5. What does the expression ‘the dead are asleep’ mean?



First of all, let me say what it does not mean. It does not mean that people after death are unconscious because – as we saw before – they are fully conscious. Both believers and unbelievers are conscious after death. Therefore the expression ‘they are asleep’ refers only to their apparent state, for it’s beyond doubt that a dead person looks like a person who has fallen asleep and is having a rest. Is it not true that the description of the state of physical death as sleep is the kind of metaphor that comes to mind to describe the state of the dead physical body, especially when the body lies with eyes closed and in an apparent state of peaceful contentment? However, when a person dies, his body ceases to function, whereas when a person falls asleep his body continues to function, in that his heart still beats, his blood still circulates in his body, and his lungs still breathe.

Therefore the sleep of the dead refers only to the state of the human body, which ceases to function upon the earth, and not to the state of his soul which doesn’t sleep at all because it is fully conscious, in that he is in another world where he can see and hear and talk.

Therefore, when the Scripture says that “the dead know nothing” (Ecclesiastes 9:5), it doesn’t mean that they have ceased to exist totally, but it means that since their bodies are dead they are without those abilities they had while they were still alive. Therefore, the dead don’t know any longer what happens on earth (such as what happens to their wives or husbands, their brothers and sisters, and so on) because they can’t see and hear through their bodies and in the place where they are they are not allowed to see and hear what happens on earth. For instance, in the book of Job, with regard to the wicked who has died we read as follows: “If his sons are honored, he does not know it; if they are brought low, he does not see it” (Job 14:21 – NIV). And in the book of Isaiah we read that the Israelites said to God: “But you are our Father, though Abraham does not know us or Israel acknowledge us” (Isaiah 63:16 – NIV). Why did not Abraham and Israel know the Israelites who lived in the days of Isaiah? Because they were dead and knew nothing.