What really happens when we die? Do we take an express elevator to heaven or hell, whichever we deserve, as some claim? Or, do we just drift off into a blissful, seemingly never-ending sleep, until we’re awakened again at the resurrection and have to give account for all we’ve said and done?
It’s a peculiar question, fraught with and mired down by a lot of deeply entrenched tradition, hazy folk theology, and creatively interpretative biblical gymnastics.
But, it’s a topic I really wanted to take on when the professor of my Death Course at Yale brought it up in one of his lectures.
So, I made it the subject of one of my papers I wrote for my Unschooled Master of Theology Program (uThM), and I’m kind of surprised with the conclusions I’ve reached.
(You can read all of my assignments and see the coursework I’m undertaking for my uThM program here.)
So, let’s try to answer the question: Is there validity to the concept of soul sleep?
What is Soul Sleep, Exactly?
There are many and varied opinions on what happens to the soul after we die. Of course, we must entertain the presumption that there is actually a soul, that it does, indeed, exist, and that it doesn’t just cease to be after death.
That idea, of soul death, or thnetopsychism, is a concept championed by Anabaptists and others in the past, as they were convinced the soul did not exist outside or separated from the body, and thus, it ceased operation after death and was dually resurrected at Judgment Day along with the body.
But, soul sleep, or hypnopsychism, is a concept used to describe what happens during the period known as the Intermediate State – the space between death and resurrection.
It has often been called Christian Mortalism, and carries many other names as well.
The phrase, “Soul Sleep” comes from John Calvin’s refutation of the theological concept, as he was ardently opposed to it. But, the idea, maybe surprising to us today, was supported by a large minority of scholars and religious teachers throughout the history of the church, and most surprising, it found impassioned support in Martin Luther (1).
In modern times, it is most often rejected as heretical doctrine, though it has become a doctrinal distinctive for Jehovah’s Witnesses and Seventh Day Adventists and several other sects.
There is actually two main reasons why this theory continues to garner support, despite its long heretical history.
The first reason is the frequent, albeit often cryptic, indications from Scripture itself, and, the second reason is the overall lack of clarity concerning the process that occurs during this intermediate state.
There are typically two camps (other than soul death) when discussing the intermediate state. The traditional or popular camp, which states the dead reside elsewhere in spirit form after death, and are only reunited with their body again at the resurrection (if at all). The other camp is soul sleep, meaning once we die, both our body and our soul rest in the grave. We die, our bodies cease function, our souls lie down in the dirt and consciousness ceases to exist until the resurrection.
But, let’s take a closer look at terminology.
The most troubling word found in the bible to indicate the concept of “soul sleep” is εκοιμήθησαν (G2837) “fall asleep, death.”
Though this word can and sometimes is used for regular sleep, it predominately is found to indicate death. Examples of this are 2 Peter 3:4, “For since the fathers fell asleep”; 1 Thessalonians 4:15, “we who are alive and remain until the coming of the Lord will by no means precede those who are asleep” and Matthew 27:52, “the saints who had fallen asleep were raised.”
Another word is καθεύδων (G2518) “sleeping ones” is used to refer to those who are asleep (though in once instance it refers to one who is sleeping with another, or having sex).
A good example of how this word is used is in Ephesians 5:14, which a literal translation of it would read, “Wake up, you who have fallen asleep, stand up from dead.”
Lastly, the Greek word ύπνου (G5258) is used most often to indicate a regular, nightly sleep, though it is also used when referring to a spiritual stupor.
There is significant distinction between the former two words in their use and the latter.
Why the need for the different uses, unless the bible writers were trying to express two different states of being?
Is There Biblical Evidence for Soul Sleep?
There are found in the biblical text a host of references that indicate the concept of soul sleep.
Let’s do a quick overview of many of these references, not in any particular order.
Daniel 12:2 states, “those who sleep in the dust of the earth shall awake….to everlasting life.”
Psalm 115:16-18 states, “they go down into silence,” referencing those who die.
Ecclesiastes 9:5 states, “the living know that they will die, but the dead know nothing.”
1 Corinthians 15:20-23 states, “Christ has been raised from the dead, the firstfruits of those who have fallen asleep.”
John 11:11-14 states, “After saying these things, he said to them, “Our friend Lazarus has fallen asleep, but I go to awaken him.”
Matthew 9:24 states, “The maiden is not dead, she sleeps.”
1 Corinthians 15:6 states, “Then he appeared to more than five hundred brothers at one time, most of whom are still alive, though some have fallen asleep.”
1 Corinthians 15:51 states, “We shall not all sleep, but we shall all be changed,”
Acts 7:60 states, “And falling to his knees he cried out with a loud voice, “Lord, do not hold this sin against them.” And when he had said this, he fell asleep.”
Not only was this concept used frequently in the New Testament, but the phrase “and [he] slept with his fathers,” was used traditionally in the Old Testament 35 times.
Believers in Soul Sleep
Even throughout Church history, though often persecuted as a heretical doctrine, many believed and defended the concept of soul sleep.
Martin Luther supported it, believing that after we die, our soul lays down to rest, and awakens again only at the resurrection.
He argued that, though one might die and remain dead for a thousand years, it would be as if only a moment or two had passed between death and the resurrection.
Upon death, the consciousness ceased to exist (2).
William Tyndale was also a supporter of soul sleep (1) thinking there was no rational explanation for the resurrection if a dead person’s soul went to heaven. Why, he would argue, the round trip? (3)
John Wycliffe was also a supporter of soul sleep (1), believing it was a precursor to biblical thought following Plato’s immortality of the soul (4).
Many in Judaism, especially in the later, post-temple period, accepted the idea of a soul’s mortality (1).
Arguments Against Soul Sleep
But, there were (and still are) very loud detractors from this theory, and there are a few biblical references that should, if nothing else, give the astute bible student pause before jumping into the soul sleep camp with too much hurry.
Acts 2:27 states, “…you will not abandon my soul to Hades, or let your Holy One see corruption” indicating that the soul does not actually sleep after death, but takes up residence in Hades.
1 Peter 3:18-20, likewise, tells us Jesus, after his death, went and preached to the souls in prison (assuming these to be the fallen angels of Genesis 6 now imprisoned in Tartarus, which is at the bottom of Hades), and, thus, he was not only conscious but active during the intermediate state.
Revelation 20:13 states, “And the sea gave up the dead who were in it, Death and Hades gave up the dead who were in them, and they were judged, each one of them, according to what they had done” indicating that not only did Hades possess the dead, but also did the sea and death itself. Were these souls, being located in these three separate places, all asleep and unconscious? We know from the verse above that Jesus was not.
Luke 16:19-31 also illustrates how it is at least possible for a soul to not only be conscious and awake during the intermediate state, but also not necessarily in any of the three places mentioned above. We are told in this story that while the rich man was found in Hades, the poor man, Lazarus, was, “carried by the angels to Abraham’s side.”
What in the world does that mean? We don’t know.
Not only was Lazarus missing in action from the three alternate destinations (Hades, Death, and the Oceans), but we are also told the rich man was “in torment.”
Philippians 1:23 states, “I am hard pressed between the two. My desire is to depart and be with Christ, for that is far better.”
Luke 23:43 states, “Truly, I say to you, today you will be with me in Paradise.”
Ecclesiastes 12:7 states, “And the dust returns to the earth as it was, and the spirit returns to God who gave it.”
2 Corinthians 5:6-8 states, “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.”
The Catholic Church, of course, has a lot to say about the concept of soul sleep. In fact, they consider it heretical, since they are the creators of the doctrine of Purgatory and the concept of intercession of the saints.
In fact, there are a whole host of denominations in Christianity (Eastern Orthodoxy, Methodism, Anglicanism, and Mormonism) who teach the soul resides in the “abode of the dead” during the intermediate state, awaiting the resurrection (1).
Likewise, mainline Protestants, Conservative Evangelicals, and Fundamentalists all argue against the idea of soul sleep (1).
Can’t Prove it Anyway
This is the fascinating issue with the soul: we simply don’t know what it is. We have no verifiable evidence that it exists. We are not clear on its origin, on its substance, on its nature, or on the fundamental laws in which it interacts with.
Yet, antiquity was convinced of its existence and modern man seems to accept that conviction without need of any sort of verification.
Can we really know what happens to the soul after we die?
We don’t know if we have a soul and we certainly have no clue what it is if we do!
The only support we can present for the soul is the biblical account of it, and that being predicated solely on the biblical claim of its divine inspiration and our verification of that based on anecdotal, personal experience and subjective belief.
And, at some point, there will be a need to reconcile the contradiction found in the bible itself. Can we die today and be immediately with the Lord? Are those who have died merely asleep? How can both be true simultaneously? Do the dead know and experience nothing but silence? How is that possible if they are too busy being tormented in Hades?
I guess we each find out in the end, as we lay down and finally put these bodies to rest.
My prayer is I sleep long and deep and dream ever sweet.
Until my next paper….
(P.S. If you liked this paper from my Unschooled Master of Theology Program (uThM), then you’re going to ABSOLUTELY LOVE my novel Our Daughter, where our characters must deal with the stark realities of death and loss intimately. Check it out below.)
Please consider supporting my writing, my unschooled studies, and my hermitic lifestyle by purchasing one or more of my books. I’m not supported by academia or have a lucrative corporate job – I’m just a mystical modern-day hermit trying to live out the life I believe God has called me to. So, any support you choose to provide is GREATLY appreciated.
Excerpt from Our Daughter:
“Okay, mom,” Randy said.
“You behave yourself and be nice. You’re lucky to have company while you wait for the doctors.”
The woman turned and started back the way she came.
“The nurse said it would be twenty or thirty more minutes, so we’ll eat quick and be back up here before they take you in, okay?”
“Sorry for him,” the woman said to Katie as she walked by.
As the woman left, Katie noticed the boy moving around again on the bed. Before she realized what was happening, the tiny lump disappeared and she could hear the faint sound of bare hands and feet on the tile floor.
He was low crawling under the beds toward her.
A moment later, Randy popped his head out from under the nearest hospital bed, craning his neck around to look up at her.
“Hello, there,” Katie said.
Randy disappeared back under the bed, the bed sheet draping down almost to the floor. Katie could still see three little fingers pressed to the tile.
“What are you here for?” Katie asked, readjusting her seat in the chair, trying to get the ache in her chest to lessen.
For whatever reason, the wheelchair was really uncomfortable.
“Why are – ”
Randy’s voice trailed off for a moment as he looked around.
“Why are you here?”
“I’m getting my leg fixed,” Katie said. “See?”
Randy poked his head back out from under the bed and looked at the leg she was pointing to.
“What’s wrong with it?”
“The doctor said it’s broken,” Katie said. “Shattered.”
“Can you feel it?” Randy asked, able to stay out from his hiding place.
“I can feel it, but it’s not too bad,” Katie said, then tapped the IV in her arm. “This thing is giving me medicine of some kind for the pain. At least that’s what the nurses said.”
“Why are you – ”
Randy stopped mid-sentence.
He scooted out from under the bed entirely and slowly crept over to her on all fours.
“What are you, some kind of spider?” Katie asked, giggling a little.
“What are you?” Randy echoed.
He was now only about a foot away from her chair and sat there, his legs folded up under him, gawking up at her.
“What are you staring at me for?”
“I’ve never – ”
Randy put out a hesitant hand and ever so gently touched her arm.
“Are you some kind of ghost?”
He looked around again.
“Are you – ”
He leaned in, talking in a whisper.
“Are you dead?”
A nurse came around the corner and stopped abruptly, spotting the empty bed in the far corner where Randy should have been.
“Randy Andrews,” the nurse said, her hands now on her hips. “You get right back into the bed and you stop playing around, please. They are ready for you in surgery.”
Katie watched as Randy scrambled on all fours under the beds and back up onto his, pulling the sheet back over top of himself again.
She started to ask him about his question, but couldn’t get the words out before his parents appeared at the door.
Katie sat there quietly, watching Randy stare back at her from under his sheet. She glanced over at his parents and the nurse, noticed Randy’s dad had no hair on the top of his head.
Are you dead?
What kind of question was that?
The snap of the wheel locks being disengaged on Randy’s hospital bed jarred Katie out of the confusion she was in.
The doctor she’d first seen was now at the door, waiting for Randy.
He was his surgeon.
They wheeled Randy out of the room, his parents following right behind, disappearing to the left, heading for his operating room.
The pre-op room was empty again.
Are you dead?
What kind of crazy question was that?
The nurse came back through the double doors.
“It won’t be long now,” she said.
Katie tried not to think about the dull ache growing just behind her sternum.
The nurse disappeared around the corner as Katie watched the double doors to the operating rooms slowly shut.
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(1) Christian mortalism – Wikipedia. (2019, December 18). Retrieved from https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Christian_mortalism
(2) Martin Luther’s Views on Conditionalism and Soul Sleep. (2019, December 20). Retrieved from https://www.truthaccordingtoscripture.com/documents/death/froom/luther-conditionalism.php#.Xf1Xz_x7nIV
(3) Edwards, N. S. (2019, March 21). Church Bible Teaching Ministry—Past Men of Faith: Quotes on Death. Retrieved from http://www.cbtm.info/cbtm/death/Historical%20Soul%20Sleep.html
(4) Immortality of the soul in the bible ? A Brief History of Conditional Immortality and Answers to Critics. (2010, May 24). Retrieved from https://www.afterlife.co.nz/2010/05/immortality-of-the-soul-in-the-bible