Tuesday, December 18, 2007

Soul Sleep

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?

Biblical Counter-Arguments

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.

Further Reading

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.


bcg said...

I haven't read the whole Calvin article - I assume you have.

My initial comment is - when Jesus says 'TODAY you will be with me in paradise' he doesn't say, 'close your eyes... the next thing you'll know, you'll be in paradise.'

I think it is dangerous to read things figuratively when in context there is no suggestion that they require such a meaning to be interpreted.

Anonymous said...

"The Greeks (well, the Platonists anyway) believed in the immorality of the soul."

Is this a typo?

John said...

bcg - so you'd deny the Apostles' Creed then? ;o)

anon - wow, did I really put that? Yep - should be immortality of the soul, but is too good a typo to bother correcting...

Anonymous said...

One fairly blunt question:

Why do I care?

John said...

Good question ds.

My guess is you don't.

The only difference it makes, as far as I can tell, is that if there is soul sleep, it's silly to ask saints who have died to pray for us. But I don't think you do that anyway.

Anonymous said...

Are souls who are sleeping in 'heaven'? After all, we pray at the moment to our Father in 'heaven' (and Jesus is in heaven right now) - and at the end of time there will be a new heavens and earth in which God will dwell with men. But does that mean that at the moment dead Christians are in heaven, albeit asleep?
And if so, am I right in saying that they're not 'with' their bodies, but that when they are raised they will be raised with their body, albeit 'imperishable', etc?
And why do we never hear this sort of thing taught in the local church - should we know this? Is it important - or a side issue on which Scripture doesn't say very much more than 'hints'. Does it materially affect our Christian hope?

PamBG said...

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?

I completely agree with you that Scripture talks about a resurrection (and, I'd add, a New Creation).

Personally, I don't find it terribly necessary to worry about what happens between the death of this body and my resurrection, though.

The concept of 'New Creation' should be a classic Methodist theology although I'm not sure how many of us hold it any more. I don't see how you can believe in a New Creation and an etheral, everlasting soul but apparently a lot of people do!

John said...

anon - personally speaking, I find the following a helpful way to think about the soul:

What is the difference between the mind and the brain? The brain is a physical object, described as a physical object. But saying "mind" is a different sort of description - it is describing what the physical object does on the level of thinking. Is my mind located in my skull? Not really - it's a different sort of description, even though saying "mind" is a different way of talking about the brain.

I think "soul" is another of those words - it's talking about what it means for me to be me as an individual. I don't think my soul is actually located anywhere; I think it's another way of talking about me. And when I die, my identity will be "saved" in Christ, in the computer sense as well as the saved from sin and death sense.

I don't think anyone who has thought about it much believes that people who are dead now have bodies, but I agree that the Bible clearly teaches that when we are all raised, our souls are united/reunited with our bodies.

Is it important what happens to souls between death and resurrection? Not really. I think about things quite scientifically though, and I try to understand things a lot, so it helps me understand what will happen in the future and makes me clearer about my future hope.

Might I be wrong on the nature of souls and on what happens between death and resurrection, since the Bible isn't clear on it? Yes.

Pam - agreed.

Anonymous said...

I get the feeling that this issue has much to do with how we perceive time.

Not sure that this is a helpful analogy, but I recall once when I had general anaesthesia for a lengthy surgical procedure, the last thing I recall was saying to the anaesthetist though the mask that I wasn't asleep yet.

I was also starting to feel slightly annoyed that they hadn't got on with it when I realised that the whole thing was over and I had been out for several hours. However it seemed to me like 'the twinkling of an eye'.

Maybe that is how death is. We have no perception of the intervening time so passing from death to eternal life appears to us as momentary. I also understand that unlike normal sleep, anaesthesia is dreamless in so far as the brain has no 'virtual' sense of time. I can't remember dreaming at all.

Anonymous said...

I know someone who espouses a different view.

The basic idea is that we don't go to heaven or hell when we die, but to paradise (for the saved) or Hades (for the not-so-saved). Which seems to make the most sense biblically.

Unknown said...

The question of the nature of the soul is one I find interesting, and I've wondered about the idea of disembodied existence between death and resurrection.

I think it's clear that the Bible says we go to be with the Lord on dying as we await the resurrection, but thinking about it, I think you're right that there isn't anything that definitively spells out that we'll be conscious. I still incline to that view, however.

Paul in 2 Corinthians 5 seems to talk about being "absent from the body", which seems to imply that we can in fact exist independently of the body, and in more than just the computer-like sense of the data needed to resurrect us being "saved" by Jesus. I'm not sure I see why a soul couldn't be independently conscious too, if it exists independently of the body. Paul also talks about it being better to be away from the body and with the Lord, and I'm not sure that you can judge your situation to be better or worse if you're unconscious.

John said...

Ah yes - 2 Corinthians 5. Great passage, good points. Should probably have mentioned it, but it didn't occur to me...

In the light of the strong similarities between 2 Cor 5:1-4 and 1 Corinthians 15, isn't it talking about the (General) Resurrection though? Wanting the mortal to be swallowed up by life, and having an eternal body and all?

Unknown said...

It seems to me that Paul's order of preference in 2 Corinthians 5 is as follows:

Best of all, says Paul, is "To be clothed with our heavenly dwelling" (v2) (i.e. to be alive to receive our resurrection bodies on Christ's return), without being "found naked" (v3) (i.e. without the intermediate state of being a disembodied soul). Being without a body is not in itself a desirable state to be in.

However, being "at home with the Lord" (v8) even though we are "away from the body" (v8) or "naked" (i.e. a disembodied soul) is better than our present state of being "away from the Lord" (v6). So we can take comfort in knowing that when we die, we are already better off than we are now, even though the best is still to come in the Resurrection.

But finally, this hope, the smaller hope of being with the Lord yet still unclothed with our resurrection bodies, and the greater hope of worshipping him in our resurrection bodies in the new creation, should give us confidence and sense of purpose for our life now, says Paul. "So we make it our goal to please him whether we are at home in the body or away from it" (v9). This seems to suggest that we can make it our goal to please God when we are away from the body, which would require consciousness.

That's a rather hurried attempt at making sense of the passage, but that seems to me to be the general sense of it! For a detailed exegesis, I think John Piper does a very good job of unpacking this passage in one of his sermons, "What happens when you die?", which seems to make sense to me.

Daniel Hill said...

Do you think, Custard, that Jesus was unconscious between his death and his resurrection? If not, shouldn't our intermediate state be similar to his, since he is the `firstfruits' of the resurrection (1 Corinthians 15:20)?

John said...

The answer of course is that I don't know.

Added to that is the fact that Jesus was divine and human, and throw in the possibility of something vicariously done like the Harrowing of Hell, and it gets messier.

Daniel Hill said...

You're right that Jesus was divine and human, but surely that implies that he was conscious between his death and resurrection? It's hard to see how he could be upholding and sustaining everything if he wasn't even conscious.

John said...

Quite. Pointing out Jesus' divinity was simply to establish that while his resurrection body is the model for ours, his experience of death need not be.

Ilíon said...

Without wishing to take a side, allow me to remind the reader of King Saul's consorting with the witch of Endor ... Contrary to what many of us (including I) were taught, the text does not say that the "ghost" (the actual word used is 'elohim') was a demon, or that Saul only *thought* the spirit was Samuel.

The text says, multiple times, "Samuel said ..."

John said...

No-one here has claimed that the apparition with Saul and the witch of En Dor was anything other than Samuel.

Daniel Hill said...

So you accept that Jesus and Samuel were conscious between their deaths and resurrections, but just think that these were exceptions to the general rule?

John said...

I don't think Samuel was conscious apart from the incident at En Dor, though he clearly seems to have known that he was being "disturbed", but that he was located, if anywhere, in the ground.

bcg said...

I think it's fascinating that Calvin doesn't use the passage about Samuel at all in his article. It certainly seems to me to suggest strongly the opposite of Custard's argument.

John said...

I might well have changed my mind...