Saturday, April 18, 2009

Asleep, Not Dead

In the comments on one of my posts, Buz brings up a point I haven't addressed yet.  I am aware that in order to make the case for annihilation, I have to deal with some Scriptures which would seem to contradict it.  I hadn't gotten to that post yet, because I  was getting a little burned out and figured I would pace myself.

If we're dealing with the New Testament's ideas about death and resurrection, it's important to go back and re-read familiar Scriptures and evaluate them on the basis of what they actually say, rather than how we interpret them in the 21st century.

Buz brings up a reference to Jesus saying that God "is not the God of the dead but of the living." That's actually a great Scripture to look at in its context and think about the implications of what Jesus is talking about.  In Matthew 22, Jesus is confronted by the Sadducees who didn't believe in the resurrection of the dead.  They were early materialists without any belief in resurrection, angels or spirits. In order to try and trap Jesus, they pose a question about Levirate marriage:
Matthew 22:23-33
23That same day the Sadducees, who say there is no resurrection, came to him with a question.24"Teacher," they said, "Moses told us that if a man dies without having children, his brother must marry the widow and have children for him. 25Now there were seven brothers among us. The first one married and died, and since he had no children, he left his wife to his brother.26The same thing happened to the second and third brother, right on down to the seventh.27Finally, the woman died. 28Now then, at the resurrection, whose wife will she be of the seven, since all of them were married to her?"

 29Jesus replied, "You are in error because you do not know the Scriptures or the power of God.30At the resurrection people will neither marry nor be given in marriage; they will be like the angels in heaven. 31But about the resurrection of the dead—have you not read what God said to you, 32'I am the God of Abraham, the God of Isaac, and the God of Jacob'? He is not the God of the dead but of the living.33When the crowds heard this, they were astonished at his teaching.

Notice that the Sadducees don't ask what the relationship between the woman and her seven husbands will be in Heaven, after their death. No, they are clearly referring to a future, physical resurrection, not an intermediate state.  Though we know the Sadducees didn't really believe in the resurrection, the way they pose the question informs us about what those who did affirm resurrection believed.  It doesn't indicate any sense of conscious existence before the resurrection.

The most compelling point is made by Jesus.  When he says,"He is not the God of the dead, but of the living," it is a direct reference to resurrection.  He isn't saying, "Abraham, Isaac and Jacob are alive in some spiritual place, conscious of their surroundings...therefore they are 'alive'". Instead, the basis for declaring them "alive" is clearly their future status in the resurrection.

I've referred to Jairus' daughter and Lazarus in my post on Easter, but because the post was focusing on Christ's resurrection, I didn't plunge into the Annihilation/Conditional Immortality subject once again. However, we must consider how Jesus spoke about death and life.  In the gospels, besides raising himself, he only raises three other people; Jairus' daughter, Lazarus, and the son of a widow.  In the case of Jairus' daughter and Lazarus, he describes them as being asleep. Especially in the case of Jairus' daughter, Jesus is adamant over the use of the term, telling the mourners that she is not dead, simply asleep.  It's repeated in Matthew, Mark, and Luke in much the same way.

Matthew 9:23-25 

23When Jesus entered the ruler's house and saw the flute players and the noisy crowd, 24he said, "Go away. The girl is not dead but asleep." But they laughed at him. 25After the crowd had been put outside, he went in and took the girl by the hand, and she got up.

and about Lazarus:

John 11:11

11After he had said this, he went on to tell them, "Our friend Lazarus has fallen asleep; but I am going there to wake him up."

In raising the dead man in Luke, he doesn't refer to him as being asleep, but he does raise him by directly addressing his body.

Luke 7:12-15

12As he approached the town gate, a dead person was being carried out—the only son of his mother, and she was a widow. And a large crowd from the town was with her.13When the Lord saw her, his heart went out to her and he said, "Don't cry."

 14Then he went up and touched the coffin, and those carrying it stood still. He said, "Young man, I say to you, get up!" 15The dead man sat up and began to talk, and Jesus gave him back to his mother.

Very matter of fact, no?
The terminology continues on through Acts and through Paul's epistles.  In Acts as Stephen is being stoned:
Acts 7:59-60
59While they were stoning him, Stephen prayed, "Lord Jesus, receive my spirit." 60Then he fell on his knees and cried out, "Lord, do not hold this sin against them." When he had said this, he fell asleep.
It does not escape my attention that Stephen refers to his "spirit" in this section. I'm going to address that in another section with other verses like it.

In Acts 13:35-37, referring to the death of King David:
36"For when David had served God's purpose in his own generation, he fell asleep; he was buried with his fathers and his body decayed. 37But the one whom God raised from the dead did not see decay.
Paul almost exclusively uses asleep to describe believers who have died.

1 Corinthians 15--all throughout this passage

1 Thessalonians 4 and 5-several uses throughout the chapters.

If we're looking at the cumulative weight of the way death and resurrection are discussed, the case for Conditional Immortality becomes very strong.  If Conditional Immortality is the correct way of viewing human life, then there is no such spiritual place as we currently understand it.


Retriever said...

Thanks for this post, Terri. Have to go and think about it now. Brain dead after a day of chores and gardening... For some reason, the first reaction I had was to ponder "what becomes of purgatory as some have theorized about it?" It may not be Scriptural, but Ihave personally always rather liked the idea of people getting a second chance. Or being shaped up as in boot camp, turned from undisciplined slobs spiritually into trained, fit soldiers of the Lord.

I do tend to think that annihilation rather than even a Dantesque Hell is the likely consequence of rejecting God. If we sever the connection with the One in whom we live, move and have our being, we will ultimately wither and perish forever. Like a bug drying eventually to dust. Or someone just expanding horribly to infinity, coming apart like a person stepping out of an airlock in a space ship into the vacuum of space.

Sorry to be morbid. The more hopeful metaphor from my day's gardening I can come up with is a rosebush I was about to chop up and carry off to the dump. The wicked dog had dug up all around it in a fit of digging frenzy. Until I saw that there were leaves unfurling on it. It was still attached to the ground by one root. The dog had dug and chewed all the others, but so long as it had that one root, it was alive and growing. It encouraged me that we will not be annihilated, despite our imperfections and weaknesses and misfortunes, so long as we keep walking faithfully with our God.

Buz said...

So, you think this is an actual description of the state of existance (or non-existance) rather than just a euphemism or a metaphor? (Not a metaphor describing the lack of consciousness of those who have died, but rather a metaphor describing the lack of permanence or seriousness of death for those Christians who have died.)


Anonymous said...

A couple things.

1) Jesus didn't ever answer the question put to him. And to what degreee he did answer would seem to indicate something different from the modern idea that when we die we'll all get together with our families.

2) Nothing in the Bible teaches when we die, our souls immediately live on. In fact, if you believe Justin Martyr, as late as the second century, it was the heretics who taught immortality of the soul.

Immortality of the soul is an idea conceived from Plato, not anybody connected with the Bible. In fact, in Genesis, the word "soul" is used to describe the creation of animals, although the word is not translated that way in English because it would contradict orthodox theology.

3) There are different teachings in the Bible about the afterlife, In much of the Hebrew Bible, there was no afterlife. The reward for living in line with YHWH was success for the nation and personal blessing.

Subtle changes emerged in the later writings, such as Daniel, but still there was no idea of going to "heaven" at death. The dominant theme is resurrection at a point when God establishes the "Kingdom of God" or Heaven. 1 Corinthians 15, the teaching is that God will come to earth, the dead (who have been sleeping or unconscious) will rise and at that point be bodily resurrected.


terri said...


I think it's a metaphor grounded in a future reality...if that makes any sense. I don't think it's purely metaphor because of the abundant use of it. It shows up in every gospel, in Acts and in several of Paul's epistles. It seems to be a common enough interpretation that different people and personalities employ it. I can't really think of any metaphor in Scripture which is so faithfully used....except maybe those that refer to Christ as a sacrifice, or offering....which is also considered to be more than a metaphor.

If you can think of another, then tell me. Right now, any others escape me.

terri said...


If Conditional Immortality/Annihilation is true, the concept of purgatory, praying to saints, ghosts...all that gets tossed out.

As a protestant, that's no biggie to me ...because I never really believed in those things to begin with.

I imagine if I were a Catholic, that would be a hard thing to try and reconcile.

Buz said...

Actually, I am betting my life (and a lot more) on the belief that it is dar more than a reality. I have a huge investment up there, and, as St. Paul said in I Cor 15:19 "If the only hope we have in Christ is for this life, then we are more pitiful than anyone else."

The idea of Future Resurection which I have heard given was not that our souls are asleep in the ground, but rather that our souls are with God, and that it is our bodies which shall be resurected at the end, they shall be changed to be like the body which Jesus had after his resurection ("we shall not all sleep, but we shall all be changed" ... which, by the way was posted on our church nursery door).


terri said...

The idea of Future Resurection which I have heard given was not that our souls are asleep in the ground, but rather that our souls are with God, and that it is our bodies which shall be resurected at the end, they shall be changed to be like the body which Jesus had after his resurection The only thing I would say about this is....can you find this concept in Scripture?

I'm saying it's not really there. We come to Scripture with a belief already in place that man is made up of body and "spirit"....spirit being some misty essence that is the "real" us. Our body is just conceived of as being a shell that "we" inhabit.

You won't find that concept in the Old Testament...and only a few places in the New Testament that could maybe be used to support the idea. If you try to read through the New Testament without that idea already in place, you'll find much more support for what I am proposing.

Buz said...

The concepts which go into that belief are (1) 2 Cor 5, where St. Paul talks about being absent from the body and present with God, and (2) 1 Thes 4, where St. Paul says that the dead in Christ shall rise.

If they were already with God, then how can they rise? That is where the idea that your spirit is with God, but your body is decaying in the grave comes in. 1 Cor 15 says we will be changed. Our corruptible will put on the incorruptible, i.e. our mortal bodies will be changed to the likeness of the body Jesus had after his resurection.


terri said...

"2) 1 Thes 4, where St. Paul says that the dead in Christ shall rise.

If they were already with God, then how can they rise?"

I'm not understanding how this helps your case. How is saying "the dead in Christ shall rise" support for it? That is clear resurrection language that says nothing about the spirits of people.

As far as what Paul says about being with the Lord....he's not making a doctrinal statement or instruction. I would take that as a euphism/metaphor, considering that all the other language in his epistles makes no mention of Heaven as the abode of man's spirit.

I need to do a post about the counter-passages. I'll try to do that in the next week.

LMBaldwin said...

So what about the thief on the cross? Jesus said to him, "TODAY, you will be WITH ME, in Paradise" Luke 23:43