Question: When we die, do we enter a state of sleep or do we maintain a conscious awareness, going either to heaven or hell?
First, let me be abundantly clear, this topic is not what I would call a point of salvation, meaning, I don’t believe that we need to nail this to get into heaven. Jesus Christ is the Corner Stone of our faith and salvation. If you have placed your faith in Him, believing that he died for our sins, raised from the dead, and is seated at the Right Hand of the Father, you are my spiritual brother or sister. This is a point of clarity that I believe is a building block in our faith journey. We should not allow this topic to be a point of division among us. We cannot give the devil a foothold in our congregations over something of this caliber. Let us stick to arguing the merits of salvation, that it is not by works, so that no one can boast. Let us be divided by our understanding of the person of Jesus—make-believe bedtime story, angel, prophet, moral teacher, or God-man?
With that said, for the sake of those who wonder about our entry into eternity, let’s look to the Bible for our answers. This is where we, as Christians, go for truth. The Scriptures will help us discover what the early church leaders understood, but more importantly, what the Holy Spirit would teach us. When trying to figure out which verses or passages actually have to do with this topic, it’s important to look beyond the English renderings, into the original language. Now, I’m no Greek Scholar, so I guess we should take this for what it’s worth!
My hope is to present a common-sense approach to the Scriptures to better understand this topic. To do that, we should first identify the different possibilities and the most common passages that address this question. Then, we should identify and examine the common phrases or words used to draw the various conclusions.
So, lets jump into to the simple part: identifying the camps of theology on this topic. Though there may be more, I’ve found that two are dominate among believers. The first believes that when we die, we will enter into an indefinite period of sleep (let’s call them the Sleeper Camp). This state of sleep is of the spirit, not of the physical body, because the body is in obvious decay. The second camp (we’ll call the Conscious Camp) believes that once we pass from this life, we enter into a state of consciousness either in “paradise” or in “Hades”, depending on our relationship with God the Father, through Jesus Christ, His Son.
Both camps present some problems and both seem to have some Scriptures to uphold their positions, which is why both seem to persist into modern Christian thinking. For transparency, I want to expose my own bias upfront. Though I understand the Sleeper Camp, I believe the idea that we go into a state of conscious waiting is upheld better in the Scriptures. But, the “Conscious Camp” was not what I was “brought up” being taught. My first pastoral mentor believed that we entered into a state of slumber after death and taught it vigorously.
Let’s first visit the camp that believes death brings an indefinite slumber. What I’ve found to be the single word at the heart of this doctrine is “sleep”. Something of immediate noteworthiness is that in the Greek, there is not just one word that our English language would render as “sleep”. There are three words used in Ancient Greek, as depicted in Scripture, that most English translations render as sleep. The first word is Hupnos, the second is Katheudō, and the third is Koimaō. We’ll visit the first two briefly because they’re not used in any of the scriptures by which the sleeper camp derives its theology.
Hupnos should immediately sound familiar to most. It’s the root word for hypnosis. However, it’s generally holds a basic understanding of sleep or even a deep sleep. A few examples: Matthew 1:24 refers to the state that Joseph, the step-father of Jesus, was in when he had the dream of Gabriel telling him who Jesus would be. It’s also used to describe Peter’s state of being on the mountain where Jesus was transfigured (Luke 9:32). It can also be used to describe sleep in a figurative term, as Paul uses it to warn the Roman Church because the time was closer now than before to the end (Romans 13:11).
The next, Katheudō, is also very common in the New Testament scriptures. We see this word used with wide variety but meaning “to sleep” or “rest” but often “to fall asleep” in both a literal and figurative sense. Some scriptures you might recognize that this word is used in is 1 Thes. 5:6 where Paul exhorts the Thessalonians to be alert in their spirituality, not asleep like those who seek drunkenness. But this is still used in its literal sense by Jesus (or at least used to interpret what Jesus said) in Matthew 26:45 when Jesus rebukes His disciples for resting when He instructed them to pray.
Now, onto the word that I believe is at the root of the sleeper camp, Koimaō. I found this to be the most interesting of the words. It also has the ability to be used in the literal sense of the word sleep. However, it is often used to describe death! The primary authors that use this word are Luke and Paul. However, even John uses this word in his Gospel account.
Let’s look at John’s usage first, and then we’ll dive into Luke’s and Paul’s. John uses Koimaō in only one story, that of Jesus’s friend, Lazarus (not to be confused with the poor old man by the same name in Jesus’s parable… more on him later). In this story, we find Jesus making the decision to go back to Judea to visit Lazarus because he is sick. Jesus says in John 11:11 (ESV), “After saying these things, he said to them, ‘Our friend Lazarus has fallen asleep [Koimaō], but I go to awaken him.’” What’s interesting here is that His disciples believe Jesus is speaking about natural sleep. They even use this word back to Jesus to argue with Him, saying in verse 12, “Lord, if he has fallen asleep [Koimaō], he will recover.” This can get a bit confusing if you over think this moment. Jesus is using this word to describe death. In fact, He says as much in response to His disciples’ lack of understanding. What was Jesus saying? Why didn’t He just say Lazarus had died at first? To answer that, let’s keep digging into other scriptures.
Luke uses this word once in the book of Acts. In Acts 13:36 Luke recounts a story of Paul and Barnabas in Antioch of Pisidia where Paul is trying to reason with Jews in the synagogue. Paul, in speaking of the death of David as proof that David was speaking of a Divine Messiah to come who would resurrect from the grave, says of David that he “fell on sleep [Koimaō]” (KJV). In this context he clearly speaks to the death of David.
In 1 Corinthians 11 Paul is in mid-rebuke of the Church at Corinth for the way they’re taking the Lord’s Supper (communion). He tells them that taking it in such an unworthy manner will lead to judgment. He then points out that this is why many of them are sick and asleep [Koimaō]. Paul’s use of Koimaō has nothing to do with literal sleep. He is using this to describe death, pure and simple. Death would be the idea that is built upon sickness. This again connects the idea of death with the idea of slumber. Because this word is associated with death, it lends some credibility to the idea that our physical death leads to a spiritual slumber.
Let’s head over to 1 Corinthians 15:50-54.
“I tell you this, brothers: flesh and blood cannot inherit the kingdom of God, nor does the perishable inherit the imperishable. Behold! I tell you a mystery. We shall not all sleep [Koimaō], but we shall all be changed, in a moment, in the twinkling of an eye, at the last trumpet. For the trumpet will sound, and the dead will be raised imperishable, and we shall be changed. For this perishable body must put on the imperishable, and this mortal body must put on immortality. When the perishable puts on the imperishable, and the mortal puts on immortality, then shall come to pass the saying that is written: ‘Death is swallowed up in victory.’ ‘O death, where is your victory? O death, where is your sting?’”
This passage is often cited as a description of the Rapture and I believe that is exactly the point of it. However, we can’t ignore the ideas being presented with the usage of the word “sleep” [Koimaō]. Is Paul saying that our death is a moment of sleep at which time we’ll be awakened when the Rapture happens? Some believe so. The previous scriptures clearly speak of literal death. So, this word can be used to describe literal sleep and death or even a sleep that follows death. This same pattern is found in another passage much like this one which also uses this word multiple times, 1 Thes. 4:13-17, to discuss the rapture of the Church.
However, (this is where I flip the script) I strongly believe that scripture should interpret scripture. To conclude that these verses infer we sleep between death and judgment would need to ignore other passages that teach unambiguously and clearly opposite. The previously mentioned passages may seem to lend some weight to the idea that death leads to a state of sleep, but this wouldn’t do justice to such verses in light of more clear teachings.
Let me be clear, none of the writers were trying to subversively relay any doctrine of death. They were merely speaking to a moment of death, poetically or sympathetically to address this sensitive topic. In our culture, we also use other words and terms to define death for the same reasons. We say things like, “He’s no longer with us” or “she passed away”. These terms may have some spiritual significance but are usually simple euphemisms of our day to politely or gently describe death. The next time you speak to your veterinarian about having to put your terminally ill animal “to sleep”, think of this idea.
We have no clear scriptural evidence to uphold the idea that the early leaders – the Apostles – held to the idea of a spiritual sleep occurring between death and the resurrection (I have purposely chosen not to dive into the teachings of post-apostolic church fathers because they are often where the branches of different ideas began). In fact, there would appear to be the opposite. The ones that are used by the sleep camp simply don’t hold up to scrutiny and are vague to the idea, at best. Let’s interpret Scripture with Scripture! To do that let’s go to the very words of Jesus. There are two passages I want to look at and explain in the simplest terms possible.
The first is the parable mentioned earlier regarding the poor man Lazarus. This is found in Luke’s Gospel, chapter 16, verses 19-31. It should be noted that Luke was a contemporary of Paul. He traveled with Paul extensively so he would’ve derived theology mostly from Paul. Had he believed in a state of sleep between death and the resurrection, would he have been so faithful to these words of Jesus? He likely wouldn’t have even mentioned them or he would’ve attempted to bring some clarity for the sake of continuity.
The story goes like this. A poor man named Lazarus used to beg at the gate of a rich man (not named). Eventually Lazarus died and was carried by angels to “Abraham’s Bosom” where he had comfort and rest from all his troubles in the world. The rich man also died and found himself in a dreaded place of fire Jesus refers to as Hades (an important point for later). Before we start wandering down the path of this being a place of slumber or unconsciousness, we need to read the whole story. This rich man cries out to Abraham (who was also dead) for reprieve. Abraham speaks to him. They appear to carry on an intellectual conversation.
I know many may think of this passage as a parable and, as such, would argue this should be understood as allegory. Jesus was clearly teaching on a larger point of judgment and eternal life, so perhaps there’s something to that line of thinking. He was trying to get people to see that a person’s status in this life is not a judgment or blessing from God. Yet, something more interesting exists in this parable. Jesus tells this story as if He knew this was fact. If anyone could know this exchange, shouldn’t it be Jesus? Does this story accurately reflect the moments of life after death?
If taken at face value, we would have to surmise that there is a conscious moment between death and final judgment. Look at yet another passage that teaches us something powerful about death. Again, this is found in Luke’s narrative. The guy that followed very closely the teachings of Paul who many quote as being the proponent of a sleep after death.
Luke 23:39-43 is the story where Jesus is being crucified between two criminals. Some translations say “thief” others stay with the vague word, “criminal”. It doesn’t matter for this article what they did. They were being killed in a brutal way, next to Jesus. There’s an exchange of words between both criminals and Jesus. He’s challenged by one to save Himself and them, as well. The other interjects that such an attitude is out of bounds. They deserve their punishment but this Jesus next to them is innocent!
He then calls out to Jesus, “Remember me when you come into your Kingdom.” Jesus’ response is a powerful revelation. Jesus says to this condemned man, “Truly, I say to you, today you will be with me in paradise.” This should kill the entire doctrine of sleep between death and resurrection. But it doesn’t. The argument against this being the nail in the coffin of the sleepers’ camp (that was an intended pun), is that the comma used to separate “Truly, I say to you” and “today you will be with me in paradise” is erred. It should exist between “today” and “you” rendering the sentence, “Truly, I say to you today, you will be with me in paradise.” Now, that simple placement doesn’t undo the doctrinal position that believes we’ll be immediately caught up into the Lord’s presence upon death. But it leaves the door open for those who say we sleep after death. Really, all the passages the sleeper camp points to are of the same effect; bring an interpretation to ambiguous statements to create doctrine. If they’re already clearly in opposition, make them unclear so this doctrine can fit.
However, I believe this to be a great injustice to the words of Jesus. Point to me another place where Jesus says, “Truly I say to you today…” Why is that so important? Isn’t Jesus capable of changing up His words from time to time? Jesus was methodical and extremely intentional. If he never said “Truly I say to you today…” before this moment, why on earth would a man who is gasping for every single life-giving breath, laboring over every word, literally dying to speak the slightest syllable, suddenly throw out a variation to His norm that would belabor His speech that much more? This is pure silliness. Just a poor attempt to uphold a doctrine that stands in contrast to what Jesus actually believed Himself. It would be useless and idle for Him to say, “I say to you today…”. The presence of the word, “today” must be seen as an intentional idea presented by the Lord as a way to relay a truth that a dying man needed to hear.
I want to speak to just two more scriptures. I know this is already long, but I wanted to be fair and the body of scriptural evidence is robust and needed to be weighed rightly. The passage I’d like to address is not necessarily the absolute end of the debate here, but it’s telling of Paul’s perspective on life after death. Though this verse is often misquoted as saying “absent from the body IS present with the Lord” it certainly alludes to that idea but does not make it so unequivocal. I would add to this only that if Paul believed that there was a state of sleep between death and the resurrection, here would be the best place for him to relay that belief. Yet he doesn’t. He doesn’t even come close.
2 Cor. 5:1-10 (ESV): For we know that if the tent that is our earthly home is destroyed, we have a building from God, a house not made with hands, eternal in the heavens. For in this tent we groan, longing to put on our heavenly dwelling, if indeed by putting it on we may not be found naked. For while we are still in this tent, we groan, being burdened—not that we would be unclothed, but that we would be further clothed, so that what is mortal may be swallowed up by life. He who has prepared us for this very thing is God, who has given us the Spirit as a guarantee.
So we are always of good courage. We know that while we are at home in the body we are away from the Lord, for we walk by faith, not by sight. Yes, we are of good courage, and we would rather be away from the body and at home with the Lord. So whether we are at home or away, we make it our aim to please him. For we must all appear before the judgment seat of Christ, so that each one may receive what is due for what he has done in the body, whether good or evil.”
It seems clear that there are only two specific states of being. The first is in the body; the state of being alive in this world, ruled by flesh and blood. The second is at the destruction of this body; the state of being at home with the Lord. This passage gives us no moment in between. Perhaps, you may argue that the state of being “at home with the Lord” is a place of sleep. Well, you’d be hard pressed to insert that belief given there is not a single scripture that would give us such an understanding.
The last passage I believe needs to be addressed (because it will be with my critics) is the vision John relays to us from Revelation. In chapter 20, verses 11-15, we read of the Great White Throne Judgment. We read that books are opened and the dead are judged by their works and that all those who’s names are not found in the Lamb’s Book of Life are cast into eternal fire. Remember when Jesus said the rich man was in a state of punishment in a place called Hades? Here this title of such a place resurfaces. This passage can be confusing because it says Hades, death and the sea all give up the dead in them.
Were these people asleep in such a state of death, awaiting this final day of judgment? Well, the mention of Hades as a place holder for the dead can be understood the best since we can go to our passage in Luke to see just what was happening there. A rich man, conscious, and able to speak to those in another place called Abraham’s Bosom, was being held prisoner in this place called Hades. The other places are not described well in the New Testament, at least not well enough to draw any conclusions. However, Hades has an entire story straight from the mouth of Jesus. This is a jail cell for the condemned to be held for trial. This trial will be at the end of the age. This would allude to the idea that there is a pre-trial of sorts to determine where someone will await their eternal home. The thief was offered paradise by Jesus, Himself. Lazarus was found at Abraham’s side in comfort. Both are quite possibly the same place; the place where the dead in Christ are to wait for their day of judgment from Jesus for the works of their hands whether they were to His glory or their own (1 Cor. 3:12-15). Based on this idea we can conclude with some certainty that these other places (death and the sea) are similar place holders for a conscious dead awaiting their final judgment. Even if that’s not the case for those who will resurrect to eternal condemnation, it certainly seems true for those who are dead in Christ, awaiting the New Heaven and New Earth, wherein dwells righteousness!
Whether you find yourself firmly in one camp or the other, one thing is clear that we can all agree on. When death arrives for us in this life, our choice to follow Jesus or reject His offer of salvation will be sealed. Our abode to await the judgment, whether conscious or unconscious, will be fixed: paradise or torment. My plea for you in this is sound. Choose now who you will serve. If yourself, don’t be surprised if you find yourself awake after death, in agony. If Christ, look forward to the journey that awaits you in paradise.
“Awake, sleeper, and arise from the dead, and Christ will shine on you.” (Eph. 5:14, ESV)