Are the Dead Conscious?

By Wayne Jackson
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There is an ongoing controversy in the religious community as to whether or not human beings, after death, exist in a state of consciousness. The Watchtower movement claims: “The dead are shown to be ‘conscious of nothing at all’ and the death state to be one of complete inactivity” (Aid to Bible Understanding 1971, 431).

Unquestionably, the Bible teaches otherwise. Though there are numerous arguments that one might employ to establish the fact that the dead are aware of their post-mortem existence, the narrative concerning the rich man and Lazarus is one of the most comprehensive affirmations of this truth.

In the parable of the unrighteous steward (Luke 16:1-13), Christ had taught the value of using one’s material possessions to prepare for eternity. Likewise, he had cautioned about the dangers of becoming enslaved to money. But the Pharisees, who were lovers of money, ridiculed the Lord (16:14). Thus, Jesus subsequently introduced the account concerning a certain rich man and a beggar named Lazarus (16:19-31). The basic design of this case is to show the vivid contrast between these two men—both before and after death!

Is It a Parable?

There are many respectable Bible scholars who consider the account in Luke 16:19ff to be a parable. Even if such were the case, that would not militate against the force of the instruction contained within the story, for the parable is “confined to that which is real. Its imagery always embodies a narrative which is true to the facts and experiences of human life” (Terry 1890, 188).

In a parable “the events must be possible, or likely to have happened” (Bullinger 1968, 752). D. R. Dungan notes: “The actors in a parable are real—human beings are the actors, and they do nothing which they could not do” (n.d., 227).

It is more likely, though, that this record is not a parable. Some of the apostolic “church fathers” (e.g., Ambrosius, Irenaeus, Tertullian) argued that the account was not parabolic. R. C. Trench stated that this “little history . . . does not fulfill the conditions of a parable” (1877, 453). For example, it would be the only parable in which the characters are actually named.

R. C. Foster’s comment is helpful:

This is usually called a parable, but Jesus does not state it is a parable. In no parable is a person named, as Lazarus is. Discussion as to whether it is a parable is not necessary. The pictures Jesus gives of life beyond the grave cannot be tested by us because of our lack of information. They are true to the facts or else Jesus deceived us (1971, 955).

It would not be out of order here to point out that some religious materialists, i.e., those who deny conscious punishment for the wicked (such as the “Jehovah’s Witnesses”), have placed a very bizarre construction upon this report. The Watchtower people allege:

By this parable Jesus uttered a prophecy which undergoes fulfillment in its modern setting since A.D. 1918. It has its application to two classes existing on earth today. The rich man represents the ultraselfish class of the clergy of “Christendom,” who are now alienated from God and dead to his favor and tormented by the truth proclaimed. Lazarus depicts the remnant of the “body of Christ” and also that class of persons who are of good-will (Let God Be True 1946, 79).

In refutation it only need be momentarily noted that if such is the case, since there is a non-negotiable gulf between the two groups, one must suppose that no “clergyman” could ever be converted to the “body of Christ,” and none within the body-class could ever apostatize to the ultra-selfish crowd! Yet, this is a consequence to which the “Witnesses” do not subscribe.

A Difficulty

There is, however, a difficulty in this discussion which must be addressed. It is frequently alleged that this account cannot involve a representation of actual facts, for whereas both the rich man and Lazarus had died and their bodies were decaying in the earth, nonetheless, reference is made to their physical features—eyes, tongue, and finger (vv. 23-24).

But these allusions do not negate the literalness of the account overall. The truth is, the Lord is describing only the condition of the spirits of these men. The resurrection has not occurred, as evidenced by the fact that it is stated that there are still people upon the earth (v. 28). Since, however, we are not yet prepared to understand the nature of pure spirits, inspiration must somehow attempt to accommodate ideas regarding the spirit to our current level of comprehension. This is done by figuratively applying physical traits to the description of the spirit. It is a form of anthropomorphism; hence, it is similar to the use of physical characteristics in describing God (cf. Isaiah 59:1-2; 1 Peter 3:12), even though we know he is not human (John 4:24; Luke 24:39).

The Facts of the Case

The narrative involves a certain rich man who lived in an expensive house (suggested by the word “gate”), who was luxuriously clothed, and who lived “in mirth and splendor every day” (cf. ASV fn). By way of stark contrast, Lazarus, a beggar (the Greek word denotes the poorest of the poor), was unceremoniously dumped (so the original language indicates) daily at the wealthy man’s gate, hoping only for the crumbs that fell from that gentleman’s table. Any meager comfort that Lazarus enjoyed was provided by the foraging street dogs who licked the diseased tumors of his frail body.

Finally, both men died and their state of affairs was dramatically altered. The rich man was subjected to agonizing torment while Lazarus was honored and comforted. It is in consideration of the details chronicled in verses twenty-two and following that it becomes very obvious that the dead, both righteous and wicked, are conscious. Let us note some of these indications.

Perception

The rich man could see both Abraham and Lazarus; he thus possessed perception. Perception involves an awareness of objects, hence, consciousness.

Satisfaction

Lazarus was described as being “in Abraham’s bosom.” This expression is a biblical idiom which suggests a state of honor (cf. John 1:18; 13:23). It implies that Lazarus was in a warm and respected fellowship with Abraham. Alfred Plummer notes that the language suggests that the former beggar now shares Abraham’s “happiness” (1896, 303). Clearly, this indicates consciousness.

Sensation

The rich man is in “torments.” Indeed, he is suffering “anguish,” which certainly affirms conscious sorrow (cf. 2:48; Acts 20:38). On the other hand, Lazarus is “comforted.”

Communication

The rich man could both speak and be spoken to. Communication is possible only with conscious beings. The suffering rebel had not been annihilated.

Recognition

The rich man recognized Lazarus and requested his services by name. Recognition involves consciousness.

Comprehension

The rich man made two requests of Abraham. First, he asked that Lazarus be permitted to dip his finger in water in order to cool his parched tongue. Abraham reasoned that such was impossible because an impassable gulf separated the righteous from the wicked. Second, the rich man requested that Lazarus be allowed to go and warn his brothers not to come to that place of punishment. The patriarch replied that those brethren had access to the Old Testament Scriptures, and that such was sufficient to prevent those kinsmen from dying lost if they were disposed to heed the message. Apparently, the rich man understood Abraham’s response; he had no further comment to make. Again, the narrative implies consciousness.

Volition

The rich man’s petition that Lazarus be allowed to enter the hadean realm where he was, or that he be permitted to return to earth, implies that Lazarus had the volitional and/or locomotive ability to accomplish that feat if divinely allowed. That further suggests consciousness.

Recollection

Abraham reminded the rich man of his earthly status: “Son, remember that you in your lifetime received your good things.” Where there is memory, there is consciousness.

Emotion

When the rich man reflected upon the spiritual condition of his earthly brothers, he evidenced concern and urged that they be warned not to enter that dreadful hadean realm. People without consciousness evidence no concern for others.

A careful and honest consideration of the information contained in this account can only lead to the conclusion that the dead are conscious. Theories which allow for the extinction of the wicked, or for “soul-sleeping” on the part of the righteous dead, are not consistent with this divine teaching as given by Jesus Christ.

Note: In his book The Fire That Consumes, which affirms that the wicked will be ultimately annihilated, Edward Fudge, preacher and elder for the Bering Drive Church of Christ in Houston, Texas, struggles mightily with Luke 16:19ff. He finally concludes that the narrative is but a parable drawn “from intertestamental and first-century folklore” (1982, 208). Such a superficial and modernistic approach is scarcely worthy of a response.]

Sources/Footnotes
  • Aid to Bible Understanding. 1971. Brooklyn, NY: Watchtower.
  • Bullinger, E. W. 1968. Figures of Speech Used in the Bible. Grand Rapids, MI: Baker.
  • Dungan, D. R. n.d. Hermeneutics. Cincinnati, OH: Standard.
  • Foster, R. C. 1971. Studies in the Life of Christ. Grand Rapids, MI: Baker.
  • Fudge, Edward. 1982. The Fire That Consumes. Houston, TX: Providential Press.
  • Let God Be True. 1946. Brooklyn, NY: Watchtower.
  • Plummer, Alfred. 1896. International Critical Commentary on Luke. Edinburgh, Scotland: T. & T. Clark.
  • Terry, M. S. 1890. Hermeneutics. New York, NY: Eaton & Mains.
  • Trench, R. C. 1877. Notes on the Parables. London, England: Macmillan.
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About the Author

Wayne Jackson has written for and edited the Christian Courier since its inception in 1965. He has also written several books on a variety of biblical topics including The Bible and Science, Creation, Evolution, and the Age of the Earth, The Bible on Trial, and a number of commentaries. He lives in Stockton, California with his dear wife, and life-long partner, Betty.