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I have begun to notice a trend in many evangelical circles today toward acceptance of the idea that has been known historically as “soul sleep.” This is the idea that, after death, a person is in an unconscious state while awaiting the resurrection, after which the person will experience the final judgment. This idea has been rejected by Reformed theologians over the centuries. They have commonly held, instead, to a doctrine of a conscious intermediate state. That is, they have held that, after death, a person consciously exists as a disembodied spirit. The wicked experience torment in the intermediate state, but the righteous experience joy in the presence of the Lord while they await the resurrection.
This brief article is my attempt to gather together the passages commonly cited by both the opponents and the advocates of the traditional doctrine of a conscious intermediate state and to offer a defense of the traditional view. It is my hope that this will provide a helpful resource for God’s people in understanding and defending this doctrine.
Passages Used in the Debate Between Those Who Hold to Soul Sleep and Those Who Hold to the Traditional View of the Intermediate State
Following is a list of many of the passages that are often used by those who argue for and against the doctrine of “soul sleep.” Brief comments are offered from the standpoint of the traditional Reformed understanding of a conscious intermediate state. Unless otherwise noted, all passages cited are from the New King James Version.
Passages Frequently Cited by the Proponents of Soul Sleep:
Psalm 6:5, “For in death there is no remembrance of You; in the grave who will give You thanks?”
This passage is said to teach that we are in an unconscious state when we die. However, there is no indication in the context that David intended to teach about the state of the dead at all, whether conscious or unconscious. Instead, his focus is on the fact that, if he dies, there will be no one alive to praise the Lord before men for His great mercies. Note the focus in the context on his desire to be delivered so that his enemies will be put to shame (vss. 7-8). What David is really saying is that, if he dies, there will be no remembrance of God before his godless enemies, and there will be no one to give God thanks in the presence of his enemies, in order to bring them to shame.
Psalm 115:17, “The dead do not praise the LORD, nor any who go down into silence.”
Again the context helps to explain the Psalmist’s point. He begins the psalm by focusing on how God deserves the glory for His mercy and truth (vs. 1) and by asking rhetorically, “Why should the Gentiles say, ‘So where is their God?’” (vs. 2). So, the theme of the psalm is the way the glory of God should be manifested before unbelieving Gentiles, who trust in idols rather than the true God. The Psalmist carries this forward by comparing faith in God to the futility of trusting in idols (vss. 3-8), and then by reminding the people of Israel to continue to trust in the LORD in the midst of such idolatry (vss. 9-13). This is followed by an expression of blessing upon true believers and their children (vss. 14-15). Thus, the Psalmist has in mind the need for believers to prosper with God’s help and by trusting in Him as sovereign over all creation, not only because it is the truth and brings blessing to themselves, but also as a witness to the Gentiles. The dead cannot give such praise to God before the Gentiles. This is the point. The Psalmist is viewing the grave from the standpoint of this life and the opportunities for witness that this life provides, over against which the grave is a place of silence. If any doubt remains as to the correctness of this interpretation, all one has to do is read on to verse 18, “But we will bless the LORD from this time forth and forevermore. Praise the LORD!” The writer clearly believes that those who praise the LORD now will continue to do so after death.
Psalm 146:4, “His spirit departs, he returns to his earth; in that very day his plans perish.”
Generally, those who cite this verse do so from the KJV or the NASB, which says, “His spirit departs, he returns to the earth; in that very day his thoughts perish.” However, the Hebrew word translated as “thoughts” in this verse is eshtonah, which The Hebrew and Aramaic Lexicon of the Old Testament defines as “plan” (#7406 [BibleWorks]). This is the translation that is found in the ESV, the NET, and the NKJV. It is the translation that I will follow.
In verse 3 the Psalmist has admonished the reader, “Do not put your trust in princes, nor in a son of man, in whom there is no help.” Thus, when he goes on to say that “his spirit departs, he returns to the earth; in that very day his plans perish,” he clearly means that, even though such men may look successful and powerful, they will die just like the rest of us. Where will their plans for conquest or riches – or whatever else they may seek in this life – be in the day of their deaths? The answer is that those plans will perish with them. So we should instead trust in the Lord, whose plans never perish.
Ecclesiastes 9:5, “For the living know that they will die; but the dead know nothing, and they have no more reward, for the memory of them is forgotten.”
First, we must remember to use caution when building doctrine from the book of Ecclesiastes, for there has been continuous disagreement over whether the author is always stating his own views, or whether he is stating opposing views from the culture in which he lives in order to respond to them. This form of dialog is not uncommon in ancient wisdom literature, and may be the best explanation for how to properly read Ecclesiastes.
Second, assuming the passage cited does contain the view of the author, it still does not give aid to the proponents of soul sleep, for the author is referring to the dead from the standpoint of this life and is therefore not necessarily trying to go into a description of the state of the dead beyond this life. Rather, he is saying that, once a man is dead, he knows nothing of this life and the opportunities it may (seem to) offer. That this is the focus is clear when one considers the last part of the verse, which declares that the dead “have no more reward, for the memory of them is forgotten.” Here the author must be referring to rewards among the living, for it is the living among whom the memory of the dead person is said to be forgotten. The correctness of this interpretation is further seen when one reads verse 5 in conjunction with the whole context, especially verse 6, which carries the point of verse 5 further when it says, “Also their love, their hatred, and their envy have now perished; nevermore will they have a share in anything done under the sun.” So, when the author says that “the dead know nothing,” he clearly means that they no longer know the experience of the rewards, love, hatred, or envy of this life “under the sun.”
Note: The phrase “under the sun” occurs some twenty-nine times in Ecclesiastes, highlighting an important theme of the book, which is the apparent futility of life in this world (but see 12:13-14).
Ecclesiastes 9:10, “Whatever your hand finds to do, do it with your might; for there is no work or device or knowledge or wisdom in the grave where you are going.”
See above on Ecclesiastes 9:5 and observe that this verse is bracketed by an emphasis upon life “under the sun” (vss. 9, 11). Thus, again, the author refers to a lack of opportunity in the grave to accomplish anything more in this life, i.e. in this world. I would also observe that later in the book, the author refers to an “eternal home” for man, when his “spirit will return to God who gave it” (see 12:5-7). This indicates the idea of the spirit departing the body at death to be with the Lord, an idea frequently denied by proponents of soul sleep, many of whom hold to a monistic view of man that does not allow for the separation of the spirit from the body at death.
Ezekiel 18:4, “Behold, all souls are Mine; the soul of the father as well as the soul of the son is Mine; the soul who sins shall die.”
Some who advocate soul sleep refer to this verse as describing the death not only of the body, but also of the soul. If the soul dies as well as the body, they argue, then it must be in some unconscious state. However, this misunderstands the way in which the term for soul (Hebrew nephesh) is frequently used. For example, the word may also often be used to mean either “person” or “life” (see, for example, BDB #6250, TWOT #1395a, HALOT #6283 [BibleWorks]), usages which may better fit this passage.
However, even if this is referring to the death of the “soul” as distinct from the body, it is speaking of the spiritual death of sinners and does not necessitate the idea that the person is unconscious after death. For example, doesn’t the Bible teach that the second death entails conscious torment of unbelievers in Hell (Matt. 25:41, 46; Rev. 14:9-11; 20:6, 10, 14-15; 21:8)? How, then, can it be argued that the idea of the death of the “soul” requires the idea of unconsciousness?
At this point it behooves us to give special attention to those passages which refer to death as sleep, since so many of the proponents of soul sleep refer to such passages (for obvious reasons). Following is a brief, representative list of such texts, followed by my own observations:
Matthew 27:50-53 “And Jesus cried out again with a loud voice, and yielded up His spirit. 51 Then, behold, the veil of the temple was torn in two from top to bottom; and the earth quaked, and the rocks were split, 52 and the graves were opened; and many bodies of the saints who had fallen asleep were raised; 53 and coming out of the graves after His resurrection, they went into the holy city and appeared to many.”
John 11:11-14, “These things He said, and after that He said to them, ‘Our friend Lazarus sleeps, but I go that I may wake him up.’ 12 Then His disciples said, ‘Lord, if he sleeps he will get well.’ 13 However, Jesus spoke of his death, but they thought that He was speaking about taking rest in sleep. 14 Then Jesus said to them plainly, ‘Lazarus is dead.’”
Acts 7:59-60 “And they stoned Stephen as he was calling on God and saying, ‘Lord Jesus, receive my spirit.’ 60 Then he knelt down and cried out with a loud voice, ‘Lord, do not charge them with this sin.” And when he had said this, he fell asleep.’”
Acts 13:35-37 “Therefore He also says in another Psalm: ‘You will not allow Your Holy One to see corruption.’ 36 For David, after he had served his own generation by the will of God, fell asleep, was buried with his fathers, and saw corruption; 37 but He whom God raised up saw no corruption.’”
1 Corinthians 15:20, 51 “But now Christ is risen from the dead, and has become the firstfruits of those who have fallen asleep…. Behold, I tell you a mystery: We shall not all sleep, but we shall all be changed….”
1 Thessalonians 4:13-15 “But I do not want you to be ignorant, brethren, concerning those who have fallen asleep, lest you sorrow as others who have no hope. 14 For if we believe that Jesus died and rose again, even so God will bring with Him those who sleep in Jesus. 15 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 will by no means precede those who are asleep.”
2 Peter 3:3-4 “… knowing this first: that scoffers will come in the last days, walking according to their own lusts, 4 and saying, ‘Where is the promise of His coming? For since the fathers fell asleep, all things continue as they were from the beginning of creation.’”
Those who argue for the doctrine of soul sleep and advocate an unconscious state of the dead claim that such passages clearly demonstrate this contention. Without attempting to be exhaustive, I would suggest several points in response.
First, none of these passages actually says that the soul sleeps when a person dies. They simply refer to dead people as sleeping, and this apparently from the perspective of what we can see, namely the body.
Second, the reference to death as “sleep” in these passages is intended metaphorically, as a euphemism for death. “When Scripture represents death as ‘sleep’ it is simply a metaphorical expression used to indicate that death is only temporary for Christians, just as sleep is temporary” (Wayne Grudem, Systematic Theology, p. 819). It is especially interesting that the primary New Testament texts which refer to death as “sleep” also teach the doctrine of the resurrection. This reinforces the understanding of the metaphor as referring to death as merely temporary.
Third, it is unclear what the proponents of soul sleep really mean when asserting the unconscious state of the dead from the metaphor of death as sleep. For example, when we sleep, are we really unconscious? Aren’t there examples in Scripture of God communicating to believers through dreams and visions while they sleep? And don’t we often dream when we sleep? If this is our experience of sleep now, how can anyone say that a soul’s “sleeping” after death (if the metaphor be taken literally) would require that it be unconscious?
Fourth, although the proponents of soul sleep seem to be trying to read these passages literally, it is not really possible to do so. For example, sleep is very much a process of the living, not the dead. People who are asleep still breath, for example, and they still move around. But do the dead do these things? Now, it may be argued at this point that they are asserting only that the soul sleeps at death, but then we come back to the fact that no text explicitly states this. And we again encounter the difficulty of saying what sleep would even mean in such a case, and whether or not it is really possible to exclude consciousness by definition as a part of what it means to sleep.
Thus, it really isn’t possible to take the references to death as “sleep” as anything more than metaphorical references describing death as a temporary state, and that from the standpoint of what we can see of the physical body, which may at first appear to be sleeping.
Excursus Concerning Proper Principles of Interpretation:
The approach of those who accept the doctrine of soul sleep fails to observe several very important principles of interpretation:
1) Interpret according to context – As demonstrated above (particularly with respect to the use of texts from the Psalms and Ecclesiastes) those who argue for soul sleep often ignore the context of the passages they cite.
2) Do not press metaphors too far – Metaphors generally intend one point of comparison between that which is being used as a metaphor and that which is being described metaphorically. For example, when Jesus says, “I am the door” (John 10:9), He certainly does not mean that He is like a door in every respect. Rather, the context indicates that He is like the door of a sheepfold in that He is the only way through which we may find safety and rest. In my opinion, the proponents of soul sleep either take the metaphor of sleep too literally, or they press the metaphor further than the individual texts in which it is used will allow.
3) Interpret ambiguous passages in the light of clearer ones – As demonstrated above, the proponents of soul sleep tend to rely on too many ambiguous texts (such as those in Ecclesiastes). They take such texts too literally, or wrench them from their contexts, or read into them, and then try to understand clearer texts in the light of these faulty readings. In reality, a proper method of interpretation will do the opposite.
4) Interpret earlier, less detailed passages in the light of later and more detailed ones, appropriately recognizing the principle of progressive revelation – This is probably one of the most disturbing errors of those who advocate soul sleep. They seem to ignore the concept of progressive revelation and to read the Old Testament as though it intends to speak as clearly to the issue of the state of the dead as does the New Testament. They thus read more into the Old Testament texts than those texts warrant, and then try to make the New Testament texts conform to their questionable understanding of the Old Testament texts. A better approach is to allow the New Testament texts that actually deal with the subject to interpret the Old Testament texts that usually refer to the state of the dead merely from the standpoint of this life and with little or no interest in asserting anything specific or detailed about the state of the dead.
Questions for further study:
1) Is the term sleep ever used in the New Testament to describe the death of the wicked? So far as I can tell after a brief examination, it appears as though this metaphor is used only of believers when New Testament authors are describing or teaching about death. What significance – if any – might this have? Could it be that Jesus and the Apostles used this metaphor only of believers because it expresses the temporary nature of the death of the body and the hope of the life to come in the resurrection? To be sure, the wicked will also be resurrected, but they will then experience the second death, not the hope of everlasting life.
2) Is the soul/spirit ever said to be resurrected? After a brief examination, it appears as though resurrection is consistently asserted with regard to the body only. But if the doctrine of soul sleep is correct, and the body and spirit are never parted, then wouldn’t we expect to see this indicated with respect to the doctrine of the resurrection of the dead?
Passages that Support the Traditional View of the Intermediate State:
Genesis 35:18, “And so it was, as her soul was departing (for she died), that she called his name Ben-Oni; but his father called him Benjamin.”
Death is described as the departure of the soul (nephesh) from the body. This supports the traditional understanding that the soul/spirit is separated from the body at death.
Isaiah 14:9-11, “Sheol beneath is stirred up to meet you when you come; it rouses the shades to greet you, all who were leaders of the earth; it raises from their thrones all who were kings of the nations. 10 All of them will answer and say to you: ‘You too have become as weak as we! You have become like us!’ 11 Your pomp is brought down to Sheol, the sound of your harps; maggots are laid as a bed beneath you, and worms are your covers.” (ESV)
Although too much weight should not be given to what may be intended as allegorical language, if taken literally this passage supports a conscious state of the dead in Sheol.
Matthew 10:28, “And do not fear those who kill the body but cannot kill the soul. But rather fear Him who is able to destroy both soul and body in hell.”
Jesus clearly assumes that the death of the body does not include the death of the soul. And He sees the death of the soul of the wicked as ultimately in hell (gehenna), which refers to the place of final judgment.
Matthew 17: 1-8, The Transfiguration.
Both Elijah and Moses appear to Jesus (even though Moses had died and was buried, Deut. 34: 5-6). See also the parallel passage in Luke 9: 27-36. The point here is that Moses is clearly experiencing a conscious intermediate state. Of course, a proponent of soul sleep might argue that this is an exceptional case, but I think the number of other passages listed here belie such a contention.
Matthew 22:31-32, “But concerning the resurrection of the dead, have you not read what was spoken to you by God, saying, 32 ‘I am the God of Abraham, the God of Isaac, and the God of Jacob’? God is not the God of the dead, but of the living.”
Jesus is here citing Exodus 3:6. But how does this passage necessitate the doctrine of the resurrection? It is important to see Jesus’ answer in the context of both the beliefs held by the Sadducees and the common Biblical understanding of the nature of humans as a unity of body and soul.
First, the Sadducees did not believe in any existence for humans beyond the grave. They taught that when the body died the soul/spirit died right along with it. Thus when we die, they thought, we simply cease to exist. So, when Jesus cites Exodus 3:6, in which God tells Moses that He is “the God of Abraham, the God of Isaac, and the God of Jacob” and asserts that God is “not the God of the dead, but the God of the living,” His point is clear. It is absurd to think that God would claim to be the God of non-existent beings, as would be the case if the Sadducees were, in fact, correct. So, when God says to Moses that He is the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob – many years after they had all died and were buried – He is also asserting that they are still alive. And this must mean that they are alive as disembodied spirits – which the Sadducees also denied.
Second, if Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob are alive as spirits, then doesn’t this also demand that they will be resurrected? For they have not been saved as whole beings unless their bodies are saved as well. Jesus clearly assumes the truth of this view of the unity of humans as body/soul beings, which is why He can see Exodus 3:6 as necessitating the resurrection.
Thus, Jesus’ arguments clearly assume the correctness of the common view among the Pharisees in His day, namely that human beings are a unity of body and soul/spirit, but that their spirits are separated from their bodies at death to be re-united with them in the resurrection. Jesus’ argument from Exodus 3:6 makes sense only if He is assuming the correctness of these ideas.
Luke 16:19-31 The story of the Rich Man and Lazarus.
It has often been debated whether this is only a parable or whether it is an actual account of the death of two people and their following existence in Hades. Those who advocate soul sleep often argue that this story is only a parable used by Jesus to illustrate a point and is not, therefore, to be taken as a literal description of a conscious intermediate state. They also sometimes argue that there are other similar stories that were told by the Jews and that Jesus was not, therefore, referring to something that was true, but was simply using the kind of story they would be familiar with in order to make a point. In my opinion, they are correct to see this story as a parable and to observe that such a story was not altogether unique. As Klyne Snodgrass argues in his recent work Stories With Intent: A Comprehensive Guide to the Parables of Jesus:
Preachers and certain people throughout church history sometimes have asserted that this story is not a parable but depicts real people and the consequences of their lives. I am not aware of any modern scholar who would agree. Certainly Luke viewed this as a parable. It appears in a collection of parables, possibly stands chiastically parallel to the parable of the Rich Fool, and uses the exact same introductory words (anthrōpos tis) which Luke uses to introduce several other parables [e.g. 10:30; 14:16; 15:11; 16:1; 19:12]. This is without question a parable. (p.426)
As for the contention that this story was not entirely unique in first century Palestine, Snodgrass, in the aforementioned work, is again helpful:
Such usage of preexisting materials is evident in other parables and would not be surprising. In this case, though, such a theory is unlikely and unnecessary, especially when the Gospel story is so different from the Egyptian [story of Setme] and Jewish [1 Enoch] accounts. The Gospel story uses common folkloric motifs shared by several cultures: descent to the underworld, reversal of circumstances, and denunciation of the rich for their neglect of the poor. Lucian’s use of these themes in a variety of works, although from the second century A.D., shows how futile it is to think of even indirect dependence of the Gospel parable on some other account. (p.427)
But, even though dependence upon some particular work or even some specific stock story is highly unlikely, let us assume that the advocates of soul sleep are correct in saying that as a parable it would have been recognized by the Jews as a fictional account intended to make a point. I still cannot agree in such a case that the Jews would have thought Jesus intended to affirm nothing concrete about the intermediate state. On the contrary, Jesus clearly does assume the kind of view of the intermediate state that appeared to be commonly held by the Pharisees and many Jews in the first century. He certainly doesn’t seem to expect them to take issue with the basic features of the story. But I wonder, then, how Jesus could tell such a story without at the same time affirming the validity of such ideas. If, in fact, there is no conscious intermediate state, then how could Jesus tell such a story without leading many people astray? In my opinion, it really doesn’t matter with respect to the issue under discussion whether the story is a parable or not. I see no way that Jesus could have told it in any case without at the same time affirming the concept of a conscious intermediate state such as the story describes. At any rate, this passage is hardly the primary or only text to which advocates of a conscious intermediate state appeal.
Luke 23:39-43 “Then one of the criminals who were hanged blasphemed Him, saying, ‘If You are the Christ, save Yourself and us.’ 40 But the other, answering, rebuked him, saying, ‘Do you not even fear God, seeing you are under the same condemnation? 41 And we indeed justly, for we receive the due reward of our deeds; but this Man has done nothing wrong.’ 42 Then he said to Jesus, ‘Lord, remember me when You come into Your kingdom.’ 43 And Jesus said to him, ‘Assuredly, I say to you, today you will be with Me in Paradise.’”
It is hard to imagine how the promise that the thief would be with Jesus that day in Paradise could be thought of in any other way than as an affirmation of a conscious intermediate state. After all, why promise that someone will be with you if, in fact, the person would be in an unconscious state in which he would be unaware of being with you? The common view of the advocates of soul sleep is that this verse is being misunderstood by those who hold the traditional view. They often claim that Jesus’ statement in verse 43 should be punctuated differently. Instead of placing the comma after the words, “I say to you,” they argue that the comma should be placed after the word “today.” Thus, instead of saying, “Assuredly, I say to you, today you will be with me in Paradise,” Jesus was really declaring, “Assuredly, I say to you today, you will be with me in Paradise.” Thus, it is argued, Jesus was not indicating the time when the thief would be with Him in Paradise, but was emphasizing that He was making the promise “today.” In other words, Jesus was intending to assert something like, “today, even this day that I hang upon this cross, I promise you that you will be with me in Paradise.” I would make several observations in response to this line of argumentation:
1) It is hard to imagine why Jesus would find it necessary to point out to the thief that He was making the promise “today.” Wouldn’t this have been so obvious to the thief that it would not need to be pointed out to him?
2) The punctuation proposed by the advocates of soul sleep ignores the usual way that Jesus employs the introductory formula, “Truly [amen], I say to you,” or “Truly, truly, I say to you.” I have searched for every other case in which Jesus uses this introductory formula, and I have discovered that He always begins the important statement He wishes to make immediately following the phrase, “Truly, I say to you,” or “Truly, truly, I say to you,” with no intervening words or emphases upon the time at which He is speaking. The passages I checked include Matthew 5:18, 26; 6:2, 5, 16; 8:10; 10:15, 23, 42; 11:11; 13:17; 16:28; 17:20; 18: 3, 13, 18, 19 [variant]; Matthew 19:23, 28; 21:21, 31; 23:36; 24:2, 24, 47; 25:12, 40, 45; 26:13, 21, 34; Mark 3:28; 8:12; 9:1, 41; 10:15, 29; 11:23; 12:43; 13:30; 14:9, 18, 25, 30; Luke 4:24; 12:37; 18:17, 29; 21:32; John 1:51; 3:3, 5, 11; 5:19, 24, 25; 6:26, 32, 47, 53; 8:34, 51, 58; 10:1, 7; 12:24; 13:16, 20, 21, 38; 14:12; 16:20, 23; 21:18. In no instance did I find that Jesus varied from this pattern. Yet, the advocates of soul sleep would have us believe that in this one particular case Jesus parted from His habitual manner of speaking, and that He did so in order to point out something that would have been obvious to the thief anyway. Such an argument is truly incredible.
3) It is also important to remember that Jesus is making the promise to the thief in order to comfort Him by responding to his request. But the thief’s request includes a time element. He has requested that Jesus will remember him when He comes into His kingdom (verse 42). Isn’t it likely that, when Jesus responds to the thief and says, “today you will be with me in Paradise,” He is actually answering the thief’s request? Isn’t He encouraging him that he will have to wait no longer than that very day to be with Him?
4) When Jesus says that the thief would be with Him in “Paradise,” He appears to be referring to Heaven. The only other uses of the Greek word paradeisos are in 2 Corinthians 12:4 and Revelation 2:7, both of which refer to Heaven. Again, it is hard to imagine how this could be a promise that the thief would be with Jesus in Heaven in an unconscious state. There are those, however, who have argued that Jesus could not have been referring to Heaven here because He told Mary after His resurrection, “Do not cling to me, for I have not yet ascended to my Father” (John 20:17). But this later statement of Jesus, having been made after the resurrection, refers to His ascension in His resurrection body. There is no reason to assume that Jesus is referring to His post-death/pre-resurrection (i.e. intermediate) state at all.
John 11:25-26, “Jesus said to her, ‘I am the resurrection and the life. He who believes in Me, though he may die, he shall live. 26 And whoever lives and believes in Me shall never die. Do you believe this?’”
This statement, along with the other statements of Jesus which refer to everlasting life as a present possession, does not promise that the body will never die, but rather must mean that we will never die spiritually. But how can He say that the believer will never die, unless He is referring to the soul as living on beyond the death of the body?
Now, I suppose that Jesus’ promise here does not demand that we have a conscious life beyond the grave, but it is hard to imagine why Jesus made such a promise that we will never die if, in fact, He thought we would not be aware of being alive while existing in some unconscious state. At any rate, Jesus’ promise certainly does appear to contradict the assertion of many soul sleep advocates that the body and soul die together and are then raised together unto new life in the resurrection.
2 Corinthians 4:16-18, “Therefore we do not lose heart. Even though our outward man is perishing, yet the inward man is being renewed day by day. 17 For our light affliction, which is but for a moment, is working for us a far more exceeding and eternal weight of glory, 18 while we do not look at the things which are seen, but at the things which are not seen. For the things which are seen are temporary, but the things which are not seen are eternal.”
Paul is teaching here that it is only the outward man that is perishing, not the inward man. In the context it would appear that the outward man (apparently referring to the body) is of the “things which are seen” and that are temporary, whereas the inward man that is being renewed day by day is of the “things which are not seen” and are eternal. Isn’t this a reference to the spirit? If so, how can it be credibly argued – as is often attempted by proponenets of soul sleep – that the spirit dies along with physical the body?
2 Corinthians 5:1-9, “For we know that if our earthly house, this tent, is destroyed, we have a building from God, a house not made with hands, eternal in the heavens. 2 For in this we groan, earnestly desiring to be clothed with our habitation which is from heaven, 3 if indeed, having been clothed, we shall not be found naked. 4 For we who are in this tent groan, being burdened, not because we want to be unclothed, but further clothed, that mortality may be swallowed up by life. 5 Now He who has prepared us for this very thing is God, who also has given us the Spirit as a guarantee. 6 So we are always confident, knowing that while we are at home in the body we are absent from the Lord. 7 For we walk by faith, not by sight. 8 We are confident, yes, well pleased rather to be absent from the body and to be present with the Lord. 9 Therefore we make it our aim, whether present or absent, to be well pleasing to Him.”
Paul refers to an intermediate state here when he envisions the possibility of being out of the body and at home with the Lord, without saying that we are in a new body yet. But why would being in the presence of the Lord while out of the body be something to look forward to if, in fact, we will be unconscious in such a state?
2 Corinthians 12:1-4, “It is doubtless not profitable for me to boast. I will come to visions and revelations of the Lord: 2 I know a man in Christ who fourteen years ago — whether in the body I do not know, or whether out of the body I do not know, God knows — such a one was caught up to the third heaven. 3 And I know such a man — whether in the body or out of the body I do not know, God knows — 4 how he was caught up into Paradise and heard inexpressible words, which it is not lawful for a man to utter.”
Paul clearly believes that a man can be conscious while “out of the body,” which must be a reference to one’s spirit leaving the body. This contradicts the idea of many soul sleep advocates that the body and the soul/spirit form an inseparable unity and that consciousness outside the body is not possible.
Philippians 1:19-26, “For I know that this will turn out for my deliverance through your prayer and the supply of the Spirit of Jesus Christ, 20 according to my earnest expectation and hope that in nothing I shall be ashamed, but with all boldness, as always, so now also Christ will be magnified in my body, whether by life or by death. 21 For to me, to live is Christ, and to die is gain. 22 But if I live on in the flesh, this will mean fruit from my labor; yet what I shall choose I cannot tell. 23 For I am hard pressed between the two, having a desire to depart and be with Christ, which is far better. 24 Nevertheless to remain in the flesh is more needful for you. 25 And being confident of this, I know that I shall remain and continue with you all for your progress and joy of faith, 26 that your rejoicing for me may be more abundant in Jesus Christ by my coming to you again.”
Paul clearly contrasts departing to be with Christ (dying, vss. 20-21) with living on in the flesh. Thus death will mean being with Christ outside the flesh (the body), which is considered by Paul as “gain” (vs. 21) and as “far better” than the current state (vs. 23). I fail to see how looking forward to being with Christ can be thought of as the anticipation of an unconscious state in which one will be unaware of being with Christ, as the proponents of soul sleep envision the intermediate state.
Hebrews 12:22-24, “But you have come to Mount Zion and to the city of the living God, the heavenly Jerusalem, to an innumerable company of angels, 23 to the general assembly and church of the firstborn who are registered in heaven, to God the Judge of all, to the spirits of just men made perfect, 24 to Jesus the Mediator of the new covenant, and to the blood of sprinkling that speaks better things than that of Abel.”
The author of Hebrews clearly thinks of those who have died before us in the faith (“so great a cloud of witnesses,” vs. 1) as spirits who are now alive with the angels in Heaven, having been made perfect. They must, therefore, be experiencing a conscious intermediate state.
James 2:26 “For as the body without the spirit is dead, so faith without works is dead also.”
In describing death as the body’s being “without the spirit,” isn’t James assuming that the spirit leaves the body at death? This again contradicts the common notion among advocates of soul sleep that the body and soul/spirit are inseparable.
2 Peter 1:13-14, “Yes, I think it is right, as long as I am in this tent, to stir you up by reminding you, 14 knowing that shortly I must put off my tent, just as our Lord Jesus Christ showed me.”
As Paul had done in 2 Corinthians 5, so Peter also uses the metaphor of a tent to describe the earthly body as a temporary dwelling. Observe that death is referred to as putting off this tent, which implies the continuance of that which puts off the tent, i.e. the soul/spirit.
Revelation 6:9-11, “When He opened the fifth seal, I saw under the altar the souls of those who had been slain for the word of God and for the testimony which they held. 10 And they cried with a loud voice, saying, “How long, O Lord, holy and true, until You judge and avenge our blood on those who dwell on the earth?” 11 Then a white robe was given to each of them; and it was said to them that they should rest a little while longer, until both the number of their fellow servants and their brethren, who would be killed as they were, was completed.”
It is hard to imagine how John’s vision of the souls under the alter cannot be seen as teaching a conscious intermediate state for those who have died in the Lord. Of course, I suppose one could argue that this is a highly symbolic passage, and that we must not take it as a literal reference to actual disembodied souls. But I would respond by asking what this reference then symbolizes, if not the existence of conscious spirits in the intermediate state?
Although there seems to be a growing number of evangelicals who are beginning to question the traditional understanding of the intermediate state, a fair examination of the relevant passages – taken in context – confirms that the traditional Reformed view of a conscious intermediate state is correct. It is my hope that this brief examination has demonstrated this clearly for any who may question this doctrine.
© 2004 Keith Throop

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