Soul sleep, often called the "sleep of the soul doctrine," is a teaching within some Christian denominations. It holds that the soul sleeps unconsciously in the grave with the body after a person dies. The doctrine concludes that the soul will stay there, in a coma-like state, until Jesus returns to Earth for final judgment of all people. Then the body and soul will be resurrected, and Jesus will decide whether the person enters heaven or hell. When woken, people will not feel as if time has passed. Many Christian denominations, including Baptists, view this as an incorrect teaching.
The Intermediate Stage
Baptists do not believe the soul sleeps, but beyond this, they disagree about what exactly happens between death and the final judgment. Some share a view originated by John Calvin. In a Calvinist perspective, the righteous soul does not "sleep" in the grave, but is both restful and conscious after death. A person who has not received Christian salvation will go to hell right away. However, a faithful Christian will remain in an intermediate stage if she dies before the final judgment. She will not experience heaven in its fullness, but her soul will experience God and the divine before the final judgment.
Many Baptists do not accept the idea that there is a transitional phase between death and heaven. They hold that the soul is judged immediately after death. As in the Calvinist perspective, an unrighteous person goes directly to hell, while a righteous person automatically enters the fullness of heaven. In this view, the afterlife begins as soon as someone dies, whether or not the person goes to heaven, and souls need not wait until the final judgment.
How Some Baptists Defend Immediate Life After Death
Baptists and other Christian denominations point to the words of Jesus on the cross in defending the idea that the soul enters either heaven or hell right away. In the Gospel of Luke, he tells a thief who is being executed at his side, "I tell you the truth, today you will be with me in paradise." In this reading, according to Baptists, paradise is understood to mean heaven -- and not any intermediate stage.
Baptists vs. Other Denominations
Protestants have never seen eye-to-eye on the issue of soul sleep. All Adventist denominations, such as the Seventh-day Adventists and Church of God, teach soul sleep. So do the Jehovah's Witnesses, a conservative sect that broke from more mainstream Seventh-day Adventists. Like many other Protestants, Baptists disagree even within their own ranks about what exactly happens to the soul between death and the final judgment, if not sleep.
- Global Anabaptist Mennonite Encyclopedia: Sleep of the Soul
- New Advent Catholic Encyclopedia: General Resurrection
- BibleLight.net: Martin Luther and William Tyndale on the State of the Dead
- Journal of the American Oriental Society: The Sleep of the Soul in the Early Syriac Church
- Protestant Reformed Church in America: The Intermediate State
- The Mosaic of Christian Belief -- Twenty Centuries of Unity and Diversity; Roger E. Olson
- Heaven -- A History; Colleen McDannell and Bernhard Lang
- Western Recorder: Baptist Scholars Differ on What the Bible Says About the End Times
- Faith Baptist Church: The Soul After Death
- Primitive Baptist Ministries: Studies on the Intermediate State
- Ontario Consultants on Religious Tolerance: What Happens to the Soul After We Die?
- Baptist Heritage and History Society: Baptist Beginnings
- Baptist Heritage and History Society: Southern Baptist Beginnings
- Baptist Heritage and History Society: Turning Points on Baptist History
- Baptist Heritage and History Society: Baptists and Their Theology
- Encyclopedia of Religion and Society: Baptists
- American Baptist Historical Society:
- Association of Religion Data Archives: American Denominations - Baptists
- Jupiterimages/Comstock/Getty Images