By Reverend Mark Hunnemann
1. A book frequently appealed to is Ecclesiastes, where it seems to teach soul sleep…..One should NEVER appeal primarily to this book for doctrinal support because the stated perspective is “under the sun”(life without God), which leads to meaningless existence.
An increasing number of Christians are appealing to the notion of soul sleep as their primary argument against the notion of ghosts. This is an in-family discussion, and while I deeply rejoice in their courage to confront a very serious issue, I am also concerned that the biblical view of the afterlife is being distorted. What is soul sleep? It has to do with what is known as the intermediate state—the time between a person’s death and the Second Coming of Christ. It is the belief that when we die, our souls remain asleep until Jesus returns. Of course if this were true, it would be a profound argument against ghosts, but it is not, and using it is counter-productive. Besides, as I point out in Seeing Ghosts through God’s Eyes, there are many other cogent arguments which stand on solid biblical ground.
I have to ask this question: why do people believe in this notion? They sincerely believe the bible teaches it. I respect that. But, historically there is another reason this notion has arisen. The reasoning goes like this: if the body cannot exist without the soul, then the soul cannot exist without the body. That is fallacious reasoning because it leads to a non-sequitor or false conclusion. When the soul leaves the body, then that person is dead, and their body will decay. However, there is no scriptural or anecdotal evidence to support the notion that the soul cannot exist apart from the body. The soul is the consciousness/essence of a person…it is spiritual in nature. If in principle we think that a spiritual soul cannot exist without a body, then how do we explain God, angels, and demons….all of whom have spirits without bodies—except for Jesus’ body in heaven? They are disembodied consciousness and personality, so why not the same for humans when they become disembodied?
2. Also, it is asserted that since Jesus referred to dead people as sleeping, then that clearly indicated the souls of dead people are sleeping; Is that not what Jesus said? No. He said they were asleep…He did not say their soul was asleep. What is asleep, the soul or the body? Clearly the bible and experience teach that our bodies rest or sleep until they are resurrected. More to the point, we need to be familiar with the culture of the time—calling death, sleep was simply a common euphemism of the day for death—it was not a technical term used to indicate the soul’s awareness level. Meaning is determined by context, and in this case it is the whole bible.
3. A survey of church history shows that all three branches (Roman Catholic, Orthodox, and Protestant) have staunchly supported conscious existence after death. From the early church fathers to today, conscious existence after death has been a crucial aspect of classical Christianity. All the Reformers, historical confessions (e.g., Westminster Confession) as well as the great Revivalists (Edwards, Whitfield, Wesley, Spurgeon, and Moody) all robustly affirmed the importance of “when they are dead, they will have never been more alive!” Moody. John Calvin’s first book was a refutation of the notion of soul sleep.
4. Today, the two main groups that affirm soul sleep are Seventh Day Adventists and Jehovah’s Witnesses; regarding the latter, the late great Walter Martin saw soul sleep as one of the hallmarks of a cult.
5. Enoch and Elijah were beamed up into heaven very much conscious….would God take them only to put them to sleep?
6. Moses and Elijah appeared with Jesus on the Mt. of Transfiguration and were talking to Him. The simplest explanation is continuity of conscious existence.
7. In Acts 7 Jesus stands to celebrate Stephen’s homecoming while he is being stoned to death.
8. Rev. 6:9-11 The current activity and communication of the souls of believers is seen and heard by John. The topic of their discussion could only occur during the intermediate state. Crucial text.
9. “…away from the body and at home with the Lord.” (2 Cor.5:8) one reason I don’t reference Hebrew and Greek more often is that it can inadvertently cause folks to lose confidence in their English bibles…which are exceedingly accurate. Clearly Paul anticipates that death will propel his soul into heaven.
10. Phil.1:21 “For to me to live is Christ, and to die is gain.” Paul succinctly summarizes his dilemma and then elaborates. Life or death, Jesus is everything to Paul. If he stays then he will have a fruitful ministry with them by being a minister of their joy in Christ. But if he dies…Paul’s longing to be with Jesus will be fulfilled. Paul yearns for the latter, but his Jesus-like servant heart will choose to continue to help them. But the point is clear—death is seen as an immediate entry into Christ’s presence. How could it be considered gain if he said, “I’m excited about being asleep for 2,000 years…”? Remember Paul had already had a direct vision of heaven which was unspeakably wonderful. THAT is what he desired above all else.
11. “But you have come to Mt Zion and to the city of the living God….and to the spirits of the righteous made perfect.” Heb.12:22-24 Note that it says… you have come…a present reality (same in Greek as in English). This is a reference to the church militant (us) worshipping with the church triumphant…NOW!. The righteous made perfect are the glorified souls of believers in heaven who are worshipping God now. Dr. Edmund Clowney, commenting on these amazing verses, states that when believers join for corporate worship, then we are mystically united with the departed saints in worship of the living God--with Jesus as the choirmaster (2:12)! “Truly, I say to you, today you will be with Me in Paradise.” (emp. added) Lk23:43 If one has a solid grasp of the central doctrine of union with Christ, there is no way to believe in soul sleep. By virtue of being in Christ we are already in heaven! (Col.3:1f)