by Stephen Ferguson  |  25 March 2021  |

The Bible’s favourite metaphor for death is sleep. The analogy is used by Daniel (Dan. 12:2), Job (Job 3:11-17), David (Ps. 13:3), Luke (Acts 7:59-60), Paul (1 Cor. 15:20; 1 Thess. 4:15-17), and a host of other prophets and biblical authors. The most famous user of this metaphor is Jesus Himself (Matt. 27:52; John 11:11-14).

However, there is a significant challenge with this illustration:  when we sleep we experience a multitude of mental states. These include both dreaming and non-dreaming experiences. To say nothing of those in other altered states of consciousness, from being in a coma, to lucid dreaming, to sleep-walking, to those under anaesthetic. So what is death like exactly, if it is like being asleep?

The dead might be unconscious, but what is consciousness?

Most Christian denominations teach that the dead continue to possess some form of consciousness post-mortem. They marshal proof texts such as John 11:26, Phil. 1:22-23 and 2 Cor. 5:7-8.

By contrast, SDA Fundamental Belief #26 states the dead are unconscious:

But God, who alone is immortal, will grant eternal life to His redeemed. Until that day death is an unconscious state for all people.

The Seventh-day Adventist position on death is often considered a form of Christian Mortalism (also known as soul sleep, psychopannychism, or the state of the dead). Christian Mortalists marshal their own proof texts, including Ps. 115:17, Eccl.9:5 and 1 Tim. 6:16.

One can see the Adventist Fundamental Belief emphasises the word “unconscious”. But this raises an important preliminary question: what is consciousness or unconsciousness exactly?

From the Miller-Keane Encyclopaedia and Dictionary of Medicine, “Consciousness is having awareness of oneself and of one’s acts and surroundings.” And conversely, “Unconsciousness is an abnormal state of lack of response to sensory stimuli.”

The problem is, these definitions are not clear. As reported, “Science as we know it can’t explain consciousness”. Consciousness is hard to define precisely because modern medicine recognises, “Consciousness is a subjective experience”. How do you objectively describe a subjective experience?

Is focusing on the unconsciousness of the dead doctrinally clear?

To extend the issue to sleep, are we conscious or unconscious when we go to bed each night? As observed by professional anaesthesiologists:

Debates on consciousness, sleep and anesthesia are often bedeviled by a plethora of confusing, often tautological, and partially overlapping synonyms and terms… when we dream we do not experience the environment – we are disconnected.

How then can descriptions about sleeping and consciousness tell us anything meaningful about the theological nature of death?

If sleep involves both dreaming and non-dreaming, what is the point of the biblical metaphor?

With the above challenges in mind, perhaps the best way to approach this conundrum is to discard overly technical or medical definitions and draw upon our own everyday experiences. What is it about sleep that is fundamentally different from being awake?

To avoid doubt, I do subscribe to the traditional Adventist view that the dead most likely experience nothingness. I agree with Reformation leader Martin Luther, perhaps the most famous proponent of Christian Mortalism, who taught the dead “think of nothing”.

Nonetheless, if I am honest I don’t think this is the Bible’s own emphasis. If it were, I don’t think the biblical prophets would have chosen sleep as their metaphor. In fact, the Bible’s authors don’t seem overly concerned with the fact readers might construe death as being either a dreaming or dreamless state.

If death involves dreaming, is this a sort of secret receptacle?

It seems to me the Bible’s pertinent point in comparing death to sleep is to emphasise its solitary and silent nature. Contrary to the popular movie Inception, when we sleep we cannot interact with anyone else, whether they also be asleep or still awake. Like Neo being stuck in the Trainman’s station in The Matrix Revolutions, or Harry Potter meeting Dumbledore privately inside Harry’s own head, even if we subjectively experience something rather than nothing, death objectively cuts each of us off from everyone and everything.

My hypothesis is that it is this deeply private characteristic of slumber that the Bible is emphasising in comparing death to sleep. To the extent the Bible’s authors had an evolving understanding about the afterlife, this seems to be an ever-present theme. “All the kings of the nations lie in state, each in his own tomb” (Isa. 14:18).

This view would also better align with those early Christians who did seem to hold belief in some form of immediate post-mortem experience. Importantly, these Early Christians did not think people went straight to heaven or hell when they died, as Medieval and Modern Christians would later imagine it. Rather, people would go to various parts of the same region – Hades – the NT-Greek equivalent of the OT-Hebrew Sheol. And as Jewish sages noted, the fundamental essence of Sheol is as an “abode of silence”.

For example, Hippolytus of Rome (170–235 CE) spoke “of Hades, in which the souls both of the righteous and the unrighteous are detained”, and further described it as, “a guard-house for souls” (Against Plato). Tertullian (155-240 CE) believed the deceased had some form of corporality, but where nonetheless, “in Hades, in its prison or lodging”, where the righteous or wicked experience either “punishment or refreshment” (A Treatise on the Soul, Chapter 7). Augustine of Hippo (354-430) taught those who had died were, “resting in secret receptacles” (City of God, Book XII, Chapter 9).

If Hades or Sheol is akin to a guard-house, or a prison, or a lodging house, or a secret receptacle, this suggests a rather solitary abode. Even if like a fancy anteroom at Buckingham Palace or Hollywood greenroom it might be pleasant accommodation. Or to cite Pope John XXII (1244-1334), who caused the so-called Beatific Vision Controversy, the righteous dead might experience something upon death but this do not mean they commune with God before the resurrection at the Second Coming.

What lessons can be learned from the parable of the rich man and Lazarus?

Probably the best illustration of the solitary and silent nature of death is the parable of the rich man and Lazarus as found in Luke 16:19-31. I know, this isn’t a story we Adventists like to talk about. We even say Jesus taught false theology!

For those who may recall the narrative, Jesus tells His audience about a poor beggar named Lazarus, who is treated badly by a rich man. Then both men die. In Hades, the rich man is tormented and calls out to Abraham to send Lazarus to help minimise his suffering. Abraham refuses, noting the “great chasm” (chasma mega in Greek) between them both.

Other than affirming there is indeed an afterlife (with the rich man being an obvious allusion to Caiaphas, the Sadducee high priest who denied the resurrection), the chasma mega seems to be the punchline of this story. Jesus says the rich man is tormented, but it is not a collective punishment. The condemned man is not interacting with Satan or any demon, neither of which get a mention. There is no consorting with the likes of Cain, Caesar, Haman or Hitler.

Hades isn’t a cool Metallica concert where one hangs out with fallen friends. Rather, the rich man is in solitary confinement. Apart from talking to Abraham (a side topic almost worthy of a separate discussion), the rich man is utterly alone and unable to communicate with anyone.

Clearly, neither the rich man nor Lazarus seems to be in heaven or hell. They are both in the same place – Hades. Close enough to see each other, although the chasma mega means they cannot communicate.

Moreover, this same great chasm prevents the rich man from contacting his living brothers. Jesus caps that emphasis off by making clear only if physically resurrected (anastē in Greek) could a dead person interact with others.

Whether Jesus intended this parable to be literal or metaphorical, He is pointing out that death is a solitary experience, so we’d better take our own current life amongst the living seriously. You don’t get a second chance after you die. Whether this post-mortem experience is pure nothing, somewhat nothing, or something, is not really that relevant to that emphasis about solitude.

If death is like dreaming, is dead grandma watching me on the toilet?

So even assuming for argument’s sake the Seventh-day Adventist position on death perhaps lacks a bit of nuance, in that death is indeed not absolute nothingness but more akin to dreaming, what are the implications? Well, I think the implications are not as dramatic as we might first think.

The most important implication is still a rejection of spiritualism. This includes a repudiation of a sort of soft-necromancy, which underpins the mainstream Christian idea of a “Communion of Saints”. It means you can’t pray to, say, Saint Christopher or Mother Teresa, and they can’t hear or intervene on your behalf (unless you believe they have been physically resurrected).

Likewise, even if poor deceased grandma is experiencing some sort of personal dream from the grave, rather than pure nothingness, she will be experiencing it without regard to any other person, thing or event. This means grandma isn’t watching you on the toilet from a perch in heaven or a pew in hell.

Grandma also isn’t discussing your latest bad love choice or career failure with dead Aunty Agnes. And trying to pray or talk to her from beyond the grave is not going to help either of you. To paraphrase some of those early Christian writers, grandma is, at most, stuck in her own gilded prison or secret receptacle.

Conclusion

In conclusion and to return to my original point, the Bible makes it clear death is like sleep. The problem is the Bible doesn’t really clarify if this is a dreaming or dreamless experience. While I personally think the biblical metaphor suggests death is dreamless, I admit the Bible admittedly isn’t very clear on that point. As that doesn’t seem to be the Bible’s emphasis, I wonder if it should be ours, especially when we interact with other Christians in sharing our faith.

In describing death as akin to sleep, the Bible’s emphasis seems to be in pointing to death as a solitary and silent experience cut off from all others, whether alive or dead. Even to accept some mainstream Christian arguments that the dead experience something other than nothing, I still think Adventists are correct in describing this state as “unconsciousness”, whatever that term precisely means. Our Fundamental Belief is correct, even if we could perhaps apply it with some greater latitude.

The dead are not aware of the environment around them. The dead cannot respond to external stimuli. The dead have no concept of time. The dead cannot interact with the living or the other dead.

If death is like a dream, the dead dream alone.


Stephen Ferguson is a lawyer from Perth, Western Australia, with expertise in planning, environment, immigration and administrative-government law. He is married to Amy and has two children, William and Eloise. Stephen is a member of the Livingston Adventist Church. 

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