Most Christians believe we remain conscious after death. Few have seriously examined the case for soul sleep, or heard its main arguments. Even authors who claim to refute soul sleep do not appear to understand.
Throughout history, some Christians believed death is unconsciousness. As more Christians take the time to examine this doctrine, they realize it has solid support in Scripture and the belief is growing stronger today.
Death and Sleep
The most common word for death in the Bible is sleep. Since most of our sleep is unconscious, this is the best word to describe unconsciousness.
When the Bible calls death sleep, it implies that the essence of our being sleeps. For instance, Stephen was being stoned to death and cried out, "Lord Jesus, receive my spirit." Then he fell asleep (Acts 7:59-60). If he were conscious in heaven, the Bible would say, "His body fell asleep."
Since sleep is unconsciousness, we sometimes sleep for a long time and it only seems like an instant. We become conscious again when we wake up. The Bible consistently describes the resurrection as waking up from sleep.
Lazarus is one example. When he died, Jesus told His disciples, "Our friend Lazarus sleeps, but I go that I may wake him up." (John 11:11) The disciples did not understand, so He plainly said, "Lazarus is dead." (John 11:14)
Jesus does not support the belief that death and resurrection is the leaving and returning of a conscious soul. Although Lazarus was dead for four days, Jesus did not call him down from heaven. Jesus simply said, "Lazarus come forth." (John 11:38-44)
Opponents of soul sleep insist sleep is only a metaphor, so we should disregard it. There are 54 references to death as sleep in the Old Testament and another 18 in the New Testament. It is illogical to assume God would inspire 72 misleading metaphors. This recurring theme cannot be ignored.
Some traditionalists say sleep means to be with Christ, and claim that the Bible never says nonbelievers sleep. Scripture refutes this claim many times when it records the reigns of the kings of Jerusalem and Israel. The Word of God usually says the king "slept with his fathers" (KJV and NASB) when he died.
These books did not distinguish between the saved and the unsaved. David, for example, was a believer (Hebrews 11:32). When he died, the Bible says he "slept with his fathers." (1 Kings 2:10)
We see the same phrase for evil kings. During Rehoboamís reign they did evil (1 Kings 14:22), yet Rehoboam slept with his fathers (1 Kings 14:31). Abijah reigned for three years, and walked in all the sins of his fathers (1 Kings 15:1-3), yet Abijah slept with his fathers (1 Kings 15:8). We would find about 20 other examples of nonbelievers being asleep at death if we examine more Scripture.
Death in the Bible is sleep. There is no distinction between believers and nonbelievers. All die and all sleep.
Although the term 'soul sleep' is not in the Bible, we see strong evidence for it. Scriptures refer to people as souls many times and dead people are called dead souls. People sleep when they are dead and people are souls, which implies that souls sleep.
As expected, traditionalists claim sleep only refers to the body. If they closely examine 1 Thessalonians 4:13-17, they realize they contradict themselves. They claim verses 13-15 talk about disembodied souls coming back with Christ, yet this passage also says they are asleep three times.
When the Bible is only talking about the spirit, the passage says the spirit (Ecclesiastes 12:7, Psalms 146:4). When Scripture is only talking about the body, the passage says the body. For example, Jesus mentions the body seven times during the Sermon on the Mount (Matthew 5:3-7:27). The Bible would say the body sleeps if only referring to the body.
As we saw in the previous two chapters, body and soul return to the earth. Daniel 12:2 shows souls sleep during this time: "And many of those who sleep in the dust of the earth shall awake, . . ."
Unconsciousness Implied in the Old Testament
Psalm 146:4 says thoughts perish at death. This cannot refer to a body without the soul, since a physical body alone does not have thoughts. Only the soul has thoughts, and they perish.
This passage shows another example of how translators distort the truth. The literal translations (ASV, NASB, and KJV) correctly say, " . . .his thoughts perish." This is a clear indication of unconsciousness.
Unfortunately, many modern versions hide this. For example, the NKJV says, " . . . his plans perish." The NIV distorts it further by saying, " . . . his plans come to nothing." The Living Bible says, " . . . all he planned for himself is ended." This is not translating; it is interpreting.
Many other passages support soul sleep and do not make sense if only talking about the body. Here are some examples:
For in death there is no remembrance of You. In the grave who will give You thanks? Psalms 6:5
What profit is there in my blood, When I go down to the pit? Will the dust praise you? Will it declare Your truth? Psalm 30:9
Will You work wonders for the dead? Shall the dead arise and praise You? Shall Your lovingkindness be declared in the grave? Or Your faithfulness in the place of destruction? Shall Your wonders be known in the dark? And Your righteousness in the land of forgetfulness? Psalm 88:10-12
The above verses are obvious and unnecessary if they are talking about a physical body without the soul. Bodies cannot remember God, give Him thanks, or praise Him. Bodies cannot know His truth, wonders, lovingkindness, faithfulness, or righteousness. Since these verses show a lack of thoughts or feelings, they imply unconsciousness.
This same message of an end of consciousness was evident when Adam sinned. God plainly told him he would return to dust (Genesis 3:19). Adam was not conscious before creation, and God made it clear he would return to that unconscious state. Thoughts occur in the brain, which stops functioning and starts decomposing at death. Thoughts perish at death, just as the Bible says so many different ways.
Solomon also supports soul sleep:
But for him who is joined to all the living there is hope, for a living dog is better than a dead lion. For the living know that they will die; But the dead know nothing; And they have no more reward, For the memory of them is forgotten. Also their love, their hatred and their envy have now perished; Nevermore will they have a share In anything done under the sun . . . Whatever your hand finds to do, do it with all your might, for there is no work or device or knowledge or wisdom in the grave where you are going. Ecclesiastes 9:5-6,10
Many Bible commentators will not accept Scriptures that contradict their preconceived ideas, so Ecclesiastes 9 causes them problems. For example, a footnote in The Living Bible says, "These statements are Solomon's discouraged opinion, and do not reflect a knowledge of God's truth on these points!" The Scofield Bible Commentary also has a footnote that says these verses are not a divine revelation from God.
Other scholars also deny the inspiration of this passage. Yet these same scholars use other verses in Ecclesiastes, as well as other writings of Solomon, to prove their case. Solomon knew spirits return to God (Ecclesiastes 12:7). If the spirit is a conscious entity outside the body after death, Solomon contradicts himself in the same book.
Jesus talks about the wisdom of Solomon (Matthew 12:42, Luke 11:31) and the glory of Solomon (Matthew 6:29, Luke 12:27). Jesus, however, never says Solomon preached false doctrine. Denying the inspiration of God in Ecclesiastes 9 is putting assumptions above the Bible.
The Old Testament verses discussed in this section show the soul is unconscious at death. The Old Testament focuses more on the state of the dead, while the New Testament focuses more on the resurrection. When we examine the resurrection, we will see no contradiction to soul sleep.
1 Corinthians 15
1 Corinthians 15 is the great chapter on the resurrection of believers. Careful reading of this chapter reveals the dead are not conscious until the resurrection, which is also called the Blessed Hope.
In verses 12-17, Paul says some believe Christ had not risen and there is no resurrection. He concludes in verse 18, "Then also those who have fallen asleep in Christ have perished." This does not support the belief that people are already in heaven before the resurrection, in which case they have not perished. The only hope for believers is the resurrection.
Paul then says, "For as in Adam all die, even so in Christ all shall be made alive. But each to his own order: Christ the firstfruits, afterward those who are Christ's at His coming." (verses 22-23) Believers shall be made alive at Christ's coming, not at death.
Paul goes on to say that our actions do not matter without the blessed hope. In verse 32, he says, "If the dead do not rise, Let us eat and drink, for tomorrow we die." He tells us we should lead carefree lives if there is no resurrection because we would not face any consequences. Paul would not say this if believers have conscious joy while nonbelievers are tormented, since these are critical consequences.
In verses 51-54a, Paul writes about the resurrection of believers. He then says, "Death is swallowed up in victory. O Death, where is your sting? O Hades, where is your victory?" (verses 54b-55) Christians will not overcome death until the resurrection. Death is the last enemy to be destroyed (verse 26).
Awakening at the Resurrection
While 1 Corinthians 15 is the most important Scripture about the first resurrection, many other Scriptures also show that people do not awaken until the resurrection. Here are a few examples.
"So a man lies down and does not rise. Till the heavens are no more, They will not awake Nor be roused from their sleep." Job 14:12
As for me, I will see Your face in righteousness; I shall be satisfied when I awake in Your likeness. Psalm 17:15
"This is the will of My Father who sent me, that of all He has given Me I should lose nothing, but should raise it up at the last day. And this is the will of Him who sent me, that everyone who sees the Son and believes in Him may have everlasting life; and I will raise him up at the last day . . . and I will raise him up at the last day . . . and I will raise him up at the last day." John 6:39-40, 44, 54
"I know that he will rise again in the resurrection at the last day." John 11:24
The above verses show people are not raised until the last day, and the wording implies the whole person. Jesus says four times in John 6 that He will, "raise him up at the last day." Jesus never says, "I will raise his body at the last day." The message is clear that they are not raised until the resurrection. And the following passages also show they are still in the grave when they wake up:
"Your dead shall live; together with my dead body they shall arise. Awake and sing, you who dwell in the dust; For your dew is like the dew of herbs, And the earth shall cast out the dead." Isaiah 26:19
"At that time Michael shall stand up, The great prince who stands watch over the sons of your people . . . And at that time your people shall be delivered, Every one who is found written in the book. And many of those who sleep in the dust of the earth shall awake, Some to everlasting life, some to shame and everlasting contempt . . ." Daniel 12:1-2
"Do not marvel at this; for the hour is coming in which all who are in the graves will hear His voice and come forth - those who have done good, to the resurrection of life, and those who have done evil, to the resurrection of condemnation." John 5:28-29
This reiterates the clear teaching that we are dust. At creation, God miraculously gave life to dust (Genesis 2:7). Since we have the sinful nature, this miracle ends at death and we return to dust (Genesis 3:19). The above passages show the resurrection is similar to creation, where God again gives life to those who sleep.
Although traditionalists insist the resurrection only refers to the body without the soul, Revelation 20:4-6 refutes them. Verse 4 talks about souls of martyrs who will live and reign with Christ for 1,000 years. After this, the passage says, " . . . This is the first resurrection. Blessed and holy is he who has part in the first resurrection . . ." (Verses 5-6) The first resurrection includes souls.
As we examine death and resurrection in the Bible, we see that it is not the departing and returning of an eternal soul. Instead, Scripture says death is sleep and resurrection is waking up from sleep. This is the best possible way to describe temporary unconsciousness.
Sleep always implies waking up in the future. While we sometimes say our sick pet was "put to sleep" when it died, Scripture never says animals sleep when they die. Nonbelievers will die the second death after judgment, which we will discuss later. The Bible does not call this death sleep because they will never be resurrected from the second death. In all cases in Scripture, sleep is temporary.
Rewards and Punishments at the Resurrection
The previous section shows both the righteous and the unrighteous remain in the grave until the resurrection. Daniel 12:2 talks about believers awakening to everlasting life and nonbelievers awakening to shame and everlasting contempt; John 5:29 also talks about believers coming forth to the resurrection of life and nonbelievers coming forth to the resurrection of condemnation.
Scriptures continually show believers and nonbelievers being treated the same until the resurrection. Here are examples where we do not receive rewards or punishments until the resurrection:
"But you, go your way till the end; for you shall rest, and will arise to your inheritance at the end of the days." Daniel 12:13
And all these [Old Testament believers], having obtained a good testimony through faith, did not receive the promise, God having provided something better for us, that they should not be made perfect apart from us. Hebrews 11:39-40
"Therefore as the tares are gathered and burned in the fire, so it will be at the end of this age." Matthew 13:40
"He who rejects Me, and does not receive My words, has that which judges him - the word that I have spoken will judge him in the last day." John 12:48
"For the Son of Man will come in the glory of His Father with His Angels, and then He will reward each according to his works." Matthew 16:27
"And you will be blessed, because they cannot repay you; for you shall be repaid at the resurrection of the just." Luke 14:14
Therefore judge nothing before the time, until the Lord comes, who will both bring to light the hidden things of darkness and reveal the counsels of the hearts. Then each one's praise will come from God. 1 Corinthians 4:5
"And behold, I am coming quickly, and My reward is with Me, to give every one according to his work." Revelation 22:12
People cannot rejoice with the Lord or suffer in torment before the resurrection, since this contradicts the above verses. Being with the Lord is a reward, while being in torment is a punishment.
Paul did not believe he would face consequences at death. While in prison, he says, "I have hope in God, which they themselves also accept, that there will be a resurrection of the dead, both of the just and the unjust. This being so, I myself always strive to have a conscience without offense toward God and men." (Acts 24:15-16)
He does not say he needs a conscience without offense because he will face God at his death; the only reason he needs a clear conscience is because of the resurrection. This agrees with 1 Corinthians 15:32, where he says, "If the dead do not rise, Let us eat and drink, for tomorrow we die."
When we honestly examine the Bible, we see that the dead sleep. They awaken and receive their rewards or punishments at the resurrection. In this chapter, we have shown that Scriptures are overflowing with references. In fact, they almost seem redundant!
No Legitimate Response to Soul Sleep
Many traditionalists claim the whole case for soul sleep rests in the Old Testament. They cannot come to this conclusion from studying conditionalism, or from rigorous analysis of the Bible. They only get this information from other opponents of soul sleep. Traditionalists either do not understand, or they deliberately mislead.
Robert Morey (Death and the Afterlife, 1984), for example, says conditionalists have an undue dependence on the Old Testament (p. 215). He does attempt to answer a few Old Testament passages like Psalm 6:5; 88:10, 11; 115:17; and Ecclesiastes 9:5, 10 (p. 215-216). He does not, however, explain the repeated emphasis that the dead awaken and receive their rewards or punishments at the resurrection. In spite of this, Morey claims they covered all arguments for conditionalism and left no stone unturned (p. 220).
Since the Old Testament is about four times larger than the New Testament, it contains more evidence for soul sleep. Although traditionalists claim the New Testament refutes soul sleep, we see this is not the case. The New Testament reveals new information about the resurrection, and agrees with the Old Testament. Soul sleep is a recurring theme that harmonizes throughout the Bible. The doctrine of continued consciousness after death does not.
Enoch and Elijah
The dead are unconscious, unless God makes an exception. God is the all-knowing, all-powerful Creator of the universe, and He occasionally chooses to treat some differently. We cannot generalize about unusual events.
Two examples of exceptions are Enoch and Elijah going directly to heaven (Genesis 5:24, 2 Kings 2:11). God spared them physical death, yet no competent Bible scholar will say God spares everyone physical death.
Saul and the Witch of Endor
Another possible exception is a story about Saul going to a medium to bring Samuel back from the dead (1 Samuel 28:7-20). Bible scholars are divided about whether this was only an illusion or if Samuel actually came back. While it is highly unlikely that this was truly Samuel, we will assume he actually returned for the sake of discussion.
If Samuel did return, God made this happen because He wanted Samuel to speak to Saul. The medium could not really bring dead people back. She was so surprised that she cried out in a loud voice. Then she realized God had intervened and she was talking to King Saul (verse 12). The essence of Samuelís being is still in the earth, so he ascended from the earth rather than descending from heaven (verse 13).
Samuel also said Saul would be with him tomorrow (1 Samuel 28:19), meaning Saul was going to die. The prediction came true; Saul died the next day (1 Samuel 31:4-6).
Everything in Scripture about Samuel tells us he was a faithful man of God. The Bible says Saul was not (1 Chronicles 10:13-14). If there is a distinction between the righteous and unrighteous in the intermediate state, they would not be together.
Moses and Elijah appeared to Peter, James, and John (Matthew 17:1-8, Mark 9:2-8, Luke 9:28-36). While traditionalists claim this is a strong argument against soul sleep, it lacks any evidence for their belief. The dead body and conscious soul of the same person refutes soul sleep.
David would be a great example. Peter plainly tells us that David, "is both dead and buried, and his tomb is with us to this day." (Acts 2:29) If David appeared to them, instead of Moses and Elijah, this would refute soul sleep. The whole case hinges on finding the bodies of Elijah and Moses.
We already know Elijah went up to heaven alive (2 Kings 2:11), so we need to examine the Scriptures to see what happened to Moses. No one knows where God buried Moses (Deuteronomy 34:6). Jude 9 also says Satan and Michael the archangel argued about Moses' body. This verse (Jude 9) does not make sense unless God did something unusual with Moses.
The word archangel only appears in Jude 9 and in a passage about raising the dead (1 Thessalonians 4:16). Michael is also mentioned at the resurrection in Daniel 12:1-2. Since Michael the archangel is involved with raising the dead, and was in a dispute involving Moses' body, this implies God resurrected Moses.
Jesus told His apostles not to mention the transfiguration until after Jesus rose from the dead (Matthew 17:9, Mark 9:9). They did not yet understand the resurrection, which involves both the dead believers being resurrected and living believers being translated (1 Thessalonians 4:13-17). The transfiguration shows an example of each; Moses was resurrected from his sleep, while Elijah went directly to heaven alive.
Saints Resurrected at Christís Death
God also made an exception by resurrecting some saints at Christ's death. This was a physical, literal resurrection. God opened their tombs and awakened whole beings, including their physical bodies (Matthew 27:51-53). They were not disembodied souls.
The examples discussed in these last four sections show God made certain exceptions. Even in these unique events, we cannot find a disembodied, conscious soul. In all cases, we have reasonable explanations involving physical bodies. It is better to look at these rare events as exceptions than to ignore the massive evidence for soul sleep.
Near Death Experiences
Many people, close to death, see unusual visions. Some also see images of dead people. Many show knowledge beyond their previous experience when describing these events. A few traditionalists claim these events prove consciousness after death.
While there are some similarities in these reports, they are not always consistent. This makes them unreliable. In fact, many others who appeared dead for several minutes did not have any conscious experience. As the phrase implies, 'near death' means close to death, not death and resurrection. When a person is close to death, the brain has a shortage of oxygen and this can cause hallucinations.
As with any subject, we must look at the Bible only. There are several examples where God resurrected people, like Lazarus. There is no mention of near death experiences. If Lazarus was in heaven during the four days between his death and resurrection (John 11:38-44), he probably would not want to come back.
Some say Paul's vision of the third heaven (2 Corinthians 12:2-4) was a near death experience. Paul, however, twice stated that he did not know whether he was in the body or not (verses 2-3). If his soul departed from his body to heaven, he would be certain that he was out of his body. Paul did not know if he was given a vision, or physically taken away.
Another experience used for proof of consciousness after death is an apparition of someone who has died. There are many well-documented cases of this. Some involve Mary, the mother of Jesus.
There are also documented cases where people, who know the dead are unconscious, see images of people who have died. Not wanting to be deceived, they would say, "You are not who you claim to be! In the name of Jesus be gone!" Then the illusions disappear.
God gave strict warning not to contact the dead (Leviticus 20:27, Deuteronomy 18:10-12). Saul did not heed this warning and consulted a medium instead of inquiring of the Lord. He died in his unfaithfulness for this (1 Chronicles 10:13-14). Isaiah 8:19 also asks, " . . . should not a people seek their God? Should they seek the dead on behalf of the living?"
Relying on human experience and believing in eternal consciousness of the soul makes us vulnerable to deception. Satan and his angels work signs and wonders that deceive many (2 Corinthians 11:14, Revelation 13:13-14, 16:14). God warns us not to contact the dead so we will not be deceived by evil spirits posing as humans.
The next chapter is our final chapter on the state of the dead. We will address the strongest arguments for believers being with the Lord.
Next: 7. CASE FOR CONSCIOUS BELIEVERS
Back: 5. SHEOL AND HADES
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