Does Ecclesiastes 9:5 teach that the dead are unconscious?
The organization known as the "Iglesia Ni Cristo" often cites Ecclesiastes 9:5 in an attempt to demonstrate that the dead are unconscious as they await judgment. Does this verse really teach that the dead are unconscious. When we examine the book of Ecclesiastes, we see that this is not the case.
Ecclesiastes 9:5 does not describe the state of a soul awaiting judgment.
Ecclesiastes 9:5 (ESV) - 5 For the living know that they will die, but the dead know nothing, and they have no more reward, for the memory of them is forgotten.
Is it true that the dead have no more reward? It is not. Those who are obedient to God have a reward that awaits them. Obviously, this verse is only speaking of earthly rewards.
2 Corinthians 5:10 (ESV) - 10 For we must all appear before the judgment seat of Christ, so that each one may receive what is due for what he has done in the body, whether good or evil.
Is it true that no one remembers the dead? It is not. God remembers his people. Obviously, this verse is only speaking of earthly memory.
Luke 12:6 (ESV) - Are not five sparrows sold for two pennies? And not one of them is forgotten before God.
If this is speaking of earthly rewards, and earthly memory, we should understand this verse as also speaking of an earthly consciousness. The dead do not continue knowing things as earthly men know things.
Ecclesiastes gives us an intentionally limited picture of reality.
Let's look at the next verse.
Ecclesiastes 9:6 (ESV) - Their love and their hate and their envy have already perished, and forever they have no more share in all that is done under the sun.
Time and time again, Ecclesiastes uses the phrase "under the sun". This is to signify that the author is only speaking of earthly things. He is intentionally leaving the afterlife out of the picture. This is so that he can paint a bleak picture of reality, suitable to those who deny God or his eternal purposes.
At the beginning of the book, the preacher states his purpose:
Ecclesiastes 1:13 (ESV) - And I applied my heart to seek and to search out by wisdom all that is done under heaven. It is an unhappy business that God has given to the children of man to be busy with.
He clearly wishes to talk about that which is under heaven. He is not speaking of our state beyond death, but of what life looks like when we ignore what follows death.
Ecclesiastes creates problems if we take every verse at face value.
Consider the following statements in Ecclesiastes:
1. "man has no advantage over the beasts" (Ecclesiastes 3:9)
2. "be not overly righteous" (Ecclesiastes 7:16)
3. "money answers everything" (Ecclesiastes 10:9)
All these verses are clearly explained by the fact that the preacher only wishes to speak of earthly things. When we ignore the afterlife, man does not have advantage over beast because all die. When we ignore the afterlife, we have no need to be very righteous since we are not considering heavenly rewards. When we ignore the afterlife, money really is the answer to everything because it can buy us whatever we need on this earth.
Does the INC believe that man is just as well off as the beast? Does the INC believe that we can be too righteous? Does the INC believe that money solves all our problems? They do not understand these other verses in Ecclesiastes at face value, why should they understand Ecclesiastes 9:5 at face value?
The INC misuses Ecclesiastes 9:5 because they do not understand the purpose of the book. The purpose of the book is to speak of things under the sun and to demonstrate what life looks like when we deny the afterlife and God's eternal purposes. If the INC ministers would diligently read whole books of the Bible and not just the verses given to them by the administration, perhaps they would not have this problem.
We should not trust the words of men who misuse scripture. We should trust the words of Christ and what he said to a criminal who trusted in him alone for salvation.
Luke 23:43 (ESV) - And he said to him, "Truly, I say to you, today you will be with me in Paradise."