Consciousness in Death – Concerning Them which Are Asleep (Part 6)

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Life after death is not a controversial belief in Christendom and is not in itself a belief restricted to Christianity. However, as discussed in the previous post, there are sectors within Christianity that deny the possibility of consciousness in death and view it as a mindless, dormant state prior to the resurrection. Whether one believes in post-death, out-of- body consciousness or in soul sleep, the testimony of Scripture provides enlightening instruction about the state of consciousness the dead experience.

John 5:25
Verily, verily, I say unto you, The hour is coming, and now is, when the dead shall hear the voice of the Son of God: and they that hear shall live. KJV [Emphasis added.]

Let’s take Jesus’s declaration above at face value. He said, “The dead shall hear the voice of the Son of God.” Plain and simple, the dead hear. His next phrase makes it unequivocal that they were dead when they heard. Hearing His voice is what brings them to life.

Isaiah 14:9-12
9 Hell [Heb. Sheol] from beneath is moved for thee to meet thee at thy coming: it stirreth up the dead for thee, even all the chief ones of the earth; it hath raised up from their thrones all the kings of the nations.
10 All they shall speak and say unto thee, Art thou also become weak as we? art thou become like unto us?
11 Thy pomp is brought down to the grave [Heb. Sheol], and the noise of thy viols: the worm is spread under thee, and the worms cover thee.
12 How art thou fallen from heaven, O Lucifer, son of the morning! how art thou cut down to the ground, which didst weaken the nations! KJV [Emphasis added.]

Isaiah sees forward in a prophetic vision to the time when Satan is cast down into the pit. Those that are already in hell speak to him. Their speech not only indicates intelligent thought, but emotion as well. The chief ones of the earth exhibit shock at Satan’s downfall.

Jesus said the dead will hear. Isaiah said the dead speak. What else can the dead do?

Luke 16:22-24
22 So it was that the beggar died, and was carried by the angels to Abraham’s bosom. The rich man also died and was buried.
23 And being in torments in Hades, he lifted up his eyes and saw Abraham afar off, and Lazarus in his bosom.
24 “Then he cried and said, ‘Father Abraham, have mercy on me, and send Lazarus that he may dip the tip of his finger in water and cool my tongue; for I am tormented in this flame.’ NKJV [Emphasis added.]

This narrative is not referred to as a parable in the text. “There was a certain rich man,” Jesus said, “and a certain beggar” as if He had particular individuals in mind. But even if it were a parable, why would Jesus represent the fate of dead people falsely? His parables are instructive for the very reason that they connect transcendent truths with ordinary reality. If the experience of the departed is not as Jesus described it, do we need to wonder about the fate of seeds sown in the field or the beauty of lilies? The testimony of Jesus is that Hades has flames and those who are tormented by them experience thirst. He is the Truth. I am confident He knew what He was talking about.

So we have seen from an Old Testament prophet and the mouth of The Prophet that the dead hear, see, speak, have emotion, and can feel. Anyone who purports that the dead experience no intermediate conscious state prior to physical resurrection must deal with the declaration of Jesus that the dead hear, speak, and can experience comfort or misery.

Jesus referred to death as sleeping. The correlation is deeper than mere idiom. God created the natural order to teach us about Himself and the spiritual order.[1] With this in mind, let’s examine some sleep science.

The Sleep Research Society defines sleep with the four following criteria:[2]

  1. Little movement.
  2. A stereotypic posture.
  3. A reduced response to stimulation.
  4. Reversibility.

With regard to reversibility, they state “we know that we can readily awake from sleep, which distinguishes it from coma or death.”[3] I find it interesting that from a scientifically observable point of view (without electronic diagnostic tools or mirrors to catch the breath with) it is only reversibility that distinguishes sleep from death. Of course, we know that death is reversible.

As I mentioned earlier, typical life experience regarding sleep shows us that the sleeping state isn’t an unconscious one (if by unconscious we mean no mental activity). Following are some more statements about sleep from the Sleep Research Society (United States):

“The old notion that sleep occurs as a result of the withdrawal of activity in systems that promote wakefulness is simply not true. Sleep is not a passively occurring state, but one that is actively generated by activity in specific regions.”[4]

“The cortical EEG[5] of REM sleep closely resembles the EEG of active wakefulness, and in some species they are virtually indistinguishable.”[6]

“Measures of central nervous system activation strongly suggest that the brain reaches peak activity during REM sleep … It is difficult to understand the popular stereotype of sleep as the brain turned off, which is analogous to a car sitting in a garage with the ignition turned off and the motor silent. This point of view also underlies a metaphorical mythology that the brain must ‘rest.’ It is no more conceivable that the brain needs to rest than that the liver needs to rest.”[7]

Not only is sleep not loss of mind and memory, it may actually aid in the laying down of long-term memory.

“Episodes that are destined for long-term memory appear to be shunted down to the hippocampus from the cortex, where they are registered as neural patterns in much the same way as they are in the cortex. These episodes seem to remain in limbo for some time – perhaps as long as two years – before they are finally laid down. During this time they are frequently brought together by the hippocampus and replayed. This happens largely during sleep, and may account for the intrusion of daily events into dreams.”[8]

There is a principle in Hermeneutics that states “first the natural and then the spiritual.”[9]  By this it is meant that the God who created the universe uses His creation to teach us about Himself and His ways.  Is it possible that in the sleep of death there is an analogous process of laying down long-term memories? Is it possible that while awaiting final judgment, our life will come into true perspective and truthful recollection? This is simply a conjecture, but one worthy of consideration.

[1] Rom. 1:20.
[2] From “Basics of Sleep Behavior” (BSB) © 1997 WebSciences International and Sleep Research Society (United States), Part A – “What Is Sleep”, http://www.sleepsources.org/uploads/sleepsyllabus/a.html, accessed May 10, 2019.
[3] Ibid.
[4] BSB, Part E, “Brain Mechanisms of Sleep and Wakefulness,” http://www.sleepsources.org/uploads/sleepsyllabus/a.html, accessed May 10, 2019.
[5] Electroencephalogram, i.e. “brain waves.”
[6] BSB, Part D, “NREM and REM Sleep,” http://www.sleepsources.org/uploads/sleepsyllabus/a.html, accessed May 10, 2019.
[7] BSB, “Introduction,” http://www.sleepsources.org/uploads/sleepsyllabus/a.html, accessed May 10, 2019.
[8] Rita Carter, Mapping the Mind, University of California Press, Berkley, 1998, p. 164-165. Emphasis mine.
[9] 1 Cor. 15:46.