“Be careful with that sample; it’s hot!” warned my lab partner, pointing to a petri dish in the middle of my counter top. I froze in confusion. What was Al trying to tell me? Did the sample have such a high temperature that I would burn my fingers if I touched it without wearing asbestos gloves? Was it radioactive, so that I would need to don protective clothing before approaching it? Was it contaminated with some bacterium, and I should wear latex gloves while handling it? Was it the product of the latest new research, meaning the boss would be very upset with me if I damaged it? Was it electrically charged, so I would receive a “shock” if I touched it? Was it very spicy, like Mexican food? Had Al stolen it from another lab? Webster’s Dictionary lists nine distinct definitions for the word “hot” (and Al and I knew of a few that weren’t in the list) – and he had given me no context by which to decide which one he meant.
Many words, in most languages (and especially English), have a variety of related and unrelated meanings. “Sleep” is another word like “hot” – Webster defines it as “the natural periodic suspension of consciousness during which the powers of the body are restored” – but different things are meant if I say, “My foot went to sleep” (I lost the sensation in that part of my body) or, “I’ll sleep on it” (I’ll think about it and come up with an answer later) or, “Let’s have a sleepover!” (All the other kids will gather at my house and we’ll stay up all night talking, playing games and eating pizza) or, “They’re sleeping together” (They’re having sex) or, “I’m afraid this country is full of sleeper cells” (There are terrorists waiting to be told it’s time to strike) or, “I had to put my pet to sleep” (I had to ask the veterinarian to kill it).
What does the Bible mean, then, by using the word “sleep” to describe what theologians call “the intermediate state” (the condition of human beings between the moment of their death and the moment of the resurrection at the return of Christ)? Let’s make no mistake: the Bible definitely does use the word that way. My friend Geoff Davies, in his paper, “If A Man Die” (published in July 1993), lists 44 references in the Old Testament and 20 in the New Testament “teaching that the dead are asleep.” But what does “asleep” mean in this context?
Some have suggested (and perhaps you believe) that man is a “two-part” being – one “part” of the man being the “body” and the other “part” being the “soul” (or the “spirit”) – and that it is only the “body” that goes to “sleep” when the man dies, the “soul” (or “spirit”) remaining conscious and going somewhere (heaven, hell, purgatory, limbo, paradise, the bosom of Abraham and the arms of Jesus being some of the “places” where a “soul,” or a “spirit,” might go when the “body” goes to sleep). If you’ve read my previous e-tract (“Final Destination”), you know that I don’t believe in the “two-part” theory. It’s my contention that “the body IS the soul” – or, more exactly, that both terms (“body” and “soul”) are merely different ways of describing the one specific human being – and that whatever happens to either the “body” or the “soul” necessarily also happens to the other, since they are the same thing. That is true at the moment of the final judgment (which is what I was discussing in “Final Destination”), and it is also true, I believe, of what happens during the intermediate state.
Does Scripture support my belief? Can I quote specific verses that teach complete unconsciousness and inactivity in the interval between an individual’s death and the great resurrection day? Here are just a few (quotations are from the World English Bible, available free at www.worldenglishbible.org):
Job 14:12 – “Man lies down and doesn’t rise. Until the heavens are no more, they shall not awake, nor be roused out of their sleep.” (This doesn’t sound to me like the “man” is going anywhere, or doing anything, while he is “asleep.”)
Ecclesiastes 9:5 – “The living know that they will die, but the dead don’t know anything.” (The dead are unconscious, just as in the dictionary definition of “sleep.”)
Ecclesiastes 9:10 – “Whatever your hand finds to do, do it with your might; for there is no work, nor device, nor knowledge, nor wisdom, in Sheol, where you are going.” (“Sheol” is the Hebrew word for “the place of the dead.” It is directly related to the English word “hole,” as in “hole in the ground.” Notice the list of things that are NOT found there!)
Psalm 115:17 – “The dead don’t praise Yah, neither any who go down into silence.” (If dead believers were capable of praising the Lord, wouldn’t they be doing so?)
John 11:11-14 – “He said these things, and after that, he said to them, ‘Our friend, Lazarus, has fallen asleep, but I am going so that I may awake him out of sleep.’ The disciples therefore said, ‘Lord, if he has fallen asleep, he will recover.’ Now Jesus had spoken of his death, but they thought that he spoke of taking rest in sleep. So Jesus said to them plainly then, ‘Lazarus is dead.’” (I think it’s interesting that Lazarus, dead for four days, then raised back to life, didn’t leave us with any stories about where he’d gone and what he’d done while he was dead. Wouldn’t his case have been a perfect opportunity for this important information to have been revealed to us?)
Acts 2:24 – “David didn’t ascend into the heavens” (If David didn’t go to heaven when he died, who will? Some have suggested that only since Jesus’ ascension have believers been taken to heaven. But this was spoken AFTER Jesus’ ascension. So Jesus didn’t take David to heaven with him when he ascended, as is sometimes said he did with all the Old Testament saints.)
Revelation 20:5 – “The rest of the dead didn’t live until the thousand years were finished.” (As opposed to, “All the dead continued to live, in another place, during the thousand years” – as is taught in most churches nowadays.)
Our ancestors, who developed the English language, seem to have understood this concept. To describe the place where people go when they die, they coined the word “cemetery,” from the Latin word “coemeterium,” itself based on the Greek word κοιμητήριον “koimeterion,” which meant “sleeping room” (as in, “we have three rooms in our house – a kitchen, a living room, and a sleeping room”).
John Wycliffe (1324-1384), known as “the Morning Star of the Reformation,” taught that there was “unconscious sleep between death and resurrection.”
Martin Luther (1483-1546), the founder of Protestantism, referred to the resurrection (which will take place when Jesus returns) as being “awakened out of a deep sleep.”
William Tyndale (1490-1536), who was burned at the stake for translating the Bible into English (which was a crime in his day), argued that the traditional view, “in saying that the souls of the dead are in heaven, hell and purgatory, destroys the argument with which Jesus and Paul prove the resurrection … The true faith speaks of the resurrection. The heathen philosophers, denying the resurrection, said that the souls of the dead continued to live … If the souls are in heaven … why do we need to look for a resurrection?” (Good question, William! Does anybody have a good answer for it?)
On the other hand, John Calvin (1509-1564) “blasted” his opponents, the Anabaptists (predecessors of the modern Baptist movement), with a tract calling them “unskilled persons who ignorantly imagine that in the interval between death and resurrection the soul sleeps.” (Evidently the Anabaptists believed as I do; I wish the same could be said of their successors.)
Anyway, truth isn’t determined by who believes what, but by what the Bible says. I don’t expect you to be “convinced” of this truth just because the above 10 verses seem to me (and a handful of famous reformers) to teach it. Those verses, though, are just a sample of what can be found in many other places throughout the Bible (and, for that matter, those reformers are just a few of the hundreds of eminently qualified Bible scholars who have held this position). I’d just like to suggest these few thoughts as a starting-point for your own investigation into the topic, if it’s one you’re interested in.
In future e-tracts, I plan to deal with some of the objections that are often raised against this belief. If you have questions you’d like me to answer – either privately or in a “public” forum – I’d be happy to do that.
By Dr. John H. Roller
(John Roller currently serves as pastor of First Advent Christian Church in Hickory, N.C., having served in Advent Christian churches in Illinois, Florida, West Virginia and North Carolina. He has also served as Director of Urban/Ethnic Ministries, Resource Center Coordinator and Publications Coordinator for the Advent Christian General Conference.)