October 26, 2015

Forty Winks? Soul Sleep vs the Bible

by Clint Archer

snoozeI relish a heavenly nap as much as the next guy, but not at the expense of actually getting to Heaven. There persists in some evangelical circles a pertinacious little misunderstanding known as “soul sleep” or, to the more erudite, “psychopannychism.”

It’s the view that when you die your spirit goes into an unconscious, uncomprehending state until the final resurrection.

The reasoning is that since every human being is a body-soul composite (or for our pedantic tripartite readers: body-soul-mind), when your body dies your soul cannot function until it is reunited with your resurrected corpus.

This argument isn’t merely a logical one, but putatively a biblical one. Proponents point out that the writers of Scripture routinely referred to the dearly departed as those who had “fallen asleep.”

For example,

Jesus referred to the deceased, entombed Lazarus as sleeping:

John 11:11-14 … he said to them, “Our friend Lazarus has fallen asleep, but I go to awaken him.” The disciples said to him, “Lord, if he has fallen asleep, he will recover.” Now Jesus had spoken of his death, but they thought that he meant taking rest in sleep. Then Jesus told them plainly, “Lazarus has died…”

Jesus told snickering mourners that Jairus’ daughter was not dead but snoozing (Mark 5:39).

Matthew records that at the crucifixion:

Matthew 27:52-53 The tombs also were opened. And many bodies of the saints who had fallen asleep were raised, and coming out of the tombs after his resurrection.dozing off in class

Stephen’s martyrdom is equated with a snooze.

Acts 7:60-8:1 And falling to his knees he [Stephen] cried out with a loud voice, “Lord, do not hold this sin against them.” And when he had said this, he fell asleep. And Saul approved of his execution.

1 Thess 4:14 For since we believe that Jesus died and rose again, even so, through Jesus, God will bring with him those who have fallen asleep.

So, what do we make of this? Do our souls simply doze in a low-energy screensaver mode until a new body is provided? Does death initiate a holding pattern for the spirit, or a state awaiting resuscitation; one Miracle Max would just call “mostly dead”?

The solution comes from the science and art of hermeneutics.

You don’t even need a study of the phrase “fallen asleep” in Greek literature to determine that it is a euphemism for death. (Much as we say “passed away” or “recently departed.”) The rules of hermeneutics dictate that we always start with the less ambiguous and more didactic texts in Scripture to shed the light of understanding on those whose meanings are in dispute.

power nappingHere are some passages in which the instantaneous nature of the soul’s promotion to Heaven is clear:

Philippians 1:21-23 For to me to live is Christ, and to die is gain. If I am to live in the flesh, that means fruitful labor for me. Yet which I shall choose I cannot tell. I am hard pressed between the two. My desire is to depart and be with Christ, for that is far better.

Luke 23:42-43 And he [the thief on the cross] said, “Jesus, remember me when you come into your kingdom.” And he [Jesus] said to him, “Truly, I say to you, today you will be with me in Paradise.”

2 Corinthians 5:1-8 For we know that if the tent that is our earthly home is destroyed, we have a building from God, a house not made with hands, eternal in the heavens. For in this tent we groan, longing to put on our heavenly dwelling, if indeed by putting it on we may not be found naked. For while we are still in this tent, we groan, being burdened—not that we would be unclothed, but that we would be further clothed, so that what is mortal may be swallowed up by life. He who has prepared us for this very thing is God, who has given us the Spirit as a guarantee. So we are always of good courage. We know that while we are at home in the body we are away from the Lord, for we walk by faith, not by sight. Yes, we are of good courage, and we would rather be away from the body and at home with the Lord.

So, there is no need to lose sleep over whether you will get to see Jesus or not. The moment your spirit is released, you are with Jesus. What form the intermediate state takes is the subject of another blog post. Watch this space.


Clint Archer

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Clint has been the pastor of Hillcrest Baptist Church since 2005. He lives in Durban, South Africa with his wife and four kids.
  • E S Gonzalez

    I was excited to read this post but then disappointed that you didn’t cite a passage of Scripture that I think has to be considered in the discussion about this topic.
    That is 1 Thes 4: 16-17, which says, “For the Lord Himself shall descend from heaven with a shout, with the voice of the Archangel, and with the Trump of God: and the dead in Christ shall rise first: then we which are alive and remain shall be caught up together with them in the clouds to meet the Lord in the air: and so shall we ever be with the Lord.”
    I struggle to reconcile these verses with an immediate reunion with Christ, although the verses you DID include to support that position make a strong case for it.
    But what are these who rise at Christ’s (rapture) decension rising FROM if not some state of sleep?
    Another passage I’ve heard some use against the position of “sleep” is that of “The rich man and Lazurus” (Luke 16: 19-31).
    But, taken in context, I understand it as Jesus using a parable to illustrate a point/impart a lesson, which is that the time to secure our eternal destiny is in this present life and that the one who refuses to hear God when He speaks–through His chosen emissaries or otherwise–would not be persuaded by anything.
    I’ve resigned myself to putting this issue up on the shelf, content to know that the important thing is not so much WHEN those who are Christ’s will be with Him, but that they WILL be with Him indeed! That’s our joy, praise God!!!

    • Great question. I’m toying with the idea of doing a post next week on what happens to us in the “intermediate state” which would deal more fully with this. The short answer is that the bodies of the dead rise and are glorified at the return of Christ moments before the living are translated/glorified. The souls of the departed, however, are already conscious and with Christ. See Rev 20:4 for a strong proof text for this theory.

    • 4Commencefiring4

      I’ve always found the examples of Moses and Elijah uniquely interesting. Here we have two men, one having gone through what we all do–a normal death and burial; the other never having experienced death, but rather immediate translation, in his body, into heaven (I’m going to presume that Elijah was given a new resurrected body in the process, since corruptible flesh cannot inherit eternal life).

      Then, many centuries later, they appear with Christ–and P,J, & J–on the mountain. I’m also going to have to presume that they both arrived on the mountain having come from the same place…which, I think militates against the notion that OT saints, upon their deaths, went “down there” somewhere to await Christ’s “decent into hell” to move them to heaven–an idea that I find ridiculous, especially in light of what He said to the thief as they were both about to expire.

      Anyhow, one went into glory without his body and one with it. And yet both came back from there and returned there together.

    • Jason

      We can know more than that we will be with Christ eventually, because scripture also makes it clear that a believer will not be separated from Christ at death (but rather, will be more closely united with him).

      The best way I’ve found to reconcile the verses that explicitly state that believers fall asleep, Old Testament verses that make no distinction between believers and unbelievers entering Sheol upon death, and promises that Christ will raise the dead before gathering his people to him with those that state clearly that, at death, a believer is with Christ is to understand that our perspective of time is vastly different from God’s.

      When I die to I stop existing? No. To the world my existence may have a gap, but I am, on the day of my death, immediately existing in the presence of Jesus at the first resurrection.

      2 Corinthians 5:1-8 is a good text for this discussion, as it invalidates both that there is an intermediate state where we are separated from Christ before we are reunited and one where we are “naked”. Instead, our next moment is in the presence of Christ in our eternal bodies (the common title of this verse is “New Bodies”, even though I’m guessing the translators largely hold to the “naked” idea of a disembodied soul).

      There have been exceptions. Lazarus, for instance, experienced his next moment when Jesus raised him from the dead. He wasn’t dragged back out of heaven and forced into his mortal body, but rather continued his existence for a while longer in his mortal body first and then (if he was a believer, and it seems likely he was) into his immortal body when that mortal body stopped (for good this time).

      This allows for an understanding that doesn’t discount Paul’s common terminology of death, Old Testament descriptions of death, etc… as meaningless but also prevents me from ignoring verses that speak of our immediate presence with Christ (which could result in concern about the idea of death). It also helps to better explain the verses that indicate the seeming immediate judgement of the wicked upon death even though we know that (to a temporal perspective) that judgement isn’t going to happen until near the end of this world (the last resurrection).

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