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Soul Sleep vs. Soul Ascension

by Douglas Berner

Seventh Day Adventists teach that the soul of a person is an inseparable part of the person’s physical body. As such, they believe that at the time of death a person’s soul is locked in a state of unconscious sleep which lasts until the time of the resurrection of the dead. They observe that many times in the Bible the word “sleep” is used to describe a person’s condition following the time of death. In The Great Controversy, Ellen G. White wrote, “The Bible clearly teaches that the dead do not immediately go to heaven. They are represented as sleeping until the resurrection.” This concept has become known as “soul sleep.”

Adventists associate Hades only with the grave and deny that the soul departs the dead body to go to either Hades or to heaven after a person’s death. They further argue that the soul is not immortal and that immortality and everlasting life is only obtained at the time of the resurrection. Since the Bible clearly teaches that there is a time of resurrection for both believers and for the wicked dead, Adventists conclude that the separation of souls from the dead bodies of believers to go to heaven would completely negate the need of for a future time of resurrection, judgment and reward.

While the physical body does “sleep” at the time of death, does the soul also enter a state of unconscious sleep? Or, does the soul have a form of life which continues after death? Why do many Christians believe that at the time they die their soul will not enter into a lengthy condition of unconscious sleep but that the soul ascends to heaven?

Immortality vs. Eternal Life

The real issue regarding death is not about the immortality of the soul, but the difference between eternal life and immortality. There is physical death and spiritual death. They are not the same. Physical death applies to the body only, while spiritual death is a condition of being separated from God. Are Christians ever subject to being separated from God? I do not believe that is the case. Believers are not subject to spiritual death.

When do believers obtain eternal life? “Verily, verily, I say unto you, He that heareth my word, and believeth on him that sent me, hath everlasting life, and shall not come into condemnation; but is passed from death unto life” (John 5:24).

“He that believeth on the Son of God hath the witness in himself: he that believeth not God hath made him a liar; because he believeth not the record that God gave of his Son. And this is the record, that God hath given to us eternal life, and this life is in his Son. He that hath the Son hath life; and he that hath not the Son of God hath not life. These things have I written unto you that believe on the name of the Son of God; that ye may know that ye have eternal life, and that ye may believe on the name of the Son of God” (1 John 5:10-13).

Christians have eternal life immediately from the moment that they believe in the name of Jesus and accept Him as their personal savior by faith as a gift from God. They are baptized by the Holy Spirit into the body of Christ and have eternal life from that moment on. Eternal life applies to the spirit or soul of the individual, not his physical body. Is a believer immortal at the point in time of salvation? No. Eternal life is not immortality. The believer must await the resurrection of the dead and the catching up (harpazo – rapture) of the living believers at the time that Christ returns for His body of believers. At that time the believer’s body is changed or glorified into the immortal spiritual body.

“But is now made manifest by the appearing of our Saviour Jesus Christ, who hath abolished death, and hath brought life and immortality to light through the gospel:” (2 Timothy 1:10).

The apostle Paul distinguishes between life (eternal life) and immortality. They are not the same thing. The abolishment of death, through faith in Jesus Christ, produces two separate and distinguishable results: eternal life and immortality. The immediate result is eternal life, while the eventual result is immortality.

What did the apostle Paul think about his future death? “For to me to live is Christ, and to dieisgain. But if I live in the flesh, this is the fruit of my labour: yet what I shall choose I wot not. For I am in a strait betwixt two, having a desire to depart, and to be with Christ; which is far better: Nevertheless to abide in the flesh is more needful for you” (Philippians 1:21-24).

Paul distinguishes between life and death and pointedly states that for him (or any believer) to die is gain. How can Paul be looking forward to a gain at physical death if all that will happen to him after he dies is “soul sleep” until Christ returns for His believers? How could there be any emotional conflict for Paul between life and death if that was his understanding? But that was not Paul’s understanding, as he made perfectly clear when he stated that he had a desire to depart and be with Christ. In other places, Paul mentioned his desire to be alive and present at the time of the “harpazo” or catching up of all of Christ’s believers. But that is not what he is talking about in this passage. Paul is distinguishing between living in Christ and dying in Christ while the remaining believers are still living their lives in this world. That is why he realizes to “abide in the flesh” is more important. But Paul’s expectation upon death was that he would not remain unconscious in a grave, but immediately depart to be with Christ.

Soul; Spirit; Body

Is there any scriptural evidence that the soul or spirit separates from the physical body at the time of death?

Genesis 35:18-19 describes the death of Rachel: “And it came to pass, as her soul was in departing, (for she died) that she called his name Ben-oni: but his father called him Benjamin. And Rachel died, and was buried in the way to Ephrath, which is Beth-lehem.”

The Hebrew word used for soul regarding the death of Rachel is “nephesh.” Nephesh has several meanings ranging from soul, to breath of life, to a state of mind, thus this verse is interesting but not conclusive.

“Then shall the dust return to the earth as it was: and the spirit shall return unto God who gave it” (Ecclesiastes 12:7).

Here the Hebrew word for spirit is “ruach.” This word for spirit implies breath, but breath in the sense that it comes from God, or is the breath of God, or as Gesenius puts it “the Spirit of God himself” which dwells within the person. This is not exactly the same as the Holy Spirit which is rendered in Hebrew as “Ruach Hakodesh.” A key characteristic of “ruach” is that it reveals a living and moving breath like the wind which comes from God. It is dynamic, not unconscious.

Ecclesiastes 12:7 obviously pertains to the state which exists between physical death and resurrection and clearly describes a separation of two components: the physical body (dust) and the spiritual body (spirit). In the case of a believer, the spirit returns (ascends) to God. Do we see any further Biblical evidence of belief that the spirit separates from the body and returns to God at the time of death?

What did Stephen say at the time of his being stoned to death in Acts 7:59-60? “And they stoned Stephen, calling upon God, and saying, Lord Jesus, receive my spirit. And he kneeled down, and cried with a loud voice, Lord, lay not this sin to their charge. And when he had said this, he fell asleep.”

We all admit that the scene in Acts where Stephen is stoned is a very powerful passage filled with significant meaning. It was a very pivotal point. Stephen beheld heaven opened above him and observed Christ standing at the right hand of God. What was Stephen’s reaction so seeing Jesus standing beside the throne of God in heaven? Did he call out for immediate judgment and vengeance upon his accusers? No. Did he call out for a long and peaceful unconscious sleep in the grave? No. Stephen said “Lord Jesus, receive my spirit.”

What did Stephen mean by that? Did he mean that Jesus should receive his spirit in about 2,000 years at the time of resurrection? No! Stephen expected that Jesus would receive his spirit immediately. In receiving Stephen’s spirit would Jesus be making Stephen immortal? No. Stephen still has to await the time of resurrection for the reunion of the spirit to the physical body and the transformation or glorification into immortality.

“Wherefore let them that suffer according to the will of God commit the keeping of their souls to him in well doing, as unto a faithful Creator” (1 Peter 4:19).

Peter’s comment implies that we should consciously want to have our souls united with God. Peter is not looking forward to “soul sleep” nor is he just looking forward to a resurrection of the body and soul. Peter’s comment also implies that there are people who do not commit the keeping of their souls to God. Who then is the keeper of these other’s souls? Satan, obviously.

“Therefore my heart is glad, and my glory rejoiceth: my flesh also shall rest in hope. For thou wilt not leave my soul in hell; neither wilt thou suffer thine Holy One to see corruption” (Psalm 16:9-10).

This is a psalm of David where David writes about his own hope after death as well as prophetically pointing to Jesus as the Holy One of God. David notes that his flesh (body) will rest (physical death) in hope (hope for the resurrection of the body), while his soul will not be left in hell (sheol or hades). In other words, Satan will not be the keeper of David’s soul. What about King Hezekiah’s praise of God following his sickness and recovery recorded in Isaiah 38:17-19?

“Behold, for peace I had great bitterness: but thou hast in love to my soul delivered it from the pit of corruption: for thou hast cast all my sins behind thy back. For the grave cannot praise thee, death can not celebrate thee: they that go down into the pit cannot hope for thy truth. The living, the living, he shall praise thee, as I do this day:” (Isaiah 38:17-19).

Hezekiah talks about death and the grave, but he draws a distinction with his two references to the pit. The pit is not the grave, but is sheol (hades). It is not because of death or the grave that keeps someone from having the hope of God’s truth, but going down into hades leaves no hope. How had Hezekiah’s soul been delivered from the pit of hades? By having his sins cast behind God’s back (salvation) by an act of God Himself. Note that Hezekiah does not say that the dead cannot celebrate God, but that the grave cannot and death itself cannot. In contrast there are the “living” who praise God. Who are the people who are doubly referenced as the living? Those who have had their sins cast behind God’s back and have received eternal life. They are the ones who are not silenced by the grave and are not threatened by the pit.

While we live in our earthly bodies, where are we in relationship to God?

“Therefore we are always confident, knowing that, whilst we are at home in the body, we are absent from the Lord: (For we walk by faith, not by sight:) We are confident, I say, and willing rather to be absent from the body, and to be present with the Lord” (2 Corinthians 5:6-8).

What is Paul talking about? To be home in the body (physical life in this world) is a form of separation from Jesus; while being absent from the body (physical death) is to be present with Jesus. Paul is not talking about what will take place after the resurrection of the body but before.

“But I would not have you to be ignorant, brethren, concerning them which are asleep, that ye sorrow not, even as others which have no hope. For if we believe that Jesus died and rose again, even so them also which sleep in Jesus will God bring with him. For this we say unto you by the word of the Lord, that we which are alive and remain unto the coming of the Lord shall not prevent them which are asleep” (1 Thessalonians 4:13-15). Paul is making a significant point. What is Jesus going to bring with Him when He returns? Not the physical bodies of the dead believers which sleep in the grave, but their souls which have returned to God in heaven awaiting the time of the resurrection! We can see from this passage that while the word “sleep” applies to the physical body in the grave, “sleeping in Jesus” implies that the soul is in heaven.

Is there any other New Testament passage which really demonstrates that souls of believers can be in heaven at the same time that the dead bodies are in the grave?

“And when he had opened the fifth seal, I saw under the altar the souls of them that were slain for the word of God, and for the testimony which they held: And they cried with a loud voice, saying, How long, O Lord, holy and true, dost thou not judge and avenge our blood on them that dwell on the earth? And white robes were given unto every one of them; and it was said unto them, that they should rest yet for a little season, until their fellowservants also and their brethren, that should be killed as they were, should be fulfilled” (Revelation 6:9-11).

Here we clearly see souls of martyred believers in a conscious state under the altar in heaven. The physical bodies of these souls have not yet been resurrected. The bodies are still in the grave. There is no reason to not try to understand this passage literally. If “soul sleep” is the condition of all dead people, believers and unbelievers, martyrs and natural deaths, then this scene in heaven makes no sense and no reader of the Bible has any basis for understanding it. But Scripture has been given to us for our understanding, and so in the Bible’s own context this scene must make perfect sense. And the passage does make sense, if we accept the concept that the souls of the dead are not locked in a state of unconsciousness while the physical body sleeps in the grave.

Conclusion The overriding issue is not immortality of the soul but one of everlasting life. The Christian receives everlasting life immediately upon his conversion by faith. The Christian does not lose everlasting life by experiencing physical death. Everlasting life pertains to the continual condition of the spirit, while immortality pertains to the eventual glorified condition of the body. Scripture supports the belief that the soul of the believer ascends to heaven, and returns with Jesus at the time of His coming for His believers. It is apparent that Stephen, Peter, Paul and John all had an understanding that Jesus receives the spirits of his believers in heaven. When Jesus returns with these souls they will be reunited with their resurrected bodies which will then be glorified. There is nothing about the temporary ascension of the soul to heaven that negates or diminishes the requirements or promises for a future resurrection, judgment, or reward.