JOHN PIPER: Gabriel, a listener from the Philippines, asks a very common question: “Pastor John, when we die, does our consciousness continue somewhere? Or do we just sleep awaiting the second coming and the judgment? And why is sleep so often used to describe death, even by Jesus himself? And where in the Bible can I be more confident of what happens to me or to someone I love when they die? Should I imagine them sleeping, awaiting Christ’s return. Or already in heaven or even in hell?”
I hear two questions: 1) Why is the word “sleep” or the image of sleep used to describe death even by Jesus? And 2) What is the experience of people between death and bodily resurrection? So, maybe we should start by not taking for granted the biblical teaching that God’s purpose is not just to have someday lots of spirits in heaven, but bodies on the new earth.
The resurrection of the body wasn’t a scandal to many Greeks who loved the idea of the immortality of the soul, but disliked the idea of the resurrection of this body. Christianity is not Greek in this regard. The body will be raised from the dead, and the bodily resurrection of Jesus in a form that could be recognized and that could be touched and that could eat fish was the prototype of our resurrection body. So Paul says in 1 Corinthians 15:20, “Christ has been raised from the dead, the first fruits of those who have fallen asleep.” And when people scoff in this chapter and say, “What kind of body do they come with?” he answers in verses 42–44, “So is it with the resurrection of the dead. What is sown is perishable; what is raised is imperishable. It is sown in dishonor; it is raised in glory. It is sown in weakness; it is raised in power. It is sown a natural body; it is raised a spiritual body. If there is a natural body, there is also a spiritual body.” So the resurrection of the body is absolutely essential to Christian doctrine.
Now the question is: What about the time between death and the resurrection of the body? Why is it sometimes called “sleep”? And we were talking earlier, Tony, as we began this, that this is really fresh for me, because at 8:00 this morning a very good friend of mine went into this state. So where is she? What is happening to her? Right now, it is 3 hours and 16 minutes — picture it — she is 3 hours and 16 minutes into what we are talking about right now. That is awesome. That is awesome to think about.
Here is what the Bible says about sleep. This is why he raises the question. This is 1 Thessalonians 4:14: “Since we believe that Jesus died and rose again, even so, through Jesus, God will bring with him those who have fallen asleep.” All right? That is a reference to Christians who have died. Why does he say it that way? Or 1 Corinthians 15:17–18, “If Christ has not been raised, your faith is futile and you are still in your sins. Then those also who have fallen asleep in Christ have perished.” So there’s another reference to falling asleep as a picture of dying.
And then there is Jesus where he raised the little girl. We named our daughter after this experience where he says: “Talitha, cumi” (Mark 5:41). He raised this little girl from the dead. And we know that she is dead because in Mark 5:35 they say, “Your daughter has died.” And when Jesus arrives to deal with this, he says, “Why are you making a commotion and weeping? The child is not dead, but sleeping” (Mark 5:39). Well, she was dead and he calls it sleeping. Why?
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