Observations on life; particularly spiritual

Why does the Bible describe “death” as “sleep”?

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAAs this metaphor is used in the Old Testament, that is where we will begin. It is related to three Hebrew words: shakab (Strongs #7901), which means “to lie down”; yashen (Strongs #3462), which means “sleep”; and shenah (Strongs #8142), which also means “sleep”.

In one of the oldest books of the Bible, death is described as to “lie down in the dust” (Job 7:21; 20:11; 21:26NIV). In death an Israelite’s body is said to be resting with their ancestors Ge. 47:30; Dt. 31:16; 2 Sam 7:12; 1 Ki. 2:10). Here we see that in ancient history, death is associated with lying down to rest.

In Psalms, death is described as the “sleep of death” (Ps. 13:3; 90:5) and the death of the Assyrian army is called their “final sleep” (Ps. 76:5). In God’s predicted judgment of Babylon, they will “sleep forever and not awake” (Jer. 51:39, 57). Here we see that the Israelites associated death with sleep. This metaphor is also evident in Greek mythology.

In the following verse the word “sleep” has been added by the translators by inference as it isn’t in the text, “Multitudes who sleep in the dust of the earth will awake: some to everlasting life, others to shame and everlasting contempt” (Dan. 12:2). Clearly in this context “sleep” means “death” and “sleep in the dust of the earth” means the body after death (corpse). So, in the context of death, the word “sleep” refers to the corpse. Therefore, “awake” means resurrection of the body. Here we see a clear indication that death isn’t the end of the body.

New Testament

Both Jesus and Paul use “sleep” as a metaphor for death in the Bible. They would have been familiar with this metaphor from their knowledge of the Old Testament.

The Greek word koimao (Strongs #2837) means “to sleep, to fall asleep, or to die”. Similarly the Greek word katheudo (Strongs #2518) means “sleep or sleeping”. Both words are also used metaphorically for death, with the meaning in a particular passage being determined by the context in which it is used.

The clearest explanation of the metaphor is given in the following Scripture passages.
‘After He had said this, He went on to tell them, “Our friend Lazarus has fallen asleep; but I am going there to wake him up.” His disciples replied, “Lord, if he sleeps, he will get better.” Jesus had been speaking of his death, but His disciples thought He meant natural sleep. So then He told them plainly, “Lazarus is dead …’ (Jn. 11:11-14NIV).
“Brothers and sisters, we do not want you to be uninformed about those who sleep in death, so that you do not grieve like the rest of mankind, who have no hope” (1 Th. 4:13).

The metaphor is used to refer to the deaths of:
– The girl who died and was raised back to life (Mt 9:24, Mk 5:39, Lk. 8:52)
– Lazarus (Jn. 11:11-14)
– Some godly people who died in Old Testament times (Mt. 27:52)
– Stephen (Acts 7:60)
– David (Acts 13:36)
– A husband (1 Cor. 7:39)
– Some of those who abuse the Lord’s Supper (1 Cor. 11:30)
– Christians (1 Cor. 15:6, 18; 1 Th. 4:13-15)
– People who died in Old Testament times (1 Cor. 15:20)
– Jewish ancestors (2 Pt. 3:4)

Also, 1 Corinthians 15:51 and 1 Thessalonians 5:10 say that not all Christians will die (or sleep) because the bodies of Christians that are alive at the rapture will be transformed without going through death.

“Death”, “departure” and “sleep”

How is death like sleep? Sleep is the time period between falling asleep and awaking when the body rests. It is a temporary condition, not a permanent one. How is death a temporary condition, not a permanent or eternal one? The Bible teaches that although our bodies decay after death, they will be resurrected on a future day. In fact everyone will be raised from death to one of two destinies (Acts 24:15). Jesus said “Do not be amazed at this, for a time is coming when all who are in their graves will hear His voice and come out—those who have done what is good will rise to live, and those who have done what is evil will rise to be condemned” (Jn. 5:28-29). Here goodness is evidence of salvation and evil is evidence of unbelief.

At death there is a separation of the body and soul and the believer’s soul goes to be with Christ (2 Cor. 5:8). As the soul is very much alive, when the word “sleep” is used in connection with death in the New Testament, it refers to the body, not the soul. The body is “sleeping” until its resurrection.

It is said that the early Christians called their burial grounds koimeterion (or “sleeping places”, a word derived from Strongs #2837 and used by the Greeks to describe a rest-house for strangers). This is the derivation of the English word “cemetery” (meaning “the sleeping place”).

The state of the soul after death is illustrated by the story of the rich man, Lazarus and Abraham (Lk. 16:22-31). After he died, the rich man had an extended conversation with Abraham, who died about 2,000 years earlier. Likewise, Moses and Elijah spoke with Jesus on the Mount of Transfiguration (Mt. 17:3; Mk. 9:4; Lk. 9:30-31). Moses died about 1,400 years earlier and Elijah was raptured about 850 years earlier. This is consistent with the soul of a believer living with the Lord after death. The Bible metaphor for the soul at death is “departure” as the soul departs from the body to be with Christ, which is better than the struggles of life on earth (2 Cor. 5:8; Phil. 1:23).

Awakening

As people awake after sleeping, so in a coming day our bodies will be resurrected. The first resurrection takes place in various stages, including the rapture (1 Cor. 15:20; Mt. 27:52-53; 1 Th. 4:16; Rev. 20:4). It includes Jesus Christ and all those who have trusted in God. These are rewarded at the Judgment Seat of Christ (2 Cor. 5:10). They are raised to eternal life and immortality with the Lord.

The second resurrection is when those who have rejected God’s witness to them are judged at the Great White Throne (Jn. 5:29; Rev. 20:4-5, 12-13). The penalty is to be thrown into the lake of fire where they are tormented forever. They are raised to condemnation and banishment from the presence of the Lord.

So the metaphor of sleep for death should be a warning to be ready for the resurrection when we will face Jesus as either a lifesaver or a judge. What will it be?

Written, January 2015

8 responses

  1. Pam

    If you been dead a few centuries, why do you need your rotted corpse from earth? After you are resurrected with your rotted corpse. How do you get your new body and why not just stay a soul in heaven? Does your soul know anything? Who you were etc?

    Like

    February 16, 2021 at 7:41 am

  2. Lynda J. Nisly

    Our decayed bodies will be recreated so to speak. God will transform the old earth into the orginial “Garden of Eden” where we will dwell with Him before sin entered the world. Your soul is the real you . Your thoughts, feelings etc. character and so forth is the real you not your physical body. The physical body is the “house ” the soul lives in.

    Like

    March 12, 2021 at 6:49 am

  3. Hebrew words: shakab (Strongs #7109) should be #7901

    Like

    April 24, 2021 at 5:35 am

    • Thanks for the correction Mark. I have fixed the typo in this blog post.

      Like

      April 24, 2021 at 11:25 am

  4. Audra

    So when you say our body stays to “sleep” and our soul goes to be with God, can our soul see “us” as in does it see earth and what is going on?

    Like

    October 14, 2021 at 12:53 am

    • Thanks for the question Audra.

      I don’t think the Bible answers that question. But there is an instance of an unbelieving soul (the rich man) seeing and communicating with a believing soul (Abraham and Lazarus) in heaven (Lk. 16:22-31).

      The “witnesses” in Hebrews 12:1 are not watching our lives, but we witness their lives as outlined in Hebrews 11. They testify to the power of faith in God’s promises. They are not spectators but examples for us to follow.

      Moses and Elijah spoke to Jesus about His eminent death (Lk. 9:30-31). Does this indicate that those who have already entered heaven may be aware of events on earth?

      The Bible doesn’t specifically say that people in heaven cannot look down on us, so we can’t be dogmatic. However, it is unlikely that they can. People in heaven are probably preoccupied with other things such as worshiping God and enjoying the glories of heaven.

      Like

      October 14, 2021 at 8:23 am

  5. P Walton

    The Article was good until you stated that only the body is sleeping! Which does not make no type of sense , the soul is not a separated being from the body , the soul is what the person is ,when the person dies the soul cease to exist . The breath of life goes back to God since he his the source of life . The body goes into the ground and that person cease to exist until the resurrection . You were correct until you stated to mix error with truth . Beside God doesn’t take dead people to heaven , Elijah went to heaven alive in a fire chariot Enoch went to heaven alive he was translated without seeing death . Why would God resurrected the old decay body just to put back the soul that you claim is in heaven ? The truth is when your dead , your DEAD !!!!!! If you say the soul goes to heaven then your saying that people are immortal
    and only God is immortal 1 Tim 6:16
    When God resurrect the dead in Christ they will come up incorruptible when mortal will be come immoral. All of that happens at the last trump that’s when Jesus comes .
    The story of Lazarus is literally true or it is a Parable there are reasons why this story could not possibly be realistic!!!! This story is simply a Parable , and to be absent from the body ps read the entire chapter and put it in context and you will see that Paul was not taking about what you think he was .
    Ecc 9:5 The living know that they shall die , but the dead knows nothing !!!!
    Ps 115:17
    The Dead cannot praise God , for they have gone into the silence of the Grave.
    Ecc 9:10
    Whatever your hands fine to do , do it with all your might, for there is no work or thought , or planning or knowledge or wisdom in the grave where thou goest .

    Like

    April 17, 2022 at 11:20 pm

  6. P Walton

    In the beginning God made man in the Garden of Eden from the dust of the earth. Then, He breathed the breath of life into Adam’s nostrils.
    In that moment Adam became a living being.
    Notice the verse says Adam became a living creature when God breathed the breath of life into his nostrils. The King James Version says it this way:
    And the LORD God formed man of the dust of the ground, and breathed into his nostrils the breath of life; and man became a living soul” (Genesis 2:7, KJV).
    His breath is what made him a living soul – a living creature. When we die, we stop breathing and we rest. Nowhere in the Bible does it say the soul is separate from the body.
    A soul is a living creature Genesis 2:7 A soul is the combination of a body plus the breath of life. The soul cannot exist without the body or the breath.
    …the body apart from the spirit is dead” (James 2:26,
    “as long as my breath is in me, and the spirit of God is in my nostrils” (Job 27:3,
    For the living know that they will die, but the dead know nothing, and they have no more reward, for the memory of them is forgotten. Their love and their hate and their envy have already perished, and forever they have no more share in all that is done under the sun” (Ecclesiastes 9:5,6,
    and the dust returns to the earth as it was, and the spirit returns to God who gave it” (Ecclesiastes 12:7,

    The Bible says death is like a sleep and the dead know nothing. There is no need to worry about a loved one who has passed away. They are resting peacefully in the grave. They are not in pain. They are not somewhere else being tormented. They are simply waiting in the grave until Jesus comes back.

    Like

    April 17, 2022 at 11:46 pm

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s