Why does the Bible describe “death” as “sleep”?
As 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.
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).
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