Soul Sleep

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, man-the soul-dies.”

Further, in the same publication (p. 83) they assert:

“Therefore, God’s Word refers to the dead as being asleep. For 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 state:

“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 summarized above.

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 Christ.

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 Lord.”

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 advantage:

“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 the flesh.

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.


Published March 30, 2016