Are the Dead “Asleep”?

Why do Christians teach that the dead are conscious, when the Scriptures refer to death as “sleep”?
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 Greek New Testament words for the English term “sleep.” Each 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. When used literally, it refers to “natural sleep” (Mt. 13:25; 25:5).

The term is employed regarding 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 was dead admits of no doubt. The Savior used the term “sleep” figuratively because this death was to be a temporary heartache.

He then raised the twelve-year-old girl from her state of death. Luke says her “spirit returned,” and she rose 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), it is predominantly (15 of the 18 times) 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’s Illiad, Sophocles, and others). Sleep also refers to death in the Septuagint (e.g., 36 times in Second Kings and Chronicles, as in “he slept with his fathers”; cf. 2 Kgs. 14:16).

The Body Sleeps, Not the Soul

Here is a fact that I would like to emphasize. 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. No passage in the Scriptures indicates one’s soul sleeps or 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). Given 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, only the “body” 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 the body will “stand up,” 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:

“The 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 believer’s body 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 that 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?

Some who identify with Christianity contend that the dead are not conscious in the intermediate state (i.e., between the time of one’s death and 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).

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

The narrative about the rich man and Lazarus unquestionably demonstrates that both the evil and the righteous are conscious in the intermediate state (Lk. 16:19 ff). While some dismiss this account as only a parable, the evidence is against that view.

For example, the text has traits that suggest it is not a parable. Both Lazarus and Abraham are historical individuals, being named. But it would not matter if the account were a parable because a parabolic story 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 were not in a “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 Christ’s promise?

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). How 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 is unconscious and thus does not even know that he is “with Christ.”

In the book of Revelation, John saw a vision of the “souls” of those 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 only 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 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.
  • Homer. Illiad 11.241.
  • Sophocles. El.509.