The question of what happens after we die is a vital one for all people, since we will all die. It is a question I often receive when someone has a loved one who is about to die, and when that person has no known faith it is a very sobering question. But even for Christians there are questions.
In our extended family, it is very real and personal right now, because my dear father-in-law, Harold, breathed his last on this earth last week. We will be laying his body in a grave next week in Montana. And it is very important for us to know, where, exactly, is he? Not just the body, but the spirit that animated his body and was “him” for the 86 years people knew him here on earth. Is he still in that body somehow, asleep?
You may think that’s a strange idea, but if you were Seventh Day Adventist, you would believe this teaching, called “soul sleep.” And since I have lived and served in two communities where Adventist-related health systems ran hospitals and schools, it is a question I’ve heard numerous times that came as those institutions reflected their founders’ Adventist faith and teaching. In such situations, and frankly in any context, we shouldn’t be surprised that some of our neighbors and co-workers might hold such an idea.
The view is based on a straightforward acceptance of the passages in the Bible that speak of death as sleep, especially for believers. In the OT, kings who died were said to have “slept with their fathers.” Jesus said Lazarus was “asleep” when he was actually dead in John 11. In Acts 7:60, Stephen’s death is referred to as falling asleep. And Paul often refers to death as sleep – see examples in 1 Corinthians 11:30 (the Greek text says “sleep,” although many modern language versions say “have died”), 15:51; 1 Thessalonians 4:13.
Is this correct? Have we misunderstood the Bible?
I don’t think so, but before I go further, let me remind us all that while this is an issue of right interpretation, it is not an issue that would keep someone from Heaven. In short, while I believe that “soul sleep” is an incorrect understanding, it is not heresy that denies essential truth of our faith. Such believers may be wrong, but are not heretics.
Adventists teach that Christ is currently evaluating all people, from Adam onward, determining who will be raised to the resurrection of life, and who will not. Final judgment is completely future–awaiting Christ’s return after he finishes this evaluative judgment in heaven. Therefore, they teach that no one can be in the presence of Christ yet, because that will only be revealed in the last day.
Here is how I would answer this teaching – knowing that more could be said, but this should suffice.
1. The Bible in many places speaks of death as a time of transition from one state of conscious existence to another–for example, the story of the rich man and Lazarus in Luke 16 has 2 men dying and becoming aware afterwards–Lazarus in “the bosom of Abraham” (the name given by Jewish people to the Paradise where the righteous dead await resurrection) and the rich man in “Hades”–a place of torment and flame. In the OT, both Enoch and Elijah go to God’s presence without dying–an exception, but still a troubling case for the soul sleep view. Moses and Elijah were alive and well when they appeared with Jesus on the mount of Transfiguration. And Jesus told the thief on the cross “Truly I say to you, today you will be with me in Paradise.” The word “today” modifies the second half of the phrase (“you will be with me”), not the first (“Truly I say to you”), as Adventists try to explain.
2. The Bible says we are “away from the Lord while in this body, but to be absent from the body is to be “present with the Lord”–2 Corinthians 5:6-8. Clearly being “away” doesn’t mean we are separated from God, but we are not in his presence.
3. Paul says in Philippians 1:23 that death is going to be with Christ, which is far better than living in this world. It is not falling asleep, which is a part of living here, but fully aware existence in Jesus’ presence, which is superior to any nap!
4. Those who are “asleep” in Jesus–i.e., they died as believers, are those that are said to be with Jesus at the final trumpet–see 1 Thessalonians 4:14. Why would the dead need to be brought with Jesus, by God, to the final trumpet and resurrection from the dead? If they are asleep in the grave, they don’t need to be brought anywhere. See also Revelation 19:6-14 to see believers are with Jesus when he returns in final judgment.
5. “Sleep” as a euphemism for death is not just limited to the Bible in history. Other cultures used the same terminology without believing that the person was no longer consciously existing. People prefer softer terms for hard things, and we use many euphemisms for death, “passed away,” “went to the Great Beyond,” “entered into rest” and so on as less jarring ways of saying, “he died.” Because “rest” is a reward for believers, and death is most like sleep to the observer, it is not surprising the term would be used.
I believe that this is not only the correct understanding (and one that Christians have generally and universally held for 2,000 years), but it offers a much more concrete hope to believers as we face the deaths of loved ones who are Christians, and contemplate our own mortality. Falling asleep for decades, centuries, or millennia isn’t awful, but it certainly doesn’t rise to the “far better” level when compared to living here.
One more thing: even after we die and go to be with Jesus, everything isn’t complete. We have more to look forward to. Our spirits are with Jesus, but they are awaiting reunion with a new body–the resurrection body, that we receive when Christ returns to the earth (see 1 Corinthians 15:12-58, especially from verse 35 onward, for more about this). In his presence God sustains our spiritual existence in a way that is real and where we are clearly “us.” But we are not completed yet, since the final resurrection is still coming. Paul writes about this in 2 Corinthians 5. He says
- Our current body is like a tent for our spirits, which will be replaced by a “building” from God–permanent as opposed to a tent (5:1-2)
- We long for that heavenly dwelling–that “building” that is our resurrection body (5:2)
- That “building” will deal with a “nakedness” (5:3). This would seem to be our spirits lacking what they are used to–a body in which to dwell.
- Getting from our current body to the permanent one is something to desire, but requires putting off the first to receive the second. We don’t just want to put off this body, but eventually to have the perfect one (5:4-5)
- When we are at home in this body (living here and now) we are “away from the Lord”–we aren’t in his presence (5:6).
- Because we know what is coming, we have the courage to face death because it brings the better life closer to completion, even if it means laying aside this body (5:7-8)
To summarize, we shouldn’t think of death as the point when everything is completed for the Christian. Instead, we should see it as the point when the victory over sin and death is possessed by us as we do not remain in the grave but go to be with the Lord in this “intermediate state” (a fancy word for saying we are in between the death of our natural bodies and the resurrection where we get our new, perfect, eternal bodies). All believers are there, rejoicing in the presence of Jesus, praising God as we discover life without sin’s presence, enjoying blessed reunions, and waiting for the cue to come where Jesus says, “It’s time. Let’s go!” And then all those “last days” events and prophecies come to pass, tribulation and resurrection, Christ’s reign on earth, final judgment, new heavens and earth, and forever! There is so much still ahead even after this life, we can’t even begin to know all that God has for us!
So, when I lead us in prayer at the graveside for my father-in-law, and then lower that body into the grave, we will do so knowing that the real “him” is not there, but with Jesus. He is not asleep but totally aware of who he is and where he is–in the presence of the Lord, and in the company of all the redeemed who have gone before him–including my mother-in-law, Beverly. He is one incredibly happy saint whose daily life is only getting better.