What Happens To People After Death?
Were someone to have asked me this question a few years ago, I suspect that I would have given much the same answer as any Christian person might. I would have said of a deceased believer that “He is in Heaven with God” or “He is in the presence of Jesus” or “He is alive and well in God’s kingdom” or something along these lines. Such statements are, in themselves, quite Biblical. The difficulty, however, lies in what I would have meant by these answers as I recited them. The image that I and, I suspect, a great many other Christians typically have in our heads when we say these sorts of things is that of our dearly departed loved ones, clothed in white robes and walking side-by-side with Jesus on streets of gold (Rev. 7:9-17, 21:10-22:5 ⟴). It is a most pleasant picture to consider and no doubt most comforting to someone who has just lost someone he loves, but is it accurate?
No one will deny that the book of Revelation, from which this picture derives, is highly symbolic. This final book of the Bible is far more concerned with inspiring us to live well and hold to our faith in hard times than it is with giving us a precise outline of what Heaven will look like. It does provide us with a picture of sorts, but it is not a picture involving physical dimensions or tangible objects, but one whose composition and subjects are meant to connect us with deeper Biblical themes and in doing so to give us an authentic impression of spiritual realities that defy visualization. When we take literally such clearly metaphorical writing, we will no doubt meet with considerable confusion as we attempt to flesh out the finer details of our Heavenly abode.
In order to set aright our thoughts on this matter, I think it important that we clearly understand two key points. First, as Christians, we look forward to the physical resurrection of our bodies as an actual, historical event sometime in the not-too-distant future. Just as Christ was raised bodily and was able to interact with the physical world and other people in His new body (Luke 24:36-42, John 20:26-29, 1 Cor. 15:12-19 ⟴), so shall we have physical bodies in the resurrection (Rom. 7:4, Php. 3:10-11, 1 Cor. 15:35-49, 1 John 3:2 ⟴). And this resurrection will occur on a specific day at a specific time within the present flow of history (Mat. 24:36-44, John 5:28-29, Acts 17:30-31, 24:14-15 ⟴), at which point the new creation and God’s judgment of mankind will commence (Rom. 8:18-25, 2 Pet. 3:3-13 ⟴). Second, because this resurrection is both historical and physical, we know that it has not yet come. No one save Christ Himself has yet been resurrected.
Bearing these points in mind, we must understand that neither those who have “fallen asleep in Christ” (1 Cor. 15:18 ⟴) nor those who have died outside of Him presently live in that final state of being that the course of their earthly lives will eventually require of them. No one can presently be said to be physically “in Heaven” or “in Hell” because no one has yet received that physical resurrection body with which he can be said to be in anything. So if I say of someone who has passed, “He is in Heaven with God,” I must understand the words in and with differently from their normal spatial meanings. For example, we know that “In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God,” “and the Word became flesh and dwelt among us” (John 1:1, 14 ⟴). The fact that Jesus became flesh implies that, prior to His incarnation, He was not flesh and existed along with the Father as spirit (John 4:24, 2 Cor. 3:17 ⟴). Thus, in the beginning, before time and space had come to be, Jesus was with God. He could not have been with God physically, as no physical world had yet been created, but in some spiritual sense that transcends time and place, He and God were in one another’s presence. I believe that it is in this sense—or very near to it—that we must understand departed believers to be with God.
Yet, being the time-and-space-bound creatures that we are, it is virtually impossible for us to conceive of this sort of presence. Even though I have just written otherwise, when I hear of Jesus that “the Word was with God,” my first instinct is to picture two blurred human forms standing next to each other against a vague, sky-like backdrop. This representation is most assuredly in error and would prove me a heretic were I to press on with it, but it is the best my visually-oriented mind can do. So when Paul says that he would “prefer to be absent from the body and to be at home with the Lord” (1 Cor. 5:8 ⟴), I think it very natural that we should picture him sitting around a table and dining with his brothers at some great Heavenly feast. And when Jesus tells the thief on the cross, “Truly I say to you, today you shall be with Me in Paradise” (Luke 23:42 ⟴), I would not blame anyone for picturing him standing by Jesus’ side before some wondrous vision of the hereafter. But I would feel compelled to remind him that the thing that he has pictured in his mind’s eye is not the reality of things and cannot be until after the resurrection.
Now I would imagine that many who are accustomed to thinking in this way might find what I am saying unsettling, so I feel that I must press the point further. Not only must we question the spatial use of with in Jesus’ promise to the thief, but also the temporal use of today. Was Jesus in Heaven on the day that He was crucified? No, He was physically in the grave and would be for three full days (Mat. 12:40 ⟴), his soul suffering the Hell of God’s wrath for our sins. How could Jesus be with the thief in Paradise on the very day when He was entering into God’s wrath on our behalf? He could not, and if we attempt to force either His physical or temporal presence as a man into this verse, we would appear to have a contradiction. However, if we understand Paradise primarily as the spiritual reality of knowing and being filled by God—things which transcend time and place—then not only can we take Jesus at his Word, but we begin to see just how profound His statement actually is. We cannot take Jesus’ statement here as a spatiotemporal event, so we must take it as a far deeper and more revealing statement of what Paradise actually is. This thief, immediately following these final hours of his life, would once and for all be freed from the vestiges of sin that lingered in his mortal body (Rom. 6:5-11 ⟴) and would finally be able to experience the fellowship of God’s indwelling Spirit in all its fullness (Rom. 8:10-11, 1 Cor. 6:17, Gal. 2:20 ⟴). And it is only in this sense, through the uninhibited presence of the Holy Spirit, that the thief would be with Jesus that day.
As a natural extension of our tendency to picture those who have left us as up and walking about in Heaven, we naturally assume that they must be enjoying the same sort of experience as any waking person might—that is to say, fully conscious and clear. But if, as I have suggested, they will not be “up and walking about” until after the resurrection, I would further suggest that a person’s experience of this time between death and resurrection may be of quite a different sort than what we had previously thought. The Bible is not perfectly clear on what this period will be like, so I do want to be careful as I address it. Going forward, I would like to set some boundaries that I think are important and that I hope will leave us some room to maneuver, explore, and believe according to our individual consciences.
First of all, we need to understand the essence of the life that we have in Christ. Jesus tells us, “This is eternal life, that they may know You, the only true God, and Jesus Christ whom You have sent” (John 17:3 ⟴), and He assures us, “He who hears My word and believes Him who sent Me has eternal life and does not come into judgment, but has passed out of death into life” (John 5:24 ⟴). Life is knowing God. It is not something that we eventually gain after we have made our exit from this world, but is ours even now as we trust in Him and daily pursue Him. And this knowing is not just an intellectual knowledge of God, but an all-encompassing relational reality that pierces through every layer of the human soul. It cannot be reduced to a one-time event, for this is to have life for only a moment. Nor should we think of it as an ongoing activity, for what then would become of life in times of stillness? Surely the life that we have in Christ reaches well beyond any man’s ability to encapsulate by words, but if I had to describe it, I would say this: To know God is to have the Spirit of love flowing into us and through us and out of us in whatever way He pleases while we swim together amid His currents, always seeking to enrich our fellow man with the treasure of His company, which we individually have come to know and cherish. It is an inadequate image, I confess, but it is the best that I can offer in so few words.
So if eternal life is to know God, doesn’t this suggest a conscious experience after death? How can we know God unless we are in conscious communion with Him, and how can we have life if that communion ever ceases? I have heard certain scholars put forth this line of reasoning to defend the traditional Christian idea that we are immediately conscious of God’s presence after death, much as we are in our worldly waking. Unfortunately, the argument suffers from a rather obvious and, I think, fatal flaw. If mere unconsciousness is enough to disrupt our knowing of God and experience of eternal life, then it would seem our souls must be in mortal peril every time we fall asleep. Do I lose eternal life when I take a nap? Do I cease knowing God whenever my mind is not actively set upon Him or when I fail to believe with the proper intensity? Certainly not! Faith is more than just a series of scattered choices, between which I am in constant danger of falling away. Rather, it is born out of the movement of my spirit from having been grafted into the vine of Christ (John 15:5, Eph. 2:8-9 ⟴). It is not fundamentally a matter of my soul’s movement, but of Christ’s movement through me, and there is a constancy to such faith. It does not depend on me. Likewise, when I fall asleep, though my mind is not actively involved in pursuing God, He is still working in me to bring me to Himself. My consciousness in this world has no bearing whatsoever on whether or not, at a particular moment, I can be said to know God. Why then would it have any bearing on my knowing God and experience of life in the next? I do not mean by saying this to suggest that men will have no consciousness of God until the resurrection, but only that our perpetual consciousness of Him is unnecessary to our knowing Him and our possession of eternal life.
In addition to 1 Corinthians 5:8 and Luke 23:43, we should also be aware of a couple of instances in Scripture where the spirits of men seem to have manifested apart from physical bodies. The first of these that I would note occurs in Matthew 17:1-13, Mark 9:1-13, and Luke 9:28-36, in which we see Jesus transfigured and speaking with Moses and Elijah on the mountain about what would soon transpire in Jerusalem. As I read these, I can see no reason to think that the Moses and Elijah described here were anything less than the Biblical persons who lived and died many generations before. This was not merely a vision or hallucination. If Moses and Elijah were, in fact, speaking with Jesus in such a way that their words were audible, then they were capable in their incorporeal form of interacting with matter to transfer sound. And if they were visible and recognizable as these men, then they were capable of reflecting light. They may not have had physical bodies as we do, but at least for a time, they did manifest physically. Does this imply that men, between the time of their death and resurrection, are endowed with a sort of temporary physical form that mimics the one that they had in life? Or does God simply allow them to manifest in such a form as is required to serve His purposes? I do not think that we can answer definitively either way.
The second instance that I would have us consider occurs in 1 Samuel 28:1-25, in which Saul, threatened by the Philistines and refused council by the Lord, visits the medium at Endor and asks her to summon the spirit of the prophet Samuel, who had recently passed on. Given God’s pronounced distaste for mediums (Lev. 19:31, 20:6, 27 ⟴), one would expect whatever appeared to Saul to be less than genuine, for surely if God has forbidden the living to call forth the dead, then He would not allow the dead to actually come forth when called. Yet God allows all kinds of things that He has forbidden to transpire in this world. In this case, it would seem that He allowed Saul, under threat of death and being cut off from Israel, to summon the spirit of Samuel. And given the nature of Samuel’s response to Saul’s questioning, we must assume that this is, in fact, the same Samuel who had advised him in life. Not only did Samuel reaffirm what God had spoken through him while he was alive, but he then proceeded to offer up a new prophecy of Saul’s coming destruction at the hands of the Philistines, which would very soon come to pass (1 Sam. 31:1-13, Jer. 28:9 ⟴). Once again, it would seem we have a legitimate, visible and audible interaction between the incorporeal spirit of a man and those still in the flesh.
Given these two passages, clearly God does allow the living to interact with the dead, at least under certain circumstances and in a limited fashion, and when these interactions take place, the dead manifest in recognizable forms and interact in familiar ways. But what does this tell us of their experience in general? Obviously they are conscious as they converse with those who have called them, but what of the great majority of the time when they are not engaged with the living? Samuel gives us a hint when, upon his arrival, he asks Saul, “Why have you disturbed me by bringing me up?” (1 Sam. 28:15 ⟴). That Samuel was disturbed by Saul’s summons would suggest that prior to his being called forth, he was at rest, although we cannot say with certainty whether this was a passive rest akin to sleep or an active rest of the sort that we enjoy when we do things that energize us. That he speaks of being brought up suggests that he saw himself as coming from somewhere down below. Taken by itself, this verse is less than clear. But read in light of Daniel 12:2, the idea of passive rest seems much more to be favored. Daniel writes here regarding the resurrection, “Many of those who sleep in the dust of the ground will awake, these to everlasting life but the others to disgrace and everlasting contempt.” Both here and in certain other Old Testament texts, death is presented as a state of slumber (Job 14:10-12, Ps. 13:3, Isa. 26:19, Jer. 51:57 ⟴).
We also see this idea of death’s being a sort of sleep echoed throughout the New Testament. Paul writes in 1 Thessalonians 4:13-14:
We do not want you to be uninformed, brethren, about those who are asleep, so that you will not grieve as do the rest, who have no hope, for if we believe that Jesus died and rose again, even so God will bring with Him those who have fallen asleep in Jesus. For this we say to you by the word of the Lord, that we who are alive and remain until the coming of the Lord, will not precede those who have fallen asleep.
He uses “those who have fallen asleep” here in contrast with “we who are alive,” making it clear that he means to refer to those who have died. He then follows this statement a chapter later, saying, “God has not destined us for wrath, but for obtaining salvation through our Lord Jesus Christ, who died for us, so that whether we are awake or asleep, we will live together with Him” (1 Th. 5:9-10 ⟴). In context, he is speaking of “the day of the Lord,” on which believers who are “awake” and still living in the world will join those who are “asleep” in the dust of the ground (Dan. 12:2 ⟴) in living together with Christ. And he writes in 1 Corinthians 5:20, “Now Christ has been raised from the dead, the first fruits of those who are asleep.” If Christ, by His resurrection, became “the first fruits of those who are asleep,” then, by His death, He must be understood to have been among those who are asleep. Once again, Paul presents death here as a sort of sleep.
Now it is very tempting as we read verses like these to understand “sleep” as just another word for death, a euphemism perhaps meant to soften the harsh blow of the reality to which it speaks. Or perhaps we might say that, because we have life in Christ, we are not really dead in the truest sense, and the word sleep hints at the ongoing life that we have in Him in a way that death cannot. When we consider Daniel 12:2, this latter thought obviously will not do, since those who will awaken to everlasting contempt “sleep in the dust” in the same manner as those who will awaken to everlasting life. Whatever this “sleep” is, it is something that both the condemned and the redeemed experience. But what of the first idea? Given the context of these verses, what is to keep us from understanding sleep as being synonymous with death?
Consider the story of Jairus’ daughter (Mat. 9:18-26, Mark 5:21-43, Luke 8:40-56 ⟴). In this scene, Jairus came to Jesus and pleaded with Him to visit his daughter, who was dying, and lay hands on her, that she might be healed. On the way, someone informed them that she had died, but Jesus assured Jairus that if he believed, she would be healed. When they arrived, everyone was “weeping and lamenting for her, but He said, ‘Stop weeping, for she has not died, but is asleep.’ And they began laughing at Him, knowing that she had died. He, however, took her by the hand and called, saying, ‘Child, arise!’ And her spirit returned, and she immediately arose, and He gave orders for something to be given her to eat” (Luke 8:52-56 ⟴).
Equating sleep with death in this context makes no sense. Jesus told them upon His arrival, “She has not died, but is asleep.” Are we, therefore, to understand Him to mean “she has not died, but has died”? If He did mean this, then it would seem that He has contradicted Himself, as a person cannot simultaneously be both naturally dead and not dead. Instead, we should understand that Jesus is telling them something more, providing them with deeper insight into the nature of life and death than what they had previously understood. It is quite clear from the context that the girl was indeed dead in the natural sense, for even if we thought that those who had observed her passing were mistaken, we are told here that “her spirit returned,” and it could not return unless it had previously departed. What then was Jesus attempting to communicate here when He says, “She has not died, but is asleep”? I believe that He was telling them that that which is most essentially the little girl, namely her spirit, had not passed away, but had entered a state of being most akin to what we know as sleep. Were He speaking here of her natural state, then He would either be mistaken or lying, but He is not. He is speaking of that spiritual reality into which every man enters after he leaves his natural body behind. And because Jesus is God, He has both the power and authority to waken a man’s spirit from its slumber to whatever end He desires, whether it be to speak with him about what is to come, as with Moses and Elijah, or to reunite his spirit with his body, as we see with Jairus’ daughter.
We see the same thing even more pronouncedly in the story of Lazarus (John 11:1-44 ⟴). Here John tells us that, upon hearing of Lazarus’ dire condition, Jesus intentionally delayed in going to him (John 11:4-7 ⟴). And as He and the disciples began their trek to see him, Jesus prepared them for what they would find, saying, “‘Our friend Lazarus has fallen asleep, but I go, so that I may awaken him out of sleep.’ The disciples then said to Him, ‘Lord, if he has fallen asleep, he will recover.’ Now Jesus had spoken of his death, but they thought that He was speaking of natural sleep. So Jesus then said to them plainly, ‘Lazarus is dead, and I am glad for your sakes that I was not there, so that you may believe. But let us go to him’” (John 11:11-15 ⟴).
If sleep were just another word for death in Hebrew culture, then one would think Jesus’ disciples would have understood Him—not to mention those tending Jairus’ daughter—yet we are explicitly told here that they did not understand Him and that He had to clarify what He meant by telling them that Lazarus had died. Why then would Jesus choose to reveal this fact to them in terms that He knew that they would not understand? I would suggest that He did so for the same reason that He so often told the disciples parables, only later to have to explain how those stories were relevant to some vital aspect of life. Jesus’ parables were simple, memorable fictions with which any common man might identify and from which he might gain an ever-widening array of insights into deeper, spiritual realities. In the same way and for the same reason, Jesus presents Lazarus’ death here in terms of sleep. All of us have experienced sleep and are familiar with its peculiarities. We cannot comprehend existence apart from a physical body, but we do have an idea of what it means to sleep. Thus, in the same way that Jesus presents the parables, so that we might understand the reality to which they point in familiar terms, He presents us with the idea of sleep, that we might understand the reality of natural death in like manner. When we dismiss sleep as merely a euphemism or synonym for death, not only are we being careless with the text, but we are denying ourselves that deeper insight which Jesus intended that we should have by His speaking of death in this way.
Given Scripture’s testimony regarding Jairus’ daughter and Lazarus, we must also be careful not to insist that men who have died continue in the same sort of consciousness that they experienced in their waking lives. While it is true that Jesus told the thief on the cross, “Today you shall be with Me in Paradise” (Luke 23:42 ⟴), this statement neither requires us to believe that, upon dying, he immediately inherited his resurrection body nor that he was unambiguously aware of having entered into God’s presence. If we do insist upon these things, ought we not do the same for Jairus’ daughter and Lazarus. Lazarus was dead for three full days. Shall we then say that he, like the thief, inherited his resurrection body and was consciously aware of being in Heaven with Jesus, only to have everything stripped from him upon being called back into his natural body? Are we to say that God endowed him with the same sinless perfection to which we all look forward as His children, only to rejoin his spirit with sinful flesh and all its godless appetites? How unbearable or even cruel would it be to call a man who has gained an everlasting, resplendent paradise, free from sin and all of its deadly manifestations, back into this cursed world once he had departed? If Lazarus and Jairus’ daughter were fully conscious after death and were aware of being fully in God’s presence, then we should expect both of them to be able to tell us in detail of their experiences, whether Heavenly or Hellish, yet we get no indication that either had such an experience, particularly with Jairus’ daughter, who gets up and resumes her life as if it had never been interrupted.
Of course, the testimony of either Lazarus or Jairus’ daughter, after having been brought back to life, would only be anecdotal and, while perhaps a true representation of what they each individually experienced, not necessarily representative of what every individual might expect. Thus, their testimony is less important for us to understand than Jesus’ use of sleep to describe the reality of death. If Jesus believed this term an apt descriptor, wouldn’t it be wise to ask why? Should we not consider our experience of earthly sleep and ask ourselves how it might inform us of what awaits us beyond physical death? In saying this, I realize that I am potentially opening the door to rampant speculation, which may serve to distract and divide the Body of Christ if we are not careful. So I shall proceed with two important qualifiers. First, the precise nature of human experience after death and prior to the resurrection is unquestionably a tertiary issue. We needn’t have the least insight into it to live well for Christ, and should we find ourselves dividing over it, we should live as if that is precisely how much insight we actually have, counting what we think we know as loss for the sake of unity in Him. Second, we should understand that, like Jesus’ parables, we should not take that which Jesus has given us to represent reality as itself being the reality it was meant to represent. Jesus uses sleep to inform our understanding of what our experience after death will be like, not to give us a comprehensive definition. So however certain we dim-sighted people may be that we know what we are talking about, we can be sure that we have only just grasped the elephant’s tale and have a great deal more yet to discover among the shadowy corridors of human understanding.
Having been a member of a Baptist church for many years now, I can say that a typical Baptist’s first instinct when faced with the notion that our experience after death is in any way related to sleep is to immediately identify this notion as another rendition of the doctrine of soul sleep, reflexively reference the thief on the cross (Luke 23:43 ⟴) and Paul’s desire to be away from the body and at home with the Lord (2 Cor. 5:8 ⟴) as proofs of a conscious experience after death, and promptly declare the matter closed. According to the doctrine of soul sleep, the dead have no consciousness at all, have no awareness of the passage of time, and will wake at the resurrection as if they had just died. It would have us believe that the experience of the human spirit is essentially put on pause for the full duration of that time between death and resurrection. On the other hand, most Christian denominations will say that the spirit consciously experiences the presence of God after death, one to eternal life and one to eternal destruction. While I appreciate the attempts of those in both camps to be honest in dealing with certain aspects of the text that have led them to their respective conclusions, I must respectfully disagree with both, for I believe that a middle ground exists, which neither side has properly considered and which resolves the tension between these views.
The problem lies in how we typically think of sleep. Sleep is not the cessation of all consciousness, but a different kind of consciousness from what we experience in our waking lives. When I am asleep, my mind does not cease to function, nor are the effects of my slumber consigned only to my dreams. I am still experiencing life while I sleep. I may not recall many of those experiences—I may even forget the great majority of them, much as I have forgotten the great majority of my waking moments, save a few muddled highlights that I suspect are often more impressions than accurate memories—but this does not mean that I did not truly experience something while I slept or that those mysterious lapses did not have a real impact on who I am.
This is particularly important to remember when we speak of knowing God. As I mentioned earlier, if eternal life depends upon knowing God through waking consciousness after death, then, to be consistent, we should argue the same of our knowing Him prior to death, in which case we must concede that, while we are sleeping and not consciously engaged in “knowing God,” we lose eternal life for the duration of our rest. But if we retain eternal life while we sleep, then we must conclude that our knowing God is something that God sustains in us regardless of whether or not we are fully aware of it or fully recall it. Even when we are “unconscious,” we can still know God. But then we are never unconscious in the sense that we stop experiencing life, and therein lies the error of those who hold to the doctrine of soul sleep.
Once we have got it in our heads that our experience of life continues while we sleep and is merely a different sort of experience from that with which we are most familiar from our waking hours, the doctrine of soul sleep must either crumble or conform, for Jesus cannot be telling us by representing death as a sort of sleep that our spiritual experience ceases for a time after we die when no such thing occurs during our habit of natural sleep. If supernatural sleep follows the pattern of natural sleep, then we must always be in the process of experiencing life while we sleep, whether our sleep is physical or spiritual. And if God so often communicates with various Biblical figures and makes Himself known to them through their dreams, should we expect any less of the spiritual sleep that precedes our resurrection? Just as God works through our physical sleep to build us into the men and women He would have us to become, so we should understand that He will continue to work during our spiritual sleep to the same end. And during that period, our spirits will experience His presence, to one end or another. We will indeed be with Him, and, as believers, we will know Him, even though we sleep.
With this view of what constitutes sleep in mind, I should hope that I have calmed my fellow Baptists’ fears about where I am heading with this line of reasoning. I should also hope that all of us who have tended to adopt the traditional view of man’s experience after death will find ourselves newly receptive to Scripture’s message on the matter. Whatever that experience may be, it seems clear that it will be very much akin to our experience of natural sleep. Were it not, it would have made no sense for the writers of Scripture to employ the term, for it works neither as a euphemism nor as a cultural reference in context, but only as an illustration grounded in that natural reality with which we are all familiar. To insist that we must have a waking experience of God after death when the Bible consistently references those who have passed on as having fallen asleep seems to me at best careless or at worst dishonest, and I should hope that neither of these terms could rightly be applied to any of us in our study of the Bible, regardless of the subject.
If we can accept that those who have passed away continue to experience life in a manner that in certain senses is similar to the experience of physical sleep, some very interesting parallels begin to materialize. For example, I have always wondered why God would bother with making men who require sleep. What is the point of this mode of existence? Surely He can give men waking visions just as well as sending them in dreams, so that cannot be the reason. And had He desired, I’ve no doubt that He could have designed the human body to function continuously without any need of rest, much like the bodies that we are promised in ages to come. What then is the point of natural sleep? Well, if we take seriously that our experience after death will be similar in many ways to natural sleep, then we have an answer. Could it be that we have been given our natural experience of sleep as a means of preparing us for the supernatural sleep that we will experience upon death? Could it be that this is God’s way of familiarizing our spirits with the sensation of supernatural rest, of training us to embrace that inevitable period prior to the resurrection, so that we are able to endure it well?
What I am suggesting here is speculative, of course, yet it seems all the more reasonable to me when I consider what seems to me the most fundamental difference between sleeping and waking. In the latter, I directly and knowingly experience the physical world through my body. In the former, I do not. As I sleep, my mind, though still connected to body, leads me to experience life as if it were not, as if I were no longer bound by the laws and logic of this present life, such that when I do recall what I have dreamt, my memories very often include all varieties of impossible or illogical situations—at least when measured by the standards of my waking experience. Yet these dreams constitute real, spiritual experiences. They may be framed by the context of what I have known in the physical world, filled with familiar shapes and colors, tastes and sounds, but they have no place in this world. Even so, they are no less real and formative of my soul. While I sleep, I have no access to my physical body, yet I live and experience nonetheless and have had many a dream in which I was aware of God’s presence and hopeful of His promises.
The resemblance here between natural and supernatural sleep seems rather obvious. When we die, our spirits will be parted from our physical bodies. Whatever experience of life they have, it will be an experience apart from the physical world, perhaps with the exception of rare instances when certain of us are called to manifest ourselves, as in the cases of Samuel and Moses and Elijah, in which case we would need rely on God to provide some temporary form through which to interact. We will not be physical beings again until the resurrection of the dead and God’s granting us new spiritual bodies (1 Cor. 15:42-49 ⟴). And it is this very sort of non-physical existence which natural sleep simulates, taking the world that we know and abstracting it for use in a different yet no less real sort of experience. And just as our dreams in this world constitute real experience, albeit on a different level of consciousness, so will the dreams that we continue to enjoy after our deaths, until that last day when we are once more awakened to life (John 5:25-29 ⟴).
Now if our spirits will dream in death in like manner to how they have dreamt in life, then we should be deeply concerned about the direction that our lives are moving prior to our falling asleep, for just as we may experience a restless night from time to time on account of some immoral activity that we committed while awake, we should not expect our spirits to rest easy in death while the judgment of a holy God looms over them for sins committed in life. If we wish to have sweet dreams in the hereafter, we should be certain that we end our day in this world in loving anticipation of meeting our Savior in the next. We should prepare our hearts in waking, so that the content conjured by our minds in sleep is suitable to His presence, that He may walk with us and comfort us amidst our most awesome imaginings until the day that we finally awake and see Him face-to-face.
And wake we shall. Speaking of the people of Judah in the day of God’s judgment, Isaiah writes, “Your dead will live. Their corpses will rise. You who lie in the dust, awake and shout for joy, for your dew is as the dew of the dawn, and the earth will give birth to the departed spirits” (Isa. 26:19 ⟴). Yet how can these dead awake in a future resurrection if they are not in some real sense asleep in their present estate? I will not insist that anyone accept as fact my own conjecture regarding what this sleep may look like or the validity of those parallels that I have offered above. However, I must insist that we take Scripture at its word and not try to soften it to make it fit into our own preconceived ideas of what can and cannot be.
Although I do not agree with the formal doctrine of soul sleep held by certain Christian denominations due to its failure to acknowledge the ongoing experience of the human spirit after death, I am thankful for the honest attempt that those who hold it have made to deal seriously with the language so often employed by Biblical writers and by Jesus Himself to describe human experience after death. And I would urge those who are prone to dismissing this language as mere convention, without considering the effect of their reading on the coherence of the text, to reach beyond their respective traditions and church circles and read the text afresh, as should always be our habit in the study of God’s Word. When we earnestly apply ourselves in our study of Scripture and strive to be generous towards our brothers and sisters by accentuating the good unearthed by their perspectives, however flawed or impractical they may be on some counts, that is when God’s middle way so often materializes, rescuing us all from our error and uniting us in spirit on our path to Christ. It is my hope that this chapter will serve to that end.