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Inspired by discussion from this question


The New Testament regularly refers to the dead as "asleep". This occurs several times in 1 Corinthians 15, such as:

20 But now is Christ risen from the dead, and become the firstfruits of them that slept.

Other examples of this usage of "sleep" or "asleep" (courtesy of this answer) include: John 11:11-12; Acts 7:60, 13:36; 1 Cor 7:39, 11:30, 15:6, 18, 51; 1 Thess. 4:13-15, 5:10; 2 Peter 3:4

Does "asleep" mean:

  • The dead are not conscious? OR
  • A euphemism for "dead", saying nothing at all about the conscious activity of those who have died?

Related questions:

Sleeping in the grave until Christ's second coming? (same basic question for Hebrew idiom that I'm asking about Greek)

1 Corinthians 15:6 - What does “Fallen Asleep” really mean? (discussed the idiom but not the implications for consciousness)

The dead forget OR the dead will be forgotten? Ecclesiastes 9:5 (discussion of one of the more commonly cited passages on the status of the dead)

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  • I am not sure that I can add anything to what I have already said to these questions. – Dottard May 2 at 9:01
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    My speculation is that when the spirit leaves a body, time stops with respect to that soul. This is scientifically possible under the laws of relativity. – Tony Chan May 2 at 13:52
  • @Tony Chan - Good answer -- you have hit on it! That is precisely what I'm trying to convey below, difficult though it may be. Thanks. – Xeno May 2 at 14:21
  • Unfortunately, this is difficult to prove from the Scriptures alone. – Tony Chan May 2 at 14:41
  • Great Q. I was pondering as to whether to try and give an A. albeit in the very early hours of the morning, but, after reading Xeno's answer, which although truly amazing, I realized that I would need to post one truly amazing, 'time' consuming, rebuttal. Here I am some 7 hours later and although wide awake, I have decided to just say the following: Ecc, 9:5 goes some way towards a rebuttal, but I will just take one of Xeno's verses, in particular 1 Cor 15:52, which talks about the 'Last Trumpet', an end time scenario, of change/transfiguration, for ALL the earth's dead, David included. – Olde English May 2 at 15:05
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At your suggestion here is a longer series of comments about what the Bible teaches about man during death.

  • Mortal man is just that, and the soul can die. Eze 18:4, 20, 24, Gen 6:3, 1 Tim 6:15, 16.
  • Man is unconscious in death. Eccl 9:5, 6, 10, Ps 6:5, Isa 38:18, Ps 88:10. Thus, the Bible very often calls death a “sleep”; Matt 9:24, Mark 5:39, Luke 8:52, John 11:11, 12, Acts 7:60, 13:36, 1 Cor 7:39, 11:30, 15:6, 18, 20, 51, 1 Thess 4:13-15, 5:10, 2 Peter 3:4, etc.
  • The soul can be destroyed. Matt 10:28, Eze 18:4, 20, 24, Mal 4:1, 3.
  • The soul cannot think after death. Ps 115:17, Job 14:2, 21, Ps 146:3, 4 “their thoughts perish, KJV).
  • Man becomes immortal at the resurrection, not before. 1 Cor 15:51 – 54.
  • Man only has the life given by Christ; man does not have life of himself. 1 John 5:11, 12, 1 Cor 15:21, 22, John 5:24, 25, 6:51, Luke 13:3, 2 Peter 2:12. Rom 2:7, 1 Cor 15:12-49. Man cannot have eternal life in hell! Rom 6:23.
  • Man waits in the grave until the resurrection. Acts 2:29, 31, 32, John 11:11 – 14.
  • The wicked will be ultimately completely destroyed and will perish, Ps 37:20, 92:7, Eze 18:20, Mal 4:1-3, Matt 10:28, Phil 3:19, 2 Thess 1:9, Heb 10:39, James 4:12, 2 Peter 2:6, 3:7.
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  • totally agree UV What I'd write only better! – user48152 May 2 at 22:44
  • Thank you for expanding upon your thoughts! – Hold To The Rod May 2 at 23:03
  • this is an excellent answer and a great resouce for a concise list of texts relating to the state of the dead. So simple its brilliant, thank you Dottard. +1 from me – Adam May 3 at 2:49
  • Great expansion! – Olde English May 3 at 3:35
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Since I was the one who (perhaps unwisely) reopened this topic it seems only fair that I should put my own views out for scrutiny as well.

This will not be a popular post. I do not claim that my interpretation is proved by the Bible (I’m actually wary of claims--on this topic--of Biblical proof); rather, I claim that it is consistent with the Bible.

Asleep

The Bible frequently refers to the dead as “asleep”. This is clearly metaphorical—even without the advent of modern medicine people realized that there was a difference between being asleep and being dead. This is demonstrated by Luke 8: 52-53:

52 And all wept, and bewailed her: but he said, Weep not; she is not dead, but sleepeth.

53 And they laughed him to scorn, knowing that she was dead.

Jesus is contrasting death and sleep rather than comparing them. But “asleep” is a useful metaphor for death and the resurrection—sleep isn’t permanent—you will wake up.

To take it one step further, though, and argue that therefore the dead have no consciousness is I believe unwarranted. Not only do those who are sleeping have continued cognitive activity (i.e. dreams), but there are numerous instances in the Bible where people experience visions—and they are conscious of the experience.

Paul provides a useful example:

I knew a man in Christ above fourteen years ago, (whether in the body, I cannot tell; or whether out of the body, I cannot tell: God knoweth;) such an one caught up to the third heaven. (2 Cor 12:2)

Paul is uncertain whether his body was left behind or not…but either way, Paul had no issue with the idea that someone could be conscious without a body.

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Spirit

The word commonly translated as “Spirit” in the New Testament is “pneuma” (and variations thereof) which literally means “breath” (see here).

This brings substantial light to the statement in 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 soul.

God supplied something—something which is rendered over and over again in the Bible as “spirit”—and that gave man life. Many have concluded that humans have a spirit and a body—that the spirit dwells in the body while the person is alive, and departs the body at death.

This would make for a very straightforward interpretation of these passages:

…Stephen, calling upon God, and saying, Lord Jesus, receive my spirit. (Acts 7:59)

And when Jesus had cried with a loud voice, he said, Father, into thy hands I commend my spirit: and having said thus, he gave up the ghost. (Luke 23:46)

They knew their body was dying but their concern was for their spirit - because they believed their spirit was going somewhere.

That “give up the ghost” is a euphemism (in English, not Greek) for death implies that this is a commonplace interpretation: something of a spiritual nature is leaving the body.

See also discussion of these ideas in Dave’s post here, and as Nihil Sine Deo has observed:

The body is a housing for the spirit. Jesus preexisted His birth in the human body, known as the incarnation.

That a spirit can do things without a body is substantiated by the pre-mortal activity of Christ:

Now I want to remind you, although you once fully knew it, that Jesus, who saved a people out of the land of Egypt, afterward destroyed those who did not believe. ‭‭Jude‬ ‭1:5‬ ‭

Jesus said to them, “Truly, truly, I say to you, before Abraham was, I am.” ‭‭John‬ ‭8:58‬

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The apostles believed a spirit could do things after death

The fact that the disciples in Luke 24 had to be told that Jesus was not a ghost/spirit presupposes the existence of the spirit—and that the spirit does not become dormant at death:

But they were terrified and affrighted, and supposed that they had seen a spirit. (Luke 24:37)

Jesus then confirms that spirits are a real thing:

Behold my hands and my feet, that it is I myself: handle me, and see; for a spirit hath not flesh and bones, as ye see me have. (Luke 24:39)

And the word used in verse 39 for spirit is none other than “pneuma”.

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The dead are conscious

Passages like the below have had people doing theological somersaults for centuries, but that’s a matter for SE-Christianity. The Bible does speak of conscious activity by the dead. It may not be clear where they are, but it is clear that they are portrayed as conscious agents.

Multiple passages speak of the message of Jesus being taught to the dead.

1 Peter 3: 18-20:

18 For Christ also hath once suffered for sins, the just for the unjust, that he might bring us to God, being put to death in the flesh, but quickened by the Spirit:

19 By which also he went and preached unto the spirits in prison;

20 Which sometime were disobedient, when once the longsuffering of God waited in the days of Noah, while the ark was a preparing, wherein few, that is, eight souls were saved by water.

1 Peter 4:6:

For for this cause was the gospel preached also to them that are dead, that they might be judged according to men in the flesh, but live according to God in the spirit.

Some understand Isaiah 9:2 to be teaching the same principle.

Note that these passages are not only indicating that the dead are conscious in that they are being taught, but they also speak of conscious activity by Jesus between His death and resurrection. They are spirits, and they are not dormant.

These passages are also interesting because they speak of both the righteous and the wicked.

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In Revelation 6:9-11, the dead here are speaking, being spoken to, and are being given robes. This suggests that not only are they conscious, but their disembodied spirits have substance. My thoughts on that passage are given in a separate post.

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The Thief in paradise:

And Jesus said unto him, Verily I say unto thee, To day shalt thou be with me in paradise. (Luke 23:43)

This passage has also been rendered as “in the world of spirits”. Today? Neither the resurrection of Jesus nor the thief took place that day; suggesting Jesus was describing something other than post-resurrection--Peter offered some insight (see above).

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Sheol

It is relevant to consider the views held by the Jews at the time. I’ll offer in this section not a 21st century interpretation, but an attempt at a 1st century understanding.

Soldarnal offers an excellent description of Sheol here and a very insightful Jewish perspective is provided by Daniel Danjan Chaud here.

To the people who wrote the New Testament, Sheol (Hades in Greek) is where the spirit/pneuma went at death.

JewishEncyclopedia provides the following helpful statements on Sheol:

It connotes the place where those that had died were believed to be congregated

[Sheol] seems to have been viewed as divided into compartments...one beneath the other Here the dead meet.

In the compartments of Sheol, one is often presented as a place of rest for the righteous, and one a place of anguish for the wicked.

Ecclesiastes 12:7:

Then shall the dust return to the earth as it was: and the spirit shall return unto God who gave it.

This indicates:

  • The physical "dust" or "clay" is no longer animated and goes into the earth. (The flesh rotted and the bones generally were carefully preserved).
  • The spiritual goes to Sheol.

As noted in Ezekiel 37:

5 Thus saith the Lord God unto these bones; Behold, I will cause breath to enter into you, and ye shall live:

6 And I will lay sinews upon you, and will bring up flesh upon you, and cover you with skin, and put breath in you, and ye shall live; and ye shall know that I am the Lord.

These elements will return together in the resurrection (Note that this view was held by the Pharisees but not the Sadduccees in the 1st century. Also note that the word for "breath" and "spirit" are the same in Hebrew as in Greek).

Hippolytus' discourse to the Greeks concerning Hades (often incorrectly attributed to Josephus) is another useful reference--it provides quite the description of Hades ("Hades" is used in the LXX for "Sheol"), and is unambiguous in claiming that the dead were conscious (see here). This isn't a 1st century Jewish source but a very early Christian treatise saturated with Jewish concepts.

This means that to those who believed in resurrection Sheol was a place of temporary residence; and it was not a realm ruled by men but a realm of God.

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Hell

Sheol/Hades is a pre-resurrection abode, and should not be confused with the destination of the wicked after judgement. Though Sheol/Hades are sometimes translated "hell", this can be unhelpful if it leads to confusion with different concepts (see below) that are also translated as hell.

Gehenna & Outer Darkness are sometimes described as "the final hell" or the hell after judgement.

From W. Edward Bedore:

The Lake of Fire, or Hell, is a literal place of everlasting fire that was originally created by God as a place of punishment for Satan and the angels that followed him in his rebellion against God (Mat. 25:41)...it is referred to as the place of “outer darkness” (Mat. 8:12; 25:30)

...

Gehenna, or the Lake of Fire, might be referred to as the future, or final, Hell because it is where all of the wicked from all ages will finally end up. Satan, the fallen angels, and all of the lost of mankind will reside in torment there forever and ever (see here).

Gehenna, in addition to being a physical place, was used to refer to a place of fiery punishment...somewhat comparable to modern notions of hell.

Note that there are a variety of interpretations about the length of one's stay in Gehenna--many Jews see it as something of a purgatory. See discussion on SE-Judaism here and here

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Death as separation

In the Bible death describes separation--physical death as separation of body and spirit and spiritual death as separation from God.

Physical life--body & spirit joining together:

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 soul. (Genesis 2:7)

Physical death--separation of body & spirit:

Then shall the dust return to the earth as it was: and the spirit shall return unto God who gave it. (Ecclesiastes 12:7)

Spiritual death is described in Isaiah 59:2:

But your iniquities have separated between you and your God, and your sins have hid his face from you, that he will not hear.

This is why Paul (Colossians 2:13) and the father of the prodigal son (Luke 15:24) can describe people who are decidedly alive as dead -- death is a separation.

See further discussion of death & separation on this site by Dave here & on bible.org here

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Putting the pieces together

In the parable of the rich man and Lazarus (Luke 16:19-31), the rich man is in Hades, not Gehenna or outer darkness. They're both in Sheol (different "compartments" thereof?), and final judgement has not yet occurred. And the rich man is conscious.

I propose that unconsciousness between death and the resurrection is not consistent with the beliefs of Jesus' time. Rather, the spirits of the dead would go to Sheol (often depicted in different levels), and would there be conscious and associate with other spirits.

At the time of the resurrection Sheol would deliver up the dead to appear before God to be judged. This is described in Revelation 20:12-13:

12 And I saw the dead, small and great, stand before God; and the books were opened: and another book was opened, which is the book of life: and the dead were judged out of those things which were written in the books, according to their works.

13 And the sea gave up the dead which were in it; and death and hell delivered up the dead which were in them: and they were judged every man according to their works.

[note that the word "hell" here is ᾍδης (“hades”), not Gehenna or σκότος τὸ ἐξώτερον("outer darkness")]

After judgement there is a place sometimes referred to as Outer Darkness, which is what is described in Revelation 20:14-15:

14 And death and hell were cast into the lake of fire. This is the second death.

15 And whosoever was not found written in the book of life was cast into the lake of fire.

I understand that some find this idea theologically uncomfortable.

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Conclusion

"Hell" is sometimes used in English to refer to Sheol and sometimes used to refer to Outer Darkness, but this is not the message conveyed by the Biblical text--these are distinct states/places.

I conclude that "asleep" in 1 Cor. 15 (and comparable passages) is a metaphor for death, but a metaphor that should not be taken literally. I suggest the Bible supports the view that the dead--though lacking a physical body--are conscious between the time of death and the resurrection.

I recognize this is an unpopular view; my principal interest is not to discover what is popular but what is true. If you've read this far, thanks for taking a look at my efforts to describe where my search for truth has led me.


Appendix - thoughts on a variety of competing interpretations

I'll offer a non-soul sleep perspective to passages cited in other answers and in the comments.

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Ecclesiastes 9:5

Others have warned against proof-text theologies--this passage (in my view) has been the most popular proof text for the view that the dead are not conscious:

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.

I suggest that "the dead forget" is not conveyed by the text, but rather, "the dead will be forgotten". In a separate question I raised several reasons why this interpretation should be preferred.

What about the dead not knowing any thing?

A very deep dive on the Hebrew grammar & the context of the passage is presented by ScottS here and determines:

  • "Verse 10 helps understand v.5b. The focus is not necessarily knowledge ceasing to exist for those being dead, but rather that there is no more partaking in the things of life—no more knowledge being gained of what is occurring in life."
  • "So context favors either...Hope of knowing those living...[or] Hope of knowing anything about life's occurrences"
  • Applying this to the parable of the rich man and Lazarus: "The rich man is not noted to have any awareness of what is currently happening among the living. He is only aware of the past and his present state among the dead."

Ecclesiastes 9:5 is not a promising proof text

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Man is unconscious in death

(Ps 6:5, Isa 38:18, Ps 88:10)

Ps 6:5 - The Psalm speaks of Sheol, discussed above.

Gill's commentary on this verse:

For in death there is no remembrance of thee,.... Of the goodness, truth, power, and faithfulness of God; no notice can be taken nor mention, made either of the perfections or works of God, whether of nature or of grace, by a dead man to others; he is wholly useless to men on earth with respect to these things; in the grave who shall give thee thanks? for mercies temporal or spiritual; the dead cannot praise the Lord among men, only the living; see Psalm 30:9; wherefore the psalmist desires that he might live and praise the Lord: this argument is taken from the glory of God, which end cannot be answered among men by death, as by life. It does not follow from hence that the soul either dies or sleeps with the body, and is inactive until the resurrection morn, neither of which are true; or that the souls of departed saints are unemployed in heaven; they are always before the throne, and serve the Lord day and night; they remember, with the utmost gratitude and thankfulness, all the goodness and grace of God unto them, and praise him for all his wondrous works: but the sense is, that when a saint is dead, he can no more serve and glorify God on earth among men.

See also Revelation Lad's comments here

Ps 88:10 - this says nothing about consciousness or unconsciousness of the dead, but does perhaps suggest the futility of procrastinating turning to the Lord. It asks a question which is graciously answered elsewhere--yes indeed the dead will rise.

Isa 38:18 - this describes an absence of hope & joy, not an absence of consciousness

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Jairus' daughter

As discussed previously, far from proving that the dead are unconscious, it shows Jesus making a distinction between sleep and death. If the culture of the time understood "asleep" to mean "dead and unconscious", those present wouldn't have laughed at Jesus.

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Spirits will perish

Ezekiel 18:4, 20, 24 -- As Dave has pointed out on this site many times, Biblically "death" means separation. What Ezekiel refers to is not physical death (separation of body & spirit), but rather separation from God. This death entered the world as a result of the Fall of Adam & Eve; redemption from this death is brought about by the resurrection which brings people to the presence of God to be judged.

This is spoken of in Revelation 20:12-13, after which follows:

14 And death and hell were cast into the lake of fire. This is the second death.

15 And whosoever was not found written in the book of life was cast into the lake of fire.

For these individuals, separation from God is now permanent. A spirit dies by being separated from God; consciousness never enters the consciousness of these verses (sorry, pun intended).

Gen. 6:3 goes no farther than Ezekiel does. 1 Tim. 6:15-16 says nothing about the status of the dead, but does indicate that overcoming the separation we call death comes only through Christ.

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Thoughts perish

(Ps 115:17, Job 14:2, 21, Ps 146:3, 4)

Dorotheus of Gaza explained this well:

As the Fathers tell us, the souls of the dead remember everything that happened here - thoughts, words, desires - and nothing can be forgotten. But, as it says in the Psalm, In that day all their thoughts shall be brought to nothing. The thoughts he speaks of are those of the world, about houses and possessions, parents and children, and business transactions. All these things are destroyed immediately when the soul passes out of the body, none of this is remembered or considered. But what he did against virtue or against his evil passions, he remembers, and nothing of this is lost. (see here p. 285)

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Metaphor of sleep

See discussion at the beginning of this post.

John 11:11-14, Acts 7:60, 13:36, 1 Cor 7:39, 11:30, 15:6, 18, 20, 51, 1 Thess 4:13-15, 5:10, 2 Peter 3:4 use this metaphor, and certainly show that the metaphor was widespread. Taking the metaphor literally would not prove unconsciousness after death, as those who are sleep are still conscious (e.g. dreams). As argued above, the metaphor should not be taken literally.

Note also that in John 11:11-14 the audience sees a clear distinction between sleep and death and is therefore confused by the metaphor, further substantiating the view that in Jewish culture the metaphor was not intended literally.

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Overcoming the grave

(Acts 2:31, 1 Cor 15:51-54)

Acts 2:31 does not conflate but rather distinguishes between the soul in Sheol and the body in the grave.

See discussion on the distinction between Sheol and Qever discussed on this site here.

1 Corinthians 15:51-54 speaks of overcoming physical death: "this mortal must put on immortality." It takes the sleep metaphor no further than do passages already considered.

With death recognized as separation, it is true that the resurrection overcomes both physical & spiritual death:

  • Body & spirit are reunited (overcoming physical death) and

  • Man is brought back into the presence of God (to be judged--see Rev 20:12) (overcoming spiritual death).

It is not the spirit but the body that molders in the grave; this says nothing to contradict the Jewish belief that the spirit goes to Sheol.

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Man only has the life given by Christ; man does not have life of himself

(1 John 5:11, 12, 1 Cor 15:21, 22, John 5:24, 25, 6:51, Luke 13:3, 2 Peter 2:12. Rom 2:7, 1 Cor 15:12-49, Rom 6:23)

As these passages state, eternal life is indeed given by Christ.

It is important to distinguish between immortality and eternal life (another unpopular comment of mine, I'm sure =) ). Immortality means living forever. Romans 2:7 itself distinguishes between immortality and eternal life. Paul speaks of different glories (1 Cor. 15:39-42).

Resurrection into an immortal body is promised to all:

For as in Adam all die, even so in Christ shall all be made alive. (1 Cor 15:22)

The last enemy that shall be destroyed is death. (1 Cor 15:26)

51 Behold, I shew you a mystery; We shall not all sleep, but we shall all be changed,

52 In a moment, in the twinkling of an eye, at the last trump: for the trumpet shall sound, and the dead shall be raised incorruptible, and we shall be changed.

53 For this corruptible must put on incorruption, and this mortal must put on immortality.

54 So when this corruptible shall have put on incorruption, and this mortal shall have put on immortality, then shall be brought to pass the saying that is written, Death is swallowed up in victory. (1 Cor 15:51-54)

Eternal life, on the other hand, is promised only to the faithful.

Both immortality and eternal life come through Christ. For a deeper discussion on "what is eternal life?" my thoughts here.

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Destruction of the soul

(Matt 10:28, Eze 18:4, 20, 24, Mal 4:1, 3)

If spiritual death is separation from God, then the death or destruction of the soul is eternal separation from God.

(Note that the Malachi reference has also been taken to be a threat of impending physical destruction--the earth receiving a physical baptism by fire, following its physical baptism by water)

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The wicked ultimately will be completely destroyed

(Ps 37:20, 92:7, Eze 18:20, Mal 4:1-3, Matt 10:28, Phil 3:19, 2 Thess 1:9, Heb 10:39, James 4:12, 2 Peter 2:6, 3:7)

The fate of the wicked after resurrection & judgement is not the focus of this question, nor does it provide an answer to the state of the dead prior to the resurrection.

I'll offer just a few comments for what they are worth. The idea of a person's complete destruction is known as annihilationism; The earliest clear source for annihilationism would be Arnobius of Sicca in the 4th century; the idea is discussed in detail by Talbot here. Talbot points out that Arnobius' ideas were repeatedly opposed by his contemporaries and later generations.

Fire is a powerful metaphor often descriptive of death, devastation, and destruction. The Bible records & predicts instances of physical destruction of fire, and uses fire to describe the punishment of the wicked.

Note that Matt. 10:28 equates "destroying the soul" with "going to hell". As discussed previously, Biblically death is separation--in this case, separation from God. This is the fate described as the second death (second separation) in Revelation 20:14.

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  • There are so many presumptions here but I'll suggest this one is taken well beyond its textual meaning - regarding Jesus preaching to the dead - pls see hermeneutics.stackexchange.com/questions/413/… – user48152 May 6 at 4:44
  • Fire isn't only about death or destruction, it also represents cleansing, refining, purifying – user48152 May 6 at 5:13
  • @user48152 thank you for taking the time to read my thoughts. Understandably a topic where we have a wide variety of opinions on the site. I modified my last comments about fire; you make an excellent point about varying uses of fire in metaphor. – Hold To The Rod May 6 at 5:31
  • Wow!!! A very lengthy and prodigious answer, to say the least, but then again I've been guilty of same myself. I had to reacquaint myself with Mormonism in order to at least comment. Your views, however, not to mention LDS views, regarding the spirit/soul in particular, are somewhat different to mine, myself having been influenced more by the JW's views of same, which put's me in a quandary as to how to acknowledge this, yet, very fine expose. Nevertheless, I feel compelled to vote up + 1, particularly when considering your kindness towards me, on my return to this site. – Olde English May 6 at 17:22
  • @OldeEnglish thanks for the kind words. This site has certainly been for me an interesting study in not only the perspectives of different faiths, but the way scripture is read through the lenses of those perspectives. Glad to have you back on the site! – Hold To The Rod May 7 at 2:04
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Does the Soul Sleep?

I hope you'll bear with me because this gets complicated (that is why I have included illustrations, etc.).

I would suggest there is no such thing as "soul sleep," and for very good reasons. As D. Edmond Hiebert observed:

“[T]he figure of death as sleep cannot be pressed to establish the teaching that in the intermediate state the soul is in unconscious repose (soul sleep)... the body only is thought of as being asleep, no longer in communication with its earthly environment. As sleep has its awakening, so the body of the believer will have its awakening. The theory of soul sleep is inconsistent with Paul’s assertion in [1 Thess.] 5:10 that God’s purpose for us is whether we live or die [physically] we should live together with Christ.

At death the believer’s ‘earthly house of our tabernacle’ is dissolved (2 Cor. 5:1) and returns to the dust, but the spiritual part of man, [his] self-conscious personality, departs ‘to be with the Lord’ (2 Cor. 5:8). Since to depart from the world in death to ‘be with Christ’ is described by Paul as ‘very far better’ (Phil. 1:23) than the present state of blessed communion with the Lord and happy activity in His service, it is evident that ‘sleep’ as applied to believers cannot be intended to teach that the soul is unconscious.”

The reason why the living will be changed is that:

1 Corinthians 15:50: “[Flesh] and blood cannot inherit the kingdom of God; nor does the perishable inherit the imperishable.”

Our bodies are corruptible, that is, subject to disease, decay, degeneracy, and death, but the spiritual body will be incorruptible, just like our spirit is incorruptible and immortal.

What Happens at Death to Each Saint

What we generally fail to appreciate, are the words of Paul in his First Letter to the Corinthians:

1 Corinthians 15:51-52: "Behold, I tell you a mystery; we will not all sleep, but we will all be changed, in a moment, in the twinkling of an eye, at the last trumpet; for the trumpet will sound, and the dead will be raised imperishable, and we will be changed" (emphasis added).

What did Paul just say? He said we will all be changed in the twinkling of an eye. Would Paul be allowed to write this if it were not true? And, what of "the last trumpet" (15:51), what is that precisely? I submit that Paul is speaking about the moment of our respective deaths as our "last trumpet," one that sounds upon our last breath as we enter into the Presence of God.

So, will we really lie in some tomb (tasting death) contrary to the words of Christ, as generally accepted by so many?:

John 8:51: “Truly, truly, I say to you, if anyone keeps My word he will never see death.”

Or this?:

John 11:26: [Everyone] who lives and believes in Me will never die."

How is lying in a tomb not "tasting death?" Further, are we to exist as intangible, ethereal, bodiless forms (in a sense dead, for all practical purposes) for thousands of years in the timelessness of the afterlife? How is that existence in any meaningful way? It sounds very much like divine punishment.

Are we to accept that, after we have “run the race,” God will subject us to further trials in such a dreadful state? (And, this does not even attempt to address how time elapses in timelessness.) That is hardly what Paul appears to relate in the next passage. Here, let us not miss the fact that Paul was addressing the fear, by some, that those who had already died may have been lost. He, therefore, insists otherwise:

1 Thessalonians 4:15-17: For this we say to you by the word of the Lord, that we who are alive and remain until the coming of the Lord [Paul and his fellow saints who were still alive] , will not precede those who have fallen asleep [their loved ones that had already departed]. For the Lord Himself will descend from heaven with a shout, with the voice of the archangel and with the trumpet of God, and the dead in Christ [the saints already gone] will rise first. Then we who are alive and remain [again, Paul and the Thessalonians still alive] will be caught up together with them in the clouds to meet the Lord in the air, and so we [all the saved] shall always be with the Lord.

(Below, I have depicted how this works for all the saved indistinguishably from one another.)

Suppose that the last day of history is December 31, 3000. Since we will physically perish before then, how can we witness Christ’s return? Why are we told (almost 300 times) to be prepared for an event that has apparently never occurred to countless multitudes that have already died in Christ (Jas. 5:7-8, Heb. 10:25, 1 Cor. 1:7, 2 Pet. 3:9, Matt. 24:42, Phi. 3:20, etc.)? If we will somehow exist as bodiless, ethereal, semi-triumphant ghosts in heaven, how then does Christ “return” to those with whom He is already present (2 Cor. 5:8)? And, would such an intangible existence not parallel the dreadful circumstances of demons, unclean spirits forever in search of a body (Matt. 12:43, Lk. 11:24)?

What I am trying to convey here is a transcendence, a simultaneity of transformation “in the twinkling of an eye” from the carnal, physical life we live on earth to the spiritual life we will live in paradise in a single, timeless instant at death. We believe that Christ will return to earth, but that is a mistake. Rather, we will step into His Presence "in the clouds," just as it is written (1 Thess. 4:17). This is the moment our spirit vacates our physical body -- to be instantly clothed with immortality, exactly as Paul emphasizes in 1 Corinthians 15:

1 Corinthians 15:53: "For this perishable must put on the imperishable, and this mortal must put on immortality" (emphasis added).

No one knows what we will be like (1 Jn. 3:2), but when we see Christ (upon physical death) we will be like Him (1 Jn. 3:2) the glorified God/Man (Matt. 17:2, Mk. 9:2, Rev. 1:13-15).

Scripture tells us that our lives in the eternal realm will be one of absolute perfection. How could it be anything less? I do not view the trillions (yes, trillions) of bacterial cells on our human bodies as perfection. I also do not see a resurrection of my current flesh and blood as “glorified” or “perfected” or as “things which eye has not seen nor ear heard.” It seems beyond imagination that there will be toilets in heaven. Heaven will contain nothing of the disgusting filth, sin, and other maladies that plague us in this world. It will be inconceivably better:

1 Corinthians 2:9: [But] just as it is written, "THINGS WHICH EYE HAS NOT SEEN AND EAR HAS NOT HEARD, AND which HAVE NOT ENTERED THE HEART OF MAN, ALL THAT GOD HAS PREPARED FOR THOSE WHO LOVE HIM" (cf. Isa. 64:4).

Where there is no time (eternity is timeless) we don’t wait for anything. It is essentially instantaneous, thus the expression “in the twinkling of an eye.” Think about what Peter writes (in reference to Psalm 90):

2 Peter 3:8: “But do not let this one fact escape your notice, beloved, that with the Lord one day is like a thousand years, and a thousand years like one day” (cf. Psa. 90:4).

Peter is attempting to describe an eternal state where time as we understand it does not elapse at all. I have mentioned this elsewhere before. For the sake of argument, let’s assume that 1 day in heaven exactly is equal to 1,000 years based precisely on Peter’s words. If that were literally true, then the following must also be true:

     1 heavenly minute = 2/3  Earth years;    1 heavenly hour = 42 Earth years; 
     1 heavenly day    = 1,000 Earth years;   1 heavenly week = 7,000 Earth years.

In this hypothetical scenario, while those who died almost 50 years ago “wait,” only 1 hour has elapsed in heaven. Abraham, who died roughly 4,000 years ago will have experienced 3 or 4 days in heaven. But, we know that 1,000 years is merely symbolic of timelessness – the absence of time. Therefore, the amount of “time” that anyone has been in the Presence of God is merely an instant. The moment that anyone reaches their final destination in eternity (from their perspective) is the very same moment that everyone else arrives because time as we understand it no longer exists, no longer elapses.

I will be the first to admit that this is not an easy subject. It is incredibly difficult for me to convey to others because we all all formed our own presuppositions that are very difficult to overcome. But I will again attempt to illustrate the concepts we are told in Scripture using three diagrams to progressively reveal everything:

enter image description here

When Adam’s life came to an end, he stepped into timelessness where all of the centuries between his death and the Lord’s return (dotted line) do not exist to him (Adam). Upon his demise, he passes immediately to the end of time. (Note: not precisely to scale.)

enter image description here

We move forward to the present, where we encounter timelessness just as all others have before us. It’s crucial to recognize that an earthly passage of time ceases to exist for us as we arrive in the eternal domain (dotted line) to meet our Lord. The image below displays this idea from a more 3D view:

enter image description here

This concept is somewhat analogous to general relativity, where time is relative. We cannot understand an eternal realm because we live in a finite one. God does not exist this way: He has existed forever – NOT to be confused with “a long time.” His Presence is an eternal now; He is the great “I AM,” not the “I was” or “I will be.”

Christ's Return

There are subtleties from numerous passages in the New Testament regarding the Lord’s final return. Specifically, we are cautioned with respect to preparation for the Second Coming “as a thief in the night.” Here are just four examples:

Mark 13:32, 35-37: “But of that day or hour no one knows, not even the angels in heaven, nor the Son, but the Father alone... Therefore, be on the alert ‒ for you do not know when the master of the house is coming, whether in the evening, at midnight, or when the rooster crows, or in the morning ‒ in case he should come suddenly and find you asleep. ... Be on the alert!”

Luke 12:39: “But know this, that if the master of the house had known what hour the thief would come, he would have watched and not allowed his house to be broken into.”

1 Thessalonians 5:2: “For you yourselves know perfectly that the day of the Lord so comes as a thief in the night.”

2 Peter 3:10: “But the day of the Lord will come as a thief in the night, in which the heavens will pass away with a great noise, and the elements will melt with fervent heat; both the earth and the works that are in it will be burned up.”

Christ's return is the single greatest theme in the New Testament. Scripture nowhere tells us that our death and the Lord’s return are synonymous. However, many passages unquestionably infer this to be the case, and it is implausible to simply deny them.

Some Passages of the Lord's Return

The following passages speak to this event either directly, or indirectly. They include but are not limited to these:

Approximately 150 Passages That Speak of Christ’s Return
1 Corinthians 1:7-8     1 Timothy 6:14        John 6:50-71      Matthew 24:14
1 Corinthians 4:5       2 Corinthians 5:8     John 14:1-3       Matthew 24:27
1 Corinthians 11:26     2 Corinthians 5:10    Jude 1:14         Matthew 24:30-31, 33
1 Corinthians 15:23     2 Peter 1:16          Jude 1:21         Matthew 24:36-40
1 Corinthians 15:52     2 Peter 3:4,10,12,14  Luke 9:26         Matthew 24:42-44, 50
1 John 2:28             2 Thessalonians 1:7   Luke 12:40        Matthew 25:13, 31
1 John 3:2              2 Thessalonians 2:1   Luke 17:26;18:8   Matthew 26:64
1 Peter 1:7             2 Thessalonians 2:8   Luke 21:27-28     Philippians 1:23
1 Peter 1:13            2 Timothy 4:1-2       Luke 21:34-36     Philippians 3:20-21
1 Peter 4:13            2 Timothy 4:8         Luke 23:43        Philippians 4:5
1 Peter 5:4             Acts 1:7, 9-11        Mark 8:38         Revelation 1:7-8
1 Thessalonians 1:10    Acts 17:31            Mark 9:1          Revelation 3:3, 10-11
1 Thessalonians 2:19    Colossians 3:4        Mark 13:26        Revelation 16:15
1 Thessalonians 3:13    Hebrews 9:28          Mark 13:32-35     Revelation 22:12
1 Thessalonians 4:14-17 Hebrews 10:25,37      Mark 14:62        Revelation 22:20
1 Thessalonians 5:2-3   James 5:7-9           Matthew 7:21-23   Romans 2:5-16
1 Thessalonians 5:23    John 5:25; 6:39-40    Matthew 16:27-28  Titus 2:13

When all of the analogies and parables are taken into consideration, the total number of passages grows considerably. How, then does it make any sense that there is only one select generation of people on Earth that will be fortunate enough to witness the greatest event in the history of the world? Would God offer such preferential treatment to such an advantaged few over the rest of all humanity? NO.

Ask yourself what event occurs in everyone's lives unexpectedly, you might say, "As a thief in the night"? Even those hospitalized for months or years are not generally aware that today will be that day. Fatal accidents occur without warning. But, again, NO, the spirit is not asleep upon physical death -- it is perfectly conscious and alive!

Once you understand the concepts I have communicated, you will begin to realize that the time of Christ's arrival is irrelevant. Everyone will see him identically the same because we step into His Presence, not the other way around (read Acts 1:11, 1 Thess. 4:16-17).

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  • You say the spirit does not sleep, but not what it is doing. Also, we are then born again at the resurrection, is that correct in your view of the text? – user48152 May 2 at 5:20
  • Or is the death Jesus spoke of , the eternal life/death that is on offer - NOT the temporary death of the flesh? John 11:26 – user48152 May 2 at 5:25
  • @user48152 Sorry, I was brushing things up. Yes, only the body sleeps. And Yes again, we are born at the resurrection, my only point is that the resurrection doesn't take any time when we enter the Presence of God. As for your last question, again Yes, we will experience life (as saints) or we will experience eternal damnation (as the lost). I hope this properly answers your questions. (I may have accidentally missed something.) – Xeno May 2 at 5:43
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    That is one of the most complex answers to a simple question I have seen - the truth appears very muddy here. – Dottard May 2 at 8:55
  • Let us continue this discussion in chat. – Xeno May 3 at 8:27

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