By Spencer D. Gear
What happens to Christians when they die? It is standard Seventh Day Adventist (SDA) and Jehovah’s Witnesses (JW) teaching that the soul sleeps at death. It is the doctrine known as ‘soul sleep’. Let’s check out what these two cults believe about this doctrine:
Seventh Day Adventist:
We, as Adventists, have reached the definite conclusion that man rests in the tomb until the resurrection morning. Then, at the first resurrection (Rev. 20:4, 5), the resurrection of the just (Acts 24:15), the righteous come forth immortalized, at the call of Christ the Life-giver. And they then enter into life everlasting, in their eternal home in the kingdom of glory. Such is our understanding (At Issue 1957: 520).
Jehovah’s Witnesses (Watchtower):
The dead are shown to be ‘conscious of nothing at all’ and the death state to be one of complete inactivity. (Eccl. 9:5, 10; Ps. 146:4). In both the Hebrew and the Greek Scriptures death is likened to sleep, a fitting comparison, not only due to the unconscious condition of the dead, but also because of the hope of an awakening through the resurrection (“Condition of Human Dead” in Aid to Bible Understanding, p. 431, cited in MacGregor n.d.).
Thus the JW’s view of life after death is that the dead enter a place of unconsciousness or sleep. Because of the many years of exposure to the false doctrine of soul sleep (see my article, “Soul sleep: A refutation), many SDAs find it difficult to grasp the biblical teaching on what happens at death.
Here is an example from Harold, the SDA:
What is false about Jesus calling it ‘sleep’ when that is what He said Lazarus was doing? What is false about Paul telling us that ‘not all of us will sleep’? What is false about Daniel saying that ‘many of them will sleep’? What is false about Jesus saying that, ‘those in their graves shall hear His voice’? What is false about the writer of 1 Kings telling us that ‘David slept with his fathers and was buried in the city of David’?
What is false about sixty or so more texts exactly like those???
What is false is what Harold does. He takes the metaphor of ‘sleep’ (what a dead person looks like), and then he makes it into a doctrine of soul sleep or unconsciousness at death, which conflicts with other Scriptures. Of course, he does not believe in the immortality of the soul.
Let’s consider what the Bible teaches.
- We know that Jesus did not believe in soul sleep because this is what He believed: “Jesus said to her, “I am the resurrection and the life. The one who believes in me will live, even though they die; 26 and whoever lives by believing in me will never die. Do you believe this?” (John 11:25-26 NIV). Does this SDA person believe this? No he doesn’t!
- There is not the faintest indication of soul sleep in these two verses. Jesus stated, “Whoever lives by believing in me will never die“. We need to understand this clear statement: The one who lives and believes in Jesus will NEVER DIE, even though his/her physical body perishes to dust in the ground. No matter how often the SDAs and JWs want to use the metaphor of ‘sleep’ to convince themselves that soul sleep is real, Jesus does not and never will agree this false teaching. That’s Bible. These cults, SDA and JW, need to quit their metaphorical imposition on what the Jesus said about what actually happens at death.
- What is false about their trying to impose on us that Paul taught soul sleep? Paul’s own words should convict the soul sleepers: ‘Yes, we are of good courage, and we would rather be away from the body and at home with the Lord’ (2 Cor. 5:8).
- Daniel said, ‘And many of those who sleep in the dust of the earth shall awake, some to everlasting life, and some to shame and everlasting contempt’ (Dan 12:2). He was talking about the metaphor of what people look like at death and that at a time in the future, there will be a joining of the body and the soul. No matter how hard he tries, people like Harold, can’t get past the truth that soul sleep is not taught in the Bible.
- We know what happened at death for the OT believers. What did Jesus say about Abraham, Isaac & Jacob? ‘And as for the resurrection of the dead, have you not read what was said to you by God: “I am the God of Abraham, and the God of Isaac, and the God of Jacob”? He is not God of the dead, but of the living’ (Matt. 22:31-32). So, when Jesus was alive on earth, Abraham, Isaac and Jacob were alive. God is not the God of the dead (or those who soul sleep in the grave) because he is the God of the living. What was true of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob, was true of Daniel. Even though Abraham, Isaac, Jacob and Daniel had looked like they were sleeping at death (metaphor), they were alive and well. How do we know so? It’s on the authority of Jesus.
- If soul sleep is what happens at death for believers, Jesus would not have met with Moses and Elijah at his Transfiguration. This is what we read in Matthew 17:1-4 (NIV):
After six days Jesus took with him Peter, James and John the brother of James, and led them up a high mountain by themselves. 2 There he was transfigured before them. His face shone like the sun, and his clothes became as white as the light. 3 Just then there appeared before them Moses and Elijah, talking with Jesus.
4 Peter said to Jesus, “Lord, it is good for us to be here. If you wish, I will put up three shelters—one for you, one for Moses and one for Elijah.”
One possible soul sleep application of these verses could be that Moses and Elijah had been ‘asleep’ and Jesus woke them for the event at the Transfiguration. However, we know that this would not be true because it would conflict with John 11:25-26: ‘Jesus said to her, “I am the resurrection and the life. The one who believes in me will live, even though they die; and whoever lives by believing in me will never die. Do you believe this?”’
I have written on this and related topics elsewhere:
- “Refutation of the Seventh-Day Adventist doctrine of what happens at death“;
- “Will you be ready when death comes“;
- “Immortality of the soul“;
- “Life after death: Current controversies“;
- “Where will unbelievers go at death?“
- “Eternal torment for unbelievers when they die“;
- “Soul sleep: A refutation“;
- “Are there degrees of punishment in hell?“
At Issue 1957, Seventh-Day Adventists Answer Questions on Doctrine, Review and Herald Publishing Association, Washington, D.C. Question 41, available from: http://www.sdanet.org/atissue/books/qod/q41.htm (Accessed 17 March 2012).
MacGregor, L. n.d., Jehovah’s Witnesses, soul sleep and the state of the dead. Available from: http://www.ankerberg.com/Articles/_PDFArchives/apologetics/AP2W0901.pdf (Accessed 17 March 2012).
 This was in a Christian Fellowship Forum (CFF) response in the directory, “Bible Study & Discipleship”, thread, “What does this mean?”, Harold #777, dated 3 March 2012, available at: http://community.compuserve.com/n/pfx/forum.aspx?tsn=760&nav=messages&webtag=ws-fellowship&tid=120846 (Accessed 17 March 2012). Some of what follows I provided as a response to Harold, as ozspen, #780, on the CFF topic.
Copyright © 2013 Spencer D. Gear. This document last updated at Date: 9 June 2016.