Do the Dead Sleep?
by Matt Arnold
Matt Arnold is Editor of the CFPSS journal The Christian Parapsychologist and author of the websites Ghosts, Ghouls and God and God of Green Hope.
This article was first published on the Ghosts, Ghouls and God website.
Often in conversation about the physically dead, scriptures referring to the dead as being in a state of sleep form part of the argument that the dead are not active in the afterlife. We shall explore how this notion of “soul sleep”, or psychopannychia, arose predominantly during the Reformation, with Luther as a major proponent of this concept. However, as we shall see, the idea that the physically dead are inactive and in a state of unawareness of their condition is not only unbiblical, but the metaphor of sleep for the dead is highly appropriate for the state of the physically deceased.
The Bible, Sleep and the Dead
The Old Testament contains many verses that refer to the dead being ‘asleep’. On thirty-six occasions (1) the phrase “slept with his ancestors” appears as a metaphor for the death of various people such as David, Solomon and other major figures.
When it comes to later ideas about a resurrection of the dead, Daniel states:
Daniel 12:2 (NRSV)
"Many of those who sleep in the dust of the earth shall awake, some to everlasting life, and some to shame and everlasting contempt."
Daniel 12:2 (NRSV)
The use of the metaphor of “sleep” for the dead continues into the New Testament, where Jesus uses it to speak of the deceased Lazarus and the raising to life of the little girl:
"After saying this, he told them, ‘Our friend Lazarus has fallen asleep, but I am going there to awaken him.’ The disciples said to him, ‘Lord, if he has fallen asleep, he will be all right.’ Jesus, however, had been speaking about his death, but they thought that he was referring merely to sleep. Then Jesus told them plainly, ‘Lazarus is dead.'"
John 11:11-14 (NRSV)
"When he had entered, he said to them, ‘Why do you make a commotion and weep? The child is not dead but sleeping.’ And they laughed at him. Then he put them all outside, and took the child’s father and mother and those who were with him, and went in where the child was. He took her by the hand and said to her, ‘Talitha cum’, which means, ‘Little girl, get up!’ And immediately the girl got up and began to walk about (she was twelve years of age). At this they were overcome with amazement."
Mark 5:39-42 (NRSV)
Moving into the letters of Paul, he too speaks of the dead as being in a state of ‘sleep’:
"But I do not want you to be ignorant, brethren, concerning those who have fallen asleep, lest you sorrow as others who have no hope. For if we believe that Jesus died and rose again, even so God will bring with Him those who sleep in Jesus. For this we say to you by the word of the Lord, that we who are alive and remain until the coming of the Lord will by no means precede those who are asleep."
I Thessalonians 4:13-15 (NKJV)
"But now Christ is risen from the dead, and has become the firstfruits of those who have fallen asleep.
Behold, I tell you a mystery: We shall not all sleep, 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 incorruptible, and we shall be changed."
1 Corinthians 15:20,51
With these and the many other verses describing death as ‘sleep’, one is forced to admit that, to the writers, the metaphor of sleep was indeed widely used to describe the physically dead.
However, even with such widespread usage, does this actually mean what many think it means – that the soul / spirit of the dead is completely unconscious between physical death and the resurrection? Where did the notion that unconsciousness inactivity come from? We shall see shortly.
But before we do, let’s look at what the early Church theologian, Tertullian (230CE) wrote about the soul / spirit in Hades.
What, then, is to take place in that interval? Shall we sleep? But souls do not sleep even when men are alive: it is indeed the business of bodies to sleep, to which also belongs death itself, no less than its mirror and counterfeit sleep.
De Anima, LVIII:346
Even Tertullian was aware that the soul / spirit doesn’t sleep when we sleep, merely the body itself which rests in sleep. Tertullian’s insight would be glimpsed nearly 2000 years later with modern technology able to perceive the activity of the mind during sleep.
Luther’s “Deep and Dreamless Sleep” of the Physically Dead
The vast majority of the church has always believed in the duality of the material body and the immaterial soul, with physical death being the separation of the two. When it came to Luther however, the idea of a soul that was consciously aware of its new state in the afterlife was rejected:
… we should learn to view our death in the right light, so that we need not become alarmed on account of it, as unbelief does; because in Christ it is indeed not death, but a fine, sweet and brief sleep, which brings us release from this vale of tears, from sin and from the fear and extremity of real death and from all the misfortunes of this life, and we shall be secure and without care, rest sweetly and gently for a brief moment, as on a sofa, until the time when he shall call and awaken us together with all his dear children to his eternal glory and joy. For since we call it a sleep, we know that we shall not remain in it, but be asleep. Hence, we shall censure ourselves that we were surprised or alarmed at such a sleep in the hour of death, and suddenly come alive out of the grave and from decomposition, and entirely well, fresh, with a pure, clear, glorified life, meet our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ in the clouds. (2)
But Luther had to deal with scriptures where the deceased are portrayed as alive and active in the heavenly realms, e.g.
the Transfiguration, where the definitely deceased Moses was seen alive and well, conversing with Jesus and the translated Elijah)
the souls of the martyrs crying out for justice from under the altar in Revelation 6:9-11.
To such robust scriptures that point to a conscious afterlife, Luther resorted to the fairly weak argument that God made them “sleep on and off”(4), thus shoehorning his belief into the text (a process called eisegesis). That Luther seriously believed God woke people up for a little chat before putting them back to sleep should trouble even the hardiest believer in this teaching, for it portrays God acting like an injection happy anaesthetist, disturbing the unconscious state of their patients for his own pleasure before knocking them out again!
These new teachings of Luther and other reformers caused a disgusted John Calvin to write a whole book against these erroneous beliefs called Psychopannychia, with a subtitle that says it all: ‘a refutation of the error entertained by some unskilful persons, who ignorantly imagine that in the interval between death and the judgement the soul sleeps. Together with an explanation of the condition and life of the soul after this present life’. Any who are reading this and hold to the concept of soul sleep would do themselves a great service in reading Calvin’s tract in order to see how their well-worn arguments are broken down using the Scriptures.
A State of Rest Means Inactivity?
Some may argue that because death is referred to as ‘rest’ (5), it denotes inactivity. One only has to realise that this rest is used in conjunction with the Sabbath (Hebrews 4:1-10), which is not about lying around doing nothing, as per a state of stasis – it’s about resting from hard work! After all, God didn’t stop doing anything on the seventh day of creation when he rested from all his work.
It’s therefore perfectly possible for the physically dead to be at rest, but both aware of their existence and active within it.
Sleep: The Perfect Metaphor for the Physically Dead
Rather than sleep being a metaphor denoting lack of awareness (as Luther suggested), Scripture records those who sleep as experiencing an awareness of another realm. There are many dreams recorded in Scripture, many of which involve interaction with the spiritual realm. This shows the writers understand the dream state as being one where interaction of one’s spirit with other spiritual beings, including angels and God is possible. One example is Jacob’s dream of the ladder between earth and heaven:
He [Jacob] came to a certain place and stayed there for the night, because the sun had set. Taking one of the stones of the place, he put it under his head and lay down in that place. And he dreamed that there was a ladder set up on the earth, the top of it reaching to heaven; and the angels of God were ascending and descending on it. And the Lord stood beside him and said, “I am the Lord, the God of Abraham your father and the God of Isaac; the land on which you lie I will give to you and to your offspring; and your offspring shall be like the dust of the earth, and you shall spread abroad to the west and to the east and to the north and to the south; and all the families of the earth shall be blessed in you and in your offspring. Know that I am with you and will keep you wherever you go, and will bring you back to this land; for I will not leave you until I have done what I have promised you.” Then Jacob woke from his sleep and said, “Surely the Lord is in this place—and I did not know it!” And he was afraid, and said, “How awesome is this place! This is none other than the house of God, and this is the gate of heaven.”
Genesis 28:11-17, NRSV
Jacob’s sleep was far from total unconsciousness, but was something so real to him that it changed the course of his life. Yet, to anyone watching Jacob sleeping, they would not have been aware of what he was experiencing in the dream state.
Even our own personal experience reveals we have a conscious awareness of what’s happening whilst we are dreaming. However, anyone watching us sleep would not be able to relate to our dream experiences whilst we are dreaming – they would have no clue what our experiences were in our dreams.
In modern times, EEG scans (which record the brain’s electrical activity) have been used to monitor the brain activity of sleepers. What these reveal is not inactivity of the brain, but the brain working just as hard as it was in the waking state! Yet to the casual observer, the person is asleep and not active.
Even in Luther’s “dreamless sleep”, modern science has shown the brain as a buzz of activity (6), and even shown the sleeper being aware of external stimuli (7). Thanks to modern science, we can peer into the mystery of sleep and know that the sleeper is far from in a state of total shutdown from their perspective.
Rather than look at the metaphor of sleep as inactivity Is this not a better understanding of the metaphor of sleep for the state of the physically dead? We may look upon the physically deceased body as inactive, like a sleeper, yet know their soul / spirit may be experiencing another realm imperceptible to the observer who remains in the flesh.
We have seen Scripture uses the metaphor of sleep to denote death, and that this has led to attempts to use this to deny any awareness for those who enter the afterlife, preferring them to be “unconscious” of their state until the resurrection. However, Scripture, experience and modern science have shown the metaphor of sleep for death perfectly describes a state of awareness for those in the afterlife, one which is not perceptible to those who are not currently in that realm of existence.
With this understanding of the state of the physically deceased, we may better understand passages such as the Transfiguration appearance of Moses (8), the appearance of Samuel to Saul and the medium of Endor, Jesus’ story of the Rich Man and Lazarus, and the martyrs under the altar in Revelation 6:9-11. It’s a much better understanding than trying to argue that God wakes them up and puts them back to sleep again!
“Soul sleep”, or psychopannychia, is really a lame duck when attempting to deny an intermediate state with active souls, consciously aware of their situation.
This article first appeared on the Ghosts, Ghouls and God website in September 2021.
Blume, C., Giudice, R., Wislowska, M., et al (2018), ‘Standing sentinel during human sleep: Continued evaluation of environmental stimuli in the absence of consciousness’, Neuroimage, 178, pp. 638-648. Available here.
Calvin, J. (1534), Psychopannychia or a refutation of the error entertained by some unskilful persons, who ignorantly imagine that in the interval between death and the judgement the soul sleeps. Together with an explanation of the condition and life of the soul after this present life. Available here.
Lenker, J. N. (trans) (2000), The Complete Sermons of Martin Luther: Volume 5, Grand Rapids: Baker Books.
Lehmann, H. T. (ed) (1963), Luther’s Works: 48, Philadelphia: Fortress Press.
Windt, J. M., Nielsen, T., & Thompson, E. (2016). Does consciousness disappear in dreamless sleep? Trends in Cognitive Sciences, 20(12), 871–882. Available here.
Note: Any links to external websites do not necessarily mean the author or the CFPSS agree with the teachings in those sites.
2] Lenker, 539.
3] Even if this is merely a parable, Jesus’ parables were always based in reality: seeds that are sown grow; money that’s invested may gain interest; there really were people called Samaritans. If, when Jesus was teaching this parable, he was referencing some teaching that his hearers would have perceived as nonsensical – the notion of an afterlife with conscious awareness – his followers would have enquired more deeply as to why he was apparently teaching something that wasn’t related to their understanding of reality. However, they didn’t, and as we’ve seen in other articles, the conscious intermediate state was something accepted as a reality for them.
4] Lehmann, 360. Luther’s letter to Amsdorf (January 13, 1522).
5] Some translations of the use the phrase “rested with his fathers” instead of “slept with his fathers”
6] Windt et al.
7] Blume et al.
8] Moses was definitely deceased according to Deuteronomy 34:5-8 – “Then Moses, the servant of the Lord, died there in the land of Moab, at the Lord’s command. He was buried in a valley in the land of Moab, opposite Beth-peor, but no one knows his burial place to this day. Moses was one hundred twenty years old when he died; his sight was unimpaired and his vigor had not abated. The Israelites wept for Moses in the plains of Moab thirty days; then the period of mourning for Moses was ended.”