Sleep of death | The Death State

by Warren Prestidge

According to the Bible, the dead, whether Christian or non-Christian, good or evil, saved or lost, are neither suffering in “hell,” nor laboring in “purgatory,” nor rejoicing in “heaven.” Rather, they have entirely ceased to function. Without consciousness, they await the resurrection of the dead at the return of the Christ, that is, Jesus, in the glory of God. To use a common biblical metaphor, they “sleep the sleep of death” (Psalm 13:3).


In the Old Testament, dying is frequently referred to as, lying down in sleep, and the dead are said to be asleep. Three different Hebrew words are used to this effect. First, shachabh. Examples: Deuteronomy 31:16, 1 Kings 2:10 (“David slept with his ancestors, and was buried … ,” compare Acts 13:36) and more than 30 similar instances. Second, yashen. Examples: Job 3:13; Psalm 13:3; Daniel 12:2 (the dead “sleep in the dust of the earth”). Third, shenah. For instance, Job 14:12 (the dead “will not awake or be roused out of their sleep”: see below).

The “sleep” of death affects all humans the same way:

There the wicked cease from troubling, and there the weary are at rest.1

It is “a perpetual sleep”2 No “dreaming” is hinted at! Rather, the metaphor signifies utter inactivity, unconsciousness and, in effect, non-existence.

But mortals die, and are laid low; humans expire, and where are they?

As waters fail from a lake, and a river wastes away and dries up, so mortals lie down and do not rise again; until the heavens are no more, they will not awake or be roused out of their sleep.3

Job 7:21: “For now I shall lie (shachabh, KJV “sleep”) in the earth; you (God) will seek me, but I shall not be.”

There is no hope of further existence for us, unless God “remembers” and “awakens” us (Job 14:13-15). The astonishing thing is that, despite all the odds, this is exactly what he will do, at the day of resurrection, when “many who sleep in the dust of the earth shall awake” (Daniel 12:2). In fact the book of Job itself asserts the hope of ultimate resurrection. However, this assertion is based, not on any supposed immortal part of human nature, but on faith in God’s ultimate justice:

For I know that my Redeemer lives, and that at the last he will stand upon the earth; and after my skin has been thus destroyed, then in my flesh I shall see God …4

Again, it is precisely because the Bible’s approach to death is so uncompromisingly realistic, that the faith in resurrection which ultimately emerges is so compelling.

Just a few passages do appear to suggest that there is more to the death-state than “sleep.” The first is 1 Samuel 28:3-25, where King Saul consults the “witch of Endor” and the dead Samuel is said to appear and speak. Note four points. (1) The Bible absolutely condemns and ridicules the practice of consulting the dead, even in the immediate context (1 Samuel 28:9),5 since “ … there is no work or thought or knowledge or wisdom in Sheo l … ”6 (2) Nevertheless, Samuel’s message to Saul at Endor is that of a genuine prophet of God. (3) The medium herself is forestalled in her arts and startled by Samuel’s appearing (verse 12). As W. A. Beuken observes, “Samuel beats the woman to it.”7 (4) Samuel is referred to here, not as a “spirit of the dead,” for which the normal Hebrew word is ‘obh, but as ‘elohim, a “divine being.” This word, in the medium’s language, “expresses well on whose authority and with whose message Samuel comes.”8

Our conclusion, with W. A. Beuken, is that Samuel’s appearing is presented as a “one-off” work of God, confounding both the “witch” and Saul, re-affirming God’s truth and power where Saul had hoped for a more comforting alternative. Samuel “does not come as a dead ghost … but … as a prophet of the … living God.”9 Similarly, after careful analysis, Bill T. Arnold concludes that it is “unlikely that a disembodied ‘soul’ of Samuel could be involved,” but rather “the concept of physical resuscitation is suggestive.”10 In fact, the account gives no credence to spiritism, nor does it teach anything at all about the death-state except this one all-important truth: that even there God is in control.

Two other passages may be taken together: Isaiah 14:3-20 and Ezekiel 32:17-32. Both depict people dead in “Sheol” as speaking and experiencing emotion. But then, they depict trees doing the same (Isaiah 14:8, Ezekiel 31:16)! These expressions “are obviously poetic symbolism.”11 Mythological pictures of the death-state are being used for rhetorical effect, not as elements of doctrine. Similarly, in Job 26:5 “the shades (repha’im) below” are said to “tremble” before God.12 This is poetry, utilizing features of common popular lore. Once again, all that is conclusively affirmed about the death-state is, that it is “the land of forgetfulness” (Psalm 88:12), but that even the dead are not safe from God or beyond his power.

Now, to assert that the one God is in full control, even in relation to the dead, is a tremendous affirmation of monotheism. Pagan thought envisaged a multiplicity of gods, personifying a multiplicity of natural forces, often in mutual conflict, none of whom was in ultimate control at all. According to this way of thinking, the realm of the dead was the province of a different god from the realm of the living. For example, in Graeco-Roman thought, Hades/Pluto ruled the dead and Zeus/Jupiter the living. In Egyptian thought, it was Osiris as against Amun-Re’. The thoroughly pagan notion that hell is a realm ruled by the devil is a vestige of the same way of thinking. The biblical revelation of the one God, who rules living and dead alike, amounts to a radical revolution, a giant leap in human understanding.13 It is vital to our theme. But it adds no support to the idea of the immortality of the human soul or spirit.

What, then, of this word “Sheol,” which we have already encountered a couple of times? The Hebrew word sheol occurs some 65 times in the Old Testament, with reference to the place or state of the dead. The New Testament equivalent is hades (e.g. Acts 2:24-28). Although often misleadingly translated “hell,” “Sheol” is never once depicted in the Old Testament as a place or state of suffering. In fact, of the wicked it can be said, “in peace they go down to Sheol” (Job 21:13). The true import of the word is clearly conveyed by various equivalents given in the same context. Equivalents are: “the Pit” (shachath: Job 17:13-14; Psalm 16:10; Isaiah 38:17; or bor: Psalm 30:3, 9; Isaiah 14:15; Ezekiel 32:18); “destruction” (‘abhaddon: Job 26:5, 28:22;  Proverbs 15:11, 27:20); “silence” (dumah: Psalm 94:17, 115:17) ; “corruption” (diaphthora: Acts 2:31); “the grave” (qever: Psalm 49:14, 88:5) ; “the dust” (‘aphar: Job 17:16; Psalm 30:9); “death” (maweth: Psalm 6:5; Isaiah 38:18; Hosea 13:14; or thanatos: Revelation 1:18, 20:13-14) .

E. E. Ellis explains:

Sheol is “in the dust” (Job 17:13ff.) and is probably best understood generically as “the grave” … It is a state of sleep, rest, darkness, silence, without thought or memory (Job 3:16-17, 17:13ff; Psalm 6:5; Ecclesiastes. 9:5, 10) … 14

The analysis of Helmut Thielicke, based on Ludwig Koehler’s research, is even more conclusive:

Sheol … is a nonland, a sphere that does not exist, and it is to this that the dead come.15


1. Job 3:17; see 21:26.

2. Jeremiah 51:39, 57.

3. Job 14:10-12.

4. Job 19:25-26. Although there is much debate about this passage, it seems quite clear that Job anticipates seeing God both after death and in an embodied state; that is, by resurrection. For convincing discussions, see: Norman C. Habel, The Book of Job, London: S.C.M. Press, 1985, pp.307-309; Francis I. Andersen, Job, Leicester: Inter-Varsity Press, 1977, pp. 193-194.

5. See Leviticus 19:31, 20:6; Deuteronomy 18:10-11; Isaiah 8:19-20.

6. Ecclesiastes 9:10.

7. W. A. M. Beuken, “I Samuel 28: The Prophet as ‘Hammer of Witches,’” in Journal for the Study of the Old Testament, Sheffield University, Vol.1, 6, 1978, pp. 3-17; p. 8.

8. W. A. M. Beuken, p.10.

9. W. A. M. Beuken, p.10.

10. Bill T. Arnold, “Soul-Searching Questions About 1 Samuel 28,” in Joel B. Green (Ed.), What About the Soul?, Nashville: Abingdon Press, 2004, p. 81.

11. E. E. Ellis, “Life,” in The New Bible Dictionary, p. 736.

12. See also Psalm 88:10-12.

13. For example, it paved the way for modern scientific faith in the uniformity of nature.

14. E. E. Ellis, “Life,” in The New Bible Dictionary, p. 736.

15. H. Thielicke, Living with Death, p. 113.

About Warren Prestidge

Warren Prestidge (M.A., B.D. Hons) is a Baptist pastor. His first degree was in English, and he has taught at Auckland University and at secondary school. Since 1981, he has pastored churches in Auckland and also lectured for the Bible College of New Zealand and Tyndale College. For two years he directed a Bible College in the Philippines. He authored “Life, Death and Destiny.” Warren’s wife, Jackie, is a mathematics teacher. Warren and Jackie have three adult sons.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s