Are souls only sleeping after death?
By Luke Lancaster
Some interpreters of Scripture believe that all those who are dead right now are "asleep" or "unconscious," meaning that they are not in Heaven or Hell. They argue that Jesus, St. Paul, and others in Scripture refer to people being "asleep," which would indicate that they are not awake with Jesus. This interpretation could be called "soul-sleep" or "conditional immortality" and is basically denying the immortality of the soul. As Biblical Catholics, we believe in a body-soul composite. If one (i.e. the body) dies, then that does not mean that the other (i.e. the soul) dies with it. Rather, the soul is judged immediately by God and is sent to an eternal destination.
Catholics believe that God judges each person twice, once when he or she dies, and again at the end of time. One is called the "particular" judgment, and the other is called the "general" judgment. The sequence goes like this: (1) After physical death, the soul of the person is judged by God and sent to an eternal destination; (2) Then, at the end of time, God resurrects the person's body and unites it back with its soul; (3) Finally, he or she is judged and sent back to that eternal destination. To summarize, humans are conceived material and immaterial, then after bodily death are only immaterial, and finally become material and immaterial again for eternity.
If this is the case, then why does Scripture speak of people being "asleep"? For instance, Jesus said that the newly deceased Lazarus was actually just sleeping (John 11:11-14); St. Paul said that deceased Christians were sleeping (1 Thessalonians 4:13-17). To understand this language, consider popular expressions like "the sun rose in the morning" or "the sun set in the evening." These are expressions denoting the way things appear to us. Such descriptions are not accurate, though. The sun does not move. We are moving. Scripture was written by the Holy Spirit, but through men who spoke of things the way they appeared. Dead people appeared to be like a sleeping person, so they were called "asleep."
Scripture speaks of people being asleep, yet also portrays them as living beyond death. Consider the transfiguration, where Jesus spoke with a living Moses and Elijah (Matthew 17:1-8). They weren't sleeping. Jesus told the thief on the cross, “Truly, I say to you, today you will be with me in Paradise” (Luke 23:43). He would be with Christ THAT DAY. His body might look like a sleeping person, but his soul would be experiencing life after death.
St. Paul said in his letter to the Philippians (1:20-25) that it would be good whether he continued living in his old age or died. For if he continued living, he could continue preaching the Gospel. And if he died, he would "be with Christ" (Phil. 1:23). Hmm, so Paul would immediately have life after death? It would seem to be so, for he described death as a "gain" (Phil. 1:21). Now think for a moment. If he believed in soul-sleep, why would it be advantageous to die? It wouldn't make Christ's coming at the end of time come faster. He would have to be thinking that death would result in going home to Christ immediately.
In the book of Revelation, St. John saw a vision of what was going on in Heaven. If you believe in soul-sleep, then all St. John should have seen in Heaven were angels worshipping God. Yet that wasn't all he saw. St. John said,
"I saw under the altar the souls of those who had been slain for the word of God and for the witness they had borne; they cried out with a loud voice, 'O Sovereign Lord, holy and true, how long before thou wilt judge and avenge our blood on those who dwell upon the earth?' Then they were each given a white robe and told to rest a little longer, until the number of their fellow servants and their brethren should be complete, who were to be killed as they themselves had been" (Rev. 6:9-11).
Notice that there were *souls* in Heaven. They made a request to God on behalf of those who were still on earth. I really do not see how this verse could be twisted any other way. Living and speaking souls in Heaven would mean that their bodies were asleep, but not their souls. This was happening during St. John's day and age, for there were still people on earth, and the 2nd coming of Christ was to occur later (Rev. 20:11-15).
Truly, Scripture presents a body-soul unification, with that unity ruptured at death, but only to be reunified when Christ came back. The soul does not sleep at death, but is immediately judged by the Lord of life and death. Either the soul is cleansed and enters Heaven, or goes straight to the fires of Hell.