This is one of those areas where I'm aware that I disagree with the majority and yet my position seems so obvious I can't understand why the opposing point of view is so widespread among thinking people... I think it's also one of the areas where Christianity still carries too much baggage from Greek philosophy.
The Greeks (well, the Platonists anyway) believed in the immorality of the soul. They drew a distinction between the physical, which they saw as imperfect, changing and decaying, and the world of ideas, which they saw as perfect and eternal. A human being was a physical, decaying body, united with a perfect, eternal soul, which had always existed and would always exist. In later Gnostic thought, the soul was even seen as imprisoned in the body and wanting to be released.
The Hebrews and the Apostolic Church, however, didn't see things that way. They certainly used the language of “souls”, but they didn't seem to have much conception of them as separable from bodies. The future hope of the early Christians was not in the soul living on after the body died, but of resurrection of the body. Certainly the new body would be different to the old one – in 1 Corinthians 15 Paul uses ψυχικος – “soul-like” or χοϊκος – “dust-like” of our present bodies and πνευματικος – “of the Spirit” for the resurrection body. He sees Jesus' resurrection body as the model for the resurrection body of the Christian, and that was very much physical – he could walk and talk and eat, but more than just physical in the way that our bodies are – he seems also to have been able to go through walls and so on. (As C.S. Lewis pointed out, that makes him more solid than the wall, not less. Gases can't generally go through solids too well, but solids can move through gases.)
As I've discussed elsewhere, there doesn't even seem to have been the common conception that the soul was necessarily immortal. Certainly some Old Testament writers seem to have the idea that death is the end. And Paul writes
Behold! I tell you a mystery. We shall not all sleep, but we shall all be changed, in a moment, in the twinkling of an eye, at the last trumpet. For the trumpet will sound, and the dead will be raised imperishable, and we shall be changed. For this perishable body must put on the imperishable, and this mortal body must put on immortality. When the perishable puts on the imperishable, and the mortal puts on immortality, then shall come to pass the saying that is written: "Death is swallowed up in victory."
1 Corinthians 15:51-54, ESV
So if the hope for the Christian is the resurrection of the body rather than the immortality of the soul, what happens between death and the resurrection?
The Bible never directly addresses the question, but drops plenty of hints.
And many of those who sleep in the dust of the earth shall awake, some to everlasting life, and some to shame and everlasting contempt.
Daniel 12:2, ESV
But we do not want you to be uninformed, brothers, about those who are asleep, that you may not grieve as others do who have no hope. For since we believe that Jesus died and rose again, even so, through Jesus, God will bring with him those who have fallen asleep. 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. For the Lord himself will descend from heaven with a cry of command, with the voice of an archangel, and with the sound of the trumpet of God. And the dead in Christ will rise first.
1 Thessalonians 4:13-16, ESV
It therefore seems that we can make the following statements about the state of Christians between death and resurrection:
- They are described as “asleep” or “dead”
- They are still in Jesus. Death does not separate them from Christ.
- They will be raised from the dead.
My suggestion therefore is this:
It seems to me that the most likely state of Christians between death and resurrection is that they are unconscious, as if sleeping, until they are raised from the dead.
The Bible does not seem to know of consciousness without a body. And if they were conscious, what would the need be for the resurrection?
There are three passages I hear often used against this. Two of them are very similar – Jesus saying to the thief on the cross “today you will be with me in Paradise” (Luke 23:43) and Paul saying that he desires to die and be with Christ, which is better than living (Phil 1:23). However, both of these can be simply explained by pointing out that in my understanding, for the believer, the next experience after death is resurrection, as when we wake up after sleeping and do not know how long it is since we went to sleep, or as with someone coming out of a coma after a while.
The third is the Parable of the Rich Man and Lazarus in Luke 16:19-31. However, this parable is notoriously difficult to use for talking about life after death, because that is nowhere near the main point of the parable, and Jesus was not beyond inventing fictional stories, characters and countries in his parables to make a valid point.
A fourth passage, which I haven't heard used in arguments, but which it is worth thinking about anyway is Revelation 6. In Revelation 6, the souls of martyrs are seen and cry out to God for vengeance. However, the fact that the souls can be seen itself tells us that this is one of the many symbolic passages in Revelation. Neither does crying out for vengeance require consciousness; Abel manages to be “still speaking” in Hebrews 11:4, because of his faith, which doesn't require him to be conscious, simply remembered. In the same way, the mere existence of the souls of the martyrs cries out for vengeance.
Wikipedia has a fairly helpful page. Note that none of the passages they list as being against soul sleep is actually against it.
Calvin argues strongly against my position here. Note that none of his arguments seem to address the question of whether the soul is conscious after death; only that it is alive. I say it is in Christ, but probably not consciously so, like me when I'm alseep. A sleeping person is still living.