Soul sleep – are the dead alive in heaven, or not?

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The state of the dead – alive in Christ, or dead and forgotten ?

This is my least favourite topic to discuss when it comes to Adventist and Church of God theology, because I have had this discussion before, and it makes it clear to me that while it is 100% obvious to me that the Bible clearly teaches that the soul lives on after death, it is equally obvious to some others that this is not the case. My best explanation does not change anyone’s opinion because to them it is clearly faulty, and their best explanation is clearly faulty to me. To me this is one of those things that prove the inefficiency of having the Bible as sole authority – it is clear in this case that one needs someone to show us what the Bible really says, like the eunuch in Acts 8:31. I believe that Jesus gave us that authority in Matt 16:18-19, among other places, but I will do my best to explain my point of view without that. I will not try to be convincing and do a complete proof, as I doubt you will agree anyway, based on past experience with this topic.

First I’ll deal with the evolution of the concept of the state of the dead, and then get onto specific biblical arguments about it.

In the beginning of the Bible, the place the dead are in appears to be some place different to their graves (proof: see later). Slowly, we see the development of a different view, a split view. The official view is that the dead are not conscious or aware of anything, but the general view held by most of the people is that of the first part of the Bible, where the dead are seen as being in some place of the dead other than the grave. By the time we get to the latter Old Testament times, we see the view that the dead are alive spiritually. In New Testament times we see that the official Jewish beliefs of the Sadducees, the officially accepted beliefs of the Old Testament on the state of the dead, are corrected by Jesus who tells them that God is God of the living, not of the dead. This same belief denied the possibility of a resurrection, though the concept was extant in Pharisaic thought. The New Testament goes on to show in various places that the dead are alive in Christ, not in a state of unconsciousness, and that the sleep referred to refers to being unconscious, asleep, in the physical sense, not the spiritual sense.

Now for some biblical examples of what I said above. In Genesis we see the dead as being gathered to their people. This implies not unconsciousness, but a journey to where the fathers and ancestors of the people had gone, a place of the dead which was not the graves they were buried in. If the dead were unconscious, then this idiomatic expression has no meaning, for to be gathered to one’s people who simply don’t exist is nonsensical. See Gen. 25:8, 35:39, 49:29-33 for this expression. God told Abraham that he would go to his fathers in peace (Gen. 15:15). But Abraham was not buried with his fathers. His father died in Haran (Gen. 11:32), and Abraham went on his journey that God planned for him. He was buried, not with his fathers, but in a cave given to him by the Hittites for the burial of his wife Sarah. How could Abraham go to his fathers in peace, and be gathered to his people, if he was not buried with them, and they were all in a state on non-existence until the resurrection ? I must conclude from this that the earliest evidence in the Bible is that the dead were in some place of the dead, not in a state of non-existence. Is there another explanation for this ?

I Samuel 28:3-25 refers to the well known example of the summoning of Samuel by the witch at Endor. It refers to Saul putting away mediums – obviously, if there were mediums in business, the common people must have thought that the dead were alive somewhere and able to be summoned. Saul obviously believed that the person he called up was Samuel. The Bible states nothing to the contrary, and any other interpretation must be forced on this passage – I see no reason (especially in light of the what I am trying to show here in this letter) to accept the assumption that it was a demon appearing like Samuel. The Bible (verses 12, 14, 15) clearly identifies the apparition as Samuel; if the Bible had not meant what is said, it should have given a bit more of a hint.

Other passages, like Isaiah 14:9-10 show the dead in Sheol rising from thrones and speaking. They seem to be addressing Satan. It can be argued that this is mere poetry, is not to be taken literally, and has no impact on whether the dead are conscious or not in the place of the dead. But if you take it in the context of what I will try to show, it does have some relevance.

Now we get to the very interesting case of Ecclesiastes.

The author of Ecclesiastes believed that every person got the same fate – eternal unconsciousness – whether he was good or evil (Eccl 2:14). His only reward is the mark he leaves, and the rewards his righteousness and faith bring him in his lifetime. To him the judgement had nothing to do with eternal destiny, but with God’s acceptance or rejection of your life, work, faith, and righteousness. He saw a good life and good morals as the end of God’s purpose – basically, the death of the wicked are their reward, and the life of the good are their reward, and after that is nothing. All of this is clearly shown in Eccl. 2:14, 2:16, 3:20, 6:6, 6:8, 9:2, 9:5, and 9:10. Is the Bible here teaching is that man has no afterlife at all ?

Perhaps he speaks only of this physical life – two texts suggest this, where he talks of man’s spirit – Eccl. 3:19-21 and 12:7. In the first he admits that he doesn’t know the final end of man’s spirit, if it is any different to that of the animals. The book of Ecclesiastes is not meant as a dissertation of the final end of man – it says so. It is a commentary on the pointlessness of this physical existence, and is to be taken in the context of the whole Bible, which does promise a perfect existence after this life. The author of Ecclesiastes is trying to make the point that in this life we will get the most happiness out of living a good, moral, fruitful and wise life, and by avoiding the trappings of the physical pleasures. But what he says on the afterlife is not absolute in any context other than his own morbid pessimism. We cannot say that one verse (9:5) proves that man is unconscious after death any more than we can say that one verse (3:21 or 12:7) proves he is with God. The context of these verses must be taken in the context of the whole book – the former (9:5) to be interpreted with respect to the physical meaning of life in this physical world (once we are dead, physically there is not more life, and what is done is done, and our record is permanent, and our physical punishment or reward complete), and the latter (3:21 or 12:7) to be mere speculation, which the author admits, on what may or may not happen later – if there is a better reward with God then so be it, but if not, and this is all there is, then make the best out of what God gives you here, and he’ll reward you for it. This message is a very important one, and probably very necessary for encouraging those within the Church who begin to doubt God’s existence and his purpose in their lives – it will keep them on the right path while God continues to work with them and in their lives.

To summarise, one verse makes it quite clear that Ecclesiastes is referring to the physical side of death only, and not to what lies beyond, whether immediate life, or a resurrection following unconsciousness. That verse is Eccl 9:2 – “One fate comes to all, to the righteous and to the wicked, to the good and the evil … as is the good man, so is the sinner …” Unless we are all doomed to the same spiritual fate as the wicked, this verse must be referring to the fate of the physical body, what the author has seen happen to good and bad people in his vast experience – physical death. If we are to believe it makes any statement on what lies beyond the moment of physical death, then we are in serious trouble – I don’t want the same fate as the wicked. If Eccl 9:5 refers to the after-death state of man, it also says that we have no more reward. I must conclude that the observations of King Solomon were made about the fate and reward of each man this side of the grave, all ending in the grave, and were not observations about the state of the dead at all. Hence, when it says the dead know nothing (9:5) it refers to the fact that a body is obviously quite dead, lacking in consciousness, not knowing anything – the fate of both the good and the wicked. The unconsciousness, in the context of the whole book and its purpose, must refer to the loss of this-worldly awareness, and says nothing about what happens to the spirit.

There is one verse that does extend beyond the grave – Eccl 12:7. All the rest refer to what happens this side of the grave; Eccl 12:7 refers to what happens to man’s spirit – it goes to God who made it. All sorts of theories have been formed about what this spirit is, many based on a false understanding of Eccl 9:5. There is really no biblical evidence that supports a unconscious soul theory, apart from this misunderstood verse. Hence there is no reason to try to explain how the spirit is unconscious while it remains with God.

The next Bible reference is a controversial one – because you won’t accept that it is a valid Bible verse. It is II Maccabees 15:11-16, which shows the deceased Jewish high priest Onias, and the prophet Jeremiah, praying for the people of Judah. They are dead, but praying for the Jews. Even if you don’t accept this as biblical, it does go to show that it was generally believed that the dead could intercede through prayer to God, for II Maccabees formed part of major Jewish literature, and part of the Septuagint, was included in the text of the Bible used by the Apostles, and by early Christians, thrown out by the Jews because it didn’t suit their theology (and by the Protestants because it didn’t suit theirs), and is referred to by Paul in Hebrews 11:35.

On to the New Testament.

In the New Testament, Jesus refuted the Sadducees’ concept of no resurrection. He also told them, in Mark 12:26-27, that the God of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob was the God of the living, not the dead. If God is the God of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob, and he is specifically God of the living, not the dead, then these three men must be among the living, and not among the dead. That must mean spiritually living, since it is true that they are physically dead. It is also interesting to note that in the preceding verses, the Sadducees asked the question in the future tense – and Jesus answered in the present tense, implying that those things – marrying not, but being like angels – were going on at that moment. Of course, the Bible also talks of a physical resurrection of our bodies, but what Jesus is talking of here is mainly the spiritual one, which, judging by his tenses, occurs at death, else Abraham, Isaac and Jacob would not be among the living, and God would have to be God of the dead too.

Lazarus and the Rich Man

Next, we deal with the famous story of Lazarus and the Rich Man (Luke 16:19-31), which both sides use to prove their case. Personally I find the explanation given by the Churches of God to be rich in imagination. They do a good job of explaining away the obvious, but I don’t think it is good enough.

Some say that this, as a parable, should not be taken literally, and what our Lord said really has a hidden meaning. But this cannot be true, for several reasons. St. Luke, as a historian, wrote literally and factually, not cryptically. He surely would have explained the parable if it were not to be taken literally. When our Lord uses parables, they are either references to masters and servants or guests at a feast, which are clearly figurative in meaning, referring to God, us, and the heavenly feast. There are also fishing nets, mustard trees, and so forth, that are obviously not real life events. The most important part of the parable is their clear underlying meaning to us Christians today. The meaning is either explained by the writers, or is quite clear from the context. It was only the Jews in Jesus’ day that could not understand some of these parables, because their hearts and minds were closed in order that the Gentiles might also get to hear the word of God (Rom. 11:8). This parable is not like this – all the actions are real human ones, and the Jewish culture at the time would not take it with the pinch of salt some people think it requires. Finally, the question must be asked, “If Jesus knew something was false, would He use it deliberately to get a point across, while pretending it was true, and not explaining it ?”

My answer – He didn’t. When we look at this story, there is no need to interpret it at all – it is quite clear. The apparent meaning doesn’t need to be explained away. The rich man died, as did Lazarus. The rich man went to Hades, the realm of the dead. Lazarus was taken to Abraham’s bosom – paradise.

What is Abraham’s bosom ? Well, the Bible tells is that Christians are the seed of Abraham (Gal. 3:29). So, upon entering into a relationship with Christ, we become the seed of Abraham, entering into a relationship with him too, signified by the word “bosom” – showing intimacy, affection, closeness as when one gets hugged. Abraham has been called “Father of the Faith” based on Hebrews 11. His bosom clearly means the Church, the Body of Christ, the congregation of Christians, the new Israel. If the angels carried Lazarus off to the part of the Church that had left their bodies and are now at home in the Lord (see II Cor. 5:1-10), then these people must be alive somewhere with God (who is the God of the living, after all) – in Heaven, or in Paradise. If this were only figurative, why does Lazarus need angels to carry him ? I have not yet seen a satisfactory explanation of all the symbolism in this story if it is indeed a parable.

If the dead are indeed either with God or elsewhere, it makes perfect sense for people in heaven to be able to talk or communicate, and if God wishes, to communicate with those in Hell. And that is how the parable continues.

Even as a parable, it still shows a real situation in the spirit world. In other parables, the actions are entirely possible ones – the sowing of seed was a common practice, the celebration of a party, a wedding, the return of a long lost son – these are all based on real events, activities that are really possible, that do actually happen. So it must be with the story of Lazarus and the Rich man – the events are real, possible events, events that Jesus assumes to be a real representation of what really happens in such a situation. So we must conclude that this parable shows that the events are literal in that they can literally occur, even if the specific case in question is not. There is absolutely no indication that this is a cryptic message with hidden truths, but with a false appearance on the outside.

Also in the New Testament, as in II Maccabees, we find the example of the saints in heaven praying to God – Rev 6:9-10. Here we have a point well before any of the resurrections taught by the Churches of God, where we find martyrs in heaven praying to God. Is this mere symbolism, like the verses that talk of blood crying out ? Even in those verses, it is clear that the dead are not silent. There is something that cries out, more than just symbolically. When Revelation talks of people in heaven, it refers to real people. 24 elders (Rev 4:4) are never in my experience interpreted as being symbolic. They may well be symbolic, but are also real.

Hebrews 12:1 talks of a great cloud of witnesses surrounding us. These witnesses are none other than the dead saints referred to in the preceding verses. If Paul meant to imply merely that there are many saints whose lives witnessed to the glory of God, he would not have used language like “surround.” The image produced was definitely of a spiritual presence of witnesses from the past present in the Church – the faithful departed. The language does not imply a mere existence in the past of faithful people.

II Cor 5:6-9 talks to us of the difference between being here on earth in our bodies and away from the Lord, and being with the Lord and out of our bodies. On one level it talks of the difference between this-worldly things and things of the Lord. But there is another level, shown by verse 9 – if only the first level applied, all true Christians would be away from the body, at home with the Lord. But verse 9 talks of people who are in both states, all trying to please the Lord. So, unless Paul is teaching that true Christians can be truly at home in the materialistic world, another level of understanding must apply to this passage. Some Christians are still at home in the body, and not yet with the Lord. Other Christians are already dead – away from the body. These same people are at home with the Lord, and, as verse 9 tells us, still working to please Him. That can only mean that Paul understood that people who were at home with the Lord, i.e. no longer at home in the body, were alive and with Christ.

Note verses 1-5, which talk of our bodies as tents, being temporary, while we wait for our heavenly home.

The Apostle John had two disciples whom he trained in the Christian faith, and placed as leaders of the Church at various places. These were Ignatius and Polycarp, who both claim to have known each other in their writings. They were taught that the dead Christians went to heaven when they died. At the time of his execution in Rome in 107 AD, Ignatius, the successor of Peter at Antioch, wrote that he wished to get this execution over with quickly, and not delay on this earth much longer, so that he would be sooner with God in heaven.

Paul wrote something very similar, in Phil 1:23. Paul writes that on one hand he wishes to depart to be with Christ, and on the other hand he wishes to remain with the Church. Unlike Ignatius, he is not in line for execution, and can still lead and help the Church, so there are two open options for him to choose (if it were his choice.) If he believed that the dead were unconscious, he would realise that if he died, he would not go immediately to Christ. He would have known that he would get to Christ at the same time regardless of what happened, and his choice would have automatically been the unselfish one – staying with the Church, for that was the only way he could truly be with Christ if the only alternative was unconsciousness. To die to get the long wait over with would have been a quick fix, an easy option. But that’s not what his writings imply at all. The wording implies that his options were going to Christ, or staying with the Church. He knew that either way he could help the Church, either by the prayers he could pray, as he probably deduced from II Maccabees, which he definitely read because he quoted it in Hebrews 11:35. He knew he would be pleasing God (II Cor 5:9.) That is why a valid alternative was, as he said, departing to be with Christ. In fact the very word “depart” implies more than just a state of unconsciousness – he leaves somewhere to go somewhere else.

Matt 10:28 shows us that the body can die while the soul/spirit lives on. “And do not fear those who can kill the body but cannot kill the soul …” – obviously when a person kills another person, the body dies but the soul does not. The death of the soul is a separate death. The first death is the death of the body, the second death is the death of the soul.

One verse sometimes used to refute all this is John 3:13, where it says that “no-one has ascended into heaven.” That does not at all contradict the teaching that the dead were conscious, for at that time, no man had ascended to heaven – the Jews taught that the dead were all in the place of the dead, Sheol, and the Church taught that up to the time of the Resurrection, people were in a place called Paradise (i.e. Sheol) awaiting entry into heaven, based on I Peter 3:19, where Jesus preached to the spirits in prison -this Sheol. If this prison referred to the place of the damned, there was no use preaching, which is what is implied here by the word “preached.”

Acts 3:34 talks of David not having risen into heaven. The KJV says, “David is not ascended.” More reliable translations say “David did not ascend.” The latter are correct. The tense is the aorist tense, means “that something has happened in a past time relative to the speaker, with no particular focus on its beginning, end, or progress. The Simple Past (he died) tense is usually the best English equivalent.” Taken from Chapman, Benjamin and Shogren, Gary Steven, Greek New Testament Insert (Quakertown, PA: Stylus Publishing) 1994. So what this verse is saying is that, at the time of his death (to which Luke’s quote refers), David did not ascend to heaven. It is saying nothing of David’s continuous state in any way. The KJV has used an incorrect rendering of this text, causing the confusion.

I Peter 3:19 tells of Jesus preaching to spirits in prison, after his death, before his resurrection. The tense used here is the simple past tense, which means that the events must happen in the order they are listed. So, Jesus died in the flesh and was made alive in the spirit, after which he went to the spirits in prison to preach to them. That is the only way in which this verse can be interpreted. I Peter 4:6 supports this view – the Gospel was preached even to the dead. The word even implies more than that the people are now dead – it implies that even the dead could have the Gospel preached to them.

Some claim that the preaching of I Peter 3:19 was done in the days of Noah, but this is based on misinterpretations of the English text, and is unsupported by the Greek. It is the disobeying that was done in the days of Noah, not the preaching. Who are the spirits in prison ? Well, the passage is talking of people who disobeyed, obviously not given the chance to receive saving grace, people who had had their hearts hardened. They were now, in the place of the dead, being preached to in order that they might be given their first chance at salvation. Anyway, the text refers to the spirits in prison, and immediately talks about those who did not obey (in the days of Noah.) So they are obviously one and the same group of people, probably with the rest of the unsaved dead added to them. Why did Peter pick out those who disobeyed in Noah’s day as a reference point ? Well, he wanted to compare those unsaved by baptism and those who were saved by it, and to do so he compared those unsaved by Noah’s flood, and those saved by it. Grammatically, this is the only way the text can be sensibly understood. I see no way around that fact.

Today you will be with me in Paradise !!!

Finally, we get to Jesus’ words on the Cross. He said to the criminal next to him – “Truly, truly, I say unto you, today you will be with me in paradise.”

Adventists and others will immediately jump in here to say that the punctuation here is in error. In the original Greek there was no punctuation, and it always had to be supplied by the translators. Thus, they tell us, this verse can also be translated like this: “Truly, truly, I say unto you today, you will be with me in paradise.” If that is what Jesus is saying, then he is saying today that the person will be in paradise with him at some point in the future.

But can this verse really be translated this way, or is it a ploy to try to make us accept this false doctrine ?

If we take a concordance, and look up every instance where Jesus (or anyone) says “Truly, truly, I say unto you” or “Amen, Amen, I say unto you” or any of the various translations of this phrase, we will notice that in none of them do we ever find anyone saying, “Amen, Amen, I say unto you TODAY.” The expression is ALWAYS “Amen, amen, I say unto you, [and then the promise or statement of fact].” Go and look this up for yourself, and go and look up the phrase involved – you will notice that it does not have a time clause in it. Because of the definite consistency in the way this phrase is used, and especially the way in which Jesus uses this phrase, we can be 100% sure that the “today” in the statement in question must belong to the second part of the statement, the promise to the thief on the cross. It cannot belong to the “Amen, Amen” or “Truly, truly” clause because it is never used that way. We must accept the grammar of this verse, and accept that that very day, the thief was with Jesus in paradise.

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