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