1 Thessalonians 4:15-18 and 1 Corinthians 15:52 use the Words Sleep and Asleep to describe the Dead before the Resurrection.
What was death or Sheol like prior to the resurrection? 1 Corinthians 15:51-52 and 1 Thessalonians 4:15-18 use the words sleep and asleep to describe the dead. Do the dead truly sleep before the resurrection? The Book of Daniel closes with the words: “You [Daniel] will rest, and then at the end of the days you will rise to receive your allotted inheritance (Daniel 12:13).” The Bible often implies that the dead sleep (Ecclesiastes 9:10; Isaiah 38:18; Psalms 13:3; 6:5; Matthew 9:24), though there are also verses in the Bible that imply that the departed are conscious before the resurrection (1 Samuel 28:10-19, Ezekiel 32:21, Matthew 17:3, Luke 16:19-31, 1 Peter 3:18-20, Revelation 6:9-10). Ezekiel 32:21 reads, “From within the realm of the dead the mighty leaders will say of Egypt and her allies, ‘They have come down and they lie with the uncircumcised, with those killed by the sword.’” Another verse implying that the dead are conscious is the parable of the rich man and Lazarus. In this parable the rich man dies and is sent to Hades. While in Hades, the rich man calls out to Abraham to send Lazarus to his family to warn them so that they will not also end up in this place of torment (Luke 16:19-31). It should be noted that Ezekiel 32:21 may just be a poetic depiction of death rather than being clear evidence of a conscious afterlife prior to the resurrection. And the parable of the rich man and Lazarus is, of course, a parable which is a symbolic story. However, if the all the dead both righteous and wicked truly sleep prior to the resurrection, how is the rich man in torment in Hades in any way whether literally or symbolically if he is asleep or not conscious at that time? Furthermore, if the dead truly and literally sleep, how did Jesus preach to the spirits in Hades as indicated in 1 Peter 3:18-20? Additional evidence that the dead are in some way conscious prior to the resurrection is the fact that the ghost of Samuel is said to have appeared to Saul during a séance (1 Samuel 28:10-19) and Moses and Elijah seem to have appeared beside Jesus in a vision during the transfiguration (Matthew 17:3). Ultimately the Bible is unclear as to whether the old covenant departed were conscious prior to the resurrection. Perhaps the lack of consciousness implied in vs. like Ecclesiastes 9:10, Isaiah 38:18, and Psalms 13:3 concerns the decaying body of the departed alone and not the spirit? Or perhaps words like “sleep” are used nonliterally as symbols of death since whatever death is like prior to the resurrection it is like being asleep in that there is no working or planning (Ecclesiastes 9:10), it is dark (Psalms 13:3), and no one praises God (Psalms 6:5). Perhaps there is another explanation for these sleep-like descriptions? Maybe no one works or plans for the future in death as stated in Ecclesiastes 9:10 because they are confined to a pit or prison-like place and people do not work or plan in prison if they do not think they are getting out? Maybe this prison is dark (Psalms 13:3) like the outer darkness Jesus often mentions? And maybe no one praises God in death prior to the resurrection (Psalms 6:5) because they cannot see God or perhaps they are angry at Him for seeming to have abandoned them in this dark prison? Likewise in this prison the old covenant departed whether righteous or wicked all share the same fate, a perceived injustice (Ecclesiastes 5:15-16). Because of this lack of clarity one can only speculate.1
Prior to the Resurrection the Deeds of the Living did Not Benefit or Harm Them in Death (Ecclesiastes 5:15-16). This Changed after the Resurrection at the End of the Age and the Subsequent Judgment of the Departed (Revelation 14:13; 20).
Concerning the perceived injustice of Sheol during the Old Covenant Age, Solomon writes, “Everyone comes naked from their mother’s womb, and as everyone comes, so they depart. They take nothing from their toil that they can carry in their hands. This too is a grievous evil: As everyone comes, so they depart, and what do they gain, since they toil for the wind (Ecclesiastes 5:15-16)?” After Jesus’ death for the remission of sins–past, present and future–and the subsequent resurrection of the saints from Sheol at the end of the age the opposite occurs: “Then I heard a voice from heaven say, ‘Write this: Blessed are the dead who die in the Lord from now on.’ ‘Yes,’ says the Spirit, ‘they will rest from their labor, for their deeds will follow them (Revelation 14:13).’” According to Ecclesiastes 5:15-16 both the wicked and the righteous of the Old Covenant Era shared the same fate after death regardless of their deeds in life. Solomon sees this as a grave injustice. However, this injustice is rectified at the resurrection and judgment at the end of the age (Revelation 20:4-15). According to Revelation 14:13 it is then that spiritual death (i.e. Sheol) is conquered and the deeds of the righteous and wicked are finally rewarded or punished.2
- If one is inclined to interpret descriptions of Sheol in vs. like Ezekiel 32:21 and Luke 16:19-31 literally, then Sheol may be what is often called the void by researchers who study near-death experiences (NDE’s). Like Sheol, the void is an afterlife realm of complete darkness. It is said to be completely absent of light at its lower depths but greyish or foggy at its outer edges. It is a great expanse of black nothingness that seems limitless to those trapped in its depths. While referring to Sheol, the void, 1 Corinthians 15:51 says, “We will not all sleep.” As stated in 1 Corinthians 15:51-52, the void is a realm where some sleep while it would seem that the majority of people who have reportedly experienced the void during an NDE are conscious and aware. (www.near-death.com/experiences/research06.html (3/20/2008)) The void is a place that the dead frequently pass through on their way to heaven. And like Biblical descriptions of Sheol, it is also a place where the dead are sometimes temporarily trapped before finally rising up to more pleasant heavenly realms.
Though most people who have described experiencing Sheol or the void during NDE’s are conscious, some NDE’s do report an awareness of others who are in a coma-like sleep. Maybe while consigned to lengthy stays in the dark sensory deprivation of the lower recesses of the void, the departed slip in and out of consciousness? Perhaps this is why the dead are sometimes said to be asleep in verses like Psalm 13:3 and seem to be conscious in verses like in Ezekiel 32:21, 1 Peter 3:18-20 and Revelation 6:9-10? Even if one is fully conscious in Sheol, I do not believe that in the pitch blackness of the void “where nothing exits but the thought patterns of those in it” (www.near-death.com/experiences/research15.html (9/12/2013)) it is a stretch for the Bible to use the words sleep or asleep when referring to the dead in Sheol since this is what the living do when it is dark
Though Sheol may be a place of darkness where the spirits of the departed sleep before the resurrection, it is also possible that Sheol is just physical death. If Sheol is just death itself, then Biblical descriptions of the sleepy existence after death may just be a description of the lack of consciousness experienced by the decaying body. This seems especially likely in light of Luke 23:43 and John 20:17.
It is generally accepted in preterist circles that the departed do not resurrect to heaven until A.D. 70. Prior to A.D. 70 the spirits of the righteous and wicked are confined to Hades or Sheol. What is Hades or Sheol and does Luke 23:43 and John 20:17 contradict this idea? In Luke 23:43, Jesus says to the man being crucified beside Him, “Truly I say to you, today you shall be with Me in Paradise.” Some commentators do not believe that Jesus promised that the man crucified beside Him would experience paradise with Jesus that day since Jesus had not ascended to the Father in heaven until many days after His resurrection according to John 20:17. Thus some commentators shift the comma after “today” such that Luke 23:43 reads, “Truly I say to you today, you shall be with Me in Paradise.” This verse now implies that Jesus is telling this man that day that he would be with Him in paradise after the resurrection at the end of the age, not that he would ascend to heaven that day.
However, it is also possible that this man did, in fact, experience paradise that day in Hades. 1 Peter 3:19 indicates that after His death on the cross but before resurrecting out of the tomb, Jesus preached to the spirits in Hades. Hades is a Greek word for the underworld or afterlife. The Greeks understood Hades to be partitioned into Tartarus, the deep abyss that is used as a dungeon of torment; the Asphodel Meadows, the abode of those who lived average lives; and the Elysian Fields, a realm of paradise. Based on Luke 23:43 and John 20:17 it would seem that this description of Hades as both a realm of punishment and bliss may be accurate.
Confirming the notion that Hades is also partitioned into a realm of Paradise, Her Pettersson had an interesting near death experience that confirms the idea that there is a pleasant realm in Hades and that the Gospel is preached there:
To Herr Pettersson the world of spirits resembled the material world. There were many countries, or “Kingdoms.” There were cities and villages, temples and palaces, flowers and animals of great beauty and variety. The people were very busy. Some were preaching on street corners and in assembly halls, and all had great congregations.
“Who are they?” Herr Pettersson asked (referring to the preachers)?
“They,” his guide answered, “belong to the church of the First born, and they have been sent here to be ministering spirits to those who shall yet becoming heirs of salvation.”
“I am afraid,” stammered Herr Pettersson, “that I do not comprehend you. Are we not in heaven? How can the world of salvation be preached here?”
“No brother!” the guide replied, “We are not in what mortals call heaven! This is Hades.” (http://www.near-death.com/science/experts/widdison-and-lundahl.html (8/3/2016).)
The church of the firstborn is a name given to the Christian church according to Hebrews 12:23.
How could Her Pettersson experience Hades if Hades was destroyed in A.D. 70 according to Revelation 20:14? Revelation 20:14 reads, “Then death and Hades were thrown into the lake of fire. This is the second death, the lake of fire.” But was Hades literally and completely destroyed in A.D. 70? It appears to me that it is unlikely that Hades was completely destroyed by fire in A.D. 70. Recall that heaven and earth were also destroyed by fire in A.D. 70 according to 2 Peter 3:7: “But by His word the present heavens and earth are being reserved for fire, kept for the day of judgment and destruction of ungodly men.” Heaven and earth were then renewed according to Revelation 21:1: “Then I saw a new heaven and a new earth; for the first heaven and the first earth passed away, and there is no longer any sea.” Though the earth representing the land of Israel was, in fact, destroyed by fire at the hands of the Romans in A.D. 70, the country, of course, was not completely obliterated. Instead, thousands of people were killed and exiled during the Jewish War but the land of Israel, the earth, ultimately remained. Something similar is presumably true in heaven when a vision of a great war between Michael and the Devil was seen by John in Revelation 12:7-10. Interestingly a vision of a war in heaven was also reported in A.D. 66 at the very start of the Jewish War. Tacitus writes, “In the sky appeared a vision of armies in conflict, of glittering armour (Tacitus The Histories 5.13).” Was heaven completely destroyed during this war? If the earth or land of Israel was not completely annihilated during the Jewish War, it stands to reason that heaven was also not completely annihilated at this time as well. Therefore, if heaven and earth were not completely annihilated in A.D. 70, why would we assume that Hades was completely demolished at that time?
If Hades was not demolished, then what changed in A.D. 70? I believe Hades has always existed and will always exist but that in order to enter into the presence of God who resides in heaven one has to be sinless or made sinless. Entry into heaven was not made possible prior to A.D. 70 because no effective means of forgiveness existed. I believe it was by and through Jesus’ sacrificial death on the cross that access into the presence of God in heaven was made available to mankind. It was this sacrifice that pardoned sin that made it possible to be perfect in the eyes of God thus permitting mankind entry into heaven and the literal presence of God after physical death.
- David Green, Edward Hassertt, and Michael Sullivan, House Divided: Bridging the Gap in Reformed Eschatology A Preterist Response to When Shall These Things Be?, second ed. (Ramona, CA: Vision Publishing, 2013), 182-183.