Several passages in the book of Ecclesiastes seem to indicate that the inspired author does not believe that there is an afterlife. The Jehovah’s Witnesses regularly quote from Ecclesiastes to prove that there is no afterlife immediately following death. They teach that a person’s soul ceases to exist upon death, and that God will recreate that person later on when all the dead are resurrected. But does Ecclesiastes really teach that there is no immediate afterlife?
Although there are several passages that mention death and the afterlife in the book, the key passages normally cited are verses 19-21 in chapter 3.
Man’s fate is like that of the animals; the same fate awaits them both: As one dies, so dies the other. All have the same breath; man has no advantage over the animal. Everything is meaningless. All go to the same place; all come from dust, and to dust all return. Who knows if the spirit of man rises upward and if the spirit of the animal goes down into the earth?
If we look at the first 3 sentences, it seems clear that Solomon, the traditional author of Ecclesiastes, is speaking about the physical body of a human being. It is true that human bodies die and decompose, just like other animals.
The final sentence, though, does not explicitly state that the human spirit also dies, but it asks the question of where the spirit goes after death. In effect, Solomon is saying, “Some people believe that a person’s spirit goes to heaven, but nobody really knows for sure.” Solomon, in effect, is saying that he just doesn’t know much about what happens after a person dies, so he is advising his readers to live their lives on earth in light of that fact. He is teaching that death is a real enemy to human beings.
The question then arises: Why doesn’t Solomon know about the afterlife? To answer this question, we need to introduce the concept of progressive revelation. Progressive revelation refers to the fact that God, in the Scriptures, progressively reveals more and more of Himself over time. God’s ultimate revelation of Himself was in the person of Jesus Christ. Jesus’s disciples completed the revelation of God when they wrote the books of the New Testament (NT).
Solomon lived more than 900 years before Jesus, so he wasn’t alive for the writing of the NT, nor the writing of much of the Old Testament (OT). The concept of an afterlife was taught more fully after Solomon lived.
There are glimpses of the afterlife in OT passages such as Ps 16:9-11; 49:15; 73:23-26; Is 26:19; Dan 12:2, and so forth. But the doctrine was not really brought to full light until the NT, where there are numerous passages (e.g., Rev 6:9-10; Phil 1:23; 2 Cor 5:6-8).
Another point to consider is that Solomon may have been specifically refuting the afterlife teachings of surrounding nations, such as Egypt. Duane Garrett, in the Apologetics Study Bible, explains:
What the author was questioning, however, may have been the materialistic notions of afterlife that predominated in ancient Egypt, where people thought that after death a powerful man could continue to enjoy his possessions, his women, and the services of his slaves. In short, this theology did not take seriously the finality of physical death (the great pyramids of the pharaohs were expressions of this view).
If we look at the Bible in its totality, what is its teaching on death and the afterlife? Duane Garrett answers in Proverbs, Ecclesiastes, Song of Songs (New American Commentary):
In biblical Christianity, however, death is consistently described as a curse and an enemy (1 Cor 15:26, 54–55; Rev 20:14). The resurrection of Christ, moreover, has conquered death and has opened the way for the resurrection. The whole person, body and soul, enters immortality. This immortality, however, is dependent on the power of God and the resurrection.
Ecclesiastes does not deny afterlife but does force the reader to take death seriously. In this the book echoes the psalmist’s prayer that he be taught to number his days (Ps 90:10–12). It is not the biblical believer who denies the power of death but the unbeliever.
Since humans are truly mortal, two conclusions follow. First, neither possessions nor accomplishments are eternal, and we should properly use and enjoy them while we still see the light of day. Second, because we are by nature dependent and contingent, our hope of eternal life must be founded in God and not ourselves (Eccl 12:7, 13–14). For the Christian this means that immortality is in the risen Christ (1 Cor 15:12–19).
The bottom line is that Ecclesiastes is not meant to be the final biblical word on the afterlife. Solomon simply did not know what would happen after a person died because God had not revealed that information to him. Given his ignorance on the topic, he nevertheless taught us how live to our lives on earth: Fear God and keep His commandments.