Did You Say “Sleep”? | Sleep of the dead

Popping off, croaking, buying the farm, pushing up daisies, biting the big one, kicking the bucket, assuming room temperature, … these are some of the more colourful euphemisms for death.  Not a one of them is found in the Bible.

The Bible calls death a sleep

Instead, the Bible consistently uses a metaphor for death that is viewed as neither socially or theologically appropriate among evangelicals. It calls death a sleep.  But if a believer slips and refers to the dead as sleeping, judging from the reaction among traditionalists, you would think that he had shot God.

A long standing tradition within evangelical Christianity asserts that death is a move to a new level of consciousness, that those awaiting Christ’s return for reward or punishment do so in a state that looks very much like they are already being rewarded or punished. Consequently, anyone who dares to imply that the intermediate state is one of unconscious sleep runs the risk of being branded a heretic or cult member.

Nevertheless, it would do us all well to return to biblical terminology and perhaps jettison some of these traditions that keep us from using it.  The biblical authors knew what they were talking about.  The Holy Spirit inspired them to write words which expressed the way things really are.  It is not their fault that the popular church has chosen to see and say things differently.

But in this current atmosphere where the biblical word “sleep” sparks such a response from otherwise biblically grounded saints, if conditionalists want to revive the term as a metaphor for death, they had better be prepared.  Conditionalists need to know just where in the Bible the term is used for death, and what “sleep” means in the contexts of those passages.

Adam’s sleep a picture of Christ’s death

“So the LORD God caused a deep sleep to fall upon the man, and while he slept took one of his ribs and closed up its place with flesh. And the rib that the LORD God had taken from the man he made into a woman and brought her to the man. Then the man said, “This at last is bone of my bones and flesh of my flesh; she shall be called Woman, because she was taken out of Man”

(Genesis 2:21-23  ESV).

The first place in the Bible where sleep is used as a metaphor for death apparently occurs before death existed.  While in the garden paradise of Eden, Adam is anesthetized by God and surgery is performed, the result of which is Eve.  Thus the Bible says that man comes from woman, and woman also comes from man.1

One curious thing about this incident is that it seems to have a parallel in the gospel message.  Just as Eve came into existence because of the sleep of Adam, so the Church of Christ comes into existence because of his death.  Because Christ slept in the tomb, his bride came into being.

If there is anything to this assumption, notice what it is telling readers about the nature of death itself.  Adam’s sleep was a state of unconsciousness.  He was “put under” so that he would not experience the changes taking place in his body.  The purpose of this unconscious state was not to heighten his awareness, but to suppress it.  One might conclude, then, that the purpose of the intermediate state is the same.

Job describes death as lying down and sleeping, not being awaken

“But a man dies and is laid low; man breathes his last, and where is he? As waters fail from a lake and a river wastes away and dries up, so a man lies down and rises not again; till the heavens are no more he will not awake or be roused out of his sleep. Oh that you would hide me in Sheol, that you would conceal me until your wrath be past, that you would appoint me a set time, and remember me! If a man dies, shall he live again? All the days of my service I would wait, till my renewal should come”

(Job 14:10-14  ESV).

In chapter 14 of Job’s story, he laments that human beings are not like trees.  A tree may be cut down, but given the right conditions, it may sprout back again from the apparently dead stump.  But, Job complains, human beings are not like that.  When a man’s life comes to an end, he lies down and sleeps, not to wake up again.

Job is not arguing against the concept of the resurrection.  Even in this chapter, he pleads with God to hide him in Sheol (death) until his wrath is past, and then remember him, causing him to live again (13-14).  One cannot ask for a more clear statement of the hope of resurrection.  Later, Job asserts that he has a Redeemer who lives, and that he (Job) will see God in a resurrected body, long after his present body has been consumed.2

So, since Job is not arguing against the notion of a resurrection, why does he insist that death is a sleep that one does not wake up from?  He is contrasting the fate of humans with that of trees. Trees have something within their nature that allows them to bounce back from apparent death.  God has not put such a nature within us. If we want to live again, we will need a resurrecting God.  Sleep is an appropriate metaphor for death because if you see people sleeping, you expect them to wake up.  Think about that the next time you walk through a cemetery.  These “sleeping places” are monuments to the fact that we all depend upon God for our future life.3

David calls death a sleep

“How long, O LORD? Will you forget me forever? How long will you hide your face from me? How long must I take counsel in my soul and have sorrow in my heart all the day? How long shall my enemy be exalted over me? Consider and answer me, O LORD my God; light up my eyes, lest I sleep the sleep of death, lest my enemy say, “I have prevailed over him,” lest my foes rejoice because I am shaken. But I have trusted in your steadfast love; my heart shall rejoice in your salvation. I will sing to the LORD, because he has dealt bountifully with me” 

( Psalm 13:1-6  ESV).

David’s lament in Psalm 13 is the complaint of a soldier who keeps losing battles, and wonders how long he can continue to hold out.  The shame of the losses is coupled with the embarrassment of the taunts he hears from his enemies. They are exalted over him.  They rejoice because he is shaken. Nevertheless, David is forced to trust in God’s steadfast love, and hope in his salvation.  He has no one else.

David’s question to his LORD in Psalm 13 is “will you forget me forever?”  If the LORD does forget his servant, he will “sleep the sleep of death” and his enemy will have prevailed over him.  Death would be the ultimate failure.  It would mean that God had lost a soldier, and the enemy had gained a decisive victory, and a reason to boast.

How could David have said such a thing if he believed that death was “going to his reward” or “going home to be with the LORD” or “getting promoted to heaven”?  The Holy Spirit speaks of death here, not as a victory but as a defeat.  Granted, it is only a temporary defeat. In Psalm 16, David predicted that the Messiah would die, but that he would not be abandoned to Sheol. He would triumph over death.

Peter, preaching at Pentecost in Acts 2, reminded his listeners of that triumph.  Death is real, but Christ has overcome it. But David himself did not overcome it.  He sleeps, and awaits a resurrection. In Peter’s words, “Brothers, I may say to you with confidence about the patriarch David that he both died and was buried, and his tomb is with us to this day.”4  The old warrior did indeed sleep the sleep of death, but not before the LORD heard his cry and delivered him from his enemies.

Jeremiah speaks of Babylon’s perpetual sleep

“Babylon shall become a heap of ruins, the haunt of jackals, a horror and a hissing, without inhabitant. “They shall roar together like lions; they shall growl like lions’ cubs. While they are inflamed I will prepare them a feast and make them drunk, that they may become merry, then sleep a perpetual sleep and not wake, declares the LORD.” 

(Jeremiah 51:37-39).

“for a destroyer has come upon her, upon Babylon; her warriors are taken; their bows are broken in pieces, for the LORD is a God of recompense; he will surely repay.  I will make drunk her officials and her wise men, her governors, her commanders, and her warriors; they shall sleep a perpetual sleep and not wake, declares the King, whose name is the LORD of hosts” 

(Jeremiah 51:56-57). 

 In the prophet Jeremiah’s day, the enemies of God’s people were the oppressive Babylonians.  Jeremiah predicted that the great empire of Nebuchadnezzar would get drunk and fall to sleep, never to wake up again.  He was prophesying the empire’s destruction,5 in which it will fall,6 come to an end,7 perish,8 and become a heap of ruins without inhabitant,9 “a land of drought and a desert, a land in which no one dwells, and through which no son of man passes.”10

Jeremiah described the death of a people.  It makes sense that he would use that metaphor that his ancestors did to describe that fall into a state of nothingness: sleep.  It would not make sense if Jeremiah actually believed that death was a passing from one state of consciousness into another. He could have threatened an even more violent state of conscious torment in hell for God’s enemies, but he does not.

Babylon will rise no more, but someday, each individual Babylonian will stand before God and be judged for his personal sins.  That day is not what Jeremiah is predicting.  The end of Babylon’s judgment is death: a state of perpetual sleep.  Judgment day for the individual Babylonians will come later.

In the New Testament book of Revelation, John picks up on this same imagery to describe another Babylon, doomed to destruction.  He warns God’s people to come out of her …


“lest you take part in her sins, lest you share in her plagues;  for her sins are heaped high as heaven, and God has remembered her iniquities” (Revelation 18:4-5  ESV).

 “her plagues will come in a single day, death and mourning and famine, and she will be burned up with fire; for mighty is the Lord God who has judged her” (Revelation 18:8 ESV).

John describes the ultimate judgment day, which Babylon’s perpetual sleep only serves to predict.  He is describing ultimate punishment, ultimate destruction. Jeremiah had spoken of the first death, John warns of the second.

Daniel describes resurrection from sleep in the dust

 “And many of those who sleep in the dust of the earth shall awake, some to everlasting life, and some to shame and everlasting contempt.   And those who are wise shall shine like the brightness of the sky above; and those who turn many to righteousness, like the stars forever and ever” (Daniel 12:2-3). 

It is not clear what Daniel is predicting in chapter 12, but it is clear that he uses resurrection language to describe it.  He speaks of those who are sleeping in the dust, awakening to everlasting life.  Others who awake will not see life, but suffer shame and everlasting contempt.  Jesus used the same language to describe the resurrection. He said “an hour is coming when all who are in the tombs will hear his voice and come out, those who have done good to the resurrection of life, and those who have done evil to the resurrection of judgment.”11 .

So, to both Daniel and Jesus, the anthropology and cosmology are the same: death is a sleep. The resurrection awakens all from that sleep. Judgment and eternal destiny occur at the resurrection, at the awakening. Judgment does not occur during the intermediate state, but afterward.

There are some who claim that all this talk about death as a sleep is simply Old Testament language of appearance, and that the New Testament corrects that misunderstanding by showing that the intermediate state is a conscious one.  But the New Testaments speaks even more clearly than the Old in describing death as a sleep.

Jesus describes a dead girl as merely sleeping

“When they arrived at the house, Jesus wouldn’t let anyone go in with him except Peter, John, James, and the little girl’s father and mother. The house was filled with people weeping and wailing, but he said, “Stop the weeping! She isn’t dead; she’s only asleep.” But the crowd laughed at him because they all knew she had died. Then Jesus took her by the hand and said in a loud voice, “My child, get up!” And at that moment her life returned, and she immediately stood up! Then Jesus told them to give her something to eat” (Luke 8:51-55 NLT).

This story, which appears in all three synoptic Gospels, shows Jesus’ attitude toward the dead. He knows the pain that death causes, and will have opportunity to demonstrate his own grief at the death of his friend Lazarus.12 Yet he also knows that death is only a temporary phenomenon.  In that since, it is not really a death, but a mere sleep.

Make no mistake.  This girl was really dead, and the scripture makes it clear that she was.  Yet Jesus was there.  He is the resurrection and the life.  He knew that this day would not end in mourning, but a miracle. He chased all the mourners away, and woke up a little girl from her nap.

Now, if this little girl were with the angels in heaven, or even in Abraham’s bosom, and Jesus knew that, it would not have been such a nice thing for him to return her to this world of woe.  But the language that Luke (and Matthew and Mark) uses matches that which the Old Testament writers had used of death.  It describes this girl’s state as one of sleep, not wakefulness.  Luke presented her as one who needed to be woken.

Luke’s parable of the Rich Man and Lazarus (16:19-31) contradicts the view that the Old Testament presents, and that which Jesus himself ascribes to.  In that parable, Jesus speaks of the dead being conscious in the death –state, and aware of what is going on in the land of the living. Advocates of a conscious intermediate state have simply chosen to accept this view of death, instead of the one proposed in Luke 8.

Rich Man and Lazarus is not definitive teaching on the intermediate state

Conditionalists refuse to accept the parable of the Rich Man and Lazarus as definitive teaching on the intermediate state for several reasons, some of which can be seen in the contrast between these texts:

  1.  Luke 8 reflects a literal event in the life of Jesus and a real human being, a small girl.  Luke 16 reflects a story that Jesus told, which probably did not originate with him. He used one of the Pharisees’ stories, and ended it with a twist that they did not expect.
  2. The focus of Luke 8 was a real death and a real resurrection. The focus of Luke 16 was the selfishness of the Pharisees and their refusal to follow the law by having compassion on the needy.  In which passage would it be more natural for Jesus to convey didactic teaching about the intermediate state?
  3. The witnesses of the event described in Luke 8 were Jesus himself, the young girl and her parents, and some of his disciples.  The hearers of the story in Luke 16 were the Pharisees, who “were lovers of money” and “ridiculed him” because he taught that “you cannot serve God and money.”13  In which context would it have been more appropriate for Jesus to share insight about the mystery of the intermediate state?
  4. The literary context of each passage is also important to consider. Luke 8 appears in a conjunction with a group of passages which emphasize who Jesus is. His authority and power are expressed in the chapters immediately preceding and following the story in chapter 8.  In that context, it makes sense to show Jesus as having power to raise the dead. Luke 16 is within a group of chapters emphasizing the opposition and antagonism of those (like the Pharisees) who wanted to see Jesus done away with.  In that context, what Luke wants to show is the reason why these people hated Jesus, and why his journey to Jerusalem would lead to the cross. A literal description of the intermediate state would not add to Luke’s purpose for Luke 16.
  5. In the final analysis, it must be admitted that these two texts do represent two alternative views of the intermediate state. In the one, people are asleep, and must be awakened by resurrection. In the other, people are awake, and are experiencing some sort of afterlife. In Luke 8, there is no reference to judgment. In Luke 16, all those who have died are already being judged.
  6. One cannot combine these two views of the intermediate state without distorting one into insignificance.  Conditionalists accept the teaching of Luke 8 as normative, and choose to see the description in Luke 16 as representing what the Pharisees believed — not what Jesus believed — about the intermediate state.


Matthew described saints who were raised from sleep

“And behold, the curtain of the temple was torn in two, from top to bottom. And  the earth shook, and the rocks were split. The tombs also were opened. And many bodies of the saints who had fallen asleep were raised,  and coming out of the tombs after his resurrection they went into the holy city and appeared to many” (Matthew 27:51-53  ESV).

Adding to the confusion of the events taking place on the night in which our Saviour died, a number of God’s saints who had died  before he did were raised to life at the moment he died.  These presented themselves to the wonderment of those who had seen them die, be buried, and mourned their passing.  These resurrections were demonstrations both of the power of God to raise the dead, and of the significance of the death of Christ.

Yet there are no descriptions of what these saints had experienced while being dead.  They were not noted as having experienced any afterlife, but for having been raised to life again.  In fact, Matthew describes them as “saints who had fallen asleep.”  It was not merely their bodies who had fallen asleep, but the saints themselves. This is seen in the Greek construction of the sentence, where the word “bodies” is neuter nominative plural, and the words “the saints” and the participle translated “who had fallen asleep” are masculine genitive plural.

The anthropology/cosmology of Matthew agrees with that of Luke 8. These people had been dead, and are described as having fallen asleep.  The miracle of Christ’s death on the cross caused these dead saints to revive.

 Jesus says that Lazarus has fallen asleep, and the disciples misunderstand Jesus description of his death as sleep

“After saying these things, he said to them, “Our friend Lazarus has fallen asleep, but I go to awaken him.”  The disciples said to him, “Lord, if he has fallen asleep, he will recover.”  Now Jesus had spoken of his death, but they thought that he meant taking rest in sleep.  Then Jesus told them plainly, “Lazarus has died” (John 11:11-14 ESV). 

Jesus comes face to face with the reality of death when his friend Lazarus dies as recorded in John 11.  It is in this context that we read the shortest verse in the New Testament – “Jesus wept.”14 Death is real, and it is a real tragedy.  Yet Jesus describes Lazarus’ death with that same metaphor that appears throughout the text of scripture. He said that Lazarus had fallen asleep.

His disciples did not get it.  They thought that he was describing the beginning of Lazarus’ recovery.  They assumed that if he were (literally) sleeping, then the worst of his illness was over, and he would soon be getting better. So Jesus had to spell it out for them and explain that his friend was already dead.

Now that we can read all of John chapter 11, we understand what Jesus was doing.  He was explaining to his disciples that death is not the end, because he (the Resurrection and the Life) will not allow it to be. But make no mistake about it – if there were no Jesus, death would be the end.  We can call death sleep only because there is a Jesus who intends to raise the dead. Calling death sleep is a statement of faith in Christ.

Refusing to call death sleep is also a statement of faith. It reflects a faith in death itself.  It joins Plato and other pagan philosophers in affirming that God created the human soul indestructible, and therefore it must remain alive after the death of the body. So the real person never sleeps but remains conscious during the intermediate state, and indeed for all eternity. Conditionalists urge our brothers and sisters to put their faith in Christ, the Resurrection and the Life.

 Stephen falls asleep (dies) after being stoned

 “And as they were stoning Stephen, he called out, “Lord Jesus, receive my spirit.” And falling to his knees he cried out with a loud voice, “Lord, do not hold this sin against them.” And when he had said this, he fell asleep” (Acts 7:59-60  ESV).

A few years ago in the Philippines, my best friend died.  One of his memorial services was preached by a pastor of a denomination which teaches a conscious intermediate state.  This pastor explained (using Acts 7:59) that my friend was not really dead because God had received his spirit, which flew to heaven the moment he died. The pastor explained that some people teach soul sleep, but that this text teaches against it.

Sitting in the service that day, I held my tongue. Funerals are not the place for theological debate.  But later, I brought up the passage again to my students at the Bible college. I showed them that the pastor had failed to look at the context.  The next verse says “And when he had said this, he fell asleep.” Luke’s description of Stephen’s death does not argue against death as sleep, but is evidence for it.

Paul teaches that most will sleep, some will be changed without it

“Behold! I tell you a mystery. We shall not all sleep, but we shall all be changed,   in a moment, in the twinkling of an eye,  at the last trumpet. For the trumpet will sound, and the dead will be raised imperishable, and we shall be changed” (1 Corinthians 15:51-52  ESV).

Paul contributes to the doctrine of the intermediate state by affirming what readers have seen elsewhere in the Bible. Death is a sleep from which believers will be awaken.  This awakening will take place “at the last trumpet.”  But he also teaches that there are two exceptions to the general rule that all will sleep in death:

  1.  Some will not experience the sleep of death because they will be alive when Jesus returns. They will not sleep in death because they will be immediately changed: made immortal without ever having experienced the sleep of death. Oh, what a glorious thing it would be to be part of that group. Come, Lord Jesus!
  2. The other exception is Jesus himself.  He slept in death, but he has already been raised from the dead. Paul calls him “the firstfruits of those who have fallen asleep.”15 He is the only one who has presently been raised immortal.  His resurrection is the guarantee that we also will be raised to life some day. So, even if we miss the opportunity to be a part of that special group who will be changed into immortal beings without ever tasting death, we still have reason to celebrate. Christ’s resurrection gives us hope.
  3. Long after the revelation of the gospel, Paul continued to speak of those who had died as having fallen asleep.16 He was not ashamed to use that metaphor to describe what takes place at death.  We should not be ashamed to do so either.  To “fall asleep” or to “go to sleep”, or merely “to sleep” is an accurate, biblical statement describing the reality of death. On the other hand, to “go to heaven” or to “go home” or to “go to one’s reward” are statements which are neither biblical nor accurate.

The Christian hope is not going somewhere at death, but a Saviour, who is coming to wake us up from death. That is why to “fall asleep” is a statement of faith for the believing Christian. It says that we have put our trust in a Saviour who cares for us, and will not let our defeat by the enemy death be the last word.

Jefferson Vann

  1. 1 Corinthians 11:8-12. []
  2. Job 19:25-27. []
  3. The word cemetery comes from the Greek koimeterion, which is related to the word koimesis, used in the New Testament for both death and natural sleep. []
  4. Acts 2:29  ESV. []
  5. Jeremiah 51:1, 3, 20, 48, 53-54. []
  6. Jeremiah 51:8. []
  7. Jeremiah 51:13. []
  8. Jeremiah 51:18. []
  9. Jeremiah 51:37. []
  10. Jeremiah 51:43 ESV. []
  11. John 5:28-29 []
  12. see John 11 []
  13. Luke 16:13-14. []
  14. John 11:35. []
  15. 1 Corinthians 15:20, 23 []
  16. 1 Corinthians 15:20; 1 Thessalonians 4:13, 14, 15. []

About Jefferson Vann

Jefferson Vann is a missionary with Advent Christian General Conference, and elder at Takanini Community Church in Auckland, New Zealand. He is a teacher, Bible translator, and avid blogger. "My hope is that everyone who reads this blog will have an opportunity to understand the gospel, and will know Jesus Christ as their Lord and Savior." He has written books on theology and Bible commentary. You can read more of Jeff's writing at Devotions  |  Jefferson Vann | Commands of Christ | Learning Koine Greek Together


  1. Clifton H. Rodriquez says:

    What amazes me about human beings is that too many of us are simply willing to accept any rubbish that is handed down. The immortality of the soul was incorporated into Christendom during the 2nd Century AD. Origen was prrimarily responsible for its acceptance; he was a devoted admirer of Plato. Despite the clarity in the Bible (see John 3:13-16, Gen 3:4), men have allowed Satan to continue to deceive them into believing that they are already immortal beings. Thus, many strongly believe that they will not experience real death. They are convinced that God will or cannot destroy their “souls”, which is contrary to Matthew 10:28. Also, they believe that John 3:16 means that they will go to Heaven when they die, despite the fact that John 3:16 and Romans 6;23 do not say that. Even the most devout Christian will argue that they are indeed already an immortal being, and cannot really die. They discount Revelation 20:10-14 and 21:8, “the Second Death” as only torment and torture, but not real death. Satan has done a wonderful job deceiving 90-95% of Christian believers.

    • I’m not really amazed. Most of us simply accept what we are told without investigating to see if it is true. We need to respond with grace when fellow believers do not accept what we have to say. But we need to have the courage to keep saying it.

    • Adam and Eve walked and talked with God physically every day in the Garden yet they were convinced by Satan to follow his teaching rather than what God had said. To this day, man still falls into the very same situation. God help us all.

  2. Andrew Patrick says:


    Conditionalists accept the teaching of Luke 8 as normative, and choose to see the description in Luke 16 as representing what the Pharisees believed — not what Jesus believed — about the intermediate state.

    I do not think that the Pharisees believed that men died and were rewarded or punished without benefit of a judgment or need of resurrection. The whole concept of an “immortal soul” nullifies the doctrine of resurrection, and Paul (who introduced himself as a Pharisee and the son of a Pharisee) reminds us that the Pharisees believed in the resurrection of the dead (Acts 23:6) and he later clarified this as a resurrection both of the just and the unjust (Acts 24:14).

    So, speaking as a conditionalist, I do not think that the Pharisees believed people were conscious while they were dead. The scriptures are quite clear about that, and in spite of their other failings, the Pharisees did seem to pay attention to scripture, so it seems to me that the would have interpreted “Lazarus and the Rich Man” just as anyone today would interpret “John Bunyan meets Santa Claus” (as occuring in an obviously fictional setting). To cite William Tyndale (another conditionalist) he said that such a doctrine was not yet in the world at that time. So… it is not entirely accurate to use a blanket statement to say that Conditionalists believe that the Pharisees believed in immortal souls, using myself and our friend William Tyndale as counter-examples.

    Now, if I were to tell a story about President Obama and Santa Claus at the North Pole, and this North Pole had reindeer and elves making toys in factories, would it be reasonable to assume that I was speaking of a well-known but fictional North Pole, or would people use that as a proof that the North Pole really had elves making toys in sweat-shops for Old Nick? Or would the story be so bizarre that it would obviously be a parable? Likewise, how would any Pharisee that prided himself on knowing scripture mistake “Lazarus and the Rich Man” as a “New Teaching” about punishment before the judgment and a conscious state of death?

    • It is my assumption that the Pharisees (as a group) at least tolerated some belief in a conscious intermediate state, borrowed from syncretistic second temple Judaism. Yes, that is not a necessary assumption, and one does not have to agree with it to be a conditionalist. But If Jesus was telling these people a story that they believed could not possibly be true (Santa Claus, etc) its use as a parable would have been very limited. My point about the Pharisees is that they were like modern traditionalists — they believed in both survival after death and a resurrection. Jesus’ defense of their doctrine of the resurrection did not amount to a blanket approval of their other beliefs. The Pharisees were not saved. Jesus called them a brood of vipers, and said that God’s wrath awaited them. Matthew 3:7 But when he saw many of the Pharisees and Sadducees coming for baptism, he said to them, “You brood of vipers! Who warned you to flee from the wrath to come?

      Matthew 5:20 For I tell you, unless your righteousness exceeds that of the scribes and Pharisees, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven.

      Matthew 15:12-13 Then the disciples came and said to him, “Do you know that the Pharisees were offended when they heard this saying?” 13 He answered, “Every plant that my heavenly Father has not planted will be rooted up.

      Matthew 16:6 Jesus said to them, “Watch and beware of the leaven of the Pharisees and Sadducees.”

      Matthew 16:12 Then they understood that he did not tell them to beware of the leaven of bread, but of the teaching of the Pharisees and Sadducees.

      Matthew 23:13,15 “But woe to you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! For you shut the kingdom of heaven in people’s faces. For you neither enter yourselves nor allow those who would enter to go in. 15 Woe to you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! For you travel across sea and land to make a single proselyte, and when he becomes a proselyte, you make him twice as much a child of hell as yourselves.

      Luke 7:30 but the Pharisees and the lawyers rejected the purpose of God for themselves, not having been baptized by him.)

  3. Problem Verses

    There are multiple passages that show the dead are conscious after death.

    Matthew 12:40 (Jonah 2) – Jonah spoke as one from hell who was dead.

    Matthew 17:2-3 – Moses and Elias were talking with Jesus after their death.

    Matthew 22:31-32 – Abraham was dead, but still living.

    Luke 16:19-31 – Jesus tells the story of dead people speaking in hell. (Some wrongly think this is a parable. It is not. If soul sleep were true then the story is not only false, but the Lord is misleading his hearers as to what is real. This is significant evidence that the dead are not only conscious but can speak and feel.)

    Luke 23:43 – Jesus says the malefactor will be in paradise with him “today”.

    1 Thessalonians 5:10 – Whether they wake or sleep they live with the Lord.

    2 Corinthians 5:6-8 – Paul explains that to be absent from the body is to be present with the Lord.

    2 Corinthians 12:2-4 – Paul describes someone who heard things possibly out of his body.

    Philippians 1:23 – Paul says that he would depart to be with Christ, not unconscious.

    Revelation 6:9-11 – The soul is dead and is crying out to God.

    Problem Definitions

    Many of the concepts below are misunderstood, denied, or ignored by those who teach the unconscious dead.

    Death does not mean unconsciousness, but rather separation. The only time it means cessation of activity is when it applies to the body.

    Body is not the soul; soul is not the body; spirit is not the soul.

    Sleep never refers to the soul or spirit. It only applies to the body.

    Man does not exist only in his body.

    Problem Methods

    To arrive at a belief in the unconscious state of the dead the wrong methods below must be used. Doctrines that rely on spiritualization and other languages do not provide a strong defense.

    Spiritualization is used to deny the literal meaning of many passages. Luke 16 is the most abused in this way.

    Language games are used to remove the English words (which do not provide evidence) and replace them with more ambiguous Greek and Hebrew.

    Consequential Problems

    There are serious practical consequences of the doctrine of the unconscious dead.

    It removes the comfort from the verses which speak to those facing death.
    The manipulated definitions used to support soul sleep have been used as a defense of annihilationism, no-hell, or universalism.
    The methods used to teach it can establish a negative pattern for spiritualizing other significant doctrinal passages.
    It engenders a doubtful approach to our Bible translations, perpetuating the idea that “the Greek word says” carries more weight than “the word of God says”.



    • Thanks for your comment. I appreciate it when those who reject a position give it due attention before doing so. None of the texts you mentioned as “problem verses” deny that death is a sleep. I have dealt with many of them in previous posts. I have studied the Scriptures for 40 years, and I have yet to find a text that affirms a conscious intermediate state.

      And as for problem definitions, there is no place in the Bible where death is defined as separation. The body apart from the spirit is dead (James 2:26) but that is not a definition of death, but merely an attribute of the body. To affirm that the spirit lives on is to go beyond what that verse teaches.

      To accuse conditionalists of spiritualization is comical. It is not we who reject death as sleep and insist it is something else. It is not we who look square in the face of 1 Timothy 6:16 and still insist that everybody has immortality.

      As for practical consequences, many religions teach that God will punish unbelievers by torturing them for ages in hell, immediately after they die, and before he judges them. That does not make them right, nor does it make their people more healthy.

    • Paleo-olaf says:

      Gradyll, I think four of your quotes from graceambassadors.com captured the true tension between the two views in those last lines.
      Gradyll, I think your four final quotes from graceambassadors.com captured the true tension between the two views.
      1) How can conditionalists comfort the dying?
      2) How can conditionalists avoid errors about hell?
      3) How can a hermeneutic that supports conditionalism not lead to other misunderstandings of God?
      4) Won’t the plain “Word of God” lose its impact if we openly disagree with the translators?
      On comforting the dying, let me assure you that it is a great comfort to a dying conditionalist that they will never experience a moment of death (that’s the effect of unconsciousness). Instead, “in a moment, in the twinkling of the eye” they will experience the promised change at the resurrection and the fulfillment of Heb. 11:30, “God had provided something better for us, so that apart from us they should not be made perfect.” A conditionalist dies knowing there will be no “waiting” for either the glorious appearing of our Lord and Savior or for their beloved brothers and sisters in Christ. The “sleep of death” is anticipated as God’s great time-machine that moves us instantly to the Resurrection! Talk about comfort!
      I am not familiar with a doctrine of “no hell” and I have only learned a little about the effort to redeem God’s reputation with the doctrine of “universalism”, but on that I find no Biblical support. “Annihilationism” is also repudiated in the comment, but I’ve never grasped why. Does Jesus’ threat that there is One who is able to “destroy both body and soul in hell” take away from the Judgment and accountability? Does the Holy Spirit find it more difficult to “convict the world concerning sin, and righteousness, and judgment”? John 16:7-13, if He must admit that the lost will be annihilated instead of tormented without end?
      Even if “spiritualizing” is the wrong word, the writer accurately acknowledges that one’s hermeneutical methodology will have impact on more than one doctrine. And #2 accurately points towards the interpretation of hell as an example. Once a conditionalist stops believing in an immortal soul, he/she is no longer compelled to believe in unending torment. Or if one stops believing in unending torment, one no longer must believe in an immortal soul.
      And yes, disagreeing with Bible translations (i.e. translators) does teach that there is no such thing as “translator-infallibility”. It does require of the reader/listener, in whatever translation they are hearing, to acknowledge that there is an original language (Hebrew, Aramaic, Koine Greek) that is being interpreted. And indeed, the simplicity of, “The Word of God says” (in English, Russian, Swahili) must give way to an appeal to both heart and mind.
      Your source actually provided a wonderful example of this. When they wrote, Luke 23:43 – Jesus says the malefactor will be in paradise with him “today”, knowingly or not, they were referring to an “interpretive comma” since there were no commas in the original Greek. The translators had just as much right to print this passage like this: “Truly I say to you today, you shall be with Me in Paradise.” The translators had to decide whether Jesus was emphasizing the timing of the promise or the timing of the fulfillment.


  1. […] Sleep of the Dead A long standing tradition within evangelical Christianity asserts that death is a move to a new level of consciousness, that those awaiting Christ’s return for reward or punishment do so in a state that looks very much like they are already being rewarded or punished. Consequently, anyone who dares to imply that the intermediate state is one of unconscious sleep runs the risk of being branded a heretic or cult member. […]

  2. […] Rich Man and Lazarus September 17, 2012 By admin Leave a Comment ( This post is taken from the article Did you say sleep? ) […]

  3. […] Early Church Fathers never questioned the Biblical teaching of the complete mortality of man, the sleep of the dead, and the resurrection to eternal life or to judgment. They never speak of the immortality of the […]

  4. […] section adapted from my article:  Did You Say “Sleep”?) Share this:ShareEmailFacebookPrintTwitterLike this:LikeBe the first to like […]

  5. […] be dead is to “sleep in the dust of the earth”9 .  As we shall see, “sleep” is a regular biblical metaphor for death. It confirms again […]

  6. […] the New Testament, the “sleep” metaphor for death is taken up some 19 times. Examples: Matt. 9:24,  I Thessalonians 5:10  (Greek […]

  7. […] for an explanation of this view, see “Did you say ‘sleep’?”  If you have questions, you can ask at […]

  8. […] [1] for an explanation of this view, see “Did you say ‘sleep’?” […]

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