Wednesday, August 31, 2011

Are the Dead Conscious or in "Soul Sleep"? A Look at the New Testament's Teaching

Part 4 of "The Catholic Understanding of the Saints". (Read Part 1Part 2 and Part 3).

Before the summer session started I began a series on the Catholic understanding of the saints. It originated--as do most things in biblioblogdom--as a response to a post from my friend Jim West. I know it's been a while, but I haven't abandoned the topic. I've just been very, very busy over the summer. But, for better or for worse, I'm back. . .

Anyways, when we left off last time, we had identified some basic questions that needed to be addressed:
  1. Are the dead conscious or are they just in a state of ‘soul sleep’ until the resurrection?
  2. Are the dead aware of the needs of Christians on earth?
  3. What biblical justification is there for the idea that the dead do in fact pray for the living?
  4. Isn't asking the saints in heaven for their prayers a violation of the biblical prohibition against necromancy (e.g., Deut 18:10-15)? 
I want to tackle each of these in separate posts. Today we will look at the first question: Are the dead conscious?

Death as Sleep in the New Testament.

This is a valid question. After all, as is well known, Scripture often describes death in terms of "sleep". Here we can highlight a number of passages:
  • Matthew tells us that when Jesus died "the tombs also were opened, and many bodies of the saints who had fallen asleep were raised" (Matt 27:52).
  • Jesus is laughed at when he tells the those lamenting the death of a child, "Why do you make a tumult and weep? The child is not dead but sleeping." (Mark 5:39; cf. also Matt 9:24; Luke 8:52-53). 
  • The Acts of the Apostles relates Stephen's death with the words, "he fell asleep" (Acts 7:60).
  • In Acts 13 we read about how David "fell asleep, and was laid with his fathers" (Acts 13:36).
  • Paul explains that Christ "appeared to more than five hundred brethren at one time, most of whom are still alive, though some have fallen asleep" (1 Co 15:6–7). Other instances of this language abound in this chapter. For instance, Paul explains that if Christ has not been raised from the dead, those who have died are without hope: "those also who have fallen asleep in Christ have perished" (1 Co 15:18). 
  • 1 Thessalonians uses language similar to that found in 1 Corinthians: "we would not have you ignorant, brethren, concerning those who are asleep, that you may not grieve as others do who have no hope." (1 Thess 4:13).
  • In Ephesians we encounter what appears to be an ancient Christian hymn that speaks of the resurrection in these terms: "Awake, O sleeper, and arise from the dead, and Christ shall give you light” (Eph 5:14). 
  • 2 Peter speaks of the fathers who "fell asleep" (2 Pe 3:4).

The Disciples' Confusion

Now, the practice of referring to death as sleep can cause confusion. In fact, it was certainly bewildering for the disciples.

In John we read that after Lazarus died Jesus told the disciples, "Our friend Lazarus has fallen asleep, but I go to awake him out of sleep" (John 11:11).

The thick-headed disciples clearly don't get it. They attempt to talk Jesus out of what seems like an unnecessarily inconvenient journey: "Lord, if he has fallen asleep, he will recover." (John 11:12).

However, John explains: "Now Jesus had spoken of his death, but they thought that he meant taking rest in sleep" (John 11:13).

I love the next; John writes sardonically: "Jesus told them plainly, 'Lazarus is dead'" (John 11:14).

So, let's not fool ourselves--if the disciples had difficulty with the concept of death as "sleep" it should not be surprising that even today people have problems understanding such language. I'm certainly not going to be able to fully explicate the various nuances of all the different passages we could examine here.

Nonetheless, suffice it to say, just because the dead are described as "sleeping" in the New Testament, we ought not conclude that death is a kind of "soul sleep", that is, a kind of unconscious state of being. Indeed, the problem with such a view is that it clearly does not reflect the richly textured presentation of life after death in the New Testament. Here we might mention just a few passages.

The Souls Under the Altar in the Apocalypse

In the Apocalypse we clearly see "souls under the altar"--undoubtedly, those belonging to the righteous dead--who are very much conscious:
"I saw under the altar the souls of those who had been slain for the word of God and for the witness they had borne; 10 they cried out with a loud voice, 'O Sovereign Lord, holy and true, how long before thou wilt judge and avenge our blood on those who dwell upon the earth?'” (Rev 6:9-10).
Thus, according to the Apocalypse, the dead are not simply fast asleep, blissfully ignorant of their predicament. Indeed, in the next posts we shall look more at the Apocalypse and discuss other passages which portray the righteous dead as conscious.

The Spirits in Prison in 2 Peter

In 2 Peter, the author speaks of how Christ "preached to the spirits in prison, who formerly did not obey, when God's patience waited in the days of Noah, during the building of the ark" (1 Pet 3:19-20).

Now, I think everyone would agree that it is entirely unlikely that the author here envisions Jesus preaching to unconscious souls. Though Christians may routinely sleep through sermons on Sunday morning, I doubt very much that this passage is describing Christ's descent into the realm of the dead as a precedent for that "tradition".

Lazarus and the Rich Man

Likewise, Jesus' parable of Lazarus and the rich man in Luke 16 clearly assumes an understanding that the dead are very much conscious.

In fact, not only are the dead aware of their own state, the rich man also has sense enough to be concerned for his brothers who are still alive.

St. Paul's Desire to "Be with Christ"

We might of course also look to Paul, who explained that to die would be "gain" for him because he desires "to depart and be with Christ, for that is far better" than remaining “in the flesh” (Phil 1:23–24). This would certainly seem to imply a consciousness of "being with Christ".

Of course, most scholars recognize this. In a recent book, N.T. Wright concedes that, though Paul is ultimately looking forward to the resurrection, it is nonetheless true that, "When Paul says his desire is to 'depart and be with Christ, which is far better,' he is indeed thinking of a blissful life with his Lord immediately after death. . ." (Surprised by Hope, 41).

The Transfiguration

We might also mention here the Transfiguration, which is related in all three Synoptic Gospels. There we read about how Jesus was greeted by Moses and Elijah on a mountain. In all three accounts, Moses and Elijah appear to be very much “awake”; specifically, they are described as having a conversation with Jesus (Matt 17:3; Mark 9:4; Luke 9:30–31). I highly doubt that this is meant to be understood as Jesus simply humoring Moses and Elijah who were, somewhat embarrassingly, simply "talking in one's sleep".


From this brief survey, I think it is safe to say that it would seem that the writers of the New Testament did not believe that those who have died are simply unconsciously awaiting the resurrection in a sleep-like state. Their bodies may appear to be sleeping, but the righteous dead are very much aware and conscious.

So, this leads us to the next question: Are the dead aware of the needs of Christians on earth?

Well, that's for next time. . .


Left-footer said...

Excellently lucid. Thank you.

Nick Norelli said...

I agree completely! Oh, and I really like this theme for you blog, it's much nicer than the last one.

Michael Barber said...

Thank you, gentlemen. I am very grateful for your feedback.

And, yes, this blog is getting a make-over. I'm not done. I'm trying to figure out how to redo the banner. I'm not "techie" so it's a bit of a stretch.

Thanks again!

Nick Norelli said...

Michael: What do you want to do with the banner? I'm not a techie either but if there's anything I can do to help let me know.

BlueWhiteLion said...

another verse: "today you will be with me in paradise." I supposed he could be sleeping in paradise, but then, what's the point.

As a non-catholic, I have moved from "that's cracked--praying to the saints" to "dude, that's pretty refreshing and faithbuilding to think of the saints as being conscious and already at work for the kingdom . . .but I am still a bit hesitant to pray for them" (although I have offered prayers to Mary and St. Anthony recently).

That said, I am not very convinced that the souls under the author nor the rich man in hell really give much support to their being totally conscious of what is going on on earth, much less interacting with it. The souls seem passively aware "how long oh Lord", not necessarily aware of specific events. I see it as that they know by their own surroundings that the kingdom has not been consummated yet, but not that they can see what is on earth--do they read some kind of heavenly newspaper, or have HNN on the telly?

Even the rich man does not reveal he knows specific, current happenings with his brothers, but seems to rather be responding to what he knows as their general state of unbelief. (and whether this is a parable or reality is another issue).

What seems clear is their consciousness. but not their interaction with the world.

BlueWhiteLion said...

lol, i mean "souls under the ALTAR". boy, when I become a grandpa, no one will be able to understand me . . .

Tito Edwards said...

I'm confused (that or I may have read your post to fast).

You didn't define what "sleep" meant in all of these passages (assume I don't know any theology).

You piqued my interest and I had always thought they were all in Heaven, now, according to your post, their "sleeping" in their dead inanimate bodies waiting for the Apocalypse.

BlueWhiteLion said...

Tito--read his last line in the post. he is not saying they are "soul-sleeping" but merely had referenced that the Bible often refers to the dead as "asleep". Other scriptures that refer to "souls" and those dead in Christ as actually being aware of their environment help us see that. In the end, "asleep" speaks to how they appear to us, and I might add, speaks to the temporariness of their being "dead." Because we all "know" that those asleep don't stay that way forever.

Tito Edwards said...


Thanks, that helped.

I guess I was hoping for some Frank Sheed/Peter Kreeft definition and having read the whole article waiting for what "sleeping" meant I just got distracted towards the end.

Fajashua said...

Lovely! Your page-width at present is a bit too wide for my (wide-screen) computer. The font is pleasant, and easy-to-read. Sorts Mill Goudy has become a favorite of mine.

Th. S. said...

>> In 2 Peter, the author speaks of how Christ "preached to the spirits in prison, who formerly did not obey, when God's patience waited in the days of Noah, during the building of the ark" (1 Pet 3:19-20). <<

I guess you mean "In 1 Peter, the author speaks (..."?

Brock and Michelle said...

Where can we find the next posts? We are very interested in finding your answers to questions 2-4. Have they been written yet? If so, can we get the link, please? If not, can you write them, please? Hee hee! Thanks! Enjoy your blog!