What Does the Apostle Paul Mean by the Word ‘Sleep?’


Stanley Spencer — Waking Up!

Behold, I tell you a mystery: We shall not all sleep, but we shall all be changed–in a moment, in the twinkling of an eye, at the last trumpet. For the trumpet will sound, and the dead will be raised incorruptible, and we shall be changed. For this corruptible must put on incorruption, and this mortal must put on immortality. So when this corruptible has put on incorruption, and this mortal has put on immortality, then shall be brought to pass the saying that is written: “Death is swallowed up in victory.” “O Death, where is your sting? O Hades, where is your victory?” The sting of death is sin, and the strength of sin is the law. But thanks be to God, who gives us the victory through our Lord Jesus Christ.  (1Co 15:51-57 NKJ)


For if we believe that Jesus died and rose again, even so God will bring with Him those who sleep in Jesus. For this we say to you by the word of the Lord, that we who are alive and remain until the coming of the Lord will by no means precede those who are asleep. For the Lord Himself will descend from heaven with a shout, with the voice of an archangel, and with the trumpet of God. And the dead in Christ will rise first. Then we who are alive and remain shall be caught up together with them in the clouds to meet the Lord in the air. And thus we shall always be with the Lord. Therefore comfort one another with these words. (1Th 4:14-18 NKJ)

For if the dead do not rise, then Christ is not risen. And if Christ is not risen, your faith is futile; you are still in your sins! Then also those who have fallen asleep in Christ have perished. If in this life only we have hope in Christ, we are of all men the most pitiable. But now Christ is risen from the dead and has become the firstfruits of those who have fallen asleep. (1Co 15:16-20 NKJ

So when you die what happens? Well, your body goes into the grave, either literally (burial) or figuratively (cremation or accidental death where no body is found, for instance, 9/11), to await the resurrection. Paul tells us that, “To be absent from the body and to be present with the Lord. (2Co 5:8 NKJ) At the resurrection, if we have gone on to be with the Lord we shall return with him and exchange the corruptible for incorruption.  In other words, we will get a new physical body.

So why does Paul confuse people by using the term ‘sleep.’ For instance, Paul uses the word in both 1 Thessalonians and in 1 Corinthians either as sleep or asleep.  The word is used figuratively of death, so after Jesus’ death and resurrection what does the word sleep mean for the Christian?

Four quick points from the Bible Dictionary that might clarify any confusion:

1.      Jesus is never said to have fallen asleep. He died on that cross, went into the grave and rose again, having defeated death, hell, and the grave.

2.      Believers are said to fall asleep at death ( 1 Corinthians 15:6 1 Corinthians 15:18 1 Corinthians 15:20 ; 1 Thessalonians 4:13 1 Thessalonians 4:15 ), and in one instance “to fall asleep in Jesus” ( 1 Thess 4:14 ). Although believers are still occasionally said to die, death is described as gain ( Php 1:21 ); it has lost its sting ( 1 Cor 15:54-57 ). Death comes attended by blessedness and rest ( Rev 14:13 ) and a conscious sense of the presence of Christ ( 2 Cor 5:8 ). Death is, in fact, not death anymore, and those who believe in Jesus will never really die, even though they might still experience what used to be called death ( John 11:25-26 ). So the metaphor of sleep is used to emphasize that we have no more to fear from death than we do from falling asleep.

3.      Believers are never said to have fallen asleep in the death of Jesus; rather, we died with him ( Col 2:20 ; 2 Tim 2:11 ) or were crucified with him ( Gal 2:20 ). It is only because of Jesus’ death, and our death in him that death no longer holds any terror instead becoming a peaceful sleep and a blessedness ( Rev 14:13 ).

4.      Not only do believers never experience death (in the old way) anymore, although they must go through what is metaphorically called sleep; there are some who will not even suffer death. There will be a generation alive at the second coming of Christ ( 1 Cor 15:51 ), they will not sleep, but will be transformed instantaneously into their new unending life. (1 Thes 4:14-18)

Hope you’ll forgive me for taking rather longer today, but I hope you will agree with me that the clarification was worthwhile.

Dictionaries – Baker’s Evangelical Dictionary of Biblical Theology

About Terry Threadwell

Dr. Terry Threadwell has thirty five years ministry experience. Author, educator and Director of the Institute of Progressive Pentecostal Studies.
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