“But I would not have you to be ignorant, brethren, concerning them which are asleep, that ye sorrow not, even as others which have no hope. For if we believe that Jesus died and rose again, even so them also which sleep in Jesus will God bring with him” (1 Thessalonians 4:13-14).
What happens to believers who die before the rapture of the church? This was a question that the believers in Thessalonica needed answering. There are those, usually among the cults, who teach the doctrine of ‘soul sleep’, that is, the dead neither go to Heaven or Hell, but are kept in a sort of spiritual suspension until the final judgement. What does the Bible teach on these matters?
Ignorance (being uniformed) of what the Bible teaches is the basic foundation of heresy. Unfortunately many cultists pin their doctrines on a partial statement of God’s word and ignore the rest of Scripture. This is exactly the case with the ‘soul sleep’ doctrine.
“Behold, I show you a mystery; We shall not all sleep, but we shall all be changed” (1 Corinthians 15:51). Everyone knows that sleep can be used as a euphemism for death. Our English word ‘cemetery’, which is derived from the Greek, literally mean ‘sleeping place’. “These things said he: and after that he saith unto them, Our friend Lazarus sleepeth; but I go, that I may awake him out of sleep” (John 11:11) … “And he [Stephen] kneeled down, and cried with a loud voice, Lord, lay not this sin to their charge. And when he had said this, he fell asleep” (Acts 7:60). The Scriptures teach that the flesh is committed to the grave, “So also is the resurrection of the dead. It is sown in corruption; it is raised in incorruption” (1 Corinthians 15:42), but the spirit is taken into the presence of the Lord, “We are confident, I say, and willing rather to be absent from the body, and to be present with the Lord” (2 Corinthians 5:8). It is the body rather than the spirit that is said to sleep. Those who say that the soul / spirit sleeps must conclude that Jesus was unconscious and spiritually asleep for three days, and that His comforting words to the thief on the cross were meaningless, “Verily I say unto thee, To day shalt thou be with me in paradise” (Luke 23:43). The term ‘sleep’ expresses the fact that death is a natural part of life since the Fall, and indicates that their must be an awakening, for if death is the end of life, then Paul would have used that word instead.
Will the dead miss out on the glorious blessings of the raptured saints? Paul answers this question fully in the remaining verses of this chapter. We will look at this in more detail in the upcoming studies. Here he encourages the believers to have hope and rest in the promises of God. Those Christians who are in sorrow over the death of loved ones who are saved reveal that they are no different than the unsaved. We believe in the resurrection of the saints because we know that the Lord Jesus Christ rose again.
The resurrection is at the very foundation of the gospel, “That if thou shalt confess with thy mouth the Lord Jesus, and shalt believe in thine heart that God hath raised him from the dead, thou shalt be saved” (Romans 10:9) … “For I delivered unto you first of all that which I also received, how that Christ died for our sins according to the scriptures; And that he was buried, and that he rose again the third day according to the scriptures” (1 Corinthians 15:3-4). How can the Lord bring the dead saints with Him from Heaven if they are indeed asleep in the grave? “For as in Adam all die, even so in Christ shall all be made alive” (1 Corinthians 15:22). The Geneva Bible in reference to the resurrection of the dead, says that God “Will call their bodies out of their graves, and join their souls to them again.”
The believer has no need to investigate if there is a life after death if he truly believes in Christ’s resurrection. The believer knows that his eternal existence is secure in Christ. James 2:26 offers us a clear definition of death, “The body without the spirit is dead”, therefore it is only the body that dies at death. “For to me to live is Christ, and to die is gain … For I am in a strait betwixt two, having a desire to depart, and to be with Christ; which is far better” (Philippians 1:21, 23), these words word be utter foolishness if the spirit slept at death. The doctrines of soul sleep, annihilation, limbo, and purgatory are foreign to the Bible and ought to be rejected by all true believers. “And as it is appointed unto men once to die, but after this the judgment” (Hebrews 9:27).