In Plato’s Phaedo, Socrates is in prison, awaiting his execution. A number of his faithful disciples are gathered around him, discussing his fate. Socrates seeks to cheer them up by explaining his belief that he will soon be set free from his incarceration. The prison he expects to be released from is that of his body. Plato uses the dialog between these people to prove his belief that the soul is set free from the prison of the body at death.
“Do we believe that there is such a thing as death?
To be sure, replied Simmias.
Is it not the separation of soul and body? And to be dead is the completion if this; when the soul exists in herself, and is released from the body and the body is released from the soul, what is this but death?”1
“And what is purification but the separation of the soul from the body … the release of the soul from the chains of the body?”2
So, Socrates could comfort his disciples by assuring them that death would not be a defeat for him. He could confidently drink the hemlock because it would offer him true freedom – not just a physical release from his body’s bondage, but a greater release – release from the prison of his body itself.
Many Christian theologians and preachers have suggested that Socrates was right in that confidence. They teach the same thing about death that Socrates taught: that it brings freedom. Does the Bible affirm this, or did these theologians and preachers borrow the idea from pagan philosophers?
Death to be Feared
The Bible consistently teaches that death is an enemy to be feared,3 rather than a solution to our present problems. God’s warning to the residents in Eden was “but of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil you shall not eat, for in the day that you eat of it you shall surely die.”4 If death were a good thing, bringing release from the prison of their body, God’s warning would not make sense.
Death is Darkness
The Bible associates death with darkness, not freedom and light.5 It is pictured as a place void of all awareness, a place where the souls and bodies lie and await the next event – a resurrection and its accompanying judgment. The dead are described as unconscious of what is going on around them. This is not freedom.
The term “sleep” is the single most used description of death in the Bible. It is used in the Old Testament and in the New. It is used of believers and unbelievers. It is used of people before the atonement and afterward.
“Consider and answer me, O LORD my God; light up my eyes, lest I sleep the sleep of death”6
“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”7
“The tombs also were opened. And many bodies of the saints who had fallen asleep were raised”8
“Then he appeared to more than five hundred brothers at one time, most of whom are still alive, though some have fallen asleep.”9
“But in fact Christ has been raised from the dead, the firstfruits of those who have fallen asleep.”10
“For this we declare to you by a word from the Lord, that we who are alive, who are left until the coming of the Lord, will not precede those who have fallen asleep.”11
The image of sleep is especially important as a description of death because it speaks of the reality that death is not permanent. To die is to sleep, but to be raised is to be awakened. In the interval, people reside in a state of unconsciousness called (in Hebrew) Sheol, and (in Greek) Hades. In a previous article I wrote on this intermediate state, I concluded:
“Sheol, then, is a silent, dark state or condition in which everyone exists at death, and can only live again by a resurrection from the LORD. It is always contrasted with heaven, and never equated with it. It is not the hope of the saints; rescue from it is the hope of the saints.”12
Resurrection: rescue from death
The biblical hope is not death itself, but rescue from it. Jesus is the one who has the keys to set people free, and the prison that we are incarcerated in is not our physical body, but death and Hades.
“I died, and behold I am alive forevermore, and I have the keys of Death and Hades.”13
“And the sea gave up the dead who were in it, Death and Hades gave up the dead who were in them, and they were judged, each one of them, according to what they had done.”14
The New Testament consistently presents the hope of believers as their resurrection to full bodily life by Jesus at his return.
“for they cannot die anymore, because they are equal to angels and are sons of God, being sons of the resurrection.”15
“Martha said to him, “I know that he will rise again in the resurrection on the last day.””16
“that I may know him and the power of his resurrection”17
“that by any means possible I may attain the resurrection from the dead.”18
Paul made it clear that his hope was not a disembodied state (being unclothed) but a resurrection to eternal life.
“For in this tent we groan, longing to put on our heavenly dwelling, if indeed by putting it on we may not be found naked. For while we are still in this tent, we groan, being burdened–not that we would be unclothed, but that we would be further clothed, so that what is mortal may be swallowed up by life.”19
Believers will be set free only at that time. Until then, we are still suffering the consequences of our ancestors’ sin – we die and return to the dust.20 But Jesus can raise us to life again. That is the blessed hope: “the appearing of the glory of our great God and Savior Jesus Christ”21 who comes to rescue us from death.
Teaching that death sets people free fails to reflect the Bible in three crucial areas. It is inconsistent with what the Bible says about death, it contradicts the Bible’s description of the intermediate state, and it detracts from the importance the Bible places on the resurrection.
- Plato, Phaedo, Kindle version, location 705.
- Plato, location 754.
- 1 Corinthians 15:26.
- Genesis 2:17 ESV.
- Job 38:17; Psa. 107:10, 14; Matt. 4:16; Luke 1:79.
- Psalm 13:3 ESV.
- John 11:11-14 ESV.
- Matthew 27:52 ESV.
- 1 Corinthians 15:6 ESV.
- 1 Corinthians 15:20 ESV.
- 1 Thessalonians 4:15 ESV.
- Jefferson Vann, Sheol: The Old Testament Consensus.
- Revelation 1:18 ESV.
- Revelation 20:13 ESV.
- Luke 20:36 ESV.
- John 11:24 ESV.
- Philippians 3:10 ESV.
- Philippians 3:11 ESV.
- 2 Corinthians 5:2-4 ESV.
- Gen. 3:19; Job 10:9; 34:15; Psa. 90:3; 104:29; Eccl. 3:20.
- Titus 2:13 ESV.