Soul sleep is the term used to describe a teaching about the condition of the soul after death. Before going any further, let me say that this is a false teaching. It’s one that is not often spoken about, but it is important that we understand both the teachings and the errors on soul sleep.
The doctrine of soul sleep claims that the soul literally sleeps until the time of the bodily resurrection when it is awakened. During this time the person is not conscious and has no awareness of their condition or state. This teaching also claims that the soul resides in the memory of God until its awakening. Seventh Day Adventists teach this doctrine, but it is a completely false teaching with absolutely no biblical support. And, there is a great deal of biblical information to prove it false.
Jehovah’s Witnesses teach a variation of this doctrine called annihilation, which claims the body and soul cease to exist at death. This teaching is similar to the Seventh Day Adventists teaching of soul sleep, but different in that the soul lies in a state of death (not unconscious sleep) until it is made alive (not awakened) in the bodily resurrection. With the recent death of Prince, who was a Jehovah’s Witness, it should be a reminder to us of the importance of knowing what the Bible teaches about the eternal destiny of the soul. (Watch for Thursday’s article about Prince’s death.)
Soul Sleep — A False Teaching
Both of these teachings are in grave error (pun intended). Although both the Seventh Day Adventists and the Jehovah’s Witnesses use Scripture to support their beliefs, they do so incorrectly. The apostle Peter spoke of such teachings coming from people who are unlearned and unstable and therefore they “twist the Scripture” (2 Peter 3:16) and make it say something that it does not teach. So, what Scripture do they “twist” and misinterpret?
Both Seventh Day Adventists and the Jehovah’s Witnesses use a verse from Ecclesiastes as the foundation for their doctrines. They take this verse out of context to support what they believe:
Ecclesiastes 9:5 For the living know that they shall die: but the dead know not any thing, neither have they any more a reward; for the memory of them is forgotten.
Ecclesiastes 9:5 needs to be understood in the full context. These are “The words of the Preacher, the son of David, king in Jerusalem” (Ecclesiastes 1:1) and he is speaking from a human, or earthly, perspective about physical death. He is not making doctrinal statements about the condition of the soul after death. The soul is not physical, it is spiritual. The Preacher is not saying that the soul dies, nor is he saying that it enters into an unconscious state at death. He is speaking of a person’s earthly existence ceasing, the futility of earthly gain and the fleeting influence of the departed.
Our Souls After Death
So what does the Bible say about the eternal destiny of our souls? In the New Testament we find clear teachings about what happens to the soul at death. Paul, with full knowledge and understanding of redemption of sin by Christ’s death on the cross and eternal life made possible by His resurrection, speaks of our physical death and the resurrection of the soul:
2 Corinthians 5:8 We are confident, I say, and willing rather to be absent from the body, and to be present with the Lord.
Paul is certain that, when he dies, he will go and be with the Lord. He does not say, to be absent from the body, and to [someday in the future] be present with the Lord. He proclaims that the soul leaves the body and enters into the presence of the Lord immediately at death. Paul also says,
Philippians 1:23 For I am hard pressed between the two, having a desire to depart and be with Christ, which is far better.
If Paul had thought his soul would only be sleeping for the period of time from death to bodily resurrection, he would not have desired to die. His desire to die was based on a desire to go and be with Jesus. Based on his commitment to preaching the gospel, and his desire to have people come to know Jesus, Paul would have preferred to live and serve Christ than to have “slept” in the grave until Jesus’ return.
Paul spoke of his“desire to depart, and to be with Christ” right after he said, “For to me to live is Christ, and to die is gain.” (Philippians 1:21) When Paul said “to live is Christ” he was speaking of his purpose and meaning in life that came from knowing and serving Jesus. Therefore, “to die” would not have been gain if his soul were to sleep. But Paul said it “is gain” (verse 21), because he knew that at death he would go “to be with Christ” (verse 23) in Heaven.
There’s another precious teaching in this verse that cannot be passed by. Although it is not relative to our discussion of soul sleep, we must pause and make note of it.
Paul knew that while he remained here on earth, Christ was here with him. He said, “to live is Christ.” Christ is here on earth with every believer, through the power and presence of the Holy Spirit.
The Death of the Body
It’s important that we clearly understand what happens at death, not only to refute false teachings such as soul sleep and annihilation but also so we live with confidence of the joy we will enter into when we take our last breath and depart this world. We know from Genesis that Adam was created from the dust of the ground and both Genesis and Ecclesiastes tell that our bodies will return to the earth:
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 became a living soul.
Genesis 3:19 In the sweat of thy face shalt thou eat bread, till thou return unto the ground; for out of it wast thou taken: for dust thou art, and unto dust shalt thou return.
Ecclesiastes 12:7 Then shall the dust return to the earth as it was: and the spirit shall return unto God who gave it.
Destiny of the Spirit for Man and Animal
Ecclesiastes 12:7 clearly tells that the spirit of man returns to God who gave it and Hebrews 9:27 tells us, “…it is appointed unto men once to die, but after this the judgment.” Whether it is an unregenerate spirit or a spirit made alive by the Holy Spirit, God will judge both at the time of death. Ecclesiastes 3:21 confirms this, “Who knows the spirit of man that goes upward, and the spirit of the beast that goes downward to the earth?”
The spirit of a beast (animal) goes into the ground, but man’s spirit goes to God (Ecclesiastes 3:21) for judgment (Hebrews 9:27). Remember that man is an eternal being and all souls will live eternally after the bodily death. The question is not whether man will spend eternity somewhere, but rather where man will spend eternity.
Jesus’ Teaching Denies Soul Sleep
Jesus’ account of Lazarus and the rich man in Luke 16 further refutes the possibility of any truth in the doctrine of soul sleep. Both Lazarus and the rich man are bodily dead, but both men are fully aware of their condition and their location.
Luke 16:22 “So it was that the beggar died, and was carried by the angels to Abraham’s bosom. The rich man also died and was buried. And being in torments in Hades, he lifted up his eyes and saw Abraham afar off, and Lazarus in his bosom. Then he cried and said, ‘Father Abraham, have mercy on me, and send Lazarus that he may dip the tip of his finger in water and cool my tongue; for I am tormented in this flame.’
But Abraham said, ‘Son, remember that in your lifetime you received your good things, and likewise Lazarus evil things; but now he is comforted and you are tormented. And besides all this, between us and you there is a great gulf fixed, so that those who want to pass from here to you cannot, nor can those from there pass to us.’ Then he said, ‘I beg you therefore, father, that you would send him to my father’s house, for I have five brothers, that he may testify to them, lest they also come to this place of torment.’”
Both of these men had experienced physical death and their bodies had gone into the earth to return to dust. Yet the souls of both men lived on.
More Reasons to Deny Soul Sleep
There are many more verses that support our souls going to be with the Lord at the time of our physical death. We know that the body dies, so Jesus’ words of promise in these verses are regarding the soul:
John 11:25-26 Jesus said to her, “I am the resurrection and the life. He who believes in Me, though he may die, he shall live. And whoever lives and believes in Me shall never die….”
It’s also clear in these verses from Revelation that souls do not sleep. Revelation 6:9-10 speaks of the martyrs in the end times and tells that their living souls are in Heaven and they are conscious.
Revelation 6:9-10 When He opened the fifth seal, I saw under the altar the souls of those who had been slain for the word of God and for the testimony which they held. And they cried with a loud voice, saying, “How long, O Lord, holy and true, until You judge and avenge our blood on those who dwell on the earth?”
Finally, perhaps one of the best verses for the proof of conscious life of the soul following death is found in Luke 23:43, And Jesus said to him, “Assuredly, I say to you, today you will be with Me in Paradise.”
Tell me not, in mournful numbers
Life is but an empty dream!
Dust thou art, to dust returnest,
Was not spoken of the soul.
―Henry Wadsworth Longfellow
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By the power of the Holy Spirit, even a small tract can help in turning a broken sinner from darkness to light.
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