WHAT REALLY HAPPENS WHEN I DIE?
An Invited Response to Those Who Advocate the Doctrine of “Christian Mortalism” — (Soul Sleep)
“Christian Mortalism” is generally defined as the total annihilation of both body and soul after death, while one’s “spirit” continues to exists only as a memory in the mind of God, for an interim period, until the resurrection when a new body, soul, and memory will be reproduced. The doctrine relies on various passages of scripture throughout the Bible that differentiate between the three fundamental elements of humanity, these being: body (soma), soul (psuche), and spirit (pneuma). The terms for soul (psuche) — the “life force” or “animating power of life” — and spirit (pneuma) — “spiritual essence,” or “cognitive self-awareness” — are, indeed, differentiated in such passages as Hebrews 4:12: “For the word of God is living and active and sharper than any two-edged sword, and piercing as far as the division of soul and spirit, of both joints and marrow, and able to judge the thoughts and intentions of the heart.” My purpose in sharing these thoughts is not to explore all the various details regarding the doctrine of “Christian Mortalism,” but simply to respond in love to the research of others, having been invited to do so, and perhaps to help shed a bit more “light” on the subject of what happens to us when we die.
Beloved, first let me express my gratitude to you. I am honored by your trust and confidence in wanting to share your research with me and seek my input. I’m impressed with your level of scholarship; your study habits appear very good. I love your use of Hebrew, Aramaic, and Greek terms and their direct application to the Biblical distinctions between the spirit, the soul, and the body. I brings to mind the Apostle Paul’s teaching concerning these three distinct elements of humanity when he says:
Now may the God of peace Himself sanctify you entirely; and may your spirit (πνεῦμα – pneuma) and soul (ψυχὴ – psuche) and body (σῶμα – soma) be preserved complete, without blame at the coming of our Lord Jesus Christ” (I Thessalonians 5:23, NASB).
I also greatly appreciate your respect for, and your appeal to, the holy scriptures to help substantiate your proposition. I believe you are being intellectually honest in setting forth the truth of what each individual passage of scripture contains.
My “word of caution” to us as we explore this, or any particular body of doctrine, is that we be sure to remember the Biblical admonition: “The sum of Your word is truth, and every one of Your righteous ordinances is everlasting” (Psalm 119: 160, NASB). In other words, truth is found in all of God’s word and all of God’s word comprises the truth. We will not, therefore, find the word of God contradicting itself. If it appears as if a contradiction exists, then the problem must be with us and our interpretations or applications of God’s word; but not with the holy scripture itself. I mention this because, regardless of the topic or doctrinal issue we are exploring, I think there is always a temptation for us to focus only on those passages of scripture that seem to support our own line of reasoning. It seems to be difficult for people, especially those who think they’ve already “arrived” at some appreciable level of scholarship (I’m thinking of the Pharisees of Jesus’ day), to be willing to step back, rethink, and modify their positions after having stated their beliefs. It’s a “pride” thing, I guess. But, I must remember that regardless of what I “think” a passage of scripture is teaching, if my interpretation or application of the scripture contradicts any other passage of scripture, then I must reexamine my personal understanding of the passage. Honest scholarship requires, at the very least, that we remain consistent with our own understanding of God’s word.
That being said, while I honor the appreciable level of scholarship you are attempting to bring to this particular topic, I have to say that I think it would be a grand “leap of reason” for us to jump from your seemingly accurate use of ancient terminology regarding the Biblical distinctions between body, soul, and spirit to the untenable conclusion that, as you state, when one is physically dead “…consciousness ceases, knowledge ceases, communication ceases, activity ceases. Hence, there is no future to look forward to. Bottom line: there is no life ensuing … unless there is a resurrection.” The scriptures do not require such a leap and, furthermore, to make such a leap of reason is to find oneself contradicting other passages of scripture that, I believe, are very clear on the matter—I will get to these passages in a moment.
What I’m wondering about, at this point, is how you came to these conclusions regarding this topic. Did you arrive at them on your own—through your own personal study of the Bible over the years—or has someone lead you into this persuasion? I’m wondering this because the doctrine that you are espousing here is an old and well-known theory, commonly known as “soul sleep” or “Christian mortalism.” In days gone by, it was known by the terms “materialism” or “psychopannychism.” The teaching is common in several denominational groups including some Lutheran sects, the Seventh-day Adventist, the Christadelphians, some Churches of God (7th Day), and the Worldwide Church of God (Armstrong); as well as the Jehovah’s Witness denomination (Christian, 2013). The reason I’m asking about this is that I’ve never met anyone who, after simply reading the Bible for themselves, has come to these particular conclusions on their own; you would be the first. That does not necessarily mean that your proposition is wrong; it simply means that, if we’re being led by someone else to believe something that specifically characterizes a particular denominational persuasion, that’s definitely a “red-flag” danger zone, and even more caution is in order.
Now, to my response — While I must admit that the term “sleep” is sometimes used in scripture to represent death, I believe that it is only used as a euphemism, and not meant to be taken as a literal state of being (or non-being as our present conversation implies). I believe this because of clear and comprehensive teachings gleaned from several beautiful passages of scripture that bear upon this issue. And remember, “The sum of Your word is truth” (Psalm 119:116, NASB). One passage, in particular, that I believe speaks to this topic is Jesus’ teaching concerning the rich man and Lazarus wherein we read:
Now there was a rich man, and he habitually dressed in purple and fine linen, joyously living in splendor every day. And a poor man named Lazarus was laid at his gate, covered with sores, and longing to be fed with the crumbs which were falling from the rich man’s table; besides, even the dogs were coming and licking his sores. Now the poor man died and was carried away by the angels to Abraham’s bosom; and the rich man also died and was buried. In Hades he lifted up his eyes, being in torment, and saw Abraham far away and Lazarus in his bosom. And he cried out and said, ‘Father Abraham, have mercy on me, and send Lazarus so that he may dip the tip of his finger in water and cool off my tongue, for I am in agony in this flame.’ But Abraham said, ‘Child, remember that during your life you received your good things, and likewise Lazarus bad things; but now he is being comforted here, and you are in agony. And besides all this, between us and you there is a great chasm fixed, so that those who wish to come over from here to you will not be able, and that none may cross over from there to us.’ And he said, ‘Then I beg you, father, that you send him to my father’s house—for I have five brothers—in order that he may warn them, so that they will not also come to this place of torment.’ But Abraham said, ‘They have Moses and the Prophets; let them hear them.’ But he said, ‘No, father Abraham, but if someone goes to them from the dead, they will repent!’ But he said to him, ‘If they do not listen to Moses and the Prophets, they will not be persuaded even if someone rises from the dead.’ (Luke 16:19-21, NASB)
Some say that Jesus’ story of the rich man and Lazarus must not be taken too literally because it is, after all, only a parable. However, I disagree with that notion. It is not a parable (Gk: parabole – “to cast alongside”) because Jesus is not setting forth any kind of “side-by-side comparison” to illustrate some other truth. Rather, Jesus simply delivers the story straight up as a warning to those who would live selfishly in this world, and as a source of hope and comfort for those who may have to suffer for their faith. And, even if the story were a parable, which it is not, have you ever read where Jesus set forth a parable that was only myth or legend or a fairytale and not rooted in truth? Unlike Aesop, Jesus did not deal in “fables.” He only presented authentic truths—whether in the form of parables or otherwise!
But in this story, please note, that the rich man who had died and who was buried existed in a state that was anything but “unconsciousness.” Although he was in Hades, the realm of the dead, he was very much a conscious being. From the story we learn that he could feel torment, that he had perception, that he could communicate, that he could remember, and that he could reflect upon the present lifestyle and future destiny of his brothers who were still living upon the earth. We also learn that while the rich man was in a place of agony, Lazarus was in a place where he was being comforted.
Another passage, and one that I dearly love, is where Jesus talks to the thief on the cross:
One of the criminals who were hanged there was hurling abuse at Him, saying, “Are You not the Christ? Save Yourself and us!” But the other answered, and rebuking him said, “Do you not even fear God, since you are under the same sentence of condemnation? And we indeed are suffering justly, for we are receiving what we deserve for our deeds; but this man has done nothing wrong.” And he was saying, “Jesus, remember me when You come in Your kingdom!” And He said to him, “Truly I say to you, today you shall be with Me in Paradise.” (Luke 23:39-43, NASB).
Jesus said “today,” that day, that very day, the penitent thief who had expressed his faith in Christ would be with Him in Paradise. Surely none of us believe that Jesus was trying to comfort the dying criminal with a false hope; with something that wasn’t really going to happen? “Soul sleep” would be of little comfort to a man hanging on a cross, paying for his crimes. It would offer him nothing to look forward to or by which he would have been rewarded for his faith. I feel as though I also need to point out that, while Jesus’ statement to the thief on the cross runs contradictory to the doctrine of “Christian mortalism,” it is in perfect harmony with His teaching regarding the rich man and Lazarus.
Yet another passage that I also love has to do with the Apostle Paul and his own take on the death experience. Paul says:
For to me, to live is Christ and to die is gain. But if I am to live on in the flesh, this will mean fruitful labor for me; and I do not know which to choose. But I am hard-pressed from both directions, having the desire to depart and be with Christ, for that is very much better; yet to remain on in the flesh is more necessary for your sake. (Philippians 1:21-24, NASB).
Again, I see a beautiful harmony between Paul’s confident expectation for life after death and Jesus’ teachings and statements regarding life after death. But, if nothing awaited Paul after death except “soul sleep”—along with everyone else who had died—then how could he be in such a quandary as to “not know which to choose” when it came to life or death. Paul had a “desire to depart and be with Christ.” He says that would be “very much better.” But how would an unconscious soul sleep be “very much better”? According to the proposition you set forth, Paul would only continue to exist as a memory in the mind of God until he was remade in the resurrection. But I cannot accept this idea because it runs contrary to this and a lot of other scripture.
But perhaps my most cherished passage of scripture relating to life after death is where we read about Jesus’ conversation with Mary and Martha at the resurrection of Lazarus. The scriptures teach:
Martha then said to Jesus, “Lord, if You had been here, my brother would not have died. Even now I know that whatever You ask of God, God will give You.” Jesus said to her, “Your brother will rise again.” Martha said to Him, “I know that he will rise again in the resurrection on the last day.” Jesus said to her, “I am the resurrection and the life; he who believes in Me will live even if he dies, and everyone who lives and believes in Me will never die. Do you believe this?” (John 11:21-26, NASB)
Well, as for me, regarding Jesus’ question, “Do you believe this?” My response is: “Yes, I DO believe this — with all my heart!” I believe every word of Jesus when He says that “he who believes in Me will live even if he dies,” and “everyone who lives and believes in Me will never die!” Furthermore, I think this statement pretty much covers all the bases regarding this whole topic. It gives hope not only for an eventual resurrection and eternal life with God to follow—“live even if he dies”—but it also covers the “intermediate state” of a person between the point of physical death and the moment of the resurrection—“shall never die!” I’m not sure what that may mean to you. But, to me, it means that there will be no cessation of my existence after death. Like Lazarus, I will retain personal cognizance, my self-awareness, my memory, all my senses and, most of all, my relationships — especially my relationship with God.
There are several other passages of scripture that come to my mind; not the least of which is the first passage that I’ve already shared (above) at the beginning of these comments; wherein Paul, in writing to the Christians in Thessalonica, expresses his desire that they be “sanctified entirely” and that their “spirit (πνεῦμα – pneuma) and soul (ψυχὴ – psuche) and body (σῶμα – soma) be preserved complete” (I Thessalonians 5:23, NASB). According to the doctrine you set forth, the body and soul will be utterly and completely destroyed and only the spirit — in the form of a memory belonging to God — will be preserved until the resurrection. But I believe, both from Paul’s statements and Jesus’ teaching, that when we die our spirit — that part of us that is made in the image of God (our personal, conscious, self-awareness) — lives on in some type of tangible, bodily form in the Hadean realm awaiting that great resurrection day. When that day arrives, our present bodies will be resurrected from the grave, from the sea, from Hades [wherever they are] (Revelation 20:13, NASB); and they will be changed, as the Apostle Paul states:
Behold, I tell you a mystery; we will not all sleep [a euphemism for death], but we will all be changed, in a moment, in the twinkling of an eye, at the last trumpet; for the trumpet will sound, and the dead will be raised imperishable, and we will be changed. For this perishable must put on the imperishable, and this mortal must put on immortality. (I Corinthians 15:51-53, NASB)
Jesus said that this resurrection will be not only for the faithful children of God, but for all people everywhere who have ever lived. Listen to His words as He explains the resurrection:
Truly, truly, I say to you, an hour is coming and now is, when the dead will hear the voice of the Son of God, and those who hear will live. For just as the Father has life in Himself, even so He gave to the Son also to have life in Himself; and He gave Him authority to execute judgment, because He is the Son of Man. Do not marvel at this; for an hour is coming, in which all who are in the tombs will hear His voice, and will come forth; those who did the good deeds to a resurrection of life, those who committed the evil deeds to a resurrection of judgment. (John 5:25-29, NASB).
Please understand that what I’ve shared with you are only my current thoughts on this matter; and are in no way comprehensive or exhaustive. There are many other passages of scripture that can be brought to bear upon this topic, and many extenuating details that could be examined. But I think that the passages that have been shared are probably enough to establish a core understanding of what happens to us when we die. My goal in presenting these passages of scripture has not been to persuade you of the error of the doctrine of “Christian mortalism.” Perhaps you’ve already examined some of the scriptures I’ve provided in light of this doctrine and can find reason to take argument with me and my understanding and application of them. But I’ve no wish to argue with anyone regarding this matter as I do not believe that it is all that important to our eternal destiny.
You see, regardless of what one believes about life after death, if our faith and hope is in Christ Jesus, then His grace will cover all our errors and misunderstandings; so long as we are not choosing to deliberately walk in willful and rebellious ignorance of His will. And so, while this is an interesting topic to discuss, and people are free to come to their own personal understanding of what they think will happen to them when they die, it is not so important a topic that it should be made a test of faith or of Christian fellowship within the body of Christ. Believe me, the truth of the matter will become evident to all of us soon enough.
However, this whole topic does tug at my heart-strings a little because I’ve recently been diagnosed with stage two cancer. While the prognosis, at this point, appears good, I know that anything could happen. The very next lab report could indicate metastasis to other parts of my body. And, thus, I find myself living in the constant reality of my own mortality. I know that I may not be in this world much longer. Of course, I also know that the same holds true for all of us because, as we all know, any given day could be our last. But this whole idea that a human being is not really a spiritual being, but only an animalistic being — a physical body with a life-force animating it — and that we will exist only as a memory to God after death, until we are remade at the resurrection, offers very little comfort or hope to those who draw near to deaths dark portal. And, I think, this is an important detail that should be taken under consideration when discussing this and other such doctrines. For we do not want to be guilty of promoting a precept that is not only inconsistent with Bible teaching, but that also strips the Christian faith of hope. I’m thinking again about our Lord and the thief on the cross — Jesus was all about offering hope!
But I want you to know that I have no fear of death because, for me, it does not harbor an intermediate state of unconsciousness; but rather, it represents my “homecoming” and a beautiful reunion with people I love who have gone on before me. I’m looking forward to tumbling through deaths dark portal right into the arms of my Lord and Savior Jesus Christ where I will take my place at His side among all the redeemed of all ages — that “great cloud of witnesses surrounding us” (Hebrews 12:1, NASB).
Please understand, I’m not wanting to be mean or controversial here. But we do have to decide not only what, but who, we’re going to believe. The way I see it, on the one hand we can choose to believe those people and religious groups who advocate for the doctrine of “Christian mortality” — those who say that I’m going to die completely and cease to exist, except in the memory of God, then, in the resurrection, God will generate a new body, soul, and memory that will be me. Or, on the other hand, we can choose to believe our Lord Jesus, Who tells us that: “he who lives and believes in me SHALL NEVER DIE!” I don’t want to hurt anyone’s feelings, but, I choose to believe what Jesus said!
Respectfully and with love,
Philip R. Stroud – B.A., B.Th., M.Ed.
Ministering with the church of Christ in Kailua Kona
Christian Mortalism. (2013). Wikipedia; The free encyclopedia. Retrieved from: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Christian_mortalism
Scripture taken from the NEW AMERICAN STANDARD BIBLE®, Copyright © 1960,1962,1963,1968,1971,1972,1973,1975,1977,1995 by The Lockman Foundation. Used by permission.