Are the Dead “Asleep”?

This question is occasionally posed: “Why do Christians teach that the dead are conscious, when the Scriptures refer to death as ‘sleep’”? Wayne Jackson addresses this issue.
By Wayne Jackson | Christian Courier

“Why do some teach that the “soul” is conscious after death, when the Bible plainly teaches that the dead are ‘asleep’?"

There are two significant words in the Greek New Testament for the English term “sleep.” Each of these is used both literally and figuratively, that is, for natural sleep, and also as a symbol for death.

The term katheudo occurs 22 times in the New Testament. In a literal sense it is used of “natural sleep” (Mt. 13:25; 25:5).

The term is employed with reference to death in only one passage. The daughter of a Jewish synagogue ruler, whose name was Jairus, had died (Mk. 5:35). Christ was bidden to the place where the girl was. When he arrived at the home, the Lord confidently said: “the child is not dead, but is sleeping” (v. 39).

That the maiden actually was dead admits of no doubt. The Savior used the term “sleep” figuratively, in view of the fact that this death was to be a temporary heartache. He then raised the twelve-year-old girl from her state of death. Luke says that her “spirit returned” and she rose up immediately (Lk. 8:55).

Another term in the New Testament for “sleep” is koimaomai (a form of koimao). The word is found 18 times. While koimaomai may refer on occasion to normal sleep (Mt. 28:13; Lk. 22:45), predominately (15 of the 18 times) this word is used figuratively for the “sleep” of death (see Mt. 27:52; 1 Cor. 15:20; 1 Thes. 4:13-15).

This metaphorical use of “sleep,” to describe the death of a body, is ancient. It is found in classical Greek (e.g., Homer, Illiad 11.241; Sophocles, El.509; et al.) and in the Septuagint (e.g., 36 times in 2 Kgs. & Chron, as in “he slept with his fathers” — cf. 2 Kg. 14:16).

The Body Sleeps, Not the Soul

Here is a fact that must be underscored. When the term “sleep” is used to depict the death of a person, the allusion is always to the disposition of the body, not the soul. There is no passage in the Scriptures that reflects the notion that one’s soul sleeps (i.e., is unconscious) in death. The case to the contrary may be argued briefly in the following fashion.

The prophet Daniel affirmed that those who “sleep [katheudonton] in the dust of the earth shall awake” (Dan. 12:2). Note that the part of man that “sleeps” is that which is deposited in the “dust of the earth.” This obviously is a reference to the physical body. The awakening, then, is a reference to the bodily resurrection.

Jesus once said to his disciples: “Our friend Lazarus has fallen asleep (kekoimetai — the perfect, passive of koimao); but I go that I may awake him out of sleep” (Jn. 11:11). In view of the subsequent context, the “awakening” clearly refers to the resurrection of Lazarus’ body (vv. 43-44). The verb koimao derives from the root keimai, “to lie down.” In death, it is only the “body” that lies down (not the soul); hence, it is the body that sleeps.

W. E. Vine notes that keimai, “to lie down,” stands as an antonym to “resurrection” (anastasis — from ana, “up,” and histemi, “to cause to stand” — see: Expository Dictionary of New Testament Words under “Asleep”).

Since that which will “stand up” is the body; it follows that the element of man that “lies down” or “sleeps” likewise is the body. The early Christians even called their burial grounds koimeteria, “sleeping places,” and from this term derives our modern word, “cemetery,” a place to which we transport the bodies of our loved ones. The term sleep says absolutely nothing about the state of the soul after death.

Noted scholar D. Edmond Hiebert observed:

“[T]he figure of death as sleep cannot be pressed to establish the teaching that in the intermediate state the soul is in unconscious repose (soul sleep) .... the body only is thought of as being asleep, no longer in communication with its earthly environment. As sleep has its awakening, so the body of the believer will have its awakening. The theory of soul sleep is inconsistent with Paul’s assertion in [1 Thes.] 5:10 that God’s purpose for us is the whether we live or die we should live together with Christ. At death the believer’s ‘earthly house of our tabernacle’ is dissolved (2 Cor. 5:1) and returns to the dust, but the spiritual part of man, the soul, his self-conscious personality, departs ‘to be with the Lord’ (2 Cor. 5:8). Since to depart from the world in death to ‘be with Christ’ is described by Paul as ‘very far better’ (Phil. 1:23) than the present state of blessed communion with the Lord and happy activity in His service, it is evident that ‘sleep’ as applied to believers cannot be intended to teach that the soul is unconscious” (188-89).

Is the Soul Conscious After Death?

There are those, who identify themselves with Christianity, who contend that the dead are not conscious in the intermediate state, i.e., in that condition of existence between the time of one’s death and that of the resurrection of his body. Martin Luther once taught that the condition between death and the resurrection is “a deep and dreamless sleep without consciousness and feeling” (Althaus, 414-416).

There have been some among the churches of Christ who have advocated this concept. For example, in a speech delivered at Pepperdine University in April of 1988, F. LaGard Smith asserted the theory of “soul-sleeping.” But this position is seriously flawed and is refuted by considerable biblical evidence.

The narrative regarding the rich man and Lazarus unquestionably demonstrates the consciousness of humanity (of both the evil and the righteous) in the intermediate state (Lk. 16:19ff). While some would dismiss this account as a mere parable, the evidence is against that view.

  • The text has traits that suggest it is not a parable (e.g., Lazarus and Abraham being named).
  • It would not matter if it were, for a parable portrays circumstances that are true to life (unlike, for example, the fable).

For a more detailed consideration of this matter, see the article: Are the Dead Conscious?.

On the mountain of Transfiguration, Moses and Elijah appeared and spoke with Christ regarding his impending death in Jerusalem (Lk. 9:30-31). These Old Testament worthies certainly were not in a state of “dreamless sleep.”

On the cross, Jesus promised the penitent robber, “Today you will be with me in Paradise” (Lk. 23:43). The language demands association and consciousness later that day in the realm of the righteous dead. If not, of what value was the pledge?

As Hiebert mentioned (see above), Paul described the state of departing to be with the Lord (i.e., dying in Christ) as being “very far better” than earthly Christian fellowship (Phil. 1:23). Could one affirm that unconsciousness is “very far better” than the sweet communion among the children of God? Moreover, what value would there be in desiring to “depart” to be “with Christ” if one was unconscious, and thus did not even know that he was “with Christ.”

In the book of Revelation John saw a vision of the “souls” of those who had been slain upon the earth (Rev. 6:9-11). These souls were petitioning the Lord for information as to when their blood would be avenged, and they were encouraged to wait patiently until Heaven’s plan had reached fruition. It is impossible to eliminate post-death consciousness from this sacred scene.

These arguments represent but a fraction of the case that can be made for the conscious state of the dead in the post-death, pre-resurrection state of human existence. Those who deny this clear biblical teaching reveal that they have been influenced by doctrines that are alien to the scriptural view of man.

  • Althaus, Paul. 1966. The Theology of Martin Luther. Fortress Press: Philadelphia, PA.
  • Hiebert, D. Edmond. 1971. The Thessalonian Epistles. Moody: Chicago, IL.