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?