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THEOLOGY > Man > Nature of Man > Soul Sleep   


The question is the relationship of death to what the Bible calls the soul. Does the soul continue in a disembodied state at death? Or, does the soul cease at death because the soul is simply the person? The two positions are popularly known as “the immortality of the soul” and “soul sleep” (correctly known as Psychopannychy or Psychopannychism).

The majority position of the Church is the immortality of the soul, the belief that the soul continues in some existence subsequent to death; the minority view is that there is no conscious existence after death, prior to the resurrection. Throughout the history of the Church, most writers have accepted some sort of conscious existence of the soul following death, but there have been infrequent voices raised in opposition to the majority view.

With fear and trembling, this website will advance in a tentative fashion some reasons for considering the minority position.

The Nature of the “Soul”

The issue is this: does man have a soul, or is man a soul? Is the soul something you possess, or is it something you are? If man has a soul, then there must be the possibility of a continued existence of the soul at death; but, if man is a soul, then that possibility is greatly brought into question.

Genesis 2:7 affirms that man “became” a living soul, not that he was given a soul but that he was made a soul, “soul” being the word used to describe the state of the animated body (see: Constitution and Nature of the Soul).

According to Gn. 2, any conception of the soul as a separate (and separable) part or division of our being would seem to be invalid. Similarly, the popular debate concerning whether human nature is a bipartite or tripartite being has the appearance of a rather ill-founded and unhelpful irrelevancy. The human person is a ‘soul’ by virtue of being a ‘body’ made alive by the ‘breath’ (or ‘Spirit’) of God (“Anthropology” in New Dictionary of Theology).

Adam became a nephesh, that is, a living individual. Nephesh is what the body became when it was animated by God—when the dirt was made alive, it became a nephesh (see: Miracle of Matter). Translations of nephesh in the modern editions of Genesis 2:7 reflect this understanding of the word:

“a living soul” in KJV, ASV;

“a living being” in the NKJV NASB, RSV, NIV, CSB;

“a living creature” in ESV;

“a living person” in NLT.

Confirmation of the teaching of the Old Testament is found in one verse in the New Testament: “The first man Adam became a living being (psuche)” (I Cor. 15:45). Psuche is the Greek word for “soul” and is used in the Septuagint to translate nephesh.

Soul is not an independent entity, but is a way of speaking of the living person; the nature of the soul is the nature of man. (See: Crucial Question)

The Unity of Man

Job refers to himself as “an intricate unity” (Job 10:8), an evaluation supported by the rest of Scripture; if man is a unity, then when either the body or soul ceases, the other ceases; the unity is such that the soul does not exist apart from the body (see: An Intricate Unity).

The Hebrew-Christian perspective accepts the unity of man; that is, man is not a combination of distinct and independent pieces that have been brought together, but is essentially one being, creature, or person. Man is not the result of a construction but of a creation.

This does not deny the fact that different aspects of man can be discussed, for instance, the material and the immaterial; or the body, soul, and spirit; or the heart and mind. Each of these concepts carry peculiar emphases, but the point is that these are not separate components or parts that are all positioned together to form man, with each having a separate existence. These concepts or words are merely means of referring to different aspects of man—man is the total of these things, and each one of the things can be used as a synonym for man.

The “body,” “soul,” “heart,” “mind,” “spirit,” and “flesh,” and any other words used of man by the Scriptures, individually and jointly, are the equivalent of man; man is not one of these, or a combination of some of these, but man is all of these.

Speaking of the body and soul, Donald Guthrie stated: “The one cannot exist without the other. Indeed Paul never links the two ideas in a description of a person, since either covers both, i.e. the whole person” (New Testament Theology, 165).

Recent scholarship has recognized that such terms as body, soul, and spirit are not different, separable faculties of man but different ways of viewing the whole man (George Ladd, A Theology of the New Testament, 457).

If the soul can exist independent of the body, then the problem of consciousness is raised. What constitutes consciousness? Is it the soul? Is it the brain, the soul using the brain; or are there two centers of consciousness, soul and brain?

The Meaning of Death

What is death? What happens when man dies? How is death to be understood? What are the dynamics of dying? For this discussion the essential question should be worded: “Is death separation or cessation?” That is, does the soul separate from the body at death, or does the life, which is synonymous with the soul, cease at death?

At death, what dies? Does the body die, or does the man die? That is the issue: either part of man dies, or man dies. Is death to be understood as relating to a component of man or to man? In separation, only part of man dies; but in cessation, the man dies. The total man dies, that is, he dies in the totality of his being.

Consider the following verses:

“Therefore my heart is glad, and my glory rejoices; my flesh also will rest in hope. For You will not leave my soul in Sheol” (Ps. 16:9-10); “my heart,” “my glory, “my flesh” and “my soul” are all used of the person; the person’s heart is glad, and his glory rejoices because of what he believes about death; in death his flesh will rest in hope because the soul will not be left in Sheol; for the psalmist, it is obvious that the flesh and soul are not going to different places, and the place they are going is not the final destination; but in death the flesh and the soul are both in Sheol (Sheol is transl. “grave” 31 times and “hell” 31 times in the KJV, and “pit” 3 times);

“but God will redeem my soul from the power of the grave (sheol), for He shall receive me” (Ps. 49:15); “my soul” and “me” are not two different entities; both refer to the person; and the soul is going to the grave, but the psalmist believes the soul will be redeemed from the grave; and the psalmist will be received when the power of the grave is broken;

“If I ascend into heaven, You are there; if I make my bed in hell (Sheol), behold, You are there” (Ps. 139:8); God is omnipresent, in both heaven and hell; the point is that the psalmist knows there will be a time when he will make his bed in Sheol and God will be there; to make the bed in Sheol is for the soul to feel the power of the grave (see previous verse);

“Let us swallow them alive like Sheol, and whole, like those who go down to the Pit” (Prov. 1:12); Sheol swallows people, not bodies; those who go down to Sheol are “them” and “those”; to be swallowed by Sheol is for the soul to feel the power of the grave (see Ps. 49:15 above, and Ps. 16:9-10);

“I am the resurrection and the life. He who believes in Me, though he may die, he shall live” (Jo. 11:25); the one who dies is “he,” not just the body; but in death there is hope for those who believe in Christ, who is the Resurrection; it is not part of the person that dies but the person.

To die is to lose the soul, for in death the soul is breathed out, meaning that the life of the person is lost—the body is no longer animated. Matter, in the case of man, is no longer mind (see: The Miracle of Matter). Consider two passages:

“and their hope—loss of life”; (Job 11:20; lit., “shall be as one breathing out the soul (nephesh)”; KJV has: “giving up of the ghost”);  the best hope of the wicked is that they will die; to die is to breath out the soul, meaning to lose life; but translations have difficulty facing the pointed meaning of the text:

NASB ESV, and RSV, have “their hope is to breathe their last”;

NIV has “their hope will become a dying gasp”;

CSB has “their only hope will be to die”;

NLT has “their only hope is death”;

Each of the translations avoids one that uses the word “soul” for nephesh; lost in the translations is the fact that the soul is lost at death; death is the meaning of this verse but “soul” is not used in any of the translations;

“she has breathed her last (nephesh); her sun has gone down”  (Jer. 15:9; lit., “she breathed out her soul”); the woman with seven children breathed out her soul, that is, she died; death is also indicated in the sun going down; “she” died and “her” sun went down; it is not the body that died, but “she.”

Involved in this discussion of the meaning of death is a vital theological issue. Paul wrote: “For the wages of sin is death” (Rom. 6:23).  What is it that pays the wages of sin in death: is it the person or just the body? Where is the “sting” of death felt (I Cor. 15:55), in the person or just by the body? What does the “victory” (I Cor. 15:55) over death refer to: the person or just the body?

If you accept dualism (man is body and soul), then sin must reside in the soul which is the seat of consciousness; therefore, it is inconceivable that the center of sin in the individual escapes death—that is, the soul lives on while only the body dies. It is implausible to contemplate that the very locus of sin, the mind, heart, soul, would not die but escape the wages of sin. Death is not the death of the body but the death of the man; and death is because of sin.

The Dead Know Nothing

It is not that the body does not know anything in death, but that the person who dies knows nothing; the following verses are clear:

“For in death there is no remembrance of You; in the grave who will give You thanks” (Ps. 6:5); no memory in death and no giving of thanks;

“What profit is there in my blood when I go down to the pit (shachath – “corruption”)? Will the dust praise You? Will it declare Your truth?” (Ps. 30:9); the reference is to “I” and “dust”; they are synonyms—“I” and “dust” are one and the same; “I” becomes “dust”;

“Will You work wonders for the dead? Shall the dead arise and praise You? Shall Your lovingkindness be declared in the grave, or Your faithfulness in the place of destruction? Shall Your wonders be known in the dark? And Your righteousness in the land of forgetfulness?” (Ps. 88:9-12);

“The dead do not praise Yahweh, nor any who go down into silence” (Ps. 115:17);

“His spirit departs, he returns to his earth; in that very day his plans perish” (Ps. 146:4); “he” and “his spirit” are the same;

“For what happens to the sons of men also happens to animals; one thing befalls them: as one dies, so dies the other. Surely, they all have one breath; man has no advantage over animals, for all is vanity. All go to one place: all are from the dust, and all return to the dust. Who knows the spirit of the sons of men, which goes upward, and the spirit of the animal, which goes down to the earth?” (Eccles. 3:19-21);

“Whatever your hand finds to do, do it with your might; for there is no work or device or knowledge or wisdom in the grave where you are going” (Eccles. 9:10);

“For Sheol cannot thank You, death cannot praise You; those who go down to the pit cannot hope for Your truth” (Isa. 38:18); “those” is a reference to individuals not bodies.

The above verses teach that the dead do not remember God, do not give thanks to God, do not praise God, cease from making plans (indication of no consciousness), do no work (indication of no activity), have no knowledge or wisdom, and cannot hope for the Truth—the dead know nothing.

In opposition to the above interpretation, Boettner has written: “It should be clear to any one that these verses describe the dead person only as he appears from the human viewpoint, not as he really is” (Immortality, 112). But this is to interject into the interpretation a concept not found in  the Scriptures, and is proffered merely to support a preexisting concept, namely that the soul is conscious after death. Clearly the above verses are intended to affirm something about the dead, not simply a perspective from the human viewpoint about the dead.

The Dead Return to the Dust

The word, adam (Heb. for “man”), is derived from adamah (Heb. for “earth”), so the name of the first man indicates the material from which he was created—Adam came from the dust. And man must till the earth and struggle with the “thorns and thistles” of the earth in order to live; and when he dies, it is to the earth that man returns (see: From the Dust).

It is appointed unto men to die (Heb. 9:27); and when that time arrives, man returns to his source, to the dirt from which he was made. It is not the body that returns to the dust, but it is man that returns to the earth.

“Till you return to the ground, for out of it you were taken; for dust you are and to dust you shall return” (Gen. 3:19); “you” refers to the man, who is from dust and will return to dust;

“You have made me like clay and will You return me into dust again?” (Job 10:9-11); “clay” and “dust” are related to “me,” not the body;

“But it will lie down with him in the dust” (Job 20:11); “him” and the “dust” are the same; “They lie down alike in the dust, and worms cover them” (Job 21:26);

“You take away their breath, they die and return to their dust” (Ps. 104:29);

“All go to one place: all are from the dust, and all return to dust” (Eccles. 3:20); “dust,” which is used twice, is related to “all,” which is used three times.

As in the following topic, the subject in the above verses is not the body but the individual; notice the who, not the what, involved in the return to dust: “you,” “me,” “him,” “they,” “them,” “all,” and “their.” The person returns to the dust, because the person is animated dust (see: Miracle of Matter).

The Concept of Sleep

The concept of sleep is used of death in both Testaments. To die is to sleep, or to rest, to rest in the grave, awaiting the resurrection. In natural sleep one is unconscious of time and events; so it is in death. The word “sleep” conveys the same sort of state, one in which the dead know nothing because there is cessation of life in every sense.

It is never the sleep of the body that is spoken of
always the sleep of the person.
The body does not die,
it is the person who dies and sleeps.

In the following Scriptures, note the personal names and pronouns, indicating the sleep of the person, not the sleep of the body:

“you will rest with your fathers” (Deut. 31:16);

“you will rest with your fathers” (II Sam. 7:12);

“so David rested with his fathers and was buried in the city of David” (I KI. 2:10); it is not the body of David and the bodies of the fathers that sleep, but “David” and the “fathers” that sleep;

“lest I sleep the sleep of death” (Ps 13:3);

“those who sleep in the dust” (Dan. 12:2);

“many bodies of the saints who had fallen asleep were raised” (Matt. 27:52); “saints” had fallen asleep, and when their bodies were raised they were alive again; until the bodies were raised the “saints” were asleep;

“our friend Lazarus sleeps, but I go that I may wake him up . . . Lazarus is dead” (Jo. 11:11-14); Jesus was not going to wake up the body of Lazarus but to wake up Lazarus from the sleep of death;

“and when he had said this, he fell asleep” (Acts 7:60); the body of Stephen did not fall asleep, but Stephen fell asleep;

“David . . . fell asleep, was buried . . . and saw corruption” (Acts 13:36); it was David that died, was buried, and saw corruption, not just his body;

“for this reason many are weak and sick among you, and many sleep” (I Cor. 11:30); not the bodies that sleep but “many”;

“those who have fallen asleep” (I Cor. 15:18);

“the firstfruits of those who have fallen asleep” (I Cor. 15:20);

“we shall not all sleep, but we shall all be changed” (I Cor. 15:51); the change will come for “we,” not just the body;

“concerning those who have fallen asleep” (I Thess. 4:14);

“whether we wake or sleep, we should live together with Him” (I Thess. 5:10);

“since the fathers fell asleep” (II Pet. 3:4).

The concept of sleep maintains the unity of human existence; the body and soul exist together, and cannot exist independently of each other. Take away the soul and the body dies; take away the animated body and there is no soul—they exist together, in unity, not in separation. It is not that the body sleeps or the soul sleeps, it is that the person sleeps in death (really, “soul sleep” is incorrect, unless soul is understood to be a synonym for the person).

Some claim that the sleep is just the sleep of the body, Boettner, for instance, writes: “The sleep spoken of is that of the body, not of the soul” (Immortality, 112). But no such distinction is definitively made in the Scriptures. The sleep in death is the sleep of the person; see John 11:11-14 and Acts 13:36 above.

And some maintain that sleep is simply a word for death but does not describe the state of the dead, but this attaches a limitation to the word that is nowhere indicated in any of the texts; sleep is not only a word for death but also a word that aptly describes the one who has died—he is asleep or at rest.

The Resurrection

Does the resurrection involve the person or just the body? What is raised—the individual or merely the body?

Resurrection is never specified in the Scriptures to be only the body, but when the resurrection is discussed it refers to the resurrection of the person. The hope of the believer is in his resurrection, not in the resurrection of his body.

Boettner speaks for the majority viewpoint: “It should be kept in mind that resurrection applies not to the soul, but only to the body” (Immortality, 114). The reader must evaluate the subject of the following verses, whether it is the body of the person or the person that is meant by the texts.

In the following verses note the resurrection of the person, a resurrection not limited to the body.

“You will guide me with Your counsel, and afterward receive me to glory. Whom have I in heaven but You? And there is none upon earth . . . besides You. My flesh and my heart fail; but God is the strength of my heart and my portion forever” (Ps. 73:24-26); “flesh” and “heart” are synonyms;

“For I know that my Redeemer lives, and He shall stand at last on the earth; and after my skin is destroyed, this I know, that in my flesh I shall see God” (Job 19:25-26); Job will see God in his flesh when his Redeemer stands on the earth and raises him up, but God will not be seen by Job until that day;

“God will redeem my soul (nephesh) from the power of the grave (Sheol), for He shall receive me” (Ps. 49:15); this is a clear statement of the soul being in the grave, and from the grave the soul, the person, will be redeemed;

“Your dead shall live; together with my dead body they shall arise. Awake and sing, you who dwell in dust; for your dew is like the dew of herbs, and the earth shall cast out the dead” (Isa. 26:19); it is not the body in the dust, but it is the person in the dust; and at the resurrection the earth will cast out the dead, the soul, held by the grave;

“and many of those who sleep in the dust of the earth shall awake, some to everlasting life, some to shame and everlasting contempt” (Dan. 12:2); before the resurrection the dead sleep and do not experience everlasting life until they are awakened; in the dust there are “those” who sleep and “those” will be raised;

“I will ransom them from the power of the grave; I will redeem them from death. O Death, I will be your plagues! O Grave, I will be your destruction!” (Hosea 13:14); from the grave and from death, God will ransom and redeem “them”;

“But now Christ is risen from the dead, and has become the firstfruits of those who have fallen asleep. For since by man came death, by Man also came the resurrection of the dead. For as in Adam all die, even so in Christ all shall be made alive. But each one in his own order: Christ the firstfruits, afterward those who are Christ’s at His coming” (I Cor. 15:20-23); “all,” that is, all people die and sleep and await the resurrection; the resurrection is for “those”;

“He who raised up the Lord Jesus will also raise us up with Jesus, and will present us with you” (II Cor. 4:14); believers will not be presented before the resurrection.

Note the personal references, which cannot be limited to the body: “me,” “I,” “my heart,” “my portion,” “my flesh,” “my soul,” “my dead body,” “they,” “you,” “the dead,” “those,” “some,” “them,” “all,” “each one,” “his own order,” and “us.”

When Christ comes for His own, the resurrection will mark the triumph of the believer. The person who has been “asleep” will be made alive; the psalmist affirms: “God will redeem my soul (nephesh) from the power of the grave (Sheol)” (Ps. 49:15)—not just the body but the soul, that is, the individual will be redeemed from the grave.

Victory over death for the individual is at the resurrection; at that time death will lose its sting and Hades will lose its victory (I Cor. 15:55). It is in this sense that Philippians 1:23 is to be understood.

Consider the following quotes:

On the same basis the biblical hope for life beyond death is expressed primarily in terms of the resurrection of the body. Neither the references to the shadowy existence of Sheol, or those passages which could be interpreted as implying some form of continued conscious existence prior to this final resurrection, provide sufficient ground for maintaining the Gk. concept of an independent immortality of the soul (“Anthropology” in NDT).

In the Bible, however, the nepes never exists independently of the individual, and the word is never used for an inhabitant of the underworld” (Theological Dictionary of the New Testament, Abridged).

For those who believe the soul survives death and exists until the resurrection, there are some pressing questions:

* If the soul lives on at death, is it transformed at death or at the resurrection?

* If at the resurrection, then how can a non-transformed soul occupy heaven before the resurrection?

* If at death, then a transformed soul is waiting for a transformed body; where is the text to support such a concept?

NOTE: An interesting question related to the body and the resurrection is the reconstitution of the body? How is the body reconstituted? From what is it composed? Is it from the original atoms recovered and transformed, or a newly created body or constitution? “It is sown a natural body, it is raised a spiritual body” (I Cor. 15:44).

The Time of Immortality

Immortality belongs to God alone; it is not an inherent fact of man’s existence. The Scriptures are clear: “to the King eternal, immortal, invisible, to God who alone is wise” (I Tim. 1:17), and “who alone has immortality, dwelling in unapproachable light” (I Tim. 6:16). Only God has intrinsic immortality, immortality as a characteristic of His being; man’s eternal existence in either punishment or glory is derived existence. The soul is not immortal in the sense that it is independent of God—whatever the person has in the present or in the future is from God. Only God is immortal.

Though immortality is not an inherent aspect of man’s existence, immortality was a possibility for Adam. In the Garden of Eden were placed two trees: the tree of the knowledge of good and evil, and the tree of life (Gen. 2:9). Evidently the tree of life was there to provide everlasting life for Adam if he refused to eat from the tree of the knowledge of good and evil; in the tree of life was the potential for eternal life, a contingent immortality.

Instead of life, Adam chose death. He was warned by God of the consequences for disobedience and eating from the forbidden tree: “in the day that you eat of it you shall surely die” (Gen. 2:17). Adam chose autonomy, and by eating he declared independence from God. The result was death: immediate spiritual death, later physical death, and possibly eternal death. All are meant by Paul when he writes: “the wages of sin is death” (Rom. 6:23).

Because of sin the potential for immortality was taken away:

And now lest he put out his hand and take also of the tree of life, and eat, and live forever—therefore Yahweh God sent him out of the garden of Eden to till the ground from which he was taken. So He drove out the man; and He placed cherubim at the east of the garden of Eden, and a flaming sword which turned every way, to guard the way to the tree of life (Gen. 3:22-24).

The “live forever” of verse twenty-two was removed from man. Adam and his descendants were doomed to a brief life of spiritual death, followed by physical death. And this judgment was passed to his descendants (Ro. 5:12-21).

Immortality, however, is achievable through the Gospel; “Jesus Christ, who has abolished death and brought life and immortality to light through the gospel” (II Tim. 1:10). In every sense Christ abolishes death, its spiritual, physical, and eternal dimensions.

Through Christ man is released from fear of death: “The people who sat in darkness have seen a great light, and upon those who sat in the region and shadow of death light has dawned” (Matt. 4:16); an apt description for man’s life is one that is lived in the “shadow of death.” But life is possible: “I am the resurrection and the life. He who believes in Me, though he may die, he shall live. And whoever lives and believes in Me shall never die” (Jo. 11:25-26); even though one dies there is life after death, and a life for the believer that means when he is resurrected he will “never die.” So the fear of death is removed: “that through death He might destroy him who had the power of death, that is, the devil, and release those who through fear of death were all their lifetime subject to bondage” (Heb. 2:14-15).

The realization of immortality is at the  return of Christ and the resurrection (I Cor. 15:20-23; II Cor. 5:1-5). It is the hope of the believer that “mortality may be swallowed up by life” (II Cor. 5:4).

The soul is not an independent entity of man that is immortal, but is always dependent on the will of God—man even in eternity will be a creature who has been given, and is being given, life. Grace will always be necessary.

Note: The immortality of the soul was taught by the Greeks and also in the Apocrypha: I Enoch 102; Wis. 3:4; 4:1; IV Maccab. 16:13; 17:2.

The Final Judgment

Death is ahead—it is appointed. And after death is the judgment, a judgment that determines the destiny of the individual, a destiny of suffering or blessing.

What is the purpose of judgment if the destiny is already known? Is the final judgment a judgment of the body or a judgment of the person? Both Testaments affirm a judgment of the person:

“and many of those who sleep in the dust of the earth shall awake, some to everlasting life, some to shame and everlasting contempt” (Dan. 12:2); it is not the body that will awake to either life or contempt, but the word is “many,” obviously a reference to people; also note that either shame or contempt is after they “awake” and obviously following a judgment;

“the hour is coming in which all who are in the graves will hear His voice and come forth—those who have done good, to the resurrection of life, and those who have done evil, to the resurrection of condemnation” (Jo. 5:28-29); the words used are “all” and “those,” obvious references to people; “the hour” is the time of judgment, and it will be for those who come out of the graves; before that “hour” there will be neither “life” nor “condemnation”;

“And as it is appointed for men to die once, but after this the judgment, so Christ was offered once to bear the sins of many. To those who eagerly wait for Him He will appear a second time, apart from sin, for salvation” (Heb. 9:27-28); “men” die, and Christ died for “many”; to the saved He will appear at the end time bringing salvation; the full knowledge and realization of salvation is at the judgment.

See II Cor. 5:1-11.

Soul sleep anticipates the parousia, the resurrection, the change that will take place, and the judgment where the eternal destiny which has been determined will be appointed. If there is no soul sleep and the soul goes to be with the Lord at death, then the judgment is merely further clarification of the destiny already entered into at the time of death; this makes the final judgment anti-climactic.  

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