“Sleep” is a common biblical euphemism and metaphor for death, and the Bible compares death to sleep many times (cp. Daniel 12:2; John 11:11-14; Acts 7:60; 13:36; 1 Corinthians 7:39, 11:30; 15:6, 18, 20; 1 Thessalonians 4:13). For example, Psalm 13:3 says, “Consider, and answer me, O Yahweh, my God. Enlighten my eyes, lest I sleep the sleep of death.” Job said, “But man dies and is laid low. Yes, man breathes his last breath, and where is he? …so a man lies down and does not rise. Until the heavens are no more they will not awake, nor be roused out of their sleep” (Job 14:10, 12).
It can be very comforting to believers to realize that in death, just like in deep sleep, there is no awareness of the passage of time. When a believer dies, “falls asleep,” the next thing they will see is Jesus and other believers. Tradition teaches that when a person dies, “they go to be with Jesus.” While it is not true from a time perspective that the believer is with Jesus the moment they die, from the perspective of the person who died, the instant they close their eyes in death is the instant they see Jesus. The dead person is not aware of the time that passes between their death and their resurrection. There is no netherworld, no purgatory, nothing like that, so to the person who died there is just death then immediate resurrection.
Thus, the experience of people who die is different from the experience of the people who are alive. The experience of the family, friends, and other people who are alive on earth is that the person who died and is buried in the ground is dead, asleep, and is no longer afflicted by the troubles of life, while the living struggle on in day-to-day life. In contrast, the experience of the people who die is that they close their eyes in death and are instantly awake in the resurrection. The dead person has no awareness of time or the struggles of the living. Believers close their eyes in death and instantly see Jesus. They may have been dead thousands of years, but to them, the instant they die is the instant they see Jesus.
Imagine the joy of the resurrection! For example, an elderly, sick person who has been troubled throughout life closes their eyes in the sleep of death and then to them they are instantly awake with Jesus in a wonderful new body like Jesus’ body (Philippians 3:21). The person’s old body was corrupt but they are raised in “incorruption,” they died in “dishonor” but they are raised in “glory,” they died in “weakness” but will be raised in “power” (1 Corinthians 15:42-44). Promises like these are why believers need not fear death.
Death is like sleep in many ways, which is one reason the Bible uses the term “sleep” to describe death. Nevertheless, even though death is called “sleep,” that metaphor, like all metaphors, is imperfect. There are similarities between death and sleep, but there are also big differences. We will examine the similarities first.
- Both death and sleep are overpowering forces. People cannot prevent their death, and they cannot help falling asleep when they are tired. Even if people try to force themselves to stay awake, eventually sleep will overpower them.
- There is no awareness of time in either death or deep sleep; time passes without the person being aware of it.
- No productive work can be done by the person when they are dead or asleep.
- In both death and sleep there is a continuity of the person. When a person falls asleep, they are the same person when they wake up. The process of sleep did not change the person into somebody else. Similarly, the person who dies and is resurrected is the same person. At the resurrection people will remember who they are and what they did in this life. Jesus Christ is our best example of someone having continuity of being after his resurrection. Jesus was the same person after his resurrection as he was before it, he just had a different body and more capabilities. But he knew who he was and he knew his friends and family, and everyone who is resurrected from the dead will know those things too.
- Both death and sleep come to an end. A person’s state of death ends when they are resurrected, just as their sleep ends when they wake up.
Now that we have seen the similarities between sleep and death it is important to note the differences. In sleep, the person’s bodily functions continue, and they will wake up on their own when their body is rested. In contrast, when a person dies, their body is dead and their soul and spirit are gone. The person cannot wake up on their own but stays dead until the resurrection when God gets them up from the dead.
The sleep of death is sometimes referred to as “soul sleep.” However, it is not the “soul” that “sleeps,” according to the Bible it is the “person” who sleeps. The phrase “soul sleep” is not in the Bible but was a term that was popularized by John Calvin (1509-1564), who used it in a pejorative way, criticizing the belief. Calvin believed that the soul lived on after a person died.
Some of the great people of Christianity believed the soul did not live on after a person died, including William Tyndale, John Wycliffe, and Martin Luther.