(Eccl. 9:5) Are the dead conscious or unconscious?

CLAIM: Solomon writes, “For the living know they will die; but the dead do not know anything, nor have they any longer a reward, for their memory is forgotten” (Eccl. 9:5). Are the dead conscious or unconscious?

RESPONSE: We reject the view of “soul sleep,” where believers are unconscious until the resurrection at the end of human history (see comments on 1 Thessalonians 4:13). Here, the scope of Solomon’s statement is the finality of the grave. He is referring to this life—not the next.

Solomon is explaining the meaning of life and human existence apart from God (see “Introduction to Ecclesiastes”). This is why Solomon’s statements are so difficult to interpret at first glance. In this section, Solomon is stating that human beings cannot have thoughts in this life, when they die. If naturalism is true, then humans are just a bag of chemicals and juices that are doomed to die like all the rest of the animal kingdom.

However, at the end of this book, Solomon concludes, “For man goes to his eternal home while mourners go about in the street” (Eccl. 12:5). He writes, “The dust will return to the earth as it was, and the spirit will return to God who gave it” (Eccl. 12:7). Solomon warns of a future judgment for people as well (Eccl. 11:9). But at this point in the book, Solomon is challenging those who are living apart from God to reconsider their meaning and purpose in life.