Q&R with Brad Jersak – What do you make of “Soul Sleep”?
What do you make of the idea of “soul sleep”?
For our readers’ sake, let’s briefly define “soul sleep.”Soul sleep is the belief that when Christians (specifically) die, the soul enters a state of unconscious rest until the final resurrection.
The biblical warrant for this view is that Scripture (including Jesus) does refer to those who’ve died (bodily death) as “asleep.” Jesus says of Jairus’ daughter, “Why all this commotion and wailing? The child is not dead but asleep” (Mark 5:39). Again John 11, Jesus says, “Our friend Lazarus has fallen asleep; but I go, so that I may awaken him out of sleep.”
Paul speaks like this, too, in 1 Corinthians 15:6, “After that He appeared to more than five hundred brethren at one time, most of whom remain until now, but some have fallen asleep…” and again in verse 20: “But now Christ has been raised from the dead, the first fruits of those who are asleep.”
What do we make of these texts? Should we read them literally? Or are they better understood metaphorically? And if so, why that metaphor? In other words, how does the metaphor “asleep” function in context? What concern does it address?
In both Jesus’ speech and Paul’s writings, it may be this simple: “asleep” implies a temporary condition from which we wake up in the resurrection. That is, the resurrection has reframed death itself, negating every claim that death is a final destination or permanent state. So much so that the Lord and his apostle refuse even to give the word “death” the dignity of using it to describe the condition of those who have “fallen asleep.” We can see how, in each of these passages, “asleep” is a way of saying “death is not the end.”
“Soul-sleep” concerns & assumptions
That said, proponents of “soul sleep” claim more than that. They assert that when the body dies, the soul is unconscious OR even ceases to exist OR somehow fast-forwards through time directly to the resurrection. Why make that claim? I believe it is out of a genuine two-fold concern.
The first is that it seems like the final resurrection is an awfully long time to wait! I can relate, even if the afterlife is a blessed holiday in paradise. Second, and to be taken quite seriously, the “soul sleep” camp claims that the Jewish view of the soul includes the body. And when the body dies, you die. You can’t live as a disembodied soul.
I don’t want to bog down in the details of why that isn’t an obvious or uniform Jewish perspective, even in their scriptures. Certainly, Jewish ideas on the state of the soul in sheol or paradise vary over time, across texts, and among rabbis. Even in Jesus’ day, the Pharisees and Sadducees sharply disagreed over the reality of the Resurrection.
Full disclosure: modern Christians are far too quick to oversimplify the complexity of Jewish theologies (plural) into a reduction we call “Second Temple Judaism,” (1) as if it were univocal, and (2) as if Jesus even subscribed to it.
Conscious Sleep in the NT
However we regard the “sleep” of those who experience bodily death, the issue we’re discussing is (1) primarily, the consciousness of those who have “fallen asleep,” (2) their awareness of heaven and earth, and (3) the passage of time from their perspective. Again, we’re talking about a mystery and are subject to the limits of human language and our interpretation of biblical revelation.
“With the Lord”
(1) Consciousness of those who’ve fallen asleep. While we cannot be sure to what degree we’re still reading metaphors, Scripture does, in fact, frequently describe death in terms of conscious existence. First, we know that we will be WITH THE LORD:
Therefore, being always of good courage, and knowing that while we are at home in the body, we are absent from the Lord—for we walk by faith, not by sight—we are of good courage, I say, and prefer rather to be absent from the body and to be at home with the Lord. (2 Corinthians 5:6–8)
For to me, to live is Christ and to die is gain. But if I am to live on in the flesh, this will mean fruitful labor for me; and I do not know which to choose. But I am hard-pressed from both directions, having the desire to depart and be with Christ, for that is very much better; yet to remain on in the flesh is more necessary for your sake. (Philippians 1:21–24)
And Jesus, crying out with a loud voice, said, “Father, into Your hands I commit My Spirit.” Having said this, He breathed His last. (Luke 23:46)
Now back to Lazarus:
Jesus said to Martha, “Your brother will rise again.” Martha said to him, “I know that he will rise again in the resurrection on the last day.” Jesus said to her, “I am the resurrection and the life; he who believes in Me will live even if he dies, and everyone who lives and believes in Me will never die. Do you believe this?” She said to Him, “Yes, Lord; I have believed that You are the Christ, the Son of God, even He who comes into the world.”
Even though Martha believes Lazarus will be raised on the Last Day, Jesus clarifies that all who believe in him “will live even if he dies” and even regards that as not really ever dying. When? Even prior to the resurrection. Where?
Awareness of Heaven and Earth
(2) Awareness of heaven and earth. Now we move to the biblical description of where the dead in Christ abide and what they are aware of. Yes, they are WITH THE LORD, but more specifically, First, they are with the Lord “on Mount Zion,” at “the Throne of Grace.”
22 But you have come to Mount Zion, to the city of the living God, the heavenly Jerusalem. You have come to thousands upon thousands of angels in joyful assembly, 23 to the church of the firstborn, whose names are written in heaven. You have come to God, the Judge of all, to the spirits of the righteous made perfect, 24 to Jesus the mediator of a new covenant, and to the sprinkled blood that speaks a better word than the blood of Abel. (Hebrews 12:22-24)
This is a loaded passage. First, notice where we are: the passages describe the heavenly Jerusalem, where both angels and the spirits of the righteous made perfect are assembled with Jesus before the living God. This description is similar to John’s vision in Revelation 7:
9 After this I looked, and there before me was a great multitude that no one could count, from every nation, tribe, people and language, standing before the throne and before the Lamb. They were wearing white robes and were holding palm branches in their hands. 10 And they cried out in a loud voice:
“Salvation belongs to our God, who sits on the throne, and to the Lamb.”But what is so striking about the Hebrews text is that we are there, too! Not WILL BE there. But rather, we HAVE COME there. It seems that whenever we lift our hearts in prayer and worship to the Lamb upon the throne, we have joined that same chorus of angels and human spirits in the presence of God.
The Experience of Time(3) The experience of time after death Again, we have very scarce revelation on how we experience time beyond the veil, and what we have is embedded in John’s dreams, which are highly symbolic. Nevertheless, the following passage does describe an experience of time.
9 When he opened the fifth seal, I saw under the altar the souls of those who had been slain because of the word of God and the testimony they had maintained. 10 They called out in a loud voice, “How long, Sovereign Lord, holy and true, until you judge the inhabitants of the earth and avenge our blood?” 11 Then each of them was given a white robe, and they were told to wait a little longer, until the full number of their fellow servants, their brothers and sisters, were killed just as they had been. (Revelation 6:9-11)
At face value, the italicized words indicate that these are (1) souls, (2) who have been slain, (3) “under the altar” (??) in the heavenly temple, (4) aware of and even lamenting the tribulations in this world, and (5) asking, “How long?” That indicates a conscious experience of the passage of time. Again, it’s just one passage, part of a dream sequence, and in my opinion, insufficient to establish a doctrine. But what it does do is problematize the notion of “soul sleep” when firmly defined as “unconscious existence.”
Two Suggestions (only suggestions)
My heart is at peace with the following suggestions, humbly offered as conjecture by others who I respect.
(1) The Transfiguration of Time. Olivier Clement wrote a dense little book titled Transfiguring Time. In it, he suggests that in the person of Jesus Christ, we have the union of Creator and creation, deity and humanity, as well as eternity and time. In that union, the Creator transfigures (or transforms) creation, Deity transfigures humanity, and therefore also, we know not how, Eternity transfigures time. Notice that in the Incarnation, the deity of Christ didn’t negate his humanity, but it did glorify it. So too, in Christ, eternity does not negate time but somehow transforms it.
How? Now here I can finally be dogmatic: we don’t know! At most, we might say this, those who are asleep in the Lord, are alive with Lord in a completely transfigured experience that we cannot really imagine (though it’s fun and sometimes fruitful to try).
(2) “I was asleep but my heart was awake.” (Song of Solomon 5:20). This phrase is drawn from Solomon’s love song. That poem is traditionally read as a metaphor in which the bride is either the individual soul or the people of God (Israel or Church), and the Lover is God or Christ. Now, I wouldn’t assign any meaning to that phrase in the context of the state of the soul after death. But the words of the phrase do remind us of a reality we all experience: that when we sleep, our bodies may lay motionless in our bed with our eyes closed and physical senses inactive (my wife Eden wishes mine would), but at the same time, in our dreams, our minds are active and in that state, we may experience all five senses. This is a real living experience in which our bodies may seem dormant, but our inner world is not.
ONLY by way of analogy might we say that after physical death, our bodies become dormant, our senses cease to function, and we penultimately (that means second last) decompose. In that state, as in a dream, our hearts are alive, and our senses are awake to the presence of God, but unlike our dreams, we are alive and awake to something more real than our dreams, more real than this life, and certainly more real than death.
Those in the great cloud of witnesses, the spirits of the righteous made perfect who worship before the throne, might say to us, “Dead, oh no, we’re not dead. We live. And ‘asleep’? Sure, but our hearts are awake to the love and presence of God.”