“I have two questions for you, what is the doctrine of Soul-Sleep and did the thief immediately go to Paradise with Jesus? A friend of mine believes in the doctrine of soul-sleep.”
Thanks for the questions, below are my answers I hope this helps!
What is The Doctrine of Soul-Sleep?
The (false) doctrine of Soul-Sleep is the belief that man is not conscious of anything following death (like to animals following death) until the future resurrection. The rationale for this belief comes from the conviction that man’s soul or spirit isn’t distinct from the physical body. Individuals holding to his belief (e.g., Jehovah’s Witnesses) believe that man is a combination of body and “breath” that together forms a living soul. In Christian Apologist Ron Rhodes’ book, Reasoning from the Scriptures with the Jehovah’s Witnesses, he brings to light that people holding to this belief tend to:
“believe that the soul refers not to an immaterial part of man that can survive death, but to the very life that a person has. Every person is a “soul”- not because he or she possesses an immaterial nature but because he or she is a living being. “A soul, heavenly or earthly, consists of a body together with the life principle or life force actuating it (p. 305).”
Scriptural references that are sometimes used to support this view are 1 Peter 3:20, Genesis 9:5 and Joshua 11:11 amongst others. The logic, according to this view, is that the word “soul” is synonymous with a “living being.” However a closer look into the Scriptures reveals something different.
Although the Hebrew word for soul (nephesh) can be used with reference to a living being (Genesis 2:7) in the sense that man is a living soul, it does not mean that the word is only limited to this view. Genesis 2:7 tells us only what man is, not what man is not. According to this Scripture it affirms that man is a living being but does not deny that man has an immaterial nature. A rule of Biblical interpretation is always let Scripture interpret Scripture. Not only is man a living being but he has an immaterial soul. For example in Matthew 10:28 Jesus says,
“Do not be afraid of those who kill the body but cannot kill the soul. Rather, be afraid of the One who can destroy both soul and body in hell (NIV).” The Greek word for “soul” in this scripture is psuche which is often used to translate the Hebrew term nephesh into Greek. Notice in this scripture (and many others) the word “soul” is being used to designate the part of man that continues on after physical death. If body and soul were always synonymous in Scripture then
the soul would die when our physical body dies, however Jesus did not teach this. Please see Scriptures such as Revelation 6:9-10; Acts 7:59 and 2 Corinthians 5:6-8 for examples (there are many other Scriptures as well).
Is Man Conscious After Death?
Scriptures that are sometimes used to support the view that man is not conscious after death are Psalms 146:3-4 and Ecclesiastes 9:5 (as well as many others), but there are several problems with using these Scriptures. Psalms 146:3-4 reads, “Do not trust in princes, In mortal man, in whom there is no salvation. His spirit departs, he returns to the earth; In that very day his thoughts perish (NASB).” It is a gross misrepresentation to think that this Scripture states that people have no thoughts after death (this contradicts other Scriptures), rather if you read the entire Psalm, the Psalmist is contrasting the hope enjoyed by those who trust in God with the false hope of those who trust in human leaders. The human prince dies and with him dies all that he had intended to do. In proper context Psalm 146 does not teach that the dead are unconscious.
The same is true for Ecclesiastes 9:5. The book of Ecclesiastes is written in a point-counterpoint style expressing hopelessness and discouragement, and then responding to this with positive expressions of faith. It also takes a skeptics view (i.e., worldly view) of life and God’s view of life and sometimes compares the two. The writer also speaks of things that happen only “under the sun” (i.e., only on earth or from an earthly perspective). Those who make an attempt prove that the dead are unconscious should look at the entire chapter. It goes on to state that those who die have no reward, no future which is at odds with what the Bible says about the reward of the righteous if you take this scripture literally (e.g., Matthew 16:27). The writer in this verse is speaking of things are happen from an earthly perspective. The writer also states that the memory of the dead are forgotten, yet Matthew 22:31-32 states, “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.” It appears that Abraham, Isaac and Jacob were not forgotten. Finally, the writer also states that the dead know nothing, yet Jesus appeared to know who Moses and Elijah were during this transfiguration (Matthew 17:1-3). In short, Ecclesiastes 9:5 is speaking of things in an earthly manner. The dead are conscious and have a future reward.
Did The Thief on the Cross Go Straight to Heaven with Jesus?
In Luke 23:43 Jesus states to the repentant thief, “Truly I tell you, today you will be with me in paradise (NIV).” However, when reading the New World Translation (NWT) it is rendered, “Truly I tell you today, you will be with me in Paradise.” Notice that in the NWT the comma is placed after the world “today,” not after “you,” as in the NIV (and all other translations). As Ron Rhodes once again states:
“Jehovah’s Witnesses do this to keep the thief from being with Jesus in Paradise ‘today’ (which would mean that there is conscious existence after death). Instead, they make it appear that Jesus’ statement to the thief about Paradise took place ‘today (p. 327).’”
Jehovah’s Witnesses (JW’s) reason that since there is no conscious existence after death (e.g., Psalms 146:3-4 and Ecclesiastes 9:5), it is logical to believe that Jesus did not say, “Today you will be with me in Paradise,” as if He and the thief would be in Paradise the same day as their deaths. Rather Jesus’ statement to the thief took place “today.” As I mentioned earlier the Bible nowhere states that there is no conscious existence after death. When looking at scriptures such as Psalms 146:3-4 and Ecclesiastes 9:5 they are speaking of something from an earthly perspective not what is actual or you need to look at the entire context. Remember let Scripture interpret Scripture.
So what is this Paradise that Jesus was speaking of? First century Jews believed that Paradise was a place that the righteous go once they die (not to be confused with Heaven). This place was considered to be a compartment of Hades. Ron Rhodes goes on to explain:
“Thus, when Jesus promised the thief that he would go to Paradise, He was promising the thief that he would be in the blessed resting place of the righteous dead (p. 329).”
So to recap on all of this the doctrine of Soul-Sleep is the belief that man is not conscious of anything following death until the future resurrection. This belief is based on misinterpretations of various Scriptures (e.g., Psalms 146:3-4 and Ecclesiastes 9:5). As we saw, man can be said to be a living soul but he also has an immaterial nature to him (Genesis 2:7; Matthew 10:28), man is also conscious at death (e.g., Revelation 13:7-9; Matthew 17:1-3) and the thief went to Paradise with Jesus the day that he died and based on Scripture had to have been conscious. A resource I would recommend is Dr. Douglas Jacoby’s book and audio teaching entitled, “What Happens After We Die.”
Apologetics Research Society