What is soul sleep?

by Matt Slick

Soul sleep is the teaching that when a person dies that his soul "sleeps" until the time of the future resurrection. In this condition, the person is not aware or conscious. The Jehovah's Witnesses and the Seventh-day Adventists hold to this doctrine as do most conditionalists (those who say that the wicked are judged and don't exist anymore). But the Jehovah's Witnesses teach annihilation. This means that after death a person ceases to exist. At the future resurrection, they maintain that the soul is made again. Basically, it is a re-creation of the individual. The Seventh-day Adventists teach at the soul is simply inert and resides in the memory of God.

The primary verses used to support soul sleep are found in Ecclesiastes:

  • Eccl. 9:5,  For the living know they will die; but the dead do not know anything, nor have they any longer a reward, for their memory is forgotten."
  • Eccl. 12:7,  "then the dust will return to the earth as it was, and the spirit will return to God who gave it."

Ecclesiastes must be understood in the context of its own commentary, which says at the opening of the book, "The words of the Preacher, the son of David, king in Jerusalem. 2 “Vanity of vanities,” says the Preacher, “Vanity of vanities! All is vanity.” 3 What advantage does man have in all his work which he does under the sun?" (Eccl. 1:1-3).  The writer is telling us how things are from the human perspective, from "under the sun." He is not telling us doctrinal statements about whether or not the soul continues after death. Besides, it's a mistake to use the Old Testament to interpret the New Testament. It is the New Testament that sheds light on the Old Testament.

In the New Testament we see Paul say in 2 Cor. 5:8, "we are of good courage, I say, and prefer rather to be absent from the body and to be at home with the Lord." Paul is clearly telling us that when he dies, he will go and be with the Lord. Furthermore, at the Transfiguration of Jesus (Matt. 17:1-8) we see Moses and Elijah who were alive. There was no soul sleep with them.

Luke 23:42–43 is the account of where Jesus was being crucified. Jesus speaks to the criminal on his right and says "Truly I say to you, today you will be with me in Paradise." Jesus was saying that he and the criminal would be together in paradise. Some Respond to this and say that Jesus was emphasizing that he was speaking right then and there, "today."  But, that position can only be held by those who presuppose a form of soul sleep. Of course, it was obvious that Jesus was speaking to him. But Jesus is saying to the criminal that he will be with Jesus in paradise today.

In addition when we look at the account of The Rich Man and Lazarus in Luke 16:19-31, we clearly see Jesus using the imagery of consciousness after death.  If soul sleep is true, what was Jesus doing relating the account of two individuals who were both conscious after their death?

In Revelation  6:10 we see the account of people being conscious after death and asking God, "How long, O Lord, holy and true, will You refrain from judging and avenging our blood on those who dwell on the earth?”  This is before the resurrection. Here gain we have another account of consciousness after physical death.

Therefore, the doctrine of soul sleep is incorrect.  The soul continues on after death in a conscious state.  The wicked face the judgment of God, and the Christians will dwell in His presence.





About The Author

Matt Slick is the President and Founder of the Christian Apologetics and Research Ministry.