(1 Thess. 4:13) Did Paul believe in soul-sleep?

CLAIM: Some argue that the Bible teaches soul-sleep. This doctrine teaches that people’s souls do not depart to be with God at death. Instead, our souls “sleep” in an unconscious state until the general resurrection of the dead at the end of history (Dan. 12:2; Jn. 5:28-29).

RESPONSE: The Bible teaches that our soul will be immediately in the presence of God at death. Geisler and Howe write, “Sleep is an appropriate figure of speech for death of the body, since death is temporary until the resurrection when the body will ‘awake’ from it.”[1]

There are a number of reasons to believe that we will be conscious after death. Enoch was taken to be with God (Gen. 5:24) and so was Elijah (2 Kings 2:1). When Moses and Elijah appeared to Jesus, they were obviously conscious –hundreds of years after their death (Mt. 17:3). Stephen prayed that God would receive his spirit (Acts 7:59). Jesus promised that the thief would immediately be with God at death (Lk. 23:43). Paul desired to be with Christ at death, which implies that this is a conscious state (Phil. 1:21-23). Paul writes, “While we are at home in the body we are absent from the Lord… [I] prefer rather to be absent from the body and to be at home with the Lord” (2 Cor. 5:6, 8). Moreover, believers in the present heaven are conscious and aware of the tragedies on Earth (Rev. 6:10).

In the NT, the term “sleep” refers to normal sleep, but it is also a term for literal death. In John 11, Jesus said that Lazarus had “fallen asleep” (11:11). His disciples thought that this referred to literal sleep (11:12). However, John writes, “Now Jesus had spoken of his death, but they thought that He was speaking of literal sleep” (11:13). For this reason, we should understand that sleep generally refers to death in the NT; otherwise, we would be making the same mistake as Jesus’ disciples.

[1] Geisler, Norman L., and Thomas A. Howe. When Critics Ask: a Popular Handbook on Bible Difficulties. Wheaton, IL: Victor, 1992. “1 Thessalonians 4:13.”