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Don Stewart :: Are People Unconscious at Death? (Soul Sleep)

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Don Stewart
The doctrine of soul sleep teaches that, upon death, the soul of each person, believer and unbeliever alike, "sleeps" until the general resurrection and judgment. Though all people will be raised from the dead, the condition of humans between death and the resurrection is one of unconsciousness. The soul is alive but unconscious, awaiting the time of the end. According to this teaching, when the person dies they totally cease to exist. Eventually each soul will be awakened to resurrection, then to judgment. The arguments given for soul sleep are as follows.

1. Death Is Called Sleep

The Bible speaks of death as sleep.

Then he [Stephen] knelt down and cried out with a loud voice, 'Lord do not charge them with this sin.' And when he had said this, he fell asleep (Acts 7:60).

Sleep is a period when people lose consciousness. Hence death, like sleep, is a time of unconsciousness. Believers will see God's face when they awake from sleep, at the resurrection. The psalmist wrote.

As for me, I shall behold Your face in righteousness; when I awake I shall be satisfied, beholding Your likeness (Psalm 17:15).

2. The Soul Cannot Exist Apart From The Body

Soul sleep assumes that a physical organism is necessary for consciousness. A person does not have a soul, they are a soul. No aspect of a human being continues to exist apart from the body. Appeal is made to Scripture to substantiate this.

For what happens to the sons of men also happens to beasts; one thing befalls them; as one dies, so dies the other. Surely, they all have one breath; humans have no advantage over beasts, for all is vanity. All go to one place; all are from the dust, and all return to dust (Ecclesiastes 3:19,20).

Humans, like animals, go back to the dust when they die. They have no knowledge of anything.

3. Dead Know Nothing

There are passages in Scripture which say the dead know nothing.

No one remembers you when he is dead. Who praises you from the grave? (Psalm 6:5).

Whatever your hand finds to do, do it with all your might, for in the grave, where you are going, there is neither working nor planning nor knowledge nor wisdom (Ecclesiastes 9:10).

The dead do not praise the LORD, nor any who go down into silence (Psalm 115:17).

4. No Resuscitated Person Related What They Saw

If the afterlife consists of conscious existence, then why don't we find those who had been dead relating what they saw and heard? In both testaments we have examples of people who were brought back to life, yet none of them gave any explanation of what it was like in the next world. Since none of these persons gave us an explanation, it is assumed by some that they were unconscious and could not relate anything.

5. The Robber On The Cross

Those who teach soul sleep have to re-punctuate the words Jesus said to the dying robber next to Him. In order to refute the idea that the robber would be immediately with Jesus in paradise, they punctuate the passage as follows.

Assuredly, I say to you today, you shall be with Me in paradise (Luke 23:43).
Therefore, Jesus, instead of promising this man that he would be immediately with Him in paradise, was merely saying that He is telling this man the truth "today," and not some other time.

Response To Soul Sleep

The Bible does not teach soul sleep. Scripture makes it abundantly clear that the souls of both the saved and the lost are conscious after death. The Bible never states the souls of the dead are sleeping.

1. Sleep Is Language Of Appearance

Believers are said to be absent from the body upon death.

Yes, we do have confidence, and we would rather be away from the body and at home with the Lord (2 Corinthians 5:8).

There is nothing in the phrase "absent from the body" that is inconsistent with consciousness. When the dead are referred to as sleeping, it is the language of appearance, the way it looks to an observer.

Examples Of Jesus

Jesus referred to death as sleep on two different occasions.

He said to them, 'Make room, for the girl is not dead, but sleeping' (Matthew 9:24).

In another episode, Jesus made it clear that sleep was only an analogy.

Our friend Lazarus sleeps, but I go that I may wake him up. . . Then Jesus said to them plainly, 'Lazarus is dead' (John 11:11,14).

Stephen's Statement

When Stephen was dying by stoning, he said the following.

While they were stoning him, Stephen prayed, "Lord Jesus, receive my spirit." Then he fell on his knees and cried out, "Lord, do not hold this sin against them." When he had said this, he fell asleep (Acts 7:59,60).

From this episode, we find Stephen asking Jesus to receive his spirit when his body fell asleep or died. Obviously Stephen expected to be conscious with Jesus.

Only To Body

The literal application is only to the body. David, for example, fell asleep when he died but it was only his body that decayed.

For when David had served God's purpose in his own generation, he fell asleep; he was buried with his fathers and his body decayed (Acts 13:36).

The emphasis is that David's body, not his spirit, is what saw corruption.

2. Soul Can Exist Apart From Body

The Bible makes it clear that the soul of the person can exist apart from the body.

Old Testament

According to the Old Testament, though the body enters the grave, the spirit enters Sheol, the realm of the dead. In Sheol they live a conscious existence.

Sheol beneath is stirred up to meet you when you come; it rouses the shades to greet you, all who were leaders of the earth; it raises from their thrones all who were kings of the nations. All of them will speak and say to you: "You too have become as weak as we! You have become like us!" Your pomp is brought down to Sheol, and the sound of your harps; maggots are the bed beneath you, and worms are your covering (Isaiah 14:9-11).

God Of The Living

Jesus made it clear that God was the God of the living. In speaking of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, He said.

Now He is God not of the dead, but of the living; for to Him all of them are alive (Luke 20:38).

Jesus corrected the Sadducees view of the intermediate state as well as their denial of resurrection. Jesus was saying that even though these men were long dead physically, they were still alive. By answering in the way He did, Jesus corrected the idea of the Sadducees that the souls of former dead patriarchs were non-existent. The final resurrection has not yet taken place, but Jesus asserted that they were still alive. He goes on to say "they live unto him." This holds true for all who have died. Hence to suggest that somehow these people are still dead is refuted by Jesus.

Preached To Spirits

Scripture says that Jesus preached to the spirits in prison.

For Christ also suffered once for sins, the just for the unjust, that He might bring us to God, being put to death in the flesh but made alive by the Spirit, by whom also He went and preached to the spirits in prison (1 Peter 3:18,19).

There is no purpose in guarding unconscious spirits in prison or preaching to them. The fact that they were under restraint shows them to be conscious.

Moses And Elijah

We also have the account of Moses and Elijah appearing at the transfiguration of Jesus (Matthew 17:1-8). The impression is that they are coming from a sphere of conscious life to converse with Jesus. There is no indication that they are awakening from some dreamless sleep, or from some sphere no better than the earth.

3. Not Permitted To Talk

While there is no record of any of those who were resuscitated as relating their experiences in the next world, this does not mean they were unconscious. Paul, for example, clearly said that he was not permitted to relate his experience of the time he was in the presence of God.

[Paul] was caught up into Paradise and heard things that are not to be told, that no mortal is permitted to repeat (2 Corinthians 12:4).

Moreover this is an argument from silence. We do not know that Lazarus, or some of the other people who were resuscitated, did not ever talk about their experiences. All we know is that there experience was not recorded. This does not mean they had nothing to talk about.

4. Robber On The Cross

As to the robber on the cross, the punctuation argued by those who believe in soul sleep does not make sense. It is true that the oldest existing manuscripts of the New Testament do not contain punctuation marks, and that their punctuation is theoretically possible. However, since they were both dying, there is no other time Jesus could make this statement than that very day. Furthermore, His statement is in response to a specific request, "Lord, remember me when You come into Your kingdom." The reason Jesus emphasized the man would be with him that day was because of the general belief that the kingdom of God would come at the end of the world. Jesus told him He would enter God's kingdom immediately.

Dead Not Unconscious Or Non-Existent

The word dead is used in Scripture of those who exist and are conscious. The Bible also speaks of people being spiritually dead while they are still alive.

But the widow who lives for pleasure is dead even while she lives (1 Timothy 5:6).

Wayward Son

The wayward son was in a state of spiritual death, or separation, from the Lord.

for this son of mine was dead and is alive again; he was lost and is found!' And they began to celebrate (Luke 15:14).

In these instances, the people were alive and conscious when spoken of as being dead. Death was not the end of consciousness or existence.

God And Angels

God is Spirit, and so are the angels. Neither has any physical form.

God is Spirit, and those who worship Him must worship in spirit and truth (John 4:24).

Angels are also spirits.

Are they not all ministering spirits sent forth to minister to those who will inherit salvation (Hebrews 1:14).

Yet both God and angels have consciousness. Therefore beings without a body can exist in a conscious state.

Far Better?

If Paul was asleep at death, how could he say that to die, and to be with the Lord, was far better than being in this body?

I am hard pressed between the two: my desire is to depart and be with Christ, for that is far better (Philippians 1:23).

Conscious fellowship with the Lord in this life would be better than being unconscious in the next.

Spirits With The Lord

The Bible says the spirits of the righteous are already with the Lord.

and to the assembly of the firstborn who are enrolled in heaven, and to God the judge of all, and to the spirits of the righteous made perfect (Hebrews 12:23).

Promise

The Bible gives this promise.

And I heard a voice from heaven saying, "Write this: Blessed are the dead who from now on die in the Lord." "Yes," says the Spirit, "they will rest from their labors, for their deeds follow them" (Revelation 14:13).

Do Not Take Part?

Are we to assume that those who have entered into God's presence are not taking part in all the blessings of the next realm? Why bring them into God's presence and not allow them any of the benefits.

Already Awake

A number of passages speak of believers being already awake in God's presence.

Fullness Of Joy

Those who are dead are in a state of joy.

You have made known to me the path of life; You will fill me with joy in Your presence, with eternal pleasures at Your right hand (Psalm 16:11).

Soul's Crying Out In God's Presence

The souls of believers were crying in God's presence.

They called out in a loud voice, "How long, Sovereign Lord, holy and true, until you judge the inhabitants of the earth and avenge our blood?" (Revelation 6:10).

Were these souls crying in their sleep?

Unbelievers Also Conscious

From the account that Jesus gave of the rich man and Lazarus (Luke 16:19-31) we discover that unbelievers are also conscious when they are dead.

Summary

Soul sleep says the souls of the dead are unconscious, awaiting the day of resurrection. The Bible however, does not support this contention. Scripture clearly teaches that the believing dead are conscious in the presence of the Lord while the unbelieving dead are conscious apart from Him. Therefore soul sleep is not a biblical doctrine. The passages used to prove that the dead have no consciousness are unconvincing.
CONTENT DISCLAIMER:

The Blue Letter Bible ministry and the BLB Institute hold to the historical, conservative Christian faith, which includes a firm belief in the inerrancy of Scripture. Since the text and audio content provided by BLB represent a range of evangelical traditions, all of the ideas and principles conveyed in the resource materials are not necessarily affirmed, in total, by this ministry.

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