As an important fact to start with, the term “soul sleep” is not found anywhere in the Bible or in any translation of the Bible. That immediately gives us a clue that it is an “idea” or “teaching” which is “extra-biblical”, meaning, it is taught from sources outside the Bible without specific support from Scripture.
Where did this idea come from? One of the first writings on the subject was by John Calvin and grew out of Scriptures that refer to the state of death as “sleep” or “falling asleep” (Mt. 9:24; 27:52; Jn. 11:11; Acts 7:60; 13:36; 1 Cor. 15:6, 18, 20, 51; 1 Thess. 4:13; 5:10). Those who teach “soul sleep” include references such as Ps. 6:5; 115:17; Eccl. 9:10; Is. 38:9. But these are not understood in their context. While this paper could go into much detail, I will cover the most important aspects of this subject.
How then are we to understand “sleep” or “falling asleep”? All of the references in the New Testament refer to a believer in Jesus Christ as Savior. One important reference is John 11:11 when Lazarus became sick. Jesus says, “This illness does not lead to death” (11:4). Then in verse 11, Jesus says, “Our friend Lazarus has fallen asleep.” Later Jesus says “I must go to awaken him” (11:11). For the believer in Jesus, the term “fallen asleep” is a metaphorical term meaning that death of the physical body is temporary. Death for the person who does not have salvation through Jesus, is eternal, called the “second death” (Revelation 20:14-15).
Scripture makes a clear difference between the soul and spirit as distinct from the body in death. Paul helps with this subject; “So we are always of good courage. We know that while we are at home in the body we are away from the Lord, for we walk by faith, not by sight.” Because the Lord is in heaven, we are not with Him and this walk as a Christian is one of faith as long as we are in these bodies. Then he continues; “Yes, we are of good courage, and we would rather be away from the body and at home with the Lord.” (2 Corinthians 5:6–8). There is no “intermediate” condition for the believer. Physical “death” or “sleep” ushers the believer’s soul and spirit into the presence of Jesus.
Another very important Scripture is recorded by Luke about one of the thieves that hung beside Jesus; “And he said, “Jesus, remember me when you come into your kingdom.” And he said to him, “Truly, I say to you, today you will be with me in paradise”” (Luke 23:42–43). Paul expressed his thoughts about departing this life by saying, “I am hard pressed between the two (staying here on earth or being with Jesus). My desire is to depart and be with Christ, for that is far better” (Philippians 1:23).
Jesus gives a very colorful parable in Luke 16:19-31 to show there was a “great chasm…fixed” between two men; the rich man who did not believe and the poor man Lazarus who did believe. Sadly, this parable pictures the unchangeable condition at death of those who reject Jesus as savior in life. Notice also that Jesus pictures Lazarus and the rich man very aware of their surroundings. Lazarus was in a place of comfort while the rich man was in “anguish” (16:25). While both of their bodies were in the grave, their souls and spirits were experiencing two very different realities.
I trust this brief explanation will help to answer the questions regarding ‘soul sleep”. I welcome questions from those who are searching for answers.