Examining “Soul Sleep”: The State of Man after Death
The nature of man: this ought to be a simple and self-evident discussion, since all who think about and examine it are of the same human substance. However, it has been a subject that philosophers and theologians have examined and disagreed about through the millennia. I certainly don’t claim to bring anything new to the discussion, but will use this space to wade into the controversy.
We can’t be certain of every detail of what happens after death, regardless of our source of information, simply because we are not provided with answers to every question. I think it prudent to have the humility to admit that there are questions regarding the nature of man and mysteries about what lies beyond the grave that we haven’t been given answers.
Experience will be of no value when approaching this topic. If we don’t trust what is revealed in Scripture, our only alternative would be to give ear to lying spirits of the occult world. As always, we must give priority to didactic portions of Scripture, and understand that while the Hebrew Scriptures are an essential resource for teaching, the New Testament is a superior revelation on the subjects of death and resurrection.
The “Common” View
As a young child, I thought that after death, “good people” went to heaven, where they would spend eternity in bliss, and “bad people” burned in hell. This is a common belief, and not without truth. However it is theologically shallow and probably does not accurately represent the thoughtful theological position of any ecclesiastical tradition.
We have probably all attended funerals and heard it said that the one who has passed on is now watching their loved ones. This thought seems to exist in both Roman Catholic and Protestant contexts. I don’t believe this viewpoint can be validated from Scripture.
The Adventist view.
Later in my childhood, I became a Seventh-day Adventist. Here I was taught that humans ceased to exist after death, without conscious existence on any plane. At the Second Coming of Jesus and the great judgment, the non-existent dead will be resurrected to receive their final reward. This belief in non-existence after death is commonly referred to as the doctrine of “soul sleep”. It is also believed by Jehovah’s Witnesses.
The weakness of the “common” view, is that it renders the resurrection as an unnecessary or meaningless event. If the dead have already received their final reward, then why bother raising them?
I think Adventists should be commended for placing a strong emphasis on the literal Second Coming of Christ and the resurrection, as pivotal eschatological events that ought to represent the “blessed hope” of all Christians.
Adventists also correctly teach a very real or “material” eternity. The “forever” won’t be filled with disembodied spirits floating on ethereal clouds, but will largely be a “re-creation” of what was lost in Eden (but better). Adam and Eve were flesh and blood beings, who sinned in this material world, and the Son of God was manifested “in the flesh” to bring about the “redemption of our body”. (Romans 8:23, NKJV throughout)
Yet, while I feel that the particular Adventist approach has merit, the doctrine of “soul sleep” seems insufficient, unable to encompass the whole of Biblical revelation without a certain amount of violence being done to the text in order to make their scheme fit. The common view also has elements of Biblical truth, but I feel that both points of view have merits and drawbacks.
After examining the relevant verses (I’m only treating the righteous dead here), I’m going to propose that perhaps there is a better alternative to either of the theories mentioned above; that of a conscious, yet limited, intermediate state. I’m not the originator of the idea; it lies very close to the orthodox Christian approach to death and the afterlife, and is held by many Bible scholars.
Body, Spirit and Soul – Initial Considerations
Body: The human body requires spirit (breath) in order to be animate.
And the Lord God formed man of the dust of the ground, and breathed into his nostrils the breath of life; and man became a living being. Genesis 2:7
Genesis refers to this union of body (dust) and spirit (breath) as the “soul” (or “being”, Hebrew nephesh); though the word “soul” has more diverse usage in Scripture than this limited definition.
The body without the spirit is dead. James 2:26
At death, the human body, which was made from the dust of the earth, will return to the earth. It decomposes, becoming earth (soil), in a manner like other carbon-based biological forms.
The body is dependent on the spirit for life. Death is called “sleep” because the body looks like a person asleep. When the Bible calls death a “sleep”, it is specifically the sleep of the body.
And the graves were opened; and many bodies of the saints who had fallen asleep were raised. Matthew 27:52
The “bodies of the saints” were resurrected. At death the body sleeps, not the spirit or soul. Nowhere is the soul or spirit said to sleep.
Spirit: Though the body decays, the spirit does not. The spirit of man returns to its Maker.
Then the dust will return to the earth as it was,
And the spirit will return to God who gave it.
Death happens when the spirit leaves the body, and returns to God. Resurrection is the reverse; it occurs when the spirit returns to the body.
And they ridiculed Him, knowing that she was dead. But He put them all outside, took her by the hand and called, saying, “Little girl, arise.” Then her spirit returned, and she arose immediately. And He commanded that she be given something to eat. Luke 8:53-55
“Spirit” is a life force, referred to as “breath” in Genesis, and “spirit” by James. But the human “spirit” is more than “breath”; it encompasses the person’s will, feelings, emotions, preferences, and personality (though tricotomists ascribe several of these attributes to the soul, rather than the spirit). At the resurrection, a person’s spirit may be reunited with a completely new (renewed) body, yet the person in that body will be whoever’s spirit occupies it. This is the immaterial part of mankind.
The Bible teaches that at death, the spirit ascends to God. Jesus committed his spirit to His Father in heaven (Luke 23:46), and Stephen committed his to the Lord Jesus in heaven (Acts 7:59). The spirit of the righteous goes into the care of God. It does not disappear.
Soul: Sometimes, the terms “spirit” and “soul” are used interchangeably in the Scripture (cf. John 12:27; 13:21). Those who believe in “soul sleep” limit their definition of “soul” to the “union of body and spirit” based on Genesis 2:7. While this definition is correct in it’s context, the mistake is made when it is applied as a universal definition for “soul”.
Jesus’ use of the word “soul”
And do not fear those who kill the body but cannot kill the soul. But rather fear Him who is able to destroy both soul and body in hell. Matthew 10:28
And I say to you, My friends, do not be afraid of those who kill the body, and after that have no more that they can do. But I will show you whom you should fear: Fear Him who, after He has killed, has power to cast into hell; yes, I say to you, fear Him! Luke 12:4-5
These are parallel verses of the words of Christ from Matthew and Luke. Notice that in His teaching, the body can be killed without killing the soul. While man can only kill the body, God can kill (presumably the body) and then cast (the soul) into hell. There is a clear division, or duality expressed here, between body and soul.
Monism or Dualism?
Jesus was not a student of Plato’s dualistic philosophy. But in Matthew 10 He he uses the phrase “both body and soul”; that is, the body and soul are separate entities. Man can kill the body, but not the soul, implying that it is able to survive the death of the body.
“Soul sleep” presupposes a monistic anthropology, which holds that body and spirit are inseparably united as the soul or person (this is physical monism, not to be confused with metaphysical monism). In this thought, to separate the spirit from the body brings about a death of complete non-existence, not only physical corruption, but also a spiritual cessation.
The Christian worldview is not based on Platonic Dualism, where matter is evil and the ethereal is good. Far from it – the Biblical end in view is one of a (re)uniting of spiritual and material, in harmony with God’s plan and without sin.
My own position would be better represented as conditional monism, which blends ideas from monism and dualism. I will leave the details for a further article.
Jesus and Paul both seem to teach that the spirit or soul (in some capacity) survives death.
Can the human spirit be conscious without or apart from the body?
The Bible does not teach that the spirit without the body is dead, but that the body without the spirit is dead (James 2:26). While the life of the body depends on the spirit, the existence of the spirit doesn’t seem to have the same dependence. There are a number of New Testament examples of spirits living without a body.
I know a man in Christ who fourteen years ago—whether in the body I do not know, or whether out of the body I do not know, God knows—such a one was caught up to the third heaven. And I know such a man—whether in the body or out of the body I do not know, God knows— how he was caught up into Paradise and heard inexpressible words, which it is not lawful for a man to utter. 2 Corinthians 12:2-4
Here Paul says that a man (presumably referring to himself) perhaps out of his body, was taken to Paradise. We know he was conscious, for he heard inexpressible words. So, Biblically speaking, a person can have an “out of the body” experience. The human spirit is able to separate from a body and go to Paradise.
But you have come to Mount Zion and to the city of the living God, the heavenly Jerusalem, to an innumerable company of angels, to the general assembly and church of the firstborn who are registered in heaven, to God the Judge of all, to the spirits of just men made perfect. Hebrews 12:22-23
The writer of Hebrews, speaking in the present tense, mentions the “spirits of just men made perfect” in the context of heaven. It implies the existence of the spirits of righteous men and women, in the presence of God. It is not “men” made perfect, but their “spirits”, made perfect by the separation from the presence and power of sin. These spirits have returned to God, but have not yet been reunited with their bodies at the resurrection.
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 be with Christ, which is far better. Nevertheless to remain in the flesh is more needful for you. Philippians 1:21-24
In reference to his soon death, Paul states that he has a “desire to depart and be with Christ” rather than remain in the flesh. This seems pretty clear. He did not wish to depart to rest from his labours, but to be in the presence of his Saviour.
Paul considered dying to be an advantage. He valued his earthly life, wishing to see the fruit of his labour. In this context, how could he consider non-existence as gain? He did not even list it as an option, it wasn’t part of his conception of death.
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
Please read the whole section. Paul was not desiring to pass into unconsciousness. He desired to go away, to be with Christ, enjoying his presence. “To be absent from the flesh is to be present with the Lord.” While we walk in the flesh, we see imperfectly, beset with the presence and curse of sin. We must walk by faith, because we do not yet see the spiritual things perfectly.
When we are absent from the body through death, we will be present with the Lord. This state of “being absent from the body” cannot refer to the resurrected righteous when they meet the Lord, for at the resurrection they will be in a glorified and heavenly body.
Paul mentions being “found naked”, and “not wanting to be unclothed, but further clothed” in verses 3 and 4. Thus, the final hope of the Christian is not the safety of our spirit in the presence of God (in an unclothed, intermediate state), but rather, to be “clothed, mortality swallowed up by life” at the resurrection.
The intermediate state, prior to the resurrection, is one of safety and joy in Christ’s presence. It is also one of nakedness, the spirit being unclothed and incomplete. It is a very real condition, and treated abundantly in the New Testament.
The term “resurrection” refers to the re-constitution of the body, not of the spirit.
So also is the resurrection of the dead. The body is sown in corruption, it is raised in incorruption. It is sown in dishonor, it is raised in glory. It is sown in weakness, it is raised in power. 1 Corinthians 15:42-43
At the resurrection, the bodies of the righteous dead will be raised from the earth as “incorruptible” bodies. The spirits of the righteous, committed and returned to God at death, will attend Jesus as he returns. At the resurrection they will be united with their immortal bodies, receiving the reward of eternal life.
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. 1 Thessalonians 4:13-14
So that He may establish your hearts blameless in holiness before our God and Father at the coming of our Lord Jesus Christ with all His saints. 1 Thessalonians 3:13
The natural reading of these passages from Thessalonians is perfectly suitable, considering that the bodies of the righteous rest in the earth, and their spirits are with Christ where he is. As Jesus returns to earth, he will “bring with Him those who sleep,” the ones who are called “His saints”. Not only is this scenario reasonable from a biblical perspective, but what other reasonable possibilities could there be?
I think this is a major objection to “soul sleep”. It supposes that the spirit sleeps, as well as the body, and is raised with the body, whereas Biblical testimony places the spirits of the righteous in heaven with God and Christ.
(Context suggests that “saints” in 1 Thes. 3:13 refers to holy people, and not holy angels. In the letters to Thessalonians, saints and angels are spoken of separately. Please read 2 Thessalonians 1:7-10)
Living and Dead
Paul does not treat the intermediate state as “alive” but “sleeping” or “dead”. I think this is an interesting point. Life, a “living being” is a unit of body and spirit. Notice how Paul contrasts “alive” with “asleep” and “dead”:
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. 1 Thessalonians 4:15-17
Again, Paul speaks of being “unclothed” in death, which is not the goal, but rather for “mortality” to be “swallowed up in life”.
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 by life. 2 Corinthians 5:4
Are the righteous dead able to see their loved ones on earth?
Though the Scriptures teach that the spirits of the saints go to be with God, in the presence of Christ, yet it also teaches that they know nothing of what happens on earth. There is a gulf fixed which precludes any interaction between the dead and living, and closes the door to spiritualism.
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.
“Under the sun” is a key phrase in this passage. The dead have no knowledge of anything that transpires on this earth in this age. This does not preclude knowing anything at all, as even the living can “not know anything”:
But the lad did not know anything. Only Jonathan and David knew of the matter. 1 Samuel 20:39
Paul expected to “know” he was with Christ when his spirit ascended to God after his death. But he could not “know” the fruit of his labour in the church after his departure.
The Psalmist, regarding the dead, penned these words:
His spirit departs, he returns to his earth;
In that very day his plans perish.
Those who believe that their deceased loved ones are looking down on them, are sadly deceived in this matter. The day that a person dies, his body decays and his spirit returns to God. From that very day onward, he has no more plans, no interaction with or thoughts about the happenings “under the sun.”
Other objections to “soul sleep”
– Spirit as Breath “Soul sleep,” in its monistic understanding of human nature, tends to divest humanity of its essential spiritual nature. When “spirit” is simply understood as “breath”, humankind can be understood as an animated body, as it were, rather than a spiritual being “possessing” a tabernacle of flesh.
If “spirit” means simply “breath”, then the spiritual dimension of man is diminished, and the remedy of the gospel for sin does not make sense. Man, at the fall, experienced spiritual death. Everyone born since then has been “dead in trespasses and sins” (Eph. 2). It is not our breath that needs regeneration; it is our sin-dead spirit that needs to be re-born, so that we can communicate though our spirits with the Spirit of God. Try replacing “spirit” in John 3:5-8 with “breath”. It doesn’t work.
The Holy Spirit is not simply the “holy breath” of God. The Holy Spirit exists as a person, evidenced by having an independent will (John 3:8, 1 Cor. 12:11; Romans 8:27) and other personal attributes. If spirit = breath, the Holy Spirit becomes an impersonal force, as in Jehovah’s Witness belief. Because they don’t believe in the Trinity or the new birth, their teaching on “spirit” is consistent with their monistic anthropology. Those who accept the Godhead in three Persons should not face this dilemma.
(This article will change to become an index page for the topic of Biblical anthropology. I will add and break out sections to new posts as I am able).