He’s right about a lot of things, but soul sleep isn’t one of them.
Tom Wright’s scholarly writing on the biblical teaching on the resurrection of the dead is praiseworthy for a number of reasons. He has alerted the evangelical community to the unfortunate way in which popular theologies of “going to heaven” are eclipsing the biblical hope of the resurrection to eternal life. But he does have one major weak spot, in my view, and that is the rather poor treatment of the doctrine of “soul sleep.” Soul sleep is the view that people do not experience any conscious intermediate state of waiting between death and resurrection. They are wholly dead until God steps in and raises them back to life.
Wright does not say a lot about the frequent biblical metaphor of death as “sleep,” a metaphor used some 66 times. In The Resurrection of the Son of God (Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 2003), he does discuss the way resurrection is referred to as “awakening the sleepers” (pp 108ff), but the question of soul sleep is not broached there.
It has to be said, it is quite false that believers in soul sleep stake their entire case on the fact that the Bible calls death “sleep.” This is certainly a relevant piece of evidence that naturally supports soul sleep, but it is not the only piece of evidence. Fortunately Wright does not make this claim, but less fortunately, he does write as though he believes it. This can be seen in his comments on 1 Thessalonians chapter 4, verses 13-18, a passage that reads as follows.
But we do not want you to be uninformed, brothers, about those who are asleep, that you may not grieve as others do who have no hope. For since we believe that Jesus died and rose again, even so, through Jesus, God will bring with him those who have fallen asleep. For this we declare to you by a word from the Lord, that we who are alive, who are left until the coming of the Lord, will not precede those who have fallen asleep. For the Lord himself will descend from heaven with a cry of command, with the voice of an archangel, and with the sound of the trumpet of God. And the dead in Christ will rise first. Then we who are alive, who are left, will be caught up together with them in the clouds to meet the Lord in the air, and so we will always be with the Lord. Therefore encourage one another with these words.
The passage has become a classic text on the resurrection of the dead, and it was written to address a pastoral concern in the early church: If Jesus is going to return, that’s great, but what about those Christians who die before this happens? Will they miss out? Paul’s answer is that they will not miss out, because just as God brought back Jesus from the dead, God will bring back dead believers as well when Jesus returns, so we’ll all be together with the Lord forever.
Wright picks up on the use of the “sleep” metaphor that Paul uses here to describe the dead people who will “wake up” when Christ returns:
What does Paul have to say about an intermediate state? Like other second-Temple Jews who believed in resurrection, Paul is left with an interval between bodily death and resurrection, and this passage describes his fullest description of it. To begin with, he uses the regular image of falling asleep for death, enabling him to speak of people who are currently asleep but who will one day wake up again, and to do so with echoes of Daniel 12.2, which as we saw was one of the primary biblical passages on the subject. Three times, in 4.13, 14 and 15, Paul uses this language, employing it also in a different sense in 5.6-10 (see below). This has led some interpreters to speak of ‘the sleep of the soul’, a time of unconscious post-mortem existence prior to the re-awakening of resurrection. But this is almost certainly misleading – a case of people picking up a vivid Pauline metaphor and running down the street waving it about. For a start, though Paul can refer to the ‘soul’ (psyche) among other anthropological terms, it is noticeable that he does not employ this term when referring to the intermediate state – unlike, say, the Wisdom of Solomon, and indeed Revelation. In fact, if we were speaking strictly, we should say that it is the body that ‘sleeps’ between death and resurrection; but in all probability Paul is using the language of sleeping and waking simply as a way of contrasting a stage of temporary inactivity, not necessarily unconsciousness, with a subsequent one of renewed activity. The other references to the presently dead in this passage refer to them as ‘the dead in the Messiah’ (4.16), and as people who, though having fallen asleep continue (and will continue) to ‘live with him’ (5.10), to be ‘with Jesus’ (4.14), or ‘with the Lord’ (4.17).
Wright, The Resurrection of the Son of God, 216.
In a work that treats other issues in general with what I see as a scholarly fairness, this was rather disappointing. Here I will offer four considerations that, in my view, should give people pause when reading the above brief critique of soul sleep.
Firstly, things get off to a rather bad start with what looks like simply describing other people’s exegesis of Scripture in mocking tones. “Running down the street waving it about”? Wright routinely picks up the metaphor that Paul uses of the resurrection body being a transformed body, “clothed upon” with new qualities. Paul himself only uses the metaphor a scant few times but Wright uses it many times. Is it justified, if I do not agree with Wright, to say that he has picked up a metaphor and is running down the street waving it about? If a person believes that a metaphor is a suggestive of a certain belief (whether a transformed resurrection body or a state of unconsciousness in death), then it is fair game to say so and hardly productive to respond with ridicule.
Secondly, Wright argues that we should not think that Paul spoke of the sleep of, specifically, the soul, because Paul doesn’t even use that word (psyche) to describe a person after their death. But this is simply not relevant at all. People who advocate what Wright has called “the sleep of the soul” do not insist that, whatever happens to the body, the soul, something quite separate, goes to sleep. In fact more often than not, those who find soul sleep in the Pauline doctrine are explicit that they do not find in Paul a dualistic theory of personhood with a separable soul and body at all. Rather, they advocate the view that the person is said to sleep in the Pauline literature, and it is the whole person who loses consciousness, and the whole person who will be awakened again. It is therefore no good to reply to them by stressing that Paul doesn’t speak of the soul after death. People who believe in soul sleep are quite well aware of this already.
Thirdly, Wright makes a claim which really just amounts amount to a simple denial that the sleep metaphor is instructive in the way that soul sleep advocates say. There is no appeal to anything other than what I can only assume is what Wright thinks is just common sense. He says, 1) That really, if we’re careful, we would say that the body goes to sleep, not the soul, and 2) that in Paul “in all probability” is just talking about the end of physical activity for a temporary duration. In regard to 1), it looks like Wright may well simply be assuming the very dualism that soul sleep advocates reject. Yes, the body goes to sleep – and what does this show? That the soul does not? But this does not sit well with Paul’s use of the sleep metaphor, for he speaks of those who have fallen asleep. These are people who have fallen asleep. If Wright is correct that really it is only the body that falls asleep, then he is forced into the corner of saying that the people are their bodies, which actually affirms the position of soul sleep advocates. Similar observations can be made from Daniel 12:2, another text Wright refers to here, which refers to “those who sleep in the dust of the earth” rising to have eternal life or to receive shame and everlasting contempt, similarly implying that whatever is sleeping in the dust of the earth, they are people. As far as 2) is concerned, I find that we often see things being the case “in all probability” when we are sure that something is true but we don’t have a strong argument to offer (I have no doubt that I think this way at times myself). I say that the sleep metaphor certainly works in favour of soul sleep, rather than against it, and what it means “in all probability” is something that fits Paul’s thought on what the metaphor was intended for. Soul sleep advocates find evidence elsewhere in Paul that an unconscious period prior to the resurrection fits the bill, and I agree with them.
Fourthly – and surprisingly – Wright draws on a number of descriptions of the dead from this chapter and chapter 5 that he seems to think indicate that the dead people referred to here are conscious after all, but I have to say that I find his selection and use of them a little bizarre. True, Paul calls them “the dead in the Messiah” (the dead in Christ) in 4:16. But surely noting that they are in Christ is for the sake of pointing out that he has believers in mind, and nothing is said here about their state of consciousness. Does Paul describe them “as people who, though having fallen asleep continue (and will continue) to ‘live with him’ (5.10)”? Certainly not in this passage. In 5:9-10, the portion Wright alludes to, we read: “For God has not destined us for wrath, but to obtain salvation through our Lord Jesus Christ, who died for us so that whether we are awake or asleep we might live with him.” Wright is assuming that it means “that whether we are awake right now or asleep right now, we are still living, i.e. conscious, with him right now.” There is, of course, a sense in which Paul could still say this even if he believed soul sleep. We can speak of dead people conquering death now in light of our conviction that they will rise again, but that is not what is happening here. Recall the pastoral context: People were upset because believers had died and it was feared that because they had fallen asleep, they might miss out on the return of Christ. Paul’s reassurance was that this was not going to happen because even though they are now asleep, they will rise when Christ returns and we who are still alive will be gathered together with them. In this context, the meaning of 5:9-10 becomes clear: When Christ returns and exercises wrath on his enemies, we are not appointed for that, but whether we are still asleep at that time or alive at that time (or indeed whether or not we are awake or asleep right now), we will all live with him, since the dead in Christ will be raised at that time. Context is the decisive factor when figuring out what Paul is talking about, and there really cannot be any doubt: It is the resurrection.
Does Paul say that the dead in Christ are now “with Jesus”? This is not actually said in 4:14. Instead, Paul there describes what God will do in the future. He says that “since we believe that Jesus died and rose again, even so [i.e. in the same way], through Jesus, God will bring with him those who have fallen asleep.” Paul then describes the fact that they will rise again. The point is not that the dead are in heaven “with him” as Wright seems to assume. Instead, the point is that just as God brought Jesus back from the dead, so too he will one day bring with Jesus those believers who have died back from the dead as well. This is quite plainly what Paul then goes on to describe.
Lastly, does Paul say that those Christians who have fallen asleep are now “with the Lord” in 4:17? Nothing of the sort. Instead, he says: “For the Lord himself will descend from heaven with a cry of command, with the voice of an archangel, and with the sound of the trumpet of God. And the dead in Christ will rise first. Then we who are alive, who are left, will be caught up together with them in the clouds to meet the Lord in the air, and so we will always be with the Lord.” It is at once clear, that this is a future state of affairs, that it will happen when Christ returns and after the resurrection. Then, says Paul, “we will always be with the Lord.” It is inexplicable that Wright should see this as the claim that the dead in Christ are right now “with the Lord.”
Of course, what I have said here is brief. It is nothing like a substantial defence of the doctrine of soul sleep. Wright’s comments on this page were only brief, and those are the only comments I have sought to respond to. I have to say that, given the quality of the book as a whole, these comments are a bit of a fly in the ointment. The reality is that overall, Wright’s work, not least in his book Surprised by Hope has really done a marvellous job of urging Christians to stop thinking of our hope in terms of heavenly bliss after we die, and to get back to the biblical message of the resurrection of the dead. This in itself, whether Wright intends it or not, will nudge people in the direction of being more open to the doctrine of soul sleep. His actual arguments against that doctrine are surprisingly shallow, and I daresay they will do nothing to stem the tide of the positive influence his other work is having.