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?