What Happens When We Die?
Updated: May 7, 2021
When it comes to heavy questions at the root of the human experience throughout our history it is difficult to ask a bigger one than is the subject of this arricle. I recently asked a group of friends what sort of theological questions kept them up at night. I got answers ranging from “What exactly is the unforgivable sin?” to “Should we baptize infants?” Now these answers might not be normative and are probably reflective of the religious tradition I am associated with, but the answers surprised me,nonetheless. I do not disagree that these were important questions, but I do not think they are a representation of what historically has kept devout people and amateur philosophers alike up into the late hours of the night in white knuckled existential dread. Is it because of our modern strength of faith that we no longer have the same obsession over this question? I think it is more likely due to the modern west’s pretended immortality and avoidance of the very thought of death that is the more likely culprit.
In many ways in our culture, we are separated from this reality and death is sterilized in the process. Looking back into church history and the Reformation era specifically it is easy to see the disconnect. Before Martin Luther wrote his 95 theses, he was a devout monk whose own frailty and dread of his eternal fate resulted in him confessing his sins for six hours a day to his priest. When moderns look back on this, we tend to think that a psychological problem must have been at work in this man’s life. I think it was more likely that this sixteenth century monk was much more aware and connected to death and the weight of spiritual matters than we are. Luther and his later contemporary Calvin were known to minister in towns and villages that were being ravaged by the bubonic plague or what we more popularly refer to as “The Black Death.” When faced with gruesome realities like plague torn towns with sometimes more than half of the population dying or dead, death is not something that you can conveniently ignore.
Another factor that plays into our modern denial is separation from the aging process itself. Throughout history multigenerational households were commonplace, there were no nursing homes or retirement centers to place your aging mother or father in. Grandparents, parents, children, and infants occupied the same living space. Therefore, from a young age people were saturated with the knowledge of aging and the ramifications of life beyond the prime of youth. These and many more factors like advanced healthcare have led to death no longer being a prominent part of our phenomenal reality, and this is not entirely a bad problem to have, and these advancements have resulted in greater human flourishing. However, it is possible for the pendulum to swing too far and the avoidance of thinking upon our ultimate fate will not benefit us as we age ourselves and are forced by fate or our bodies’ natural reminders in the process of aging, that we too must stare into the dark abyss and deal with the questions that human nature has shown to necessarily arise.
In this article I will be dealing with the state of the human soul after death. While the perspectives are too numerous to deal with adequately, I will therefore deal with two main viewpoints. These two perspectives come from the Christian viewpoint and are commonly referred to as “soul sleep” or the more popular position that the soul remains conscious after death and either goes to paradise/heaven or to Hades. These two positions will require dealing with the necessary exegetical and theological work related to the relevant Greek texts of the Christian New Testament.
“Soul Sleep” which is also sometimes known as “Christian Mortalism,” is the view that when the person dies their soul remains dormant or unconscious until the resurrection. This view is still propagated by some religious traditions within Christianity but has been argued for in Judaism since the second temple period. Many of the arguments for this view stem from various passages in the Old Testament or Hebrew Bible, however I will be focusing on two primary New testament texts used by proponents to support this view. It has been the reformed protestant hermeneutical principle to interpret the Old Testament in light of the greater clarity of the New Testament.And while it has been a Protestant distinctive, similar principles are also present in Eastern Orthodox and Roman Catholic theology as well. This is especially helpful considering how unclear the Old Testament seems to be on the human person’s existence after death. Therefore, I will focus on the following two passages of the New Testament and will be giving my own translations of both.
Passages used to support “Soul Sleep.”
8:49 Yet while he was speaking someone came from the leader of the synagogue saying, “Your daughter has died. Do not bother the teacher any longer.
8:50 But Jesus after hearing answered him, “Do not fear, only believe, and she will be saved.”
8:51 And when he came to the house, he did not permit anyone to enter with him except Peter, John, and James, and the father and mother of the child.
8:52 And all were weeping and mourning her. But he said, “Do not weep, for she has not died but is sleeping.”
8:53 And they were laughing at him knowing that she was dead.
8:54 But he, taking her hand, called out saying, “Child, rise.”
8:55 And her spirit returned and immediately she arose, and he commanded for her to be given something to eat.
8:56 And her parents were astonished, but he commanded them to tell no one what had happened.
It would seem in the first passage that advocates of soul sleep would have a grammatical point especially in verse fifty-two. The word for sleeping is “Katheudei” and is in the present active indicative form of the verb which is stressing presently occurring action. However, if they insist on the literalness of this statement then they may run into consistency issues with this verse and the words immediately preceding. If they are insisting that she is sleeping, then they must also agree with Jesus’ previous words that “ou gar apethev” or “For she has not died.” Indeed, it was this statement that made the Jews laugh at Jesus in the following verse when it says they “Eidotes” (were knowing) that she was dead. This is the first hint that Jesus is not being literal here and is speaking metaphorically. To deny this would be to undermine the entire point an advocate of soul sleep would seek to make from this passage. For they believe for the soul to be dormant or in an unconscious intermediate state the person must die first. Therefore, to take part of Jesus’ statement here literally and the other metaphorically seems to be employing a hermeneutic of convenience. However, let us look to the next passage.
1 Corinthians 15:3-8
15:3 For I have given to you first what I also received, that Christ died on behalf of our sins according to the scriptures.
15:4 And that he was buried and that he rose on the third day according to the scriptures.
15:5 And that he appeared to Cephas then the twelve.
15:6 The he appeared to over five hundred brothers at once. Many of them remaining until now, but some have fallen asleep.
15:7 Then he appeared to James then to all the Apostles.
15:8 And last of all as to one of untimely birth he appeared to me.
I must admit that if this passage were to be taken alone it would be a relatively strong argument for soul sleep. In verse five Paul uses the aorist passive to say, “tines de ekoimethesan,” or “but some have fallen asleep.” The aorist passive is used to refer to past action but more importantly in this sense passive action that is done to the subject. Therefore, the soul sleep advocate can point to the passive verb and say that the person clearly is not consciously existing today but is in a dormant/passive state. The problem for this position is that this is not all the New Testament has to say on the subject. As I will soon show there are other passages that seem to show active consciousness after death. Therefore, when we are presented with conflicting passages of scripture there are a few routes we can go.
Before looking at the verses used to support a state of consciousness after death or alternatively known as “immortality of the soul,” I think it is best to establish basic hermeneutical principles that ultimately must go back to our starting axioms in how we view and approach the scriptures. The first route to go would be to hold to the position that the writings of scripture,being penned by several different authors, have mutually exclusive theological teachings and therefore some things cannot be harmonized. This view, while popular in certain circles of the academy, is not my view and will not be the route I take. In my view since all of scripture is “theopnuestos” or “God-breathed” then the propositions laid forth in it
are true and consistent with each other and can be systematized to some degree or another. Also, while it is true scripture is multivocal in that it employs the personalities and writing styles of various authors, it is also univocal in that is it breathed out by God by using the means of the human authors. This is not a simplistic mechanistic view of inspiration but a more broadly compatibilistic view of God’s sovereignty in getting words onto the paper using the secondary causes of the human authors true motives and will. These debates on the nature of scripture and inspiration are crucial to our hermeneutical approaches and starting points, but they are not the subject of this paper so going forward my view, and the traditional protestant view of Sola Scriptura will be assumed.
Therefore, assuming the infallibility of scripture and its existence as a coherent metanarrative, that is both multivocal and consistent with itself, one of the first rules of interpretation has already been said which is to interpret the Old Testament in light of the New Testament. Next and more importantly for these passages is to interpret less clear passages of scripture by more clear and explicit passages of scripture. Now a criticism of this rule is that what is more or less clear in scripture can be subjectively dependent on the interpreter of the passage, which is true to an extent, but there are also guidelines to help maintain consistency. There are other basic rules such as you should never base a doctrine on a hapax legomena, and you should never interpret a text in a manner that would not make sense to the original audience. However, for comparing these texts, rule number two is the most relevant. Therefore, with these issues of interpretation in mind we can look at the passages used for the doctrinal position of “immortality of the soul.”
Passages Used for Consciousness after death.
16:22 And it happened that the poor man died, and he was carried away by the angels to the bosom of Abraham. And also, the rich man died and was buried.
16:23 And in Hades, lifting up his eyes, while being in torment, he saw Abraham from afar and Lazarus in his bosom.
This parable has been very formative to Christianity’s historical doctrine of the immediate state after death and before the Resurrection. Much discussion has been focused on the Gulf that divides the rich man and Lazarus as well as whether “Abraham’s bosom” is another term for Heaven or is a different intermediate “waiting place” before the Judgement and the final Heaven. I have my own opinions regarding these separate issues, but what is clear in the above text is that this is describing a conscious state, immediately after the death of the body. Nevertheless, there have been objections to this passage’s use as a proof text for immortality of the soul and perhaps the most predictable objection is that the above passage is part of a parable. Therefore, since parables are not true stories but employ metaphor and imagery to put forward a moral or theological point, this passage cannot be taken literally as a prooftext. I would answer this objection by first conceding that parables do indeed use vivid imagery and metaphor they remain in the realm of the real. What I mean by that is that parables involve fictional stories of Samaritans, widows, Kings, fathers, and lost sons, but they do so in a manner that is consistent with the reality we live in. There are no parables where someone finds a magic ring or uses their telekinetic abilities. Therefore, for this parable to be the only parable to employ characters in completely unreal situations and in places that employ theological language like “Abraham’s bosom” that do not exist would put this parable in a category by itself and would be border line special pleading from the soul sleep advocate. However, even granting the opponent this point, this is not the only text that can be used for consciousness after death.
Luke 23: 42-43
23:42 And He said, “Jesus, remember me when you enter into your kingdom.
23:43 And he said to him, “Truly I say to you, today, you will be with me in Paradise.”
This passage seems relatively straight forward from a grammatical standpoint and indicates that the thief will be conscious with Jesus in Paradise immediately after death. I did not think there was any other way to interpret this passage until I engaged in discussion with Jehovah’s witnesses who used to stop by every Saturday. Jehovah’s Witnesses deny consciousness after death and believe the person is destroyed completely at death and is then remade at the second coming of Christ.
Therefore, when they explained this doctrine the me, I immediately pointed to the above passage with the thief on the cross. Their response to this passage relied on linguistic ambiguity. They pointed out to me (correctly) that the original Greek text did not have commas but the commas in this passage were added by translators. Therefore, the text could mean “I say to you today, you will be with me in Paradise.” With the removal of the first comma, they believe the real interpretation is made clearer. Jesus is not saying the thief will be with him today, but rather he is telling him today. We use language in this way quite frequently and as an example suppose I told my children, “I tell you today, I will be taking you to the Smoky Mountains next month.” In this sentence it is clear that am not taking them today,but I am telling them (my children) today. While their interpretation of this text is technically possible from a grammatical standpoint, I find it unlikely given the situation that Jesus is in. From what we know of the horrors of crucifixion and the eventual death by suffocation, Jesus would have been in an incredible amount of pain. Given this pain and lack of breath it would be difficult to speak at all. We can see that Jesus’ words on the cross were short sentences. Therefore, it seems unlikely that Jesus would have added superfluous words like “today” if they were not literal words related to the immediate reality after death but instead just used for rhetorical force. Nevertheless, given the linguistic possibility of the other interpretation I must concede that a proof text cannot be built upon this text alone.
2 Corinthians 5: 1-8
5:1 For we know that if our earthly tent house is destroyed, we have a building from God. An eternal house not made with hands in Heaven.
5:2 For also in this house we groan, desiring to put on our dwelling place from Heaven.
5:3 For not to be found naked but to be clothed.
5:4 For while being in this tent we groan being burdened, for we do not want to be unclothed but covered, so that death will be devoured by life.
5:5. But the one who produced this in us is God himself, who gave to us the earnestness of the Spirit.
5:6 Therefore being courageous at all times and seeing that while we are at home in the body, we are absent from the Lord.
5:7 For by faith we walk, not by sight.
5:8 But we are courageous and more content to be absent from the body and at home with the Lord.
This text is possibly the most explicit text in the New Testament, aside from a possible passage in Revelation, that deals with consciousness after death and apart from the body. In verses six and eight our being in the body is contrasted from being with the Lord. To look forward to being at home with the lord implies consciousness while present. It does not make sense from the text if with the Lord we are unconscious. If that were the case being with the Lord in Paradise would be no different than being anywhere else. The dead and unaware have no pleasure or pain regardless of their location. If this passage is taken alongside Revelation 6:9-11 it becomes even clearer. “I saw under the altar the souls of those who had been slain for the word of God and for the witness they had borne, they cried out with a load voice, ‘O Sovereign Lord, holy and true, how long before you will judge and avenge our blood on those who dwell on the earth?’ Then they were each given a white robe and told to rest a little longer, until the number of their fellow servants and brothers should be complete.”
With these passages in mind and the above passages used for Soul Sleep we should keep in mind the principle to interpret obscure passages with clear passages. These passages are clear that people remain conscious after death. Then how should we interpret Jesus’ and Paul’s words about the girl who was not dead “but sleeping” and “those who have fallen asleep?” I think it is clear given the recent more explicit texts, that these earlier passages can be explained as from an anthropomorphic perspective, or also called the phenomenal perspective. Many times, scripture uses language that is not factually correct in an ultimate metaphysical sense but is true from our perspective or what the writer of Ecclesiastes would call “under the sun.” For instance, when scripture says the sun rises, we know from a scientific perspective that it is the earth that is moving. We still use this perspectival language today. So, when Jesus talks about the girl who is sleeping, and Paul refers to those who have fallen asleep it is easy to harmonize these various texts by realizing they are speaking from a human perspective. When I was young and attended a funeral, I remember clearly people speaking this way when referring to the body in the casket. “He/she looks so peaceful like they are sleeping.” From our human vantage point, death looks much like sleep. With this in mind it is easy to explain these texts and have them be consistent with the other texts regarding eternal consciousness. But it is not as easy or plausible to explain away Paul’s language in Corinthians or the language in Revelation and make it consistent with a Soul Sleep view without performing some form of hermeneutical gymnastics.