Does the soul sleep at death?

Recently someone was trying to convince me that when we die we don’t go immediately to heaven, but that our soul dies along with our body. Is that true?

This position is often referred to as the doctrine of “soul sleep.” It is a position which is held by Seventh Day Adventists, Jehovah’s Witnesses, and a few otherwise orthodox theologians. The view is that soul has no conscious existence apart from the body, so that when the body dies, the soul dies too, and both body and soul remain dead until the time of the resurrection, at the second coming.

Those who advocate the position base their argument on the fact that Scripture often speaks of the dead as sleeping (e.g., Mk. 5:39; Jn. 11:11; 1 Cor. 15:20; etc.). But this hardly proves the point because this kind of figurative language is consistent with both their doctrine and the traditional view, that the soul survives the death of the body. And if it’s consistent with both, it is proof of neither.

Those who advocate of the doctrine of soul sleep often say that the soul or spirit of man is nothing more than his breath that gives life to the body. They make much of the fact that the underlying Hebrew and Greek words which are sometimes translated as spirit or soul can also be translated as wind or breath.

But this is hardly an adequate analysis of the original words. It is true that the basic root meaning of the Hebrew word for spirit (ruach), as well as its Greek counterpart (pneuma), is wind or breath, but translating the words consistently in this way yields some pretty bizarre results. For instance, John 4:24, “God is a spirit, and those who worship him must worship in spirit and truth”, becomes “God is a wind, and those who worship him must worship in wind and truth”! Hebrews 12:23, “You have come to…God, the judge of all, and to the spirits of the righteous made perfect”, becomes “You have come to…God the judge of all, and to the winds/breaths of the righteous made perfect.”

And if we were to follow this through, we should refer to the three persons of the Holy Trinity as the Father, the Son, and the Holy Wind!

We frequently find that personal acts, feelings, and desires, are ascribed to the soul (nephesh/psyche), which demonstrates that something more is meant than simply wind or breath. Consider, for instance, Isaiah 26:8-9.
Your name and remembrance
     are the desire of our soul.
My soul yearns for you in the night;
     my spirit within me earnestly seeks you.
We cannot understand this of man’s breath. It doesn’t make sense.

The fact of the matter is that the meaning of words is determined less by their root meaning than by their actual usage. One must always look to the context. And these original words are found numerous times in contexts that require us to understand them of something more than simply breath or wind. Sometimes underlying words mean breath or wind, but sometimes they mean “soul.” The context determines the meaning.

Luke 23:43 is pretty convincing evidence of the traditional understanding of the intermediate state (between death and resurrection). Jesus spoke to the dying thief and said, “Truly, I say to you, today you shall be with me in Paradise.”

In 2 Corinthians 5 Paul says, “We know that while we are at home in the body we are away from the Lord” (v. 6). What part of our being is it that is away from the body and present with the Lord if not the soul? A little later in the same passage he says, “We would rather be away from the body and at home with the Lord” (v. 8).

Paul speaks of the same things in Philippians when he says that his “desire is to depart and be with Christ, for that is far better” (Phil. 1:23). The context shows that “to depart” means to die. Paul’s expectation was to be “with Christ” when he died. He clearly wasn’t thinking in terms of soul sleep.

Jesus teaches the continuation of the conscious existence of the soul in Luke 16:19-31, where he speaks of the rich man and Lazarus. Lazarus died “and was carried by the angels to Abraham’s side” (v. 22). The rich man also died and was buried, but his soul lived on in Hades (v. 23). The two men were both conscious and aware of their surroundings. One was in torment; the other was blessed with Abraham and all the righteous men who had preceded him in death. This is the place that Jesus referred to as Paradise when he spoke to the dying thief on the cross. It is pretty difficult to reconcile the passage with the doctrine of soul sleep.


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