Death is like Sleep: The Truth About Death, Part 3
It baffles me how most of Christianity missed this crucial point. The lesson from Jesus is so clear, that I can’t seem to figure out why a lot of Christians believe otherwise. This is the lesson: Death is like sleep. When we die, we don’t go anywhere else, not heaven, not hell, but remain in our graves oblivious to the world around us.
To explain this concept better, we’ll delve into the story that revolves around the death of Lazarus. This study will look at the Biblical definition of: death=sleep, primarily by examining Chapter 11 in the book of John. We will also cover other instances of writers calling death a sleep. So let’s go…
John 11 (NKJV) 1 Now a certain man was sick, Lazarus of Bethany, the town of Mary and her sister Martha.2 It was that Mary who anointed the Lord with fragrant oil and wiped His feet with her hair, whose brother Lazarus was sick. 3 Therefore the sisters sent to Him, saying, “Lord, behold, he whom You love is sick.”
As we can see in the introduction above, Jesus was very close to this family, which consisted of Lazarus, Mary, and Martha. It was the same Mary who bought the alabaster box and cleaned his feet with her tears and the oil. This was a family dear to Jesus. That is why they sent Jesus a message that “Lord… he whom You love is sick.” Jesus replied in verse 4:
4 When Jesus heard that, He said, “This sickness is not unto death, but for the glory of God, that the Son of God may be glorified through it.”
From this verse, we can see an indication that Jesus plans to use this trial to teach us something, and that God may be glorified. Now notice something odd in the following verses:
5 Now Jesus loved Martha and her sister and Lazarus. 6 So, when He heard that he was sick, He stayed two more days in the place where He was.
The odd thing is that the Bible is clear that this family was special to Jesus, yet he decided to take his sweet time and stayed at the place for 2 more days. Why? Wouldn’t the more obvious course of action for Jesus to take is to go directly once he heard the bad news? If you heard that someone dear to you got into a serious accident and is in the hospital, wouldn’t you drop everything and go straight to visit? But Jesus/God works on their own timeline, and we have to remember that. Remember verse 4, that the sickness is for the Glory of God. So if your prayers have yet to be answered right away, remember in Romans 8:28,
28 And we know that all things work together for good to those who love God, to those who are the called according to His purpose.
So back to John 11, perhaps Jesus knew that this was a perfect opportunity to teach us, and those around Him at the time a lesson. So after waiting 2 days, Jesus finally says:
7 Then after this He said to the disciples, “Let us go to Judea again.”
8 The disciples said to Him, “Rabbi, lately the Jews sought to stone You, and are You going there again?”
9 Jesus answered, “Are there not twelve hours in the day? If anyone walks in the day, he does not stumble, because he sees the light of this world. 10 But if one walks in the night, he stumbles, because the light is not in him.”
The disciples were aware of the plot by some of the Jews to kill Jesus, and they were afraid for His life. Jesus is not concerned, as He is still focused on bringing light into the world. He then says in verse 11:
11 These things He said, and after that He said to them, “Our friend Lazarus sleeps, but I go that I may wake him up.” (NKJV)
11After he had said this, he went on to tell them, “Our friend Lazarus has fallen asleep; but I am going there to wake him up.” (NIV)
From here, the disciples must have understood that Lazarus was only sick, and would get well as Jesus said that Lazarus was only sleeping. Hence the following reply by them:
12 Then His disciples said, “Lord, if he sleeps he will get well.” (NKJV)
Jesus saw their confusion, and cleared it up with the following response:
13 However, Jesus spoke of his death, but they thought that He was speaking about taking rest in sleep.
14 Then Jesus said to them plainly, “Lazarus is dead. 15 And I am glad for your sakes that I was not there, that you may believe. Nevertheless let us go to him.” (NKJV)
There are two things to take a note of through the first 15 verses of John 11. First, is, Jesus likens death to a sleep. When we die, it’s like when we go to sleep. We know nothing of what is going on around us. I don’t know about you, but when I go to bed, the next thing I know is the alarm waking me up, and I’m like “Already?!” It’s as if you just went to bed and now you have to get up. Same thing with death. When we die, the next thing we know will be Jesus calling us out of our graves. Jesus knew what he was talking about so for us to understand it, he called death “sleep”.
The second thing to take a note of is Jesus sometimes takes his time on purpose. We purposely waited an extra 2 days in order to teach us a lesson. Note in verse 4 he says:
“but for the glory of God, that the Son of God may be glorified through it.”
And in verse 15:
15 And I am glad for your sakes that I was not there, that you may believe.
So it’s just a little reminder to us that sometimes, that God leaves our prayers unanswered or makes a wait a little longer than we have to, in order for us to believe more fully. Let us continue on with the lesson Jesus is trying to teach us:
17 So when Jesus came, He found that he had already been in the tomb four days. 18 Now Bethany was near Jerusalem, about two miles[a] away.
So take note, Lazarus would have already been dead at least four days, and was buried in the tomb. What happens to a body that has been dead for a few days? It starts to decompose and that whole process gives off an unpleasant odor. Jesus knew this, and purposely took his sweet time in order to show that Lazarus was indeed dead.
19 And many of the Jews had joined the women around Martha and Mary, to comfort them concerning their brother.
20 Now Martha, as soon as she heard that Jesus was coming, went and met Him, but Mary was sitting in the house. 21 Now Martha said to Jesus, “Lord, if You had been here, my brother would not have died. 22 But even now I know that whatever You ask of God, God will give You.” 23 Jesus said to her, “Your brother will rise again.”
Again, it is confirmed that Lazarus was indeed dead, but Jesus was about to perform one of his greatest miracles yet. Let us skip to verse 32, where Jesus goes to see Mary, Lazarus’ other sister:
32 Then, when Mary came where Jesus was, and saw Him, she fell down at His feet, saying to Him, “Lord, if You had been here, my brother would not have died.”
33 Therefore, when Jesus saw her weeping, and the Jews who came with her weeping, He groaned in the spirit and was troubled. 34 And He said, “Where have you laid him?”
They said to Him, “Lord, come and see.”
35 Jesus wept. 36 Then the Jews said, “See how He loved him!”
37 And some of them said, “Could not this Man, who opened the eyes of the blind, also have kept this man from dying?”
As we can see, it’s human nature to question the methods of God. Jesus easily could have came earlier and prevented all the hardship, but he did it to show us all something.
38 Then Jesus, again groaning in Himself, came to the tomb. It was a cave, and a stone lay against it. 39 Jesus said, “Take away the stone.”
Martha, the sister of him who was dead, said to Him, “Lord, by this time there is a stench, for he has been dead four days.”
As I noted above, Jesus was fully aware of the stench that would come out, but he wanted everyone to smell the stench for effect.
40 Jesus said to her, “Did I not say to you that if you would believe you would see the glory of God?” 41 Then they took away the stone from the place where the dead man was lying. And Jesus lifted up His eyes and said, “Father, I thank You that You have heard Me. 42 And I know that You always hear Me, but because of the people who are standing by I said this, that they may believe that You sent Me.”
43 Now when He had said these things, He cried with a loud voice, “Lazarus, come forth!” 44 And he who had died came out bound hand and foot with graveclothes, and his face was wrapped with a cloth. Jesus said to them, “Loose him, and let him go.”
As we can see, Jesus is very clear on this issue. So for me, I just can’t understand how most of Christianity missed his lesson here. If we die and go straight to heaven or hell, where did Lazarus go those four plus days he was dead? Since he believed in Jesus, he would have died in Christ, and would have went to heaven. But wouldn’t it be cruel of Jesus to allow Lazarus to go to Paradise, only to call him back to earth
Notice how Jesus said “Lazarus, come forth!” Not ” Lazarus, come back down!“
Jesus knew that when we die, it’s just like if we were only sleeping. When we sleep, we are completely oblivious to things around us. Ecclesiates 9:5-6 confirms this:
5 For the living know that they will die;
But the dead know nothing,
And they have no more reward,
For the memory of them is forgotten.
6 Also their love, their hatred, and their envy have now perished;
Nevermore will they have a share
In anything done under the sun.
If we went straight to heaven or hell at death, then the above verse is wrong, as we’d know what exactly was happening to us.
Other Bible Writers
Jesus wasn’t the only one to liken death to sleep. Paul for example uses the sleep analogy in describing Christ’s Second Coming in 1 Thessalonians 4:
13 But I do not want you to be ignorant, brethren, concerning those who have fallen asleep, lest you sorrow as others who have no hope. 14 For if we believe that Jesus died and rose again, even so God will bring with Him those who sleep in Jesus.[b]
15 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. 16 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. 17 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. 18 Therefore comfort one another with these words.
There are so many lessons one could take from the above passage. Firstly, to Paul, death=sleep. When Paul wrote this letter, the prevailing thought at the time, especially among Greek converts was that when you die, people went to Hades, the underworld as it was taken from popular Greek mythology. So people were worried about their loved ones who were suffering down below. That’s why in verse 13, he expressed his wish for the believers to not be ignorant about those who die. That is why he ends the passage with a command to “comfort one another with these words”, as consolation to those who grieve that their loved ones are only “sleeping in Jesus”, and not suffering in hell.
Another point we can take from this is, when Christ comes again, the dead will rise first. If the saved already went to heaven, why would they have to come back down, only to go back up?!?! Does that make sense? Of course not. That is why both Paul and Jesus made it clear that everyone who dies, ‘sleeps’.
Peter confirms that the dead stay in their graves in Acts 2:
29 “Men and brethren, let me speak freely to you of the patriarch David, that he is both dead and buried, and his tomb is with us to this day.
34 “For David did not ascend into the heavens… (NKJV)
How clear is that? Let’s look at more examples such as John 5:28-29.
28 Do not marvel at this; for the hour is coming in which all who are in the graves will hear His voice 29 and come forth—those who have done good, to the resurrection of life, and those who have done evil, to the resurrection of condemnation.
That section of John talks about the final judgment, but I wanted to highlight verse 28. If we either went straight to heaven or hell at death, there’d be no one in the graves to hear His voice. But as we can see, everyone that dies waits in the grave for the final judgment, and will either get eternal life, or will be there during the 2nd resurrection (the one we don’t want to be a part of) when God will send his final punishment.
One last example, 1 Corinthians 15 confirms what was written in 1 Thessalonians 4:
51 Behold, I tell you a mystery: We shall not all sleep, but we shall all be changed— 52 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. 53 For this corruptible must put on incorruption, and this mortal must put on immortality.
Notice when all this takes place, “at the last trumpet”. All of us will be changed at the last trumpet, when Christ comes again. If we went to heaven with new immortal bodies at death, we’d be hearing trumpets playing all the time.
16 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. (1 Thes 4)
So it’s pretty safe to conclude now that when we die, we will all sleep, awaiting for Jesus’ return, and our alarm clock will be that last trumpet sound. Amen.