Asleep in Christ

What happens when we die? Do we go directly to Heaven or Hell, or do we fall asleep and lie unconscious in our bodies until the resurrection? This latter view, called “soul sleep,” might appear scriptural (Da 12:2), and is commonly taught by Christians, but there are problems with it.

For example, as Christ was being crucified He said to one of the thieves, “To day shalt thou be with me in paradise.” (Lk 23:43) Evidently, a better place awaits those who die in Christ, which we enjoy before we’re raised from the dead.

Similarly, Christ describes how Lazarus, a poor beggar, and an unnamed rich man, are both transported from their bodies at death; Lazarus is carried by the angels to meet Abraham (Lk 16:22a) and the rich man appears in hell. (Lk 16:22b-23) Both men are conscious in death, interacting with others in visible, tangible bodies. The rich man recognizes Abraham, who’s been dead for hundreds of years, and pleads with Him to send Lazarus to fetch some water to ease his suffering. (Lk 16:24) As Abraham refuses, he pleads to have Lazarus sent back to warn his brothers to live for God so they won’t suffer the same fate. (Lk 16:28) Abraham’s final words, closing the narrative, are indeed profoundly thought provoking. (Lk 16:31)

The details of this amazing story are entirely inconsistent with soul sleep, contradicting it at every turn. If this is merely metaphorical, and soul sleep is true, then why does Christ use proper names, focus on a prominent historical figure like Abraham, and misrepresent reality so profoundly? Nothing in the narrative indicates it’s a parable; it cannot be thoughtfully dismissed.

On the mount of Transfiguration, before the resurrection, Moses and Elijah discuss the redemption plan with Christ, so Moses isn’t asleep or with the physical remains of his body. (Lk 9:30-31) Yet Moses has a body, and interacts with both Christ and Elijah, prior to either of them dying.

Paul, nearing death, spoke of his imminent departure (2Ti 4:6), after which he planned to be with Christ. (Php 1:23) Yet this was a struggle for Him, which to choose: serving Christ longer on Earth or going on to be with Him. If Paul believes in soul sleep there can be no struggle, he only adds value by staying here to serve.

Paul tells us that God will continue to transform us beyond death, up until the day of Christ (Php 1:6), which is problematic if we’re unconscious most of that time, in the long expanse between our death and resurrection.

Enoch’s prophesy, when God comes to execute judgement on the living, before the final resurrection, is that He will bring many saints with Him (Jud 1:14-15), confirming Paul’s view of the 2nd coming of Christ (1Th 3:13), that His elect will already be with Him when He comes to judge the world. (1Th 4:14)

In Revelation, John sees under the altar of God many souls slain for their testimony, appealing to God to avenge their blood on those still living on Earth. (Re 6:9-10) This is evidently well before the resurrection and judgement, since God tells them to wait until the rest of their brothers are also killed. (Re 6:11)

The problems with soul sleep abound, and appear insurmountable; we could list many more. How do we reconcile them with the texts used to teach soul sleep? (Ps 115:17) An honest approach looks at the whole of Scripture, for a way to reconcile all of it into one, coherent, unified view which does no injustice to any text. This is our challenge.

The only way I can see to reconcile the whole is to understand the passages referring to sleep and inactivity in the grave to be merely from the physical perspective, how it appears to us who are still alive on Earth: the dead look like they are asleep and inactive. It is not an unreasonable way to understand these texts; it does them no real injustice, in my opinion, given all the evidence of soul and spirit activity between death and resurrection. There are many texts which we must take poetically in order retain our integrity (Is 55:12), why not these?

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To Be Sin

In seeking God, to know Him and walk with Him, we face an immediate obstacle: He’s holy (1Jn 1:5) and we’re sinful. (1Jn 1:8) Rather than facing our sin, it’s tempting to try to disassociate ourselves from it, to pretend that our actions don’t define us, that our bad actions don’t reveal that we’re bad people … as if just any kind of tree can produce apples, not just an apple tree.

But God tells us that we are, in fact, known by what we do: our behavior reveals the kind of people we are (Lk 6:44), whether we’re good or evil. (Lk 6:45) This isn’t like saying a tree is an apple tree because it produces apples; but rather that a tree produces apples because it’s an apple tree.

In this analogy, there are only two kinds of fruit: edible and inedible (Mt 12:33), analogous to two sorts of behavior: love (keeping God’s Law 2Jn 1:6) and sin (breaking God’s law 1Jn 3:4), revealing two kinds of people: good and evil. (Jn 5:28-29) As we are in the core of our being, obedient or disobedient, holy or sinful, so we do. Our motives don’t make us what we are, they reveal who we are: we live in love or sin, obedience or rebellion, because of our inner nature. 

So, if God identifies and classifies us by our behavior, God’s redemptive plan, to redeem from fallen Man a people for Himself (Tit 2:14), cannot merely be theoretical, it must be practical. In other words, salvation cannot merely be the bestowal of a positional righteousness, there must also be fundamental change in our nature (Ga 6:15), from evil to good. To walk with God we must be transformed, regenerated, born again

As we are made new creatures in Christ, our inward behavior invariably begins to reflect Christ’s nature. (2Co 5:17) As God delivers His elect from sin’s penalty, He frees us as well from sin’s dominion. (Ro 6:14) Regeneration is thus always accompanied by a growing, practical holiness. (He 6:9) This is a miracle; only God can do this in us. (Je 13:23)

In other words, since we are what we do, to redeem us, God deals not merely with our actions, He deals directly with us; He does not merely forgive our sinful ways, He becomes our sinful selves (2Co 5:21), not only by suffering the penalty we deserve, but also in becoming what we are.

God has never sinned, and He never will; but JEHOVAH so identifies with us as sinners that He treats Himself as if He has, as if He has committed all our sins. God, the perfectly holy one, doing this for us, becoming our sin … this is infinite love. (Ep 3:19)

But God doesn’t stop here; as He becomes our sin, He makes us His righteousness. (2Co 5:21) As He becomes who we are, He is also making us as He is. He does not merely atone for our sinful behavior, He also replaces our old carnal nature with His own holy nature. He does not just forgive our sin, He begins to eradicate it, making us who were born desperately wicked, holy and righteous in thought, word and deed … this is infinite power.

The sacrifice of God, as He gives Himself for us (Ga 2:20), is real and personal: it costs Him everything … to give us everything. (Ro 8:32)

Beloved, if God so loved us, we ought also to love one another(1Jn 4:11)

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Superfluity of Naughtiness

Once God has begotten us by His word (Ja 1:18), He tells us to “lay apart all filthiness,” moral uncleanness, and “superfluity of naughtiness.” (Ja 1:21a)

My dad and me

An overflow of badness spills out when we’re wanton, living without discipline or concern for holiness. Rather, we’re to “receive with meekness the engrafted word, which is able to save our souls.” (Ja 1:21b)

Living carefully, soberly, working out our own deliverance with fear and trembling (Php 2:12), trying our best (2Pe 1:5), no matter how bad our best is, it’s simply common sense, once we’ve chosen the fear of God.

There’s no pretending we’re good, in ourselves (Ga 6:3); even on our best day (Is 6:5) we’re abominable and filthy, guzzling down iniquity like water. (Job 15:16)

But even so, there’s no giving ourselves over to sin on purpose, presumptuously(Ps 19:13), Give it no place (Ep 4:27), no quarter (De 17:2,5); lay it all aside, everything you can that isn’t Christ (Php 1:21), and then ask Him to take what’s left. (Ps 119:29)

Let’s cleanse ourselves of all filthiness of the flesh and spirit, perfecting holiness in the fear of God. (2Co 7:1). Without holiness, no one will see God. (He 12:14)

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Ask in Faith

If we lack wisdom, God invites us to ask Him for more; He gives to all liberally, and doesn’t scold us for asking. (Ja 1:5) In believing God will help us, as we ask Him for good things, we honor Him by acknowledging His faithfulness and goodness, and trusting Him. It shows we understand His character, and expect Him to act accordingly.

But if we don’t ask in faith, confidently knowing He’ll help us (Ja 1:6), we shouldn’t expect anything from Him (Ja 1:7); we’re acting as if God isn’t good or faithful, which exposes a double-mindedness, an instability at the core of who we are. (Ja 1:8) How so?

Being unsure of God’s willingness to help us with wisdom, when He’s told us wisdom is the most important thing in all the world, and that with all of our getting we’re to be getting understanding (Pr 4:7), is to treat Him as if He is malicious, arbitrary and fickle. This is doubting His goodness and love at the core. If we don’t trust the faithfulness of God, if we don’t even know Him, we need His help here first.

Doubting Him on His willingness to give us wisdom, or any obviously good thing, is like thinking He’d refuse to help us find Him (He 11:6), or to help us follow and serve Him. (2Th 3:3) It’s to reject everything He’s told us about Himself; it’s calling Him a liar (1Jn 5:10) and denying His name. At the core of our own being, we know better than this — God isn’t evil — which makes us double-minded.

If we’re content to dishonor God like this, believing lies about Him rather than seeking His grace to believe rightly in Him, He just might let us. (Pr 14:12) And it would be our own fault. (Jn_3:19)

But if we humble ourselves and come to Him (Mt 11:28), seeking His face, casting our insufficiency upon Him (1Pe 5:7) and begging Him to quicken us (Ps 119:156), to give us His life (Jn 1:4), to help us find Him and walk worthy of Him, He most certainly will. (Mt 7:8) That’s just Who He is.

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