Soul Sleep and the Bible: An Evaluation

"Soul sleep" is a fairly unobjectionable doctrine that supposes, quite simply, that between the time of our individual deaths, and the time of the final resurrection and judgment, we will be in an "unconscious" state. There are undoubtedly many variations on the theme, and the doctrine is held generally by a number of groups (both orthodox and unorthodox), but we will concern ourselves here with the core contention of unconsciousness between death and new life.

The following arguments in favor of it are taken from a wide variety of sources, and we will organize by Scripture cite. We will not address cites tied in with the doctrine of annihilation, which hold that the wicked soul "dies" without returning to consciousness, as we consider such arguments covered by this article.

Coverage of this issue begins well with consideration of a broader and related issue, that of the nature of the relationship between what is called the body, soul, and the spirit. Soul sleep advocates speak disparagingly of a "dualist" line of thinking which sees these as separate entities, and regard these entities as a holistic total that is inseperable.

Previously and in other contexts we have noted that under the Semitic Totality Concept a man is a unity. But this does not necessarily equate with the constituent elements being inseparable; it simply means that to make a whole man, the elements "belong" together. The question would remain as to whether the elements can indeed exist separately and whether a practical dualist view is warranted in terms of the afterlife.

In this regard I have noted some confusion of terms. Our primary source for support of this doctrine, Adventist scholar Samuel Bacchiochi, in an essay called The Human Soul, at first says, "Those who believe their nature is wholistic, consisting of an indivisible whole where body, soul, and spirit are only characteristics of the same person, generally envision a destiny where their total mortal person will be resurrected either to eternal life or eternal death." But in the next paragraph he says:

On the other hand, those who believe their nature is dualistic, that is, consisting of a material, mortal body and a spiritual, immortal soul, generally envision a destiny where their immortal souls will survive the death of their body and will spend eternity either in the bliss of paradise or in the torment of hell.

What happened here? Bacchiochi turned the three (spirit, soul, body) into two (body, soul) and left the spirit in the dust, so to speak, or collapsed it adverbially into the soul. Later he seems to regard "soul" and "spirit" as synonyms: "The body and the soul, the flesh and the spirit, are characteristics of the same person and not detachable components that come apart at death."

It is perhaps true that "soul" and "spirit" are used interchangeably today, and may have been used thusly in NT Greek (cf. Luke 1:46-7 [?!?]), but that clearly was not the case in the OT. Note even to begin the variation in the Hebrew words: "spirit" is ruach, and "soul" is nephesh.

In general and by appearances, we would suggest the thesis that the "soul" as defined here is the combination of the body and spirit, which creates the unified whole of a person (or an animal -- cf. Gen. 1:21). Bacchiochi speaks of combating the idea that the "soul" is an immortal substance, but if that is his argument, he seems to be fighting the wrong battle.

Bacchiochi offers a thorough and informative analysis of the various uses of "soul" (nephesh) in the OT, and every one of these supports the idea of the nephesh as the combined body and spirit. If these two elements were a composite that made a man a man, it is quite sensible that both are affected in times of trouble, experience emotion, and sin, and that the nephesh dies when the body is killed, as Bacchiochi clearly shows.

Indeed, he quotes one commentator as saying, "The Hebrew did not divide and assign human activities. Any act was the whole nephesh in action, hence, the whole person." This matches as well with the NT triple-combo of psyche (soul), soma (body), and pneuma (spirit) as the words are used by the writers of the NT (though the Greeks seem to have overlapped the words in usage somewhat, and some dictionaries and resources, in defining the words, use them to define each other -- perhaps reflecting our own modern confusion of the terms.

The question we wish to pose, then, is not, according to the Bible, "Does the soul survive death?" but, "Does the spirit survive death?" Bacchiochi correctly notes that the NT distinguishes soul and spirit (1 Thess. 5:23, Heb, 4:12) and also rightly decries those who regard "spirit" and "soul" as complete synonyms. But he never gets around (where we have read) to a full discussion of what exactly man's "spirit" is and what happens to it after death.

The word is often used figuratively of one's emotional attitude (i.e., a "revived spirit") but it is clearly also used to refer to sentient entities (both good and evil) and -- as classically formulated in James 2:26 ("For as the body without the spirit is dead, so faith without works is dead also.") is clearly a separably identifiable entity within a human, whatever its condition after a body dies.

2 Cor. 5, Paul's excursus on the resurrection body compared to the old one, uses the metaphor of a tent, which suggests, obviously, an "inhabitant" -- though where exactly the "inhabitant" rests and in what state is not stated. Hebrews 4:12 confirms this, speaking of the "division of soul and spirit" comparably to bones and marrow -- the latter being a component of the former.

It should be noted first of all that "spirit" being described in terms of "breath" should not by any means be taken to assume that the two are the same thing. As various organs are connected with certain things by the Hebrews (see more here) so it is that we would expect the spirit to be linked to a certain part of us -- the equation no more makes the two the same thing than we may assume that kidneys do not exist because they are called "reins".

One of Bacchiochi's few statements about the spirit concerns Eccl. 12:7, "Then shall the dust return to the earth as it was: and the spirit shall return unto God who gave it." He quotes the Interpreter's Dictionary of the Bible as saying that the spirit "is not, properly speaking, an anthropological reality, but a gift of God which returns to him at the time of death."

One is hard pressed to see how this reasoning plays out. There is nothing here that shows that the spirit is not an "anthropological reality" at all; if angels and evil spirits and the Spirit of God are anthropological realities, whence is the spirit of a man not so? (Eccl. 12:7, of course, does not say what happens to the spirit when it returns to God, or whether it has any consciousness; the word "return" has as many broad meanings as our modern word.)

Another verse pressed often into service in this regard is Gen. 3:19, "In the sweat of thy face shalt thou eat bread, till thou return unto the ground; for out of it wast thou taken: for dust thou art, and unto dust shalt thou return." This is taken to say that man is dust with no remainder at all, giving the idea that there is nothing else to survive death. (Eccl. 3:19-20 is also used similarly, but for reasons we will note below, using Ecclesiastes to support this doctrine is not a valid option.)

Taking this as a statement of complete identity, however, is rather too literalistic. Gen. 3:16-19 forms a metrical pattern and cannot be expected to be providing a full anthropological outline. If all man is is dust, what has happened to the breath of God that was put in him? Eccl. 12:7 answers, as does Elihu in Job 34:14-15, for what his answer may be worth: "If he set his heart upon man, if he gather unto himself his spirit and his breath; All flesh shall perish together, and man shall turn again unto dust." The latter seems to be an OT version of James 2:26.

We conclude therefore, for now, that "soul sleep" advocates may need to fine-tune their case and take the ruwach into consideration. They (as well as respondents) seem to have erred in taking "soul" and "spirit" as synonyms. (In fact, one of Bacchiochi's sources, Wolff's Anthropology of the OT [34], notes what I have about "spirit" above, but Bacchiochi oddly says nothing about this part of Wolff's book in the pieces we have read.)

Our primary source for the next part of this work is Philip Johnston's Shades of Sheol: Death and Afterlife in the Old Testament, which collects and collates data on belief in death and the afterlife as expressed in the OT. We may begin by summarizing some of Johnston's relevant conclusions that will be taken into consideration as we proceed:

Psalms 6:5 For there is no mention of Thee in death; In Sheol who will give Thee thanks? (cf. Ps. 30:9)
Ps. 115:17 The dead praise not the LORD, neither any that go down into silence.
Ps. 146:4 His breath goeth forth, he returneth to his earth; in that very day his thoughts perish.

Though not strictly used to absolutely prove soul sleep, the first two verses may be appealed to as persuasive evidence of it. Practically speaking they only tell us that the dead do not thank or praise God. That's only two activities out of many, and it is obviously possible to be conscious and not do these things for other reasons. (Eccl. 9:10 does note that "there is no work, nor device, nor knowledge, nor wisdom, in the grave," but as we will see below, it is questionable to use Ecclesiastes for this doctrine.)

The question raised is whether we have any sign that those in death are indeed conscious. Johnston [76] has collected all references to Sheol and notes these very verses as indications that Sheol cuts the person off from Yahweh, and that it is a place of silence. Only two texts describe any sort of activity in Sheol:

Is. 14:9-11 Hell from beneath is moved for thee to meet thee at thy coming: it stirreth up the dead for thee, even all the chief ones of the earth; it hath raised up from their thrones all the kings of the nations. All they shall speak and say unto thee, Art thou also become weak as we? art thou become like unto us? Thy pomp is brought down to the grave, and the noise of thy viols: the worm is spread under thee, and the worms cover thee.
Ezek. 32:31 The strong among the mighty shall speak to him out of the midst of hell with them that help him: they are gone down, they lie uncircumcised, slain by the sword.

These verses speak of the dead as being roused to greet a newcomer, and speaking from Sheol. This is not what one would call an active retirement, of course, but it is clearly a conscious retirement, or at the least, a state in which consciousness is a possibility.

This would meld well with the consistent use of the metaphor of sleep with reference to the dead that is found throughout the Bible; there is no need to press the metaphor into indicating a permanent or absolute state (see below). Note particularly in Isaiah that the dead mock the newly arrived dead and their "weakness".

In reply one may perhaps argue that Isaiah speaks figuratively of the dead only as though they were capable of conscious thought. On the other hand, if this is so, then Isaiah's choice of the "fellow dead" as the speakers, as opposed to those still alive or the Lord himself, seems particularly unfortunate for proponents of soul sleep.

It is the third verse from Psalms that seems most definitive. If one's thoughts "perish" then that implies that there is an unconscious state. It is of some note, however, that the word for "perish" is not the same as words found elsewhere: karath, a word which explicitly indicates punishment or destruction (Gen. 41:36, "And that food shall be for store to the land against the seven years of famine, which shall be in the land of Egypt; that the land perish not through the famine.") or naphal (Ex. 19:21, "And the LORD said unto Moses, Go down, charge the people, lest they break through unto the LORD to gaze, and many of them perish.").

The word used, 'abad, has a primary meaning of wandering away or losing one's self. Here is how it is used elsewhere:

Ex. 10:7 And Pharaoh's servants said unto him, How long shall this man be a snare unto us? let the men go, that they may serve the LORD their God: knowest thou not yet that Egypt is destroyed?
Deut. 4:26 I call heaven and earth to witness against you this day, that ye shall soon utterly perish from off the land whereunto ye go over Jordan to possess it; ye shall not prolong your days upon it, but shall utterly be destroyed.

Consider this in light of the point that Israel's ultimate punishment was exile.

Deut. 26:5 And thou shalt speak and say before the LORD thy God, A Syrian ready to perish was my father, and he went down into Egypt, and sojourned there with a few, and became there a nation, great, mighty, and populous.
1 Sam. 9:20 And as for thine asses that were lost three days ago, set not thy mind on them; for they are found. And on whom is all the desire of Israel? Is it not on thee, and on all thy father's house?

The sense of this word suggests that the state of death is not exactly unconscious, but one in which your mind wanders and focus is extremely difficult (which may make sense if your brain is missing.). In essence, if we understand 'abad correctly, those in Sheol do not lose consciousness, but rather, concentration. And if that is so, little wonder "sleeping" is the main activity.

Eccl. 9:5 For the living know that they shall die: but the dead know not any thing, neither have they any more a reward; for the memory of them is forgotten.

Nearly every defense of "soul sleep" I have seen thus far begins with or contains this verse. If it could be taken at face value, it would offer substantial evidence that the dead are in a state of unconsciousness. However, it is precisely because we cannot take it at "face value" that its use for "soul sleep" is unjustified.

As we have noted in other contexts, the nature of Ecclesiastes is paradoxical. It is a book filled with statements regarded as being in tension (for example, on one hand mulling over the despair of life, then shortly thereafter encouraging the enjoyment of life) and has been variously identified as either a dialogue of a man debating with himself, "torn between what he cannot help seeing and what he still cannot help believing," [Kidner, Wisdom of Proverbs, Job and Ecclesiastes, 91], or else as the author's "challenge to the man of the world to think his own position through to its bitter end, with a view to seeking something less futile."

In either case, the compositional principle is the same, and derives from the ancient Near Eastern methodology, which we might loosely compare to a Hegelian case of combining thesis and antithesis, to arrive at a synthesis.

In this regard Ecclesiastes is related to other ANE literature with the same, or similar, content and methodology. Works like A Dialogue About Human Misery and Pessimistic Dialogue Between Master and Servant from Babylon; The Man Who Was Tired of Life from Egypt; and the book of Job from the OT, are all examples of this genre in which problems were discussed and resolved via dialogue.

It is therefore incautious to use Eccl. 9:5 as a doctrinal foundation passage. It is like quoting, alone, Eliphaz or Bildad in the book of Job (or even Job himself, as some do: cf. Job 14:12), as Ecclesiastes is a whole is a "dialogue" document and, even if this understanding of 9:5 is able to be maintained, it arguably comes from the "negative" side of the dialogue and only represents a perception of the arguer from the negative side rather than being an affirmation of fact.

To the bewilderment of modern men who need all their answers in summary fashion, the above offers all that the Old Testament explicitly says about our subject. There are many other passages about Sheol and death, but no other passages give any explicit information about the state of the dead, and with particular reference to consciousness.

The only other relevant data from the OT is that which tells us of the illegal practice of necromancy (communication with the dead). The OT explicitly forbids this practice (Lev. 19:31//Deut. 18:10; cf. 2 Kings 21:6, 23:24) but that it is indeed practiced clearly suggests a belief in the ability to contact and speak to the dead in the first place. The most complete account, 1 Sam. 28, shows us that Saul clearly expected Samuel to be able to be contacted and therefore conscious. Nevertheless, this is not hard enough evidence, for of course it is arguable that Saul was acting upon a mistaken belief, and whether indeed Samuel himself was called up (or whether it was some other impersonation, natural or supernatural) cannot be determined from the text.

Such is the work of the OT; now what of the NT? The data is more plentiful pro rata, but little more specific. References to the dead being "asleep" on one hand, and Paul referring to being "present" with the Lord on the other (2 Cor. 5:8), harbor few specifics in terms of what the state of the deceased is (is "asleep" merely a euphemism, based on the bodily similarity of death to sleep, or are we to take it as reflecting a state of consciousness -- most of the time? all of the time? is one "with" the Lord in an unconscious state, being kept ready for resurrection?) and where they are "located".

As noted, it is difficult to invest too much meaning into the figurative use of "sleep" to refer to death. If the analogy has to be pressed, then during sleep, we do dream, and we do thereby have a sort of conscious life even in the intermediate state. We also have "light sleepers" who get up in the middle of the night, and go back to sleep. Yet proponents of soul sleep do not seem to press the analogy that far.

Proponents of "soul sleep" will inevitably point out that Judaism of this time, which apparently did believe in a conscious afterlife, had been tainted by Hellenistic thought, from whence it is supposed this idea came of a consciousness that could live apart from the body. While some would argue this in line with the Semitic Totality concept, that concept only, again, suggests that the material and immaterial parts of the body rightly belong together, not that they cannot exist independently. The immaterial part divorced from the material may, of course, be in less than optimal working order (as the "dizzy Sheolites" paradigm may suggest) because it is not in its proper place, but this would still not mean that there might not be some degree of consciousness after death.

Here are a few points about certain relevant passages:

Matt. 22:31-2 But as touching the resurrection of the dead, have ye not read that which was spoken unto you by God, saying, I am the God of Abraham, and the God of Isaac, and the God of Jacob? God is not the God of the dead, but of the living.

Opponents of "soul sleep" would argue that this passage indicates that the patriarchs are "alive" and in some sense conscious even now. Proponents respond that because Jesus' original answer had to do with the resurrection body, this says nothing about a conscious state prior to that time.

The contextual data favors the former position. The same passage cited by Jesus, Ex. 3:6, was also used by Philo (Abr. 50-55) and 4 Maccabees (7:18-19, 16:25) to say that the patriarchs are still living, and later rabbis used a similar passage, Ex. 33;1, to say that "the righteous are called living even in their death" [Keener, Matthew commentary, 529].

However, it must nevertheless be granted that nothing specific is said here about the state of consciousness of the deceased. A "sleeping" soul might well be reckoned as "living" after the manner of a person in a cryogenic freeze. We need to seek more specific descriptions.

We will save Luke 16 for next to last. Last will be an special end-around.

Jonn 11:11 These things said he: and after that he saith unto them, Our friend Lazarus sleepeth; but I go, that I may awake him out of sleep.

Perhaps the most peculiar argument I have seen for "soul sleep" comes from Bacchiocchi. In the item called "The State of the Dead" he writes:

Lazarus' experience is significant because he spent four days in the grave. This was not a near-death experience, but a real death experience. If, as popularly believed, the soul at death leaves the body and goes to heaven, then Lazarus would have had an amazing after-life experience to share about the four days he would have spent in paradise. The religious leaders and the people would have done all in their power to elicit from Lazarus as much information as possible about the after-life, especially since this topic was hotly debated among the Sadducees and Pharisees (Matt 22:23, 28; Mark 12:18, 23; Luke 20:27, 33).
But Lazarus had nothing to share about life after death, because during the four days he spent in the tomb he slept the unconscious sleep of death. What is true of Lazarus is also true of six other persons who were raised from the dead: The widow's son (1 Kings 17:17-24); the Shunammite's son (2 Kings 4:18-37); the widow's son at Nain (Luke 7:11-15); the daughter of Jairus (Luke 8:41, 42, 49-56); Tabitha (Acts 9:36-41); and Eutychus (Acts 20:9-12). Each of these persons came out of death as if it were out of a profound sleep, with the same feeling and individuality, but with no afterlife experience to share

Bacchiocchi is wrongly taking silence in texts as an affirmation. We do not know what if anything these persons experienced, and the narrators of each document had other concerns, and didn't have reams of paper to spare to write about it. Moreover, only Lazarus spent any significant amount of time dead (the Shunammite's son and Tabitha may have been dead for half a day or one day), and the powers that be didn't want his story -- they wanted to kill him. (John 12:10) Bacchiochi is imposing modern fascination with "near death experiences" unto the texts.

Acts 2:34 For David is not ascended into the heavens: but he saith himself, The Lord said unto my Lord, Sit thou on my right hand...

This has been used to declare that David is not in heaven, but still asleep in his grave; however, the context of this remark is a comparison to Jesus, who did ascend to heaven, and to make the point that Ps. 110:1 is fulfilled by Jesus, not by David. It really doesn't make a clear point saying that David is not in beatific bliss somewhere, though it doesn't make a positive affirmation about where he is, either.

1 Peter 3:19-20 By which also he went and preached unto the spirits in prison; Which sometime were disobedient, when once the longsuffering of God waited in the days of Noah, while the ark was a preparing, wherein few, that is, eight souls were saved by water.

This passage should never be used against the doctrine of soul sleep. As we have shown in Chapter 5 of The Mormon Defenders, and here, the "spirits" referred to are not human spirits.

Luke 16:23 And in hell he lift up his eyes, being in torments, and seeth Abraham afar off, and Lazarus in his bosom.

I have purposely saved this cite for near last. If any passage gives us a clear view of the afterlife one way or the other, it is this one; yet it still lacks specifics enough to develop a full-fledged picture of the afterlife. The rich man is conscious in hades; Abraham is conscious in paradise, and Lazarus presumably is as well (or can be) if he is being asked to run an errand.

This would seem clear evidence of an afterlife in which consciousness is at least possible (of course they could just all have been awake for a short time) but Bacchiocchi objects on the following grounds:

In closing, though, we might add that we have no idea whether Abraham, Lazarus, and the rich man were always active like they are depicted, or whether they were all in a sleepy state most of the time, or what. This parable doesn't give us more than a sliver of a view regardless of what we make of it.

Now for the last verse I want to look at, and it is an "end around" that I have seen no "soul sleep" advocate deal with -- because it doesn't mention death, they would probably never think to mention it. Here it is:

2 Cor. 12:2-4 I knew a man in Christ above fourteen years ago, (whether in the body, I cannot tell; or whether out of the body, I cannot tell: God knoweth;) such an one caught up to the third heaven. And I knew such a man, (whether in the body, or out of the body, I cannot tell: God knoweth;) How that he was caught up into paradise, and heard unspeakable words, which it is not lawful for a man to utter.

This proves that Paul believed that a man could have a conscious life apart from a body. He didn't die (most commentators think he is referring to himself obliquely here, and his conversion experience on the road to Damascus, as a means of not assuming too much honor) but he allows that he may have been "out of the body" and yet was still conscious and able to hear things (in spite of having no "ears"). None of this proves this state was static or permanent, but it is clear that he allows for the separation of two elements with consciousness remaining even in the separation.

The conclusion: It is clear that consciousness is possible in the intermediate state before resurrection; whether it is a steady or a changing state is a matter of speculation. Not that we need to be concerned. I suspect the Bible spends little time on the afterlife (including the silence Bacchiochi mistakenly sees as problematic) precisely in order to keep our minds where they should be -- on the here and now, serving the Lord Jesus.

Related subject: Why are the doctrines of heaven and hell not found in the OT?