Soul Sleep

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Psychopannychy, or soul sleep, is the doctrine that the soul sleeps between death and resurrection. It has been held sporadically in the church. It is not a heresy in the narrower sense, due to the paucity of Scripture teaching on the intermediate state, but it may be called a doctrinal aberration. Some Anabaptists endorsed it. In the Forty-two Articles of Edward VI, which preceded the Thirty-nine Articles, the following statement, as the Fortieth Article, was included: "They which say that the souls of those who depart hence do sleep being without all sense, feeling or perceiving till the Day of Judgment, do utterly dissent from the right belief disclosed to us in Holy Scripture."

The case for soul sleep rests principally on these considerations: (1) Human existence demands the unity of soul and body. If the body ceases to function, so must the soul. (2) The use of the term "sleep" in Scripture for death is alleged to point to the cessation of consciousness. (3) A state of consciousness between death and resurrection, characterized by bliss or woe, unwarrantably anticipates the judgment of the last day, when the basis for these experiences provided.

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On the contrary view, while the normal state of man is admittedly a union of soul and body, the possibility of disembodied conscious existence is firmly held, both on the analogy of God's existence as pure spirit (man being made in his image) and on the basis of such passages as Heb. 12:23 and Rev. 6:9-11. As to the word "sleep," it is intended to apply to the body, even though the individual as such may be said to sleep in death. This is clear from Matt. 27:52; John 11:11; Acts 13:36, etc. On the third point it may be replied that the exclusion of the possibility of bliss or woe from the intermediate state, on the ground that the divine judgment which justifies such reactions will not yet have been pronounced, would logically rule out the joyful assurance of salvation in this life as well as the foreboding of judgment to come. But see John 5:24; Phil. 1:28.

Continuing consciousness after death seems to be a necessary (rather than an accidental) element in Jesus' account of the rich man and Lazarus, and also in our Lord's promise to the dying thief. The clearest and strongest passages, however, are in Paul's writings (Phil. 1:23; II Cor. 5:8). If it be contended in the case of the former passage that the sleep of the soul so effectually erases the interval between death and resurrection that the prospect of being with Christ, even though actually long delayed, could produce joyful anticipation, in any event the same thing can hardly be said for the second passage, where not only the resurrection body but the intermediate state is directly contemplated, being a less desirable alternative than the change to the resurrection body without death (vs. 4).

E F Harrison
(Elwell Evangelical Dictionary)

J. Calvin, Psychopannychia; O. Cullmann, Immortality of the Soul or Resurrection of the Dead? E. Lewis, Christ, the First Fruits; R. Whately, A view of the Scripture Revelations concerning a Future State.

The individual articles presented here were generally first published in the early 1980s. This subject presentation was first placed on the Internet in December 1997.

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