Does the Bible teach Soul Sleep?

imagesSome believe that when a Christian dies, his soul sleeps and that he is unconscious until Jesus comes for him at the end of this evil age that we are in. The Bible does have a few passages where Jesus talked about death for a Christian as “sleep.” When Christ raised Lazarus from the dead, for instance, He deliberately waited another two days before He even left for the tomb (John 11:6). Have you ever wondered why Jesus waited before starting the journey to Jerusalem to raise Lazarus? The Jews had a tradition that the soul of a person could hang around the body anything up to three days afterward. Jesus deliberately waited so that He could prove to the skeptics that He had authority over death, Lazarus was not sleeping in the tomb, he was dead. John the apostle explained this to us:

11After he had said this, he went on to tell them, “Our friend Lazarus has fallen asleep; but I am going there to wake him up.” 12His disciples replied, “Lord, if he sleeps, he will get better.” 13Jesus had been speaking of his death, but his disciples thought he meant natural sleep (John 11:11-13).

Jesus said: “I am the resurrection and the life. He who believes in me will live, even though he dies; and whoever lives and believes in me will never die” (John 11:25-26).

The Lord also talked about death as sleeping when He brought back Jairus’ daughter from the dead:

49While Jesus was still speaking, someone came from the house of Jairus, the synagogue ruler. “Your daughter is dead,” he said. “Don’t bother the teacher any more.” 50Hearing this, Jesus said to Jairus, “Don’t be afraid; just believe, and she will be healed.” 51When he arrived at the house of Jairus, he did not let anyone go in with him except Peter, John and James, and the child’s father and mother. 52Meanwhile, all the people were wailing and mourning for her. “Stop wailing,” Jesus said. “She is not dead but asleep.” 53They laughed at him, knowing that she was dead. 54But he took her by the hand and said, “My child, get up!” 55Her spirit returned, and at once she stood up. Then Jesus told them to give her something to eat. 56Her parents were astonished, but he ordered them not to tell anyone what had happened (Luke 8:49-56, Emphasis mine).

The believer in Christ is never dead; he is separated from his body, a state that Jesus calls ‘sleep.’ When Jesus took the little girl’s hand and told her to get up, her spirit returned. Where had the little girl been? Her body was dead and laying on the bed, but the real person, her spirit, was somewhere else. Wouldn’t you like to have known what she experienced before Jesus called her back into the earthly home of her body? A person is only dead, according to the scriptures, when he is spiritually dead (Ephesians 2:1, 5). In the Old Testament, 1 Kings 17:17, we find another story about a little boy who was also raised from the dead. He was the son of a woman who had helped the prophet Elijah. She was a widow, and this was her only son. Her son had been getting worse and worse, and finally, stopped breathing. (NIV translation). In the Hebrew, it literally says that his soul (Heb “nephesh”) had left. In verse 22 of the same passage we are told that the boy’s life returned to him after Elijah prayed for the boy. The Hebrew word used here is “nephesh,” which literally means that the boy’s soul returned!

We are told that at this moment, in heaven, are the spirits of just men made perfect (Hebrews 12:23), and in another place, that when Christ returns for His church: “God will bring with Jesus those who have fallen asleep in him” (1 Thessalonians 4:14). Their bodies were in the grave but they themselves, the unseen part of our nature, our spirit and soul, were with the Lord. They are very much alive, but in a different realm, a different life. Paul the apostle wrote: “to be absent from the body is to be present with the Lord” (2 Corinthians 5:8). He also writes to the church at Philippi about his desire to die and be with Christ:

22If I am to go on living in the body, this will mean fruitful labor for me. Yet what shall I choose? I do not know! 23I am torn between the two: I desire to depart and be with Christ, which is better by far; 24but it is more necessary for you that I remain in the body (Philippians 1:22-24).

Note that Paul is not expecting to be unconscious in sleep when he dies; he fully expects to be very much alive. He calls it better by far! The word, “depart” in verse 23 above is translated from the Greek word that was used for the loosing of an anchor. A.T. Robertson translates it, “To weigh anchor and put out to sea.” What a beautiful picture! It reminds me of the scene in the movie “Lord of The Rings,” when Bilbo Baggins departs the Grey Havens and puts out to sea to start a new adventure! It is a wonderful analogy of what some perceive as an end, is really a new beginning. If Paul was readying himself to go to sleep for two thousand years, I don’t see how that could be called “better by far.” No, Paul was getting ready to go to another place, a place that was “better by far!” A place where; “no eye has seen, no ear has heard, no mind has conceived what God has prepared for those who love him!” (1 Corinthians 2:14.)

Just imagine if a butterfly were to try to explain to a caterpillar what his new life would become! The caterpillar would have no frame of reference to comprehend what it would be like to fly, in a glorious new body, not bound to the earth. If the caterpillar were able to comprehend this, would it choose not to go into its pupa state and be transformed? During our time out of our body, we will have fellowship with the Lord in a spiritual place. The only reason that spiritual things are not as real to us now, is that we are bound to this earth, and only able to function on one level, one realm. But a day is coming when we will experience full life. Jesus calls it abundant, eternal life. Our purpose in this life, is to be prepared for this most excellent adventure into a realm which is described as: BETTER BY FAR!

Taken from the series called Insights into Eternity which you can find in the middle column. Scroll down the middle column and click on the first study called “What Lies Beyond Death’s Door?”

Keith Thomas

The Tent We Live in

1For 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. 2Meanwhile we groan, longing to be clothed instead with our heavenly dwelling3because when we are clothed, we will not be found naked. 4For while we are in this tent, we groan and are burdened, because we do not wish to be unclothed but to be clothed instead with our heavenly dwelling, so that what is mortal may be swallowed up by life (2 Corinthians 5:1-4).

When Paul the apostle writes to the church at Corinth, he compares the earthly body that we live in to a tent, a short-term, impermanent home. What he is saying is that the real you, your spirit, is clothed with your fleshly body for the fifty to seventy years that you live on Earth. He says that when this “earthy tent” is destroyed, we have something much more permanent in heaven, a building from God, a home that is eternal, a body that is not built by human hands (v.1), a heavenly dwelling (v.2). As we get older, we become more and more aware of our mortality—we groan and are burdened and become more and more convinced that there has to be more to this life than what we see with our physical senses. If only we could see this truth—that we are created for eternity and not just for this world, that we are just passing through. It would change everything for us if we truly believed it. Paul goes on to say that we are fashioned for this very purpose and that what is beyond death is the true life. The Holy Spirit living in us is a guarantee of what is beyond the veil of death:

5Now the one who has fashioned us for this very purpose is God, who has given us the Spirit as a deposit, guaranteeing what is to come (2 Corinthians 5:5).

A Christian enters heaven without a break in consciousness. Back on earth our friends bury our body, but they do not bury us! Personhood survives the death of the body. In the Bible, the Book of Acts, there is the story of a man of God named Stephen. As he was dying, he said, “Lord, receive my spirit.” He did not say, “Receive my body.” There was no break in consciousness for him—the Lord was standing up from His normal seated position at the right hand of the Father to receive him (Acts 7:59). We would live very different lives if we truly believed that our life on earth is just transitory. If we believed that when we put off the tent of this body, we enter into true life (I’m presuming that you have received the gift of eternal life in Christ Jesus), we would invest our time, energy, gifts and resources into more things that will last after we get rid of our earthly tent. What would God have us invest ourselves in this side of heaven? He would have us invest in what is important to Him—people. Seeking to help as many as we can to know God and be saved from the penalty of sin.

Sometimes as people are dying, their spirit often drifts between earth and heaven where they can see both worlds. A few hours before Dwight L. Moody, the great American evangelist died, he caught a glimpse of the glory awaiting him.  Awakening from a sleep, he said: “Earth recedes, heaven opens before me.  If this is death, it is sweet!  There is no valley here.  God is calling me, and I must go!”  His son who was standing by his bedside said, “No, no father, you are dreaming.”  “No,” said Mr. Moody, “I am not dreaming; I have been within the gates; I have seen the children’s faces.” A short time elapsed and then, following what seemed to the family to be the death struggle, he spoke again: “This is my triumph; this my coronation day!  It is glorious!”

My prayer is that you would ask the Lord to give you the free gift of eternal life that Jesus has bought for you in dying in your place. My prayer is that we will see Mr. Moody together and rejoice in the finished work of our Savior on our behalf.

Keith Thomas