As we have seen in the last three chapters, there is evidence for soul sleep throughout the Bible. While the case for nonbelievers being conscious before the resurrection is almost void, there is a better case for believers being conscious. In this chapter, we will examine the main arguments for believers going to Christ at death.
Assuredly I Say to You Today You will be with Me in Paradise
Christ told one of the thieves crucified with Him that he would be in paradise (Luke 23:43). Most Bible translations of this verse suggest the thief would be in paradise that day. The NKJV says, "Assuredly, I say to you, today you will be with me in paradise." This implies today modifies "You will be with me in paradise."
Although this sounds like he would go immediately to heaven, there were no commas in the original Greek. When translating into other languages, translators inserted commas and other punctuation. Since many believe in continued consciousness, they placed the comma before today.
If we place the comma after today, the verse reads, "Assuredly, I say to you today, you will be with me in paradise." This implies today modifies "I say to you." Today was the day Christ made the promise, not the day they would be in paradise.
Traditionalists insist only their punctuation and interpretation is valid. While this verse appears to support their case, it is one inconclusive verse, and nothing more. And since it is not conclusive, we must look for clearer Scriptures. We cannot magnify one vague reference and ignore passages that support other beliefs.
One problem with their view is the word translated paradise. This word also appears in Revelation 2:7, where John says the tree of life is in the midst of paradise. The tree of life will be in the new earth after the resurrection (Revelation 22:2, 14), so Jesus does not refer to the intermediate state.
Jesus' own words show He did not go immediately to heaven. Comparing His situation to Jonah, He said the Son of Man would be in the heart of the earth for three days and three nights (Matthew 12:40). And after the resurrection, Jesus told Mary He had not yet ascended to the Father (John 20:17).
Other Scriptures also show that Jesus did not go directly to heaven. Jesus' soul was in Hades between death and resurrection. David foretells this in Psalm 16:10, and Peter explains this passage in Acts 2:25-35. Verse 31 says He was in Hades during that time. (See The Soul at Death in Chapter Four)
Paul agrees and says Jesus died, was buried, and rose again on the third day (1 Corinthians 15:3-4). In another passage, Paul says Jesus first descended into the lower parts of the earth, then He ascended (Ephesians 4:9-10).
Opponents of soul sleep also contend that Jesus would not say today if only referring to the promise, since it was obvious He made the promise that day. Jesus emphasized today because the thief repented and believed in Jesus that day. The previous day he was lost.
Moses uses the word today similarly in Deuteronomy 30:16-18. In verse 16, he commands them today to follow the Lord. He was not saying they only had to follow the Lord that day. Just as Moses gave the command that day, Jesus gave the promise that day.
Then Moses says, "But if your heart turns away so that you do not hear, and are drawn away, and worship other gods and serve them, I announce to you today that you shall surely perish . . ." (verses 17-18) They did not perish that day. In fact, they did not even perish the first day they turned away, because of God's patience and mercy.
Old Testament Believers Resurrected After Christ Died - Setting Captives Free
Many scholars believe the souls of righteous people who died before Christ went to Sheol, then were resurrected to heaven after Christ's death. They also believe the souls of New Testament Christians go directly to heaven.
Some point to the resurrection at Christ's death, which was more than a resurrection of disembodied souls. Graves were opened and whole people, including their bodies, were resurrected (Matthew 27:51-53). This did not include David, since Peter later said David's tomb was still with them (Acts 2:29). Since we know David will spend eternity in Heaven (Hebrews 11:32-33), the resurrection at Christ's death could not include all Old Testament saints.
Scholars also refer to the death of Steven to support their case (Acts 7:59-60). When he was about to be stoned, he said, "Lord Jesus, receive my spirit." He was not saying he was going to the Lord; he was showing his willingness to die. Jesus also committed His spirit to God at His death (Luke 23:46), then He went to Hades (Acts 2:31).
Spirits already returned to God at death in the Old Testament (Ecclesiastes 12:7, Psalm 146:4), and this includes spirits of nonbelievers. Psalm 146:3-4 talks about princes and most are not believers; nevertheless, their spirits depart. Steven's death was the same as in the Old Testament; his spirit departed and he fell asleep (Acts 7:59-60).
Ephesians 4:8-10 is probably their strongest argument to support the transporting of souls to heaven. In Ephesians 4:8, Paul quotes Psalm 68:18, saying Christ led captivity captive and gave gifts to men. Some interpret this to mean Jesus took the souls of believers to heaven. In verses 9-10, Paul talks about Jesus descending into the lower parts of the earth, then ascending to heaven. He does not mention anyone ascending with Jesus.
People were captive because of sin and Christ atoned for all sins with His death on the cross. They were also captive because they did not understand truth. In John 8:32, Jesus says, "And you shall know the truth, and the truth shall make you free." Christ revealed many new truths through His life, death and resurrection.
When we read the whole context in Ephesians 4, we see it is talking about spiritual gifts. Verse 11 talks about gifts of being apostles, prophets, evangelists, pastors, and teachers. Verses 12-15 talk about maturing in Christ and discerning truth so we will not be deceived by false doctrines. The gifts in this context are for living believers, not dead souls.
Whoever Believes in Me Shall Never Die (John 11:26)
John 11:26 is a clear example of taking a verse out of context. This is right after Jesus says, "I am the resurrection and the life. He who believes in me, though he may die, he shall live." (John 11:25) Since He says they may die in verse 25, then says they shall never die in verse 26, we know death has more than one meaning. In this passage, Jesus says believers cannot die the second death, which we will discuss in Part Three.
He made these statements just before resurrecting Lazarus, and Jesus will resurrect all believers in the future. Jesus says believers will not die the second death; He does not say they remain conscious.
Abraham, Isaac and Jacob were Living
The Sadducees did not believe in an afterlife, so they asked Jesus an absurd question about the resurrection (Matthew 22:23-28, Mark 12:18-23, Luke 20:27-33). The Sadducees tried to trick Him.
The purpose of Jesus' response is to refute those who do not believe in a resurrection. Jesus made it clear the righteous would live again when He said Abraham, Isaac and Jacob were living (Matthew 22:29-32, Mark 12:24-27, Luke 20:34-38). Christ was referring to people who had eternal life, not people who were physically alive.
We can die the first death and still have eternal life (John 11:25-26). Jesus words about Abraham, Isaac and Jacob contrast Bible passages that refer to people as dead who were physically alive (Ephesians 2:1, 5; Colossians 2:13; 1 Timothy 5:6; 1 Peter 4:6; etc.).
Souls in Revelation
In the book of Revelation, John has many symbolic visions. Some verses reference souls, so traditionalists use these as proof texts for their case.
One example is persecuted souls asking God when He will avenge their deaths (Revelation 6:9-11). Chapter 6 talks about visions associated with Jesus opening seven seals. Each time Jesus opened a seal, John saw a vision that was symbolic. With each of the first four seals, John saw a vision of a man riding a horse. The men and the horses were not literal; they foretold future events.
When Jesus opened the fifth seal, John saw a vision of persecuted souls (verses 9-11). While traditionalists do not see the visions of men riding horses as literal, they insist the vision of souls under the altar is literal. Just as the first four seals foretold future events, the fifth seal foretold persecution for believers.
These souls are not happy, since they are in distress that God has not yet avenged their deaths. This does not support the belief that disembodied souls of believers are happy in the presence of the Lord. In Revelation 6:11, these souls receive white robes, which implies they are physical.
Another passage about souls is found in Revelation 20. Verse 4 talks about souls of martyrs and says they lived and reigned with Christ for 1,000 years, also called the millennium. If souls are always conscious, it is redundant to say they lived. Even the NIV says, "they came to life." The next verse says this is the first resurrection, which shows these souls will not live until then. Verse 6 reiterates verse 4 and says they reigned with Christ for 1,000 years.
Proponents of eternal souls claim lived in verse 4 means they lived with Christ. Many believe everyone is always conscious; some are with God and some are separated from God. To live means to be with the Lord.
If their interpretation is correct, then this passage supports universalism. Verse 5 says the rest of the dead did not live until the 1,000 years are over, using the same Greek word as in verse 4. This does not say they will never live; it says they will not live until the millennium is over, implying they will live afterwards.
If live means to be with Jesus, then everyone will be with Him after the millennium. There are only two options for this passage: soul sleep or universalism.
Spirits of Just Men Made Perfect (Hebrews 12:23)
Hebrews 12:23 talks about spirits made perfect and many believe this refers to conscious spirits in heaven. People assume Hebrews is talking about spirits of dead people, since it says they are made perfect. The word perfect in Hebrews 12:23 comes from the same root word as in Matthew 5:48, where Jesus commands us to be perfect now. These words could be translated complete or mature, rather than perfect.
Hebrews 12:18-24 compares Old Testament times to New Testament times. Verses 18-21 talk about the mountain where God performed miracles in the Old Testament. Verses 22-24 talk about the transforming power of the Holy Spirit in the New Testament.
This passage is talking to the living believer. Christians are part of the heavenly church and are in fellowship with an innumerable company of angels, the general assembly, God, spirits of just men made perfect, Jesus and the blood. Believers are in spiritual fellowship with each other.
God Will Bring With Him Those Who Sleep (1 Thessalonians 4:14)
This verse says saints who are asleep will come with Jesus when He returns. Many use this verse to prove souls of believers are already in heaven. We need to look at the whole context:
But I do not want you to be ignorant, brethren, concerning those who have fallen asleep, lest you sorrow as others who have no hope. For if we believe that Jesus died and rose again, even so God will bring with Him those who sleep in Jesus.
For this we say to you by the word of the Lord, that we who are alive and remain until the coming of the Lord will by no means precede those who are asleep. For the Lord Himself will descend from heaven with a shout, with the voice of an archangel, and with the trumpet of God. And the dead in Christ will rise first. Then we who are alive and remain shall be caught up together with them in the clouds to meet the Lord in the air. And thus we shall always be with the Lord. Therefore comfort one another with these words. 1 Thessalonians 4:13-18
Verse 15 says those who are alive will not precede those who are asleep. Verse 16 then says the dead in Christ will rise first, showing the dead will be raised an instant before the living. This explains why they will be with the Lord when He comes for the living. We cannot focus exclusively on verse 14 and ignore the rest of the passage, since verse 17 says we will be caught up together with them.
Paul says this to comfort them (verse 18), because they were sorrowful about those who already died (verse 13). When he says Christ will bring those who have died, the important message is that the living and dead believers will be reunited. Trying to say the dead are conscious is reading things into the passage.
Since they were sorrowful about those who had died, this was Paul's best opportunity to tell them their loved ones were happy in the presence of the Lord. Instead, he says the dead are asleep three times (verses 13-15), then says the dead and living believers will be caught up together to meet the Lord in the air (verses 16-17).
Absent from the Body and to be Present with the Lord (2 Corinthians 5:6-8)
Many Christians reference 2 Corinthians 5:6-8 first when asked if consciousness continues after death. Unfortunately, they misquote this and say to be absent from the body is to be present with the Lord. Instead, Paul says he wants to be absent from the body and to be present with the Lord. These were two things he desired.
Although Christians disagree about the intermediate state, they agree about the experience for the believer. According to all Bible scholars, the faithful die and their next conscious moment is with the Lord. Traditionalists claim believers die and their souls are immediately conscious in the presence of the Lord.
Conditionalists, on the other hand, claim believers are not aware of the passage of time because they are unconscious. It would only seem like an instant from death to resurrection, even if thousands of years pass. Sometimes we sleep for hours and it only seems like an instant.
Passages talking about dying then being with the Lord are worthless as proof-texts for continued consciousness during the intermediate state. While they prove an afterlife, they do not refute a time of unconsciousness before waking up. We cannot read things into Scriptures that are not there.
Traditionalists read unfounded assumptions into 2 Corinthians 5 and miss obvious references to the resurrection. In verse 1, for example, Paul says we will receive a new dwelling from God that is eternal. He called this being clothed (v. 2-3). By reading the next verse we know that being clothed refers to the resurrection:
For we who are in this tent groan, being burdened, not because we want to be unclothed, but further clothed, that mortality may be swallowed up to life. 2 Corinthians 5:4
At the resurrection, we will be changed from mortal to immortal and death will be swallowed up in victory (1 Corinthians 15:51-56). According to the above passage, being clothed happens when mortality is swallowed up to life. The correlation is unmistakable!
Since clothed in 2 Corinthians 5 means having the new body at the resurrection, unclothed obviously refers to the time before the resurrection. According to traditionalists, Paul desires to be present with the Lord before the resurrection (v. 8). Yet Paul says he does not want to be unclothed (v. 4). Did he change his mind between verse 4 and verse 8?
Paul also talks about appearing before the judgment seat of Christ (v. 10). This does not happen during the intermediate state. In spite of several clear references to the resurrection, traditionalists use this passage as one of their strongest arguments for consciousness in the intermediate state. Paul is only stating that he will be happy to discard this mortal body and receive his new body when Christ returns (Philippians 3:21).
To Depart and be with Christ (Philippians 1:21-23)
Traditionalists insist Paul's "desire to depart and be with Christ" in Philippians 1:23 proves immediate conscious presence with Christ. Since Paul preferred to depart than to keep on living, many insist that he would only prefer this if he would be conscious in heaven. They read too much into this passage.
Paul faced many persecutions and his suffering ended when he died. As pointed out in the previous section, traditionalists and conditionalists both believe that Paul's next conscious moment after death will be in the presence of the Lord. This is certainly better than continuing to endure hardship in this world.
Traditionalists also point to this passage because Paul does not mention a time between departing and being with Christ. They forget the common saying that "absence of evidence is not evidence of absence." Since people are unconscious between death and resurrection, this time is irrelevant.
A clear similarity is Hebrews 9:27, which says we die and then face judgment. Judgment happens after the resurrection, not at death. Hebrews 9:27 ignores the intermediate state because it is insignificant. When we die, the next significant event is judgment (Hebrews 9:27) and Paul will be with Christ at judgment (Philippians 1:23).
Although Philippians is not a strong argument against soul sleep, traditionalists place great emphasis on it. One example is the Christian Research Institute. Referring to Philippians 1:21-23, they say, "Now, of all the texts in the New Testament on the state of the believer after the death of his body, this one alone gives us Paul's mind on the subject, so we need to pay strict attention to what he says."1
A closer inspection of Paul's writings reveals many Scriptures that disagree with the traditional belief. These Scriptures show believers will not be with the Lord until He returns at the resurrection:
Not only that, but we also who have the firstfruits of the Spirit, even we ourselves groan within ourselves, eagerly waiting for the adoption, the redemption of our body. Romans 8:23
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. 1 Corinthians 15:22-23
For the trumpet will sound, and the dead will be raised incorruptible, and we shall be changed. 1 Corinthians 15:52
. . . holding fast the word of life, so that I may rejoice in the day of Christ that I have not run in vain or labored in vain. Philippians 2:16
. . . that I may know Him and the power of His resurrection, and the fellowship of His sufferings, being conformed to His death, if, by any means, I may attain to the resurrection from the dead. Philippians 3:10-11
When Christ who is our life appears, then you also will appear with Him in glory. Colossians 3:4
For the Lord Himself will descend from heaven with a shout, with the voice of the archangel, and the trumpet of God. And the dead in Christ will rise first. Then we who are alive and remain shall be caught up together with them in the clouds to meet the Lord in the air. 1 Thessalonians 4:16-17
For I am already being poured out as a drink offering, and the time of my departure is at hand . . . Finally, there is laid up for me the crown of righteousness, which the Lord, the righteous Judge, will give to me on that Day, and not to me only but also to all who have loved His appearing. 2 Timothy 4:6, 8
. . . looking for the blessed hope and glorious appearing of our great God and Savior Jesus Christ, Titus 2:13
In Philippians 1:21-23, Paul says believers who die will be with the Lord. He does not say when in this passage, yet he does in many others. Traditionalists ignore clear verses and read their assumptions into ambiguous passages. Since the Bible is so massive, people can find a few Scriptures to support many false beliefs. We must consider all passages to see the overall theme, instead of being deceived by rare exceptions.
The emphasis of being with the Lord, in Paul's writings as well as the rest of the New Testament, points to the resurrection. Numerous verses show this. If the soul is conscious in heaven before the resurrection, the resurrection is anticlimactic, not the blessed hope.
A Need for Consistency
As pointed out in Chapter Four, when Scripture talks about departure of the spirit or soul, we see that the essence of our being stays with the body. Examples given were:
Genesis 35:18 says, "her soul was departing," not "she was departing."
1 Kings 17:21-22 says, "the child's soul came back to him," not "the child came back."
Psalm 146:4 says, "his spirit departs, he returns to the earth." It does not say "he departs, his body returns to the earth."
Luke 8:55 says, "her spirit returned and she awoke," not "she returned and awoke."
Acts 20:10 says, "his soul is still in him," not "he is still in his body."
The above passages are consistent because they mention either the spirit or soul. We should expect all passages about death to follow the same design, yet we do not see this in two favorite proof texts against soul sleep. In Luke 23:43, for example, Jesus does not tell the thief that his soul will be with Jesus. Paul also ignores this pattern because he does not say his soul will be with Christ in Philippians 1:23. These two texts are clearly different from passages that emphasize death.
Instead, Luke 23:43 and Philippians 1:23 resemble Scriptures that emphasize the resurrection. Numerous passages say we will be with Christ when He returns (e.g. John 5:28-29, 6:39-40, 44, 54, 11:24, 1 Corinthians 15:22-23, Colossians 3:4, 1 Thessalonians 4:16-17). Why are Luke 23:43 and Philippians 1:23 different from these other texts?
Soul sleep follows a consistent pattern of interpretation. When the passage does not mention spirit or soul, it talks about the whole person. In Luke 23:43, Jesus makes the promise that day about the resurrection; in Philippians 1:23, Paul ignores the time of unconsciousness between death and resurrection because it is irrelevant. These two inconclusive passages should not be overemphasized at the expense of numerous other verses that support soul sleep.
Traditionalists are very subjective and inconsistent when they interpret these passages. If the passage could support conditionalism, they insist it is only talking about the body; if the passage could support continued consciousness, they insist it is talking about the soul outside the body. Since their minds are already made up, God's Word is of no effect (Mark 7:13).
Conclusion Concerning the Intermediate State
The Bible does not support continued consciousness after death. Traditionalists defend this belief three questionable ways. One method is using obvious exceptions and applying this as a rule for everyone. The transfiguration, for instance, only concerned Elijah and Moses.
Another tactic is interpreting symbolic passages literally (Isaiah 14:9, Ezekiel 32:21, Luke 16:19-31, Revelation 6:9-10). Traditionalists put undue emphasis on figurative language because literal passages do not support their belief.
The third method is emphasizing ambiguous verses that could be interpreted several ways. Through extensive commentary and reliance on uninspired writings, traditionalists convince Christians that their belief is the only possible interpretation of these unclear Scriptures.
While the case for continued consciousness is suspect, Scripture contains tons of evidence for soul sleep. Many passages are clear and hard to interpret any other way. Opponents do not even offer a legitimate response to many of them. As pointed out in the previous section, their claim that all Scriptures supporting soul sleep only refer to the body is clearly inconsistent with the way they interpret other passages.
In the next chapter, we begin our discussion of the more important final state of believers and nonbelievers.
1 Kingdom of the Cults, 1985, p. 451
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