If a couple Jehovah’s Witnesses knocked on your door to tell you about their church, there is one doctrine that they probably won’t talk about right away. Jehovah’s Witnesses and Seventh Day Adventists are the two most well known groups in America that believe in soul sleep. The doctrine of soul sleep teaches that when a person dies, the soul, just like the body, loses all awareness and sensation. At death the soul of the person does not cease to exist, nor does it enter into heaven or hell, but it becomes unconscious of anything until the day of resurrection.
This doctrine finds support in the Bible’s use of the word “sleep” to describe death. When Jesus’ friend Lazarus died, He told His disciples that Lazarus was asleep. In 1 Thessalonians 4 Paul refers to those who have died when he says, “But I would not have you to be ignorant, brethren, concerning them which are asleep.” Proponents of soul sleep believe the figure of sleep applies to the deceased’s body and soul.
Other support is found in passages like Psalm 146:4, “His breath goeth forth, he returneth to his earth; in that very day his thoughts perish.” and Psalm 6:5, “For in death there is no remembrance of thee: in the grave who shall give thee thanks?” Since man is more just body, since the dead do not think, and since the dead do not praise God, then the soul the soul must go into an unconscious or unaware state after death.
While this may seem to be reasonable and compelling evidence, the Bible makes several clear statements death which make the doctrine of soul sleep impossible. When Jesus taught about the rich man and Lazarus in Luke 16 He plainly taught that when a person dies he immediately enters into his conscious reward. There is no delay between death and awareness. If the soul has no awareness, then the rich man could not wake up in hell. He would be aware of nothing until the resurrection. If the rich man awoke at the resurrection, Abraham was a liar when he said that the man’s brothers could read the Old Testament and thus be saved from hell. What Jesus describes is immediate, conscious awareness of the afterlife.
The book of Revelation tells of martyrs at the throne of God pleading for the punishment of their tormentors. They are clearly conscious, clearly communicating with God and clearly in heaven between their death and the resurrection. Why would they be asking God how long until He would judge their persecutors if they had been resurrected and were at the judgment the same time as their murderers?
The Bible uses sleep as a figurative term to describe the apparent condition of the dead. Sleep is not intended to describe the condition or awareness of the soul. The poetic passages of Psalms and Ecclesiastes that refer to the silence of the dead are speaking of the inability of the deceased to do any thing upon this earth. Soul sleep is not a Biblical doctrine, but a false teaching which denies the clear truths of the Bible about death, judgment and the afterlife.