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PROBLEM PASSAGES 

There are passages that have been used historically to reject the concept of soul sleep; these texts are claimed to support irrefutably the majority view of the Church, which is the immortality of the soul, the belief that the soul lives on in a disembodied and conscious state following separation from the body at the time of death.

Not all the questionable passages will be considered, just a sample to show the general approach taken to problem passages. The perspective which guides the interpretation given to these texts is found in the articles related to the Nature of Man (see: Nature of Man).

Genesis 35:18

And so it was, as her soul was departing (for she died) . . .

In keeping with the understanding of “soul” that has been established in the other articles, the “soul” here simply means “life”; for the soul to depart is for life to depart. The psalmist pleads: “Let my soul live” (Ps. 119:175); for his statement to be meaningful the soul must be able to die, that is, the psalmist must be able to die. For the soul to live is for the person to live; for the soul to die is for the person to die. Additionally the psalmist speaks of “he who cannot keep himself (nephesh) alive” (Ps. 22:29; lit., “he who cannot keep his soul alive”).

If life, or soul, can depart, then the soul can be restored: “They have given their valuables for food to restore life (nephesh)” (Lam. 1:11). In the devastated city of Jerusalem people gave their prized possessions for food in order to sustain their lives, that is, to keep them from dying.

Hans Walter Wolff writes:

We must not fail to observe that the nephesh is never given the meaning of an indestructible core of being, in contradistinction to the physical life, and even capable of living when cut off from that life. When there is a mention of ‘departing’ (Gen. 35:18) of a nephesh from a man, or of its ‘return’ (Lam. 1:11), the basic idea . . . is the concrete notion of the ceasing and the restoration of the breathing”(Anthropology of the Old Testament, 20).

The NLT has: “Rachel was about to die, but with her last breath . . .”

Departure of the breath is a metaphor for death (TDNT).


Isaiah 14:9-11

Hell (sheol) from beneath is excited about you to meet you at your coming: it stirs up the dead for you, all the chief ones of the earth; it has raised up from their thrones all the kings of the nations. They shall speak and say to you: "Have you also become as weak as we? Have you become like us? Your pomp is brought down to Sheol, and the sound of your stringed instruments; the maggot is spread under you, and worms cover you."

Perhaps the note in the New Geneva Study Bible will suffice:

Isaiah uses the popular conception of the realm of the dead with its shadow figures welcoming newcomers in an ironic description of Babylon’s fall and her descent into the lower regions. The use of these conventional ideas is poetic, and is not intended as a theology of the afterlife.

In a similar manner Ezek. 32:21 is to be understood.

Matthew 10:28

And do not fear those who kill the body but cannot kill the soul. But rather fear Him who is able to destroy both soul and body in hell.

Men are not to be feared because they can only bring an end to physical life; it is God who is to be feared because He not only has the power over physical life, but also power over eternal life, the destiny of the individual. Man’s power is limited; God’s is unlimited. Men may bring life to an end but cannot bring an end to life—this is the prerogative of God.

The force of the passage is clearly seen in Luke’s account:

My friends, do not be afraid of those who kill the body, and after that have no more that they can do. But I will show you whom you should fear: Fear Him who, after He has killed, has power to cast into hell; yes, I say to you, fear Him (12:4-5).

Commenting on this verse, the TDNT has: “The saying posits the unity of the two and negates the idea of the soul’s immortality”; that is, this statement removes any doubt as to whether the soul can die, and the statement is from the lips of Christ. Instead of affirming a separation between body and soul, the verse actually affirms the unity or oneness of the two, and the death of the soul.

Pannenberg writes: “the distinction between body and soul as two . . . different realms of reality can no longer be maintained. . . . The separation between physical and spiritual is artificial” (What is Man, 47-8).

Luke 16:19-31

The text is the story of the rich man (known as Dives, Latin for “rich man”) and Lazarus.

Perhaps this passage is the most challenging passage to soul sleep; there are two options: it is either literal, or it is parabolic.

If the story is literal, then soul sleep is impossible; clearly the rich man survives death in some form, is conscious, and capable of communicating with others, even interceding with heaven for his family on earth. If a literal approach is taken, then what about the following:

Lazarus in a bosom; torment that was not so great as to keep the rich man from thinking and talking coherently and earnestly; consciousness after death when the OT clearly teaches no consciousness after death; asking Abraham for mercy; Abraham possibly having authority to send Lazarus to the place of torment; a great gulf that does not limit communication; suffering in fire before the final judgment; fire in the grave?

It is obvious that a literal approach strains credibility and understanding.

If, on the other hand, the passage is a parable, then the central message must be ascertained, which in the larger context is obvious: preparation for the future must be made in the present, and proper preparation is related to the Word. In the immediate context, the parable is also a warning against riches, a theme which reaches back to the Pharisees of verse 14 “who were lovers of money” and were scoffing at His parable of the unjust steward (16:1-13).

Luke 23:43

Assuredly, I say to you, today you will be with Me in Paradise.

The thief had confidence in Jesus and did not accept His death as His end; he asked to be remembered “when” Jesus came into His kingdom: “Then he said to Jesus, ‘Lord, remember me when You come into Your kingdom’” (Lu. 23:42). With this request the thief acknowledge his belief that the kingdom would be in the future.

Jesus responds by affirming that “today” the destiny is settled: the thief will be with Christ, the One he has just confessed and of whom he has asked mercy. Christ assures him that he will be with Him. The thief can die in peace knowing that his destiny has been determined. Jesus spoke in terms that the thief understood and that brought comfort to him.

The focus of the statement is assurance for the thief that his destiny is secure—his destiny is to be with Christ; the statement is not an indication of a literal place that the thief and Christ would be in a few hours.

Note: “Paradise” was a word used by the Jews of that day to refer to the home of the righteous dead while they waited their final vindication. The Septuagint uses this word for the Garden of Eden.

Note: All punctuation in the Scriptures has been added by man; some have suggested the following for this verse: “I say to you today, You will be with Me in Paradise”.

II Corinthians 5:8

We are confident, yes, well pleased rather to be absent from the body and to be present with the Lord.

The point of the passage is that however long the period of death may be in terms of earthly years, the next knowledge for the believer following his death, is the presence of the Lord, which will take place at the moment of the resurrection. After this life is over, the next conscious experience is the presence of the Lord.

Paul groans and earnestly desires to be clothed and thus made fit for heaven, instead of being unclothed and naked in death; in his words he desires “that mortality may be swallowed up by life” (v. 4). While he is “at home in the body,” that is living the earthly life of mortality, he is “absent from the Lord”; but Paul is walking by faith, “always confident” that after the unclothing and nakedness of death he will “be present with the Lord.”

Note: An isolated passage cannot be taken and used to reject the uniform teaching of both the OT and the NT regarding the soul—the truth that the soul is the living person and that the soul dies.

The entire flow of the passage must be considered, and the flow must be considered from the Hebrew background out of which Paul came. It is improper to ignore the Hebrew teaching in favor of the Greek influence at the time which affirmed the immortality of the soul.

Note: "This person is always seen in a totality that finds expression, not in the antithetical concepts of body and soul, but in the complementary ones of body and life" (TDNT).

Philippians 1:23

For I am hard-pressed between the two,
having a desire to depart and be with Christ, which is far better.

In the larger context Paul is speaking of the things that have happened to him, some negative, but the things have resulted in the furtherance of the gospel (v. 12); his passion is that Christ be preached (v. 18). He desires Christ to be magnified “whether by life or by death” (v. 20), and he writes” “For to me, to live is Christ, and to die is gain” (v. 21)—death means that Paul will have a fuller experience of the One he lives for.

Paul is simply affirming that the future is better than the present; to be with Christ is better than being apart from Christ; to depart this life is better than staying because when this life is finished the next experience is the presence of Christ.

This verse does not teach nor affirm the immortality of the soul; to claim that it does is to approach the verse with a prior mindset that reads something into the text that is not there, and to change the point of the text in order to support a certain interpretation.

Revelation 6:9-11

The text depicts the martyred souls beneath the altar crying out to God.

Buswell is convinced that this passage along with Rev. 20:4 are decisive; he wrote:

The erroneous notion that the word ‘soul’ is a term which merely designates the relationship between the body and the spirit, and that the soul, that is, this relationship, ceases to exist at death, is entirely contrary to the Scripture, and should be silenced completely by such passages as these (ST, 240).

But, contrary to the affirmation of Buswell, is it possible to interpret these verses in a different manner that also maintains integrity for the normative nature of the text?

It must be remembered that the final book is highly symbolic and figurative; for instance, a scroll held by the Father, colorful horses, the eating of a little book, beasts from the sea and land, Christ with a sword going out of His mouth, and more. So it is not improper to understand the scene of the martyred souls from the same perspective, not that literal souls are beneath a literal altar (if the souls are literal then surely the altar, also mentioned in 8:3, must be literal; if so, then this raises the issue of literal objects in heaven that are stationary and fixed), but that the scene depicts the cry of the righteous of all time for retribution and justice. They implore: “How long, O Lord . . .?” The answer is that they “should rest a little while longer”; in other words, God will judge but according to His sovereign timetable. Believers can have hope in His assurance that good will triumph ultimately.

Amidst all of the apocalyptic language in the book that teaches literal truth about the end of days, there is this scene which affirms that the injustices done to the righteous by the wicked throughout history have not been addressed. It is the problem discussed by the psalmist at times and is related to the prosperity of the wicked and the seemingly unfair life of the just person who suffers at the hands of the wicked.

This text reminds of the account in Genesis where God tells Cain: “The voice of your brother’s blood cries out to Me from the ground” (4:10). No literal blood was crying, it is rather  symbolic of the need for justice; Abel’s death needed to be avenged.

In the first book and in the last book of the Bible there is the acknowledgement that wrong must be addressed, and that man cannot continue in sin with no accountability.


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