Soul Sleeping

Charles J. Aebi

The punishment of the wicked after this life has never been pleasant to think about, and an increasing number of people today totally reject it as inconsistent with their concept of a loving God. They overlook the fact that God is also just, as well as loving, because they want grace but not justice. One way they try to eliminate future punishment is to deny either the existence of the soul or to insist on “soul sleeping” in the hereafter.

A book published by the General Conference of Seventh-day Adventists in 1988 says, “The grave is not a place of consciousness. Since death is a sleep, the dead will remain in a state of unconsciousness in the grave until the resurrection, when the grave (hades) gives up its dead” (Seventh-day Adventists Believe . . . , p. 353). In a book published by the Watchtower Society, Jehovah’s Witnesses go one step further and say that the soul is not immortal: “Thus it is seen that the serpent (the Devil) is the one that originated the doctrine of the inherent immortality of human souls” (Let God Be True, pp. 74-75). Along with many denominational people and even some of our brethren, these people believe in soul sleeping and in the annihilation of the wicked either at death or after the resurrection. They say the soul is nothing but physical life.

The picture Jesus gives us of hell is that of everlasting punishment (Matt. 25:46) in outer darkness where there is weeping and gnashing of teeth (Matt. 25:30) and “the fire that shall never be quenched—where their worm does not die, and the fire is not quenched” (Mark 9:45-46). Our Lord gives us a similar picture of conscious existence of souls in Luke 16:19-31, where he speaks of both the blessings on the righteous departed and of the punishment for the wicked who have died. This is obviously before the day of resurrection and judgment, because the rich man’s five brothers were still alive on earth (vv. 27-28). On the other side of the gulf from the rich man were Abraham and Lazarus, both alive and conscious. Some argue that this is a parable and is not to be taken literally; others say it is a fable and not a picture of real life. It is not a fable (where animals and inanimate objects talk); Jesus never used fables to illustrate His points. He used parables, which are true to life, but Luke 16:19-31 is not said to be a parable. If one says it is not true or real and that the soul just sleeps after death, what about Abraham here? Was not Abraham a real person? Jesus said Abraham spoke to the rich man across the gulf.

Other examples of people who had died being conscious and speaking include Samuel speaking to Saul in 1 Samuel 28:12-15, Moses on the mount of transfiguration speaking to Jesus in Luke 9:30-31, and the souls of the martyrs in Revelation 6:9-11 asking God how long it would be before He would judge the persecutors. If soul sleeping were true, none of this could have happened. The thief went to Paradise with Jesus (Luke 23:43), and Paul longed to depart and be with Christ (Philippians 1:23), which would be far better than his life with Christ on earth—no soul sleeping was in view there. 

It would be falsely comforting to suppose universalism true, and the same must be said for the doctrine of soul sleeping and annihilation of the wicked dead. How much better is the comfort of knowing our obedience to Christ will bring us conscious blessings hereafter with Abraham, Moses, Elijah, Enoch, Samuel, Paul, Peter, and Christ! -2660 Layman Rd., Vincent, OH 45784-9730.

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