Do the souls of believers “sleep” after death until the resurrection?

Q. Some people say that if you are going to heaven, you go right away after you die. Others think that you just “sleep” until the second coming. (One snag in this idea might be Jesus saying to the thief on the cross, “Truly I say to you, this day you will be with me in Paradise.”) What do you think?

You’re actually asking about an issue that has been the subject of continual debate throughout the history of the Christian church. References to controversy over the subject extend back to at least the AD 240s. The debate remains lively today.

The actual issue is whether the soul is immortal, in which case it survives death, or whether it is mortal, in which case it dies with the body and is resurrected with the body, or else it “sleeps” until the body is resurrected (perhaps “dreaming,” as some have suggested, of life in the person’s future ultimate state). There is, of course, no philosophical discussion in the Bible as to the mortality or immortality of the soul. (The Bible isn’t that kind of book.) So we have to try to come to some conclusion about this based on what the Bible does say.

Without intending any disrespect for the view that the soul is mortal, since this view has a long and venerable pedigree in Christian theology, let me nevertheless cite some passages in the Bible that lead me to believe that the soul is immortal, and that believers who die therefore pass directly and consciously into the presence of God:

• The author of Hebrews writes that we are “surrounded by a great cloud of witnesses.” I believe this means more than that the lives of faithful people, catalogued just before this statement (Abel, Enoch, Noah, Abraham, etc.), are witnesses and inspiring examples to us. I believe the author is saying that such people are currently witnesses of our lives, so that we should “run the race” in the awareness that they are in the grandstands, as it were, cheering us on. But this means that they would have to be conscious and aware, looking on from a heavenly vantage point.

• In several places the psalmists express what seems to be the lively expectation of going immediately and consciously into God’s presence when they die, for example:
– In Psalm 16, “You will not abandon me to the realm of the dead . . . you will fill me with joy in your presence, with eternal pleasures at your right hand”;
– Near the end of Psalm 73, “Whom have I in heaven but you? And earth has nothing I desire besides you. My flesh and my heart may fail, but God is the strength of my heart and my portion forever”;
– Perhaps best known, in Psalm 23, “Surely your goodness and love will follow me all the days of my life, and I will dwell in the house of the LORD forever.”

• As you mentioned, Jesus told the thief on the cross that he would be with him “today” in Paradise.

These are only a few of the passages that could be considered in support of the immortality of the soul.  I don’t doubt that proponents of soul mortality would counter with some passages of their own. This is, in short, a question on which people of good will who are equally committed to the authority and inspiration of the Scriptures have long disagreed. So we each need to be “fully convinced in our own minds” but respectful of the other position.

Still, as I said, all things considered, my overall sense from the Bible is that the soul of a believer does pass directly and consciously into the presence of God upon death.

Titian, “Christ and the Good Thief,” c. 1566

Author: Christopher R Smith

The Rev. Dr. Christopher R. Smith is a writer and biblical scholar who is also an ordained minister. He was active in parish and student ministry for twenty-five years. He was a consulting editor to the International Bible Society (now Biblica) for The Books of the Bible, an edition of the Scriptures that presents the biblical books according to their natural literary outlines, without chapters and verses. His Understanding the Books of the Bible study guide series is keyed to this format. He has an A.B. from Harvard in English and American Literature and Language, a Master of Arts in Theological Studies from Gordon-Conwell, and a Ph.D. in the History of Christian Life and Thought, with a minor concentration in Bible, from Boston College, in the joint program with Andover Newton Theological School.

4 thoughts on “Do the souls of believers “sleep” after death until the resurrection?”

  1. When I was a young child, I remember that we would go on long car rides to various places. We often left very early in the morning so that my brother and I would sleep in the car for most of the trip. One consequence sleeping in the car was that the trip seemed (from the perspective of the sleepers) to last only a moment in time, even if it lasted several hours for the weary driver-parents. But as far as I was concerned, if I could fall asleep in the car, then I arrived at the destination, for all intents and purposes, immediately! Thus, from my perspective, there was no effective difference between being asleep for three hours while time passed (the actual situation) vs. falling asleep causing our car to transport immediately through time and space (a la Madeleine L’Engle) to our destination.

    As you mentioned, there has been a long debate throughout church history whether the soul is mortal (and resurrected with the body) or immortal (and asleep until the body is resurrected), which will probably not be resolved anytime soon, much less in this blog post. However, my question is: What are the practical consequences of this distinction? If it is the case that the soul is (im)mortal, how does my understanding of (and therefore my interaction with) Jesus, the Bible, etc. change from what it was?

    1. I think the only real practical consequence in this life (since, as you say, we would probably not notice a difference after this life) is our ability to say (or not), “The moment I die, I’m going to see my Jesus face to face.” This, I find, is more hopeful than saying, “After I die, I’m going to see my Jesus face to face after sleeping years or even centuries until the final resurrection, although I won’t realize that this time has passed.” But maybe the divide can be bridged by saying something like, “After I die, the very next thing I know, I’ll be seeing my Jesus face to face.” That’s hopeful and positive and encompasses both possibilities, that the soul is either mortal or immortal.

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