Many believe the soul is immortal and remains conscious apart from the body after death. But early reformers Martin Luther and William Tyndale recognized what the Bible teaches about this—that those who’ve died have no awareness while awaiting a future resurrection.
Many people today believe the Bible teaches that when a person dies, that person has an immortal soul that remains conscious after death and goes on to live with God in heaven or goes to some kind of eternal torment in hell. But that is assuredly not what the Bible teaches. It informs us that man is a mortal soul able to die (Ezekiel 18:4, 20) and that to die is to “sleep the sleep of death” (Psalms 13:3).
The Bible repeatedly compares death to sleep and not conscious existence—a sleep from which we must be awakened in a future resurrection (see Daniel 12:2; Job 14:12-14; 1 Corinthians 11:30; 15:51; 1 Thessalonians 4:13-14). Scripture explicitly states that “the dead know nothing” (Ecclesiastes 9:5, emphasis added throughout). It further assures that “there is no . . . knowledge or wisdom in the grave where you are going” (verse 10).
Many recognize that the Bible teaches a coming resurrection. The traditional argument is that the immortal soul departs into bodiless yet conscious existence at death and that the resurrection is the raising up of a renewed body in the future for the soul to reinhabit. This concerns what is called the intermediate state of the dead—the nature of existence between the death of the body and the future resurrection.
Given the biblical comparisons to sleep, some disparagingly refer to belief in this intermediate state of unconsciousness as “soul sleep.” Yet this is simply taking Scripture for what it says, whereas belief in a disembodied soul in the afterlife came not from the Bible but from pagan religion and philosophy.
Some have recognized the truth of this matter for centuries. It would no doubt greatly surprise many of today’s Protestants to learn that key figures they view as heroes of the faith—namely Martin Luther, father of the Protestant Reformation, and William Tyndale, who suffered martyrdom for his monumental work of translating the Bible into English—wrote against the immortality of the soul and against the idea of conscious awareness in death. These men were teachers of soul sleep—as were the inspired writers of Scripture, such as the apostle Paul.
Martin Luther: “The dead sleep in utter insensibility”
In 1517 Martin Luther posted his famous 95 Theses regarding the errors of the Catholic Church. In defending many of these later in 1520 he listed the idea “that the soul is immortal” as among “all these endless monstrosities in the Roman dunghill of decretals” (Assertion of All the Articles of M. Luther Condemned by the Latest Bull of Leo X, Art. 27, Works of Luther, Weimar ed., Vol. 7). Luther’s main concern in this was the Catholic conception of the conscious torment of souls in purgatory, which he rejected.
Not long afterward he wrote: “It is probable, in my opinion, that, with very few exceptions indeed, the dead sleep in utter insensibility till the day of judgment . . . On what authority can it be said that the souls of the dead may not sleep . . . in the same way that the living pass in profound slumber the interval between their downlying at night and their uprising in the morning?” (Letter to Nicholas Amsdorf, Jan. 13, 1522, quoted by Jules Michelet, The Life of Luther, translated by William Hazlitt, 1862, p. 133).
Regarding the quote we earlier saw from Ecclesiastes, Luther later pointed out: “Solomon judges that the dead are asleep, and feel nothing at all. For the dead lie there accounting neither days nor years, but when are awaked, they shall seem to have slept scarce one minute” (An Exposition of Solomon’s Book, Called Ecclesiastes or the Preacher, 1553, folio 151v).
Luther viewed this as some sort of comatose existence, elsewhere stating: “Thus after death the soul goes to its bedchamber and to its peace, and while it is sleeping it does not realize its sleep, and God preserves the awakening soul. God is able to awake Elijah, Moses, and others . . . so that they will live. But how can that be? That we do not know; we satisfy ourselves with the example of bodily sleep, and with what God says: it is a sleep, a rest, and a peace” (Interpretation of the First Book of Moses, Writings, Vol. 1). He was trying to explain the preservation of our existence through death until the resurrection.
While Luther was perhaps not always consistent or clear, we should recognize that he definitely did not advocate the conscious bodiless existence of an immortal soul in heaven or hell immediately after death, as today’s Lutherans and other Protestants believe.
William Tyndale responds to Thomas More
Around the same time, William Tyndale defended the teaching of death as a sleep against denunciation by the English Catholic philosopher and statesman under King Henry VIII, Sir Thomas More, who also wrote Utopia.
Tyndale responded to him in 1530, contending: “And you, in putting them [departed souls] in heaven, hell, and purgatory, destroy the arguments wherewith Christ and Paul prove the resurrection . . . And again, if the souls be in heaven, tell me why they be not in as good [a] case as the angels be? And then what cause [or reason] is there of the resurrection?” (An Answer to Sir Thomas More’s Dialogue, Book 4, chap. 4).
In the same response, Tyndale castigated the Catholic position on the matter as embracing pagan teaching, declaring: “The true faith puts [forth] the resurrection . . . The heathen philosophers, denying that, did put [forth] that the souls did ever live [as immortal]. And the pope joins the spiritual doctrine of Christ and the fleshly doctrine of philosophers together; things so contrary that they cannot agree, no more than the Spirit and the flesh do in a Christian man. And because the fleshly-minded pope consents unto heathen doctrine, therefore he corrupts the Scripture to establish it.”
Elsewhere in his response, Tyndale notes that the concept of the faithful dead being conscious in heaven was contrary to Christ’s teaching. He points out: “And when he [Thomas More] proves that the saints be in heaven in glory with Christ already, saying, ‘If God be their God, they be in heaven, for he is not the God of the dead’ [as More tried to argue from Jesus’ point in Matthew 22:31-32]; there he steals away Christ’s argument, wherewith he proves the resurrection: that Abraham and all saints should rise again, not that their souls were in heaven; which doctrine was not yet in the world. And with that doctrine he takes away the resurrection quite, and makes Christ’s argument of none effect.”
Moreover, Tyndale makes poignant use of the apostle Paul’s statement that Christians are most pitiable, or miserable, if there is no resurrection (1 Corinthians 15:16-19) and of his instruction that Christians should comfort one another over lost loved ones with the hope of the resurrection at Christ’s return (1 Thessalonians 4:13-18). This instruction would make no sense if those loved ones are now awake in heaven. As Tyndale sarcastically presents it:
“‘Nay, Paul, you are unlearned; go to Master [Thomas] More, and learn a new way. We be not most miserable, though we rise not again; for our souls go to heaven as soon as we be dead, and are there in as great joy as Christ that is risen again.’ And I marvel that Paul had not comforted the Thessalonians with that doctrine, if he had wist [known] it, that the souls of their dead had been in joy; as he did with the resurrection, that their dead should rise again. If the souls be in heaven, in as great glory as the angels, after your doctrine, show me what cause should be of the resurrection.”
While we would not agree with Luther and Tyndale in various facets of religious teaching, we do agree that the Bible presents death as having no conscious awareness.
While many other reformers recognized this, the Reformation as a whole persisted, and persists still, in false teachings about the immortal soul in heaven or hell. But the truth of Scripture yet stands. Why not accept what God’s Word reveals about this vital issue?