Does “being asleep” indicate that departed believers are not conscious?
The New Testament uses this imagery for death about 18 times. All these refer to believers or children. Its use includes “the fathers” (2 Pe 3:4), David (Acts 13:36), and Lazarus (John 11:11, 12), as well as some from the Corinthian and Thessalonian assemblies (1 Cor 11:30; 1 Th 4:13, 14, 15).
Cults teach that this is a cessation of consciousness, “soul sleep,” but Paul looked forward to the possibility of departing this life and being with Christ (Phi 1:23) in a far better state than the present (see also 2 Cor 5:8). In this state, the souls of martyrs speak with deep emotion (Rev 6:10). This is not suspended consciousness. The Lord’s teaching in the story of the rich man (Luke 16:19-31) leaves no question that Abraham, the believing dead, and the unbelieving dead are all conscious. If death is “soul sleep”, then the exceptional case of Moses and Elijah’s appearing with the Lord on the Mount (Mat 17:3) poses further difficulties. If the dead are unconscious, did God bring Moses and Elijah back from death to talk with the Lord? Did He then put them to death a second time?
These passages indicate that departed believers from both the Old and New Testaments share a state of full consciousness and the joys of the presence of God. They are conscious of events on earth only to the extent that those events bring joy to heaven (Luke 15:7, 10) or are crisis events in God’s program (Rev 11:16-18).
What is the meaning of “asleep in Jesus” (1 Thessalonians 4:14)?
When Paul says that David (Acts 13:36) “fell on sleep, and was laid unto his fathers, and saw corruption,” he is not speaking about David’s “immaterial being” (his soul and spirit), but of his body. The wonderful truth of believers sleeping when their souls depart (Genesis 35:18) refers to their bodies By speaking of believers sleeping, the Spirit reminds us that a change is certain. When the Lord said, “Our friend Lazarus sleepeth” (John 11:11), the disciples did not grasp that He was about to display the glory of God (v. 40) in His power over death. The Lord’s describing Lazarus’ condition as sleep reminds us that our sleeping loved ones will soon awake, not as Lazarus to die again, but “out from death,” to put on immortality (1 Cor 15:53). At the moment of departure, the soul of those loved ones enters a fully conscious realm in the presence of the Lord. Their body begins to “go to corruption,” but this is only temporary. Those “who are fallen asleep in Christ” (v. 18) shall rise (1 Th 4:16).
“Fallen asleep in Christ” describes their position before God at the time of their death, but the expression, “asleep in (through, YLT) Jesus,” is different. Translators offer a number of different locations for the expression “in Jesus” in verse 14. Commentators give several possible meanings. One very comforting possibility is that “through Jesus” expresses instrumentality. This may then imply that the personal touch of the tender Jesus has put His own to sleep. Just as a mother calms her troubled child until he falls into a restful sleep, so the Lord gently closes a believer’s eyes and takes him home.
Is there scriptural guidance for giving comfort to others?
In such a critical area of need, the Scriptures must offer a wealth of help. Here, however, are a few limited suggestions.
Use your two ears. For all the criticism Job’s friends deserve, they started their mission well. They were “with him.” Their seven days of silence (Job 2:13) showed their sensitivity to the greatness of Job’s grief. They were genuine. If you are not genuine, nothing you say or do will help. Their silence offered them an opportunity they apparently missed: be sensitive to others! Your insights into the stages of grief might be valuable, but it’s more valuable to know where the grieving individual is in his unique, uncharted journey of sorrow. Questions or comments that encourage him to express his feelings are vital in giving comfort.
Use your heart. Many lessons come from the Lord’s giving comfort to Mary and Martha (John 11), but perhaps the greatest comfort to them before Lazarus was raised from the dead was their assurance that the Lord shared their love for their departed loved one (vv 3, 35, 36). His love for Lazarus was even greater than theirs, but that is not the case for us. Nevertheless, those who sorrow receive comfort in knowing that their loved one had a unique place in your respect and affections. Sincerely recounting an incident that typifies your appreciation of their loved one is a real comfort. Knowing that others recognize the significance of their loss is important to grieving loved ones. Knowing that others regarded their loved one’s life as significant gives comfort.
Use your head. “The heart knoweth his own bitterness” (Pro 14:10). We should never assume we know what another person is experiencing, even if we have gone through that exact experience. If a grieving person knows your experience and states that you know “how it feels,” he has opened the door for you to help. But experience alone does not confer a “Master’s Degree in Comforting.” Only to the degree a believer gets to know God in his trials (2 Cor 1:4) has he made progress in his “Master’s studies.” He is not yet a “master.” The degrees are conferred at the Bema.
Every trial is a trial of faith. A believer need not have the same experience to give comfort, but His faith must have responded to the Invisible (Hebrews 11:27) in His own experience. To that degree, he can strengthen the faith of others (see 2 Cor 1:4). Your experience with God may not be the help every other believer needs, however.
Use your Bible. Nothing can help like the Scriptures, for we receive hope through their consolation (Rom 15:4). Our objective is not to help a believer – or an unbeliever – to get through his sorrow, but to be spiritually enriched through his sorrow. In trying to comfort others, one size does not fit all. We are dependent on the Spirit to use us to bring to a grieving heart the biblical truth that will meet the need. If this was true for the Lord (Isa 50:4), how much more is it true for us! Ask the Lord for the right words to speak from Scripture.