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Does the Bible teach Soul-sleep?

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Does the Bible teach Soul-sleep?

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Introduction

To believe in soul-sleep is to believe we are unconscious after we die until the Judgment Day. That is our soul ceases to exist. Like a big grandfather clock when you stop the pendulum and then later start it swinging again, the clock picks up right where it left off with no notice of the time interval when it slept.

Is understanding soul-sleep important? Yes, the Watchtower Society teaches soul-sleep in trying to disprove the deity of Jesus Christ. If Jesus' soul ceased to exist for the three days that he was in the tomb, than he cannot be God.

Notes:

  • You can freely use all or part of this study as the Lord leads you to witness to the members of the Watchtower Society.
  • Any Witness is free to correct me if he feels that I have misrepresented any Watchtower Society doctrine. If I agree, I will fix my error and if I disagree, I will post what you think I have misrepresented with a link from the place you believe the error is on this page.
  • In most passages we use the New World Translation (NWT, The Watchtower Societie's Bible). Where the NWT varies significantly from the Greek text:
    • [Brackets] in the New World Translation (NWT) are my corrections, in hope that the reader will compare the NWT with the original Greek manuscripts.
    • Some words in the NWT have been struck through. These words were added to the NWT by the translators. If the reader will compare the NWT to the Greek manuscript he will find these words are not even implied.
  • Unless noted, all bold emphasis [and all words in brackets] are the author's.

Defining the words Grave and Hell

Before we begin, we must have the proper definition of our words. In most Bibles, the words grave and hell come from two words, Sheol in the Old Testament and Hades, in the New Testament. Let us look at some passages that describe Sheol first. I hope this first passage will also help us to watch out for circular reasoning.

[king David:] For you will not leave my soul in Sheol. You will not allow your loyal one to see the pit. - Psalms 16:10 NWT

If David is asleep, his soul may be in a grave, if he is not asleep his soul is in another place called Sheol. Our belief about soul-sleep (circular reasoning), will define the word Hell - rather than the passage defining the word Hell. It is important to watch out for this as we study with the Watchtower Society.

It [God's wisdom] is higher than heaven. What can you accomplish? It is deeper than Sheol. What can you know? - Job 11:8 NWT

When talking about God's wisdom in the book of Job, Zophar used the highest and lowest places he could think of. If Sheol were only a grave, I think it was a weak word to describe the depths of God's wisdom.

For a fire has been ignited in my anger And it will burn down to Sheol, the lowest place, And it will consume the earth and its produce And will set ablaze the foundations of mountains. - Deuteronomy 32:22 NWT

The word place is not in the Hebrew. In Deuteronomy Jehovah actually talks of a lowest Sheol, this implies that there are different levels.

Wicked people will turn back to Sheol, Even all the nations forgetting God.
- Psalms 9:17 NWT

When David says the wicked shall be turned into Sheol, he must be referring to a different place than where his own soul was resting or how could this Psalm make sense. Again, David shows there are different places in Sheol in the Psalm 86

For your loving-kindness is great toward me, And you have delivered my soul out of [the depths] Sheol, its lowest place. - Psalms 86:13 NWT

Solomon also speaks of a place for the wicked.

But he has not come to know that those impotent in death [the dead] are there, that those called in by her are in the low places of Sheol. - Proverbs 9:18 NWT

What did Solomon mean when he said the low places of Sheol? The verse makes no sense if hell is only the grave as the wicked and the righteous go there. David and Solomon speak of the lowest Sheol as a place for the wicked. They must be talking about a different region of Sheol than the righteous go.

O that in Sheol you would conceal me, That you would keep me secret until your anger turns back, That you would set a time limit for me and remember me! - Job 14:13 NWT

Since Job wanted to go to Sheol, this would be a different place than Jehovah delivered David from.

Both Isaiah and Ezekiel describe Sheol as a place of consciousness.

Even Sheol underneath has become agitated at you in order to meet you on coming in. At you it has awakened those impotent in death, all the goatlike leaders of the earth. It has made all the kings of the nations get up from their thrones. All of them speak up and say to you, ‘Have you yourself also been made weak like us? Is it to us that you have been made comparable?' - Isaiah 14:9-10 NWT

AND

''Son of man, lament over the crowd of Egypt and bring it down, her and the daughters of majestic nations, to the land down below, with those going down into the pit. [...] " 'The foremost men of the mighty ones will speak out of the midst of Sheol even to him, with his helpers. They will certainly go down; they must lie down as the uncircumcised, slain by the sword.- Ezekiel 32:18, 21 NWT

If you read these chapters in Isaiah and Ezekiel, they clearly speak of consciousness in Sheol, thus Sheol is a different place than the grave.

Then there are verses that speaking figuratively of Sheol:

Because YOU men have said: ''We have concluded a covenant with Death; and with Sheol we have effected a vision; the overflowing flash flood, in case it should pass through, will not come to us, for we have made a lie our refuge and in falsehood we have concealed ourselves'' - Isaiah 28:15 NWT

AND

and said: ''Out of my distress I called out to Jehovah, and he proceeded to answer me. Out of the belly of Sheol I cried for help. You heard my voice. - Jonah 2:2 NWT

An important question for this study is, can we define Sheol as the grave?

If YOU were to take this one also out of my sight and a fatal accident were to befall him, YOU would certainly bring down my gray hairs with calamity to Sheol.
- Genesis 44:29 NWT

AND

For my soul has had enough of calamities, And my very life has come in touch even with Sheol. - Psalms 88:3 NWT

If you believe in soul-sleep, these verses mean the grave, if you believe in consciousness after death these passages could refer to the grave, but they could also refer to the place where Abraham and Lazarus abode. While there are verses where Sheol was translated grave, there is no passage where it has to mean grave for the verse to make sense. This is because in Hebrew the word for burying place, grave or sepulcher is not Sheol it is קברה kib-raw' .

Eventually Gideon the son of Joash died at a good old age and was buried in the burial place [kib-raw' or grave] of Joash his father in Ophrah of the Abiezrites.
- Judges 8:32 NWT

Now, let us look Hades, many Bibles translate this New Testament word as grave or hell. Long before the Christian era, Greeks defined Hades as the lowest regions of the earth. Thus, when Jesus shared about a certain rich man and the beggar Lazarus, by using the word Hades the people would understand Jesus to be talking about these lower regions.

And in Hades he lifted up his eyes, he existing in torments, and he saw Abraham afar and Lazarus in [his] the bosom position with him. - Luke 16:23 NWT

The New Testament when quoting Sheol from the Old Testament uses the word Hades.

he saw beforehand and spoke concerning the resurrection of the Christ, that neither was he forsaken in Hades nor did his flesh see corruption - Acts 2:31 NWT

When you study soul-sleep with the Witness's, they will argue that Sheol is the grave and then show how the New Testament translates Sheol as Hades, thus Hades must also be the grave. In truth this argument can be reversed. If Sheol was the grave they would have used a word which in Greek meant grave (like mnay-mi'-on). In the Greek language Hades is a region where the departed souls dwell. Thus the New Testament writers must have thought Sheol was also.

There are not many verses where you need to translate Hades as the grave for the verse to make sense, perhaps this one in 1st Corinthians,

O death, where is thy sting? O grave, where is thy victory? - 1 Corinthians 15:55 KJV

We must be careful to not limit our studies to only the verses that use the words Sheol or Hades, there are other verses that talk about the lower parts of the earth. For instance:

As for those who keep seeking my soul for its ruin, They will come into the lowest parts of the earth. - Psalms 63:9 NWT

AND

Now the expression ''he ascended,'' what does it mean but that he also descended [first] into the lower regions , that is, [of] the earth? - Ephesians 4:9 NWT

Unfortunately, the New World Translation corrupted this verse. Get out your Greek interlinear and look at Ephesians 4:9 yourself. The Greek literally says he "descended first into the lower parts of the earth". Why would the Watchtower Society mistranslate this verse?

Every saying of God is refined. He is a shield to those taking refuge in him. Add nothing to his words, that he may not reprove you, and that you may not have to be proved a liar.
- Proverbs 30:5-6 NWT

Defining the word Soul

We have looked a Sheol and Hades, we must also look at how the Bible defines soul before we try to prove or disprove soul-sleep. At the very least, we must understand how the Bible teaches the soul is distinct from the body as the following verses will show.

And he proceeded to stretch himself upon the child three times and call to Jehovah and say: ''O Jehovah my God, please, cause the soul of this child to come back within him.'' Finally Jehovah listened to Elijah's voice, so that the soul of the child came back within him and he came to life. Elijah now took the child and brought him down from the roof chamber into the house and gave him to his mother; and Elijah then said: ''See, your son is alive.''
- 1 Kings 17:21-23 NWT

For the soul to reenter the body it must be distinct from the body.

Then the dust returns to the earth just as it happened to be and the spirit itself returns to the true God who gave it. - Ecclesiastes 12:7 NWT

AND

And I prophesied just as he had commanded me, and the breath [roo'-akh or spirit] proceeded to come into them, and they began to live and stand upon their feet, a very, very great military force. - Ezekiel 37:8-10 NWT

Though Solomon and Ezekiel use the word spirit instead of soul, in essence these passages mean the same thing. Jesus also made a distinction between body and soul.

And do not become fearful of those who kill the body but cannot kill the soul; but rather be in fear of him that can destroy both soul and body in Gehenna. - Matthew 10:28 NWT

Do not worry about your body, worry about your soul. Some more verses include:

he saw beforehand and spoke concerning the resurrection of the Christ, that neither was he forsaken in Hades nor did his flesh see corruption. - Acts 2:31 NWT

AND

But I consider it right, as long as I am in this tabernacle, to rouse YOU up by way of reminding YOU, knowing as I do that the putting off of my tabernacle is soon to be, just as also our Lord Jesus Christ signified to me. - 2 Peter 1:13-14 NWT

AND

Indeed, as the body without spirit is dead, so also faith without works is dead.
- James 2:26 NWT

The Bible's understanding is different from the Greek's view of death or more importantly our modern definition of death. Modern science sees the body and our soul (or sprit) as one and then death as the body (or brain) ceasing to function. However, the Bible makes a clear distinction between the body and the soul. Death is taught as the soul or spirit leaving the body. There is no verse that says the soul is obliterated at death.

Bible passages used to teach soul-sleep

The following are the verses in the Bible that are used to teach soul-sleep.

For in death there is no mention of you; In Sheol who will laud you? -  Psalms 6:5 NWT

AND

O that in Sheol you would conceal me, That you would keep me secret until your anger turns back, That you would set a time limit for me and remember me! -  Job 14:13 NWT

AND

All that your hand finds to do, do with your very power, for there is no work nor devising nor knowledge nor wisdom in Sheol, the place to which you are going.
- Ecclesiastes 9:10
NWT

This verse in Ecclesiastes is probably the most commonly quoted verse for soul-sleep though it is a poor proof text. Let us examine it closely. Ecclesiastes is a book about the vanity of worldly pursuits. Solomon uses the words, ''vexation of spirit'' ten times to describe what happens ''under the sun'', mentioned 29 different times. He never discusses anything about heaven or life after death (this is the only verse in question), Some of the other things Solomon said in Ecclesiastes include:

For there is no more remembrance of the wise one than of the stupid one to time indefinite. In the days that are already coming in, everyone is certainly forgotten; and how will the wise one die? Along with the stupid one. - Ecclesiastes 2:16 NWT

Compare this verse to Malachi 4:1-3

Who is there knowing the spirit of the sons of mankind, whether it is ascending upward; and the spirit of the beast, whether it is descending downward to the earth? 
- Ecclesiastes 3:21 NWT

In Ecclesiastes, Solomon appears to make an admission that he does not know what happens after death. Fortunately we have a greater than Solomon who does.

Do not become righteous overmuch, nor show yourself excessively wise. Why should you cause desolation to yourself? Do not be wicked overmuch, nor become foolish. Why should you die when it is not your time? - Ecclesiastes 7:16-17 NWT

While the Lord placed Ecclesiastes in the Bible for our admonition, we must understand why it is there before we quote it. If you quote the above verse out of context, what would you be teaching?

All that your hand finds to do, do with your very power, for there is no work nor devising nor knowledge nor wisdom in Sheol, the place to which you are going.
- Ecclesiastes 9:10 NWT

If we remember that Solomon is talking about under the sun, we might agree that their existence ceases. However, you are taking this verse out of context if you use it to teach there is no life after death. As I already mentioned, the words, ''under the sun'' are used 29 times, it is used six times in this chapter alone (including two times in the verse before and once in the verse after it). For the above-mentioned reasons, an honest person should not use Ecclesiastics to teach soul-sleep. Yet, what about Isaiah or Psalm 6:5?

For it is not Sheol that can laud you; death itself cannot praise you. Those going down into the pit cannot look hopefully to your trueness. - Isaiah 38:18 NWT

AND

For in death there is no mention of you; In Sheol who will laud you? -  Psalms 6:5 NWT

What about these two verses - Isaiah 38:18 and Psalm 6:5? One possibility for understanding these verses could be that Sheol (or Hades) is divided into two different places. The story of Lazarus and the rich man as well as some passages out of the Old Testament teach this. When the Psalmist or Isaiah say that the Sheol cannot praise God, they may be referring to the place where the rich man was. As these passages also talk about salvation, reading these verses in context makes it possible. And, since there are many passages speaking on consciousness after death, it is also a likely interpretation.

 

Bible passages used to teach consciousness after death

I am the God of Abraham and the God of Isaac and the God of Jacob? He is the God, not of the dead, but of the living. - Matthew 22:32 NWT

And everybody's favorite, the rich man and Lazarus.

19-21  There was a certain rich man, which was clothed in purple and fine linen, and fared sumptuously every day: And there was a certain beggar named Lazarus, which was laid at his gate, full of sores, And desiring to be fed with the crumbs which fell from the rich man's table: moreover the dogs came and licked his sores.

22-23  And it came to pass, that the beggar died, and was carried by the angels into Abraham's bosom: the rich man also died, and was buried; And in hell he lifted up his eyes, being in torments, and seeth Abraham afar off, and Lazarus in his bosom.

24  And he cried and said, Father Abraham, have mercy on me, and send Lazarus, that he may dip the tip of his finger in water, and cool my tongue; for I am tormented in this flame.

25-26  But Abraham said, Son, remember that thou in thy lifetime receivedst thy good things, and likewise Lazarus evil things: but now he is comforted, and thou art tormented. And beside all this, between us and you there is a great gulf fixed: so that they which would pass from hence to you cannot; neither can they pass to us, that would come from thence.

27-28  Then he said, I pray thee therefore, father, that thou wouldest send him to my father's house: For I have five brethren; that he may testify unto them, lest they also come into this place of torment.

29  Abraham saith unto him, They have Moses and the prophets; let them hear them.

30  And he said, Nay, father Abraham: but if one went unto them from the dead, they will repent.

31  And he said unto him, If they hear not Moses and the prophets, neither will they be persuaded, though one rose from the dead. - Luke 16:19-31 KJV

Some important points about this story.

In another passage,

In answer Jesus said to them: ''Break down this temple, and in three days I will raise it up.'' Therefore the Jews said: ''This temple was built in fortysix years, and will you raise it up in three days?'' But he was talking about the temple of his body. - John 2:19-22 NWT

If Jesus was unconscious in soul-sleep, how could he himself restore his body?

And he said to him [the thief on the cross next to his]: ''Truly I tell you today, You will be with me in Paradise.'' - Luke 23:43 NWT

OR

And Jesus said unto him, Verily I say unto thee, Today shalt thou be with me in paradise.
- Luke 23:43 KJV

Those who believe in soul-sleep suggest that the KJV translators placed the coma in the wrong place. Thus while the thief will be in paradise, Jesus did not really promise that he would be there on that specific day. So, did Jesus say, ''Verily I say unto thee, ...''? Or did He say, ''Verily I say unto thee today, ...'' If we look at other passages in the New Testament where Jesus spoke.

Though Jesus could have said it, if He added the word today for stress, it did not add stress to what He was about to say, rather it caused most people for the last 2000 years to misunderstand Him.

Another verse that implies consciousness after death is in 2nd Corinthians.

But we are of good courage and are well pleased rather to become absent from the body and to make our home with the Lord. -  2 Corinthians 5:8 NWT

Consider that if Paul believed in soul-sleep, departing from his body would not have given him any more time in the Lord's presence. Let us look at one last verse from the New Testament.

And when he opened the fifth seal, I saw underneath the altar the souls of those slaughtered because of the word of God and because of the witness work that they used to have. And they cried with a loud voice, saying: ''Until when, Sovereign Lord holy and true, are you refraining from judging and avenging our blood upon those who dwell on the earth?'' And a white robe was given to each of them; and they were told to rest a little while longer, until the number was filled also of their fellow slaves and their brothers who were about to be killed as they also had been. - Revelation 6:9-11 NWT

Two points worth noting; first, the souls though they were martyred are conscious. Second, the timeframe in the above mentioned passage places this event before the judgment day.

The following are passages from the Old Testament that show consciousness in Sheol.

Even Sheol underneath has become agitated at you in order to meet you on coming in. At you it has awakened those impotent in death, all the goatlike leaders of the earth. It has made all the kings of the nations get up from their thrones. All of them speak up and say to you, 'Have you yourself also been made weak like us? Is it to us that you have been made comparable? Down to Sheol your pride has been brought, the din of your stringed instruments. Beneath you, maggots are spread out as a couch; and worms are your covering.' - Isaiah 14:9-10 NWT

AND

I made the nations to shake at the sound of his fall, when I cast him down to hell with them that descend into the pit: and all the trees of Eden, the choice and best of Lebanon, all that drink water, shall be comforted in the nether parts of the earthEzekiel 31:16 KJV

AND

The foremost men of the mighty ones will speak out of the midst of Sheol even to him, with his helpers. They will certainly go down; they must lie down as the uncircumcised, slain by the sword. - Ezekiel 32:21 NWT

Are there passages that speak of both conditions?

And the sea gave up those dead in it, and death and Hades gave up those dead in them, and they were judged individually according to their deeds. -  Revelation 20:13 NWT

AND

Even Sheol underneath has become agitated at you in order to meet you on coming in. At you it has awakened those impotent in death, all the goatlike leaders of the earth. It has made all the kings of the nations get up from their thrones. - Isaiah 14:9 NWT

What conclusions can we draw from what we have studied?

We have three possibilities:

Some people are asleep when they die, some are awake

This might be a simple way to reconcile everybody. While for some this may be a novel idea, this way death and Hades can both deliver up the dead that are in them.

And the sea gave up those dead in it, and death and Hades gave up those dead in them, and they were judged individually according to their deeds. - Revelation 20:13 NWT

Yet there are problems with this interpretation. First, if both conditions were taught in the Bible more Bible students would see it. And while it makes sense of Revelation 20:13, it does not reconcile with many other verses.

Everybody soul-sleeps

The truth is, if you take a Watchtower booklet on soul-sleep, cross out the parts eisegeting Bible passages on consciousness after death, there would be little left. For myself, the only verses that can honestly be used to teach soul-sleep are:

For in death there is no mention of you; In Sheol who will laud you? - Psalms 6:5 NWT

AND

For it is not Sheol that can laud you; death itself cannot praise you. Those going down into the pit cannot look hopefully to your trueness. - Isaiah 38:18 NWT

And as mentioned earlier, if Sheol is divided into different places, they may be referring to the lowest place.

Everyone is conscious after death

While we may only see through a glass darkly (1st Corinthians 13:12), there are many passages in the Bible teaching consciousness after death, too many passages to honestly believe in soul-sleep. We looked at how the Bible uses Sheol and Hades and how some passages divide them into different regions. We also saw passages that taught the soul is distinct from the body and death is separation of the body from the soul.

For Jesus to teach that a rich man was in Hades leaves only two possibilities. Either Jesus misled us or there are rich men in Hades. As a true witness for the Gospel of Jesus Christ, I have to believe what Jesus taught. It is far easier to believe the the governing body of the Watchtower Society is deceived than to believe Jesus is deceptive.

As I mentioned in the introduction, the importance of this study was bought home to me when I saw it used as an argument against the deity of Jesus Christ. If his soul was destroyed on the cross, how can He be God? I hope that as you see these teachers are wrong on soul-sleep, you can see they are mistaken in denying the Deity of Jesus Christ.

If you are a Jehovah's Witness, may God bless you and open your eyes as you as you seek the truth.

Written by Jeff Barnes


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