To judge from 1 Cor 7:1-40 Paul believed in the imminent appearing of the Lord and that the final resurrection would occur within his own lifetime. Otherwise he likely would not have made such unreasonable demands on believers.1 Paul seemed to think that believers alive in his day would live to see the final resurrection (1 Thess 4:13-18).2 But what of those who had died earlier? It is a question that still plagues pious believers and systematic theologians.
If one thinks that Paul and other early believers had some insight into answering this question, one might be led to believe that the soul of a believer who dies is immediately translated into the presence of the Lord (2 Cor 5:6-10; Phil 1:21-23; Luke 23:39-43; Rev 6:9-11, 7:13-17). But Paul’s comments in 1 Thess 4:13-18 suggest that such may not be the case. Paul’s final words in this passage (i.e., “and so we shall always be with the Lord”) raise the question of where dead believers were before they were resurrected if they were not at that moment with the Lord? Shouldn’t deceased Christians have gone to be with the Lord as soon as they died? If Paul was right in 2 Cor 5:6-9 dead believers should have been accompanying the Lord on his return. As Paul said to living believers in 1 Thess 3:13: may the Lord establish your hearts unblameable in holiness before our God and Father, at the coming of our Lord Jesus with all his saints. Paul’s statement in 1 Thess 3:13 seems to be in direct contradiction to 1 Thess 4:13-17. Apparently one can make either argument from the Bible: the souls of believers sleep till the resurrection or they go directly to be with the Lord.
This kind of dissonance in the New Testament has led some to project an intermediate state between a believer’s death and the resurrection, which some refer to as “soul sleeping.”3 In other words when believers die, their bodies decay but their souls sleep (1 Thess 4:14) until they are awakened at the resurrection by the Lord’s cry of command, the archangel’s call and the sounding of God’s trumpet (1 Thess 4:16).
The theory of soul sleeping may have evolved out of the similarity that biblical writers find between sleep and death. For example when Stephen was killed, he is quoted as saying: “Lord do not hold this sin against them.” And the author of Acts adds: “And when he had said this he fell asleep. And Saul was consenting to his death” (Acts 7:59-8:1; see also, Mark 5:39-40; John 11:11-15; Dan 12:2; 1 Cor 11:30; 15:6, 20; Jer 51:39, 57: Ps 13:3). Indeed, the states of sleep and death resemble one another so closely that at a certain point even today one cannot immediately tell one state from the other.4
The truth of the matter is, however, that no one, not even the biblical writers, knows for certain what happens when life leaves the body. What we think we know is based on our faith or lack of it. At least one author of a biblical book apparently agrees that knowledge of what happens when we die is known to no one. The author of Ecclesiastes writes: “All go to one place; all are from the dust, and all return to dust again. Who knows whether the spirit of man goes upward and the spirit of the beast goes down to the earth” (Eccl 3:20-21 RSV; compare 9:10).5
How do you see it?
Charles W. Hedrick
Missouri State University
1That he recognized the demands to be unreasonable is suggested by 1 Cor 7:20-21, where he was willing to suspend his rule in all the churches of remaining as you are and allowed slaves to gain their freedom.
2As he put it to his readers: “The dead in Christ will rise first, then we who are alive…”(1 Thess 4:17).
3See the discussion in Wikipedia: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Christian_mortalism
5In the epilogue Eccl 12:7 must be read in the light of Eccl 3:19-21 and 9:10.