When Does the Spirit Leave the Body?

Question from a reader:

What are your thoughts on when the spirit leaves the body? With modern day technology, many people can be resuscitated and kept alive artificially. How does a Christian answer the skeptic who says this proves the spirit doesn’t go to Heaven or a misguided Christian who says this proves “soul sleep”?

Answer from Randy Alcorn:

I believe the spirit leaves the body when true death happens, and that true death isn’t the same as “he hasn’t been responsive for months” or “we can’t detect brainwaves.”

I can’t prove this of course, just as no one can prove their viewpoint since we can’t demonstrate when the spirit leaves the body even though we can often subjectively know for certain when it has happened.

I talk about that in In Light of Eternity when I tell the story of entering the room after my mom had died and being overwhelmed with the sense of her absence, even though she’d barely moved or responded for a few months. The difference wasn’t in response, but in the fact that “the glory had departed.” She had been in that room every day I had visited her and now was obviously and dramatically gone.

My key text is Hebrews 9:27, “Everyone must die once, and after that be judged by God” (GNT). Obviously it was spoken in a day where giving food and drink and medicines to a person who would otherwise die was about the extent of the intervention, and there was no way to continue someone’s breathing by artificial means (beyond breathing oxygen in for a few minutes, which I suppose was rarely done in those days).

But I still believe the essence of Hebrews 9:27 remains true, that while someone may be close to death and appear to die for seconds or minutes or even hours, they actually die only once, at the point God takes their spirit out of their body. And except in miracles, He doesn’t put their spirit back in their bodies. I think such miracles are rare. If they were normal, they wouldn’t be miracles.

I’ve been present twice when I believe I knew within seconds when the spirit left the body, once with my friend Jerry Hardin and again when my dad died. They both stopped breathing, and in my dad’s case the monitor showed his heart had stopped beating. Death was obvious and I’m convinced it was at that point—not before, though they were both unconscious for days previous—when death actually occurred.

Comas are not death, unconsciousness is not death, “vegetative states” are not death. Death is death. In comas and vegetative states (I hate that term, as it’s so dehumanizing) there’s evidence of neurological functions. Patients can often breathe on their own, their reflexes still function, and they might respond to light or sound. In those cases, despite inability to communicate, I would surmise death hasn’t occurred and their spirits are still present.

I also always assume they can still hear and may understand much of what’s happening, as people who have come out of comas often attest. Minutes before he died, I read Revelation 21-22 to Jerry, and after I read “God will wipe away the tears from every eye,” a tear went down his cheek and I wiped it away; though he’d been “unresponsive” for days I’m convinced his tear was a response to God speaking in that passage. (Here is a chapter from In Light of Eternity that talks more about this.)

But with both Jerry and my dad, efforts could have been made to artificially sustain their breathing and hearts beating. Would those medical efforts have kept their spirits from departing? Part of me says no, God would have taken their spirits at their appointed time; the other part is less sure. Could artificially prolonging physical death actually imprison a spirit in a body it would have left when a person’s life would have naturally ended? It’s a difficult question and impossible to answer, but it should raise questions for family members of believers who may at some point be “playing God” by not allowing natural death to happen (others, of course, play God by intervening to take the life; I deal with both of these in this article on euthanasia).  

Even though I’ve been told the brain can still function for a few hours after the heart stops, I think a stopped heart that remains stopped may be the most objective way to view death. The brain can’t function long without the flow of blood from the beating heart and the oxygen it delivers.

But a heart that is kept beating by artificial means, thereby preventing brain death, obviously makes it more difficult to discern. When a heart can no longer beat on its own, lungs can no longer breathe on their own, and there appears to be no brain functions over a significant period of time, a person can be considered dead. Without knowing exactly when the spirit departed, it would seem that at some point this may have already happened, and if not, it’s time to no longer prevent a death when there’s no hope of recovery and time has been allowed for this to be certain and/or for God to perform a miracle.  (He doesn’t need time for miracles, of course, but sometimes He doesn’t do them immediately.)

But of course the question is “How long of a wait is sufficient?” And this is where it gets really subjective, though most people feel there’s a point where God makes it clear the time has come to allow death to occur if He so determines. (In some cases the ventilator is removed and the patient continues to breathe on his own, suggesting to me the spirit is still present.)

Some people who’ve told me they’ve died twice refer to their heart stopping on the operating table, or in the ambulance. But then they’re revived. But to say that every time a heart stops a person dies is to say that some people die hundreds or thousands of times, which to me isn’t meaningful.

When someone experiences the “irreversible cessation of all functions of the brain,” they are considered legally dead. Of course, the operative word is irreversible, meaning that sufficient time must pass for that to be determined. When brain functions return, by definition it hasn’t been irreversible, unless this is a miracle such as the raising of Lazarus. I believe in such miracles, of course, but it’s easier to measure when no artificial means such as ventilators have kept people alive or appearing to be alive.

Someone who is “brain dead” can appear alive in that they are breathing with the help of a ventilator, and their heart can be kept beating. Many bodily functions can keep going for weeks and months after they’re considered medically and legally dead. But that’s subjective too because in some cases people considered medically and legally dead “come back to life,” which in my opinion means they were never dead (again, unless there’s a miracle, and that may be hard to determine).

So I think when someone is restored to life through medical means, or is kept alive by medical means when without them obvious and true death would have occurred, my belief is not that their spirit was RETURNED to the body, but that their spirit never left their body in the first place. Defining death as a permanent cessation of earthly life, only undone in the case of miracles, not a variety of medical interventions, makes most sense to me.

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Photo by Martha Dominguez de Gouveia on Unsplash

Randy Alcorn (@randyalcorn) is the author of over sixty books and the founder and director of Eternal Perspective Ministries