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Ecclesiastes 3:18-21 (ESV):

18 I said in my heart with regard to the children of man that God is testing them that they may see that they themselves are but beasts. 19 For what happens to the children of man and what happens to the beasts is the same; as one dies, so dies the other. They all have the same breath, and man has no advantage over the beasts, for all is vanity. 20 All go to one place. All are from the dust, and to dust all return. 21 Who knows whether the spirit of man goes upward and the spirit of the beast goes down into the earth?

Who knows whether the spirit of man goes upward and the spirit of the beast goes down into the earth?

Is this a rhetorical question? Is verse 21 implying that the spirit of an animal and the spirit of a human go to different places when they die? If so, where exactly do they go?


Just so you have some additional data for consideration, we know from Ecclesiastes 9:10 and 12:7 that the spirit of man (1) returns to God and (2) goes to Sheol upon death, which may lead to the conclusion that Sheol must be a place that God is in charge of (see the answers to the related question Do we go to Heaven (because God is in Heaven) or to Sheol when we die? Ecclesiastes 12:5-7 vs. Ecclesiastes 9:10):

Whatever your hand finds to do, do it with your might, for there is no work or thought or knowledge or wisdom in Sheol, to which you are going. [Ecclesiastes 9:10 ESV]

and the dust returns to the earth as it was, and the spirit returns to God who gave it. [Ecclesiastes 12:7 ESV]

However, from reading Isaiah 14:9-11 I get the impression that Sheol is located downward, not upward.

9 Sheol beneath is stirred up
to meet you when you come;
it rouses the shades to greet you,
all who were leaders of the earth;
it raises from their thrones
all who were kings of the nations.
10 All of them will answer
and say to you:
‘You too have become as weak as we!
You have become like us!’
11 Your pomp is brought down to Sheol,
the sound of your harps;
maggots are laid as a bed beneath you,
and worms are your covers.
[Isaiah 14:9-11 ESV]

If the spirit of a man goes downward (to Sheol), wouldn't that contradict the implication by Ecclesiastes 3:21 that it goes upward?

And what about the spirits of animals? Do they go downward to Sheol as well?


Related BHSE questions:

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5 Answers 5

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What is clear in the Biblical text

Animals have a spirit & a body, which separate at death.

Verse 20 is a synonymous parallelism. As Victor Ludlow has observed:

Parallelism is the most distinctive quality of Hebrew poetry...In parallelism, a thought, idea, grammar pattern, or key word of the first line is repeated or continued in the second line. There are two basic types of parallelism, grammatical and semantic...Among the types of semantic parallelism...Synonymous parallelism: a theme of the first line repeats itself in the second line, but in slightly different words (Isaiah: Prophet, Seer, And Poet p. 32)

"All go to one place" & "All are from the dust, and to dust all return" are parallel expressions conveying the same concept. By comparison to Eccl. 12:7 & Genesis 2:7 we know that this is what happens to the physical body.

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What is semi-clear in the Biblical text

Per the above, "All go to one place", then, need not say anything at all about the destinations of the spirit. This is why verse 21 asks a question--in layman's terms, the Preacher is saying:

  • The bodies of men & beasts go to the same place - they molder in the earth
  • I'm not sure if their spirits go to the same place

That this is a genuine question, rather than a rhetorical exercise, appears likely by comparison to Ecclesiastes' use of the same "who knows" expression in 2:19 & 6:12, where uncertainty is clearly expressed (see Pulpit commentary). (Though the term is used elsewhere in the OT to carry other connotations, I suggest the most weighty context is how the same author uses the term).

Many see evidence in the first 2 chapters of Genesis of a spiritual creation followed by a physical creation--that not just man--but other creations as well have a spirit that was created (see Genesis 1), and subsequently housed in a physical body (see Genesis 2).

A deep dive on this matter would be a post all its own; I'll just offer a brief observation from Genesis 2:4-5:

4 These are the generations of the heavens and of the earth when they were created, in the day that the Lord God made the earth and the heavens,

5 And every plant of the field before it was in the earth, and every herb of the field before it grew: for the Lord God had not caused it to rain upon the earth, and there was not a man to till the ground.

This implies that plants were created before they grew in the earth. It also calls attention to what would otherwise be a great paradox in the narrative: plants came forth in chapter 1 (see v 12), but in chapter 2 it indicates that it hasn't rained yet. One of the conclusions that can possibly be drawn from this is that God created everything spiritually before creating it physically--and that the immortal spirit (if one believes in an immortal spirit, I do) is a feature possessed by animals as well.

(this is not to say there is no distinction between humans & beasts--it is clearly humans that are uniquely created in the image of God--see Genesis 1:27)

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What is ambiguous in the Biblical text

What do animals do in eternity & where are they? This is less clear--the Biblical texts focus so much more on the well-being & salvation of man than of beasts, there's precious little information here.

A passage sometimes employed on this matter is Revelation 4:6-9 as a description of animals in eternity before the throne of God. These animals appear to be in a positive, heavenly state, and are certainly depicted as conscious. Others will, of course, suggest this is entirely figurative.

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Up & Down

Some render the references to up & down as the comparatives above & below (see Barnes' commentary), but this interpretation is contested.

It is noteworthy that Jewish depictions of Sheol frequently had it divided into 2 sections, an upper & lower portion, leaving open the possibility that going upwards describes a spirit going to the upper portion of Sheol, and going down to the lower portion.

Further insight is offered in Proverbs:

To the wise the way of life goeth upward, that he may depart from Sheol beneath (Proverbs 15:24)

This lends further support to the view that Sheol is an intermediate state, and that for those who are prepared, it will be followed by a more glorious future (this could also be used to argue for the resurrection of only the righteous, but Paul rules out this possibility in 1 Cor 15:22).

In this case, the spirit could go down to Sheol and then later go up to the mansions of the Father, in which case the net direction is upwards, but like hiking a large mountain, the path to the summit involves paths of descent and paths of ascent.

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Conclusion

The Biblical text offers relatively little information on what the next life looks like for animals, but if we accept the following propositions:

  • Animals have a spirit (stated in Eccl. 3)
  • A spirit doesn't cease to exist (I've argued for this elsewhere)

We can infer that there will be animals in eternity. Where they will be in relation to humans is less clear.


Post-Script

The uncertainty of Eccl. 3:21 may appear contradictory next to the certainty of Eccl. 12:7, but I propose that this fails to recognize the literary genius of the text: the author is presenting a philosophical & spiritual quandary that is investigated and eventually answered by the end of the Book. A similar outline of "processing one's thoughts" to arrive at the answer can be observed in Job.

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  • "One of the conclusions that can be drawn from this is that God created everything spiritually before creating it physically--and that the immortal spirit... is a feature possessed by animals as well." How? Can you present a deductive argument where such a conclusion is reached? "going upwards describes a spirit going to the upper portion of Sheol" Except Sheol is depicted as being down in the earth, and Ecclesiastes is speaking from the perspective of someone on the earth. So when he says upwards, he means upwards in relation to the earth, meaning he cannot be talking about Sheol. -1
    – Rajesh
    Jan 31 at 6:28
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    @Rajesh my intent in the Genesis 1 & 2 discussion was to outline a possible interpretation rather than a definitive one--I reworded the sentence in case this wasn't straightforward the first time (it's in the "semi-clear" section of my post). For up & down, I outlined 3 possible interpretations. BTW, per your request a while back, in a more recent post I used the term "Christian mortalism" rather than "soul sleep" - do you see this as a less loaded term? Jan 31 at 17:38
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    Yes, I do! I appreciate that. Most people just stick to the term "soul sleep", despite the fact that it really misrepresents what we believe(i.e. it makes it seem that we believe that the soul literally sleeps, which we do not). So thanks. :) "possible interpretation rather than a definitive one" Ahh I see what you mean now. I still don't believe that that is a possible interpretation, but at least it's more clear now. Have a good day! :D
    – Rajesh
    Jan 31 at 17:42
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Note the rather curt but informative comments from the Cambridge commentary:

  1. Who knoweth the spirit of man that goeth upward] The words imply a strictly sceptical rather than a negative answer. They do not actually deny, still less do they affirm, as some have thought, that the spirit of man does ascend to a higher life, while that of the brute returns to dust. This would indeed be inconsistent with the whole context, and the consensus of the LXX., the Vulgate, the Targum, and the Syriac versions, all of which give “Who knoweth whether the spirit of man goeth upward?” is practically decisive. It is not till nearly the close of the book, with all its many wanderings of thought, that the seeker rests in that measure of the hope of immortality which we find in ch. Ecclesiastes 12:7. Here we have the accents, almost the very formula, of Pyrrhonism (Diog. Laert. ix. 11, §. 73), as borrowed from Euripides:

τίς δʼ οἶδεν εἰ τὸ ζῇν μὲν ἐστι κατθανεῖν,

τὸ κατθανεῖν δὲ ζῇν νομίζεται βροτοῖς.

“Who knoweth if true life be found in death,

While mortals think of what is death as life?”

I agree - this passage is not about what happens at death - that is explained elsewhere in the same book (Eccl 9:4, 5, 10, 12:7). One point here is still accurate - at deall everything that has the breath of life, including man and beast, go to the same place - the grave or she'ol and their bodies decay and are lost forever.

The verse of Eccl 3:21 is simply saying the rather obvious - from a purely human point of view we cannot know about what happens to the breath of life because no one can conduct an experiment to find out. This information is beyond our human capability to discover. [The only way we can know is by some divine revelation which this passage excludes in this part of Solomon's argument.]

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To answer to this question we have to well understand a couple of points:

1) Has the particle מי (mi) – a component of the expression we usually translate ‘Who knows?’ (contained in Qoe 3:21) - always implemented in it an uncertainty sense?

2) What is the meaning of רוח (mainly translated ‘spirit’, also in Qoe 3:21)? Maybe a number of Bible readers will be surprised to know what the Word of God tells about this topic.

Let’s start with the point 1 (“Has the particle מי (mi) – a component of the expression we usually translate ‘Who knows?’ - always implemented in it an uncertainty sense?”)

First of all, we must say that מי (mi) works - very often – as an interrogative pronoun, but sometimes the interrogative sense is missing (see table below). Other times this particle denotes a real question, expecting an answer; other times it introducing a mere rhetorical question (without a desired real answer). So, sometimes מי (mi) may highlight an uncertainty sense. Yet, other times there’s no uncertainty sense (see table below).

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The point (told by Hold to the Rod) that presents, that

“[…] likely by comparison to Ecclesiastes’ use of the same ‘who knows’ expression [יודע מי, mi iudo] in Qoe [Ecclesiastes] 2:19 & 6:12, where uncertainty is clearly express […]”

has thin value for our argument, because the presence/absence of a sense of uncertainty does not depend on a binomial nomenclature, as יודע מי (mi iudo, ‘Who knows?’), or as יתן מי (mi itn, ‘Who give?’), or others; instead it depends solely by the particle מי, taking into an account the context, obviously.

Really, the inspired writer of Qoeleth (Ecclesiastes) made a rhetorical question in 3:21. Is there an uncertainty sense in it? If we consider the whole context of Qoe the answer is No. Let us consider the facts. If we pose the assumption that the question in Qoe 3:21 included an uncertainty sense, the patent ‘certainty’ sense of the declaration of Qoe 12:7 (about the destiny of man’s spirit) makes us change our mind. The inspired writer was not unsure about the destiny of man’s spirit. In fact, Qoeleth said, that it, namely, “the spirit”, “goes back to God who gave it” (Bible in Basic English). So, no uncertainty at all (in Qoeleth’s talk).

Point 2 (What is the meaning of רוח?)

A lot of years ago I examined above 160 occurrences of the term רוח in the Hebrew Bible. From this exam I (and now you also) concluded that רוח has, basically, 5 meanings (namely, five manners to translate this Hebrew term in languages as English, or Italian too). Now I listed them, along with some samples of occurrences of each of this ‘meanings’ (Kri = Judges):

1) A motivating attitude of a person (Gen 26:35; 45:27; Num 5:14, 30; 14:24; Jos 2:11; Kri 9:23; et caetera) 2) A physical wind, air in motion, or, some directions indicate by windrose (Gen 8:1; Exo 10:13; et caetera) 3) A spiritual (namely, non-material) being (2 Sam 22:11; Psa 18:10 [11]; 104:4; Isa 31:3; et caetera) 4) A dynamic and biologic (material) energy belonging to an individual (Gen 7:15, 22; Exo 6:9; Kri 15:19; et caetera) 5) The specific רוח belonging to God (Gen 41:38; Exo 31:3; Num 24:2; Kri 11:29; et caetera)

We have well to remember that all these ‘meanings’ – in the Hebrew language of the Bible – were focused in a single term, רוח. We, other-than-Hebrew speakers, are obliged to parcel the unique term רוח in 5 different ‘meanings’ since we have no single term (in our languages) that is able to contain all these 5 ‘meanings’. This is a very important concept we have to not forget. What we today consider five distinct concepts, the ‘biblical’ Hebrew speakers of old expressed in an unique term, רוח. From this we have to infer – by logic - that those (that we consider 5 different) ‘meanings’ are all linked by a semantic fil rouge, namely, a basic idea that connects them all.

What is this idea?

Something that is… … invisible to human eyesin a potential dynamic stanceperforming/motivating some actions.

So, we cannot confound רוח with ‘soul’ (נפש). They are two different Hebrew terms, with two different meanings (but this is not the time to deepen our understanding about this other term, נפש).

Return, now, to Qoe 3:21. What is the רוח that return to God? Obviously, the fourth meaning listed above, namely, the dynamic and biologic (material) energy belonging to an (human or animal) individual.

Is it different from the body? Sure, with the same difference that exists between (for an example, not perfectly fitting one, pardon me) a brand-new Formula One’s Car with a dead battery, compared to a twin brand-new Formula One’s Car with a full-charged battery! The perfect Formula One’s Car is the ‘body’, the full-charged battery, or, better, the energy contained in the battery, is the רוח (‘spirit’).

So, according Qoeleth (12:7), the returning to God of the human רוח means simply that, in that instance, devolves to God to do a ‘recharge’ of energy (in this event, a human resurrection implies also a ‘new body’…), or not.

What about animals? First of all, in the preceding verses of Qoe 12:7, namely, Qoe 12:1-6 we see a description of human physiological decay, only. No mention there of animal physiological decay. We cannot suppose either that the animal world would be implicit in this description. See, please, how some superior prerogatives (compared to those animal’s) are involved in the Qoeleth’s speech. The writer (v. 1) calls the faithful servants of God to remember Him at the height of one’s physical/mental health, particularly, “before the evil days come, and the years draw nigh, when thou shalt say: ‘I have no pleasure in them’.” (JPS).

‘Remembering’ (or, ‘taking an account of’) God, as well as, self-reflections about our spiritual conditions are all actions out of the range of animals. So, the conclusion of Qoe 12:7 – about spirit’s destiny - does not apply to them.

Another point. Cannibalism is still – very rightly - a repulsive action to perform, right? Moreover – also to highlight the atrocity of this conduct it is – biblically speaking – listed among the divine execrations that would descend on rebellious human behaviours (Lev 26:27-29; Deu 28:53-57; 2 Kin 6:28-30). Now, if animals were equivalent to human, as regards their spirits (that is, about if the spirit of an animal ‘returns’ to God or not), then also animals are comparable to humans about its destiny. They would possess the same dignity level of humankind (some people think that they will have also the eternal life in heaven…). But if this would be the spiritual condition of animals, virtually, a levelling of them respect to humans, why God said: “Every moving thing that liveth shall be for food for you; as the green herb have I given you all” (Gen 9:3)? Had God Himself introduce – in a very archaic epoch – cannibalism as a practice/custom for humans, also for his servants?

Thus, is evident that even though animals play a part in the humans environment, enhancing our life delight, and relieve us from a lot of dispiriting jobs too, animals have no hope that their ‘spirits’ return to God, with the possibility to live forever (see please, too, the inspired and outspoken statements of Paul an Peter, in 1 Cor 9:9; 2 Pet 2:12).

I hope these notes will be useful for your ‘investigation’.

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There's a problem with this question. The problem is this; Just so you have some additional data for consideration, we know from Ecclesiastes 9:10 and 12:7 that the spirit of man (1) returns to God and (2) goes to Sheol upon death, which may lead to the conclusion that Sheol must be a place that God is in charge of (see the answers to the related question...

It's a problem because it's(what is in bold) incorrect. Let's read Ecclesiastes 9:10.

Ecclesiastes 9:10 Whatever your hand finds to do, do it with your might, for there is no work or thought or knowledge or wisdom in Sheol, to which you are going.

Does the passage say that there is no work or thought or knowledge or wisdom in Sheol, to which your spirit is going? No. It says, to which YOU(human person, living being) are going. Does my spirit = me? The only word ever translated as "spirit" in the Hebrew Bible is רוּחַ(Strong's H7307), pronounced ruwach. It is used over 348 times in the Hebrew Bible, and it can have many, many different meanings. The one thing רוּחַ never refers to is the human being, i.e. the the totality of a person. It's always presented as something distinct from a human person, never synonymous with one. The word in Hebrew that can refer to the entire human being is נֶ֫פֶשׁ(Strong's H5315), pronounced nephesh, which is the only word ever translated as "soul" in the Hebrew Bible. The point is, the spirit of a human ≠ to a human. Thus, Ecclesiastes 9:10 is NOT saying that our spirit goes to Sheol; it is saying that WE(human persons, living beings) go to Sheol, where there is no work, knowledge, wisdom, or thinking ability.

If the spirit of a man goes downward (to Sheol), wouldn't that contradict the implication by Ecclesiastes 3:21 that it goes upward? Let's read Ecclesiastes 3:21;

Ecclesiastes 3:21 Who knows whether the spirit of man goes upward and the spirit of the beast goes down into the earth?

Notice how it says, the spirit OF man, and not the spirit THAT IS man. The spirit OF man(the spirit that belongs to man) goes "upward" to God(as shown by Ecclesiastes 12:7). The man himself goes "down" to Sheol(as shown by Ecclesiastes 12:7).


And what about the spirits of animals? Do they go downward to Sheol as well? Ecclesiastes 3:21 does not say that the spirits of animals go down to Sheol; it says that they go down into the earth. And technically, their spirits do not go anywhere. Spirits are immaterial; they are not bound by the material realm. So when Ecclesiastes says "the spirit of the beast goes down into the earth", he doesn't mean that the spirit literally goes down into the earth, because the earth is material(part of the physical realm), while spirits are immaterial(part of the spiritual realm). I think it's a metaphor. A metaphor for what? A metaphor for being forgotten; "down into the earth" meaning "going where no one will find it, where it will never be seen." And "the spirit of man goes upwards" is a metaphor for God not forgetting a person, i.e. they are still in His memory, and all He has to do is insert their spirit into a body to bring them back(which He plans to do with all humans[see John 5:28-29 and Acts 24:15]). It's for the very reason that God plans to resurrect all humans that all human spirits go "upward" to God(to be in His memory), likewise, it's for the very reason that God doesn't plan to resurrect all animals that all animals go "downward" into the earth(to be forgotten). That's my take on it anyway. I could be wrong about the connection between animal spirits going down into the earth(as opposed to going upwards to be with God) and God not planning to resurrect animals; it could mean something else entirely. Unfortunately, not much else is said about the spirits of animals(or where animals themselves go after death) in the Bible, so I can't really say for sure.

I hope this helps though! Have a good day.

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  • It's a problem because it's(what is in bold) incorrect - does that mean that you disagree with the accepted answer to this question: Do we go to Heaven (because God is in Heaven) or to Sheol when we die? Ecclesiastes 12:5-7 vs. Ecclesiastes 9:10 Jan 30 at 20:56
  • I disagree with both answers. I'll write an answer.
    – Rajesh
    Jan 30 at 20:58
  • Further, if we are not our spirits, and if we are not the molecules that make up our bodies, then what are we? What is the "self"? If the "self" is annihilated upon death, then how can a non-existent "self" go to Sheol? Relevant question: What is hell? sheol/hades/prison/lake of fire/outer darkness Jan 30 at 21:01
  • "Further, if we are not our spirits, and if we are not the molecules that make up our bodies, then what are we?" We are our spirits AND the molecules that make up our bodies... If they are no longer together, then the "self" disappears. It is "evaporated/disappears", "parched and dried up"(Job 10:11-12). Also, why do you accept answers so quickly? I think it's best to wait at least 3 days, instead of 1, before accepting an annswer.
    – Rajesh
    Jan 30 at 21:03
  • Sure, I understand that, but then how can a non-being go to Sheol? Only existing things can go to places. I remember you said that Sheol is a metaphor, that it doesn't really exist, which means you disagree with the current answer to this question. Jan 30 at 21:05
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It does say that spirit of the animal goes somewhere. From that we can can conclude animals have a spirit as well.

Scripture gives us a little bit more insight about the animals and what happens to them after they die.

Here it states unequivocally that even animals have a natural body that will be planted in death and come back as something else. He likens bodies of flesh in the form of men, fishes, beasts and birds. They are in a seed form as well. When they die they are planted and something new, incorruptible will be raised with a different glory. When God makes all things new it looks like the animal kingdom as well… Great hope for animal lovers and their pets. I think too when God saved the animals in Noah's Ark that it's a sign as how important they are to God as well.

35But some one will say, ‘How do the dead rise? 36unwise! thou — what thou dost sow is not quickened except it may die; 37and that which thou dost sow, not the body that shall be dost thou sow, but bare grain, it may be of wheat, or of some one of the others, 38and God doth give to it a body according as He willed, and to each of the seeds its proper body. 39All flesh [is] not the same flesh, but there is one flesh of men, and another flesh of beasts, and another of fishes, and another of birds; 40and [there are] heavenly bodies, and earthly bodies; but one [is] the glory of the heavenly, and another that of the earthly; 41one glory of sun, and another glory of moon, and another glory of stars, for star from star doth differ in glory. 42So also [is] the rising again of the dead: it is sown in corruption, it is raised in incorruption; 43it is sown in dishonour, it is raised in glory; it is sown in weakness, it is raised in power; 44it is sown a natural body, it is raised a spiritual body; there is a natural body, and there is a spiritual body; 1 cor. 15:44

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