The blog of Dr Glenn Andrew Peoples on Theology, Philosophy, and Social Issues

Tom Wright: Wrong about Soul Sleep


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.

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?

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.

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.

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 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 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.

Context is the decisive factor when figuring out what Paul is talking about, and there really cannot be any doubt: It is the resurrection.

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”?

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.

Glenn Peoples


Horotiu: What does a liberal democracy do with mythological beasts?


An open letter to my traditionalist friends


  1. James Rea

    I’m currently wading through both Surprised by Hope and Resurrection of the Son of God, and they make an excellent resource for the biblical account that our ‘blessed hope’ is not a disembodied heaven-bound destiny, but earthly resurrection. Your points regarding Wright’s acknowledgement that there is some form of intermediate state is backed in the tag line he uses: ‘life after life after death’. What that initial life after death looks like he doesn’t really explain, and I get the impression that he is choosing to skirt around the serious (and sizeable) issue of the nature of Sheol, Hades and the post-death condition. His avoidance seems almost a tacit nod towards the very real biblical case for the entire person unconsciously awaiting judgment. Could it be that Wright recognises that but can’t quite commit to a viewpoint that is often associated with Adventism, and would be a marked departure from his high Anglican tradition? His work is so thoroughly researched and cross-referenced that to deny the much more robust argument for unconsciously awaiting resurrection seems odd.

  2. Funny that you mention how Wright assumes the dualism that most mortalists reject. Just the other day I was browsing Wayne Grudem’s tome, and in the section about soul sleep, he makes the exact same argument:

    We should notice that Jesus does not here say, “The soul of Lazarus is sleeping,” nor, in fact does any passage in Scripture say that the soul of a person is sleeping or unconscious (a statement that would be necessary to prove the doctrine of soul sleep)


  3. James Rea

    Ronnie, I think the phrase ‘soul sleep’ comes with much dualistic baggage, but in the rightful context that the soul or nephesh equates to the whole person (body, mind and animating life), soul sleep works. Grudem has this in mind when he says ‘the soul OF a person’, when in fact a person IS a soul.

  4. That’s right James. But the point, I think, is that Grudem ought to know better that those who deny a conscious intermediate state typically also deny substance dualism–a fact that would make his rejoined ring a bit hollow.

  5. Tim Wikiriwhi

    “According to my earnest expectation and my hope, that in nothing I shall be ashamed, but that with all boldness, as always, so now also Christ shall be magnified in my body, whether it be by life or by death. For me to live is Christ, and to die is gain. but if I live in the flesh, this is the fruit of my labor: yet what I shall choose I wot not. For I am in a strait betwixt two, having a desire to depart, and to be with Christ: which is far better: Nevertheless to abide in the flesh is more needful for you.” (Pil 1vs 20-23)
    Here Paul is specific about the dualistic Nature of Humanity…specifically Christians. He talks plainly about ‘Himself’…The Soul Paul…indwelling his body…his flesh like a man living in a house. He talks about desiring death…not to sleep…but to be immediately with Christ. This is where The doctrine of “Absent from the body…present with the Lord” comes from. When Paul speaks of ‘Sleep’ in Thessalonians he is talking about the *The bodies of the dead in Christ*. The comfort he gives is because the believers have their dead with them…ie they know their corpses have rotted in their graves. The Rapture mentioned in this passage is also called ‘The day of redemption’ in Ephesians. It is mentioned in Romans as the redemption of our bodies, nothing to do with our souls. Look closely at 1 thes and you will see Jesus brings back the souls of the dead in Christ *with him* in 1Thes4vs14 to recieve their glorified bodies, and we wich are alive and remain are changed, and Paul connects this to Christ’s own death and resurrection, in which Christ left his body for three days and returned to it in a glorified state. During the three days Christ’s body was in the tomb The scriptures seem to say that He (his soul) descended into hell and preached there (Hell is divided into two or more compartments). On one side was Abrahams bosom, where the souls of the Righteous dead went before the crucifixion, and on the other side is where the unrighteous dead went to await the great judgment…and between there lies ‘a great gulf fixed.’ Thus nobody… better said as *no soul*… ever ‘sleeps’…in unconsciousness…neither the saved or the lost.
    This comes from what has been called by many ‘The parable of the rich man and Lazarus’…yet it is wrong to call this merely ‘a parable’ as Christ calls the rich man…’a certain man’ …that is to say a particular person who is in hell as we speak. *Hell is a real place*, and the moral of this true story was not merely to be charitable…that as you judge others, so shall you also be judged…but also that Hell is real, and that *the scriptures are to be believed* rather than human reasoning…and so no matter what you think of the doctrine that Christ went and preached to spirits in prison (Fallen angels in their own place of confinement?)…he clearly taught that the Dead are still conscious in death. The Bible is Dualist. (It teaches the certain soul named Judas Iscariot went to his own separate place too). What is called ‘Physicalism’…is synonymous with Materialism. Both hold Man is completely a physical being, and that in theory you can make a man out of physical materials if you know how. Phisicalism is a retreat from the high theistic…Bible believing ground …a surrender to materialist philosophy. The Bible on the other hand is ‘Spiritualism’…Ie That Spirit and Matter are different in essence…God is a Spirit…so are we. We are not our bodies. This truth must be held by Faith in the scriptures…in the face of atheist Materialism.

  6. Tim, so just to be clear, are you defending or opposing these four or five arguments that Tom Wright used here? I can’t tell!

  7. Mike

    Hey Tim,
    The rich man and Lazarus really is a parable. I’m not sure where you heard it was not. If you take it as a literal event, you run into a LOT of problems theologically and practically.

    It is actually the last of a five-part parable beginning in Chapter 15 of Luke. Here is the reason for these five parables in a row:

    “Now ALL the tribute collectors and sinners were coming near Him to be hearing Him. And both the Pharisees and the scribes grumbled, saying that ‘This man sinners is receiving, and is eating with them!” (Luke 15:1).

    Verse 2: “Now He told them [the tax collectors, sinners, Pharisees, and scribes] THIS PARABLE, saying…”

    Jesus then gives them FIVE parables, one after the other. The phrase “THIS parable” certainly is not limited to the next, one, parable only. These are ALL parables and most scholars recognize them as parables.

    Notice next the introduction of the third, fourth, and fifth parables:

    “A CERTAIN MAN…” (15:11)
    “There was A CERTAIN RICH MAN…” (16:1).
    “There was A CERTAIN RICH MAN…” (16:19).

    So the point that Jesus used ‘ a certain rich man’ actually proves the point of it being a parable and not a true story of something that happened. If you listen to Glenn’s 3 part series on hell, part 2, I believe, talks about that also.

    You just want to be careful of building any doctrine of the final judgement or hell based off this parable, especially because it is talking about Hades and not the lake of fire, even if it were true.

    • Tom Tupps

      What about the first four parables? Do you take them as literal events or not? Are there theological and practical problems if we do?
      I would say that all parables are based on descriptions of true life events. They must be either actual events that took place or at the least based on actual events that could take place. Otherwise, how could the hearers relate to the point Jesus is making in using the parable?

  8. Tim Wikiriwhi

    Several points. Firstly, I am supporting Wrights contention that when Paul talks about those who ‘sleep in Christ’ that he is talking about the Dead not really being dead at all…but only their mortal/physical bodies as being ‘temporalily dormant’. He is saying “Don’t be fooled by physical appearances…”.
    Secondly, I am saying you Glenn are wrong to believe in ‘Soul sleep’…and that your monism is not supported by these verses in Thessalonians, because we see else where when the rapture is mentioned it is always referring to the changing of our physical bodies…our sinful mortal flesh.
    Thirdly, Sleep is primarily a Bodily function…the brain does not switch off…we don’t cease to exist because we are ‘un-conscious’…whatever that term really means???
    Fourthly, It matters not whether you believe The story of the rich man and Lazarus is true or not. Christ clearly taught that neither the lost or the saved ‘sleep in death’. His doctrine is that you go to a place of blessing or curse, and that you will be conscious the whole time.
    Lastly lets introduce the evidence of what is called ‘Near death experience’. There is plenty of testimony …that after death the soul carries on. Now I realize there are problems with this. I know the bible itself says “Once to die and after this the judgment”…yet it also gives plenty of exceptions to this rule, and this verse in itself seems to say that we carry on after death…we get judged. It is interesting that I can safely assume Glenn will repair to the very same arguments against accepting Near death testimonies as are used by atheist materialists…to which I refer you to our Lord himself who declared “If they will not believe Moses and the prophets…neither will they believe even if one should return from the dead.” Thus Glenn is found to be a Bible doubting Materialist, nothing more.

  9. Tim Wikiriwhi

    I apollogize Glenn for my rudeness. I have the tact of an elephant. I err greatly.

  10. Tim, I know you’re very passionate about the subject for some reason, and when it comes up you fly off into the whole kaleidoscope of colourful descriptions of people who see the Scripture as I do. You even go so far as to assault our honesty, claiming that even though we claim to think our view is biblical, we really don’t, and we actually doubt what we see in the Bible. You want to talk about it all, get hot under the collar, let it all out, vent, cover every inch of territory.

    That’s just not my style. I see great value in being very specific and very directed in scope. It discourages people from creating a rhetorical dust storm with words all over the place and no unified line of argument. In this case I chose to zero in on some very precise arguments that Tom Wright used. But Tim, although you say that you’re supporting what Wright says, you don’t actually deal with the specific arguments that he uses or with my quite specific responses to them.

    So while I appreciate you making it loud and clear where you place yourself on the theological spectrum – in a place that I think owes much more to tradition than to Scripture – I’m still quite in the dark about how you would defend Wright’s four arguments against the criticisms I’ve made.

  11. Tim Wikiriwhi

    Glenn, I do not knock your approach on many issues. I read, enjoy, and learn many things. Yet you have told me yourself that you do not believe there exists today any text in any language that may be considered the perfect, inerrant, preserved Word of God. Thus I am not inventing fallacious and derogatory accusations against you. I am holding you to account for your professed lack of faith in the scriptures, and your resultant rationalist theology. I present to you a real bible believers theology. I trust in the King James Authorized version, and am earnestly contending for the faith. It is not my intension to beat you into subjection, but to win you over to what I believe is sound doctrine. Doctrine which I believe St Paul both believed and wanted us to believe. I realize that few people today believe what I believe, that I am concidered a fool, and that many peoplewho also profess to be King james bible believers are fruit cakes, yet even still I give you my testimony in the hope of being able to convince you of this truth, in spite of it all.In spite of Satans sophisticated wiles. I am shining my Light, as I am told to do by St Paul. I am trying to restore your faith in the scriptures as your final authority, as your rock, as your assurance. If you, or Matt ever do grasp what I am saying is true, you both would be formidable warriors for Christ. You would wield the sword of the spirit with mightiness, using your education as I believe it could, and ought to be used. That is my hope. That is the purpose of my testimony. To defend the scriptures from atheist rationalism, and to propagate Dispensational Bible believing faith.

  12. Tim, you may not realise this, but the first reason I believe soul sleep is that I am persuaded that this is what the Bible teaches.

    Therefore it is not fair or charitable to say that this is a case of me denying or doubting what Scripture says.

  13. Finally, something that Glenn wrote that I apparently disagree with! I was getting worried. You know the whole bit, “If you find a scholar with whom you agree every jot and tittle, watch out.” Well, I guess I’m doing alright, then, eh? 🙂

    Glenn–great impersonation of Richard Dawkins on the earlier podcast “Plantinga and Presuppositionalism” I think.

    AND–really dug the Megadeth on your podcast about music. “Christian” music. Blegh!!!

  14. Glenn,

    Logical question for you (epistemological?):

    If something, let’s say a belief, it not unreasonable to believe, how does that affect its ability to be a warranted belief?

    I ask, because when thinking of this debate (soul sleep vs. not), I continue to think of biblical examples. For one, I think of Stephen at his martyrdom: he sees the Son of Man sitting at the right hand of God. Then, he prays, “Lord Jesus, receive my spirit.” And there is of course, the thief on the cross: “Today you will be with me in Paradise,” (Luke 23:43). And there are Paul’s statements about being with Christ which is by far better, and “to be absent from the body is to be present with the Lord,” (2 Cor. 5:6-8).

    Now, in the case of Stephen for example. His vision of Christ doesn’t prove that the soul goes to be present with the Lord in the traditional sense. But I found myself thinking, “But it seems that is is NOT UNreasonable to believe so.” This is why I ask the question above about warrant. Thanks for a great blog and podcast. I listen at work all day to various podcasts, and I’m catching up on “Say Hello to My Little Friend,” bit by bit.


  15. Chris, in the case of the death of Stephen, I guess you would need to fully unpack what it is about that passage that makes going to heaven when you die a reasonable interpretation. That passage only tells us that Jesus was at the right hand of God (which is a statement about his status), and that Stephen gave up his spirit and then Stephen fell asleep. of course, on the face of it these are all things that soul sleepers affirm. That Stephen gave up his spirit suggests that the spirit is not Stephen (it is in fact the breath of life, the sustaining power of God). That the text next states that Stephen fell asleep only confirms this. So while it’s not an absolute proof of anything, on the surface it certainly does appear to favour soul sleep.

    The thief on the cross, I readily admit, is actually a piece of evidence that proponents of soul sleep need to address, because on the surface it may seem to fly in the face of the wider biblical description of death. I devoted a blog to this verse here.

  16. Dr R C Sproul stresses that Stephen saw a ‘vision.’ He argues the vision was of a higher, just, court with Jesus as Stephen’s advocate, while on earth he was being condemned by a lower and unjust court. Anywhoo… Btw, I can digg up the podcast if anyone wants to hear it, or thinks me a liar.

  17. I call liar! 😉

    That makes sense Basil. I do think that Stephen’s audience would have taken offence at the thought of Jesus at the right hand of God, since this would involve the vindication of Christ, whom Stephen has just accused his audience of condemning.

  18. Glenn,

    I suppose what is the real kicker for me is that Stephen cries out to the Lord to receive his “spirit.” Since (most) Christians are substance dualists, believing in a spirit/body, it just seems natural and intuitive to believe Stephen enjoyed the immediate presence of the Lord.

    How to most soul-sleep advocates understand this?
    Further, why do you think this debate gets so heated? Does it make the imminence of death less hopeful for some reason?


  19. Chris – Oh definitely, if a person is already committed to a strong substance dualism and they assume that “spirit” probably means his immaterial soul/ghost, then yes that’s what will come to mind.

    However, the text does appear to separate Stephen from that spirit. Stephen indicates that he is giving up his spirit – not that he is departing as a spirit. The next thing we read is that Stephen fell asleep. So if we don’t press a doctrinal bias onto the word “spirit,” I think a fairly natural reading supports soul sleep.

    Throughout the Old Testament there’s a portrait of human beings as physical creatures who are kept alive by the “spirit,” the breath of life. It’s in Genesis 2:7, it’s in Ecclesiastes 12:7 where the spirit “returns” to God (so we have an undoing of Genesis 2:7), and it’s mentioned in various other places as well (Genesis 7:15, Job 27:3, Psalm 104:28 etc). So the mere presence of this language certainly shouldn’t lead us to assume that the writer is expressing dualist convictions.

    I’m not always clear on why things get so heated over this. I just don’t know. The only general thing I would say is that people start finding ideas very dear to them – precious. The thought of going to heaven at death is comforting, and the practice of affirming the same thing as the majority of traditional Christians is psychologically comforting as well. To have these sorts of comforts violated is unsettling and perhaps threatening. It’s rocking the boat.

  20. Ok–I’m going to give a listen to the Mind/Body podcasts next week at work. Perhaps that will help me understand this a little better.

  21. Roy


    Just a quick Q – do you pass on your critiques to the authors, Tom Wright in this case?

    btw – thoroughly enjoying your work; and learning a lot!

    Just a quick laugh, I’ve been debating some of my friends on the existence of God etc; and recently listened to your teaching on the Biblical evidence for annihilationism. As such, I put up a FB status of, ‘It turns out the Bible agrees with Atheists about *their* ultimate fate’.

    An atheist friend of mine, commented, ‘Roy – you’re getting closer to becoming an atheist’ … Classic!


  22. Greetings,

    What do the ‘soul sleepers’ think of Jesus’ answer to the Sadducees, that the God of Abraham, Issac, and Jacob is the God of the living not of the dead. Giving the context of refuting the notion that there is no afterlife it seems to me that Jesus is saying that now–then as well as now–Abraham, Issac, and Jacob are alive. And if they’re alive now does that cast some doubt on a strict physical constitution of a human being, as well as a soul sleep.

    (For the record, I think, I am understanding soul sleep to entail one is wholly gone-dead-whatever until the resurrection. In other words, one ceases to exist at death, then is re-instantiated at the general resurrection.)


  23. Basil, in these passages Jesus is explicitly making an argument for the resurrection, not a conscious intermediate state:

    Matthew 22:31-32
    And as for the resurrection of the dead, have you not read what was said to you by God: “I am the God of Abraham, and the God of Isaac, and the God of Jacob”? He is not God of the dead, but of the living.

    Mark 12:26-27
    And as for the dead being raised, have you not read in the book of Moses, in the passage about the bush, how God spoke to him, saying, “I am the God of Abraham, and the God of Isaac, and the God of Jacob”? He is not God of the dead, but of the living. You are quite wrong.

    Luke 20:37-38
    But that the dead are raised, even Moses showed, in the passage about the bush, where he calls the Lord the God of Abraham and the God of Isaac and the God of Jacob. Now he is not God of the dead, but of the living, for all live to him.

  24. Ronnie,

    Thanks for the response. I still (perhaps stubbornly) think Jesus was pointing out that Abraham, Issac, and Jacob are still living. In particular, the passage in Mark, is referencing God speaking to Moses, telling Moses He is the God of these men who are living.

    I am NOT a Greek expert (I know like 80 words by heart and some associated rules, but still working on it). That disclaimer aside the words ‘of the living’ are/is a present active participle, which means it is presently occurring or repeatedly occurring.

  25. My response would be the same as Ronnie’s. Jesus used these texts to prove the resurrection. In other words, all live to him because he know they are not gone for good.

    “Of the living” doesn’t occur at all. It’s just a predicate of God. He is right now the God of the living, and if that includes those who have died, then we can be sure that they will live again.

    If anyone thinks this inference is doubtful, the best I can offer is: That is precisely the inference Jesus made.

  26. Milburne

    Hey Glenn I was wanting to ask you about the “soul sleep” doctrine you hold to. I’m very curious about it, it sounds very sound and has a lot of scientific evidence in support for it at least for the part that when we die we do indeed cease to exist.

    But I was wondering, when God recreates us during the resurrection of the dead, will I and you be the same I and you? What I mean is, for an example if I for instance have a fondness to the color blue, love chocolate ice cream better than vanilla and enjoy driving sports cars will I have the same personality traits as well as memories of my life here on earth and of my friends and loved ones?

    Or the new me that God resurrects or re creates be sort of a clone of me but not the same me? I guess as far as how God will do this will be by the fact that when I became a believer he just simply decides to remember me where as unbelievers he does not and at the resurrection he re creates all the people he remembers correct?

    Is this right about your view or am I missing something? Please help me sort out this confusion. Thanks and God bless.

  27. Jarvis

    Tim, Chris, and anyone else who doubt that the Bible teaches “soul sleep” must read the very readable, absolutely conclusive book on this subject by Henry Constable, namely, “Hades: Or The Intermediate State of Man” available for free at Google Books ( You will then know that the the traditional belief that the souls or spirits human beings go to heaven or hell at death is false; that the Bible as plain as day teaches that at death human beings truly die: they become unconsicous. There are many, many writings on the topic that are excellent, but as someone who has read almost all of it, I would recommend Constable’s as the best to read if you are only going to read one book.

  28. Stuart

    Hi Glenn,

    Thanks for your insight and the time you take to write these posts.

    Here you highlight Wright’s major weakness as his views on soul sleep, so I was wondering what you make of his views on eternal judgement?

    If I read him correctly it is that those who do not know God cease to be image bearers and go through a process of ‘dehumanisation’. A view which he claims is neither traditional eternal torment nor conditional immortality but some kind of middle-ground.

    I’ve only read what he has written in Surprised By Hope, but he dismisses the conditionalist view because of it’s “belittling those scriptural passages which appear to speak unambiguously of a continuing state for those who have rejected the worship of the true God”.
    Perhaps he has addressed this more head-on in his other literature, I’m not sure.

    I think he admits himself that his view is certainly speculative, do you think there is room in the interpretation of the relevant passages for this kind of speculation?

  29. Milburne

    Hello Glenn, by any chance did you see my question above? Thank you again for your time, God bless.

  30. Sorry Milburne, no I didn’t see it.

    That’s no small question, and there’s been a fair bit written about it. I don’t think I could offer much in a comment that would do the issue justice, but in my podcast series “In Search of the Soul” I did address that question in part 4 of that series, which you may find interesting (You might even like the whole series).

  31. Jeremy

    Nobody has mentioned Enoch or Elijah, neither of whom died, neither of whom are here. Where are they and in what form? Have they had to wait for thousands of years trapped in some little physical bubble maintained in heaven until God gets around to making the new heavens and new earth and new jerusalem. And did Moses and Elijah get an early ressurection so they could appear with Christ at the transfiguration? If this is so where do they currently live and in what form?
    Or what about John’s vision of the souls of the martyrs waiting under the altar in heaven for God to bring judgement and justice?
    How and/or what was raised when Saul got the medium to talk to Samuel? If we are spiritually dead apart from God, what gets born again at salvation and is it being suggested that this gets to die again untill the ressurection?
    I feel that quite a lot of data has been left out of this discussion so far. i look forward to comments, suggestions, answers.
    Many thanks

  32. Jeremy, I’d say the reason people don’t use them as examples of what happens when people die is that, as you said, they were said not to die.

    As for Moses and Elijah, Jesus called that event a vision – although that’s not in the NIV.

    The reason this other “data” isn’t in this particular conversation is that this blog wasn’t ever a comprehensive treatment of soul sleep. It was only a discussion of very specific few arguments that N T Wright chose to use on this one occasion.

  33. James Rea

    Hi Jeremy, where do you understand from scripture that something within us has to get born again? When Jesus is explaining to Nicodemus why natural birth into Judaism is not sufficient to attain eternal life, the birth terminology is only a metaphor. Flesh cannot inherit eternal life, only the Holy Spirit within acts as a seal assuring us of eternal life post-resurrection.

  34. Jarvis


    On Enoch and Elijah, see among other things:

    On John’s vision of the souls of the martyrs waiting under the altar in heaven for God to bring judgment and justice, see among other things:

    On Samuel and the Witch of Endor, see among other things: (holds either Samuel was temporarily resurrected or a demon impersonated Samuel, finally opting for the latter) and–lKWcL&dq=constable%20hades&pg=PA270#v=onepage&q&f=false (scroll down to “9”; holds Samuel was temporarily resurrected—more likely in my opinion)

    As far as what gets “born again” when one is “saved,” I see the New Testament teaching that the person gets born again; that to be born again is to be morally transformed by the conviction of the Holy Spirit; that at death, the born again person dies; and finally that at the resurrection the same person is raised.

    Again, I would strong recommend reading Henry Constable’s book on conditional immortality, namely, “Hades: Or The Intermediate State of Man” available for free at Google Books ( . I dare say I do not see how anyone open-minded on this issue could read this book and not be persuaded of conditional immortality.


  35. lyle R Edmonds

    Jehova Wittness believe in Soul Sleep. My Son had a NDE and saw his
    Grandmother who has been deceased all of his life. She told him to return it was not his time. Why do you think our Spirit dies at death? It is said in the bible it goes back to God who gave it. I am satisfied with that. I do like most of NT Wrights beleifs.

  36. “Jehova Wittness believe in Soul Sleep.”

    So what?

    “My Son had a NDE and saw his Grandmother who has been deceased all of his0 life. She told him to return it was not his time. ”

    With respect, no she didn’t.

    “It is said in the bible it goes back to God who gave it. I am satisfied with that.”

    I am satisfied with this too. Before God gave us a spirit, were we conscious? No, we were not. So why think that we are conscious when the spirit returns to God who gave it? You may find this interesting or helpful, lyle:

  37. I see that this topic has died a death in 2014, but I shall revive it, for perhaps it is only sleeping. 🙂

    Jesus said in his conversation with Martha that he is the resurrection and the life and that the one who lives and believes in him will never die. He says this is the context where Martha speaks to the fact that she believes that her brother will arise at a future resurrection at some point in time in the future. It appears from the text as if she might believe in soul sleep, or the non-existence of the person until such a time as reconstituted at the resurrection.

    Jesus’ statement seems to imply that there is life — I would argue conscious life — between that time — the time of Lazarus’ death — and the resurrection. This one who believes in Jesus will live even though he or she dies.

    This may not be true of the unbeliever. I personally believe that they will experience the death not only of the body but also of the soul — though in a conscious manner, not an unconscious one. I just recently watched my brother die of bone cancer; it was a painful and an agonizing death. Even then, it was a highly medicated death. The death, unmediated, of the body is an excruciating process; I can only assume it would be that way with the soul. The soul dies, I believe, without Christ, until its resurrection, at which time it will be judged, and then will be dying again. Eternal damnation is said in Revelation to be the second death, which I believe is also a totally conscious and unmediated experience.

    The blogger argued with one of the respondents above — not going to go back and look up the names — about the parable of Jesus in Luke 16. Admitting the parabolic nature of Jesus’ teaching; is there reason to believe despite its parabolic nature that it is an actual teaching of Jesus, a teaching of the afterlife as it was in his day — I believe before he entered into the realm of the dead and took all of the Old Testament believers to glory (see Ephesians 2 (maybe 3)? What other purpose would there be for the parable, other than to set forth the fact that there is a conscious afterlife, and that one will either be in a place of comfort, or in a place of torment until such time as a resurrection.

    I do not think that the parable was a mere ruse Jesus used to teach that people would be unconvinced even though one would rise from the dead. All parables manifest some eternal truths; and this one seems to argue for consciousness prior to judgment, and to a conscious experience of either blessedness or torment until one’s ultimate resurrection.

    A final argument, sleep, when it is referring to death is clearly that of a metaphor. One writer above has argued that sleep seemingly would not equate to nonexistence. Just as the body sleeps in actual life, the mind is still active, the body is living — life continues to be life, it does not signify lack of existence. If we think of soul as equivalent with mind, the real person, that is intrinsically connected to the temple of the body, yet is always separate from the body also, then sleep does not have to represent temporal unconsciousness, unawareness, non-responsiveness, or lack of intellectual capabilities and/or composition. In the sleeping of death, then, the mind, and the individual, can be wholly conscious and active as the mind is in physical sleep. To argue for nonexistence or death of the person is to foist a teaching into the Scripture that it will not readily…

  38. Henry

    Glenn, NDEs were mentioned a couple of times and you didn’t provide adequate response, in my opinion.

    I believe that soul sleep is true, but NDEs still exist. I think they complicate the issue. If there were a couple of NDEs it would be one thing, but there is a sea of them, some extremely credible, and basically all are flying in the face of soul sleep.

    Attributing them to dreams or hallucinations of a dying brain, for example, I think is naive. Or that it’s all satan’s lie. Or that it’s something that should be brushed off with a wave of a hand. Not that those are your views, I don’t know what’s your view. What’s your view?

    • “Attributing them to dreams or hallucinations of a dying brain, for example, I think is naive.”

      Henry, I can understand why you might think something else provides a better explanation than all physiological explanations (although I’d disagree, probably), but I can’t understand why you’d think disagreeing with that position is somehow naive. Do you really mean naive? I also can’t quite see how thinking that a physiological explanation is true amounts to hand-waving in any sense at all. Why would it? Do you approach the issue as though dualism is very clearly the most plausible – and actually the only serious explanation (and that the questions these accounts raise for dualism are non-issues)? If not, why not suppose that the mere possibility of a variety of explanations means that it’s not a big deal? Could you elaborate?

    • Henry

      I labeled it naive because of both amount and quality of NDE testimonies. I don’t see that those testimonies can be explained with dreams, hallucinations or something similar. If I would to use some other word instead of naive, I think I would use lazy, as in lazy thinking on the issue.

      In somewhat parallel fashion, atheists easily discard testimonies of people who know that God exists through Holy Spirit conviction. They – atheists – wave their hand extremely easily to those testimonies, and explain them as workings of a brain. Just that I wouldn’t primarily say that they are naive or lazy on the issue, but blinded.

      Again, I just don’t see that brain processes are serious explanation for NDE testimonies. I could be wrong, of course.

      The consequence of accepting NDEs, in general, for what they say they are, is complication. But just because something is more complicated than previously thought doesn’t mean it’s not true.

  39. Well Henry, I think we have a seriously different idea about what naivety is – something I’ll return to in a moment. I also think we have opposite views about who is being lazy – and naive for that matter!

    Here’s what I mean: to have a subjective experience and to leap straight from our interpretation of that raw experience to a theory about souls, and though any other possibility is cut off as a possible explanation – that’s lazy. it’s also naive, imagining that we have such a clear perspective on ourselves that we can make this diagnosis.

    When you say that you don’t see how the brain could at all explain the experience that we call a NDE, can you elaborate? To make that sort of claim, I would hope that you’ve sunk quite a lot of time into looking at some of the bizarre experiences that can be produced by the brain. The array of oddities is impressive! How much time, at a quick estimate, would you say you’ve spent doing this? It’s all very well to say that you can’t see how the brain would explain a NDE, but if you’e not very familiar with the sorts of potentially misleading experiences a brain can produce, then the fact that you don’t see how a brain could do this is to be expected. Here’s just a very tiny slice of what I’m talking about: I was reading a book on these experiences by an apologist. He observed that certain types of drugs – even drugs used during surgery – can in fact produce a feeling of disembodiment. But then he noted that in that cases he knew of, that sensation was accompanied with fear, and in the NDE cases he knew of, there was no fear – totally missing the point about what this showed about the *potential* effects of chemistry on our experiences. I just think the jump to confirm one’s theology this way is lazy – and naive.

    “But just because something is more complicated than previously thought doesn’t mean it’s not true.”

    Naturally that’s true, but surely you’ve got to apply this principle to your scepticism that a physical body and brain can produce a feeling / experience of being detached from itself. Is it a bit complicated? Maybe, but that doesn’t mean we can dismiss the possibility. Brains just are complicated.

  40. Naturally, a comment thread is not a place to have a very detailed conversation about this or anything. But I do intend to, at some point, record a podcast about Near Death Experiences.

  41. Henry

    I wasn’t talking about interpreting experience into a theory about souls. I wasn’t even arguing whether experience is subjective or objective. And by the way, it is impossible to show that NDE is brain-only experience, just as it is impossible to study believer’s brain to show that there is no God.

    People who had NDE have a testimony, and they claim they have experienced real, not imagined, event. Based on the amount and quality of NDE testimonies, I am rather certain that, generaly speaking, NDE is a real event, not imaginary, brain-induced event. That certainly doesn’t mean, as you seem to say, that I automatically accept their conclusions on what soul is, what is the meaning of life, etc. If someone tells me they read a book, it doesn’t follow that I have to accept their analysis of the book as correct. I can simply accept, upon my investigation, that they really did read the book.

    There is a lot to say about this topic, but this – comment thread – is not the best avenue for it.

  42. “I wasn’t talking about interpreting experience into a theory about souls.”

    Well in context, yeah you were. You were talking about people treating their experience as a basis for believing in dualism – and thinking that I was dismissing the dualist explanation too quickly and in a lazy way.

    I’d encourage you to re-think your distinction between real events and brain events. At least before we die, all of our experiences are brain events. We lack the means of telling the difference between the two types of things you’re talking about, because we can’t get outside of our own selves and observe the accuracy of our experience.

    But I do agree about the limitations of comment threads.

  43. Tom Tupps

    What about the first four parables? Do you take them as literal events or not? Are there theological and practical problems if we do?
    I would say that all parables are based on descriptions of true life events. They must be either actual events that took place or at the least based on actual events that could take place. Otherwise, how could the hearers relate to the point Jesus is making in using the parable?

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