“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“
concerning those who have fallen asleep,
“Fallen asleep” is the literal meaning of the Greek word. Metaphorically, this word means death, the sleep of death (Matthew 27:52; John 11:11-13; Acts 7:60; 1 Corinthians 7:39; 11:30; 15:6,18,51; 2 Peter 3:4). Some believers in Thessalonica died because of persecution. They wanted to know what happened to their fellow Christians who died.
Some cults teach that the soul sleeps in death. They claim that after a long period, God will wake up the soul. Does the Bible teach this? The Bible never uses the term “asleep” when referring to non-Christians, but always uses the term for believers. Physical death for believers is nothing more than sleep. God will wake them one day to a physical resurrection from the dead.
As well, the Bible never uses “sleep” for the soul. Soul-sleep is a false doctrine. The soul of the dead is unconscious in reference to this world (Job 7:9-10; Ecclesiastes 9:5-6; Isaiah 63:16) but wide awake and fully conscious of the glories of the world to come (Luke 16:19-31; 2 Corinthians 5:8; Philippians 1:21-23; Revelation 7:15-17). Stephen’s spirit went to be with the Lord, but his body fell asleep (Acts 7:60).
The New Testament uses “sleep” either for physical rest or for the physical body resting in the grave, but never for the soul sleeping. The Thessalonians did not concern themselves with the souls of their departed loved ones, but about the resurrection of their bodies. The sleep of the body is only temporary; it will rise from the dead one day. God does not annihilate the soul and spirit at the physical death of the body. There was no need for the Thessalonians to worry about the fate of their loved ones.
In John 11:12-13, the disciples thought of the normal physical sense of sleep, but the Lord used it in the figurative sense, referring to physical death (1 Thessalonians 11:11,13).
The pagan culture of the Thessalonians offered no hope about a future physical life. Many people viewed the body as evil in any case. They wanted to get rid of the body.
“Truly, these times of ignorance God overlooked, but now commands all men everywhere to repent, ‘because He has appointed a day on which He will judge the world in righteousness by the Man whom He has ordained. He has given assurance of this to all by raising Him from the dead.’” And when they heard of the resurrection of the dead, some mocked, while others said, ‘We will hear you again on this matter‘” (Acts 17:30-32).
Paul speaks of those Christians who had died since he left a year previously. What happened to them at death? Did their body and soul just go to sleep at death? No, their souls went immediately and instantaneously into the presence of God.
“For I am hard pressed between the two, having a desire to depart [to die] and be with Christ, which is far better. Nevertheless to remain in the flesh [continue to live physically] is more needful for you” (Philippians 1:23-24).
Those who die sleep in body, but not in soul. Even the body will rise from the sleep of physical death one day (1 Corinthians 15:35-57). Physical death is a temporary state that will end when the physical body rises from the dead at the final resurrection.
“Do not marvel at this; for the hour is coming in which all who are in the graves will hear His voice “and come forth—those who have done good, to the resurrection of life, and those who have done evil, to the resurrection of condemnation” (John 5:28-29).
Sleep in Scripture has to do with the death of the body, not soul-sleep.
A corpse looks as if it is sleeping. The immaterial part of human beings (soul and spirit) does not sleep in the body at death. The moment death hits the body of a Christian, the immaterial part of the person goes immediately and instantaneously into the presence of God.
“We are confident, yes, well pleased rather to be absent from the body and to be present with the Lord” (2 Corinthians 5:8).
The physical body sleeps in the casket until Jesus comes again. At that time, He will raise the physical body and make it like His resurrection body (Philippians 3:20,21).
Non-Christians go to a place called Hades. They will stay there until the second resurrection when Hades will be cast into the lake of fire (Revelation 20). The first resurrection is for Christians (John 5:28,29). Death does not end all, for death is not annihilation. Non-Christians will live for eternity in the lake of fire.
We will meet Jesus one day as our Savior or as our Judge. These are the only two options. Those who straight-arm Jesus, in time, will meet Him as a Judge. Jesus will sit on the great white throne to pronounce their eternal state in a Christless eternity.