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Where Does the Soul Go After Death? (Paradise or Soul Sleep)?
By Dr. Richard P. Bucher
One of the questions that has confused and divided Christians over the years is, “Where does the soul go after death? Does the soul sleep and remain with the body until the final resurrection on the Last Day? Or does the soul leave the body at death, to be with the Lord in Paradise (if Christian), or to a place of punishment (non-Christian)? The Seventh Day Adventists, Jehovah’s Witnesses, and some evangelical Christians hold to the soul sleep view. Lutherans, Catholics, and most Protestants hold to the soul leaving the body view.
First let it be said that the confusion that has arisen over this question is not surprising. On the one hand, Scripture says very little about what happens to the soul between death and the Last Day when Christ returns. On the other hand, when Scripture does speak, it speaks far more often about the Resurrection on the Last Day, and the eternal life (or death) that will follow.
The proponents of the soul sleep position have two premises. First, they hold that at death the soul does not leave the body; both soul and body sleep until the Day of Christ’s return. Second, they teach that the soul has no consciousness as it sleeps; it is aware of nothing. What is the basis for these two premises? They base their argument primarily on passages that speak of death as sleep (or unconsciousness) and passages that speak of bodies awakening on the Last Day.
The soul sleep adherents hold that “sleep” is the most common word for death in the Bible, occurring over 50 times in the Old Testament and eighteen times in the New. Actually the word “die” is the most common word for death in the Bible! Nevertheless, I will grant that sleep is often used for death.
For example Jesus tells his disciples that Lazarus had fallen asleep (John 11:11,14). Stephen’s death is described as falling asleep (Acts 7:59). Paul describes Christians who had died in Thessalonica as “asleep” (1 Th 4:13). In the Old Testament, we are told that David “slept with his fathers” (1 Kings 2:10), a phrase that is used to describe the death of many kings.
But the soul sleep argument depends on all of these passages being taken literally. But is that really the case? Is it not possible, or even probable, that the “death as sleep” passages are intended to be understood in a figurative sense? Someone who has died looks like he is sleeping, which is why people of many cultures have described death in this way. Even if the soul and body are sleeping in some real sense, who can be sure that it is a sleep exactly like the sleep of the living, that is, a totally unconscious sleep? Who can be sure what the sleep of the dead is exactly like?
To stress the unconsciousness of soul sleep, the soul sleep proponents refer to such Old Testament passages as Psalm 6:5, which says, “For in death there is no remembrance of thee: in the grave who shall give thee thanks” (KJV)? They also cite Ecclesiastes 9:5, 10, “For the living know that they shall die: but the dead know not any thing, neither have they any more a reward; for the memory of them is forgotten. . . . Whatsoever thy hand findeth to do, do it with thy might; for there is no work, nor device, nor knowledge, nor wisdom, in the grave, whither thou goest” (KJV).
These passages support the argument of soul sleep, however, only if they are referring to the soul as well as the body. It is probable, however, that the verses are speaking of the fate of the body only. In discussing the meaning of the Hebrew word sheol, which occurs in both Psalm 6:5 and Eccl 9, R. Laird Harris writes,
If this interpretation of sheol is correct [that it means “grave” where the body is placed], its usage does not give us a picture of the state of the dead in gloom, darkness, chaos, or silence, unremembered, unable to praise God, knowing nothing. Such a view verges on unscriptural soul sleep. Rather, this view gives us a picture of a typical Palestinian tomb, dark, dusty, with mingled bones and where "this poor lisping stammering tongue lies silent in the grave." All the souls of men do not go to one place. But all people go to the grave. As to the destiny of the souls of men in the intermediate state, the OT says little. Actually the NT says little too, but what it says is decisive... (R. L. Harris, Theological Wordbook of the Old Testament, Vol. 2 (Chicago: The Moody Bible Institute, 1980) 893.)
If these passages were the only ones in the Bible that speak to the question of where the soul goes after death but before the Resurrection, they would strongly argue for soul sleep. Because there are other clearer passages that contradict them, and New Testament passages at that, they are hardly determinative. The fact is, these passages are obscure and have been interpreted many different ways over the years. When interpreting the Bible, we must always interpret obscure and unclear passages by clearer ones that treat the same subject. And we must always interpret the Old Testament by the New Testament, since the New is the fulfillment and culmination of the Old.
As stated above the first premise of the soul sleep argument is that at death the soul remains with the body and both sleep. This is flatly contradicted, however by many places in the New Testament.
According to Scripture, the soul leaves the body at death. The Gospels tell us that at the moment of his death, Jesus prayed, “Father, into your hands I commit my spirit!” and then “he yielded up his spirit” (Luke 23:46; Mt 27:50). This text makes clear that Jesus’ soul did not remain in his dead body, but went into his Father’s hands. The first Christian martyr (after Jesus) was Stephen. Acts 7:59-60 describes his death: “And as they were stoning Stephen, he called out, "Lord Jesus, receive my spirit." And falling to his knees he cried out with a loud voice, "Lord, do not hold this sin against them." And when he had said this, he fell asleep.” Ecclesiastes 12:7 describes death in these terms: “and the dust returns to the earth as it was, and the spirit returns to God who gave it.” Notice, that according to this definition, the body has one destination and the spirit/soul has another.
There is additional evidence that the soul leaves the body at death. Several of the resurrection stories in the Bible describe the soul as returning to the body. This implies, of course, that the soul had left in the first place. First, there is the example of Elijah raising the widow’s son from the dead. “And he stretched himself upon the child three times, and cried unto the LORD, and said, O LORD my God, I pray thee, let this child's soul come into him again. 22 And the LORD heard the voice of Elijah; and the soul of the child came into him again, and he revived” (1 Kings 17:21-22). This passage specifically says that the child’s soul “came into him again.” A second example is Jesus’ raising of Jairus’s twelve year old daughter from the dead. “And they laughed at him, knowing that she was dead. 54 But taking her by the hand he called, saying, "Child, arise." 55 And her spirit returned, and she got up at once (Luke 8:53-55). As in the example, this text also speaks of the soul of a dead person “returning” into the body.
What happened in these resurrections is exactly what our Lutheran Church teaches will happen at the final resurrection: the souls of those who have died will return to their bodies which will be raised to stand before Christ on Judgment Day.
Next, holy Scripture also contradicts soul sleep by showing that the souls of both unbelievers and believers go to a place after death but before Judgment Day.
For unbelievers it is a place of punishment. In 2 Peter 2, Peter writes, “For if God did not spare angels when they sinned, but cast them into hell and committed them to chains of gloomy darkness to be kept until the judgment . . . then the Lord knows how to rescue the godly from trials, and to keep the unrighteous under punishment until the day of judgment” (2 Pet 2:4,9).
Here also belongs the account of the rich man and Lazarus in Luke 16:19-20. Because some insist that this account is a parable (I do not) it can’t be used as the first line of evidence. But it does powerfully illustrate what 2 Peter 2 stated above. I’ll let the account speak for itself:
The poor man died and was carried by the angels to Abraham's side. The rich man also died and was buried, 23 and in Hades, being in torment, he lifted up his eyes and saw Abraham far off and Lazarus at his side. 24 And he called out, 'Father Abraham, have mercy on me, and send Lazarus to dip the end of his finger in water and cool my tongue, for I am in anguish in this flame.' 25 But Abraham said, 'Child, remember that you in your lifetime received your good things, and Lazarus in like manner bad things; but now he is comforted here, and you are in anguish. 26 And besides all this, between us and you a great chasm has been fixed, in order that those who would pass from here to you may not be able, and none may cross from there to us.' 27 And he said, 'Then I beg you, father, to send him to my father's house- 28 for I have five brothers- so that he may warn them, lest they also come into this place of torment.' 29 But Abraham said, 'They have Moses and the Prophets; let them hear them.' 30 And he said, 'No, father Abraham, but if someone goes to them from the dead, they will repent.' 31 He said to him, 'If they do not hear Moses and the Prophets, neither will they be convinced if someone should rise from the dead.'"
Notice that God’s Word says that the rich man “was buried” – his body was laid in a grave of some kind. Nonetheless, there he is in Hades suffering torment in the flames. That this account depicts a suffering in Hades before the final Judgment is shown when the rich man begs Abraham to send Lazarus to his five brothers who are still alive. This story gives a specific example of what 2 Peter 2 taught us. The souls of unbelievers are sent to a place of torment and punishment to be kept until the Day of Judgment.
The Bible also teaches that the souls of believers go to another place after death. They go to be with the Lord in Paradise.
The Apostle Paul speaks of this joyous event in his second letter to the Corinthians. “Therefore we are always confident and know that as long as we are at home in the body we are away from the Lord. 7 We live by faith, not by sight. 8 We are confident, I say, and would prefer to be away from the body and at home with the Lord” (2 Co 5:6-8; NIV). Paul pointedly states that he and his companions would rather be “away from the body and at home with the Lord.” This “away from the body” can’t mean Paul’s being in heaven after Judgment Day. For after Judgment Day all Christians will not be away from their bodies, but will have resurrected bodies. What can being “away from the body and at home with the Lord” mean but that when a Christian dies their soul leaves their body and goes to a new home with the Lord himself? Thus, this passage is a conclusive argument against soul sleep.
In his letter to the Philippians Paul sounds a similar chord. He tells the Christians at Philippi that he is torn between living and dying: “I am hard pressed between the two. My desire is to depart and be with Christ, for that is far better. 24 But to remain in the flesh is more necessary on your account” (Philippians 1:23-24). Note Paul’s definition of death: “to depart and be with Christ,” which is “far better” than living his life on earth. Paul is obviously describing an imminent “being with Christ.”
Now Paul certainly knows how to talk about being with the Lord after the resurrection on the Last Day, and does so often. In passages where he does so, however, the context explains that he is talking about eternal life after the resurrection. For example, in 2 Timothy 4:7-8, the Apostle writes, “ I have fought the good fight, I have finished the race, I have kept the faith. 8 Henceforth there is laid up for me the crown of righteousness, which the Lord, the righteous judge, will award to me on that Day.” The “Day” to which Paul refers is the day of Christ’s coming on the last day. But in Philippians 1, Paul is describing “departing and being with Christ” before the resurrection, for there is no mention of the Last Day or the final resurrection in the immediate context.
In addition to these direct statements that show that the souls of believers go to be with the Lord in a “far better” place, there are several key examples that teach the same thing.
The classic example is the criminal who was crucified next to Jesus. When he asked the Lord, “Jesus, remember me when you come into your kingdom,” Jesus replied, “Truly, I say to you, today you will be with me in Paradise” (Luke 23:43). Now Jesus’ body could not have been in Paradise later that day, for it was taken down from the cross and buried until the third day. His soul, however, as mentioned above, could and did go to Paradise, into the Father’s hands. The same, then, must be true for the criminal. He died (John 19:32 tells us that his legs were broken, which would have dramatically hastened his death), his body taken from the cross. But his soul went to Paradise, as did the soul of Jesus.
The Seventh Day Adventists’ interpretation of Luke 23:43 is well known. Since they steadfastly believe in soul sleep, they get around this clear passage by claiming that the punctuation in Bible translations is wrong. Instead of the passage reading, “Truly, I say to you, today you will be with in Paradise,” they hold that it should read, “Truly I say to you today, you will be with me in Paradise” (not today but on the Last Day). It is true that the Koine Greek (the language in which the New Testament was originally written, and that which the Holy Spirit inspired) contained no punctuation. However, who cannot see that the Adventists’ interpretation is extremely forced? Why would Jesus have said, “Truly I say to today . . .”? Instead of what? “Truly I say to you yesterday . . .” or “Truly I say to you tomorrow . . .”? Nowhere else does Jesus speak this way. More to the point, in every place where Jesus says, “Truly, I say to you,” the main clause begins immediately after the “you.” It is clear that the natural meaning of Luke 23:43 is that the soul of the criminal went to be with Jesus in Paradise the very day that he died.
Another important example is the appearance of Moses on the Mount of Transfiguration. The Word of God specifically states that Moses died and was buried by God in a valley in Moab opposite Beth Peor (Deut 34:5-6). Yet, when Jesus was transfigured almost 1500 years later, Moses appeared “in glory” and was talking to Jesus. This is described in Luke 9:29-31: “And as he was praying, the appearance of his face was altered, and his clothing became dazzling white. 30 And behold, two men were talking with him, Moses and Elijah, 31 who appeared in glory and spoke of his departure, which he was about to accomplish at Jerusalem.” Elijah’s appearance “doesn’t count” because Scripture records that he did not die but was taken directly to heaven in a whirlwind (2 Kings 2:11). Moses did die, however, and his body was buried. Yet he stands there in some form, talking to Jesus, long before the resurrection on the Last Day. Either Moses’ body was raised early (of which we have no mention in Scripture – Jude 1:9 is not conclusive) or his soul appeared in visible form on the Mount of Transfiguration.
A third example is the story of the rich man and Lazarus referred to earlier. When he died, and before the final resurrection, Lazarus was immediately “carried by the angels to Abraham's side” (Lk 16:22). “Abraham’s side” was another name for heaven at the time. Of Lazarus, Abraham says, “He is being comforted here,” which describes this intermediate place as a place of comfort.
A fourth example is found in Revelation 6. There John sees a vision of the souls of martyred Christians under the altar in heaven. “When he opened the fifth seal, 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 you will judge and avenge our blood on those who dwell on the earth?" 11 Then they were each given a white robe and told to rest a little longer, until the number of their fellow servants and their brothers should be complete, who were to be killed as they themselves had been” (Rev 6:9-11). If this vision is to be understood literally, it is a clear example of the souls of Christians in heaven before the final Judgment. However the overall symbolic nature of Revelation casts some doubt on whether the vision of the fifth seal is to be taken literally, and for this reason I have listed this example last.
After analyzing the Biblical data, though the evidence is not quantitatively large, it is nonetheless certain that the souls of those who died, both Christian and non-Christian leave the body and go to another place. The souls of the unrighteous (unbelievers) go to a place of punishment until the Last Day. The souls of the righteous (believers) go to be with the Lord in Paradise. The teaching of soul sleep is not taught in Scripture and therefore is false.
The question is often asked, “If already at death the souls go to their respective places depending whether they believed the gospel, isn’t Judgment Day rather anticlimactic, since they already know where they are going to spend eternity?” Judgment Day will bring no surprises to those who have already died. For them, Judgment Day will publicly declare what has already been decided at the time of their death. Judgment Day will be news to those who are alive when Christ returns on the Last Day. For them, they will learn of their divine verdict for the first time. Keep in mind, however, that after Judgment Day, both the souls and bodies of all people will spend eternity either in heaven or the place of eternal torment (John 5:28-29).
What do the souls of believers experience in Paradise? God has revealed very little about this, except that it will be a place of enjoyment and comfort and rest in the presence of God, where there is no death or sin or care. It is a place that is “far better” than our life here, where we will be “at home with the Lord.” Whether the souls of those in heaven are able to see what happens on the earth, or in what way time passes, has not been revealed in God’s Word. Therefore definite statements should be avoided.
Lastly, the Roman Catholic teaching of purgatory is completely false and should be rejected. In their view purgatory is the place where the souls of those who did not fully satisfy all temporal punishment due them on earth, must be purged and refined by fire (by their definition all Christians, except the great saints, will spend time in purgatory). This agonizing fire may last for thousands of years until they are finally purified and worthy of heaven. This teaching should be completely rejected because it contradicts the gospel, that Jesus by his atoning death has fully atoned for our sins and bore our punishment (Isaiah 53:4-6); and that all earthly punishment ends at death.
Thanks be to God for his unfathomable grace and mercy toward us for the sake of his son, Jesus Christ.