Q&A: Soul Sleep

Soul Sleep

Question

When we die, does our spirit go directly to be with Lord, or do we sleep until the Lord returns?

Answer

The Bible uses different language in different places to describe what happens to us when we die. Often it refers to death as "sleep" (e.g. Ps. 13:3; John 11:11-14; Acts 13:36; 1 Cor. 11:30; 15:6,18,20,51; Eph. 5:14; 1 Thess. 4:13-15; 5:10) -- this is the regular way Kings and Chronicles refer to the deaths of kings. In all these cases, "sleep" is simply a euphemism for "death." It is not to be taken literally, as if it indicated "soul sleep."

John 11:11-14 provides a good example of "sleep" as "death" rather than as "soul sleep." When the disciples misunderstood Jesus' reference to Lazarus' death as "sleep," he corrected them not by saying that Lazarus soul was asleep, but rather by stating that Lazarus was dead.

One of the more confusing passages in this regard is 1 Thessalonians 4:13-17, where Paul speaks of the dead in Christ as being asleep, and as rising only when Christ returns. This may at first give the impression that they are rising from sleep when Christ returns, and that prior to that they are not with him. However, "rise" (from the Greek anistemi) is not the normal word the Bible uses to describe those who cease to sleep -- "awake" is. "Rise" generally refers to the simple act of standing up, but it also refers frequently to the general resurrection when our bodies will rise from the grave (Mark 9:9; 9:10; 12:25; Luke 16:31; 24:46; John 20:9; Acts 10:41; 13:43; 17:3,31). In these cases, the point is not that our souls wake up or rise, but that our bodies do. This being the background of the language of "rising" (anistemi) in the church, the Thessalonian church would have understood "rise" (anistemi) in 1 Thessalonians 4:16 to refer to the bodily resurrection, not to awaking from soul sleep.

There is no explicit teaching in Scripture that outlines any doctrine of "soul sleep," but it is an inference drawn from the metaphor/euphemism of death as "sleep." The Bible does explicitly teach, however, that our souls are immediately present with the Lord upon our deaths. For example, Jesus told the thief on the cross that the thief would be with him that day in paradise (Luke 23:43). Further, Paul explicitly taught that to be absent from the body was to be present with the Lord -- he mentioned no third alternative such as soul sleep (2 Cor. 5:6-9). Moreover, we have actual examples of people who died but did not experience soul sleep: Moses and Elijah (Matt. 17:3; Mark 9:4; Luke 9:30-31); perhaps Samuel (1 Sam. 28:3-20); and of course Jesus himself (e.g. Luke 23:43). Some would add the debatable example of Abraham, Lazarus and the rich man in the parable of Luke 16:19-31.

When we die, it is fair to speak of us "sleeping" insofar as we are no longer walking the earth, and insofar as our bodies are not active. In our sleep of death, however, we are conscious and active in the presence of Christ.

Related Question

Death, Sleep, or God's Presence - 2 Kings 14:29

Answer by Ra McLaughlin

Ra McLaughlin is Vice President of Finance and Administration at Third Millennium Ministries.