Many cults, and even some Christian denominations, teach the unbiblical doctrines of soul sleep and/or annihilation. The Seventh Day Adventist church teaches soul sleep, as do Jehovah’s Witnesses. The 7th-Dayer’s believe all souls will be resurrected and then sorted out by God, with the saved going to heaven and the unsaved to hell. The JW’s believe only the saved will be resurrected, which means the rest have been annihilated (naturally, only the JW’s are saved from the current age). Common to both beliefs is the notion that all consciousness and awareness of existence is snuffed out at the physical death of the mortal body. The concept is contrary to what many scriptures clearly teach, including words from Jesus himself.
Scriptural support for the doctrine of soul sleep comes from verses which seem to be speaking of the bodily resurrection. One day we will get these bodies back, but they will be greatly improved to a glorified state, like the body Jesus had after his resurrection. When exactly this occurs is a matter of theological debate. Those who teach soul sleep appear to have a difficult time grasping the existence of a spirit which retains awareness outside of the body. Some of the verses used to defend the position of soul sleep include:
Daniel 12:2: Multitudes who sleep in the dust of the earth will awake: some to everlasting life, others to shame and everlasting contempt.
John 5:28-29: Do not be amazed at this, for a time is coming when all who are in their graves will hear his voice and come out–those who have done good will rise to live, and those who have done evil will rise to be condemned.
Isaiah 26:19: But your dead will live; their bodies will rise. You who dwell in the dust, wake up and shout for joy. Your dew is like the dew of the morning; the earth will give birth to her dead. – NIV
If you understand the concept of your spirit existing after it is separated from your body, then you should be able to see that what the above verses are referring to is a rejoining of the spirit to the body. There are many verses in the Bible which teach that man does have a spirit, including Hebrews 4:12. When Jesus died, the gospel records tell us he yielded up his spirit. The Apostle Paul tells us in 2 Corinthians 5:6-8 that when our spirit is absent from the body, it is present with the Lord. That only applies to believers, of course. Jesus told the thief on the cross (the one who repented and turned to him and asked to be remembered) that they would be in paradise that very day – not some distant day in the future when his very consciousness would be recreated.
So, what happens to non-believers? The story Jesus told of Lazarus and the rich man in Luke 16:19-31 should put to the rest the idea of soul sleep or annihilation for them. Those who teach these ideologies must claim that this story is a parable and not a real story; however Jesus did not identify it as a parable (as he did every other parable) and told it matter-of-factly. He also identified Lazarus by name, something he never did in the parables. What would be the purpose of this parable if the place where Lazarus and the rich man went after they died did not actually exist?
The word sleep is used in the New Testament to refer to the physical death of Christians. This is because the word death in the Greek implies being a resident in Hades, the abode of the dead, also known in Old Testament Hebrew as Sheol. We usually simply refer to this place as hell, although it is the first hell which is temporary, and not the eternal lake of fire hell which is permanent. (At judgment day the residents of Hades will be moving to the eternal lake of fire, after standing before God in judgment.)
Therefore, the word death is not appropriate for Christians in the Greek language. That is why the apostles referred to them as having fallen asleep, which seemed more appropriate. It does not mean their consciousness is wiped out, as we have seen. Our spirits will reside in heaven with the Lord until resurrection day, when they are rejoined with our new, improved, immortal bodies.