What happens after we die? Soul Sleep or not?

All, Islam, Buddhism, and Hinduism share the belief in the survival of the soul at the death of the body([7]). The Catholic Church teaches that all those who die in God’s grace and friendship undergo purification after death, in a place called Purgatory. They also believe that friends and family members can shorten the stay of their loved ones in Purgatory, by paying for Masses, prayers, buying indulgences, etc. The general beliefs of the Eastern Orthodox Churches is very close. Most conservative Protestants believe that there are only two possible destinations for the soul after death – the glory of Heaven or the flames of hell.

On the contrary, Adventists and others( e.g. Jehovah Witnesses) believe that death is the cessation of existence of the whole person, body and soul? They also think that the righteousness death people are going to be resurrected after the Second Coming of Jesus (e.g. Soul Sleep).

I have listed here the best arguments I have heard on both sides – supporting the Soul Sleep and against the Soul Sleep doctrine:

Arguments supporting Soul Sleep:

 

1. [The judgement in the last days must have purpose]

2Peter 2:9 “… the Lord knows how to rescue the godly from trials and to hold the unrighteous for punishment on the day of judgment …”

But this judgement is in the last days:

2Tim. 4:1 “… Jesus Christ, who will judge the living and the dead, and in view of his appearing and his kingdom …”

If everybody go immediately either to hell or heaven, then what’s the purpose of the judgement?

2. [Even Jesus described dead as sleep]

  • Our friend Lazarus sleepeth (John 11:11)
  • We shall not all sleep, but we shall all be changed ( 1Cor. 15:51)
  • But now is Christ risen from the death, and become the firstfruits of them that slept. …but every man in his own order: Christ the firstfruits; afterwards they that are Christ’s at his coming (1Cor. 15:20,23)
  • 1Tess. 4:13-17 and many other verses in the Psalms, the book of the Kings, etc.(more than 50 times in total)

3′. [ Luke 16 is NOT literal]

This is the most cited passage[see it here] in the whole Bible when the state of the dead people’s question is concerned. Many infer from it that all that die are either in hell or heaven now. However, as a parable/proverb, this text should not be interpreted literally. Below are some arguments in support of the non-literal interpretation :

  • How many people could lay in the Abraham’s side?? This symbol was used since the Greek thinking spread out among the Jews a few centuries before Jesus. The audience was able to understand this phrase.
  • Are you going to be happy in heaven if you are constantly seeing how your relatives are suffering in hell? (By the way, the punishments in hell won’t be eternal!, see [1])
  • How could Lazarus dip the tip of his finger in water and cool his tongue? Are we in physical bodies in hell/heaven?
  • The rich man saw Abraham far away with Lazarus in his side. The abyss is huge, but they can speak to each other. Isn’t this weird?

3”. [ Gregory Nyssa about Luke 16]

As mentioned, many people in the Protestant, Catholic and even Eastern Orthodox church interpret Luke 16 as a very strong argument that our souls go to hell/heaven immediately. However, Gregory Nyssa who is one of the greatest and most widely respected scholars of the Eastern Orthodox church disagree. Even-though, he defends the literal view on the text, he says(in [2]):

  • It is clear that all this will happen when we are resurrected. Just the soul cannot be judged, but only together with the body. Indeed, very often when the soul is in peace, the eye will look at something in the wrong way and will transfer this desire to the soul(through the brain).
  • As Ezekiel speaks in chapter 37( verses 1-12) – the dry bones transformed into a flesh. This will happens in the last days, too.
  • John 5:28,29 : “Do not be amazed at this, for a time is coming when all who are in their graves will hear his voice 29 and come out—those who have done what is good will rise to live, and those who have done what is evil will rise to be condemned.

Nevertheless, we can hardly observe any consistency in terms of exact opinions on doctrines among Eastern Orthodox scholars, so the fact that one such scholar has somewhat different opinion, should not have that much weight!

4. [Other  supporting verses]

Eccl. 9:5-6 “For the living know they shall die: but the dead know not any thing.”

Psalm 146:4 “His spirit departs, he returns to the earth; in that very day his thoughts perish.”

Psalm 115:17 “The dead do not praise the Lord, nor any who go down into silence”

Psalm 6:5 “For in death there is no remembrance of Thee; in the grave who shall give Thee thanks?”

Job 14:10-12 “But man dieth, and wasteth away: yea, man giveth up the ghost, and where is he? As the waters fail from the sea, and the flood decayeth and drieth up: So man lieth down, and riseth not till the heavens be no more, they shall not awake, nor be raised out of their sleep.”

5. [Thief on the cross]

A very important verse here and an object of many discussions is Luke 23:39-43, where
the thief on the cross next to Jesus said –  “Lord, remember me when You come into Your kingdom.” ..and Jesus said to him(according to most translations), “Assuredly, I say to you, today you will be with Me in paradise”. The same story can be found in Matthew 27:38 and Mark 15:27.

So it seems that apparently, they both will be in heaven the very same day! How Soul Sleep then?

The well-known argument here(of Adventists and others) is that the oldest existing manuscripts of the New Testament do not contain punctuation marks, so the punctuation might be different. What if the comma is after the word ‘today’, so that Jesus actually says “Assuredly, I say to you today, you will be with Me in paradise”..?

At first, this alternative phrasing looks weird.! Yet, If the comma is placed after the word today, it shows Jesus being emphatic on that day of his crucifixion, saying, today when I am dying on the cross with no apparent hope, I am promising that you will be with me in paradise eventually.

This is also consistent with the words of Jesus, when he meets Mary in the garden on the first day of the week and says, “Touch me not; for I am not yet ascended to my Father: but go to my brethren, and say unto them, I ascend unto my Father, and your Father; and to my God, and your God” (John 20:17). If the comma is inserted before the word today, Jesus would then be promising that the thief would be with Him that very day in paradise; thus making Jesus a liar.

Further very important supporting argument are the following other verses in Luke:

NIV Luke 5:26 Everyone was amazed and gave praise to God. They were filled with
awe and said, “We have seen remarkable things today.”

NIV Luke 12:28 If that is how God clothes the grass of the field, which is here
today, and tomorrow is thrown into the fire, how much more will he clothe you, O
you of little faith!

NIV Luke 13:32 He replied, “Go tell that fox,’I will drive out demons and heal
people today and tomorrow, and on the third day I will reach my goal.’

NIV Luke 13:33 In any case, I must keep going today and tomorrow and the next
day– for surely no prophet can die outside Jerusalem!

NIV Luke 19:5 When Jesus reached the spot, he looked up and said to him,
“Zacchaeus, come down immediately. I must stay at your house today.”

NIV Luke 22:34 Jesus answered, “I tell you, Peter, before the rooster crows
today, you will deny three times that you know me.”

NIV Luke 22:61 The Lord turned and looked straight at Peter. Then Peter
remembered the word the Lord had spoken to him: “Before the rooster crows today,
you will disown me three times.”

In all of them, the word today is used at the end of a clause or a sentence!

 


 

Arguments against Soul Sleep:

 

  1. [Thief on the cross]

First, there are several other places in Luke’s gospel, where Jesus have used  “Ἀμὴν λέγω ὑμῖν” (translated as “Truly I say to you”), but he didn’t add today at the end of any of them! Those places are: 4:24, 9:27, 12:37, 12:44, 18:17, 18:29, 21:3, and 21:43

It is true that the oldest existing manuscripts of the New Testament do not contain punctuation marks, and the alternative punctuation is theoretically possible.

However, since they were both dying, there is no other time Jesus could make this statement than that very day. Furthermore, his statement is in response to a specific request, “Lord, remember me when You come into Your kingdom.” Jesus told him He would enter God’s kingdom immediately, in response to the man.

Moreover, there is, in fact, one place in Luke (verse 19:9) where the word ‘today'(SHMERON) comes at the beginning of the sentence of clause:

NIV Luke 19:9 “Jesus said to him, “Today salvation has come to this house, because this man, too, is a son of Abraham.

2. [Jesus preached To Spirits]

Scripture says that Jesus preached to the spirits in prison.

For Christ also suffered once for sins, the just for the unjust, that He might bring us to God, being put to death in the flesh but made alive by the Spirit, by whom also He went and preached to the spirits in prison (1 Peter 3:18,19).


There is no purpose in guarding unconscious spirits in prison or preaching to them. The fact that they were under restraint shows them to be conscious.

3. [Moses And Elijah]

We also have the account of Moses and Elijah appearing at the transfiguration of Jesus (Matthew 17:1-8). The impression is that they are coming from a sphere of conscious life. There is no indication that they are awakening from some dreamless sleep or a similar state. However, they both come in bodies, which might be looked as another argument that a soul without a body cannot exist, i.e. an argument supporting the Soul Sleep view.

4. [Not Permitted To Talk]

Paul clearly said that he was not permitted to relate his experience of the time he was in the presence of God.

[Paul] was caught up into Paradise and heard things that are not to be told, that no mortal is permitted to repeat (2 Corinthians 12:4).

Then, we cannot know that Lazarus, for example, hasn’t seen anything while being dead. All we know is that such an experience was not recorded in the scripture. Maybe, Lazarus was also not permitted to talk..

5. [with the Lord, away from the body]

The Bible records shows that in the New Testament, all of God’s people who are in the state of death are away from the body and present with the Lord:

NIV 2Cor. 5:8
 We are confident, I say, and willing rather to be absent from the body, and to be present with the Lord.”

NIV Philippians 1:23-24
“..I desire to depart and be with Christ, which is better by far;
 24 but it is more necessary for you that I remain in the body”

If Paul was asleep at death, how could he say that to die, and to be with the Lord, was far better than being in this body?

NIV 2 Corinthians 12:2-3                                                                                                                      “I know a man in Christ who fourteen years ago was caught up to the third heaven. Whether it was in the body or out of the body I do not know—God knows.And I know that this man—whether in the body or apart from the body I do not know, but God knows.”


 

Conclusion:

The question is quite difficult, but my personal opinion is that the arguments supporting Soul Sleep have slightly bigger weight.

Especially, if we oppose supporting argument 5) and argument 1) against, the former is dominant since putting today at the end of a clause is a phrasal pattern that Jesus uses very often! The fact that he never uses today, with the words “Truly I say to you” is not that strong, for me.

In addition, the consistency of Soul Sleep with the verses in John 20:17( where Jesus is saying he has not ascended yet) and the numerous verses in the Old Testament calling the dead “sleep” are strong arguments all together. The opinion against the Soul Sleep is not that consistent with other Biblical passages, even though the epistles of Paul and the verses there seems to corroborate this ‘against version’. Yet, we also have New Testament verses(again from Paul) like:

NIV 1 Thessalonians 5:10
“Who died for us so that whether we are awake or asleep we might live with him.”

I think that this verse shows that one can be asleep, but live with Christ at some point, which supports the Soul Sleep doctrine!

 

References:

  1. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=8xTcDU-cMAg
  2. Gregory of Nyssa, Selected works (in Bulgarian), 2011
  3. Valentin Velchev, Short historical and Biblical analysis of Adventism (in Bulgarian), 2003
  4. Dechko Svilenov, Life after dearch (in Bulgarian), 2012
  5. http://www.whatchristianswanttoknow.com/what-is-the-doctrine-of-soul-sleep-is-it-biblical/
  6. Agop Tahmisian, Main Teachings of the Bible (in Bulgarian)
  7. Life after death, Samuele Bachiochi
  8. https://www.blueletterbible.org/faq/don_stewart/don_stewart_127.cfm
  9. https://christianity.stackexchange.com/questions/45084/what-are-the-biblical-arguments-against-soul-sleep
  10. https://hermeneutics.stackexchange.com/questions/897/comma-verily-i-say-unto-thee-today-or-verily-i-say-unto-thee-today

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