Question: What happens to the soul when a believer dies? Does the Bible teach soul sleep?
Scripture: Genesis 35:18; Daniel 12:2; John 11:11-13; 1 Corinthians 11:30; 15:5; 2 Corinthians 5:8; 1 Thessalonians 4:13-17; James 2:26
We often receive inquiries on this subject on the KHCB Radio Network Questions and Answers program. Christians want to know what happens to a believer’s soul and spirit at the moment of death.
Body, Soul and Spirit
In 1 Thessalonians 5:23, Paul describes a person as consisting of “spirit and soul and body.” Evans explains the distinctions between them. The body is the material part of man, created by God, Gen. 2:7, as the instrument by which soul and spirit relate to the material universe and fulfill His will.[i]
This trichotomy of man began at his creation, as God bestowed life on a piece of clay.
The Lord God formed the man from the soil of the ground and breathed into his nostrils the breath of life, and the man became a living being [soul]. (Genesis 2:7, NET)
This verse is explained by Ross, who states,
God’s breathing the breath of life into man transformed his form into a living being (lit., “a living soul”). This made man a spiritual being, with a capacity for serving and fellowshipping with God. [ii]
Similarly Radmacher comments, “This breath may be the narrator’s way of describing the infusion of the human spirit, with its moral, intellectual, relational, and spiritual capacities.”[iii]
The Hebrew word nephesh, often translated as soul, self, life, person or heart, occurs over 780 times in the Old Testament.[iv] The soul is that which gives life to a body and is one’s “inner life,” or personality.”[v] The Greek word for soul in the New Testament is frequently translated “life.”[vi]
“For what benefit is it for a person to gain the whole world, yet forfeit his life? What can a person give in exchange for his life?” (Mark 8:36–37, NET)
In contrast to the soul, the spirit of man is the “spiritual, immortal part in man”that is “related to worship and divine communion.”[vii]Since God is Spirit, we must worship Him in spirit and truth (John 4:24). The human spirit gives man God consciousness.[viii] Romans 8:16 explains that the Holy Spirit communicates with believer through the human spirit.
The Spirit himself bears witness to our spirit that we are God’s children. (NET)
However, the human spirit and the soul are described as distinct in Hebrews 4:12:
For the word of God is living and active and sharper than any double-edged sword, piercing even to the point of dividing soul from spirit, and joints from marrow; it is able to judge the desires and thoughts of the heart. (NET)
The Greek word for soul is often translated life in the New Testament (Mark 8:35-37). Jesus referred to His soul as being “exceedingly sorrowful” (Matt. 26:38). Mary, the mother of Jesus, declared that her soul “magnifies the Lord” (Luke 1:46).
The Definition of Death
Just as the infusion of the soul and spirit give a person life, so separation of the soul and spirit from the body that causes death.[ix] This concept is described in Rachel’s death,
It came about as her soul was departing (for she died), that she named him Ben-oni; but his father called him Benjamin. (Genesis 35:18, NASB95)
This is also illustrated in 1 Kings 17:19-22, which records Elijah bringing a child back to life as he prayed that God would let his soul return to him. Also James 2:26 declares, “For just as the body without the spirit is dead, so also faith without works is dead.”
The Apostle Paul explained that immediately, at the time of their death, believers are present with the Lord. Their soul and spirit are immediately taken to heaven to be with the Lord.
Thus we are full of courage and would prefer to be away from the body and at home with the Lord. (2 Corinthians 5:8, NET)
This is evident by Paul’s declaration that, at the rapture, Jesus will bring them with Him those believers who have died, whose souls and spirits will then be reunited with their bodies.
Now we do not want you to be uninformed, brothers and sisters, about those who are asleep, so that you will not grieve like the rest who have no hope. For if we believe that Jesus died and rose again, so also we believe that God will bring with him those who have fallen asleep as Christians.For we tell you this by the word of the Lord, that we who are alive, who are left until the coming of the Lord, will surely not go ahead of those who have fallen asleep. For the Lord himself will come down from heaven with a shout of command, with the voice of the archangel, and with the trumpet of God, and the dead in Christ will rise first. Then we who are alive, who are left, will be suddenly caught up together with them in the clouds to meet the Lord in the air. And so we will always be with the Lord. (1 Thessalonians 4:13–17, NET)
The use of Sleep in Scripture
In the Bible, sleep is used to refer to an unconscious state as a kind of anesthetic for surgery (Gen. 2:21). It can also denote a literal physical sleep (Jud. 16:19, 20; Esther 6:1; Pro. 6:22; Matt. 26:4, 43; Luke 9:32). But at times it is a metaphor for physical death (Dan 12:2; John 11:11, 13; 1 Cor. 11:30; 15:5) or for a lack of mental awareness (Num. 3:18; Matt 13:25; Rom 13:11). In 1 Thessalonians 5:16, 17, Paul clarifies that “those who have fallen asleep in Jesus” (v. 15), are the “dead in Christ,” who will rise first in the Rapture.
Constable explains the metaphor of sleep in Scripture,
The figure of sleep for death is common in the New Testament (cf. Mark 5:39; John 11:11). This is not sleep of the soul, however, because Paul wrote elsewhere that a Christian who is absent from his body is present with the Lord (2 Cor. 5:8; cf. Phil. 1:23; 1 Thes. 5:10). It is rather the ‘sleep’ of the body in the earth until it is resurrected, changed into a glorious body, and reunited with the soul (1 Cor. 15:35–57; 2 Cor. 5:1–9).[x]
Some argue that Jesus’ use of the word sleep in John 11:11 refers to soul sleep. Yet in the context of the passage, neither Jesus nor the disciples was referring to soul sleep. The doctrine of soul sleep, which is held by Jehovah Witnesses, Seventh Day Adventists, and the Christadelphians, teaches that when a person dies, his soul enters a period of sleep. This view holds that when believers die, they do not immediately go to heaven, but remain in the grave until the resurrection of the body from the grave.
But in John 11, the disciples were speaking of a literal sleep, but Jesus was using sleep as a metaphor for physical death (vv. 13, 14). A dead body appears to be sleeping, but this does not refer to the soul.
Prior to his death, which is referred to as falling asleep, Stephen called out, saying “Lord Jesus, receive my spirit” (Acts 7:59-60). Note that he didn’t say, “My soul is going to sleep for awhile, but after that please receive my spirit.” Saul (the apostle Paul) was in hearty agreement of putting Stephen to death by stoning (Acts 8:1). Yet in Acts 7:60 states that Stephen “fell asleep.” In Acts, Luke describes the death of King David:
For David, after he had served God’s purpose in his own generation, died, was buried with his ancestors, and experienced decay, (Acts 13:36, NET)
When considering verses in the Scripture that use the word sleep, an evaluation of the context is essential. The words sleep and death are used interchangeably in 1 Corinthians 15.
But now Christ has been raised from the dead, the firstfruits of those who have fallen asleep. (v.20, NET)
Listen, I will tell you a mystery: We will not all sleep, but we will all be changed—in a moment, in the blinking of an eye, at the last trumpet. For the trumpet will sound, and the dead will be raised imperishable, and we will be changed. (vv. 51–52, NET)
In 2 Corinthians 5:8, the Apostle Paul says that he prefers “to be absent from the body and to be at home with the Lord.” Why would he prefer death and soul sleep to ministering for the Lord on earth? He is stating that it is better to be immediately in the presence of the Lord rather than living on earth with its problems. Again in Philippians 1:23, he writes that he would rather “depart and be with Christ.” In 1 Thessalonians 5:10, he notes, “whether we are awake or asleep, we will live together with Him.” It is obvious the Apostle Paul did not believe in soul sleep.
In Luke 8, it is evident that the departure of the spirit from the body is the cause of death. When the spirit returns, life is renewed.
Now they were all wailing and mourning for her, but he said, “Stop your weeping; she is not dead but asleep.” And they began making fun of him, because they knew that she was dead. But Jesus gently took her by the hand and said, “Child, get up.” Her spirit returned, and she got up immediately. Then he told them to give her something to eat. (Luke 8:52–55, NET)
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In conclusion, when a believer’s body dies, his soul and spirit are immediately taken to heaven. His soul and spirit are alive in the presence of God until the Rapture when they will be reunited with his resurrected body.
[i] Evans, W., & Coder, S. M. (1974). The great doctrines of the Bible (Enl. ed.) (281). Chicago: Moody Press.
[ii] Ross, A. P. (1985). Genesis. In J. F. Walvoord & R. B. Zuck (Eds.), The Bible Knowledge Commentary: An Exposition of the Scriptures (J. F. Walvoord & R. B. Zuck, Ed.) (Ge 2:4b–7). Wheaton, IL: Victor Books.
[iii] Radmacher, E. D., Allen, R. B., & House, H. W. (1999). Nelson’s new illustrated Bible commentary (Ge 2:7). Nashville: T. Nelson Publishers.
[iv] Vine, W. E., Unger, M. F., & White, W., Jr. (1996). Vol. 1: Vine’s Complete Expository Dictionary of Old and New Testament Words (237). Nashville, TN: T. Nelson.
[v] Nelson’s new illustrated Bible dictionary. 1995 (R. F. Youngblood, F. F. Bruce, R. K. Harrison & Thomas Nelson Publishers, Ed.). Nashville, TN: Thomas Nelson, Inc.
[vi] Nelson’s new illustrated Bible dictionary. 1995 (R. F. Youngblood, F. F. Bruce, R. K. Harrison & Thomas Nelson Publishers, Ed.). Nashville, TN: Thomas Nelson, Inc.
[vii] Unger, M. F. (1988). Spirit. In R. Harrison (Ed.), The new Unger’s Bible dictionary (R. Harrison, Ed.) (Rev. and updated ed.). Chicago: Moody Press.
[viii] Evans, W., & Coder, S. M. (1974). The great doctrines of the Bible (Enl. ed.) (281). Chicago: Moody Press.
[ix] Unger, M. F., Harrison, R. K., Vos, H. F., Barber, C. J., & Unger, M. F. (1988). The new Unger’s Bible dictionary (Rev. and updated ed.). Chicago: Moody Press.
[x] Constable, T. L. (1985). 1 Thessalonians. In J. F. Walvoord & R. B. Zuck (Eds.), The Bible Knowledge Commentary: An Exposition of the Scriptures (J. F. Walvoord & R. B. Zuck, Ed.) (1 Th 4:13). Wheaton, IL: Victor Books.