Friday, January 27, 2012

Does the Soul Sleep After Death?

I was once asked a question about the idea of soul sleep and if it is in the bible.

Soul sleep is a minority belief that the soul sleeps unconsciously between the death of the body and its resurrection on Judgment Day. The concept of “soul sleep” is not a biblical doctrine. When the Bible says a person is “sleeping” in relation to death Luke 8:52 and 1 Corinthians 15:6, it does not mean literal sleep. Sleeping is just a euphemism to describe death because a dead body appears to be sleeping. The Bible tells us that the instant we die, we are taken to heaven or hell based on whether we have placed our faith in Christ for salvation. For believers, to be absent from the body is to be present with the Lord 2Corinthiasns 5:6-8 and Philippians 1:23. For unbelievers, death means everlasting punishment in hell Luke 16:22-23. The moment we die, we face the judgment of God Hebrews 9:27.

Present-day defenders of soul sleep include the Seventh Day Adventist the Jehovah’s Witness and the Christadelphian churches.

Ecclesiastes 12:7
Then shall the dust return to the earth as it was; and the spirit shall return to God who gave it.
That is, the soul has an existence independent of the body, and returns to God at death, etc.

One of the more confusing passages in this regard is 1 Thessalonians 4:13-17, where Paul speaks of the dead in Christ as being asleep, and as rising only when Christ returns. This may at first give the impression that they are rising from sleep when Christ returns, and that prior to that they are not with him. However, "rise" (from the Greek anistemi) is not the normal word the Bible uses to describe those who cease to sleep -- "awake" is. "Rise" generally refers to the simple act of standing up, but it also refers frequently to the general resurrection when our bodies will rise from the grave (Mark 9:9; 9:10; 12:25; Luke 16:31; 24:46; John 20:9; Acts 10:41; 13:43; 17:3,31). In these cases, the point is not that our souls wake up or rise, but that our bodies do. This being the background of the language of "rising" (anistemi) in the church, the Thessalonian church would have understood "rise" (anistemi) in 1 Thessalonians 4:16 to refer to the bodily resurrection, not to awaking from soul sleep. 

There is no explicit teaching in Scripture that outlines any doctrine of "soul sleep," but it is an inference drawn from the metaphor/euphemism of death as "sleep." The Bible does explicitly teach, however, that our souls are immediately present with the Lord upon our deaths. For example, Jesus told the thief on the cross that the thief would be with him that day in paradise (Luke 23:43). Further, Paul explicitly taught that to be absent from the body was to be present with the Lord -- he mentioned no third alternative such as soul sleep (2 Cor. 5:6-9).

Moreover, we have actual examples of people who died but did not experience soul sleep: Moses and Elijah (Matt. 17:3; Mark 9:4; Luke 9:30-31); perhaps Samuel (1 Sam. 28:3-20); and of course Jesus himself (e.g. Luke 23:43). Some would add the debatable example of Abraham, Lazarus and the rich man in the parable of Luke 16:19-3

1 comment:

  1. Pastor Larry,
    It seems that those who believe in soul sleep use the 1 Thessalonians scripture literally and with modern understanding of the terms, but with all other references that dispute soul sleep, they reinterpret and redefine them so as to twist their meaning to agree with soul sleep. I am at a loss for how to deal with this. Do you have readings that you would recommend that would help to correctly structure this topic so that the different biblical references could be put into proper perspective?