“yet some have fallen asleep.” (1 Corinthians 15:6c)
There is a theology that is circulating within evangelical circles that spawns from passages like this. The argument is that when a believer dies, his body and soul “sleep” in the grave until the second coming of Christ. They argue that when you sleep, you don’t notice time passing, so in essence, the body and soul go into a holding pattern while they await Christ’s return. Sadly, this interpretation is simply a result of bad Biblical interpretation.
First of all, the term that Paul uses here (and in other passages) is the term, koima/w (koimao), which literally means “to sleep.” Yet, in ancient cultures, it is regularly used as an idiom for death. We can find this being used all over the Bible (Acts 13:36, 1 Corinthians 7:39, 2 Peter 3:4, etc… [note that it is also used in the same way in the Septuagint, the Greek translation of the Old Testament]). Jesus himself used it of the death of Lazarus (John 11:11), and it is clear from the context of the dialogues that he has in this chapter, that Lazarus had not fallen into some kind of spiritual sleep, but was legitimately dead.
Second of all, the scriptures regularly speak of the soul going immediately into the presence of the Lord upon death (Luke 23:43, 2 Corinthians 5:8, Revelation 6:9, etc…). Certainly, when Saul has the necromancer of Endor conjure up the spirit of Samuel, Samuel was not in some kind of soul-sleep, for he knew what was going on (1 Samuel 28: 15-19).
In a very real sense, after death, there is a middle state that fills the time between death and resurrection. When a believer dies, his body goes into the ground (still united with Christ) and experiences decay. The soul, though, goes to be with Christ and to enjoy his presence. This is the middle stage, enjoying Christ’s presence but separated from our bodies. When the great day of Christ’s return comes, our bodies will be raised up from the graves, transformed into glorified bodies, and our souls will be reunited with flesh, that we might enjoy Christ in the fullness of our being.
Regardless whether you have heard this concept of “soul sleep” being argued or not, there is something that you can gain from this discussion. God created the physical as well as the spiritual, and he has promised to restore the spiritual and the physical in the end times. Mankind was meant to be flesh and blood—but in paradise, not this fallen world. There will come a time, though, that paradise will be restored, and we will be reunited with our fleshly bodies in a glorified manner, free from sin and the effects thereof, that we may enjoy perfect fellowship with our Lord and Savior for eternity. Friends, if this is not a promise that you can get excited about, I don’t know what is. May you keep your eyes focused on this great promise, not simply that when you die your spirit will be with Christ, but that in God’s proper time, you will be resurrected to a new and glorified body. Praise be to God!