Question and Answer with Dr. John Piper (original source here)
Gabriel, a listener from the Philippines, asks a very common question: “Pastor John, when we die, does our consciousness continue somewhere? Or do we just sleep awaiting the second coming and the judgment? And why is sleep so often used to describe death, even by Jesus himself? And where in the Bible can I be more confident of what happens to me or to someone I love when they die? Should I imagine them sleeping, awaiting Christ’s return. Or already in heaven or even in hell?”
I hear two questions: 1) Why is the word “sleep” or the image of sleep used to describe death even by Jesus? And 2) What is the experience of people between death and bodily resurrection? So, maybe we should start by not taking for granted the biblical teaching that God’s purpose is not just to have someday lots of spirits in heaven, but bodies on the new earth.
The resurrection of the body was a scandal to many Greeks who loved the idea of the immortality of the soul, but disliked the idea of the resurrection of this body. Christianity is not Greek in this regard. The body will be raised from the dead, and the bodily resurrection of Jesus in a form that could be recognized and that could be touched and that could eat fish was the prototype of our resurrection body. So Paul says in 1 Corinthians 15:20, “Christ has been raised from the dead, the first fruits of those who have fallen asleep.” And when people scoff in this chapter and say, “What kind of body do they come with?” he answers in verses 42–44, “So is it with the resurrection of the dead. What is sown is perishable; what is raised is imperishable. It is sown in dishonor; it is raised in glory. It is sown in weakness; it is raised in power. It is sown a natural body; it is raised a spiritual body. If there is a natural body, there is also a spiritual body.” So the resurrection of the body is absolutely essential to Christian doctrine.
Now the question is: What about the time between death and the resurrection of the body? Why is it sometimes called “sleep”? And we were talking earlier, Tony, as we began this, that this is really fresh for me, because at 8:00 this morning a very good friend of mine went into this state. So where is she? What is happening to her? Right now, it is 3 hours and 16 minutes — picture it — she is 3 hours and 16 minutes into what we are talking about right now. That is awesome. That is awesome to think about.
Here is what the Bible says about sleep. This is why he raises the question. This is 1 Thessalonians 4:14: “Since we believe that Jesus died and rose again, even so, through Jesus, God will bring with him those who have fallen asleep.” All right? That is a reference to Christians who have died. Why does he say it that way? Or 1 Corinthians 15:17–18, “If Christ has not been raised, your faith is futile and you are still in your sins. Then those also who have fallen asleep in Christ have perished.” So there’s another reference to falling asleep as a picture of dying.
And then there is Jesus where he raised the little girl. We named our daughter after this experience where he says: “Talitha, cumi” (Mark 5:41). He raised this little girl from the dead. And we know that she is dead because in Mark 5:35 they say, “Your daughter has died.” And when Jesus arrives to deal with this, he says, “Why are you making a commotion and weeping? The child is not dead, but sleeping” (Mark 5:39). Well, she was dead and he calls it sleeping. Why?
My answer is that this is the way the body looks and acts. It is simply a description of death by a softer picture of what it actually looks like. If you have ever looked at a person who has just died, you ask, Have they died or are they just sleeping? Because they look like they are just there, like they have always looked. And they are just asleep. So I think it is a picture, it is a pictorial description in a softer way of the actual reality that they have died.
Now why do I say that? Why do I jump to that idea of meaning instead of just saying, “Well, no, no, they are not conscious on the other side of death. They really are undergoing something like soul sleep. They will have no consciousness until the resurrection?” Why don’t I say that? And the reason I don’t is because Jesus and Paul teach otherwise. So for example, the two key passages in Paul are Philippians 1:21–23, “To me to live is Christ, and to die is gain. If I am to live in the flesh, that mean fruitful labor for me. Yet which I shall choose, I cannot tell. I am hard pressed between the two. My desire is to depart and be with Christ, for that is far better.” So when Paul contemplates his own dying, he calls it “gain,” not because he is going to go unconscious and have zero experience for another thousand years, but because he goes into the presence of Christ with Christ in deeper, more intimate way — and it is, he says, vastly better than anything he has known here.
And then he says the same thing in 2 Corinthians 5:6–9, “We are always of good courage. We know that while we are at home in the body we are away from the Lord, for we walk by faith, not by sight. Yes, we are of good courage, and we would rather be away from the body and at home with the Lord. So whether we are at home or away, we make it our aim to please him.” So, dying in the body means going to be at home with the Lord.
And here’s Jesus. He tells this story about the rich man and Lazarus, and he doesn’t say that it is a parable. Now I don’t know for sure, frankly, whether it was a parable or not, but it doesn’t say it was a parable. He just describes it like it really happened. And if it did happen or if it is a parable, it seems to be making the point that after death there is not oblivion or sleep, unconsciousness. There is life in torment or in bliss.
It goes like this: “There was a rich man who was clothed in purple and fine linen and who feasted sumptuously every day. And at his gate was laid a poor man named Lazarus, covered with sores, who desired to be fed with what fell from the rich man’s table. Moreover, even the dogs came and licked his sores. The poor man died and was carried by the angels to Abraham’s side. The rich man also died and was buried, and in Hades, being in torment, he lifted up his eyes and saw Abraham far off and Lazarus at his side” (Luke 16:19–23). So the picture Jesus paints — the parable or something that really happened — is one of a conscious life in torment or in happiness beyond death.
So, my conclusion is that Christians have a double encouragement for those who are dying or have died. For the believer who trusts in Jesus Christ, Christ’s blood and righteousness have removed the condemnation for every believer and secured for us both final resurrection of the body in a new heaven and a new earth, and now, after death, an intimate, sweet experience of being in Christ’s presence between death and resurrection. It is a blessed hope in both ways. We are safe. We are safe in him now, we will be safe in his presence at the moment of death, and we will be supremely happy in a new and healthy body forever and ever in the new heavens and the new earth.