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By Tal Davis
"To be or not to be: That is the question."William Shakespeare
One of the most vexing questions every person faces in life is, "What
happens when I die?" The answer to that question is, therefore, one of the most
crucial for any religious faith to provide for its adherents.
One answer some have proposed has been called "Soul Sleep" or, more
accurately, the doctrine of "Conditional Immortality." This view asserts,
simply put, that when people die, their physical body ceases to function and
the life force of the spirit is removed. This means that their conscious
existence ends while they wait in the grave for a resurrected body restored by
God at the end times. Their perspective is that human beings are not naturally
immortal and do not survive, in any sense, after physical death.
This doctrine is propagated dogmatically by the Watchtower Bible and Tract
Society (Jehovah's Witnesses). In their widely distributed book, Knowledge That
Leads to Everlasting Life (Brooklyn: Watch Tower Bible and Tract Society of
Pennsylvania, 1995, p. 82) they state:
"When somebody dies, the spirit (life force) ceases to animate
the body cells, much as a light goes out when the electricity is
turned off. When the life force stops sustaining the human being,
Further, in the same publication (p. 83) they assert:
"Therefore, God's Word refers to the dead as being asleep.
example, upon learning that his friend Lazarus had died, Jesus
Christ told His disciples 'Lazarus our friend has gone to rest, but
I am journeying there to awake him from sleep.'"
Another faith group that teaches the same view is the Seventh-day
Adventist (SDA) Church. In their official doctrinal publication, Seventh-Day
Adventists Believe … A Biblical Exposition of 27 Fundamental Doctrines
(Hagerstown, MD: Review and Herald Publishing Assoc., 1988, p. 353) they
"The grave is not a place of
consciousness. Since death is a sleep,
the dead remain in a state of unconsciousness in the grave until the
resurrection, when the grave (Hades) gives up its dead (Rev. 20:13)."
Both the Jehovah's Witnesses and the SDA
base this "Soul Sleep" doctrine on their interpretations of certain key
biblical terms and passages. For example, both agree that both the Old
Testament Hebrew sheol and the New Testament Greek term Hades refer to the
common grave of mankind. Thus, they do not infer any concept of natural
immortality of the soul at physical death. Old Testament passages like
Ecclesiastes 3:19-21; 9:5, 6; 12:7; Job 14:10-12; Psalm 115:17; and others are
often quoted to buttress this position. New Testament passages such as Matthew
9:24; Mark 5:39; John 11:11-14; Acts 7:20; 1 Corinthians 15:51, 52; 1
Thessalonians 4:13-17; and 2 Peter 3:4, where dead people are referred to as
"sleeping" or "asleep", are also utilized as proof that the dead are now in a
sort of unconscious state of nonbeing. The term "sleep" (Greek: Koimao or
Katheudo) was a common biblical euphemism for death. Paul used it only in
reference to believers in Christ who had died.
We need to ask, however, do these passages actually prove unquestionably
what the Jehovah's Witnesses, SDAs, and others holding this position, assert?
Obviously, we do not have space here to exegete every passage above. However,
we can look carefully at a few Scriptures, particularly from the New Testament
and the words of Jesus, that may lead us to a different conclusion than that
Jehovah's Witnesses, SDAs, and others holding to "Soul Sleep" are basically
correct in saying that there is no dualism taught in the Bible between the
human soul and physical life. Certainly the Hebrew view is not that man "has a
soul," totally separate from his body, but that he "is a soul" which includes
his mortal body and immortal spirit. Several significant passages indicate that
a person has a conscious spiritual existence after death and prior to the
resurrection of the body.
For instance, in Matthew 22:31-32, Jesus, in response to a pointed question
about marriage, life after death, and the resurrection, quoted Exodus 3:6 and
then added His authoritative comment to it. "Have you not read that which was
spoken to you by God, saying 'I am the God of Abraham, and the God of Isaac,
and the God of Jacob'? He is not the God of the dead but of the living." Jesus'
words clearly imply that the Patriarchs Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob were even at
that point in Jesus' day still alive, in some way. Would he have made such an
assertion were they totally dead spiritually?
Likewise, in Luke 16:19-31 Jesus told the story of Lazarus and the rich man.
According to His story, the righteous poor Lazarus died and went immediately to
"Abraham's bosom," while the wicked rich man (unnamed) died and went to Hades.
In both cases, they were presented as conscious, aware, and communicative. Soul
Sleep advocates sometimes argue that the story was only a parable and not to be
understood literally. If that is so, then it would be the only parable Jesus
ever told that could not have been at least conceivably possible in real life.
Even Jesus' other parables were true to life, even if they were not actual
events. So, why in this case alone would the Lord use false information to
convey such a critical truth as that regarding the fate of the dead?
Another key event wherein Jesus' words contradict Soul Sleep is when He
spoke to the repentant thief on the cross (see Luke 23:39-43). Following the
thief's confession and appeal to Him for mercy, Jesus answered, "Truly I say to
you, today you will be with me in Paradise." This statement begs the question
of the Soul Sleep position. What did Jesus mean by "today you will be with me."
if the thief would have no conscious life when he died? Some have argued that
translators have misrepresented the passage by placing a comma between the word
"you" and "today." Their view is that since the original Greek text had no
punctuation it could just as well correctly be read, "Truly I say to you today,
you will be with me in Paradise" (a promise of the resurrection). This
interpretation seems unlikely, however. Jesus used the phrase "Truly I say to
you" many times as recorded in the Gospels as a validation of His divine
authority. In no instance did He ever attach to it any temporal conditionality
such as "today." Clearly the term "today" in the context was to be attached to
the promise--that day the thief would be with Jesus in Paradise.
One of the most dramatic events that weighs on this issue was that of Jesus'
transfiguration (see Matt. 17:1-8; Mark 9:2-8; Luke 9:28-36; and 2 Pet.
1:16-18). Peter, James, and John all personally heard the voice of God and
witnessed the visible appearance of Moses and Elijah talking with Jesus. The
obvious problem for Soul Sleep advocates is to explain how Moses, who had died
centuries before (see Deut. 34:5, 6), could suddenly appear and converse with
Jesus and Elijah (Elijah had not died but was taken to heaven in a fiery
chariot--see 2 Kings 2:11).
Perhaps Jesus' classic statement in this regard was when He received the
news of His friend Lazarus' death. Told by his sister Martha of her brother's
demise Jesus comforted and answered her by stating, "I am the resurrection and
the life; he who believes in Me shall live even if he dies."
The apostle Paul in his letters, likewise, presents evidence that there is
no cessation of conscious life at death, at least for the believer in
In 2 Corinthians 5:6-8 (NASB) Paul was contemplating death.
"Therefore, being always of good courage, and knowing that while
we are at home in the body we are absent from the Lord--for we
walk by faith, not by sight. We are of good courage, I say, and
prefer rather to be absent from the body and to be at home with the
Paul implies that if he died he would be separated from his
physical body for a time but, nonetheless, present with the Lord-that is Jesus
Christ-in some spiritual sense. Thus, for Paul, anticipating death held no
terror. This clearly contradicts the Soul Sleep perspective.
Later in the same epistle (see 2 Cor. 12:2-4) Paul described "a man" who,
fourteen years before his writing, had been caught up "to the third heaven" or
"Paradise." Most New Testament scholars believe he was talking about himself.
In any case, Paul twice stated, that he did not know if the man "had been taken
up in the body" or "out of the body." If no conscious existence apart from the
body can exist, then he would have to have been "in the body." But Paul said
only "God knows," implying at least the possibility of an immaterial conscious
state of life.
In a similar light, Paul mulled his possible martyrdom in Philippians
1:12-26. He evidently did not think that he was going to be killed at that
point since God still had much work for him to accomplish. Nevertheless, he
acknowledged that, even if he were to die, it would actually be to his
"For to me, to live is Christ, and to die is gain. But if I am to
live on in the flesh, this will mean fruitful labor for me; and I
do not know which to choose. But I am hard-pressed from
both directions, having the desire to depart and be with Christ,
for that is very much better; yet to remain on in the flesh is more
necessary for your sake" (Phil. 1:21-24, NASB)
Those advocating Soul Sleep are hard put to explain why Paul would make the
above statements if he did not believe he was going to be with Jesus
immediately upon his death, whenever and however it was to happen, but not in
Another of Paul's epistles also gives us some clue as to the fate of dead
believers. In 1 Thessalonians 4:13-18 Paul wrote about those who were "asleep"
or "the dead in Christ." Those were believers who died before the Lord's
return. He states that they would accompany the Lord at His return and be the
first to be resurrected from the dead. Those who advocate Soul Sleep would
likely say this fits their perspective well. However, in chapter five of the
same letter Paul, in speaking of the present state of both the living and dead,
in expectation of the Lord's future return says,
"For God has not destined us for wrath, but for obtaining salvation
through our Lord Jesus Christ, who died for us, that whether we
are [present tense] awake [alive] or asleep [dead], we may live
together with Him." (I Thess. 5:9-10, NASB).
Bible students may sincerely differ on some doctrinal issues. In the case of
"Soul Sleep" (or Conditional Immortality) it is our position that the doctrine
contradicts the balanced survey of New Testament teachings, and especially the
Words of Jesus. They teach that spiritual life, for believers in Christ,
continues after death in an intermediate state of conscious being until the
general resurrection of the dead at the return of Christ.
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