Sleeping in Christ (1 Corinthians 15:6c)

“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!

About preacherwin

A pastor, teacher, and a theologian concerned about the confused state of the church in America and elsewhere...Writing because the Christian should think Biblically.

Posted on January 31, 2009, in Expositions and tagged , , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink. 6 Comments.

  1. There is a difference between being resurrected in spirit for living In Christ while we are on this earth, and sleeping in death being the period when we wait for Christ to return and “first take the dead then the living.” If this is going to happen would it be possible if the dead were already with him? This makes no sense. The difference is that death, is supposed to be rest. We can be in the presence of God/Christ and not be conscious as we know it on this earth. I believe these words were used to describe death of the Saints alone because we were promised God’s rest where as those who are not believers were not.


    • No, I strongly disagree with what you are suggesting. First of all, in the immediate context of the text, Paul is specifically speaking of believers who had died. In turn, the term that he employs is koimao, which is typically used as a metaphor for physical death. In fact, the term has nothing in its contents that even begins to imply a spiritual resting state. Second of all, we clearly see other cases of saints in heaven where they most certainly have consciousness–the martyrs under the throne in Revelation, for example. Paul, similarly speaks of his own going to heaven in terms that imply that he has every expectation that he will be fully conscious when he gets there even if somewhat unclothed in a sense by his body. Bottom line, if you are going to make an argument for this, let’s put some scripture on the table. To start with, here are all of the references where koimao is used–what you will find very quickly is that in each case the term either refers to actual sleeping or is a metaphor for death.
      Matt. 27:52 πολλὰ σώματα τῶν κεκοιμημένων ἁγίων ἠγέρθησαν,
      Matt. 28:13 αὐτοῦ νυκτὸς ἐλθόντες ἔκλεψαν αὐτὸν ἡμῶν κοιμωμένων.
      Luke 22:45 τοὺς μαθητὰς εὗρεν κοιμωμένους αὐτοὺς ἀπὸ τῆς
      John 11:11 ὁ φίλος ἡμῶν κεκοίμηται· ἀλλὰ πορεύομαι
      John 11:12 αὐτῷ· κύριε, εἰ κεκοίμηται σωθήσεται.
      Acts 7:60 τὴν ἁμαρτίαν. καὶ τοῦτο εἰπὼν ἐκοιμήθη.
      Acts 12:6 ἦν ὁ Πέτρος κοιμώμενος μεταξὺ δύο στρατιωτῶν
      Acts 13:36 τοῦ θεοῦ βουλῇ ἐκοιμήθη καὶ προσετέθη πρὸς
      1Cor. 7:39 αὐτῆς· ἐὰν δὲ κοιμηθῇ ὁ ἀνήρ,
      1Cor. 11:30 πολλοὶ ἀσθενεῖς καὶ ἄρρωστοι καὶ κοιμῶνται ἱκανοί.
      1Cor. 15:6 πλείονες μένουσιν ἕως ἄρτι, τινὲς δὲ ἐκοιμήθησαν·
      1Cor. 15:18 ἄρα καὶ οἱ κοιμηθέντες ἐν Χριστῷ ἀπώλοντο
      1Cor. 15:20 Χριστὸς ἐγήγερται ἐκ νεκρῶν ἀπαρχὴ τῶν κεκοιμημένων.
      1Cor. 15:51 λέγω· πάντες οὐ κοιμηθησόμεθα, πάντες δὲ
      1Th. 4:13 ἀδελφοί, περὶ τῶν κοιμωμένων, ἵνα μὴ
      1Th. 4:14 ὁ θεὸς τοὺς κοιμηθέντας διὰ τοῦ Ἰησοῦ
      1Th. 4:15 τοῦ κυρίου οὐ μὴ φθάσωμεν τοὺς κοιμηθέντας·
      2Pet. 3:4 γὰρ οἱ πατέρες ἐκοιμήθησαν, πάντα οὕτως


  2. one thing I am finding in many verses you quoted is that they are talking about those “asleep in Christ.” SO I have a question for you. The scripture that talks about how Christ will come first for the dead and then for the living, (the resurrection of the dead), how is this possible if they are all already with him in heaven? Why would he need to go get them and why would it be so glorious if they were already with him? Why would it even need to be said? Why wouldn’t he just come for all those currently living? The previously dead saints, who are asleep in Christ, or who died believers, would be with him already in heaven. 1 Cor 15 makes it clear that God will give us bodies that are not as the flesh we know now, so it wouldn’t be to take their flesh, as they are raised in a glorified body. If we are not at rest, when does the Lords rest come in to place which is spoken of all over scripture. rest is not worship as worship is a very active thing, interactive and active in nature. We are told we will be worshiping God when we are in heaven because He is too glorious to not fall on your face in worship when you are in His presence. As for the term not being one commonly used for death, I find words as illustrations used all over scripture especially because Jesus said they needed word Pictures to understand. Sleeping is used because their death is not like normal death, it is going to end and they will be awakened to eternal glory or eternal damnation. If they are all conscious in heaven with God why would they be awoken? ( Daniel12:1-2)1 “At that time Michael, the great prince who protects your people, will arise. There will be a time of distress such as has not happened from the beginning of nations until then. But at that time your people—everyone whose name is found written in the book—will be delivered. 2 Multitudes who sleep in the dust of the earth will awake: some to everlasting life, others to shame and everlasting contempt.


    • First, in terms of the question about why Jesus needs to “come first for the dead” and how that is possible if they are with him in heaven is that only their spirits are with him in heaven–their bodies are left to the grave. Thus, when Paul speaks to the Thessalonicans, he is speaking of the resurrection from the dead–a physical event. When Paul speaks earlier to the Corinthians, he speaks of passing from this world (through death) into the presence of Christ (something that he would be very conscious of), he tells them that he would be somewhat unclothed, if you will, until his body is resurrected at the time of the second coming. He also has earlier told the Corinthians that if there is no physical resurrection from the dead–there is no reason for hope (i.e. floating around on clouds and playing our harps is not sufficient). Why? Because God created us to be both flesh and spirit, but has chosen to wait until Christ’s return to resurrect us physically from the dead. Our spirits, being eternal, either go to God or to the torments of hell (spiritual torments) waiting on that great day of resurrection–and yes, conscious all the while.

      Your reference to the difference between our mortal bodies and resurrected bodies is correct, but you neglect to note that there is continuity as well as discontinuity. Jesus looked human, he walked, talked, ate, was tangible, was recognizable, etc… At the same time, he walked through closed doors and at times, people did not recognize him right away. Thus, even though we will be different, Paul also points out in 1 Corinthians 15 that we will be fleshly (in the positive sense, not the sense that flesh is sometimes used to convey sin). Thus again, the glorious aspect of this whole thing is that we will be resurrected (and those who are still alive will be changed) and thus physical but free from the effects of sin. Remember, it is the Gnostic Greeks that imported the idea of the physical being bad into the whole Christian framework; God created the physical and pronounced it to be “good.”

      In terms of the idea of rest, you are misunderstanding the greatness of the idea. Worship is an aspect of rest and is part of the way we fulfill the command to rest on the Sabbath day. Ultimately, the idea of rest in scripture can be understood in terms of rest from one’s enemies–our primary enemy being sin. Think of how God modeled rest. He did not do so by kicking his feet up on the celestial ottoman of earth–had he done so, the created order would have blown up into a million, trillion bits–for God binds the universe together. God was active on the first Sabbath day (and all subsequent ones) in the work of governing his creation. Yet, God’s rest is found in his looking back on what he had done and finding satisfaction in it. We too, in looking at how God has delivered us from our enemies, can find satisfaction and rest in it at least partially when here on earth and then fully when with Christ. Because we are not whole without our bodies, it is not enough to say our rest is in a spiritual state of bliss or as you would propose, unconsciousness; no, rest, in the Biblical sense, is something that we are fully conscious of. Again, look to the martyrs under the throne in Revelation, they are anxious, to say the least, to see God bring final judgment against his enemies–why, because they want to rest and worship in the satisfaction that God’s glory has been fully revealed to the wicked–something that does not take place until the final judgment.

      And yes, amen, indeed, we will be worshipping in heaven because “He is too glorious not to fall on your face and worship,” I wholeheartedly agree, but that is part of our rest, in the fullness of the Biblical portrayal. Look at how Jesus modeled rest on the Sabbath. He healed people, he taught, he did acts of kindness and mercy and he rebuked those who thought that Sabbath rest required a total cessation of physical activity. Rest, as he modeled it, was active, not passive.

      In terms of word pictures–the term koimao is used for physical death, not to indicate some special state. If that were so, scripture would have been more clear on that. When you read extra-Biblical documents–the ancient Greek philosophers and playwrights, for example–they consistently use the term koimao to refer simply to dying and being placed in the ground. It was a concept that people understood, were Paul to be changing the idea around, he would have had to explain to his audience the new concepts that were being imported into the idea of “sleeping” as a metaphor for death. He never does this.

      In terms of Daniel 12:1-2, this passage supports my model as easily as it supports yours. He is speaking of the final Resurrection (Revelation 20) and how the bodies of all people will be resurrected–some given eternal life with Christ and some to eternal condemnation in the fires of hell. Again, this is the finality of events, not the awaking from some unconscious holding state. Once again, there is nothing in scripture to imply that we will not be conscious in death. Even Samuel, when brought back to confront Saul and the Witch of Endor, knew where he was and was quite conscious of events. Moses, too, on the Mount of Transfiguration, discussed with Jesus his coming passion and death, as Luke relates–seems like an odd conversation were he to be unconscious. Also, again, I point to the Martyrs under the throne in heaven, the 24 elders, etc… in Revelation–none of them seem unconscious to me.

      As a side note, there is a reason that the bulk of the orthodox (“right thinking”, not eastern) Christian church has not held to this doctrine that you are espousing, and that is to support it, you really do ignore the broader text of scripture. A rule of thumb in Biblical interpretation is that we interpret the unclear passages in light of the clear, and this is one of those cases. There are lots of places where people are portrayed as being completely aware of their surroundings in the afterlife yet prior to the resurrection (Jesus’ parable of the Rich man and Lazarus is another example), so to translate sleep to imply an unconscious rest is not consistent exegesis of the whole of Canon. Also, since the natural meaning of koimao, when used as a metaphor, is natural death and it is used to describe believers and unbelievers being used this way in Christian and non-Christian literature, you really do have to make a stretch to imply that this is anything other than the natural reading–that is unless Paul explicitly says that he is redefining the term.

      One other interesting note on a purely psychological level. Do you realize that your mind does not rest when it is unconscious? People, for example, who must take sleeping pills to “knock them out” to get sleep only receive physical rest, not mental rest. Often, if they have to rely on these means every day for extended periods of time, there are nasty consequences. Our mind’s rest when we are dreaming–something that we are conscious of at least on some level (some moreso than others). Similarly, one of the best ways to rest when we are weary is not to “turn off” the mind in front of a mindless amusement like TV (and the word “amuse” means to “not think”), but instead to read a book. Again, a conscious activity.




  3. 1 Thess. 4:13
    “Brothers and sisters, we do not want you to be uninformed about those who sleep in death, so that you do not grieve like the rest, who have no hope. 14 We believe that Jesus died and rose again, and so we believe that God will bring with Jesus those who have fallen asleep in him.”
    This may be saying dead in Christ, yes, but it is a saying they sleep in death…a bit rhetorical to say they are dead in death, it doesn’t seem like something someone how has written so much would write. Then it also says that we believe that Christ will bring with him, as to mean that he WILL bring with him, not that he has, but that he WILL, (future tense). This is debatable as to what is trying to be said here as it can be reiterating the other part of the verse saying that Christ will have to bring the dead and then the living at the time of “being caught up” or the resurrection of the saints.

    1 Cor 15:20
    20 But Christ has indeed been raised from the dead, the firstfruits of those who have fallen asleep.
    Again, he addresses that they WILL (future tense) be raised later as he was the first fruits. If it were true that when you die you are present with the Lord, how could he be the first? Wouldn’t all the previous people, like Abraham, Issac, Jacob, David, Moses, etc. All be with him there? It again makes no sense that he would claim that Christ was the first to be raised from the dead if death in this case is being used in the same way.

    Dan 12:2 And many of those who sleep in the dust of the earth shall awake, some to everlasting life, some to shame and everlasting contempt.
    Again as we spoke above, it says that there are those asleep in Christ who will awake to everlasting life…likewise some will wake to everlasting contempt, insinuating that both are sleeping in the dust which means they both are in the same place in both the physical and spiritual sense. Does this mean that the dead who are not found acceptable and who have rejected Christ will be in heaven with the believers?

    Matthew 27:52The tombs broke open and the bodies of many holy people who had died were raised to life.
    In Context, they are talking about a resurrection! This is what is prophesied to happen when Christ returns, first the dead then the living. The belief behind this scripture is that Christ went down to Abraham’s Bosom and “set the captives free” meaning those who died under the old covenant were not able to fulfill it and thus were dead and had no rest or ability to be with God in heaven. He saved them and thus they were resurrected. I find it very interesting that these “holy people” weren’t talked about at any point after that.

    Matthew 28:10-15
    11While the women were on their way, some of the guards went into the city and reported to the chief priests everything that had happened. 12When the chief priests had met with the elders and devised a plan, they gave the soldiers a large sum of money, 13telling them, “You are to say, ‘His disciples came during the night and stole him away while we were asleep.’ 14If this report gets to the governor, we will satisfy him and keep you out of trouble.
    In context yet again, where does it talk about death here, is directly translated as asleep. It’s not the same meaning of the Word.


    • Again, you are covering the same ground over and over again without addressing my challenges either to the passages of scripture that speak of the dead being conscious or to Jesus’ use of the Sabbath day and rest. Note too, that the theology of Jesus going into “Abraham’s Bosom” to acquire the OT saints, sometimes called “The Harrowing of Hell” is a doctrine that was not “invented” until the 7th century AD and was the precursor to later Roman Catholic doctrines of intermediate states like Pergatory. Those closest to the apostles did not hold to this kind of teaching (speaking of 1st & 2nd century fathers), it is not prudent to resurrect it now (pardon the pun).

      Yes, Matthew 27 is meant to be a precursor to the general resurrection–that is exactly the point, except that these guys only had a short lived resurrection and went back to the grave just as Lazarus did after Jesus raised him from the dead. In the return of our Lord, Jesus will raise people from the grave in resurrected bodies and believers still alive will be instantly changed into resurrected bodies and we will meet Jesus in the air! What a wonderful thing to anticipate, but for the dead, there is a rejoining, their souls with their flesh–again, a wonderful promise! You are reading your theology into the passages cited above, it again is not the natural reading of the text in context of all of scripture. As we are alive with Christ now, we will be held in Christ in death (Thessalonians reference), our spirits with God in heaven and our bodies left secure on earth. You need not read any “unconscious state” into the text.




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