How do you know that people don't just lapse into unconsciousness and experience spiritual sleep when they die?

Email Received:

I would like to challenge you on your comments about heaven. My study notes Christians Do Not Immediately Go To Heaven When They Die are attached on that topic. Being raised Lutheran my foundation was based more on Luther's Catechism than the Bible. Later in life I joined the Presbyterians and then the Southern Baptists for a short time (before moving to a non-denominational Christian church.)

After this study, I seem to be at odds with all the mainline denominations, just as you are in your pre-wrath rapture views. After 50+ years, it took me quite a while to let go of the "when you die you will be with Jesus in heaven" belief. Rather, I believe that people fall into a state of spiritual sleep and unconsciousness when they die. Please let me know your thoughts. I respect your methodology and open-mindedness.

Ted's Response:

I am aware of the common things that people say after someone loses a loved one, in an effort to comfort the person who has suffered the loss. Personally, such comments are meaningless to me. I know that I will see deceased believers such as my mom and dad again, regardless of where they are now, and that is all that matters to me.

Whether or not they are in heaven right now is irrelevant to me. If they are (which I feel is the case), I definitely do not see them "looking down and smiling" on me; that is a belief that some people seem to need to help them cope with their losses. If they are in heaven, they possibly may have some type of awareness of me, but I highly doubt that it involves any particular focus on me or anyone else on the earth.

I understand your view that the dead have fallen into a state of unconsciousness and unawareness. I have heard and read things that proponents of that view have stated and written. You actually have done a very good job in attempting to support your conviction with scriptural references.

I also respect people who do not automatically accept every standard tenet and precept of a church or denomination just because they have heard it for years or all their lives and because the majority of others believe it. I certainly am in that seemingly small boat myself of questioning several prevalent Christian perspectives, such as a pretrib rapture, the chronology of Revelation, a young-earth creation, a Friday crucifixion, the idea that the battle of Armageddon will occur on the day Jesus returns, and others.

As for the idea that the consciousness or awareness of people ceases when they die, and will be reinstated when they are resurrected, I have not seen enough scriptural "evidence" to convince me of this. In response to your scriptural references, I also will supply references, along with my own comments.

First, though, I need to say that one of the most compelling things that continues to prompt me to believe that people's spirits/souls leave their bodies when the bodies die, and remain very aware (if not hyper-aware) of their surroundings, is not even scriptural. As you know, there are countless reports of people claiming to have left their bodies after death and then being very aware of their surroundings until they re-enter their bodies, which then "wake up" or return to life.

Some of these have described observing their lifeless bodies on an operating table, on the floor, in the street, or in other various places where their body's heart and/or brain function stopped. Some also have described lucid, coherent accounts of heaven or hell, seeing others there, and even seeing Jesus or demons. If there is no consciousness or awareness at all after death, then all of these people, without exception, must range from being patently delusional to blatant liars. Perhaps many of them are one or the other, but I have great difficulty assuming that all of them are.

Therefore, I do not see another possibility, other than that people do retain their consciousness and awareness after death. Furthermore, if believers' spirits/souls, once they leave their bodies, do not go into heaven, I do not have a concept of where they might go. I have a hard time believing that the disembodied spirits/souls simply lie down with their bodies in the grave or that they float in some type of comatose or cataleptic state in the air or in another dimension somewhere.

Now I will provide some scriptural references and comments about them:

And it came to pass, when the LORD would take up Elijah into heaven by a whirlwind, that Elijah went with Elisha from Gilgal. ... And it came to pass, as they still went on, and talked, that, behold, there appeared a chariot of fire, and horses of fire, and parted them both asunder; and Elijah went up by a whirlwind into heaven. (2 Kings 2:1,11)
Elijah did not die; he was taken directly into heaven. Presumably, he's still there. It is true that before His transfiguration, Jesus did indicate that Peter, James, and John would not die before seeing Him coming in His kingdom; and it could be considered that when they saw him being transfigured, this was a "vision" of the future time when He will come again.

However, here is Peter's account of this incident:

For we have not followed cunningly devised fables, when we made known unto you the power and coming of our Lord Jesus Christ, but were eyewitnesses of his majesty. For he received from God the Father honour and glory, when there came such a voice to him from the excellent glory, This is my beloved Son, in whom I am well pleased. And this voice which came from heaven we heard, when we were with him in the holy mount. (2 Peter 1:16-18)
He wrote about Jesus that they were "eyewitnesses of his majesty," which seems to imply that what they saw was real and was happening before their eyes. Also, it seems that the voice from heaven that Peter says they heard was live and not part of a vision. Of course, it is possible that it was only a vision of the future, although one would have to believe that all three men had the identical vision at the same time. I tend to agree with the traditional view that what they saw was live and also that they saw the real Elijah and Moses.

Furthermore, if their "vision" were of Moses and Elijah in the future, in the Kingdom of God, then these two also would have had glorified bodies, which seemingly would have shown like the sun as Jesus' face did. But, evidently, this was true only of Jesus, not of Moses and Elijah.

But he [Stephen], being full of the Holy Ghost, looked up stedfastly into heaven, and saw the glory of God, and Jesus standing on the right hand of God, ... And they stoned Stephen, calling upon God, and saying, Lord Jesus, receive my spirit. And he kneeled down, and cried with a loud voice, Lord, lay not this sin to their charge. And when he had said this, he fell asleep. (Acts 7:55,59,60)
It sounds like Stephen's spirit left his body after he was stoned, and his body died or "fell asleep." He had seen Jesus in heaven and had told Him to receive his spirit. Presumably, then, his spirit went to heaven after his body died or appeared, outwardly, to have fallen asleep.

I knew a man in Christ above fourteen years ago, (whether in the body, I cannot tell; or whether out of the body, I cannot tell: God knoweth;) such an one caught up to the third heaven. And I knew such a man, (whether in the body, or out of the body, I cannot tell: God knoweth;) How that he was caught up into paradise, and heard unspeakable words, which it is not lawful for a man to utter. (2 Corinthians 12:2-4)
Paul was talking about "a man" who had been caught up to the "third heaven," which he equated with "paradise." Most will agree that the man about whom Paul was speaking was Paul himself, since he stated the following a bit later:
And lest I should be exalted above measure through the abundance of the revelations, there was given to me a thorn in the flesh, the messenger of Satan to buffet me, lest I should be exalted above measure. (2 Corinthians 12:7)
Paul himself did not know if he was in the body or out of the body when he was caught up into heaven. Years earlier, Paul had been dragged outside of Lystra, stoned, and left for dead (Acts 14:19). So it is quite possible at that time that Paul died, went to heaven—where he was given great revelations of which he was not permitted to speak—and then was returned back into his body alive. If so, his spirit/soul did not fall into a state of unconsciousness when he died but, rather, went to heaven and saw firsthand what it was like.

And when he had opened the fifth seal, I saw under the altar the souls of them that were slain for the word of God, and for the testimony which they held: And they cried with a loud voice, saying, How long, O Lord, holy and true, dost thou not judge and avenge our blood on them that dwell on the earth? And white robes were given unto every one of them; and it was said unto them, that they should rest yet for a little season, until their fellowservants also and their brethren, that should be killed as they were, should be fulfilled. (Revelation 6:9-11)
The altar that John saw was in heaven (Revelation 8:3,5, 9:13, 14:17,18, 16:7), so the slain souls under the altar presumably were seen by John in heaven as well. Furthermore, they were given white robes to wear; therefore, it would seem that souls must possess some type of supernatural form or shape that we do not yet comprehend or understand. Maybe they are composed of some type of incorporeal energy, just as a hologram is made up of light energy that is not solid but still can be seen and occupies a particular location. Similarly, the white robes could be non-material but, at the same time, visible.

And he shall send his angels with a great sound of a trumpet, and they shall gather together his elect from the four winds, from one end of heaven to the other. (Matthew 24:31)
I believe that one group who is gathered here will consist of the living elect believers, from the four winds of the earth. Their natural mortal bodies instantly will be transformed into glorified immortal bodies, which Jesus has prepared for them.

The other group being gathered will be the spirits/souls of the elect believers who have departed their dead bodies and will have been in heaven until that point. I take it literally that they will be gathered "from one end of heaven to the other" because they will be in heaven when this event occurs.

In probably only a few moments, these spirits/souls will accompany Jesus to earth's atmosphere, He will resurrect their bodies in glory, they will enter their brand new incorruptible, imperishable bodies in which they will dwell for eternity, and then they will return with Jesus, along with the transformed raptured believers, back to heaven. There they will remain while the trumpet judgments are poured out upon the earth.

All flesh is not the same flesh: but there is one kind of flesh of men, another flesh of beasts, another of fishes, and another of birds. There are also celestial bodies, and bodies terrestrial: but the glory of the celestial [NIV: heavenly] is one, and the glory of the terrestrial [NIV: earthly] is another. (1 Corinthians 15:39,40)
Paul's primary focus from 1 Corinthians 15:35 to 15:53 is a discussion of the types of bodies that people now inhabit or will inhabit. He differentiates among the flesh or bodies of earthly beings (15:39). Then he seems to indicate that there now are heavenly ("celestial") bodies, as well as earthly ("terrestrial") bodies, and then differentiates between their glory (15:40).

If so, it would appear that the heavenly bodies are some of the same ones that could wear the white robes given to the souls of the slain, located under the altar in heaven (Revelation 6:9-11). The composition of these spirit bodies is something that we do not yet understand.

I am torn between the two: I desire to depart and be with Christ, which is better by far; but it is more necessary for you that I remain in the body. (Philippians 1:23,24)
Paul said that for the sake of those to whom he was writing, he (that is, his spirit/soul) would remain in his body. But he seemed to be indicating that if his spirit/soul departed from his body, he immediately would be with Christ, who is in heaven.

Then said the woman, Whom shall I bring up unto thee? And he said, Bring me up Samuel. ... And the king said unto her, Be not afraid: for what sawest thou? And the woman said unto Saul, I saw gods ascending out of the earth. And he said unto her, What form is he of? And she said, An old man cometh up; and he is covered with a mantle. And Saul perceived that it was Samuel, and he stooped with his face to the ground, and bowed himself. And Samuel said to Saul, Why hast thou disquieted me, to bring me up? And Saul answered, I am sore distressed; for the Philistines make war against me, and God is departed from me, and answereth me no more, neither by prophets, nor by dreams: therefore I have called thee, that thou mayest make known unto me what I shall do. Then said Samuel, Wherefore then dost thou ask of me, seeing the LORD is departed from thee, and is become thine enemy? And the LORD hath done to him, as he spake by me: for the LORD hath rent the kingdom out of thine hand, and given it to thy neighbour, even to David: Because thou obeyedst not the voice of the LORD, nor executedst his fierce wrath upon Amalek, therefore hath the LORD done this thing unto thee this day. Moreover the LORD will also deliver Israel with thee into the hand of the Philistines: and to morrow shalt thou and thy sons be with me: the LORD also shall deliver the host of Israel into the hand of the Philistines. (1 Samuel 28:11,13-19)
I see no reason to believe that this was anyone or anything other than the real Samuel, although I realize that many believe it was a demon pretending to be Samuel. The text reads, "Saul knew it was Samuel" and "Samuel said...." Also, Samuel's spirit spoke truthfully and accurately everything about Saul that he (Samuel) had when he was still in his body, and he also spoke accurately about Saul's imminent future. It is difficult to imagine that a demon would tell the whole truth.

We do not know how departed spirits look, but it would seem that they are recognizable as the person that they are; therefore, Saul would have recognized the spirit of Samuel. Certainly, they do not yet have glorified bodies. I suspect that when we are given our glorified bodies, we no longer will look the age we were when we died. Maybe we will look "ageless," whatever that might mean.

That thou shalt take up this proverb against the king of Babylon, and say, How hath the oppressor ceased! the golden city ceased! ... Hell from beneath is moved for thee to meet thee [NIV: "it rouses the spirits of the departed to greet you"] at thy coming: it stirreth up the dead for thee, even all the chief ones of the earth; it hath raised up from their thrones all the kings of the nations. All they shall speak and say unto thee, Art thou also become weak as we? art thou become like unto us? Thy pomp is brought down to the grave, and the noise of thy viols: the worm is spread under thee, and the worms cover thee. (Isaiah 14:4,9,10,11)
When this king of Babylon (perhaps the Antichrist, Lucifer incarnate) goes down to the grave, the spirits of those kings of the nations who already are there will see him. Evidently, they will be fully conscious of what is going on and will even speak to him.

And the graves were opened; and many bodies of the saints which slept arose, And came out of the graves after his resurrection, and went into the holy city, and appeared unto many. (Matthew 27:52,53)
My interpretation is that the dead bodies "woke up" in the sense that their spirits/souls re-entered their bodies, which then got up out of their graves, just as someone would get up out of bed and walk around.

So man lieth down, and riseth not: till the heavens be no more, they shall not awake, nor be raised out of their sleep. O that thou wouldest hide me in the grave, that thou wouldest keep me secret, until thy wrath be past, that thou wouldest appoint me a set time, and remember me! (Job 14:12,13)
Writers of the Hebrew Tanakh, such as Job, David (Psalms), and Solomon (Ecclesiastes), used "sheol" as the realm of darkness where all the dead would go, whether righteous or unrighteous. "Sheol" is a broad, all-encompassing word and can mean "grave," "pit," or "abyss." In Greek, it is "hades" or the underworld.

Dead bodies go into a literal grave in the ground, where they continue to lie or "sleep."  However, I do not believe that the grave is where departed spirits/souls go. David wrote this:

The wicked shall be turned into hell, and all the nations that forget God. (Psalm 9:17)
Here, "hell," presumably the worst part of sheol, cannot refer to the grave alone; even bodies of the righteous go to the grave. In my opinion, prior to the death of the Messiah, Yeshua/Jesus, the spirits/souls of people who departed their dead bodies went to sections of sheol. One section, for instance, contains evil angels, where they await the day of judgment (Jude 1:6). Other sections seem to have been made to contain many or all of the departed dead, and Jesus went and preached to these spirits, and possibly also to evil angels, while His body was in the tomb:
For Christ also hath once suffered for sins, the just for the unjust, that he might bring us to God, being put to death in the flesh, but quickened by the Spirit: By which also he went and preached unto the spirits in prison; Which sometime were disobedient, when once the longsuffering of God waited in the days of Noah, while the ark was a preparing, wherein few, that is, eight souls were saved by water. (1 Peter 3:18-20)
It would seem that Jesus descended into the "lower parts of the earth" (much further down than the grave) and brought those spirits who accepted Him up into heaven:
Wherefore he saith, When he ascended up on high, he led captivity captive, and gave gifts unto men. (Now that he ascended, what is it but that he also descended first into the lower parts of the earth? He that descended is the same also that ascended up far above all heavens, that he might fill all things.) (Ephesians 4:8-10)
In my opinion, this was the first time, when Jesus was in the process of conquering death, that the spirits/souls of righteous people were given authorization to enter heaven, upon Jesus' ascension there. Before that point, most of these spirits/souls did not thank, praise, or celebrate God because they existed in a gloomy "dungeon" with little to no hope, until Jesus came along and overcame death, enabling them to escape.

David knew that God would not abandon him in the section of sheol where his soul would go after death. He knew that God would take him out of it, along with the Soul of the Holy One:

For thou wilt not leave my soul in hell [sheol]; neither wilt thou suffer thine Holy One to see corruption. (Psalm 16:10)
Peter wrote, "For David is not ascended into the heavens" (Acts 2:34). The NIV has a clearer rendering: "For David did not ascend to heaven," meaning that David did not ascend to heaven immediately when he died. But David knew that God would not leave his soul in a dark, dismal compartment of sheol. I believe that the soul of David now resides in heaven, where Jesus took him after He descended to sheol to get him and others like him.

As for numerous other cases in the Bible where the dead are described as being asleep, I am not convinced that it means "soul" sleep. I know that many people believe that, and I am open-minded enough to know that anything is possible. However, I never have seen enough support for that view to sway me to accept it. It seems more plausible to me to see a dead body as being like a sleeping body; a dead body eventually will rise up out of the grave just as a sleeping body rises up out of the grave.

I am inclined to believe that spirits/souls that have departed their deceased bodies are fully conscious and that they go somewhere. Even the minds of sleeping bodies are not "turned off"; they are at work the entire time the person is asleep, but their awareness and thoughts are different from what they are during the day when they are awake and causing the body to walk, work, eat, and do other things. During sleep, while dreaming, our minds do not stop; they continue to work, but their perception is different than it is when we are awake. Likewise, departed spirits/souls do not perceive "nothing"; they simply perceive things differently than they did when they were inside of their bodies.

I suspect that the spirits of saved believers go directly to the heaven in which the Father and the Son dwell when they depart their dead bodies. It would be difficult for me to be persuaded that Stephen's conscious and cognizant spirit did not go to be with Jesus in heaven, after being stoned to death, when he had just seen Jesus and had asked Him to receive his spirit (Acts 7:55,59).

I do not believe that unsaved unbelievers go into the lake of fire when they die; I believe that this will happen only at the end of the Millennium (Rev. 20:15), just before the new heaven and the new earth are created (21:1). Where the deceased unsaved unbelievers are now, I do not know--perhaps in a dark, hopeless part of hades or hell, which itself ultimately will be cast into the lake of fire (20:14), following God's final judgment.

If believers go to heaven when they die, I do not believe that they receive their rewards upon arrival. Presumably, that will take place upon Jesus' second advent (bodily descent) to earth, after the blowing of the Seventh Trumpet (Rev. 11:18). I tend to believe that, at the end of one's life, either one's name is destined to be written eternally in the Book of Life or it is not. Therefore, it would seem that one's eternal destiny is set by the time of death. Since God knows the beginning from the end, then saved believers are able to go to heaven even though they have not been officially "judged" by God/Jesus for their deeds, both good and bad.

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