The “Sleep” Metaphor
1 Thessalonians 4:13 (KJV)
But I would not have you to be ignorant, brethren, concerning them which are asleep, that ye sorrow not, even as others which have no hope.
As we have seen, the dead are truly dead and in “gravedom.” When their bodies have rotted, they have ceased to exist. But because they “exist” in the memory of God, He remembers them and intends via Jesus Christ to raise them to life. Thus He figuratively refers to their state of being as “sleep.” This clearly implies a future awakening. Because both their body and soul are dead, the term “sleep” has to be a metaphor.
The purpose of biblical figures of speech is to communicate truth more effectively or forcefully than would simple statements of fact. A metaphor or analogy is useful to augment our understanding if we carefully analyze the points of similarity between the compared terms. In this case, death and sleep have at least five points of similarity that give us much insight into the state of the dead, consistent with what we have already seen from the Old Testament.
The first similarity between death and sleep is that both are overpowering forces. A human being needs to rest. If deprived of sleep long enough, a person will literally fall asleep in the midst of any task, no matter how demanding. The human will is no match for the power of sleep. Consider Jesus’ disciples. Close to the time when he would be arrested, Jesus and his disciples were on the Mount of Olives. There was probably no more critical time for Peter and the disciples to stay awake and pray.
Mark 14:35-38 (KJV)
(35) And he went forward a little, and fell on the ground, and prayed that, if it were possible, the hour might pass from him.
(36) And he said, Abba, Father, all things are possible unto thee; take away this cup from me: nevertheless not what I will, but what thou wilt.
(37) And he cometh, and findeth them sleeping, and saith unto Peter, Simon, sleepest thou? couldest not thou watch one hour?
(38) Watch ye and pray, lest ye enter into temptation. The spirit truly is ready, but the flesh is weak.
Like sleep, death is an inexorable force for all men (unless they are still living when Christ appears). No amount of self-discipline can cheat “The Grim Reaper.” The most we can ask is to be “…old and full of days,” as God’s Word describes many Old Testament saints upon whom He had conferred His blessing. Our days on earth may be healthy and full of joy, but they will eventually end. Only when the day arrives that we receive a body fashioned like Jesus Christ’s glorious body will we become immortal beings who cannot die.
A second point of similarity between sleep and death is that in either state there is no consciousness of time or space. Remember that Ecclesiastes told us that the dead “know not anything.” This is also true of those who sleep, and that is why people are very vulnerable to danger while they sleep. Because we are somewhat helpless in this state, God has provided us with encouragement and a promise of protection.
Psalms 121:2-4 (KJV)
(2) My help cometh from the LORD, which made heaven and earth.
(3) He will not suffer thy foot to be moved: he that keepeth thee will not slumber.
(4) Behold, he that keepeth Israel shall neither slumber nor sleep.
Psalms 3:5 (KJV)
I laid me down and slept; I awakened; for the LORD sustained me.
The lack of consciousness in sleep is also illustrated in Elijah’s mocking of the 450 prophets of Baal. After they had tried many times to evoke his power, saying, “O Baal, hear us,” the Scriptures teach that there was “…no voice, nor any that answered….”
1 Kings 18:27 (KJV)
And it came to pass at noon, that Elijah mocked them, and said, Cry aloud: for he is a god; either he is talking, or he is pursuing [out for a walk], or he is in a journey, or peradventure he sleepeth, and must be awaked.
The analogy of waking the dead from sleep makes no sense if the dead are already conscious in a higher sphere of existence, and the argument that only the body “sleeps” in death, while the soul continues to function, holds no water. On the contrary, the sleep metaphor emphasizes the absence of consciousness.
During physical sleep, bodily functions continue uninterrupted. It is the mind that sleep reduces to un-consciousness. The following biblical usages of physical “sleep” show the mental emphasis of this concept.
1 Thessalonians 5:6 and 7 (KJV)
(6) Therefore let us not sleep, as do others; but let us watch and be sober.
(7) For they that sleep sleep in the night; and they that be drunken are drunken in the night.
The sleep metaphor thus must refer to the absence of mental awareness or consciousness, which is the major qualitative difference between the sleep state and the waking state. The sleeper is not aware of elapsed time, nor of the reality of space and time in the conditions that surround him. When he awakens, his mind becomes alert and aware once more. Likewise for one who has died, when he is raised from the dead. A dead believer is absolutely unaware of the passage of time. Whether he has been dead a few days or thousands of years, the moment of his falling asleep will be, in his conscious awareness, the moment of his awakening to new life.
A third point of similarity is that both in death and in sleep no productive work can be done. Perhaps that is why God contrasts sleep and productivity.
Proverbs 6:6-11 (KJV)
(6) Go to the ant, thou sluggard; consider her ways, and be wise:
(7) Which having no guide, overseer, or ruler,
(8) Provideth her meat in the summer, and gathereth her food in the harvest.
(9) How long wilt thou sleep, O sluggard? when wilt thou arise out of thy sleep?
(10) Yet a little sleep, a little slumber, a little folding of the hands to sleep:
(11) So shall thy poverty come as one that travelleth, and thy want as an armed man.
The time to work for God is while one is alive (Eccles. 9:4-6 and 10). That is why God’s Word states:
Psalm 116:15 (KJV)
Precious in the sight of the LORD is the death of his saints.
A saint who has died cannot work for God. Some misconstrue this verse to say that God considers the deaths of His people “valuable” to Him, because He needs them “home” with Him in heaven for some higher task. However, the word “precious,” yaqar, is better translated “costly.” Yaqar also occurs elsewhere in the context of the death of God’s people, and its meaning is clearly defined.
Psalm 72:13 and 14 ( KJV)
(13) He shall spare the poor and needy, and shall save the souls of the needy.
(14) He shall redeem their soul from deceit and violence: and precious [yaqar] shall their blood be in his sight.
Clearly God is not saying that the death of the poor and needy is something valuable, but rather yaqar refers to the high value to God of those who love Him. For them to die would be costly to Him. So it is with “His saints” in Psalm 116:15. Their death is “precious” in the same sense that The American Heritage Dictionary defines “precious”: “costly; implies especially high quality or rarity of an object; implies uniqueness and irreplaceability.” The death of His saints is “precious” because those whom God has sanctified for His purposes are (1) rare, (2) unique, (3) of high quality and (4) irreplaceable. Therefore, their deaths are costly. The dead cannot work for God, so it costs Him a lot to lose one of His faithful.
Understanding this point offsets the following argument: If death is like sleep and in the consciousness of a Christian the moment of his death is, in effect, the moment he meets the Lord, that is no different than his going to heaven the moment he dies, and thus it provides him no more incentive to live.
On the contrary, the believer who knows that death renders him unable to enjoy fellowship with the Lord or to do anything for him realizes not only that there is no benefit to death, but also that it causes irreparable loss to himself, his family and friends and to God.
The dead are “asleep” and thus unproductive. They no longer exist and therefore are not to be prayed for or prayed to. They are not “up there” smiling down on us, watching over us or directing us in life, in spite of what one may read, hear about or experience.
Nor are they intervening on our behalf. In a recent championship basketball game, a player, whose father had died only hours earlier, made a spectacular shot. Later in an interview, another player remarked about the shot and said that his teammate’s father “put that one in.” The man’s father, we are to understand, was apparently hovering over the basket and helping his son sink difficult shots. An obvious question arises: Did not the other team have any deceased relatives who could have blocked the shot?
In an article in USA Today, a woman who won two $250,000 keno jackpots said it was her dead father who inspired her to play at a specific club. She said that her father stood at the foot of her bed one night, comforting her about her money problems. “Baby,” she recalls him telling her, “stop worrying. Everything’s going to be okay.”
God’s Word makes it plain that her “help” did not come from either her human father or from her heavenly Father, but rather from the “father of lies.” There is an abundance of heavenly help available, however, from God the Father, His Son Jesus Christ and millions of angels. We are much better off relying on all this divine power than looking to dear Aunt Ethel, who, as “dust,” is currently helpless.
A fourth point of similarity is that sleep takes place in a limited time period, sandwiched between one’s falling asleep and waking up.
Mark 4:27 (KJV)
And [the sower] should sleep, and rise night and day, and the seed should spring and grow up, he knoweth not how.
The phrase “…sleep, and rise night and day…” illustrates a continuance of rising and sleeping for a period of days. Thus we can see that each state of sleep has a beginning and an end. Similarly, for a Christian, death is not final. It is an interim state that ends in an awakening.
A fifth similarity between death and sleep is that there is a continuity of being of the person when he awakens from sleep. The same person falls asleep and awakens again. Peter was still Peter after he awoke in the garden. Jesus was still Jesus when he awoke from the dead and arose from the tomb.
If at death one’s physical body eventually goes back to dust and thus his soul no longer exists, what then is the “continuity” factor? According to Job 14:13, a dead believer “exists” only in the memory of God, but certainly God, through Christ, is able to make a new body for him. After all, God started “from scratch” once before, didn’t He?
How did Jesus Christ describe the state of the dead?
To consider what Jesus said about death, we now investigate the Gospels. There is nothing in Jesus’ teachings that would lend credence to the Greek concept of the immortality of the soul or the soul’s survival after the death of the body.
In Matthew 9:24, Mark 5:39 and Luke 8:52, Jesus also referred to the dead as “sleeping,” just as the Old Testament did. The same holds true for the following verses from the record of Jesus raising his friend Lazarus from the dead. They speak for themselves regarding the sleep metaphor.
John 11:11-14 (KJV)
(11) These things said he: and after that he saith unto them, Our friend Lazarus sleepeth; but I go, that I may awake him out of sleep.
(12) Then said his disciples, Lord, if he sleep, he shall do well.
(13) Howbeit Jesus spake of his death: but they thought that he had spoken of taking of rest in sleep.
(14) Then said Jesus unto them plainly, Lazarus is dead.
We know that Jesus himself expected to die and be buried in the grave for three days and three nights.
Matthew 12:40 (KJV)
For as Jonas was three days and three nights in the whale’s belly; so shall the Son of man be three days and three nights in the heart of the earth.
If the dead go to heaven to be in God’s presence when they die, why wouldn’t Jesus? If anyone should have been given that privilege by God, it was Jesus. He made no such claim, however, for himself or for others.
Jesus did, however, often make mention of the resurrection of the dead, consistent with Hebrew understanding. For example:
Luke 14:14 (KJV)
And thou shalt be blessed; for they cannot recompense thee: for thou shalt be recompensed at the resurrection of the just [not “when you die”].
Speaking of her brother Lazarus who had died four days earlier, Martha spoke to Jesus.
John 11:24-26a (KJV)
(24) Martha saith unto him [Jesus], I know that he [Lazarus] shall rise again in the resurrection at the last day.
(25) Jesus said unto her, I am the resurrection, and the life: he that believeth in me, though he were dead, yet shall he live:
(26a) And whosoever liveth and believeth in me shall never die….
Note that neither Jesus nor Martha spoke of Lazarus as if he were alive in heaven. Lazarus, raised by Jesus after being dead for four days, was not rudely yanked out of heaven where he was revelling in celestial bliss. Rather, he was restored to life.
Where had Jesus learned about resurrection, specifically his own? From Scripture. Jesus had studied the Old Testament and knew therefore that he was to be raised from the dead. The record of Isaac’s figurative resurrection (compare Gen. 22:1–18 to Heb. 11:17–19) was a type of his own literal resurrection, and Scriptures such as these bolstered Jesus’ faith in God’s promise. Perhaps the two most notable Old Testament verses regarding the Messiah’s resurrection are Psalms 2:7 and 16:10. These also were etched upon Jesus’ heart.
Psalm 2:7 (KJV)
I will declare the decree: The LORD hath said unto me, Thou art my Son; this day have I begotten thee.
In hindsight, we recognize that this is a reference to his resurrection, not his birth, as we shall see shortly when we consider what Paul said in Acts 13.
In all the Old Testament, Psalm 16:10 is perhaps the most specific verse referring to the raising of the Messiah from “gravedom.”
Psalm 16:10 (KJV)
For thou wilt not leave my soul in hell [sheol = gravedom]; neither wilt thou suffer thine Holy One to see corruption.
After his resurrection, Jesus Christ taught his disciples these and other Old Testament verses that enabled them to understand the significance of his death and resurrection (Luke 24:27 and 45; Acts 1:3). Peter in particular elevated the importance of Psalm 16:10 by quoting it twice in his discourse on the Day of Pentecost.
What did Peter say?
Not long after Jesus had taught his disciples Psalm 16:10, this signal verse became the main point of Peter’s sermon on the Day of Pentecost:
Acts 2:22a, 23, and 24 (KJV)
(22a) Ye men of Israel, hear these words; Jesus of Nazareth…
(23) Him, being delivered by the determinate counsel and foreknowledge of God, ye have taken, and by wicked hands have crucified and slain:
(24) Whom God hath raised up, having loosed the pains of death: because it was not possible that he should be holden of it.
Since the wages of sin is death and Jesus paid the price for all men’s sin, he was temporarily gripped by the “pains of death.” But once Jesus had died, the legally required penalty had been paid, and God could raise up His Son.
Acts 2:25-28 (KJV)
(25) For David speaketh concerning him, [Peter then quotes Psalm 16:8-11] I foresaw the Lord always before my face, for he is on my right hand, that I should not be moved:
(26) Therefore did my heart rejoice, and my tongue was glad; moreover also my flesh shall rest in hope:
(27) Because thou wilt not leave my soul in hell [hades=gravedom], neither wilt thou suffer thine Holy One to see corruption.
(28) Thou hast made known to me the ways of life; thou shalt make me full of joy with thy countenance.
By revelation, David had plainly said that his soul would remain in the grave unless the Messiah retrieved it. Again, Acts 2:27 (referring to Psalm 16:10) reveals that God would allow the Messiah to go to the grave, but would not allow him to remain there to see corruption.
Peter then goes on to make a statement that is perfectly consistent with what has already been shown to be the thrust of Scripture, that the dead are truly dead and sleeping in “gravedom.”
Acts 2:29 (KJV)
Men and brethren, let me freely speak [i.e., speak frankly] unto you of the patriarch David, that he is both dead and buried, and his sepulchre is with us unto this day.
No mention is made of David inhabiting the “great beyond” and looking down on the events of Pentecost with a smile. In fact, Peter is making a clear statement that, in contrast to Jesus Christ being raised from the dead, David is still dead. Unless the dead are really dead, the resurrection from the dead loses its great significance and the most important event in the history of mankind, namely Christ’s resurrection, is rendered virtually meaningless.
In Acts 2:31, Peter repeats Psalm 16:10, rewording it in terms of it having been accomplished: “He seeing this before spake of the resurrection of Christ, that his soul was not left in hell, neither his flesh did see corruption.” By quoting it again, Peter identified it as the focal verse of the context. Verse 34 further establishes the contrast between David, who penned the words of Psalm 16:10, and Jesus Christ, who lived them.
Acts 2:34 and 35 (KJV)
(34) For David is not ascended into the heavens: but he saith himself, The LORD said unto my Lord, Sit thou on my right hand,
(35) Until I make thy foes thy footstool.
Could it be any plainer? David did not go to heaven when he died. And he is not in a holding pattern above Chicago. David understood that, when he died, he would stay dead until God exalted the Messiah to His right hand and then sent him to raise David to life in the age to come. Peter also understood this truth.
What about Paul?
Paul’s great discourse in Acts 13:16–41 contains the same truths as Peter’s preaching on Pentecost. The two most significant Apostles of the first-century church agreed on the state of the dead and on the resurrection of the dead.
Acts 13:32 and 33 (KJV)
(32) And we declare unto you glad tidings, how that the promise which was made unto the fathers,
(33) God hath fulfilled the same unto us their children, in that he hath raised up Jesus again; as it is also written in the second psalm, Thou art my Son, this day have I begotten thee.
Paul’s reference is to Psalm 2:7b, and he leaves no doubt that the resurrection of Jesus Christ fulfilled this promise.
Acts 13:34-37 (KJV)
(34) And as concerning that he raised him up from the dead, now no more to return to corruption, he said on this wise, I will give you the sure mercies of David.
(35) Wherefore he saith also in another psalm, Thou shalt not suffer thine Holy One to see corruption.
(36) For David, after he had served his own generation by the will of God, fell on sleep, and was laid unto his fathers, and saw corruption:
(37) But he, whom God raised again, saw no corruption.
As did Peter at Pentecost, Paul also quoted Psalm 16:10. His terminology is the same on every point. David died, saw corruption (returned to dust) in the grave and is now “asleep” and awaiting resurrection. The phrase “slept with his fathers” is a common Hebrew expression for death, often used in the Old Testament. Paul’s use of a similar expression in Acts 13:36 further supports the complete agreement of both Old and New Testaments regarding the state of the dead and supporting the idea of resurrection—a future awakening.
When Paul wrote about the recovery of Epaphroditus, who had been deathly ill, he said that “…God had mercy on him [Epaphroditus]…” (Phil. 2:27). Would it be mercy to deprive someone of “heaven”? No, it was mercy for God to heal him. For a believer, long life on earth is always portrayed as a blessing from God, not a postponement of glory.
Rest In Peace
In light of the sleep metaphor, it is clear that death is certainly not something to be desired or eagerly anticipated. It remains the mortal enemy of life and godliness, both of which can only be enjoyed by the living. It robs God of our love, worship and service. It robs us of our fellowship with God and the joy of living. Yet one who is born again need not fear what will happen to him while he is dead, for death is simply an interim state of “unconsciousness” to be ended by the coming of Jesus Christ. Christians asleep in death are unconscious of time, and hence their next waking moment is the coming of Christ. Christians who have died may, as the saying goes, “rest in peace.”
Before we end our discussion of the sleep metaphor, it will be interesting to allow Martin Luther to speak on the subject. Though his words are in no way equal to God’s Word, they are set forth here to remind the reader to the fact that this book’s authors are among many in history to have recognized this vital truth in God’s Word. It is too bad that Luther did not more vigorously include in his Reformation theology the truth that he obviously believed at one time.
The following quotes by Luther are taken from an article entitled “What Happens To People When They Die?” written by Blaine Newman in the Winter 1990 issue of Resurrection Magazine.
It would take a foolish soul to desire its body when it was already in heaven.
For just as a man who falls asleep and sleeps soundly until morning does not know what has happened to him when he wakes up, so we shall suddenly rise on the last Day, and we shall know neither what death has been like nor how we have come through it.
Another proof that the dead are insensible. Solomon thinks, therefore, that the dead are altogether asleep, and think nothing. They lie, not reckoning days or years, but, when awakened, will seem to themselves to have slept scarcely a moment.
We Christians, who have been redeemed from all this through the precious blood of God’s Son, should train and accustom ourselves in faith to despise death, and regard it as a deep, strong, sweet sleep; to consider the coffin as nothing other than a soft couch of ease or rest. As verily, before God, it truly is just this; for he testifies, John 11:11: Lazarus, our friend sleeps; Matthew 9:24: The maiden is not dead, she sleeps.
For since we call it a sleep, we know that we shall not remain in it, but be awakened and live, and that the time during which we sleep, shall seem no longer than if we had just fallen asleep. Hence, we shall censure ourselves that we were surprised or alarmed at such a sleep in the hour of death, and suddenly come alive out of the grave and from decomposition, and entirely well, fresh, with a pure, clear, glorified life, meet our Lord and Saviour Jesus Christ in the clouds.…
Just as soon as your eyes are closed you will be awakened. A thousand years will seem as though you have slept a half an hour. As we do not know how long we are sleeping if we do not hear the clock striking during the night, so in death a thousand years will pass away still more rapidly.
We are to sleep until he comes and knocks on the grave and says, “Dr. Martin, get up.” Then I will arise in a moment and will be eternally happy with him.
Did you see Elvis?
What about accounts of so-called “near-death” or “post-death” experiences, which have perhaps become more in vogue in recent years due to the improvement in medical technology? After being revived, some people have described either glorious or hideous visions and/or conversations with God, Jesus, the Devil, angels, dead relatives or friends. It is not surprising that among doctors, theologians, amateur philosophers and Hollywood producers there are many explanations for these stories.
First of all, no explanation that contradicts God’s Word can be valid. Obviously we cannot rule out God giving someone a vision even when he is near death, but if one were in fact clinically dead, it is clear from Scripture that no one could communicate with him.
At least some doctors agree. Dr. John Caronna, professor of clinical neurology at New York Hospital-Cornell Medical Center in New York City, referring to those who have “essentially died and been resuscitated,” said, “As a physician and a neurologist, I believe that this period is totally blank and that even if something happened during that period, it would not be remembered.” Any “firsthand” reports to the contrary must be satanic counterfeits designed to promote his original lie, “You shall not surely die.”
Scripture records a number of instances when people were raised from the dead by Jesus and other men utilizing the power of God. Such miracles obviously blessed the families and friends of the ones who were raised to life. Were these living people selfishly desiring their dead loved ones to leave Paradise and rejoin them in this cruel world? No. And it is most significant that not one of those raised from the dead professed any experiential knowledge of an afterlife.
In conclusion, the dead are in a state of “sleep.” The sleep metaphor simply and profoundly answers the question, “In what state of being are the dead?” In His wisdom, God has achieved an artful balance, preserving the idea of death as an enemy, but robbing death of its “sting,” so that we as Christians with the blessed hope of our Savior’s appearing and the guarantee of everlasting life need not sorrow “…even as others which have no hope” (1 Thess. 4:13 – KJV).