Soul Sleep

Author: Andrew Harrison

The purpose of this article is to show that the soul lives on after death, or perhaps more importantly that we are indeed in a conscious state in some way after death, even beforetheresurrection at the Second Coming of Jesus Christ.

Nowhere does the Bible say, “The soul is immortal” in the same way that, as Jehovah Witnesses point out, nowhere does it say, “God is Trinity, The Father, Son and Holy Spirit, which equals one God”. However, in both cases we believe that these doctrines can be verified by accumulating a number of scriptures in context. This is in fact our responsibility as teachers of the Bible.

We are made up of body, soul (Greek – Psuche) and spirit (Greek – Pneuma). This is made clear in 1 Thessalonians 5:23. Hebrews 4:12 also shows us that although the distinction between soul and spirit is vague to us, it is not to God.

Job 7:11 differentiates between spirit and soul:

Therefore I will not restrain my mouth; I will speak in the anguish of my spirit (Hebrew – Ruach); I will complain in the bitterness of my soul (Hebrew – Nephesh).- NKJV.

Luke 1:46-47 differentiates between spirit and soul:

And Mary said: My soul (Greek – Psuche) magnifies the Lord, And my spirit (Greek – Pneuma) has rejoiced In God my Saviour – NKJV.

The body dies and decays, but is asleep in the sense that it will be miraculously resurrected into a new immortal body in the future (1 Corinthians 15: 51-54). The body itself, once separated from soul and spirit has no consciousness, until the resurrection (see Ecclesiastes 9:5-6). The mortal body in the grave is sleeping in the sense that it awaits an immortal one. This even applies to those with ashes spread upon waters (see Revelation 20:13). This latter verse also points out that after the resurrection comes the judgement.

As it says in 1 Thessalonians 4:16:

...the Lord… will descend…And the dead in Christ will rise first. – NKJV.

And in John 5:28-29 it says:

Do not marvel at this; for the hour is coming in which all who are in the graves will hear his voice and come forth – those who have done good, to the resurrection of life, and those who have done evil, to the resurrection of condemnation. – NKJV.

Genesis 2:7: And the LORD God formed man of the dust of the ground, and breathed into his nostrils the breath of life; and man became a living being. – NKJV.

He literally became a living soul (Hebrew – Nephesh).

Several things can be gleaned from this passage:

1. The body has no life without the resulting effect of the creative breath of God.

2. The breath of God frequently expresses His Holy Spirit (see Psalm 18:15 – Hebrew Ruach, which is Pneuma in the Greek Old Testament [LXX]) and the breath of man frequently expresses the human spirit (see Psalm 104:29 – Hebrew Ruach, again Pneuma in the Greek Old Testament, which is the same word used for the human spirit in 1 Thessalonians 5:23).

3. As a result of the presence of the physical body and the created spirit of a man, he becomes a person, the whole being described as a living soul.

4. It follows that after the removal of the spirit and soul from a person, the result is physical death (the decay of the body sets in and the person (soul) is no longer present.

In Genesis 2:17 God says to Adam:

…from the tree of the knowledge of good and evil you shall not eat, for in the day that you eat the fruit of it you shall surely die. – NKJV.

Did Adam die that day? Yes he did, but not physically, and even his body continued for another few hundred years. He died spiritually, but even in spiritual death, he remained a living soul.

This spiritual aspect of a human is the person, but while on Earth we need a physical body.

Stephen said at the point of his death, ‘Lord Jesus, receive my spirit’. He then ‘fell asleep’ (Acts 7:59-60).

Therefore:

1. The death of a ‘living soul’ can refer to a spiritual death – a marred relationship with God.

2. Physical death is called a falling asleep as far as Christians are concerned.

3. Your own spirit is committed to God at the point of physical death (see Ecclesiastes 12:7).

The Consciousness of the Dead in Heaven or Hell

So the question is: Where exactly does the person go after physical death? What remains is the spirit and soul, so are these aspects of ourselves still with the dead body in the grave, or are they somewhere else?

In Hebrews 12:23, Christians in heaven are called ‘spirits of just men made perfect’.

In Revelation 6:9 we see them described as the ‘souls of those who had been slain for the word of God’ and in verse 10 they spoke, proving their conscious state.

In Ezekiel 32:21 we have:

The strong and the mighty shall speak to him out of the midst of sheol. – NKJV.

2 Corinthians 5:6-8 is clear in its statement that to be absent from our body means to be present with the Lord, where He is alive today (John 14:1-3). Paul also says we will be pleased to be absent from our body because we will be present with the Lord. If we are unconscious in death then where does that fit in with this passage?

In Philippians 1:23-24 Paul is torn: He has a longing for death because it would mean his presence with the Lord. If there is no conscious presence with God immediately after death then what is he bothered about?

The New Testament verifies the conscious existence of saints after death, such as Elijah and Moses (Luke 9:28-36) and Abraham (Luke 16:19-31). These Scriptures conclusively prove the existence of a soul/spirit in heaven. Yes, Elijah was a special case in his bodily ascension, but Moses was buried by God in a valley in the land of Moab (Deuteronomy 34:6), so he is certainly living a conscious spiritual existence apart from his buried body. Abraham was buried too. We will examine the account of Abraham shortly. In addition, God is the God of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob because He is the God of the living and not the dead (Luke 20:37-38).

Matthew 10:28 shows us that only God can destroy the soul in hell and because of that we should fear God. Where is the fear expected in a ceasing to exist? Both body and soul were cast into Sheol in Numbers 16:30,33. Conversely, Enoch was taken by God, bodily (Genesis 5:24).

Luke 16:19-31

There is no indication that this passage is simply a parable and even if it is, where is the evidence to say that parables are not true to life? In fact, the appeal of the parables was that they were indeed true to life. So even if this did not actually happen (and I think it did) it was a typical event.

Lazarus is taken to heaven since he was saved by faith, and he also received recompense for his earthly sufferings; he was united with Abraham who was already in heaven. Although the bodies of the rich man and Lazarus were decaying, they themselves were conscious in Hades and ‘Abraham’s bosom’ respectively awaiting the resurrection. The rich man is conscious to know suffering and then to be able to speak.

We also learn from this passage that no one can pass from one destination to another after death. This confirms Jesus’ teaching that once in hell you stay there forever (Matthew 5:22: 10:28. Mark 9:43-48).

Luke 12:4-5

And I say to you, my friends, do not be afraid of those who kill the body, and after that have no more that they can do. But I will show you whom you should fear: Fear him who, after he has killed, has power to cast into hell; yes, I say to you, fear him! – NKJV.

If there is no conscious state after death then why is there any need to fear anything from God?

We are clearly told that after He has killed a person He has the power to cast that person into hell. It follows that there must be some remaining part of us, which God is able to place elsewhere, and it must still be that person since the fear is the fact that after the physical body dies, the person will be cast into hell. Moreover, if the unbeliever is going to be conscious of torment, how much more are believers going to be conscious of the joy of heaven.

Finally, the most beautiful example of this is in Luke 23:42-46.

Luke 23:42-46

The thief on the cross next to Jesus said:

Jesus, remember me when you come into your kingdom (v.42). (NRSV)

Jesus replied:

Truly I tell you, today you will be with me in Paradise (v.43). (NRSV)

The thief’s question regarding the ‘kingdom’ is typical of those who were aware that Jesus often spoke of the kingdom of Heaven/God. As to exactly what form this would take they were uncertain, but nevertheless being part of God’s kingdom was being part of God’s will. It was indeed seen as an event yet to come, as is expressed by the disciples just prior to Jesus’ Ascension, when they asked him:

Lord, is this the time when you will restore the kingdom to Israel? (Acts 1:6).

The conviction of Jesus’ response to the thief was expressed by His common phrase, ‘Truly, I tell you…’. In other words, what follows is without a shadow of a doubt, i.e. ‘today you will be with me in Paradise’.

This statement must have surpassed the penitent thief’s wildest dreams. Not only would Jesus remember him, but he would be with Him; not only would he be with Him, but he would be with Him in Paradise, the Heaven of all Heavens; and not only would he be in such a wonderful place with Christ, but he would be there today! What greater assurance can a man have before he dies such a horrible death.

Some would like to lessen this blessing by saying that ‘today’ goes with ‘Truly I tell you (today)’ and then go on to argue that there is no evidence to believe a Christian enters Heaven in a state of awareness straight after death. They justify this change of translation by saying punctuation marks were not a part of the original Greek document, so it is simply a matter of opinion as to where the comma goes in the English.

This movement of the comma is vital to them because if they don’t do it their whole doctrine of ‘soul-sleep’ goes out of the window, whereas the true biblical doctrine is not dependant on a comma. We have already seen that we will either be in Heaven or Hell in a conscious state straight after death, and not only after the Resurrection to come in the Last Days.

I have found that many religious groups with sectarian views are unable to accept generally all textual variants and (for their survival) even go to the lengths of discrediting the readings of many faithful Greek manuscripts, which to a true evangelical Christian is not necessary. For example, we have no problem believing Jesus said it ‘today’ and that the thief would be in Heaven ‘today’.

Every single translation of the New Testament that I have on my shelf backs up the reading given above from the NRSV, except The New World Translation of the Jehovah Witnesses.

Both primary Greek text editions of the New Testament (Textus Receptus and UBS/Nestle) used for translation work throughout the world amongst Christians of all traditions, back up the reading above from the NRSV too.

Let’s use a bit of common sense here:

If the majority of accepted Bibles and all the Greek Editions on which they are based are wrong, and the placing of a comma before ‘today’ is wrong, then I am not aware of any occasion in the whole of Christian history where God has allowed such a great doctrinal error to be evident in His Word, throughout the world in every Christian circle for so many centuries. I do not believe that my God is so unfaithful to His Word.

Please humour me with a little more common sense:

1. ‘Truly I say to you today’, seems a bit long-winded and unnecessary. To say that this was a kind of terminology familiar to the times would be stretching it a little, as Jesus never added the word ‘today’ to this phrase on the many occasions He used it (see Matthew 5:18,26; 6:2. Mark 3:28; 8:12; 9:1. Luke 4:24; 12:37, the first few occasions in the first three Gospels!). The statement is emphatic enough without the word ‘today’.

2. How would the thief have understood it? Jesus would not leave him in any doubt as to whether or not He meant Paradise ‘today’, as that would be getting his hopes up for nothing to say the least! There is actually no grammatical reason in Greek why the thief should have believed any differently.

In short, there is no evidence at all to say that the reading from the NRSV is inaccurate. Why should credence be given to such an argument as the Seventh Day Adventists have, just because they choose not to believe it? I guess that if commas were in the very first manuscript of Luke then the SDA’s would have formed an argument to back a theory that the penitent thief was an exceptional case.

Soon after Jesus made his promise to the penitent thief, he cried with a loud voice:

‘Father, into your hands I commend my spirit.’ Having said this, he breathed his last.’ (v.46)

Jesus’ body was resurrected on the third day after His death, and ascended 40 days later, but His spirit went to Heaven at His last breath, and stayed there until His resurrection on the third day. It follows that when, after the bodily resurrection, He said to Mary…

Do not hold on to me, because I have not yet ascended to the Father.’ (John 20:17)

…He was referring to his bodily Ascension 40 days later (see Acts 1:9-11). Praise God that the man who was condemned as a thief was the first to enter Glory with Jesus after the crucifixion. What grace!

Categories: Apologetics

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