Asleep in Christ | The Death State

by Warren Prestidge

Asleep in Christ

In the New Testament, the “sleep” metaphor for death is taken up some 19 times. Examples: Matt. 9:24, 1 Thessalonians 5:10 (Greek katheudo); Acts 7:60, Acts 13:36, 1 Cor. 11:30, 15:6 and 15:18 (Greek koimasthai). Unfortunately, the NRSV often obscures the point by translating, simply, “died.”1

Following Jesus’ own example (e.g. Matt. 9:24), the metaphor is used with comforting connotations in the New Testament. However, Jesus certainly did not mean to deny that death is real! As John 11:11-14 clearly shows, Jesus’ special point is that, because of him death is not final.

“Our friend Lazarus has fallen asleep, but I am going there to awaken him.”2

Through Jesus, there is the assured prospect of being “awakened out of sleep,” by resurrection.

“I am the resurrection and the life.”3

It is the prospect of resurrection to eternal life that “gilds the bed of death with light.”

Paul makes exactly this point in 1 Thessalonians 4:13-18, where, again, the metaphor of “sleep” is used for death. The question here is: What comfort does the gospel offer bereaved Christians (13, 15)? Thessalonian Christians are grieving over people in the church who have died. Paul writes: “But we do not want you to be uninformed, brothers and sisters, about those who have died [literally “are sleeping”], so that you may not grieve as others do who have no hope” (13). Here is Paul, intent on dispelling ignorance concerning the dead. Here, if anywhere, Paul intends to be very explicit about the death-state. Here, if anywhere, he would undoubtedly assure us that the souls of the saved have gone to heaven, if that is what he believes. But he does not! The comfort he offers is not that “those who have fallen asleep” are already enjoying conscious fellowship with God. His whole focus is on future resurrection at the return of Christ, who has already been raised.

Verse 14 says:

“For since we believe that Jesus died and rose again, even so, through Jesus, God will bring with him those who have died.”

This does not mean that the dead are already alive “with” Jesus, but rather, that “although later in time, the resurrection of the people of Christ is their participation in his resurrection.”4  Similarly, in 2 Corinthians 4:14 Paul writes: “ … we know that the one who raised the Lord Jesus will raise us also with Jesus.” So then, the comfort Paul offers here in 1 Thessalonians 4 is, that “the dead in Christ will rise” (1 Thessalonians 4:16), when Jesus “descends from heaven” at his return, and that thus “we shall always be with the Lord” (17). Alan Richardson concludes:

The apostolic church seems to have held that we do not receive our resurrection bodies immediately after we die, but that we ‘sleep’ in Christ until the parousia (second coming) … the beautiful metaphor of sleep most adequately expresses the deepest conviction of the apostolic church concerning those of the baptized who had already died …5

It is amazing how reluctant many Christians have been to accept the persistent biblical metaphor for death, “sleep,” in its plain significance. It is sometimes argued that the New Testament means to describe only dying itself as “falling asleep,” rather than the death-state as “sleep.” This is plainly not true. “The expression in the New Testament signifies … the condition … of the dead.”6 In Mathew. 9:34, 1 Thessalonians 4:13,  1 Thessalonians 5:10 and 1 Corinthians 11:30, the present continuous tense is used: the dead “is” or “are sleeping.” Furthermore, references such as John 11:11, Acts 13:36 and Revelation 14:13 show that the suggested distinction is illusory: “Our friend Lazarus has fallen asleep,” says Jesus, “but I am going to awaken him” (John 11:11). “Awakening,” of course, is by resurrection (John 11:43-44, Daniel 12:2).

Jesus’ great declaration in John 11:25-26 is commonly used at funerals. Rightly so!

“I am the resurrection and the life. Those who believe in me, even though they die, will live, and everyone who lives and believes in me will never die.”

What does this mean? “ … the person who believes in me, even if death overtakes him, will nevertheless be raised up in resurrection life; and … every person who will gain resurrection life as a believer in me will never die but live forever.”7 The only hope of those who are “asleep” in death is resurrection, and resurrection will occur at the second coming of Christ (1 Corinthians 15:17-23, 51-54), a hope based squarely, not on speculative ideas or wishful thinking, but on the central facts of the gospel:

“If Christ has not been raised … those also who have died [literally, fallen asleep] in Christ have perished … But in fact Christ has been raised from the dead, the first fruits of those who have died [fallen asleep]. For since death came through a human being,8  the resurrection of the dead has also come through a human being;9

“ … But each in his own order: Christ the first fruits, then at his coming those who belong to Christ.”10

DIVERSE CHRISTIAN TRADITIONS

It is scandalous that, despite the clear, consistent teaching of both the Hebrew and the Greek Testaments, Christian tradition has displayed great confusion over the death-state. Today it is very widely recognized that this has been due largely to the influence of ancient Greek ideas, an influence already strong in some pre-Christian Jewish circles. Paul Althaus explains: “ … the original biblical concepts have been replaced by ideas from Hellenistic (Greek) Gnostic dualism. The New Testament idea of resurrection, which affects the total man, has had to give way to the immortality of the soul. The Last Day also loses its significance, for souls have received all that is decisively important long before this. Eschatological tension [i.e. the Christian hope] is no longer directed to the day of Jesus’ coming. The difference between this and the hope of the New Testament is very great.”11

(a) During the Middle Ages, an elaborate fourfold doctrine of the death-state was evolved in the Western Christian Church. This schema is reflected in Dante’s great poem, “The Divine Comedy,” and became standard for Roman Catholicism. (1) At death, “souls” of unbaptized infants and, perhaps, exceptional pagans, go to “limbo,” a state of lostness but not actual suffering.12  (2) Souls of the lost go to eternal torment in “hell.” (3) Souls of most Christians go to a place of temporary suffering called “purgatory,” where through suffering they are cleansed of their sins and their attachment to sin, in preparation for final bliss. (4) Souls of exceptional Christians (the “saints”) go immediately to heaven (“paradise”), to be with God and Christ. Eventually, the souls of those whose time in purgatory is finished go there also.

All the sixteenth century Protestant Reformers rejected the doctrine of purgatory, for three good reasons: it is not found anywhere in the Bible; it is contrary to the fundamental of salvation by grace alone; it is open to terrible abuse, as when the Medieval Church claimed the power to relieve the suffering of those in purgatory and charged the faithful money to do so. Some added a fourth reason: there is no immortal human soul.13

(b) Through the Reformation, a simplified scheme emerged. According to a common Protestant view of death, the souls of the lost go immediately to punishment in “hell,” while the souls of the saved go immediately to “heaven,” there to enjoy full, conscious communion with Christ. Although this is widely assumed today to be the Christian view, it is neither the Roman Catholic view, as we have seen, nor the view of the Orthodox Church, nor has it been widely held by Christians at all until comparatively recently.

As a matter of fact, the idea of the soul’s immediate ascent to heaven at death is of Greek (Gnostic) origin, not biblical or Christian. In my opinion, it is precisely this view that the apostle Paul is arguing against in his great “Resurrection Chapter,” 1 Corinthians 15. Those he opposes there saw no need of a resurrection (verse 12), precisely because they assumed, in line with their Greek Platonist upbringing, that the soul is immortal and held that saved souls go to heaven immediately at death. Bruce Winter explains:

It was not the resurrection of Christ that was denied, but the resurrection of the Christian’s body over against the pagan doctrine of the immortality of the soul. To the first century mind, the immortality of the soul was unquestionably true for most pagans … Paul strongly refutes this aberrant view of the Christian’s continuity apart from one’s body …14

Not surprisingly, then, this view was also roundly opposed by prominent second and third century Christian teachers, such as Justin Martyr, Irenaeus and Tertullian, who found it irreconcilable with the hope of the resurrection. “Justin Martyr told Trypho [a Jewish opponent] that if he encountered any Christians who ‘dare to blaspheme God … by asserting that there is no resurrection of the dead, but that their souls are taken up to heaven at the very moment of their death, do not consider them to be real Christians! (Dialogue With Trypho, xx) ’” 15 And, as a matter of fact, neither Calvin nor Luther, the two greatest Reformation leaders, held this view!

(c) Calvin’s view was similar to that of many early, post-biblical Christian teachers, including Augustine: that the souls of the lost and of the righteous go to a preliminary state, in which they experience, respectively, suffering or bliss, which is a mere shadow of what will happen later following the resurrection and the Last Judgment. In Calvin’s view, the biblical doctrines of the return of Christ and the resurrection did receive emphasis. Yet he also insisted on the immortality of the soul, largely on Platonist grounds. “As a Platonist, Calvin … found it easier than Luther … to hold to a natural persistence of the soul after death.”16 The result was an uneasy and unstable mixture.

(d) Martin Luther, on the other hand, is on record as having flatly denied that the soul is immortal.17 “Luther generally understands the condition between death and the resurrection as a deep and dreamless sleep without consciousness and feeling. … Luther therefore says nothing about souls without their bodies enjoying true life and blessedness before the resurrection. They sleep ‘in the peace of Christ.’ ”18

Luther was not alone, of course. Some early Christian writers did also express the view that the death-state is total unconsciousness.19 During the Reformation, Carlstadt and the great William Tyndale, the first translator of the whole Bible from the original languages into English, held the same view.20 Many of the “left wing” of the Reformation (including Italian Evangelicals, many Anabaptists,21 “Spirituals” and others) also held the same view. Some did so as a result of increasingly careful and independent study of that other great Greek philosopher, Aristotle, but many did so purely on biblical grounds. Zwingli, another leading Reformer, recorded that, “The Catabaptists [i.e. Anabaptists] teach that the dead sleep, both body and soul, until the day of judgment. … ”22

Some of these “radicals” held that, although the soul continues to exist separately from the body, it is entirely unconscious and inoperative (e.g. Conrad Grebel, Westerburg). Others held that the soul cannot exist at all without the body, but perishes at death along with it; that the human person is a strictly indivisible entity. I doubt that it is possible to be dogmatic either way, on purely biblical grounds, though I am inclined to the latter view. Either way, from the Reformation on, “mortalism” certainly became a “live” option once more!

In the 17th century, in England, the great Christian independent, activist and poet John Milton was a mortalist and the outstanding philosopher Thomas Hobbes made the following observation, which is surely irrefutable: “That the soul of man is in its own nature eternal, and a living creature independent of the body; or that any mere man is immortal, otherwise than by resurrection in the last day … is a doctrine not apparent in Scripture.”23

(e) Today, quite a number of Christians are attached to modified doctrines of purgatory, as a means, not merely of purifying those already saved, but also of bringing all humanity, perhaps, to eventual salvation.24 The idea of universal salvation will be discussed in Chapters Six and Nine. As for purgatory in any form, there is simply no biblical warrant for such a doctrine: “… we have no evidence that Jesus or the apostles ever taught the doctrine – even in a weak seed form. …”25

(f) An alternative approach today is to remain non-committal about the fate of the lost at death, but to hold that Christian souls or spirits become immortalized by union with the Holy Spirit of God, either when “born again” through faith in Christ (regeneration), or at death (e.g. Lucien Cerfaux, J. A. Baird). This view does fully recognize that immortality is not inherent in the natural soul, but is entirely a gift of God’s grace through Jesus Christ. However, quite contrary to Scripture, it still fails to treat the human person as an indivisible whole and also divorces the gift of immortality from the return of Christ and the resurrection. In Chapter Four, we will look closely at the sense in which eternal life is a present possession.

(g) Another recent approach is to hold that the resurrection itself actually occurs at death (e.g. Murray Harris; Emil Brunner, Karl Barth and Wolfhart Pannenberg all appear to advocate this view in some form). Again, proponents of this view do fully agree that there is no doctrine of the immortality of the human soul in Scripture. Further, they agree that immortality is entirely God’s gracious gift, through Christ. And they link this gift firmly to resurrection, retaining thereby a holistic view of the human person.

In support of this view, it is pointed out that, biblically, the resurrection body will not necessarily be the same as our present body. Furthermore, from God’s viewpoint time is not simply what it is from ours: perhaps therefore, it is suggested, the death-and-resurrection world also operates by a different time from our own. This approach is based, in part, upon a misunderstanding of 2 Corinthians 5:1-10, which will be considered in the next chapter.

In my opinion, this view involves a very dubious piece of logic. Although it is no doubt true that God’s relation to time is different from ours, I wonder what bearing this can have on the way time may affect humans after death. Surely it is not being suggested that at death the human soul becomes divine? Furthermore, the Bible itself does apply the normal concept of time to the interval between death and resurrection. After all, it is the persistent witness of the New Testament, that Christ himself rose “on the third day”!26

There are other reasons, too, that this view is biblically and theologically impossible. First, it entails divorcing the salvation of the individual from that of the Church as a whole; whereas, as Dr. Harris himself insists, the New Testament sees resurrection as “a corporate experience of ‘those who belong to Christ.’ ” (9M. J. Harris, Raised Immortal, p. 233.) This is sufficiently clear from 1 Thessalonians 4:7, which envisages the dead and the living being raised and/or transformed “together” at Christ’s return; and from 1 Corinthians 15:51-52: “we will all be changed, in a moment, in the twinkling of an eye, at the last trumpet.”

Second, it also divorces the individual’s resurrection from the judgment and renewal of creation as a whole; yet, as Dr. Harris himself states, the two cannot be considered apart from one another “without seriously undermining the testimony of the New Testament. … the ‘new heaven and new earth’ correspond to man’s new, resurrection body.”27

It is also noteworthy that, as Dr. Harris correctly observes, resurrection and judgment are “inseparably associated.”28 Yet, as he also concedes, it is hard to find any reference in the New Testament to a judgment of the individual at death.29 Of course, this is also a further reason to reject the whole idea of saved or lost “souls” going to heaven, hell or purgatory at death. Biblically, judgment occurs at “the end of the age,” on God’s appointed “day,” not before.30

Further, if the resurrection of each believer occurs at death, then either the resurrection is divorced from the second coming of Christ and the triumph of God’s kingdom, or the second coming of Christ and the triumph of God’s kingdom are themselves divorced from our time, our history and our world. This amounts to no less than a new betrayal of Christian faith along Platonist lines. Once again God’s kingdom is set in a world apart from ours, just as with the doctrine of the immortality of the soul, or indeed the Egyptian kingdom of the dead. Whereas, according to biblical faith, it is with this world, its judgment and its recreation, that God is concerned..31

In contrast to the confusing diversity of Christian traditions, stands the clear and consistent teaching of Scripture. Jesus’ second coming, through which God’s kingdom is finally achieved, will be an event that intervenes in our time and our world, to wind up, judge and transform our history:

While God has overlooked the times of human ignorance, now he commands all people everywhere to repent, because he has fixed a day on which he will have the world judged in righteousness, by a man whom he has appointed, and of this he has given assurance to all by raising him from the dead.32

When the Son of Man comes in his glory … the nations will be gathered before him, and he will separate people from one another as a shepherd separates the sheep from the goats …33

… the creation itself will be set free from its bondage to decay and will obtain the freedom of the glory of the children of God.34

This is obvious from the mere fact, that a generation will be alive on earth when it occurs and will experience “rapture” without dying (1 Cor. 15:51, 1 Thessalonians 4:17, Matthew 24:40-41)! And the resurrection to immortality and everlasting fellowship with Christ will occur only in and through that event: Matthew 25:31-46; Luke 14:14; John 6:40, 14:3;  1 Corinthians 15:23, 51-57;  Philemon 3:20-21; 1 Thessalonians 4:16-18;  2 Timothy 4:6-8.

Christ the first fruits, then at his coming those who belong to Christ.35

“I will raise them up on the last day.”36

Thus the dead and the living will meet Christ “together,”37 when he comes in triumph. Meanwhile, the dead are extinct, or at least unconscious and inactive, and utterly beyond hope, apart from the sovereign memory, promise and power of God.

References

1 E.g., NRSV translates Acts 7:60 as “he died,” but the Greek says, literally, “he fell asleep,” as in KJV, RSV, NIV.

2 John 11:11. Later, “Jesus told them plainly, ‘Lazarus is dead …’ ” (John 11:14).

3 John 11:25.

4 F. F. Bruce, 1 & 2 Thessalonians, Waco: Word Books, 1982, p. 97.

5 Alan Richardson, An Introduction to the Theology of the New Testament, London: S.C.M., 1958, pp. 345-6.

6 O. Cullmann, Immortality of the Soul or Resurrection of the Dead?, London: Epworth Press, E.T. 1958, p. 51, note 6.  Compare Prospero, in Shakespeare’s The Tempest iv.i: “ … our little life / Is rounded with a sleep.”

7 M. J. Harris, Raised Immortal, p. 212.

8 I.e. Adam, the first man.

9 I.e. Jesus Christ.

10 1 Corinthians 15:17-23 (italics mine).

11 P. Althaus, The Theology of Martin Luther, Philadelphia: Fortress Press, 1970, p. 414; italics added.

12 Reports in 2006 seemed to imply that the concept of limbo is officially on the way out.

13 E.g. William Tyndale’s colleague, John Frith, in his A Disputacyon of Purgatorye, c1531.

14  B. Winter, “1 Corinthians”, in D. A. Carson et al. (Eds), New Bible Commentary, Leicester: I.V.P., 21st Century Edition, 1994, p. 1183.

15 F. Barton, Heaven, Hell and Hades, Charlotte: Advent Christian General Conference, 1981, p. 33.

16 G. H. Williams, The Radical Reformation, p. 582. Williams adds: “In his anthropology … Calvin emphasized the Platonic conflict between body and spirit-soul.”

17 See Chapter One, note 11.

18 P. Althaus, The Theology of Martin Luther, pp. 414-415. Althaus also notes regretfully: “Later Lutheran Church theology did not follow Luther on this point. Rather, it once again adopted the medieval tradition and continued it” (p. 417).

19 E.g. Athenagoras, Tatian. See F. Barton, Heaven, Hell and Hades, pp. 31, 35.

20 G. H. Williams, The Radical Reformation, pp. 104, 401.

21 That is, those who held that baptism should be reserved for responsible believers in Christ.

22 Appendix to Elencthus, ch.8.4a (1527), cited in G. H. Williams, The Radical Reformation, p. 106.

23 Leviathan, XXXVIII; quoted approvingly by G. S. Hendry, “Ecclesiastes,” in D. Guthrie and J. A. Motyer (Eds), The New Bible Commentary, Leicester: I.V.P., 3rd rev. ed. 1977, p. 573.

24 E.g. J. Hick, Death and Eternal Life; Z. J. Hayes, “The Purgatorial View,” in W. V. Crockett (Ed.), Four Views of Hell, Grand Rapids: Zondervan Publishing House, 1992, pp. 91-118 (Hayes is not a universalist).

25 W. V. Crockett, “Response to Zachary J. Hayes,” in Four Views of Hell, p. 126. See also S. Travis, Christian Hope and the Future of Man, Leicester: I.V.P., 1980, pp. 130-131: “ … there are no reported sayings of Jesus which suggest the idea of remedial punishment or the possibility of a person’s destiny being reversed after death. … The idea of remedial punishment or the steady transformation of persons after death is a guess which contradicts the general thrust of Scripture.” The same is true, of course, of reincarnation.

26 E.g. 1 Corinthians 15:4.

27 Raised Immortal, p. 170.

28 Raised Immortal, p. 159.

29 Raised Immortal, p. 261, note 4.

30 Matthew 13:40-43; Acts 17:31; compare Matthew 25:31-33, Romans 2:16, 2 Timothy 4:8, etc. See also Chapter Four.

31 Romans 8:18-23, 2 Peter 3:11-13. See Chapter 10.

32 Acts 17:30-31.

33 Matthew 25:31-32.

34 Romans 8:21. See also Matthew 24:39-41, 37-44; Acts 1:11; 1 Corinthians 15:51-52; 1 Thessalonians 4:16-17; 2 Thessalonians 2:3-8; 2 Timothy 4:1; Hebrews 9:27-28; 2 Peter 3:3-12.

35 1 Corinthians 15:23.

36 John 6:40.

37 1 Thessalonians 4:17.

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.

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