Yesterday, I had two people ask me independently about the state of believing souls after death. This is not the first time this topic has been brought up, and I suspect it will not be the last. Interestingly, it is a topic that the apostle Paul himself addressed, and on which he did not want believers to remain ignorant (1 Thessalonians 4:13). It is a vital Gospel topic–worthy of our attention, and full of strong comfort. Therefore, may the Lord add grace to our believing hearts as we consider together the question of Christians who have died.
It seems that many have perhaps been fooled by the New Testament description of the believing dead as those who have “fallen asleep” (e.g. 1 Corinthians 15:18, 20). To some, it appears that the believing soul rests here on earth in peace, having fallen into a deep sleep until the Day of Resurrection. For one cultish group I know in our area, this soul-sleep constitutes a major doctrinal point in their party platform. To be fair, if the term “asleep” was all the data we possessed, so-called soul-sleep would seem justified. Thankfully, our comforting God has given us more information on our departed brothers, and I am happy to report that they fare much better than we do. I invite you to listen with me to the revealed data from our heavenly Father.
First, the Lord teaches us to regard our soul as the core of our being, and to view our body as our dwelling (2 Corinthians 5:1-4). Currently, we live in a tent, for it must soon be dissolved at death. Someday, we will dwell in a “house which is from heaven,” a resurrected body that will last for eternity. Even though there is some debate whether the believing soul between death and the resurrection has a temporary body or is temporarily “unclothed” (as Paul terms it), it makes no difference for our discussion here, for the main point is that the real you is the soul inside your body. Where your soul goes, you go. That is the point. (In this article, I take “soul” and “spirit” as theologically interchanging terms.)
Second, building on that observation, the Lord contrasts being “absent from the body” with being “present with the Lord” (2 Corinthians 5:6, 8). Please note: Upon death, the believer is absent from the body. He is not here. He is no longer in his tent, but has departed the scene (cf. Genesis 35:18). Incidentally, in describing death, traditional Christian liturgies use the term “departed”, in keeping with God’s revelation, rather than “deceased” or having “passed away”, both of which could imply that the person no longer exists. Words matter, especially in the area of comfort. Therefore, let us mimic the comforting words of our comforting Father.
Third, if someone should object that Paul did not explicitly write that being absent from the body automatically means that a soul is present with the Lord (even though this inference is definitely implied and is echoed in the contrast of 2 Corinthians 5:9), another passage puts the issue beyond doubt. In writing to the Philippians, the apostle Paul was hard-pressed to choose whether he should live or die (Philippians 1:19ff). To many of us, that is amazing. Given a choice between living or dying, most of us would easily choose living. In choosing such, we exhibit our great need to grow in faith, for we would be choosing the least desirable option. Paul clearly believed that “to die is gain” (1:21). As he explained, he had “a desire to depart, and to be with Christ; which is far better” (1:23). Again, death is a departure. The believing soul does not remain here. Moreover, death is a departure to “be with Christ”, something that is not just “better” than remaining here, but “far better”. Therefore, any view of the afterlife that is not “gain” or “far better” is not biblical. To think that in death, a believer simply sleeps the years away, instead of enjoying relationship and worship in the presence of Jesus, is to deny him not only the bliss of heaven, but even the lesser enjoyments of earth–something that is definitely not a “gain” or “far better”.
Fourth, in answering the question directly about the souls “which are asleep,” the apostle Paul clearly located them in heaven. He wrote: “If we believe that Jesus died and rose again, even so them also which sleep in Jesus will God bring with him” (1 Thessalonians 4:15). How can God bring those souls to earth with Jesus at His coming, unless those souls have already been enjoying the presence of Jesus in heaven?
Fifth, the previous verse also shows us that Jesus is the exemplar on this journey of the afterlife. Whatever happened to His soul after death is what happens to the believer’s soul after death. Therefore, what happened to Jesus at death? When He was about to die, Jesus prayed, “Father, into thy hands I commend my spirit” (Luke 23:46). His human spirit–so mysteriously united to His divine person in the hypostatic union of the Incarnation–was committed to the loving hands of His Father, just as His body was about to be taken down by the loving hands of men. Specifically, where was Jesus after death? At the very least, we know He went to Paradise that same day, as He had earlier told the thief (Luke 23:43). There is also indication that before His resurrection, Jesus may have both proclaimed His victory to disobedient angelic spirits, and also brought Old Testament saints to heaven (1 Peter 3:19; Ephesians 4:8-10)–details that are admittedly difficult, but thankfully for our discussion here, not absolutely essential to be understood fully. (Please note: Jesus did not go to hell to suffer for our sins, as corrupt additions to the Apostle’s Creed seem to imply, for His words “It is finished” signaled the accomplishment of the Father’s work for Him to suffer before glorification; cf. John 17:4-5; 19:30). At any rate, the Scriptures bear witness to Jesus being active and conscious after His death, rather than sleeping in the tomb. So also, we see in the parable of the rich man and Lazarus, and in the Revelation of Jesus to John, souls “asleep” in Jesus are actually conscious and conversing, definitely not sleeping on earth (Luke 16:19-31; Revelation 6:9-11).
But if this is so, someone may still be wondering, why does the New Testament so often describe departed believers as sleeping? As with the “Abba, Father” prayer (Mark 14:36; Romans 8:15; Galatians 4:6), the “asleep” language may be an echo of our Lord’s very own speech, when He told the crowds at Jairus’ house that the twelve-year-old girl was “not dead, but sleepeth” (Mark 5:39). Jesus knew the physiological state of the girl. She was definitely dead, yet He described her as sleeping, inferring that He would raise her up; therefore, the crowds should stop weeping. Please note: The contrast in Jesus’ language is not between sleeping after death or being awake after death, but between being dead or being asleep. In other words, the Christian language of “sleep” is in contrast to death itself. Christians are not really dead. The resurrection is so certain, and their current state in heaven so alive, that it is improper in one sense to refer to them as dead. Let us rather call them asleep, or departed–but not dead. I like that language! Words count, and words comfort! Praise God for the life-giving words of the Prince of Life! May these words comfort you, believer. Amen.
P.S. When I came home and told my wife Jinna what I had just posted, she immediately began quoting the Baptist catechism, which reads, “Q. What benefits do believers receive from Christ at death? A. the souls of believers are at death made perfect in holiness, and do immediately pass into glory, and their bodies, being still united to Christ, doe rest in their graves till the resurrection.” God be praised for a strong tradition in the church and a discerning wife in the home!