cup of wrath

Sleeping in the Dust

  • There are many bible verses that seem to confirm soul sleep.
  • These verses refer to the dead as sleeping, or being asleep.
  • However, there are many other verses that refute the idea of the dead being unconscious, in a state of soul sleep.
  • Why are the dead described as being asleep, or as sleeping in the "dust of the earth", if they are not literally asleep?
  • The concept of soul sleep has important spiritual implications, that will be overlooked if it is taken literally.

Soul sleep is a figure of speech, conveying to us the ongoing spiritual reality of an individual after death.

So if I'm right, and soul sleep is not scriptural, why are there so many bible verses that clearly refer to the dead as being asleep, "Consider and hear me, O LORD my God: lighten mine eyes, lest I sleep the sleep of death" (Psalm 13.3 KJV bible), "You turn man back into dust...You have swept them away like a flood, they fall asleep" (Psalm 90.3,5 NASB bible), "And when thy days be fulfilled, and thou shalt sleep with thy fathers" (2nd Samuel 7.12 KJV bible), "After that, he was seen of above five hundred brethren at once; of whom the greater part remain unto this present, but some are fallen asleep" (1st Corinthians 15.6 KJV bible), "We shall not all sleep, but we shall all be changed" (1st Corinthians 15.51 KJV bible)? These verses clearly refer to the dead, even the righteous dead, as being asleep.

The bible refers to the dead as sleeping, not because they are literally unconscious, but rather it is a euphemism for death. Sleeping is a euphemism that conveys to us the sense that death is not the absolute end or extinction of an individual, but rather it is a transitory separation. When someone is asleep they are still alive, but disconnected from the world. Likewise, a deceased person still exists, but in a different place that is not accessible to us. We have a similar tradition in our culture, where instead of saying that someone is dead, we say that the person has "passed on" or "departed". Families will often write "rest in peace" (or some variation thereof) on a tombstone. This is all done not out of the belief that the dead are literally asleep, but out of a sensitivity to the notion of death. In both cases, the dead are described as being asleep, or having passed on, to convey to us the temporary nature of their separation.

Consider Acts 7, where Stephen is described as falling asleep, "And they stoned Stephen, calling upon God, and saying, Lord Jesus, receive my spirit. And he kneeled down, and cried with a loud voice, Lord, lay not this sin to their charge. And when he had said this, he fell asleep" (Acts 7.59-60 KJV bible). The writer of Acts says that Stephen fell asleep, but Stephen himself says to the Lord Jesus, "receive my spirit". Is there a difference of opinion about the afterlife between Luke, who is the writer of Acts, and Stephen who apparently was under the impression that Jesus would receive his spirit? If we understand the use of the term "fell asleep", to be a simple indication of Stephen's physical death, then there is no contradiction.

This is also consistent with Jesus' description of Lazarus as sleeping, "Our friend Lazarus sleepeth; but I go, that I may awake him out of sleep. Then said his disciples, Lord, if he sleep, he shall do well. Howbeit Jesus spake of his death: but they thought that he had spoken of taking of rest in sleep. Then said Jesus unto them plainly, Lazarus is dead" (John 11.11-14 KJV bible). Jesus first describes Lazarus as being asleep, but his apostles take this literally to mean that Lazarus is still alive. Then Jesus says plainly that Lazarus is dead, at which point his apostles understand what he means. When Jesus says that Lazarus is sleeping, it says that he "spake of his death", which indicates that he was using the term figuratively.

Many are described as "sleeping in the dust of the earth".

Well then what about the dead who are said to be sleeping in the dust of the earth? Wouldn't the phrase "dust of the earth", indicate that they are literally asleep in the ground, "And many [or the multitude] of them that sleep in the dust of the earth shall awake" (Daniel 12.2 KJV bible), "for now shall I sleep in the dust; and thou shalt seek me in the morning, but I shall not be" (Job 7.21 KJV bible)? If they are not literally asleep, then why are they described as dwelling in the dust of the earth?

Recall from the section on gateways to heaven and hell, that there is a strong association between the first hell, or Hades, and the dust of the earth. The dust of the earth both symbolizes, and acts as the gateway to the underworld, "What profit is there in my blood, if I go down to the pit? Will the dust praise You? Will it declare Your faithfulness?" (Psalm 30.9 NASB bible), "All they that be fat upon earth shall eat and worship: all they that go down to the dust shall bow before him: and none can keep alive his own soul" (Psalm 22.29 KJV bible). Sleeping in the dust of the earth simply refers to the spirits of people who dwell in Hades as opposed to heaven. They are described as sleeping in the dust, because the dust of the earth is used as a biblical symbol for the underworld.

The dust of the earth acts a symbol for both Hades and spiritual death. This is why in the second resurrection, the dead are described as being released from the dust of the earth, "Awake and sing, ye that dwell in dust: for thy dew is as the dew of herbs, and the earth shall cast out the dead" (Isaiah 26.19 KJV bible). So the souls of the dead dwell figuratively, not literally, in the dust of the earth. Also, notice that the saints are never referred to as sleeping in the dust, but only in Christ, "Then they also which are fallen asleep in Christ are perished" (1st Corinthians 15.18 KJV bible). The ones who have fallen asleep in Christ have in no way perished, because they are with the Lord in heaven, (see ch.4 Souls in Heaven). However, the rest of the dead dwell in the underworld, as embodied by the dust of the earth.

Many verses describe the degraded state of the dead, but do not support literal soul sleep.

Let's also consider some other verses that might appear to support the notion of soul sleep. For example, what about Psalm 146.4 which seems to imply that the dead are lifeless in thought as well as action, "Put not your trust in princes, nor in the son of man, in whom there is no help. His breath goeth forth, he returneth to his earth; in that very day his thoughts perish" (Psalm 146.4 KJV bible). Looking at the context of this passage we come to understand that it is speaking about mortal man, and how we shouldn't put our confidence in him. This is because when he dies his thoughts perish with him, in the sense that his plans, ideas, and worldly influence come to naught.

This same reasoning holds true for Ecclesiastes 9.6, "Also their love, and their hatred, and their envy, is now perished; neither have they any more a portion for ever in any thing that is done under the sun" (Ecclesiastes 9.6 KJV bible). It says that they no longer have a portion in what goes on under the sun, meaning that all of their love, hatred, and envy disappears with them. In other words, they become inconsequential to the land of the living, not that they cease to be in an absolute way.

A soul that is absent from a body is certainly cognizant, (see ch.12 Soul Sleep). However, there is some evidence to suggest that it exists in a reduced mental capacity, and experiences reality differently from a soul that is dwelling within a functioning body. We know, for example, that people with Alzheimer's (and other degenerative diseases of the brain) are often confused, and less capable of understanding and interacting with the world around them. Also, when people go to sleep at night, and their brains rest, their thoughts change, becoming more random and unfocused. It is therefore probable, that people who are disembodied souls, and lack the computing power of a brain, don't experience reality or the passage of time the same way we do. They lose the progressive history of thoughts and memories that our mental faculties provide us. Their sense of perception becomes surreal and nebulous, similar to what we experience when we dream at night. They still have thoughts and feelings that they can communicate, but are unable to carry out complex flesh-like activities that require concentration or brain power.

This is why Sheol is described as the land of forgetfulness or oblivion, "Shall thy wonders be known in the dark? and thy righteousness in the land of forgetfulness?" (Psalms 88.12 KJV bible). This is also why it is written in Ecclesiastes, "For the living know that they shall die: but the dead know not any thing...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 [Sheol], whither thou goest" (Ecclesiastes 9.5,10 KJV bible). However, the degraded condition of the dead shouldn't be seen as a confirmation of soul sleep, because soul sleep implies a complete suspension of the individual. Rather, this is the idea that the experience of being dead is different and less vivid than the experience of being alive, but it is an experience none the less. This degraded condition is part of what the dead will be raised up from in the Resurrection of the Dead.

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