife is missing from most of the Hebrew Bible/Christian Old Testament, which is why the prophets predict that calamities like famine, plagues, and exile will come as a punishment for the nation’s misdeeds, and never that they will be sent to hell because of them.

It isn’t that these texts are actively denying that there is an afterlife over against some other group that thinks there is one. They simply ignore it for the most part, and only occasionally mention it as explicitly as “the one who goes down to the grave/sheol does not come up.”

I think these texts are pretty clear, but would be happy to talk more about this, whether by e-mail, or on the blog, or over coffee sometime!


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  • myklc

    Will the inerrantist insist that Job was talking about specific, physical eyes? That in the after life, we shall see one another with perfected, spiritual eyes?
    Does the writer/editor of Eccles mention a heavenly existence for anyone apart from God?
    If the author had some hope of eternity in mind, why did they not provide some relief to “in the realm of the dead, where you are going, there is neither working nor planning nor knowledge nor wisdom.”?

  • Phil Ledgerwood

    That was an interesting email, and I appreciate the person’s question/counterpoint and the spirit in which they made it.

    I guess someone could argue that there is a difference between not having a concept of an afterlife and specifically arguing against the concept of an afterlife, but one thing I’d be curious about is why this passage would need to be brought into harmonization with a “doctrine of the afterlife” if what we’re after is what the Bible says.

    There are far, far more biblical passages that depict death as the end than there are that suggest the dead go on living in some fashion.

    • John MacDonald

      It reminds me of this brief clip from Woody Allen’s “Hannah and her Sisters” where Woody’s character is discussing the possibility of an afterlife with his dad:

      • Phil Ledgerwood

        “I don’t know how the can opener works” is my new go-to for the problem of evil.

  • The concept of being conscious after death comes from the Greeks. The Biblical concept of death is being “asleep” until the last day when resurrection occurs with a new body.

    • John MacDonald

      And the first Christians believed that the firstfruits of the harvest had been reaped (and they were waiting for the rest of the general resurrection process to follow):

      – “But Christ has indeed been raised from the dead, the firstfruits of those who have fallen asleep. (1 Cor 15:20)”

      – “The tombs broke open, and the bodies of many saints who had fallen asleep were raised. After Jesus’ resurrection, when they had come out of the tombs, they entered the holy city and appeared to many people.…(Matthew 27:52-53).”

      Apparently the resurrection bodies would not be like our current bodies, so there would be no reason for things like sex and marriage:

      “At the resurrection people will neither marry nor be given in marriage; they will be like the angels in heaven” (Matthew 22:30).

      • John MacDonald

        Although an eternity where I couldn’t be married seems pretty depressing indeed.

        • myklc

          Do you think your intimate relationship with the LORD of all would require a supplement?!

          • John MacDonald

            I’m not sure why simply being in the presence of God is so desirable, to the point where people don’t care about things like marriage and sex? Is being in the presence of God being in a dazed, euphoric stupor like someone being high on heroin? Surely getting high off of being in God’s presence would get old eventually (especially an eternity of it).

        • Gary

          Just think of it as an eternity of reading and commenting on blogs. The only question, “Is it heaven or hell?”

          • John MacDonald

            lol. I like this blog and Dr. Ehrman’s blog. I tried commenting on Vridar for a while, but Neil Godfrey gets so agitated when you disagree with him (as does Carrier, which is why I stopped commenting on his site), and Godfrey’s views can get pretty bizarre, so I don’t comment there any more. I enjoy Dr. McGrath’s and Dr. Ehrman’s blogs because they don’t have a “destroy religion” agenda that a lot of the atheist blogs have coloring their views, but rather just want to create a scholarly atmosphere of discussion to see where the ideas will lead. It was here that I first began to break the “imitation” mould. I was going on about how John Dominic Crossan denied the historicity of the empty tomb because there may be literary precedence, when Dr. McGrath reminded me that tombs and stones in front of them were common back then, so there is no reason to suppose the story was simply invented as a literary imitation.

  • Michael Tymn

    So much misunderstanding seems to come from the many translations from Hebrew, Greek and Latin. As Dr. Robert A. Morey of the Perry Bible Institute, points out, the word “nephesh” is used 754 times in the Hebrew Bible, but it takes on 30 different meanings, ranging from “soul” and “the dead” to “fish” and “dogs.” The word “aion” is found in the New Testament 108 times and is given 10 different meanings, including “forever,” “ages,” “occasionally” and “never.” What we read in the English Bible as “everlasting punishment” meant “age-long pruning” in the original Greek.

    Not from Perry but from another source, when Eccl. says the “dead know nothing” and we “should not speak with the dead,” the original Hebrew referred to the “spiritually dead,” meaning earthbound souls or low-level souls. If “dead” is taken to mean all dead, then this is in conflict with the New Testament as we are told to “test the spirits whether they are of God” (John 4:1) and to “discern” what they have to say (1 Corinthians 12:10) Further, 1 Thessalonians 5:21 says to “test them all and hold on to what is good.”

    • You seem to be relying on questionable sources for your linguistic information. Please provide evidence for your claim that the Hebrew of Ecclesiastes refers to the “spiritually dead” as well as that ancient Israelites had a concept of “low-level souls.”

      • Michael Tymn

        James, one such source is “Communication with the Spirit World of God,” by Johannes Greber. I once checked with Hebrew scholar and he confirmed what is said in Greber’s book. If you need further confirmation, you will have to do it on your own, as I am satisfied. If you don’t accept it, at least explain the conflicts mentioned above. Why “test the spirits” if we are not supposed to talk with them or if they know nothing? If some are “of God,” doesn’t it stand that some are “not of God,” or low level? Actually, I have asked this of other fundamentalists and they come up with some far-fetched interpretation of those passages.

        As for the ancient Hebrews believing in low-level spirits, they are said to have resided in Hades, which is not necessarily what Christianity calls Hell. Or, Sheol was an intermediate state, probably the Purgatory of Catholicism. But some Jews see Gehenna as the intermediate state, while others see it as Hell. You can choose your own interpretation of all these words if it fits your belief system, but who is to say that one interpretation is more proper than the other?

        • Linguistic matters have to be studied using linguistic and lexical evidence, and historical matters through ancient texts and artifacts. If the question is “What did this word mean 2,500 years ago?” or “How did ancient Israelites understand this concept?” it is not a satisfactory answer to say “Spirits told me that…”

  • Michael Tymn

    James, I would appreciate your comments as to how to reconcile the New Testament passages mentioned in my earlier post with the Old Testament prohibitions on speaking with the “dead.” In other words, why “test the spirits” and “discern” their messages if they “know nothing”? And how do we test them if we shouldn’t be speaking to them?.

    • You are assuming that ancient Israelite and much later New Testament authors had the same viewpoint. Why assume these authors’ views can be reconciled?

      • Michael Tymn

        I agree and I infer from your comment that you believe we should definitely not be taking the Bible literally, as there are so many ways to interpret what has been set forth. Thank you.

  • Ben Oni

    Early Christianity also believed in reincarnation (until circa 4th century)