What About Soul-Sleep?

Jason Dulle


I have a question and wonder if you could answer this. Why do some people believe that when we die our soul goes into some sort of sleep, and others believe that when we die we go directly into the presence of God? When we die, and before the rapture takes place, are we in some sort of "sleep?"



Some people believe in the doctrine of soul-sleep because of some Biblical statements that seem to support the idea. One of the biggest evidences is the fact that the Bible uses the term "sleep" for death (Daniel 12:2; Matthew 27:52; John 11:11-14; Acts 13:36). It seems that the word was only a euphemism for death, however, and was limited to the description of the body. A person who has passed away is like a person who has gone to sleep. This does not mean that there cannot be a soul or spirit that survives the sleeping of the body. The euphemism should not be taken this literally, any more than our modern euphemism for death, "croaked," or passed away" should be taken literally. Of course there are more reasons for the soul-sleep doctrine than this, but this is one of the major arguments.

Scriptures that are used in support of the doctrine include Ecclesiastes 9:5: "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." At first glance this seems to support the idea of soul-sleep because it is said that the dead do not know anything, and if their soul/spirit survived death, they would still be conscious and could be said to know things. I believe that this Scripture is being misunderstood. The theme of the book of Ecclesiastes is the way things appear "under the sun," i.e. to man. Yes, to man, the dead do not know anything. They are a mere lifeless body. Solomon was not denying any afterlife, but was showing that death is the cessation of opportunities with regard to this life (9:5-6). The people in this life forget the dead eventually. Solomon was making a case for making the most out of this life, because once it is over, it is over (under the sun).

Daniel 12:2 is also used to support soul-sleep: "And many of them that sleep in the dust of the earth shall awake, some to everlasting life, and some to shame and everlasting contempt." It is argued that since these dead are said to be sleeping until the time when they are awoken (resurrection), that they bust be in some sort of soul-sleep. Again, sleep does not need to be taken to refer to both the spirit-body the fleshly-body. It seems clear that "sleep" was used to describe the death of the body, not the spirit/soul. This being the case, Daniel's statement perfectly harmonizes with other Biblical statements which teach an afterlife. The bodies of the dead will be resurrected at this time, not their spirits/souls.

One more passage should be considered. In I Thessalonians 4:14-16, speaking of the rapture of the church, Paul said, "For if we believe that Jesus died and rose again, even so them also which sleep in Jesus will God bring with him. 15 For this we say unto you by the word of the Lord, that we which are alive and remain unto the coming of the Lord shall not prevent them which are asleep. 16 For the Lord himself shall descend from heaven with a shout, with the voice of the archangel, and with the trump of God: and the dead in Christ shall rise first." It is pointed out that believers are said to be sleeping in Christ, even at the time of the rapture, and thus gives evidence that there is no consciousness until the rapture. This interpretation completely ignores what Paul said. First, Paul said that those who sleep in Christ, God will bring back with Him from heaven (while descending to the earth), but then it is said that the dead (sleeping) in Christ will be the first to rise in the air to meet the Lord. How can the dead be coming back with Christ from heaven, and at the same time be on the earth to rise up to meet Him? The only way this could be possible is if their spirit/soul was already with Him in heaven, and was returning with Him to be rejoined with their sleeping body. Those that were sleeping in Jesus were the dead saints who had gone on to be with Christ, but would be the first ones to be rejoined with their body at the rapture.

The Scripture is very clear that there is an intermediate state. In II Corinthians 5:1-9 Paul said, "Now we know that if the earthly tent we live in is destroyed, we have a building from God, an eternal house in heaven, not built by human hands. 2 Meanwhile we groan, longing to be clothed with our heavenly dwelling, 3 because when we are clothed, we will not be found naked. 4 For while we are in this tent, we groan and are burdened, because we do not wish to be unclothed but to be clothed with our heavenly dwelling, so that what is mortal may be swallowed up by life. 5 Now it is God who has made us for this very purpose and has given us the Spirit as a deposit, guaranteeing what is to come. 6 Therefore we are always confident and know that as long as we are at home in the body we are away from the Lord. 7 We live by faith, not by sight. 8 We are confident, I say, and would prefer to be away from the body and at home with the Lord. 9 So we make it our goal to please him, whether we are at home in the body or away from it" (NIV).

When Paul speaks of this earthly tent being destroyed, he is referring to death. Even though we may not have an earthly body, we do have an "eternal tent" in heaven. Paul describes the experience following the dissolving of our earthly tent in death as being naked. We desire to get out of this tent (be unclothed) not because we do not wish to be clothed, but because we want to have our mortality swallowed up in life. While we are still in our body we are absent from the Lord, but being absent from the body is to be present with the Lord. This clearly teaches an intermediate state. For those who believe in soul sleep, there will never be a conscious moment of the believer apart from a bodily existence, because he sleeps after he dies, and awakes in the same body he died in, at the resurrection. Only a doctrine of an intermediate state could allow for one to be absent from the body (death) and yet present with the Lord, awaiting to be clothed again with a body (resurrection).

Paul also said in Philippians 1:21-23, "For to me to live is Christ, and to die is gain. But if I live in the flesh, this is the fruit of my labor: yet what I shall choose I cannot tell. For I am in a strait between the two, having a desire to depart, and to be with Christ; which is far better." If Paul died he would "depart." Where would he go? He says he would go to be with Christ. Where is Christ? In heaven. Was Paul only speaking of the resurrection at which time He would be with Christ? No, because there will be no departing to be with Christ at the resurrection. The body died on the earth, and will be resurrected from the earth.

Another example demonstrating an intermediate existence of the spirit is Jesus' statement to the thief on the cross, "Today you will be with me in paradise" (Luke 23:43). Jesus said that He was going to go to Paradise the same day that He died, and was going to take the thief with Him. If, when Jesus died, His personal existence in His human spirit did not survive, Jesus could not go anywhere the day He died. He would only be asleep until the day He was resurrected. If this is the case, then Jesus lied to the thief on the cross, because the thief was not with Jesus in Paradise that day.

Jesus also told the parable (some believe it to be a real event) of the Rich Man and Lazarus (Luke 16:19-31). Most people who hold to an intermediate state believe it to be a real story, whereas those who believe in soul-sleep generally believe it to be a parable. I am a rare-bird in that I believe it is a parable, yet I hold to an intermediate existence. Soul-sleep contenders argue that "since" it is a parable, Jesus' story should not be taken literally, because literally it would teach an intermediate state. I disagree. All of Jesus' parables are based on real life events, even if they are not speaking of an actual historical event in particular. There are people who sow seeds, draw nets, etc. None of Jesus' parables were fictitious, so neither should this parable be taken as such. It is portraying a reality, even if the characters are made up for the purpose of making a point. According to Jesus, Lazarus was carried away to Abraham's bosom, a place which was nowhere near people who were still alive in their bodies on earth. In this state Lazarus and the Rich Man are portrayed as being conscious.

In Revelation 6:9-11 there are martyrs (disembodied individuals) under the altar in heaven that are crying out to God asking Him how long He will wait to avenge them of their enemies. How were they existing apart from a body and before the resurrection?

What about Moses’ appearing with Jesus on the Mount of Transfiguration (Matthew 17:1-8; Mark 9:2-10)? Moses’ body was buried by God, so what the three apostles saw was not Moses’ body, but his spirit. If the human spirit does not survive death then Moses could not have been with Jesus. He even looked like a human person. The apostles were able to identify him as Moses. It seems apparent that the human spirit is an incorporeal entity that survives death. This incorporeal entity is separated from our physical existence after death.

Other evidences that the human spirit survives death in an intermediate state awaiting the resurrection of the body is I Peter 3:18-22 and 4:6. Although the identity of these spirits is disputed, many expositors believe they are the spirits of dead men who lived in Noah's day. If so, then there is evidence here that one's spirit survives death in an intermediate, disembodied state.

There are other passages which would lend evidence to the intermediate view, but these are the primary ones.

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