A gracEmail subscriber writes,” I read your book The Fire That Consumes and I believe your position is scriptural that the dead are unconscious between death and Resurrection. I do have some questions, however, about several passages.”
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My major concern in The Fire That Consumes was to investigate thoroughly all biblical teaching about the final state of the lost. Because those who believe that the lost will totally perish and be destroyed eternally in hell are divided as to whether the dead are conscious or awake before the Resurrection, I tried to avoid that subject in TFTC. Discussion there about our natural mortality does point toward an unconscious “intermediate” state, however, and other Bible students may think of the same questions this reader raises. Those questions — and my brief answers — follow.
Q: “Was dead Samuel asleep in 1 Samuel 28? What does the word ‘disquiet’ mean? What did Samuel mean when he said that Saul and his sons would be ‘with him’ the next day?”
ANSWER: I find the explanation reasonable that this incident involved a demonic deception or a delusion and that Samuel did not really “come back” at all. If he did, all these comments would fit “sleeping” as well as the traditional view. Samuel had been “asleep” and was “disquieted” or disturbed from his “sleep,” and Saul and sons would be with him (although “asleep”) the next day.
Q: “The famous ‘thief on the cross’ — where would he and Jesus be when ‘in Paradise’ (Lk. 23:43)? Was Jesus ‘asleep’ for three days?”
ANSWER: “Paradise” was a word meaning “Garden” (as in Eden) borrowed from the Persian, and Jesus was speaking to this man in terms he would understand. This was hardly the occasion for a theological discourse on fine points. I believe Jesus was “asleep” between his death and resurrection. It is also possible, by the way, to translate Jesus’ statement, as: “Truly I tell you today, you will be with me in Paradise,” since the original Greek had no punctuation.
Q. “What about Moses and Elijah at Jesus’ transfiguration (Lk. 9:30)?”
ANSWER: Matthew calls this a “vision” (Matt. 17:9). Elijah had not died, but ascended to heaven in a whirlwind (2 Kings 2:11). I see no problem in saying that Moses had been “asleep” and God “waked” him temporarily for this momentous occasion.
Q: “In Matthew 22:32, Jesus says that God is God of the ‘living’ not the ‘dead.’ How can this be reconciled with Paul’s comments that dead Christians are ‘asleep’?”
ANSWER: If we read the preceding verse, we see that Jesus is not saying that the dead are conscious now. He is showing the necessity of resurrection, because God is the God of the “living” and the dead clearly are not alive! This is a good example of a passage which, by repeated and prolonged misuse, is commonly thought to teach the exact opposite of its original intended meaning.
Although the notion that the dead are “asleep” rather than “awake” seems to me most agreeable with the overall biblical witness, there are a few New Testament texts which might suggest otherwise of believers who die. This is certainly not a salvation issue, nor one about which Christians ought to allow their varying views to interfere with their fellowship and unity in Christ. On many such subjects, we ought charitably to allow room for others — however we perceive matters — to be “wrong.”