Soul Sleep  


The Bible contains the great promise that there will be no death for the righteous: "In the way of righteousness is life, and in its pathway there is no death." (Proverbs 12:28). Someone may object, 'Of course it doesn't mean that! It just means, no premature death; everyone dies.' But it does say, "no death." Specifically, the Bible promises that the dead will rise again:

“For I know that my Redeemer lives, and He shall stand at last on the earth; and after my skin is destroyed, this I know, that in my flesh I shall see God, Whom I shall see for myself, and my eyes shall behold, and not another. How my heart yearns within me!” (Job 19:25-27).

This has not yet transpired, though several daring heretics known to Paul said it already had: "Hymenaeus and Philetus are of this sort, who have strayed concerning the truth, saying that the resurrection is already past; and they overthrow the faith of some." (2 Timothy 2:17-18). This is an event we await. What, in the meantime, is the status of those whose lifeless bodies lie mouldering in the grave, having been sundered from any spirit of animation? Are these people 'asleep,' not by metaphor but in the sense of lacking all conscious existence, as some people claim? If so, did the Bible promise of "no death" fall to the ground? Or do they even now live? The intermediate state, the believer's sojourn in heaven with the Lord awaiting the resurrection, is less than a dot in comparison to our eternal life in a resurrection body in the new heavens and new earth.  This intermediate state is not instead of but rather in addition to the Bible's promised future resurrection in the flesh. It is denied by the Seventh Day Adventists in favor of 'soul sleep,' and by the Jehovah's Witnesses who descend from them. What saith the scripture?:



Absent from the Body To Depart is Better
Dead Lion Cemetery
This Life Never Die
God of the Living Abraham's Bosom
Moses and Elijah Thief on the Cross
You Have Eternal Life Abolished Death
From Death to Life Witnesses
Return to Answering the Jehovah's Witnesses...

Absent from the Body

Paul expected that his departure from his body would mean his reunion with the Lord Jesus:

"So we are always confident, knowing that while we are at home in the body we are absent from the Lord. For we walk by faith, not by sight. We are confident, yes, well pleased rather to be absent from the body and to be present with the Lord." (2 Corinthians 5:6-8).

Jonathan Edwards' essay 'Absent from the Body' discusses this verse in detail:

Absent from
the Body

This author's discussion of the matter strikes me as very convincing, although one must concede to the Seventh Day Adventists there are several Old Testament verses which, if taken categorically as the final word on the matter, lean not so much toward soul sleep as to a denial of human immortality in any form.

To Depart is Better

"For I know that this will turn out for my deliverance through your prayer and the supply of the Spirit of Jesus Christ, according to my earnest expectation and hope that in nothing I shall be ashamed, but with all boldness, as always, so now also Christ will be magnified in my body, whether by life or by death. For to me, to live is Christ, and to die is gain. But if I live on in the flesh, this will mean fruit from my labor; yet what I shall choose I cannot tell. For I am hard-pressed between the two, having a desire to depart and to be with Christ, which is far better. Nevertheless to remain in the flesh is more needful for you."( Philippians 1:19-24).

Upon our death believers go to be with the Lord. Paul's heavenly home-sickness would be hard to understand if he were looking forward to...soul sleep.

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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." (Ecclesiastes 9:5-6).

Jehovah's Witnesses overlook the author's apparent skepticism about the resurrection to their beloved 'paradise earth:' "...nevermore will they have a share in anything done under the sun." The passage not only clearly denies the dead can communicate with the living, but in saying "the dead know nothing" seems to go beyond this to deny conscious existence to the dead.

To start with general principles, Old Testament teaching can in no case be used to disconfirm the New Testament, which is explicitly stated in the Bible to be the "better" testament: "By so much was Jesus made a surety of a better testament." (Hebrews 7:22). Ideally the two should be interpreted so as harmonize! The New partakes of the full clarity of day, while the Old can be veiled and uncertain, until the veil is cast aside by the Messiah's advent. Given that the New Testament is the "better," it's unwise to elevate the Old Testament above the New, using the Old to establish doctrine which then governs the interpretation of the New. Rather, the doctrine clearly taught in the New Testament should govern the interpretation of the Old, whereupon, in some cases, the Old will appear as a sketch or intimation of something more clearly developed later. The pagans thought that the wisdom of the ancients is the best wisdom; people may forget things, but can never learn anything new.  But if God Himself bursts into human history, as the Bible reports Him to have done, how can human understanding of His ways be static and unchanging? Can God never reveal anything to His people except for what they already know?

While God's truth never changes, there are several reasons to think God's revelation is progressive:

  1. The New Covenant is called a 'better covenant:' "But now He has obtained a more excellent ministry, inasmuch as He is also mediator of a better covenant, which was established on better promises. For if that first covenant had been faultless, then no place would have been sought for a second. " (Hebrews 8:6-7). As the author notes, had the first testament been perfect, there would have been no room for a second.
  2. According to Jesus, some provisions in the law of Moses were as they were because the people were unteachable: “He said to them, 'Moses, because of the hardness of your hearts, permitted you to divorce your wives, but from the beginning it was not so.'” (Matthew 19:8). If so, the law of Moses was not the perfect revelation of God's mind.
  3. God has at times commanded His children things He had previously forbidden them: “In it were all kinds of four-footed animals of the earth, wild beasts, creeping things, and birds of the air. And a voice came to him, 'Rise, Peter; kill and eat.' But Peter said, 'Not so, Lord! For I have never eaten anything common or unclean.' And a voice spoke to him again the second time, 'What God has cleansed you must not call common.'” (Acts 10:12-15). But God Himself had commanded Israel to keep kosher: "And every creeping thing that creeps on the earth shall be an abomination. It shall not be eaten." (Leviticus 11:41). If the prior command had represented God's perfect will, what room is left for the latter?
  4. The normal process of teaching is progressive: "For though by this time you ought to be teachers, you need someone to teach you again the first principles of the oracles of God; and you have come to need milk and not solid food. For everyone who partakes only of milk is unskilled in the word of righteousness, for he is a babe." (Hebrews 5:12-13). If God's teaching of His people began with solid food then moved on to milk, it would run counter to this general tendency. So a scriptural teaching revealed later cannot be undone by pointing out it may not have been clearly known to the men of earlier time.

The blessings and curses attached to the law of Moses were, in the first instance, of secular weal and woe. God promised nation Israel a hard-scrabble piece of real estate, but His earthly promises concealed a better gift. . .eternal blessedness: "And I say to you that many will come from east and west, and sit down with Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob in the kingdom of heaven." (Matthew 8:11). Later, the Old Testament prophets revealed the resurrection to come:

"Your dead shall live; together with my dead body they shall arise. Awake and sing, you who dwell in dust; for your dew is like the dew of herbs, and the earth shall cast out the dead." (Isaiah 26:19);
"And many of those who sleep in the dust of the earth shall awake, some to everlasting life, some to shame and everlasting contempt. Those who are wise shall shine like the brightness of the firmament, and those who turn many to righteousness like the stars forever and ever." (Daniel 12:2-3).

Finally, as God Himself came to His temple (Malachi 3:1), Jesus Christ plainly revealed that those who believe in Him will "never die." This is a process of education: "Indeed, our own experience teaches the gradual unfolding of truth with our growing capacity for its perception." (Alfred Edersheim, Bible History: Old Testament, Kindle location 20125). It was not all fully evident at the start.

Respecting the status of the dead, not only does God's revelation become progressively more clear, but the reality described also changes. Jesus "abolished death:" "...but has now been revealed by the appearing of our Savior Jesus Christ, who has abolished death and brought life and immortality to light through the gospel..." (2 Timothy 1:10). It is difficult to see how the status of the dead could be precisely the same after Jesus "abolished death" as it had been before. The Lord Himself wrought a change in the whereabouts of the righteous dead and their proximity to God. Before, Jesus said that no man had ascended to heaven; after, He promises to meet the thief in paradise. Works of the human imagination like the apocryphal 'Gospel of Nicodemus' piece together the few threads in scripture that hint of this prison break, though the road-map is not clearly drawn in canonical scripture.

Hezekiah asserts that the dead do not praise God: "For the grave cannot praise thee, death can not celebrate thee: they that go down into the pit cannot hope for thy truth. The living, the living, he shall praise thee, as I do this day: the father to the children shall make known thy truth." (Isaiah 38:18-19). But Revelation portrays deceased persons, the twenty-four elders, doing just what Hezekiah said the dead do not do: praising God: "Whenever the living creatures give glory and honor and thanks to Him who sits on the throne, who lives forever and ever, the twenty-four elders fall down before Him who sits on the throne and worship Him who lives forever and ever, and cast their crowns before the throne, saying: 'You are worthy, O Lord, to receive glory and honor and power; for You created all things, and by Your will they exist and were created.'" (Revelation 4:9-11). What changed is not only the description of reality but the reality being described, like the song says: "Death in vain forbids Him rise, Alleluia! Christ has opened Paradise, Alleluia!" (Charles Wesley).

The author of Ecclesiastes asks, "Who knows whether the human spirit goes upward and the spirit of animals goes downward to the earth?" (Ecclesiastes 3:21), then meets his own doubt, "Then the dust will return to the earth as it was, and the spirit will return to God who gave it." (Ecclesiastes 12:7). This book offers an intellectual history; the author tries various approaches to life, rejects them as 'vanity,' then arrives in the end at piety and an assurance of God's judgment. At least end up where the author ends up, rather than to cut short his explorations at an earlier and unsatisfactory phase! God does receive the spirits of those who were His: "And they stoned Stephen as he was calling on God and saying, 'Lord Jesus, receive my spirit.'" (Acts 7:59).

While God's revelation is progressive, we are not a liberty to toss out dissenting scripture. Admittedly Ecclesiastes 9:5 is a tough nut to crack for those who believe in the intermediate state:

"...but the dead know not anything;" this is not to be understood of their separate spirits, and of the things of the other world; for the righteous dead know much, their knowledge is greatly increased; they know, as they are known; they know much of God in Christ, of his perfections, purposes, covenant, grace, and love; they know much of Christ, of his person, offices, and glory, and see him as he is; they know much of the Gospel, and the mysteries of it; and of angels, and the spirits of just men, they now converse with; and of the glories and happiness of the heavenly state; even they know abundantly more than they did in this life: and the wicked dead, in their separate spirits, know there is a God that judgeth; that their souls are immortal; that there is a future state; indeed they know and feel the torments of hell, the worm that never dies, and the fire that is not quenched: but this is to be interpreted of their bodily senses now extinct, and of worldly things they have now nothing to do with; they know not any thing that is done in this world, nor how it fares with their children and friends they have left behind them; see Job 14:21; nor therefore are they to be prayed unto, and used as mediators with God." (Ecclesiastes 9:5, John Gill's Expositor).

The pagan peoples sometimes thought that if they could establish communications with the dead, they would tap into an unfailing source of information about the future. Communicating with the dead is condemned as great wickedness in the Bible, but not, interestingly, on grounds that it is in principle impossible. Perhaps the author wishes to stress that, regardless of whether they repose in Abraham's bosom or in hotter regions, the dead do not keep up with current earthly events and are not the kind of information resource the pagans took them to be. Or perhaps he is merely expressing views in consonance with the Epicurean philosophy he had embraced at that point in his life, which he later abandoned as empty and useless.

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Necromancy


Cemetery

There is undeniably a likeness between death of sleep; in fact our common word 'cemetery' comes from Greek words meaning 'sleeping place!'

"cemetery,. . .[L. coemeterium, a burying place, from Gr. koimeterion, a sleeping place, afterward a burying place, from koimao, to sleep.]. . ." (Webster's Dictionary, 1965).

Job describes the condition of the dead as sleep:

"Why died I not from the womb? why did I not give up the ghost when I came out of the belly? Why did the knees prevent me? or why the breasts that I should suck? For now should I have lain still and been quiet, I should have slept: then had I been at rest, with kings and counsellors of the earth, which built desolate places for themselves; or with princes that had gold, who filled their houses with silver:  Or as an hidden untimely birth I had not been; as infants which never saw light. There the wicked cease from troubling; and there the weary be at rest. There the prisoners rest together; they hear not the voice of the oppressor. The small and great are there; and the servant is free from his master." (Job 3:11-19).

But is this more than our familiar analogy, and, if so, is it wise to take doctrine from the book of Job, given that God Himself said that Job was darkening counsel?: "Then the LORD answered Job out of the whirlwind, and said, Who is this that darkeneth counsel by words without knowledge?" (Job 38:1-2). There is much excellent doctrine in Job, even in the comforters' speeches, however God's condemnation of both Job and the comforters leaves a question mark. All of God's word is inspired and without flaw, however, when king Sennacherib's spokesman is quoted as saying, "Beware lest Hezekiah persuade you, saying, The LORD will deliver us. Hath any of the gods of the nations delivered his land out of the hand of the king of Assyria?" (Isaiah 36:18), that borders on blasphemy. It's true that Rabshakeh said that, just as it's true that Job said what he said when he was darkening counsel.

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This Life

The psalmist speaks of 'this life:'

"Arise, O Lord,
Confront him, cast him down;
Deliver my life from the wicked with Your sword,
With Your hand from men, O Lord,
From men of the world who have their portion in this life,
And whose belly You fill with Your hidden treasure.
They are satisfied with children,
And leave the rest of their possession for their babes.
As for me, I will see Your face in righteousness;
I shall be satisfied when I awake in Your likeness."
(Psalm 17:13-15).

If there is 'this life,' there must also be another life, the life to come, to which the psalmist looks forward, when he 'awakes.' It is not true, as some people say, that immortality only comes to light in the New Testament, because there are references like this scattered throughout the Old Testament:

"You will guide me with Your counsel,
And afterward receive me to glory.
Whom have I in heaven but You?
And there is none upon earth that I desire besides You." (Psalm 73:24-25).

Neither testament is unaware of the life and immortality to be revealed in the Messiah. It is an unsatisfactory amalgam of the two testaments to merge expressions of perplexity at the state of the deceased with the full orbed promise in all its clarity, arriving at the hybrid doctrine of 'soul sleep.'

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William Holman Hunt, Risen Lord appearing to Mary Magdalene


Never Die

The texts upon which rests the traditional Christian expectation of an 'intermediate state' following upon death, but prior to the future physical resurrection in the flesh, include Jesus' extravagant promise that believers would "never die":

"Martha said to Him, 'I know that he will rise again in the resurrection at the last day.' Jesus said to her, 'I am the resurrection and the life. He who believes in Me, though he may die, he shall live. And whoever lives and believes in Me shall never die. Do you believe this?'" (John 11:24-26).

Jesus' promise that believers "shall never die" cannot refer to physical death, the separation of the soul and spirit from the lifeless body, the continuing human destiny until the resurrection. To what then does it refer? If believers must undergo the cessation of conscious existence prior to the resurrection, it seems as though it refers to little or nothing. Taking this great promise of our Lord literally does away with 'soul sleep.'

God the Living

God is a God of the living, not the dead:

"'But even Moses showed in the burning bush passage that the dead are raised, when he called the Lord "the God of Abraham, the God of Isaac, and the God of Jacob." For He is not the God of the dead but of the living, for all live to Him.'" (Luke 20:37-38).

Abraham's Bosom

Lazarus was spotted, shortly after his demise, in the bosom of Abraham:

"So it was that the beggar died, and was carried by the angels to Abraham's bosom. The rich man also died and was buried.  And being in torments in Hades, he lifted up his eyes and saw Abraham afar off, and Lazarus in his bosom." (Luke 16:22-23)

The same principle works in reverse:

Literal Hell-Fire?

Moses and Elijah

Moses and Elijah turned up, none the worse for centuries of wear, at Jesus' transfiguration:

"And behold, Moses and Elijah appeared to them, talking with Him." (Matthew 17:3).

Moses was without question a dead guy: "So Moses the servant of the LORD died there in the land of Moab, according to the word of the LORD." (Deuteronomy 34:5).

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Transfiguration


Thief on the Cross

"And Jesus said to him, 'Assuredly, I say to you, today you will be with Me in Paradise.'" (Luke 23:43).

That pesky "today" gets lost in the shuffle when the Watchtower Society tackles this verse: "What the Bible says about the future of the earth and mankind might be summed up in one word - Paradise! Jesus Christ spoke of it when he told a dying man: 'You will be with me in Paradise.' (Luke 23:43)...When Jesus mentioned Paradise, however, he was not asking a dying man to think about the distant past. No, Jesus was speaking about the future! He knew that our entire earthly home would become a paradise." (Knowledge that Leads to Everlasting Life, Watch Tower Bible and Tract Society of Pennsylvania, 1995, p. 8-9)

But if Jesus really were "speaking about the future", why would He have said "today you will be with Me in Paradise"? "Today" is not the future! Simple, say the Jehovah's Witnesses: "And he said to him: 'Truly I tell you today, You will be with me in Paradise.'" (NWT) - in other words, I tell you "today", that at some point in the distant future you will be with me in Paradise.  While this is not grammatically impossible, it seems silly.  Why would Jesus bother pointing out that He is talking to him "today", not "yesterday" or "tomorrow"?  And why would Jesus not have exercised greater care to avoid the obvious 'misunderstanding', that the thief would be with Him in Paradise today?

Holy, Holy, Holy

You Have Eternal Life

"And this is the testimony: that God has given us eternal life, and this life is in His Son. He who has the Son has life; he who does not have the Son of God does not have life. These things I have written to you who believe in the name of the Son of God, that you may know that you have eternal life, and that you may continue to believe in the name of the Son of God." (1 John 5:11-13).

If believers are said, in the present tense, to "have eternal life," it is difficult to see how this could be consistent with the cessation of their conscious existence. Then it should be said, 'you will have eternal life,' not "you have eternal life."

Some more present tenses:

"He who believes in the Son has everlasting life..." (John 3:36).
"Most assuredly, I say to you, he who believes in Me has everlasting life." (John 6:47).

Abolished Death

"Therefore do not be ashamed of the testimony of our Lord, nor of me His prisoner, but share with me in the sufferings for the gospel according to the power of God, who has saved us and called us with a holy calling, not according to our works, but according to His own purpose and grace which was given to us in Christ Jesus before time began, but has now been revealed by the appearing of our Savior Jesus Christ, who has abolished death and brought life and immortality to light through the gospel, to which I was appointed a preacher, an apostle, and a teacher of the Gentiles." (2 Timothy 1:8-11).

When the Bible says, past tense, that Jesus Christ "has abolished death," this does not seem consistent with a teaching that assumes death goes rolling along.

From Death to Life

"Most assuredly, I say to you, he who hears My word and believes in Him who sent Me has everlasting life, and shall not come into judgment, but has passed from death into life." (John 5:24).

When the Lord says that he who believes "has passed from death into life," this does not seem consistent with a teaching that defers that passage to the future. Yet the resurrection has not yet occurred.

The apostles proclaimed the promise to David of Psalm 16 fulfilled in the resurrection of Jesus Christ:

"Therefore my heart is glad, and my glory rejoices;
My flesh also will rest in hope.
For You will not leave my soul in Sheol,
Nor will You allow Your Holy One to see corruption.
You will show me the path of life;
In Your presence is fullness of joy;
At Your right hand are pleasures forevermore."
(Psalm 16:9-11).

Surely this is a promise for us as well, to be accomplished when Christ comes again and calls the dead from their tombs:

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Resurrection


Witnesses

Only the Bible is authoritative for the Christian; unenlightened human speculation on these topics is just that. However defenders of 'soul sleep' often call to the stand, as witnesses for their viewpoint, first century Jews who, they say, believed in resurrection and not in any preceding 'intermediate state.' However, leaving these witnesses free to speak for themselves, the courtroom regulars may draw a different conclusion:

"And there are evidences of these assertions to be seen in the holy scriptures; which it is impossible should be convicted of false witness, and they tell us that Abraham, having wept a short time over his wife's body, soon rose up from the corpse; thinking, as it should seem, that to mourn any longer would be inconsistent with that wisdom by which he had been taught that he was not to look upon death as the extinction of the soul, but rather as a separation and disjunction of it from the body, returning back to the region from whence it came; and it came, as is fully shown in the history of the creation of the world, from God." (Philo Judaeus, On Abraham, Chapter XLIV (258).

As surviving authors like Josephus testify, people of the day held a variety of viewpoints on these matters, not any single monolithic stand. Regardless, in the end, Abel will prove to have been more fortunate than Cain:

"But, in my judgment and in that of my friends, preferable to life with impious men would be death with pious men; for awaiting those who die in this way there will be undying life, but awaiting those who live in that way there will be eternal death." (Philo Judaeus, The Posterity and Exile of Cain, Chapter XI, Loeb edition, p. 351).

However, Philo expresses a preference for an incorporeal immortality, "These last, then are the souls of those who have given themselves to genuine philosophy, who from first to last study to die to the life of the body, that a higher existence immortal and incorporeal, in the presence of Him who is Himself immortal and uncreate, may be their portion." (Philo Judaeus, On the Giants, Chapter III, Loeb edition p. 453). Kindly note, in no way do I wish to endorse the notion of an incorporeal eternity; I'm just pointing to the futility of arguments phrased in the format, 'the Jews always believed. . .'


Seventh Day Adventists


True GodOnly One GodThe Father is GodThe Son is GodThe Holy Spirit is God