Are the Dead Only Asleep?


Regarding the article, “A soldier rests at 91.” (Megiddo Message Vol 87, No 2, Feb 2000): the third paragraph makes mention of a missionary telling Mrs. Porter that the dead are only asleep, unconscious, and Mrs. Porter found the same by studying her Bible.

Is the Scripture you are talking about 1 Thessalonians 4:13—18? Is not Paul speaking to believers, not unbelievers?


In the first letter to the Thessalonians, the apostle Paul wrote “concerning them which are asleep.” He was speaking of those who had died, and mentions that those who “sleep in Jesus” will be resurrected. For “if we believe that Jesus died and rose again, even so God will bring with Him those who sleep in Jesus” (1 Thess. 4:14). God has planned that at the Second Advent of Jesus, the sleeping servants of God will be resurrected, so that they can be judged and receive according to their works, whether good or evil (2 Cor. 5:10; Rev. 22:12).

The Bible describes death as a “sleep,” but it is not sleep as would imply a continuation of life. It is a state of total unconsciousness, oblivion, non-existence. When the body dies, it ceases to function, it ceases to breathe, and there is no more life. In the state of death one can neither see, hear, taste, smell, feel, or think. There is no memory, personality, or intelligence. The Bible says, “The living know that will die: but the dead know nothing” (Eccl. 9:5). Death is the end of thought “for there is no…knowledge, nor wisdom, in the grave, where you are going” (Eccl. 9:10). Death is a state of silence, in death one cannot learn of God. “The dead praise not the Lord, nor can any who go down into silence” (Ps. 115:17).

Both man and beast expire, and when they cease to breathe, they are alike dead. “What happens to the sons of men also happens to the animals; one thing befalls them: as one dies, so dies the other. Surely, they have all one breath; man has no advantage above the animals: for all is vanity. All go to one place; all are of the dust, and all turn to dust again” (Eccl. 3:19—20). God gives breath, spirit, and life to believer and unbeliever, man and beast, and when that breath is taken away, when the body ceases to function, they “die, and return to their dust” (Ps. 104:29).

Many people in the Biblical record are described as having “fallen asleep” or that they “sleep in death.” The Lord told Moses that he would “sleep with [his] fathers” (Deut. 31:15—16). Job said he expected to “lie down in the dust; and you will seek me diligently, but I will no longer be” (Job 7:21). Jesus “said to them, ‘Our friend Lazarus sleeps, but I go that I may wake him up.’ Then His disciples said, ‘Lord, if he sleeps he will get well.’ However, Jesus spoke of his death, but they thought that He was speaking about taking rest in sleep. Then Jesus said to them plainly, ‘Lazarus is dead.’”

Is there any release from this sleep, any awakening possible? Yes. The Bible outlines a plan of resurrection. The prophet Daniel spoke of those “that sleep in the dust of the earth” (Dan. 12:2), and said that “many of those…shall awake, some to everlasting life, some to shame and everlasting contempt” (Dan. 12:3).

But what of the idea the soul lives on after the body dies? Souls are individuals, persons; and souls die. According to the Bible, the “soul” is the person, the living being. The Hebrew Lexicon defines the word translated “soul” as “a living creature; a person; sometimes applied to animals; life; beast; body; breath; creature; man; mind; one; own; person.” It uses the word “soul” interchangeably with reference to a person. When the Israelite households were preparing the Passover, they prepared it “according to the number of the souls” in each household (Ex. 12:4 KJV). The law stated that “The soul which hath touched any such shall be unclean until even, and shall not eat of the holy things, unless he, wash his flesh with water” (Lev. 22:6)—it is hard to picture the common perception of “soul” washing “his flesh with water.”

Someone once described a “soul” as a principle not having size, weight, shape or substance; without body, form or parts—a description which our Founder, Rev. L. T. Nichols, said was the “best definition of ‘nothing’” that he had ever heard.

Says the prophet Ezekiel speaking for God, “The soul who sins shall die” (Ezek. 18:20). A living person is a living soul. Death ends all consciousness. The body rests in the grave, free from suffering or any consciousness, until it is restored to life by God, until it is resurrected. The idea that we are born with an immortal “soul” or personality or something is not Scriptural. We are not immortal until Christ changes us from this corruptible state to the incorruptible, to be made like the glorified Jesus (Phil. 3:20—21).