Between a person’s death and the resurrection, is the person conscious, or not? Most Christians believe that the person is conscious, whether in hell or in heaven. However, some say that the soul is unconscious until the body is resurrected. We do not say that the soul is conscious, nor that it is unconscious. This is a peripheral issue, not essential to the gospel. Some verses suggest one view, and some verses suggest the other view. Although some members believe that one view is better than another, the church has no official position on which view is better.
In this article, we will look first at the verses used to support the “unconscious” view. Then we will note the problems involved in using these verses. Third, we will examine verses that are often used to support a conscious intermediate state, and then we will critique that interpretation.
Asleep in the graves
The doctrine of unconsciousness is sometimes called “soul-sleep.” It is taught by Seventh-day Adventists, Advent Christians, Jehovah’s Witnesses, and various others. The following verses are used to support this view:
Psalm 6:5 — “No one remembers you when he is dead. Who praises you from the grave?” Here, it seems that David did not think that he would go immediately to heaven to enjoy and worship God. He would worship after he was resurrected (Psalm 16:9-10), but until then he would be in the grave, unconscious. See Acts 2 for further support of that – Peter said, “The patriarch David died and was buried, and his tomb is here to this day…. David did not ascend to heaven” (2:29, 34).
Psalm 88:10-12 — “Do you show your wonders to the dead? Do those who are dead rise up and praise you? Is your love declared in the grave, your faithfulness in destruction? Are your wonders known in the place of darkness, or your righteous deeds in the land of oblivion?” In this psalm, too, the dead are described as being unaware of God, presumably unaware of anything.
Psalm 115:17 — “It is not the dead who praise the Lord, those who go down to silence.” This psalmist is saying that dead people are silent and unable to worship God.
Psalm 146:4 — A dead person’s “breath goes forth, he returneth to his earth; in that very day his thoughts perish” (KJV). The NIV says, “their plans come to nothing,” meaning their earthly plans, without referring to the state after death.
Ecclesiastes 3:19-21 — “The fate of human beings is like that of the animals; the same fate awaits them both: As one dies, so dies the other. All have the same breath; humans have no advantage over animals. Everything is meaningless. All go to the same place; all come from dust, and to dust all return. Who knows if the human spirit rises upward and if the spirit of the animal goes down into the earth?” This verse suggests that humans are just as dead as animals are — unconscious — and divine intervention would therefore be necessary if anyone is to be conscious again. The KJV states it more as a fact: “Who knoweth the spirit of man that goeth upward, and the spirit of the beast that goeth downward to the earth?” Some therefore say that the spirit of a human goes to heaven, but is unconscious.
Ecclesiastes 9:5, 10 — “The living know that they will die, but the dead know nothing; they have no further reward, and even the memory of them is forgotten…. In the grave, where you are going, there is neither working nor planning nor knowledge nor wisdom.” The dead cannot think; they are unconscious.
Isaiah 38:18 — “The grave cannot praise you, death cannot sing your praise; those who go down to the pit cannot hope for your faithfulness.” According to this verse, people in the grave cannot have hope and cannot praise God. They must be unconscious.
Ezekiel 18:4, 20 — “The soul who sins is the one who will die.” Souls can die, so the soul does not continue living somewhere else while the body is dead. The whole person is dead, not alive, and therefore unconscious.
John 11:11-14 — “Jesus said, ‘Our friend Lazarus has fallen asleep; but I am going there to wake him up.’ His disciples said, ‘Lord, if he sleeps, he will get better.’ Jesus had been speaking of his death, but his disciples thought he meant natural sleep. So Jesus told them plainly, ‘Lazarus is dead.’” Jesus called death sleep. Being dead is like being asleep — unconscious. If Lazarus was conscious, he never said anything about it — and if he had been conscious in heaven, then Jesus made his condition worse by bringing him back on earth. So the conclusion, consistent with the above scriptures, is that Lazarus was unconscious. Death must be like sleep.
However, people who believe in a conscious state between death and resurrection explain these verses in a different way. Some verses are easier to explain than others. We can begin by noting that the psalms are poetry, and poetry often uses figures of speech and exaggeration. Ecclesiastes and Isaiah are also poetry, and in the Gospel of John, Jesus often speaks metaphorically.
Ecclesiastes 9 — Much of Ecclesiastes is written from the point of view that God does not exist. It is making the point that if there is no God, then life is meaningless. For example, verse 5 says that the dead have no further reward. We do not believe this part of the verse; why insist on the other part? Similarly, verse 6 says that the dead will never again have a part in anything under the sun. The perspective is limited to this life, and we cannot use these verses as accurate descriptions of the afterlife. Verses 2-3 say, “All share a common destiny — the righteous and the wicked, the good and the bad… The same destiny overtakes all.” If we allow verses from Ecclesiastes as evidence about the afterlife, then they would show that there isn’t any afterlife.
Similarly, Ecclesiastes 3:19 says that humans have the same fate as animals, and their life is no better than animals. We do not believe this. We cannot pull verses out of context and take them as the final word on the subject. Verse 21 is asking a question, “Who knows…?” It is not answering our question.
Psalms are poetic and sometimes overstate the situation. Note some examples that talk about the grave: Psalm 18:4 — “The cords of death entangled me; the torrents of destruction overwhelmed me.” One would think that if destruction overwhelmed a person, he or she would be destroyed. But this poet was alive, singing about a rescue from a situation that was only potentially fatal. Similarly, Psalm 30:3 — “O Lord, you brought me up from the grave.” Was the person actually in the grave? Probably not. Psalm 49:12: “Man is like the beasts that perish.” Like Ecclesiastes, this comment has a restricted perspective, showing that poetry is not a good source of doctrine about the afterlife. Psalm 86:13: “You have delivered me from the depths of the grave.”
Psalm 88:5: “The dead, whom you remember no more…” If we take this out of context, it means that God is unaware of the dead, which is not correct. Psalm 88:16: “Your wrath has swept over me; your terrors have destroyed me.” Was the person actually destroyed by God? Apparently not, for he is still singing. Psalm 115:18: “We extol the Lord, both now and forevermore.” This last verse could be used to argue that no one ever stops extolling the Lord. Not even death stops the exaltation. We use this verse not to argue for consciousness, but to show that contradictions occur if we take verses out of the psalms and treat them as statements of fact.
Since the psalms may contain poetic exaggerations, we must be cautious about using isolated verses at face value. When Psalm 6:5 says that dead people do not remember God, we need not take it any more literally than Psalm 88:5, which says that God does not remember them. The perspective is from this physical life.
Isaiah also speaks poetically about death. It is personified in Isaiah 5:14: Sheol “enlarges its appetite.” Isaiah 14:9 says that Sheol “is all astir to meet you at your coming; it rouses the spirits of the departed.” This makes it sound like the people in Sheol can be awakened – but this may be spoken in irony or sarcasm against the king of Babylon, using beliefs of Babylon to mock him.
One passage in Isaiah describes Sheol as silent; another describes conscious people in Sheol, the realm of the dead. Which passage is figurative, and which is descriptive? The poetry suggests that both are figurative — they are not meant to reveal the nature of the afterlife. They are probably based on already-existing ideas about Sheol — popular folklore — without attempting to endorse or correct those ideas.
Ezekiel 18:4 and 20 says that the soul who sins will die. In the Old Testament, “soul” sometimes means body, but sometimes it means something more than the body. Sometimes it means “person.” Verses 4 and 20 say nothing about the metaphysical; they are not commenting on the nature of the afterlife. Matthew 10:28 says the soul is something that can survive ordinary death: “Do not be afraid of those who kill the body but cannot kill the soul.” But the question remains, Is it conscious?
John 11 — Jesus said that a dead man was “asleep.” Pagans used that figure of speech, too — even pagans who believed in a conscious afterlife. A figure of speech does not prove anything, whether or not Lazarus told us what he experienced while dead. People everywhere know that there is a difference between death and sleep. It is an analogy, and it cannot tell us its own limits. For example, if a dead person is sleeping, can the person have dreams? There is a difference between being asleep and being unconscious. The analogy of death/sleep cannot tell us much.
We now put the above results in chart form, with claim and counterclaim. When we do this, we see that every soul-sleep scripture has a serious weakness. If people approach these scriptures cautiously, perhaps they would never question the majority view.
|Psalm 6:5 — “No one remembers you when he is dead. Who praises you from the grave?”||David did not think he would go immediately to heaven to enjoy and worship God. In the grave, he would be unconscious.||We do not need to take Psalm 6:5 any more literally than Psalm 88:5, which says that God does not remember the dead. The perspective is from this physical life.|
|Psalm 88:10-12 — “Do you show your wonders to the dead? Do those who are dead rise up and praise you? Is your love declared in the grave, your faithfulness in Destruction? Are your wonders known in the place of darkness, or your righteous deeds in the land of oblivion?”||In this psalm, too, the writer describes the dead as being unaware of God, presumably unconscious.||Notice the exaggerations in this psalm: Verse 5: “The dead, whom you remember no more…” Is God unaware of the dead? No.
Verse 13: “You have delivered me from the depths of the grave.” Was he really in the grave? No.
Verse 16: “Your terrors have destroyed me.” Was he actually destroyed by God? No. The poetry is impressionistic, not literal.
|Psalm 115:17 — “It is not the dead who praise the Lord, those who go down to silence.”||This psalmist is saying that dead people are silent and unable to worship God.||The next verse says, “We extol the Lord, both now and forevermore” (v. 18). Does this mean that not even death can stop us? The poetic license of the psalms means that we must be very cautious in using verses at face value.|
|Psalm 146:4 — A dead person’s “breath goes forth, he returneth to his earth; in that very day his thoughts perish” (KJV).||Death causes all thought to stop.||This is a questionable translation. The NIV says, “their plans come to nothing,” meaning their earthly plans, without referring to the state after death.|
|Ecclesiastes 3:19-21 — “The fate of human beings is like that of the animals; the same fate awaits them both: As one dies, so dies the other. All have the same breath; humans have no advantage over animals. Everything is meaningless. All go to the same place; all come from dust, and to dust all return. Who knows if the human spirit rises upward and if the spirit of the animal goes down into the earth?”||Humans are just as dead as animals are — unconscious — and divine intervention is necessary if anyone is to be conscious again.||Ecclesiastes 3 says that humans have the same fate as animals, and their life is no better than animals. This is not true. Ecclesiastes is saying that if there is no God, then life is meaningless. Ecclesiastes 3:19-21 has a limited perspective. Verse 21 is simply asking a question, “Who knows…?” It is not answering our question. If we allow verses from Ecclesiastes as evidence about the afterlife, they would prove that there isn’t any afterlife.|
|Ecclesiastes 9:5, 10 — “For the living know that they will die, but the dead know nothing; they have no further reward, and even the memory of them is forgotten…. In the grave, where you are going, there is neither working nor planning nor knowledge nor wisdom.”||The the dead cannot think; they are unconscious.||Verse 5 says the dead have no further reward. This is not true. Verse 6 says the dead will never have a part in anything under the sun. We cannot use this passage as an accurate description of the afterlife. Verses 2-3 say, “All share a common destiny — the righteous and the wicked, the good and the bad… The same destiny overtakes all.” This contradicts the gospel.|
|Isaiah 38:18 — “The grave cannot praise you, death cannot sing your praise; those who go down to the pit cannot hope for your faithfulness.”||People who go into the grave cannot have hope and cannot praise God. They must be unconscious.||Isaiah 14:9 says that sheol “is all astir to meet you at your coming; it rouses the spirits of the departed.” This makes it sound like the people in sheol can be awakened. One passage describes sheol as silent; another describes conscious people in sheol. Which is figurative, and which is descriptive? Both are figurative — they are not meant to reveal the nature of the afterlife.|
|Ezekiel 18:4, 20 — “The soul who sins is the one who will die.”||Souls can die, so the soul does not continue living somewhere else while the body is dead. The whole person is dead, and therefore not conscious.||Verses 4 and 20 say nothing about the nature of being dead; they are not commenting on the afterlife. Matthew 10:28 indicates that the soul survives ordinary death. But the question remains, Is it conscious?|
|John 11:11-14 — “Jesus said, ‘Our friend Lazarus has fallen asleep; but I am going there to wake him up.’ His disciples said, ‘Lord, if he sleeps, he will get better.’ Jesus had been speaking of his death, but his disciples though he meant natural sleep. So Jesus told them plainly, ‘Lazarus is dead.’”||Jesus called death sleep. Being dead is like being asleep — unconscious. Lazarus never said anything about where he was — and if he had been conscious in heaven, then Jesus made his condition worse by bringing him back to life on earth. But Lazarus was asleep, unconscious.||Pagans used this figure of speech, too — even pagans who believed in a conscious afterlife. A figure of speech does not prove anything. There is a difference between death, unconsciousness and sleep. It is an analogy, and it cannot tell us its own limits. The analogy cannot tell us whether a dead person can have dreams (like sleep) or is unconscious (unlike sleep).|
Scriptures suggesting consciousness
Now let’s look at some scriptures suggesting a conscious intermediate state. We will start with a general observation: Many people around the Israelites believed in a conscious afterlife. There is evidence for this in the mythology and burial practices of the Egyptians, Canaanites, Greeks, and others. When God brought Israel into the land of Canaan, he did not tell Israel that this pagan belief was wrong. Even when he told them not to try to contact the dead, he did not say they were unconscious. Rather, it was just forbidden. This practice has to be outlawed only if people think the dead are conscious. Many Israelites (such as King Saul) apparently believed that the dead were at least semi-conscious. Isaiah 14:9-10 describes the way that some people in that culture viewed sheol:
Sheol below is all astir to meet you [the king of Babylon] at your coming; it rouses the spirits of the departed to greet you — all those who were leaders in the world; it makes them rise from their thrones — all those who were kings over the nations. They will all respond, they will say to you, “You also have become weak, as we are; you have become like us.”
Sheol is described here as a place of drowsiness and weakness, but people there are still able to think and talk. The passage is poetic and figurative, but it reflects some ancient Near East ideas about the state of the dead. Ezekiel 32:21 is similar: “From within sheol 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.’”
In Matthew 22:31-32, Jesus talked about the afterlife when he said, “But about the resurrection of the dead — have you not read what God said to you, ‘I am the God of Abraham, the God of Isaac, and the God of Jacob’ ? He is not the God of the dead but of the living.” Jesus is saying that the patriarchs are living, even centuries after they died. Jesus does this while arguing that a resurrection will take place in the future, but he still uses “living” to refer to people who had died.
In Luke 16:19-23, Jesus told a story using common ideas about the afterlife: “The beggar died and the angels carried him to Abraham’s side. The rich man also died and was buried. In hell, where he was in torment, he looked up and saw Abraham far away… So he called to him, ‘Father Abraham, have pity on me.’”
The details add color, but aren’t crucial to our discussion. Some first-century Jews had ideas about the afterlife that included such concepts as Abraham’s bosom and consciousness in sheol. Jesus used these ideas as the setting for the story, without attempting to correct those ideas. Neither Jesus nor Luke felt any compulsion to correct the popular beliefs about the afterlife.
In verse 27, the rich man asked, “I beg you, send Lazarus to my father’s house, for I have five brothers. Let him warn them, so that they will not also come to this place of torment.” In this story, the rich man believed that his brothers were still alive, and therefore that he was conscious before the general resurrection. In the parable, Abraham also speaks as if the brothers are alive: He says, “They have Moses and the Prophets; let them listen to them” (verse 29). The story supposes, without any hint to the contrary, that the dead are conscious immediately upon death, before the final resurrection.
Luke 23:43 — Jesus told the thief on the cross, “I tell you the truth, today you will be with me in paradise.” Is the comma in the right place? Jesus did not need to stress the day of his promise. That was already known. Jesus stressed how soon the thief would be in paradise — the section of sheol reserved for the righteous. Both Jesus and the thief went that day to the place of the righteous dead. But the passage does not say whether they were conscious.
Romans 8:38-39 — “I am convinced that neither death nor life, neither angels nor demons, neither the present nor the future, nor any powers, neither height nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God that is in Christ Jesus our Lord.” Not even death can separate believers from Christ. Upon death, we are with him. But are we conscious?
In 2 Corinthians 5:1-8, Paul talks about death and what he will experience after death. The passage is metaphorical, so we must examine it carefully to see what the metaphors mean. Verse 1 — “If the earthly tent we live in is destroyed, we have a building from God, an eternal house in heaven, not built by human hands.” Verse 6 shows that Paul is speaking of his body as his home, as his tent. He is saying that we already have (present tense) another place to live. It is in heaven, prepared by God.
Meanwhile we groan, longing to be clothed with our heavenly dwelling, because when we are clothed, we will not be found naked. For while we are in this tent, we groan and are burdened, because we do not wish to be unclothed but to be clothed with our heavenly dwelling, so that what is mortal may be swallowed up by life. (2 Corinthians 5:2-4)
In this body, we groan, longing for our better life, our better tent, our heavenly dwelling. We groan, not because we want to be spirits without bodies (“naked”), but because we want our heavenly dwelling. Paul does not say exactly when we receive this.
“It is God who has made us for this very purpose and has given us the Spirit as a deposit, guaranteeing what is to come. Therefore we are always confident and know that as long as we are at home in the body we are away from the Lord. We live by faith, not by sight. We are confident, and would prefer to be away from the body and at home with the Lord. (verses 5-8)
Along as we have physical bodies, we are away from the Lord. The implication is that we go to be with the Lord when we die. The Lord is in heaven, so many Christians speak of “going to heaven” when they die. Paul knew that Christ was with him even in this age, but he preferred to leave his body so he would be with the Lord in a better way. Would Paul prefer unconsciousness with Christ as better than consciousness with him now?
To me, to live is Christ and to die is gain. If I am to go on living in the body, this will mean fruitful labor for me. Yet what shall I choose? I do not know. 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 1:21-24)
Paul had Christ in this life, yet he apparently felt he would have more of Christ if he died. Would he count unconsciousness as gain? Perhaps – he was in prison. Would he rather sleep than preach? He knew his duty was to preach, and for that reason he believed he would remain alive, but he also indicated that personally, he would rather not go through the persecutions of this life. Paul would want to quit his ministry only if the other choice were very good.
I saw under the altar the souls of those who had been slain because of the word of God and the testimony they had maintained. They called out in a loud voice, “How long, Sovereign Lord, holy and true, until you judge the inhabitants of the earth and avenge our blood?” (Revelation 6:9-10)
These souls in heaven are described as conscious of time and able to speak before the resurrection.
You have come to…the city of the living God. You have come to thousands upon thousands of angels in joyful assembly, to the church of the firstborn… You have come to God… to the spirits of righteous men made perfect, to Jesus the mediator of a new covenant. (Hebrews 12:22-23)
If the spirits are unconscious, it would be anti-climactic to mention them. Coming to a group of unconscious people sounds as glorious as coming to a morgue. The angels are conscious, God is conscious, and Jesus is conscious; why not the spirits, too?
John 11:26 — “He who believes in me will never die.” If death means sleep, then this means that we will never sleep. Though our bodies may die, we will not. We will continue to live, even while awaiting the resurrection of the body.
The case for soul sleep is based mostly on the Old Testament; the case for consciousness is mostly in the New Testament.
It is true that many Israelites believed the dead were at least partly conscious. However, this proves nothing about what we should believe. The fact that God did not correct their idea does not prove it is right. As already discussed in this paper, passages such as Isaiah 14 and Ezekiel 32 are poetic, likely to be figurative, and therefore of questionable value for establishing doctrine.
Similarly, many Jews in Jesus’ day believed in a conscious intermediate state, but again, this does not prove anything. Erroneous ideas can be very popular. The common Jewish beliefs provided a setting for a parable that Jesus told, but the parable was really designed to teach something about what people should do in this life. It does not endorse the ability to have a conversation between hell and paradise, nor even consciousness itself. It was a made-up story; it cannot be used for this doctrine.
Jesus said that the patriarchs were alive, but he was speaking in support of a resurrection at the end of the age, not a conscious existence that has no need of a resurrection. He can speak of those things that are not as though they are; they are assured of being alive again.
Regarding the thief on the cross: Figuratively, both Jesus and the thief went to the place of the righteous dead, but this says nothing about whether they were conscious. With a minimum of words, using common imagery of his day, Jesus was simply giving the man assurance of salvation without trying to correct his views of the afterlife.
Regarding Romans 8:38-39: Death cannot separate us from the love of God. God loves us even when we are asleep, even when we are unconscious. This scripture doesn’t address the question of consciousness.
Regarding 2 Corinthians 5:1-8: Paul was being persecuted, and it is possible that he would rather be unconscious. However, if Paul would receive his heavenly dwelling right when he died, if his transformation was then finished, then there would be no need for a resurrection of the body. Yet Paul believed in a resurrection of the body when Christ returns. Any interpretation that makes the intermediate state sound ideal is not seeing things the way Paul saw them. The need for a resurrection shows that there is something incomplete about the intermediate state.
Regarding Philippians 3:21: Paul considered death a gain because it would remove him from pain. Upon death, a believer goes to be “with the Lord,” but this does not prove the person is conscious. We cannot base our doctrines on our estimation of what Paul might prefer in a time of stress. Many people, even those who believe in soul-sleep, come to a point when they feel “ready to die.” They have served the Lord as best they could, are content with that, and are ready to “rest in peace.” They view soul-sleep as a gain, just as tired people look forward to sleep at night.
When Revelation says that souls were under the altar, it doesn’t mean it literally. This is a highly figurative book and it is hazardous to lift a verse out of context to make it say something beyond its purpose. This passage is not designed to tell us about the intermediate state. When it says they spoke, it is figurative, in the same way that Abel’s blood spoke from the ground (Genesis 4:10).
Hebrews 12:23 does not say that the spirits are conscious. We can’t build doctrine on inferences, or on our ideas about good literary style. Similarly, John 11:26 is also metaphorical.
The idea of death being sleep is a metaphor; the idea of being clothed with a heavenly dwelling is metaphorical. The biblical writers did not address our question directly, and perhaps our words are not sufficient to describe something that is beyond our experience. At the most, if people are conscious after death, this is an intermediate state, not a final state — there will be a resurrection of the body at the end of the age.
Although we might like to know details about the afterlife, this question doesn’t matter much. No matter whether we are unconscious or fully conscious, we will be with the Lord, safe and sound. Whether our next moment of consciousness is the next second or the next century does not matter — either way, it will be wonderful; nor will we be aware of the passage of time. Just as Jesus and Paul did not go out of their way to support or refute popular ideas about the afterlife, we also do not make this subject a priority in our teachings.
Some verses seem to favor one interpretation or the other, but each falls short of proof. Individual Christians may have a preference for which view is most likely the better understanding of the Scriptures, but the church does not say which is the better or the more likely view. Rather, the church says that some passages suggest one view, and some the other, and we leave it at that. We respect people of both persuasions, and we respect their desire to base their beliefs on the Bible, but we believe that in this case the Bible does not provide enough information to establish any particular interpretation as the Christian view.
For further reading:
Anthony Thiselton, Life After Death: A New Approach to the Last Things (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 2011).
N. T. Wright, Surprised by Hope: Rethinking Heaven, the Resurrection, and the Mission of the Church (New York: HarperOne, 2008).
Author: Michael Morrison