Bible Question:

If our spirit returns to God, then it seems that everyone would go to heaven. I know the scripture doesn't teach that, but I'm having trouble interpreting what this statement implies. Ecclesiastes 12:7 — What is the meaning of the spirit returns to God?

Bible Answer:

The purpose of this brief study is to explain the meaning of “the spirit will return to God” in Ecclesiastes 12:7. The verse reads as follows,

. . . then the dust will return to the earth as it was, and the spirit will return to God who gave it. Ecclesiastes 12:7 (NASB)

There are four major views as to the meaning of this phrase. Therefore, let’s examine the four views and discover the meaning of “the spirit returns to god.”

The Spirit Returns to God

Ecclesiastes 12:7

There is great confusion about the meaning of Ecclesiastes 12:7 because many readers do not understand that the book of Ecclesiastes is written from the perspective of a man without God. So,  statements in the book are often inaccurate for a believer. For example, Ecclesiastes 2:24 says,

There is nothing better for a man than to eat, drink and tell himself that his labor is good. Ecclesiastes 2:24 (NASB)

That is an accurate statement for the unbeliever because life on this earth is their heaven. After the unbeliever dies, he or she is going to hell (Romans 6:23). For in 1 Corinthians 15:32, the apostle Paul tells us that if there is no resurrection for believers, then we should give ourselves to eating and drinking.

We believe that when King Solomon wrote Ecclesiastes, he did not fully love God with all his heart (1 Kings 11:6-10). Eventually, he repented and loved the Lord with all his heart near the end of his life (Ecclesiastes 12:13-14).

So, we must understand Ecclesiastes 12:7 from the perspective of a man without God. His explanation is not as precise as it should be.

Spirit Returns to God

So, what is the meaning of “the spirit will return to God”? There are four common views about the meaning of this statement. These are discussed below so that we can have a clear understanding of this challenging verse.

View #1 — Spirit Returns to God Refers to the Mormon Doctrine of Preexistence

The first view of the spirit goes back to God is held by Mormons who claim that it refers to the preexistence of the spirits of men and animals. They believe and teach that every creature previously existed with God before living on earth. Here is a quote from the Mormon elder, Adhemar Damiani.

Before this world was organized, we had spirit bodies and lived in a premortal world with Heavenly Father, the father of our spirits. We knew Him personally just as He knows us. He desired that we become as He is – having eternal life and exaltation. He presented His plan to us in a great council during our premortal existence. As He taught us the great plan of happiness, we learned that, as spirits, our progress was limited. We needed to obtain a physical body. God’s plan would demand much of us; some would be lost if they did not have faith or keep the commandments.[1]

So according to Mormon doctrine, God gave birth to us as spirit babies. We lived in heaven with Him before we were born here on earth. This occurred because we agreed to His plan. By coming to earth, we would learn and mature. After death, we would return to God and maybe become a god ourselves. Therefore, Mormons believe that when Ecclesiastes 12:7 says the spirit goes back to God, it supports their doctrine of premortal existence — their Doctrine of Preexistence.

But such a conclusion ignores the third and fourth views which have strong biblical support and contradict their Doctrine of Preexistence. Ironically, their doctrine is not supported from their Book of Mormon. Mormons reject some passages in the Bible they claim are corrupted. But they accept Ecclesiastes 12:7 as being accurate because it is the strongest support for their Doctrine of Preexistence.

But in John 8:23 Jesus clearly teaches that we did not come from heaven, but He came from heaven.

And He was saying to them, “You are from below, I am from above; you are of this world, I am not of this world.” John 8:23 (NASB)

Jesus existed in eternity past, so He said, “I am from above.” But we “are of this world.” Repeatedly, Jesus stated that He came down out of heaven (John 6:33, 38, 41, 42, 50, 58). Zechariah 12:1 states that God forms the spirit of man at birth or creates our spirits (Numbers 27:16; Genesis 2:7; Hebrews 12:9). Scripture never claims we came down from heaven. The Bible consistently teaches we are of this world. In summary, the Mormon interpretation of Ecclesiastes 12:7 is wrong for a number of reasons. The third and fourth views are two significantly better interpretations of Ecclesiastes 12:7.

View #2 — Spirit Returns to God Refers to Death.

The second view of the meaning of the spirit goes back to God says that it refers to physical death. Here is Ecclesiastes 12:7 once more.

. . . then the dust will return to the earth as it was, and the spirit will return to God who gave it. Ecclesiastes 12:7 (NASB)

It is clear from the verse that the phrase “the dust will return to the earth” refers to the decaying process of the body that occurs after physical death. As the body decays, it becomes dust. Anyone who has dug up an old grave and opened the casket knows they will find a lot of dust. Earlier in Ecclesiastes, King Solomon revealed that he understood this real live event when he wrote,

All go to the same place. All came from the dust and all return to the dust. Who knows that the breath of man ascends upward and the breath of the beast descends downward to the earth? Ecclesiastes 3:20-21 (NASB)

Genesis 2:7 says that Adam was formed from the dust of the earth, and Genesis 3:19 records God’s statement to Adam that he would eventually return to the dust.

For you are dust,
And to dust you shall return.
Genesis 3:19 (NASB)

Therefore we conclude that the phrase, “then the dust will return to the earth refers to physical death, and not the phrase “the spirit will return to God.” It refers to what happens to the spirit after physical death occurs. Therefore, this view does not really explain the meaning of the phrase “the spirit will return to God.”

View #3 — Spirit Returns to God Refers to the Breath of Life Ascending Upward.

A third common view of the meaning of the spirit goes back to God says that it refers to the breath of life. That would agree with King Solomon’s statement in Ecclesiastes 3:21 where he said, “the breath of man ascends upward” at death. It is important to know that the Hebrew word that is translated as “breath” in Ecclesiastes 3:21 is the same Hebrew word that is translated as “spirit” in Ecclesiastes 12:7. So, this Hebrew word ruah can be translated as “breath” or “spirit.”

It is important to know that Genesis 2:7 translates ruah as “breath.” So it says, “breath of life.”

Then the LORD God formed man of dust from the ground, and breathed into his nostrils the breath of life; and man became a living being. Genesis 2:7 (NASB)

The verse could just as easily say “into his nostrils the spirit of life.” Psalm 104:29 translates the word as “spirit.”

You take away their spirit, they expire
And return to their dust.
Psalm 104:29 (NASB)

This passage teaches us that all animal life dies when God removes their spirit or breath from their bodies. He determines when animals and humans die. Therefore, it is possible that “spirit” could refer to the “breath” that gives life. That is, man returns to dust and the breath of life does to God. But that does not fit the context very well. The next view is the best view.

View #4 — Spirit Returns to God to Divine Judgment.

A fourth common view of the phrase, “the spirit returns to God,” says that it refers to future judgment. This is the most logical conclusion since before and after Ecclesiastes 12:7, the passage is discussing judgment after death. For example, eight verses earlier in Ecclesiastes 11:9 we are warned that God will judge us.

And follow the impulses of your heart and the desires of your eyes. Yet know that God will bring you to judgment for all these things. Ecclesiastes 11:9 (NASB)

Then seven verses later in Ecclesiastes 12:14, we are warned again that we will be judged by God.

For God will bring every act to judgment, everything which is hidden, whether it is good or evil. Ecclesiastes 12:14 (NASB)

That is, we are being warned that we will be judged after we die. After death our spirits will return to the God of the spirits of all flesh (Numbers 16:22; 27:16; Hebrews 12:9) for judgment. Thirty-three times the New Testament warns us about a day of judgment. Hebrews 9:27 tells us that after death we will be judged, and Revelation 20:11-15 describes the judgment before God.

Conclusion:

God forms our spirits in our bodies. When God gives us a spirit, we have life. But eventually, every person dies and returns to God in the sense that we will stand before Him for judgment.

And inasmuch as it is appointed for men to die once and after this comes judgment . . . Hebrews 9:27 (NASB)

Then He will maintain our existence for eternity either in heaven or hell. So, where do you think you are  going? Are you ready to stand before God? Are you going to heaven?

 

References:

1. Adhemar Damiani. “The Merciful Plan of the Great Creator”. Ensign, Mar. 2004, 8.

Suggested Links:

Searching for God
The Great White Throne Judgment, part 1
The Great White Throne Judgment, part 2
Where in the Bible does God give the judgment of man to His Son, Jesus Christ?
Bema Seat Judgment – When are Christians judged?
Do animals go to heaven?
Do the dead have knowledge before the resurrection? — What happens when you die?
Do the dead really go to heaven or hell?