Some common phrases reveal false ideas about death and the afterlife.
Question: I’ve heard people refer to death by various euphemisms, saying things like “may they rest in peace,” “they passed away,” and “they went to sleep.” Do these terms come from the Bible?
Answer: Over the centuries, there have been many different euphemisms for the word death. Even Jesus Christ used one when He told His disciples, “‘Our friend Lazarus sleeps, but I go that I may wake him up.’… Then Jesus said to them plainly, ‘Lazarus is dead’” (John 11:11, 14).
From Christ’s example, we see that it isn’t wrong to call death a sleep—in fact, Scripture endorses this particular euphemism in several places. However, some other popular phrases associated with death carry unbiblical meanings, and we should avoid them.
One such phrase is used when people express their desire for a deceased person to “rest in peace,” often abbreviated “RIP.” While this phrase may seem similar to the phrase Jesus Himself used in John 11, the words “rest in peace” allude to its unbiblical meaning and origin. The phrase comes to us from the Latin requiescat in pace, which is actually a prayer that the deceased may rest in heaven with God, rather than suffer torment in hell (“Meaning of Requiescat in Pace,” ThoughtCo.com, January 21, 2020).
Such hope, we should understand, results from a false teaching that eternal life begins at death. This doctrine is simply not supported by the Bible, which clearly states that the dead have no choice but to rest. As we read, “the living know that they will die; but the dead know nothing” (Ecclesiastes 9:5). The Bible reveals that there is no consciousness in the grave—all who have died are simply waiting for the resurrection, when they will be brought back to life (Job 14:12–15; see also Ezekiel 37). There is neither peace nor discomfort for anyone who now sleeps in death.
Another common euphemism for death is the term “passed away” or simply “passed.” This term was also derived from the false belief that when people die, the soul immediately “passes on” to the afterlife. The term was in use in England during the fifteenth century by those who believed a person’s soul lingers after the body’s death.
When wakes were held for recently deceased people the attendees believed that the dead person could hear and comprehend everything that was being said: it was only later, when the funeral rites were complete, that the dead person “passed away” and began the journey toward either Heaven or Hell. As such, “pass away” wouldn’t have been considered euphemistic but merely a literal description of events (Phrases.org.uk).
A related phrase says that “he/she has transitioned,” implying a change from one state of life to another as the result of death. The concept behind this term likely originated in Greek mythology. “The Greeks believed that after the burial, Hermes… led the soul to the entrance of the underworld to a ferry that carried the spirit across the Acheron (river of woe) and/or Styx (river of hate), depending on the source. These two rivers divided the world of the living from that of the dead. Charon, sometimes called the Ferryman, rowed the boat” (“Greek Mythology and Life After Death,” The Collector, March 8, 2023). Like some other false ideas, concepts, and terms we find in Greek mythology, these eventually made their way into “Christianity.”
Knowing the origin and meaning of these phrases, should Christians use them? We each have a responsibility to carefully evaluate our speech, as we will be held accountable for what we say. “I say to you that for every idle word men may speak, they will give account of it in the day of judgment” (Matthew 12:36).
Phrases such as “rest in peace” and “passed away” have their foundation in false, misleading doctrines that are at odds with what the Bible teaches. They represent a false hope in a pagan-derived idea of the future that is incomparably inferior to God’s plan and the real purpose for which God created us. What a blessing it is to be called out of that darkness and into the light of truth! For detailed information on this truth, you can request a free copy of What Happens When You Die? or read it online at TomorrowsWorld.org.