Soul Sleep

I am already late for the next session of teaching so I will make this short (though it did not turn out to be so). In fact, I have chosen to give you a brief synopsis of what Wayne Grudem shares in rebuttal to the idea of soul sleep on pages 819-821 of his Systematic Theology (which you should purchase, if for no other reason than the fact that we all need at least one huge book in our home that raises the perceptions of our intelligence, and we all need that!).

Soul sleep is the idea that when people die their soul (the “you”) enters into some sort of ethereal unconscious or barely conscious existence as it awaits resurrection. Support for this idea comes from the many references to the dead as those who sleep (Mt. 9:24, John 11:11, I Cor. 15:6, 1 Thess. 4:13) as well as the passages of Scripture that seem to teach the dead do not have a conscious existence (Psalm 6:5, 115:17, Eccl 9:10).

The problem with this interpretation of these passages and its resultant idea of soul sleep is that such interpretation denies the obvious. Referring to believers as those who have fallen asleep is a metaphor. It is a hopeful way of referring to the believer who has died. Death is not final, permanent, nor the end of existence. For the believer it is an awakening into something new. Notice the Bible never refers to the lost as sleeping. Furthermore Jesus had to clarify the metaphor when using it of Lazarus, ironically enough, because his apostles took it too literally on this side of the grave. “Now Jesus had spoken of his death, but they thought that he meant taking rest in sleep. Then Jesus told them plainly, ‘Lazarus is dead’” (John 11:12-13).

As for the Old Testament references that seem to indicate an unconscious existence for the dead the only way to derive this interpretation is to take them in isolation from the rest of Scripture. Grudem points out that Psalm 115:17 is often used in support of soul sleep:

The dead do not praise the LORD, nor do any who go down into silence.

But why stop there? Why not read the following verse as well?

But we will bless the LORD from this time forth and forevermore. Praise the LORD! (Psalm 117:18)

These passages do not point to unconsciousness in the grave but rather to a ceasing of activity on earth. The dead do not praise the Lord as they did on earth, but yet “we will bless the Lord from this time forth and forevermore”, on the other side of the grave.

If we take these passages to mean the soul sleeps we must also be able to reconcile some glaring contradictions with passages that plainly teach there is consciousness beyond the grave (2 Cor. 5:8, Phil. 1:23, Luke 23:43, Heb. 12:23). Furthermore the Bible says in 2 Kings 2:11 that God took Elijah in a whirlwind into heaven. The Bible does not say that God took Elijah and put him to bed.

The plain teaching of Scripture is that there will be a conscious, physical existence between death and the resurrection. People will be people in a place. For the saved there will be the experience of blessing. For the lost there will be the experience of torments. Today is the day of salvation. Receive the gift of eternal life in Jesus Christ (Rom. 5:8 and 6:23). Sleep no more.


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