Defending a bit of unconsciousness

Jefferson Vann

Defending the unconscious intermediate state

In the past few years, I have addressed the topic of the intermediate state many times.1  My usual approach has been to either outline the basic biblical argument for an unconscious intermediate state, or to respond to texts that have been used to argue for a conscious intermediate state.

It has occurred to me that many may hold to a conscious intermediate based on philosophical arguments, rather than mere proof texts. I would like to consider some of those points in today’s article.


person glowing with different colours - the populate view is not an unconscious intermediate state

I would guess that most who hold to the idea that human beings remain alive and consciously aware to some extent after their bodies die do so because it is perceived to be the predominant view.  I am not quick to denounce this.  There is something to be said for the democratic approach in learning.  Views that are held popularly should not be casually discarded simply because they are the majority opinion.

I would merely point out that some views held by the majority over long periods of time have since been proven to be mistakes.  Sometimes, our motivations for believing in popular ideas are far from unselfish.  There was a time when the majority condoned slavery.  Although some might have been creative enough to find biblical support for enslaving other human beings, economics and racial prejudice were the real motivations.

There are still places and groups that endorse male domination of women.  There are groups that condone polygamy. There are those who believe that the world is flat.  If one narrows the confines of his scope of reference to only those within these groups, one might even call these views popular. But if one bases his survey on the views held by everyone on the entire planet, then these views hardly qualify as popular.

Also, even if most people around the world were to claim to hold to a conscious intermediate state, do their actions support their sincerity in claiming that?  Socrates claimed to believe that he could not really die, and so triumphantly drank the hemlock. But most people – even if they claim to believe as Socrates did –fight for every breath, regardless of their official belief in immortality.

In almost every culture and nation around the globe, there are cemeteries where the bodies of the departed are buried.  This custom is traced back not to a belief in conscious survival of death, but to a belief in a resurrection.  The cemeteries are κοιμητηριοι (sleeping chambers) from which the dead were to be awakened at the resurrection.

The Greek verb κοιμάω is the normal word for literal sleep:

  • and told them, “Say this, ‘His disciples came during the night and stole him while we were sleeping’”(Mat 28:13 CSB17).2
  • “When he got up from prayer and came to the disciples, he found them sleeping, exhausted from their grief” (Luk 22:45 CSB17).
  • Then the disciples said to him, “Lord, if he has fallen asleep, he will get well”” (Joh 11:12 CSB17).
  • When Herod was about to bring him out for trial, that very night Peter, bound with two chains, was sleeping between two soldiers, while the sentries in front of the door guarded the prison” (Act 12:6 CSB17).

This same verb is used repeatedly in the New Testament as a metaphor for death and the intermediate state:

  • The tombs were also opened and many bodies of the saints who had fallen asleep were raised” (Mat 27:52 CSB17).
  • He said this, and then he told them, “Our friend Lazarus has fallen asleep, but I’m on my way to wake him up”” (Joh 11:11 CSB17).
  • And falling to his knees, he cried out with a loud voice, “Lord, do not hold this sin against them!” And after he said this, he fell asleep” (Act 7:60) LEB).3
  • A wife is tied down as long as her husband lives; but if her husband has fallen asleep, she is independent, and can be married to whomever she wants to, only in the Lord” (1Co 7:39 JDV).4

{None of the modern translations render this literally, as I have done here. Even the King James Version translated κοιμηθῇ as “be dead,” but the literal rendering is “has fallen asleep” as above.}

  • Then he appeared to over five hundred brothers and sisters at one time; most of them are still alive, but some have fallen asleep” (1Co 15:6 CSB17).
  • “We do not want you to be uninformed, brothers and sisters, concerning those who are asleep, so that you will not grieve like the rest, who have no hope. For if we believe that Jesus died and rose again, in the same way, through Jesus, God will bring with him those who have fallen asleep. For we say this to you by a word from the Lord: We who are still alive at the Lord’s coming will certainly not precede those who have fallen asleep” (1Th 4:13-15 CSB17).
  • saying, “Where is his ‘coming’ that he promised? Ever since our ancestors fell asleep, all things continue as they have been since the beginning of creation”” (2Pe 3:4) CSB17).

The New Testament acknowledges that there exists a certain ambiguity in the use of this language describing death. This is most clearly seen in the disciples’ reaction to Jesus announcement of Lazarus’ death.

  • “He said this, and then he told them, “Our friend Lazarus has fallen asleep, but I’m on my way to wake him up.” Then the disciples said to him, “Lord, if he has fallen asleep, he will get well.” Jesus, however, was speaking about his death, but they thought he was speaking about natural sleep (κοίμησις)” (Joh 11:11-13 CSB17).

So, the New Testament uses the verbal idea of sleeping (or having fallen asleep) as a metaphor for death, but does not use the substantive (κοίμησις) as a synonym for death.  The act of falling asleep compares to the act of dying, and the state of being asleep compares to the state of being dead.  When conditionalists ask ourselves about the nature of that comparison, many of us conclude that “the sleep of the dead” is a state of unconsciousness during the time between death and the resurrection at Christ’s second coming.  We see this as a common view, considering how people have normally treated their dead historically.  We see the platonic concept of the survival of death as not really as popular as it proponents claim. Were it really a popular view, we would expect less people to care about what happens to their bodies at death.


Another major philosophical motivation behind the belief of conscious survival at death has to do with a belief in independent spiritual entities.  It is concluded that God does not have a corporeal body, and yet he most assuredly is a conscious entity.  It is further added that angels and demons do not always appear in corporeal forms, yet they also are definitely alive.  Therefore, there are those within many religions and ideologies who believe in human conscious survival at death by virtue of the fact of bodily death!

The argument is a very old one, and is usually expressed like this: Death reduces a human being to his most simple form. Once the body dies, the soul (or spirit) remains intact. Since the soul cannot be reduced any further, and the soul remains the core of this person’s identity, the person has survived death. Since God and the angels and demons are conscious in their simple, irreducible forms, then so are human beings. Therefore, all humans survive death in a conscious state.

The modern-day Guru Deepak Chopra expresses this kind of thought:

“Spirit is the real me. Nonmaterial and dimensionless, Spirit can neither be created nor destroyed.  Spirit is spaceless, timeless, and dimensionless.  Fire cannot burn it and water cannot wet it, wind cannot dry it, weapons cannot kill it, eternal and unbounded and nonchanging, without beginning and without ending; it is nowhere in particular and everywhere in general. The spirit is the essential me.”5

Now, most Christians, if they read these words carefully, will not entirely agree with them. Even if a Christian might agree with the concept of an indestructible soul, he would have problems (I hope) with the idea that the soul is not created, and has no beginning.  Even if a Christian believes his soul’s life is without limit, he would (I also hope) have problems with the idea that the soul has no spacial limits.

I appeal to these Christians. I ask these believers who are careful to believe only those things which can be proven either from Scripture or from experience and not denied by Scripture.  I ask you – Bible believing Christian – to only allow your spirituality to carry you to places where the Bible will allow you to go.  The New age gurus (and the old pagan mystics) take leaps in their search for truth by surmising that if they believe one thing to be true, then something related to it must also be true.  But, I am not comfortable with that.  If I am going to believe something, I would prefer a series of biblical texts to base that belief on.

The Bible has given us clear teaching about the nature of created human existence.  Consider the creation narrative:

  • “Then the Lord God formed the man out of the dust from the ground and breathed the breath of life into his nostrils, and the man became a living being” (Gen 2:7 CSB17).

The creation narrative lists no combination of substances to the creation of humanity.  There was no body and soul or body and spirit.  It was simply “man” formed out of the dust.  This man was not a spirit, but a man.  He was not made of spirit, but of dust. He was not given a spirit, he was animated by God breathing the breath of life into his nostrils. The result of this animation was not a combination of the material with the spiritual, but the act of a soul becoming alive.  He was created from the dust as a non-living soul. He was animated by the breath of life, and then became a living being, or living soul (נפש־חיה).

Was this “breath of life” the miraculous spiritual entity that made human beings possessors of an immortal spirit? No, the animals created also had the breath of life.

  • “for all the wildlife of the earth, for every bird of the sky, and for every creature that crawls on the earth– everything having the breath of life in it— I have given every green plant for food.” And it was so” (Gen 1:30 CSB17).
  • “Understand that I am bringing a flood– floodwaters on the earth to destroy every creature under heaven with the breath of life in it. Everything on earth will perish” (Gen 6:17 CSB17).
  • “Two of every creature that has the breath of life in it came to Noah and entered the ark” (Gen 7:15 CSB17).

What does the Bible say happens when a human being loses that breath of life?

  • When you hide your face, they are terrified; when you take away their breath, they die and return to the dust” (Psa 104:29 CSB17).
  • His breath goeth forth, he returneth to his earth; in that very day his thoughts perish” (Psa 146:4 KJV).
  • Because what is happening to the children of Adam and what is happening to the animals is the same; as one dies, so dies the other. They all have the same breath, and man has no advantage over the animals, because everything is impermanent” (Ecc 3:19 JDV).
  • and the dust returns to the earth as it was, and the life’s breath returns to God who gave it” (Ecc 12:7 NET).6

{The life’s breath returning to God is not the immortal spirit going to heaven. It is the reversal of the creation process described in Genesis 2:7. The soul which was made alive by means of God’s animating breath (נפש־חיה) now dies, and the body, having been fashioned from the dust, returns to the dust.}

Note also how the Bible describes resurrection:

  • “This is what the Lord God says to these bones: I will cause breath to enter you, and you will live. I will put tendons on you, make flesh grow on you, and cover you with skin. I will put breath in you so that you come to life. Then you will know that I am the Lord.” So I prophesied as I had been commanded. While I was prophesying, there was a noise, a rattling sound, and the bones came together, bone to bone. As I looked, tendons appeared on them, flesh grew, and skin covered them, but there was no breath in them. He said to me, “Prophesy to the breath, prophesy, son of man. Say to it: This is what the Lord God says: Breath, come from the four winds and breathe into these slain so that they may live!” So I prophesied as he commanded me; the breath entered them, and they came to life and stood on their feet, a vast army. (Eze 37:5-10 CSB17).

{Note that the same word in Hebrew (רוח) is translated both as wind and breath in this text.  The word translated breathe could also be rendered blow.}

Resurrection is described as an event in which an animating force (either God’s breath or the wind) acts upon corpses which have been rendered inanimate by death. It is not described as if the slain are still alive, and return to their bodies to animate them.  In fact, Ezekiel’s description portrays a second creative work of God as new flesh is required to replace that which has dissolved into the dust. But, even then, the event of resurrection is not completed until an animating principle acts upon those recreated bodies to bring them back to life.

  • For if we have been planted together in the likeness of his death, we shall be also in the likeness of his resurrection” (Rom 6:5 KJV).

Paul describes the resurrection of believers as like the resurrection of Christ. Christ died, he was placed in the tomb lifeless, and life returned to him on the third day.  So, believers who die will fall asleep in Christ, and will be raised from death as he was raised. His resurrection serves as the pattern for ours.

  • “This is the will of him who sent me: that I should lose none of those he has given me but should raise them up on the last day” (Joh 6:39 CSB17).

Christ is both the pattern for our resurrection, and the person who will bring it about.  The resurrection is not self-service. We will not be raised by means of our disembodied spirits returning to their own bodies, but our Saviour bringing them to life again.

The unconscious intermediate state is not a flashy doctrine. It has not been presented often – even in conditionalist ranks, and has had a poor defence in our pulpits and periodicals.  But the glory of this doctrine is that it bases the hope of eternal life on Christ’s return to raise the dead. It is not popular, and it does not hide behind the monster of pagan dualism.  The only thing the doctrine has going for it is that the Bible teaches it.  That is enough for me.

  1. See Q & A: resurrection chronology (Afterlife, July 7, 2016); Five questions to ask while reading the rich man and Lazarus story (Afterlife, January 28, 2016); What the dead really know (Afterlife, June 17, 2015); Sorry, Socrates! (Afterlife, June 9, 2015); Sheol in the ground. (Afterlife, June 5, 2015); Waiting at the station. (Afterlife, May 13, 2015); Daring to say SLEEP. (Afterlife, April 30, 2015); Not a better place. (Afterlife, April 7, 2015); Not Whisked Off. (Afterlife, March 29, 2015); Waking to taunt Babylon. (Afterlife, March 8, 2015); To die is gain. (Afterlife, July 11, 2014); Better than survival. (Afterlife, Sep 26, 2013); The Promise – eternal life. (Afterlife, Sep 10, 2013); Learning to trust. (Afterlife, Aug 27, 2013); Debugging Luke 23:43. (Afterlife, June 15, 2013); Afterlife: After or Beyond? (Afterlife, Feb 1, 2013); Set Free? The soul after death. (Afterlife, Oct 4, 2012); The Rich Man & Lazarus and the intermediate State. (Afterlife, Sep 17, 2012); Scaling The Wall (in three parts) (Afterlife, Sep 2, Sep 11, 2012); Did you say “Sleep”? (Afterlife, Aug 7, 2012); Analysing Ecclesiastes 9:5. (Afterlife, July 5, 2012); Calvin on Psalm 31:5. (Afterlife, Dec 11, 2011); Is death a better place? (Afterlife, Dec 2, 2011); The waiting station. (Afterlife, Sep 23, 2011); Away from the body. (Afterlife, Mar 29, 2011); If you died today…(Afterlife, Mar 26, 2011); Sheol: The Old Testament Consensus. (Afterlife, Dec 29, 2010). []
  2. Texts labeled CSB17 are from Christian Standard Bible, Copyright © 2017: Holman Bible Publishers, a division of LifeWay Christian Resources []
  3. Scripture quotations marked (LEB) are from the Lexham English Bible. Copyright © 2012 Logos Bible Software. Lexham is a registered trademark of Logos Bible Software. []
  4. Texts labeled JDV are my own translation.  []
  5. Deepak Chopra,  Everyday Immortality.  (New York: Harmony Books, 1999), 52-54. []
  6. Texts labeled NET are The NET Bible, Version 1.0 – Copyright © 2004,2005 Biblical Studies Foundation. []

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. Chuck McClellan says:

    Thanks, Jeff, for the clear thinking and biblical documentation of it.
    I’ve been a condionalalist in a mostly traditional (in Christian and secular environments), for a couple decades now.

    As we watch friends and family members gradually but continually exit the stage, I often feel that they keep asking me to lead a few hymns– just to keep me from going ” off script “.

    Now, we five siblings and associated families are clearly facing the loss of two greatly loved parents. My brother, a mostly baptist pastor in Ohio and my son , a mostly unchurched millennial in California, will likely be my only cohorts and so we will probably not make any waves– yet again. The truth could be so much more comforting than the convenient mushy hermeneutics that have been the default mode for so long. I usually just put extra emphasis on the resurrection truths that are NOT ambiguous at all, got any other suggestions ?

    Thanks for your clarity

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