Monday, June 12, 2017

Soul Sleep: An Unbiblical Doctrine [Pt. 1]

[The following study will be published in sections, as it is quite long.]

by Hiram R. Diaz III


Among some advocates of annihilationism there is a belief that the intermediate state between one’s death and resurrection is neither conscious suffering nor conscious bliss/comfort but absolute unconsciousness. The doctrine, referred to as soul-sleep, has appeared throughout church history, as Franz Delitzsch notes:
…in primitive times some have here and there chanced upon the thought, that the separated soul is in a state of sleep without consciousness, and without sensibility, until God wakens it up at the last day, together with the body.[1]
Calvin, following Eusebius’ Ecclesiastical History, traces the doctrine back to the early third century, “[originating] with some Arabs, who maintained that ‘The soul dies with the body, and that both rise again at the Day of Judgment.’”[2] Some scholars, in fact, maintain that the doctrine may be found even farther back in church history in the writings of Tatian.[3]

“The case for soul sleep,” Millard J. Erickson notes, “rests in large measure on the fact that Scripture frequently uses the imagery of sleep to refer to death.”[4] Thus contemporary advocates of the doctrine of soul-sleep (hereafter, SS), as well as some of their critics, typically claim that a “literal understanding of this imagery [of sleep] has led to the concept of soul sleep.”[5] A “literal understanding of [the] imagery,” it is presumed, identifies sleep as a state of absolute unconsciousness. Samuele Bacchiocchi explains:
This characterization of death as “sleep” occurs frequently in the Old and New Testaments because it fittingly represents the state of unconsciousness in death.[6] 
The advocates of SS believe that “[sleep and death] are characterized by a condition of unconsciousness and inactivity which is interrupted by an awakening.”[7] Bacchiocchi is clear:
There is harmony and symmetry in the expressions “sleeping” and “awakening” as used in the Bible for going into and coming out of a death state. The two expressions corroborate the notion that death is an unconscious state like sleeping, from which believers will awake on the day of Christ’s coming.[8]
Thus, literal sleep is a state of absolute unconsciousness.[9] Yet is this the case? What would it mean for the dead to be in a state similar to literally being-asleep?

In contradistinction to contemporary SS advocates’ understanding of literal sleep as a state of absolute unconsciousness (e.g. Bacciocchi), Syrian writers as early as the fourth century believed that soul sleep was a state in “which there is the same kind of semiconscious knowledge of what is passing, as in the case of an habitual ‘light sleeper.’”[10] St. Ephraim, for instance, taught that the “departed…are alive and have the power of reason.”[11] Drawing parallels between a literal understanding of sleep and death, he wrote:
‘Sweet is sleep to the weary,—so is death to him who fasts and watches (i. e. the ascetic). Natural sleep slays not the sleeper,—nor has Sheol slain, nor does it so now. Sleep is sweet, and so is Sheol quiet…Sleep strives not to hold the sleeper, nor is Sheol greedy. Behold, sleep shows us how temporary is Sheol, for the morn awakes the sleeper,-and the Voice raises the dead.’[12]
The similarities between sleep and death, according to St. Ephraim, do not have to do with an absolute lack of consciousness at all. Rather, a literal interpretation of the imagery of sleep led Ephraim to draw five analogical parallels between sleep and death. These are —
1. Sweetness/Comfort to the Weary   
2. Ongoing Life (i.e. neither sleep nor Sheol slay)  
3. Restfulness/Quiet  
4. Temporariness  
5. Emphemerality 

In contradistinction to Ephraim’s understanding of literal sleep, later theologians, advocating SS in part as a means of combating the heresy of the intercession of departed saints, identified the soul as devoid of functionality until the resurrection. Since “the faculties of the soul [were thought to be] dependent on the senses of the body,” explains Dirk Krausmüller, “[they would] therefore only become functional again when soul and body [were] reunited at the resurrection.”[13] Anastatios of Sinai, Krausmüller notes, “…observed that each faculty of the soul is related to an organ of the body and is therefore impaired when this organ is damaged.”[14] In defense of the soul’s complete lack of functionality until the resurrection, therefore, Anastatios argued that
…when…the soul…is separated from the whole body it cannot do anything of what it did through the parts of the body, not speak, not remember, not discern, not desire, not think, not be angry, not see.[15]
It was not until some time later that most SS advocates understood literal sleep to be a state of absolute inactivity/absolute unconsciousness. This latter understanding of literal sleep is largely what has come down to our present day, becoming more widely known through various heretical groups which arose during the Reformation Era (e.g. the Anabaptists, Socinians, and the Seventh Day Adventists after them). Contemporary articulations of SS claiming to interpret the euphemism of sleep literally, then, stand in contradistinction to most of the earliest articulations of it, demonstrating the problematic nature of its proponents making any claims to adhere to the literal interpretation of the imagery of sleep.

More problematically, any appeals to such a “literal” understanding of sleep cannot be maintained without begging the question. For one must first decide which of the attributes of sleep are essential and, therefore, properly function as the source of literality for the SS position. It is only after this point that one may argue that he understands sleep literally in the phrase soul-sleep — for he has assumed that absolute unconsciousness is definitive of literal sleep, which is the very point under debate.

In his thorough work on sleep in the Old Testament, Thomas McAlpine notes that the study of “…sleep has received little attention. In fact, a survey of entries for ‘sleep’ in biblical encyclopedias and the like suggests a certain deterioration of interest.”[16] Yet the Word of God teaches us many things about sleep, leaving us no substantial reason to identify it as a state of absolute unconsciousness. Instead, a careful examination of the phenomenon of literal sleep in the Scriptures reveals an implicit distinction between externally directed consciousness (which the sleeping lack) and internally directed consciousness (which the sleeping do not lack). Likewise, the Scriptures’ figurative uses of sleep also imply a distinction between the sleeper’s lack of externally directed consciousness, as well as the sleeper’s possession of internally directed consciousness.

Rather than finding its origin in “the use of the ‘sleep’ metaphor in intertestamental literature,” as Bacciocchi erroneously assumes,[17] the doctrine of the ongoing conscious existence of the soul after death, in sharp contrast to SS, is derived from a proper understanding of what the Scriptures teach about literal sleep, as well as its non-death euphemistic uses of sleep. In what follows, therefore, we will give a brief examination of the euphemism as it appears in the Old and New Testaments. We will then proceed to demonstrate that the phenomenon of literal sleep in both Testaments implies a distinction between the sleeper’s lack of externally directed consciousness (hereafter, EDC), as well as his possession of internally directed consciousness (hereafter, IDC). We will then demonstrate that Scripture’s figurative employment of sleep in other non-death contexts further upholds the distinction between EDC and IDC, which demonstrates, we will conclude, that a literal understanding of sleep, derived from Scripture alone, provides no support whatsoever for the doctrine of SS.


[1] A System of Biblical Psychology, (Edinburgh: T. & T. Clark, 1867), 490,, (accessed May 31, 2017).
[2] Psychopannychia, trans. Henry Beveridge, Monergism Books,, (accessed June 02, 2017).
[3] Jeremiah Mutie writes:
According to Gavin, the idea of “soul sleep”started with Tatian and has been common in the Syrian church theology ever since. Since such apologists as Tatian emphasized what has come to be known as the “unitary anthropology” (that is, the body and the soul are so united that neither could experience either judgment or rewards without the other), it was believed that during the time between death and resurrection, nothing happens in terms of the soul’s consciousness.
Death in Second-Century Christian Thought: The Meaning of Death in Earliest Christianity, (Cambridge: James Clark & Co, 2015), 61-62.
[4] Introducing Christian Doctrine 2nd ed., (Michigan: Baker Book House, 2001), 379.
[5] ibid.
[6] Immortality or Resurrection: A Biblical Study on Human Nature and Destiny, (Michigan: Biblical Perspectives, 2001), 139. (emphasis added)
[7] Immortality or Resurrection: A Biblical Study on Human Nature and Destiny, (Michigan: Biblical Perspectives, 2001), 145. (emphasis added)
[8] Immortality or Resurrection, 142.
[9] See also Bacchiocchi, Immortality or Resurrection, 143-144. cf. 149-150.
[10] Gavin, F. “The Sleep of the Soul in the Early Syriac Church,” in Journal of the American Oriental Society, Vol. 40 (1920), 104. (emphasis added)
[11] Gavin, “The Sleep of the Soul,” 105.
[12] ibid. (emphasis added)
[13] “Contextualizing Constantine V’s Radical Religious Policies: The Debate About the Intercession of the Saints and the ‘Sleep of the Soul’ in the Chalcedonian and Nestorian churches,” in Byzantine and Modern Greek Studies Vol. 39 No. 1 (2015), 35.
[14] Krausmüller, Contextualizing Constantine V, 40.
[15] ibid.
[16] “Sleep, Divine & Human, in the Old Testament,” in Journal for the Study of the Old Testament Supplement Series 38 (Sheffield: Sheffield Academic Press, 1987), 22.
[17] Bacchiocchi, Immortality or Resurrection, 147.