Do the Dead Observe Earth’s Activities?

By Wayne Jackson

“Is there any Bible evidence that would indicate that members of our family, who have passed on into the realm of the dead, are aware of our activities on earth today?”

There is no detailed discussion of this topic in the Bible. Our conclusions, therefore, can be drawn only from isolated and sketchy portions of Scripture. Note the following.

The Dead Remember

There is clear biblical testimony supporting the fact that the dead have memories of their earthly activities. For example, in the narrative dealing with the rich man and Lazarus, the rich man, though tormented in the Hadean realm, nonetheless could remember his earthly family. At his “father’s house” were “five brothers,” and he agonized that they might also end up in that place of punishment (Lk. 16:27-28). Clearly his memory of the past had not been obliterated.

In the concluding book of the New Testament, John saw a vision of those precious souls who had been martyred for the cause of the slain Lamb. They cried: “How long, O Master, the holy and true, [will it be] before you judge and avenge our blood upon those who dwell upon the earth?” (Rev. 6:10). These servants of the Lord remembered the earth, and that they had lived thereon. They recalled that they had suffered and died at the hands of oppressors, and they remembered the divine promise of being vindicated eventually (cf. Lk. 18:7; Rom. 12:19).

It must be noted, however, that “having memory of the past” is not the equivalent of “being conscious of the present,” as such pertains to a distant environment. I have fond memories of brothers and sisters in the Lord in other lands, with whom I enjoyed association in the past. Yet I have no conscious awareness of what is transpiring in their lives presently.

Where Is the Evidence?

There is no biblical information with which I am familiar that would provide any support for the idea that those in the realm of the dead are able to view the activities of people who now dwell upon the earth. To affirm otherwise calls for evidence. If there is such evidence, I have not seen it. The fact is, there appears to be a direct denial of this theory in the book of Ecclesiastes.

We cannot, at this time, discuss the technical intricacies associated with the book of Ecclesiastes, e.g., authorship and literary structure —nor even the larger context in which the following passage is found. It must suffice at this point simply to say that this sacred book involves an exploration into the meaning of human existence, and what pursuits will, or will not, lead to that level of happiness the Creator intended that we ideally should enjoy. With that said, here is the passage we wish to explore.

“For the living know that they shall die: but the dead know not anything, neither have they any more a reward; for the memory of them is forgotten. As well their love, as their hatred and their envy, is perished long ago; neither have they any more a portion for ever in anything that is done under the sun” (9:5-6).

In this context the writer illustrates the futility of focusing one’s attention primarily upon the things of this earth. There are several reasons cited:

(1) Earthly life will end eventually. Death stalks us all, and we are confronted with this morbid reality daily.

(2) Once a person dies, his ties with earthly environments are severed. He has no awareness of the happenings transpiring upon this planet. He has no further earthly rewards to be received, because he has been removed from this realm, and, in fact, even the memory of him, as a general rule, will eventually fade.

(3) Former earthly associations -good or bad - are interrupted by death. The deceased person is removed forever from activity “under the sun.” This expression, used twenty-nine times in the book of Ecclesiastes, refers to earth’s domain.

In this passage we focus our attention especially upon the affirmation that “the dead know not anything … under the sun.” It is not that they are unconscious in their current spirit state (as materialists allege); rather, they are estranged from the experiences of this environment. Note what several scholars have said regarding this text.

Adam Clarke noted that the dead are cut off from this present realm; they “know nothing of what passes under the sun” (Commentary on the Bible, III, p. 829).

Another writer says that this text affirms that the dead “know not anything … so far as their bodily senses and worldly affairs are concerned” (Jamieson, Faussett & Brown, Bible Commentary, Zondervan, 1961, p. 484).

W.J. Deane observed that “what passes on earth affects them [the dead] not; the knowledge of it reaches them no longer” (Pulpit Commentary, Eerdman, 1950, Vol. 9, p. 226).

Matthew Henry commented that “[w]hen life is gone, all this world is gone with it, as to us … [t]here is an end of all our acquaintance with it, and the things of it. It does not appear that the dead know any thing of what is done by those they left behind” (Comprehensive Commentary, Brattleboro Co., 1845, Vol. III, p. 267).

All of the evidence gathered, therefore, leads to one conclusion. When a person dies, his earthly activity ceases (no reincarnation here), and any active knowledge of earth’s realm is veiled from his vision. This fact highlights the folly of attempting to pray to the dead —as practiced in some religious movements (e.g. in Catholicism’s “prayers to the saints”).

NOTE: When Roman Catholic scholar Bertrand Conway sought to defend the practice of “prayers to the saints,” he could cite not a single Bible verse affirming or implying that human beings, in the domain of the dead, could hear or respond to the petitions of those living on earth (The Question Box, Catholic Truth Society, 1929, pp. 368-70). This absence textual evidence, on the part of such a learned gentleman, constitutes a devastating implication.

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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.