Does Consciousness Continue after Death?


       Based on the Bible, many people have concluded that at the moment of death, a person comes into immediate conscious contact with God. Are they right to believe this? Many do so on the strength of several key Bible texts. Have they interpreted those verses correctly? Do they realize that there are some other scriptures that ought to be consulted, passages wherein the Bible refers to death as “sleep”?

     Other believers imagine that the human becomes completely unconscious from  death until the resurrection. Will this “soul sleep” concept fit with the full weight of Bible revelation about death? Does it bypass the intent of a key scripture, because of the manner in which a comma was inserted into one literal English translation? Should death as “sleep” be taken only as a figure of speech? No matter which view one chooses, the result will not be of consequence in their personal salvation! Many interesting and controversial Bible subjects like this one may have some influence on one's life and mental attitude but they are of no importance in one's becoming a Child of God.

       Yet there is virtue in examining such puzzling matters. Searching for answers to these questions is an important exercise in itself and the information will reduce the fear of death, no matter which view is chosen. Such fear is frequently faced because death confronts us daily in car accidents, homicides, wars, house fires, and many other cataclysmic events. Hebrews 2:14-15 states that Jesus came to free just as many people as have lived all their lives in subjection to the fear of death. The “as many” clause here ensures freedom from fear of death for every person who has ever lived. No matter how we interpret the passages studied in this essay, may the fear of death dissipate in the presence of Christ; may He change it into “the fear of God,” which is the beginning of wisdom!

The Repentant Thief and a Questionable Comma

       Luke 23:39-43 (Concordant Literal Version: CLV) “Now one of the hanged malefactors blasphemed Him, saying, ‘Are you not the Christ? Save yourself and us!’ Yet answering, the other one, rebuking him averred, ‘Yet you are not fearing God, seeing that you are in the same judgment! And we, indeed, justly, for we are getting back the deserts of what we commit, yet this One commits nothing amiss.’ And he said to Jesus, ‘Be reminded of me, Lord, whenever Thou mayest be coming in Thy Kingdom.’ And Jesus said to him, ‘Verily, to you I am saying today, with Me shall you be in paradise.’”

      The last sentence in verse 43 reads best in English if a comma is inserted somewhere in the middle. Adding a comma needs to be done despite the fact that in the Greek text there are no punctuation marks. The CLV translators, as followers of A. E. Knoch,  probably  believed in soul sleep and so they placed that comma after the English word “today,” (see above.) The translators of the King James Version (KJV) and the New International Version (NIV), people who most likely  believed in consciousness after death, put the comma before “today”: “Verily I say unto thee, To day thou shalt be with me in paradise” KJV. “'I tell you the truth, today you will be with me in paradise’” NIV.

         The positioning of the comma in these versions correlated with the view of death held by the translators, something that is not at all unusual The CLV soul-sleep people end up with Jesus having said something like this (in paraphrased form): “Truly today I am telling you, that ultimately you will be with me in paradise” while the NIV and KJV scholars (likely believers in immediate post-death consciousness), would have Christ making the following paraphrased statement: “Truly I tell you that you will be with me in paradise today.”

        But by placing the comma after “today,” as in the CLV, Christ would have been making a needlessly redundant remark. He and the repentant thief knew full well that Christ was talking at that time and on that particular day! It would have been pointless for Jesus to have emphasized such an obvious fact. We think the NIV and the KJV have conveyed the right idea from the Greek: that Christ was confirming cognizant existence right after death.

         With his statement, the repentant thief was not asking for an immediate favor: “Remember me when you come into your kingdom.”  He was just asking for consideration sometime in the far distant future. By way of bold contrast, however, Christ’s words “today you will be with me in paradise” granted the request immediately, and by so doing, showed that consciousness prevails right after death. We think the contrast between these two words “when” (the thief) and “today” (Christ) was both intentional and instructive.

The Rich Man and Lazarus.

        One of us (Howe) takes the account of the rich man and Lazarus, Matthew 27, to be an allegorical parable, while the other author (Marshall) believes it to be a narrative dealing with of events confronting two real people after their deaths. If it is an allegory about the future of Israel, it obviously had nothing to do with whether or not consciousness continues posthumously. But if it is a record of two real people in the afterlife, it certainly shows that both men were fully conscious after they had died!

Away from the Body and at Home with the Lord
II Corinthians 5:6 and 8

            NIV “Therefore we are always confident and know that as long as we are at home in the body we are away from the Lord…We are confident, I say, and would prefer to be away from the body and at home with the Lord” II Corinthians 5:6 and 8

            Is II Corinthians 5:8 revealing something very important about existence right after death when it says, “away from the body and at home with the Lord”? At the very least, the passage shows that we should be encouraged right now and have confidence in knowing that we will go to meet the Lord. This is a constant source of confidence, encouragement, and good cheer right now. To be at home in the body is to be away from “home” with the Lord. When is this excellent transition going to be fulfilled, immediately upon dying or only after an elongated soul sleep?

          To be fully “at home with the Lord,” one must be “away from, out of, or absent from” the body. “At home” in our fleshly body is the opposite of being “at home with the Lord.” The terms “absent from” and “present with” are in bold contrast, like two sides of a coin that cannot stand on its edge. To be present in one world in this physical body is to be absent from the other world. To be at home with the Lord in the “other world” means being absent from the body of flesh and yet being fully conscious. The “absence” to “presence” in this transition is instantaneous and there is no alternative to these two states.

            Of course, the Lord is present with us now because God’s Holy Spirit leads  and sustains us while we live in the flesh: “I will never leave thee nor forsake thee.” But we know from other scriptures that God the Father is fully present on His throne in heaven with His Son Jesus  seated at His right hand. To be in that heavenly presence of the Lord will be quite different than the way we experience God’s presence right now. Understanding God’s triune nature helps confirm this: God the Father and God the Son are away from us, but they are still with us, through God the Holy Spirit, Who is our very present help in time of trouble. The presence of the Holy Spirit guarantees that the triune God is alive in us right now.

            Again, this situation is like a coin that cannot stand on its thin edge. There is no intermediate waiting state. No conscious or unconscious loitering is described. No hint of an unconscious sleep was given. To make these verses fit with an elongated period of soul sleep requires some elaborate sophistry. Being present with the Lord is simply the  flip side of being absent form this body. Being “there,” with the Lord,  is just as much a conscious situation as is being “here.” The change from one state to the other apparently occurs rapidly during death. Here is a suggested paraphrase in summary: “We should be confident and should be encouraging each other to be delighting in the understanding that, to be absent from this physical body is for our spirit to be immediately in the presence of the Lord.”

People Said to Be “Asleep” Are Actually
                       “Living together with Christ.”                         
I Thessalonians 5:9

          “God did not appoint us to indignation but to the obtainment of salvation through our Lord Jesus Christ, the one having died for us in order that whether we watch or we sleep, together with Him we may live” I Thessalonians 5:9-10, Alfred Marshall's Interlinear Greek Translation (AMIT). The word “watch” is a figure of speech referring to being alive as we await Christ's return. The word “sleep” is also figurative, designating death in verse 10. Sleep is a figure for death in that the bodies of dead people surely appear to be in a very deep sleep.  It does not mean that those same dead individuals are  unconscious until the resurrection. The very ones who are said to be sleeping are also said to be living together with Christ. Thus they are asleep (dead) to earthlings but living with Christ. This resembles Paul's remark about Christ's own death: “For in that He died, He died unto sin once for all, and the life He lives, he lives unto God” Romans 6:10.

        One ought not change figurative Bible topics into literal ideas. In verses 2-3 of this same chapter (I Thessalonians chapter five), Paul stated that Christ’s return would arrive like a thief in the night. While there is talk about “peace” and “safety” (verse 3), destruction will come suddenly. But the brothers (believers) should not be surprised at Christ's coming because they are children of the day and of the light; they do not belong to the night or darkness and should not “sleep” like the other people (verse 5 and 6). Here  Paul introduced five figures of speech—“light,” “day,” “night,” “darkness,” and “sleep”, not one of which is to be taken literally. The “sleep” in verse 6 is not real sleep but it is a lack of awareness concerning Christ’s second coming. “Sleep” was used twice in a non-literal fashion: once as a figure for careless revelry (verse 5) and once for death itself (verse 10). The people who were carousing, unaware of Christ's coming, were certainly not “asleep” in the literal sense. Neither are the dead people (verse 10) asleep but they are in the presence of Christ. Light and day are figures of speech describing the lifestyle of believers, while darkness, night, drunkenness, and sleep depict the attitudes of the non-believers toward the return of Christ. In the presence of these many figurative expressions, Bible readers ought to grant that “sleep” in verse 10 is also a figure, and does not mean that the souls of dead people are unconscious.

            Does this passage deal specifically with believers or with all mankind? Often in the earlier verses of I Thessalonians chapter five, Paul addressed his words to the “brothers,” showing that this whole section is directed to believers. The benefits mentioned in verses 9 and 10, for example, are the property of believers only: 1. escaping God's indignation and 2. possessing salvation right now. Paul’s silence in this text about God’s finally becoming the Savior of  the whole human race is not unusual and does not detract from the ultimate reconciliation of all lost people. Paul did not need to mention every doctrine at each point in all of his epistles! In numerous instances throughout other letters, Paul did explain God’s plan to ultimately reconcile every lost person, as in Colossians 1:20. Paul’s statements to believers about deliverance from judgment and immediate salvation do not preclude universal reconciliation. In I Timothy 4:9-11, for example, he mentioned both the salvation of believers and the ultimate salvation of all others too, in the very same verse: “We put hope in the living God, Who is the Savior of all mankind, especially of believers.” While total salvation is not the topic under discussion in I Thessalonians chapter five, the reconciliation of all people nonetheless is a valid topic covered many other places in Paul's epistles and throughout the entire Bible.

Christ Was Himself Conscious During His Death:
Ephesians 4:5-10, I Peter 3:19, and I Peter 4:6

        One passage penned by Paul and two more by Peter dovetail together to cover some of the things Christ did during the three days and nights His own body was entombed.  Paul told us that the meaning of the words “He ascended” is that “He [Christ] first descended into the lowest parts of the earth...”  (Ephesians 4:9, CLV). Christ was not asleep in death but was actively descending and finally ascending.

       Peter further indicated that Christ had been consciously preaching while He was dead: “He was put to death in the body but made alive by the Spirit, through whom also He went and preached to the spirits in prison” I Peter 3:18b-19, NIV. Peter stressed that  same point by writing: “...indeed to dead men was good news preached, in order that they might on the one hand be judged according to men in the flesh; but might live on the other according to God in the spirit”  I Peter 4:6, AMIT. Peter plainly stated that Christ, while dead, was preaching the gospel to dead people. At this point, Christ was taking captivity captive and giving gifts unto men, as stated in Ephesians 4:6. Jesus and many other dead folk were quite conscious during this great time of preaching.