You cannot talk with a Jehovah's Witness about the condition of the dead, without their bringing up Ecclesiastes 9:5. They are taught to use this verse to prove that the Bible supports the idea that the dead know nothing at all.
In the 1985 book, "Reasoning From the Scriptures", on page 100, under the Heading "What Is the Condition of the Dead?", Ecclesiastes 9:5 is quoted as follows:
“The living are conscious that they will die; but as for the dead, they are conscious of nothing at all.” (NWT)
This certainly seems, if we are to take this verse literally, to prove that the dead have no conscious existence.
Ask a Jehovah's Witness what the rest of Ecclesiastes 9:5 says. Most will not be able to tell you. The Watchtower is repeatedly quoting this verse and finishing it partway with a period and quotation mark (.”), instead of showing with an ellipse and quotation mark (...") that there is more to the verse. This is a misleading and dishonest way of printing Scripture.
Let's take a look at Ecclesiastes 9:5 from the King James Version.
"For the living know that they shall die; but the dead know not any thing, neither have they any more a reward; for the memory of them is forgotten."
If the Watchtower teaches from this verse that the dead are not conscious of anything, it must also teach as truth what the rest of this verse says, that the dead have no more a reward and the memory of them is forgotten. Does the Watchtower teach that Ecclesiates 9:5 is a literal verse, to be taken as truth?
So, what does Ecclesiastes 9:5 teach? If we take it literally, the dead are unconscious and will never find a reward or be remembered. The Watchtower teaches that the first half of this verse is literal, but that the second half "is not the case." Perhaps we should look at the context of this passage. If we back up to verse 3, same chapter, we find:
"This is an evil among all things that are done under the sun, that there is one event unto all..." (KJV)
If we keep it in context, we find that the writer is talking about events that happen while we are alive, here on earth, "under the sun"!
This can be better shown by comparing Ecclesiastes 9:5 with other verses of the Bible:
IS THIS TRUE? “neither have they any more a reward”.
Jesus said, "For the Son of man shall come in the glory of his Father with his angels; and then shall he reward every man according to his works." (Matthew 16:27, KJV)
IS THIS TRUE? “for the memory of them is forgotten”.
Jesus said' "But as touching the resurrection of the dead, have ye not read that which was spoken unto you by God, saying, I am the God of Abraham, and the God of Isaac, and the God of Jacob? God is not the God of the dead, but of the living." (Matthew 22:31,32, KJV)
IS THIS TRUE? “they are conscious of nothing at all”.
Moses (who died at the age of 120 years and was buried by God - see Deuteronomy 34:7) and Elijah (who never died but was taken up by a whirlwind into heaven – see 2 Kings 2:11), were both seen with Jesus in the transfiguration by three of Jesus' disciples.
"And after six days Jesus taketh Peter, James, and John his brother, and bringeth them up into an high mountain apart, And was transfigured before them: and his face did shine as the sun, and his raiment was white as the light. And, behold, there appeared unto them Moses and Elias talking with him." (Matthew 17:1-3, KJV)
Indeed it seems, because of this comment from Peter in Matthew 17:4, as if the disciples had seen Elijah and Moses with their own eyes and had recognized them:
"Then answered Peter, and said unto Jesus, Lord, it is good for us to be here: if thou wilt, let us make here three tabernacles; one for thee, and one for Moses, and one for Elias.” (KJV)
Were Moses and Elijah "conscious of nothing at all"?
The great hope is to be with Christ at death, not to be dead and conscious of nothing at all.
What did the first martyr, Stephen, see and say as he was stoned to death?
Acts 7:55, 56: "But he (Stephen), being full of the Holy Ghost, looked up steadfastly into heaven, and saw the glory of God, and Jesus standing on the right hand of God, And said, Behold, I see the heavens opened, and the Son of man standing on the right hand of God." (KJV)
Acts 7:59: “And they stoned Stephen, calling upon God, and saying, Lord Jesus, receive my spirit." (KJV)
What was the great hope of Paul, who as Saul had witnessed the stoning of Stephen?
Philippians 1:21, 23: "For me to live is Christ, and to die is gain." "For I am in a strait betwixt two, having a desire to depart, and to be with Christ; which is far better:” (KJV)
2 Corinthians 5:6-8: "Therefore we are always confident, knowing that, whilst we are at home in the body, we are absent from the Lord: (For we walk by faith, not by sight:) We are confident, I say, and willing rather to be absent from the body, and to be present with the Lord.” (KJV)
We must be very careful what we teach as truth from the book of Ecclesiastes. The writer of the book is identified in chapter 1, verse 1, as the son of David, king in Jerusalem. This was Solomon. Page 44 of the Watchtower Society's 1950 booklet, "Evolution versus the New World" identifies Solomon as the writer of Ecclesiastes. The theme of the book is identified in the second verse of chapter one, "vanity of vanities; all is vanity." Solomon is showing what a life and all its accomplishments are without God; it is hardly a life to pattern our lives after. Better we should pattern our lives after Paul, who had a desire "to be with Christ; which is far better.