“Three Views of Afterlife: Soul Sleep”
“Consider and hear me, O Lord my God; enlighten my eyes, lest I sleep the sleep of death (Psalm 13:3).”
As we enter into our series on the three leading views of the afterlife we should quickly reject two false views that simply do not pass Scriptural muster. The first of these false views is that of reincarnation, the idea of being born again multiple times in this world after death. This view is held among many Eastern religions and claimed by actress Shirley MacLaine. However, the Bible contradicts this teaching that each must die once and then face the judgment (Hebrews 9:27). Another view that must be discounted from the outset is that of annihilationism, that when one dies they simply cease to exist. The Bible clearly states that the punishment of those who did not obey the gospel is everlasting (2 Thessalonians 1:9, Mark 9:42-47) just as the righteous will enjoy life that’s everlasting (Matthew 25:46, Ecclesiastes 3:11).
This week we will examine a particular doctrine known as soul sleep. This is the teaching that between one’s death and the Day of Judgment, the souls of all the departed are in an unconscious state awaiting that Great Day. This view is strongly advocated by F. LaGard Smith, scholar in residence at Lipscomb University.1
Smith points to passages in which death is used as a symbol of those who have died. Upon hearing that Lazarus was gravely ill, Jesus told the twelve, “Our friend Lazarus sleeps (John 11:11).” The disciples thought he’d simply sleep it off and be as good as new but Jesus told them flatly, “Lazarus is dead (v.13).” We know that after four days in the grave, Jesus called his friend back to life (v.43). In 1 Corinthians 11:30 and 15:6 Paul refers to deceased Christians as sleeping as was the martyred Stephen (Acts 7:60). The Greek word in each of these New Testament verses is a form of “Koimeterion” from which we get our English word “cemetery” or “sleeping place.”
While Scripture does indeed refer to the dead as “sleeping or asleep” does this literally teach that their spirits are unconscious until Christ calls them forth from their graves (John 5:28-29)? To many there are much stronger indications that the Bible points to conscious awareness after death and that the references to sleeping are towards the deceaseds’ bodies rather than their souls. Consider that the prophet (Mark 13:14) wrote, “And many of those who sleep in the dust of the earth shall awake, some to everlasting life, some to shame and contempt (Daniel 12:1-2).” It appears evident that what sleeps in the dust of the earth is the bodies not the spirits (Genesis 2:7, 3:19).
Also, when discussing Lazarus and the Rich Man Jesus told of the two different fates these men experienced in the afterlife (Luke 16:19-31). Lazarus was in blissful fellowship with Abraham while the Rich Man was in torment, recognizing Lazarus (v.24) and able to remember his life (v.25) and recalling the family members he had departed from (vv.27-28). Smith points out that this is a mere parable and Jesus is not teaching conscious awareness after death. But recall that a parable means to “cast alongside.” That is, that important hidden spiritual lessons were taught by casting them beside other familiar truths. It would seem that Jesus is indeed teaching that these spirits were consciously aware of who they were in the afterlife and understood why there were where they were.
Besides this, Scripture elsewhere teaches that the dead have awareness. Jesus promised the thief that upon that very day they would be in Paradise, not taking a dirt nap (Luke 23:43). The spirits martyred were aware of their surroundings and knew that their blood had not yet been avenged (Revelation 6:9-11). The testimony of Moses and Elijah on the Mount of Transfiguration support continuing consciousness (Matthew 17).
To be sure, there are many things that we cannot know until we cross Jordan ourselves. Soul sleep is an interesting interpretation of what Scripture tells us of that place but perhaps there are better explanations. Next week we will explore the notion that the righteous enter immediately into heaven at death, while the wicked go directly to hell.
“Precious in the sight of the LORD is the death of His saints (Psalm 116:15).”
After Life, F. LaGard Smith, Cotswold Publishing, Nashville, Tennessee, 2003, pp.102-116