The Seventh-day Adventist Church inherited the belief in conditional immortality from the Millerite movement.
There have been in Christianity three major views on the so‑called state of the dead: the traditional view, according to which the soul is immortal and leaves the body at death to receive its reward either in heaven or in hell; the annihilationist view, that soul and body are inseparable and that at death both are extinguished; and the intermediate view―known as soul sleep―whereby the soul remains dormant in a state of unconsciousness until the resurrection.
While the first view is currently held by most Christians, whether Catholic or Protestant, and the second is linked to the name of Charles Taze Russell and his followers, the third view is often associated, both in scholarly and popular literature, with the Seventh-day Adventist Church. This is rather surprising, as this is not really what we believe, and we ourselves prefer to identify our position as conditional immortality, or simply conditionalism. According to the Adventist understanding, conditional immortality (or conditionalism) simply means that humans do not possess innate, inherent immortality, but receive it only as a gift from God and through the condition of faith in Christ. This has to do with our understanding of the human being as a living soul, not as possessing a soul as an entity separate from the body.
Yet the idea that we accept a kind of soul‑hibernation concept between death and resurrection should not be so quickly dismissed as a gross misrepresentation of the facts. Instead, since death as sleep has always played an important role in our anthropology, we perhaps should inquire whether our own presentation of the facts has somehow fueled this misunderstanding.
Death as Sleep in Adventism
The Seventh-day Adventist Church inherited the belief in conditional immortality from the Millerite movement, particularly from George Storrs, one of its influential leaders. It was around 1840 that Storrs, still a Methodist preacher, became convinced that humans are not immortal, but receive immortality only through the condition of faith in Christ at the resurrection. As a corollary, he also believed that the wicked who live and die in their sins will be punished through fire and utterly exterminated, rather than live in suffering forever. Storrs strongly emphasized that death is total deprivation of life, but most of his arguments were directed against the traditional belief in hell as a place of eternal torment. When he talked about the righteous, he wanted to balance his statements in view of the resurrection promise, and he did this by means of the sleep concept. He said, “When men die they ‘sleep in the dust of the earth’ (Dan. 12:2). They wake not till Christ returns ‘from heaven;’ or till the last trump.”1
As early as 1842, Storrs’ conditionalist ideas were accepted by Calvin French, a Baptist minister who also joined the Millerites. Despite his acceptance of the aberrant view that Christians can become holy enough to be above sin, French was able to advance the arguments concerning death as an unconscious state. In order to do that, he also appealed—rather extensively—to the biblical metaphors of sleep and rest, arguing that “the righteous and the wicked rest together in the graves in an unconscious state until they hear the voice of the Son of Man and come forth to the resurrection of life or damnation,” and that “they who sleep in Jesus will awake at the first resurrection,” while “the rest of the dead will awake at the second resurrection, and appear before Christ at the judgment.”2 This seems to have been one of the first occurrences among the 1840s Adventists of the expression “sleep in Jesus,” which would become rather popular even among later Adventists, especially in obituary notices. Storrs’ biographical sketch published as an introduction to the 1855 edition of his Six Sermons so refers to Charles Fitch’s sudden death in October 1844: “He fell asleep in Jesus, in the glorious hope of soon awaking at the voice of the Son of God.”3 This mention of Fitch, one of the top Millerites, is fitting inasmuch as he became Storrs’ first ministerial convert to the doctrine of conditional immortality within the Adventist ranks, at a time when the other movement leaders strongly rejected it.
With the fragmentation of the Millerite movement after October 22, 1844, several Adventist groups continued to believe in conditionalism and annihilationism; this was the case of sabbatarian Adventists, to whom the concept of sleep began to play a central role in their understanding of death vis‑à‑vis the resurrection. In their first publication, in 1847, James White referred twice to the “sleeping saints” who will be raised by Jesus Himself at His second coming.4 Ellen G. White would use this expression at least 15 times in her own writings. In fact, in the following years, she would make an extensive use of the concept of death as sleep in its various forms. Besides speaking of the “sleeping saints” who will be “kept in safety” until the resurrection morning, when they will be “awakened” by the voice of the Son of God and “called forth” from their graves, she also referred dozens of times to those who are now silently and for a little while sleeping/resting in their graves. She used the expression even for herself, as in her diary entry for December 26, 1904: “May the Lord spare my life to do this work before I shall rest in the grave, is my prayer.”5 Two years later she would write in a letter: “I am waiting my summons to give up my work, and rest in the grave.”6
In a biographical article published in 1876, Mrs. White made two surprising statements. After reporting a conversation her mother had with another woman about a discourse on the nature of death they had recently heard, she came to her mother and, deeply impressed by the comments, started posing some questions. At a certain point she asked: “But, mother. . . do you really believe that the soul sleeps in the grave until the resurrection?” A few paragraphs later, when describing the impact this new doctrine had on her, she said: “This new and beautiful faith taught me the reason that inspired writers had dwelt so much upon the resurrection of the body, it was because the entire being was slumbering in the grave.”7 Both statements are theologically difficult, but it must be borne in mind that the episode took place in 1843, when Mrs. White (then Ellen Harmon) was only 16, and that she seems to be reproducing the very language she used at that time. Nowhere else does she speak of the soul sleeping, resting, or slumbering in the grave. She knew that there can be only living souls. The closest she came to the idea of a dead soul is when she spoke figuratively of sinners who have not yet accepted Jesus as their Savior. “A soul without Christ,” she wrote, “is like a body without blood; it is dead. It may have the appearance of spiritual life; it may perform certain ceremonies in religious matters like a machine; but it has no spiritual life.”8
In addition to Ellen G. White’s writings, a work that seems to have greatly influenced Adventist idioms on the state of the dead is D. M. Canright’s A History of the Doctrine of the Soul, first published in 1871. In this book, the “sleep of the dead” became a doctrine, together with the mortality of the soul and the destruction of the wicked. “The mortality of the soul, the sleep of the dead, and the destruction of the wicked, were doctrines held by all the apostolic fathers, and after them by many of the most eminent of the early fathers.”9
In fact, Canright referred to the “sleep of the dead” no fewer than 32 times in his book as a doctrine that was predominant in earliest Christianity and had always had its supporters throughout Christian history, including the Reformers and a number of other writers up to his time. After Canright, it became customary to refer to the sleep of the dead as a doctrine. This was done, for example, by J. N. Andrews, E. J. Waggoner, Uriah Smith, A. T. Jones, and others, besides Canright himself elsewhere. The term “conditional immortality” was still used, but according to the Comprehensive Research Edition of Ellen G. White’s Writings, it became secondary to the “sleep of the death,” and it looks as though this is how our doctrine was already known outside our borders before the turn of the 20th century. In his eight‑page pamphlet, Thoughts for the Candid, published in 1889, Andrews tried to convince his readers that the “sleep of the dead” was not “a gloomy doctrine”—“chilling, repulsive, forbidding”—as it was “often designated.” Rather, he said, it is the belief that impenitent sinners “must suffer to all eternity” that should be so described.10
To outsiders, however, acquainted as they were with a dualistic anthropology, according to which body and soul are two distinct entities, the Adventist insistence on the concept of death as sleep was open to misunderstanding. In 1898, when commenting on a note recently published in an evangelical magazine, the Missionary Review, ascribing a number of distinctive doctrines, including soul‑sleeping, to the “Seventh‑day Baptists,” Jones explained that the people in question should be Adventists, not Baptists. All the points mentioned in the note had little or nothing to do with the Baptists, but corresponded perfectly with the Adventist doctrinal profile. “The SDAs,” Jones concluded, “could be grateful to the Missionary Review for such an advertisement if only we certainly knew what it had said all this about us.”11
In fact, in 1860, R. F. Cottrell reproduced a statement by one of the Review and Herald correspondents who accused Sabbatarian Adventists of believing, among other things, that “at death the soul sleeps with the body till the resurrection, and that then the wicked will be burned up both soul and body.”12 Of course, this could be nothing more than an isolated case of misunderstanding, but when five years later, the same Cottrell took pains to explain that “we do not teach that ‘the soul sleeps with the body in the grave”13; this seems to indicate that for some people, this was exactly what we believed. If it were not so, J. N. Loughborough would not have responded to this evangelical preacher either, who “informed his congregation that those who believe the soul sleeps till the resurrection teach blasphemous doctrines.”14 Similarly, M. Hull would not have said that “the doctrine of soul‑sleeping is thought by some to be a dreadful heresy, but I can find no promise in the Bible to an immortal soul.”15 That the “sleep of the soul” was sometimes used for the “sleep of the dead” even among Adventists is clear from Canright’s book mentioned above, where the former and its variations occur with this sense no fewer than 16 times.
The point is rather simple: The persistent appeal of our pioneers to the sleep metaphor to describe death, giving this metaphor a doctrinal status, and even referring to it in terms of the sleep of the soul, led many people to think that we believed in an intermediate state in which the souls of the dead remain dormant and unconscious in the grave waiting for the resurrection. It is important to highlight that for non‑Adventists, the soul‑sleep concept could still be understood dualistically in connection with the immortality of the soul, and throughout Christian history there have been several immortalists who believed just that.
This belief was, for example, the case of some early Syrian writers such as Ephrem (or Ephraem), John Wyclif, William Tyndale, and Martin Luther. Many Anabaptists and Socinians apparently also subscribed to this view, which was also fairly widespread in England in the 16th and 17th centuries. Even to this day, “soul sleep” is generally defined as “a kind of temporary suspended animation of the soul between the moment of personal death and the time when our bodies will be resurrected.”16 In view of such a scenario, our emphasis on the sleep of the soul was, in fact, open to misapprehension.
The problem, however, is that the improper use of the sleep metaphor was not confined to our pioneers. In several more recent publications by Adventist authors concerning the state of the dead we find statements—even official ones—that could inadvertently be taken as an endorsement of the soul‑sleep concept as it has traditionally been understood in some dualistic circles. One thinks, for example, of the following paragraph from Carlyle B. Haynes: “Death is really and truly a sleep, a sleep that is deep, that is unconscious, that is unbroken until the awakening at the resurrection. In death,” Haynes continues, “man enters a state of sleep. The language of the Bible makes clear that it is the whole man which sleeps, not merely a part. No intimation is given that man sleeps only as to his body, and that he is wakeful and conscious as to his soul. All that comprises the man sleeps in death.”17 Another example, though more subtle, is found in the influential Questions on Doctrine: “While asleep in the tomb the child of God knows nothing. Time matters not to him. If he should be there a thousand years, the time would be to him as but a moment.”18
Perhaps special mention should be made of LeRoy E. Froom’s two‑volume classic on the history of conditionalist faith published in 1965, a work that may have had in our midst an influence even greater than Canright’s in the 19th century. Several times in this work Froom referred to the sleep of the soul as a synonym for the sleep of the dead, even acknowledging that some who held this concept in the past still believed in the separate existence of the soul. This was the case, for example, of Wyclif, Tyndale, and Luther.
It would be natural to expect a note of clarification in relation to these and other dualists who embraced the soul‑sleep concept, but unfortunately Froom never offered it. No wonder that we have been misunderstood to this day. This is why Anthony A. Hoekema made an effort to explain that “it is. . . not quite accurate to say, as some do, that the SDAs teach the doctrine of soul‑sleep, since this would imply that there is a soul which continues to exist after death, but in an unconscious state. A more precise way of characterizing their teachings on this point,” he argued, “is to say that the Adventists teach soul‑extinction. For, according to them, soul is simply another name for the entire individual; there is, therefore, no soul that survives after death. After death nothing survives; when man dies he becomes completely nonexistent.”19 Such a clarification could help us not only in relation to the outsiders but also to make ourselves more careful regarding the use of theological or doctrinal terminology.
Death as Sleep in Scripture
In Scripture, sleep is used both literally and metaphorically. When it is used literally, which is the most common usage, it simply denotes the physical act of sleeping as part of human experience (Gen. 28:11; Luke 9:32). In its metaphorical sense, sleep may denote spiritual dullness, indolence, or lack of vigilance. In Proverbs, laziness, indolence, and sleep are used in a quasi‑moral way to depict the negligent person who refuses to acknowledge the reasonable needs of human life (6:9–11; 24:33, 34). In Isaiah (29:10) and frequently in the New Testament (Mark 13:35. 36; Rom. 13:11; Eph. 5:14; 1 Thess. 5:6–9) sleep describes a spiritual lethargy that must be thrown off to remain awake in this evil world. When it is used in this way, the context is very often eschatological, warning believers to be alert to the signs of the times.
Sleep (as well as lying down and resting) is also used as a metaphor for death. This is common in the Old Testament (Job 7:21; Ps. 13:3; Dan. 12:2). The expression “slept [or rested] with his fathers” is a fixed formula in reference to the death of Israel’s and Judah’s kings; it is used 36 times in the books of 1 and 2 Kings and 2 Chronicles. The metaphor is also found in the New Testament. When Jesus rose from the dead, “many bodies of the saints who had fallen asleep were raised” (Matt. 27:52).20 Luke recorded that Stephen, after being stoned, knelt down, said his last words, and “fell asleep” (Acts 7:60). By the time of his third missionary journey, Paul said that some of those “more than five hundred” (NIV) who had seen the resurrected Christ had already “fallen asleep” (1 Cor. 15:6). He also referred to those who “have fallen asleep in Christ” (vs. 18), to the resurrection of Christ as the “first fruits of those who have fallen asleep” (vs. 20), and to his hope that not all of them would “fall asleep” before Jesus’ second coming (vs. 51). In 1 Thessalonians, while addressing the situation of the brothers and sisters who had already died, Paul referred to them twice by saying they had “fallen asleep” (4:14, 15, NIV).
According to the Gospels, Jesus also used this metaphor in two different occasions. The first was in relation to Jairus’ daughter, who had just succumbed to her illness and died (Mark 5:35). Upon His arrival at Jairus’ home, Jesus saw the commotion, people weeping and wailing loudly, after which He said: “‘Why make this commotion and weep? The child is not dead, but sleeping’” (vs. 39). The mourners responded cynically to Jesus and ridiculed Him. They could not make sense of His words, which seemed to imply that the girl was literally sleeping, while they knew that she was dead.
The second occasion was when Lazarus died. When He was informed that the one He loved was sick, Jesus did not respond immediately. Instead He stayed two more days in the place where He was, time long enough for Lazarus to die. When He finally decided to go to Bethany, He said: “‘Our friend Lazarus sleeps, but I go that I may wake him up’” (John 11:11). This confused the disciples, who took Jesus’s words at their face value, concluding that sleep would be good for Lazarus, and Jesus would not have to risk His life by going to Judea. The evangelist then intervenes and informs the reader that the disciples did not understand Jesus correctly. As in the case of Jairus’ daughter, Jesus was not speaking about sleep in its normal sense, but figuratively as a reference to death. It was necessary for Him to tell them plainly: “‘Lazarus is dead’” (vs. 14).
Thus, in both stories, Jesus resorted to the sleep metaphor to refer to death, and in each, He was greatly misunderstood. The misunderstanding, however, was not because the metaphor was a novelty introduced by Him, but because He used it in an unconventional way: not simply to describe death itself, but to deny its irrevocable character. That the metaphor of death as sleep was not alien to Jesus’ contemporaries can be argued not only from its usage in the Old Testament, but also from its recurrence in both Jewish literature and Jewish tomb inscriptions in Greek and Latin. As a matter of fact, death as sleep was also common in Greco‑Roman literature. Because of their resemblance, sleep and death were twin brothers in popular religion. This unequivocally points to the fact that sleep was (and still is in some modern cultures) a widespread metaphor for death because of their phenomenological resemblance; that is, death looks like a sleep and is therefore described as such.
Before any theological conclusion may be drawn from the presence of this metaphor in Scripture, therefore, it is necessary to acknowledge the simple fact that the use of sleep in reference to death is not restricted to Judaism and Christianity, and that such a use owes its origin to the phenomenological similarity of both. If the mourners (in Jairus’ daughter’s story) and the disciples (in Lazarus’ story) misunderstood Jesus, it was only because in both occasions He used sleep to describe the tragedy of death in light of the approaching miracle, something they had no means to predict or reasons to expect. On a rhetorical level, both statements of Jesus (Mark 5:39; John 11:11) are clear examples of irony, in which what is meant is different from what is said. That is to say, in no statement is Jesus rejecting the notion of a real death, “but rather . . . superimposing upon it a secondary. . . frame of reference. Death is not final, not ultimate.”21 There is an interesting rabbinic parallel to this concept in Genesis Rabbah, where Jacob is told, “Thou shalt sleep, but thou shalt not die.”22 The contrast in this passage is clearly between physical death and the resurrection, and it is this contrast that is symbolized in Mark 5:39 and John 11:11.
These are two important points: Sleep is not an essential description of death, and on the lips of Jesus it only highlights the reality—and the imminence—of the resurrection (cf. John 11:23‒25). This means that it is not appropriate to use sleep to understand the nature of death and by extension the condition in death or the state of the dead. Neither the metaphor itself nor its use by Jesus allows such a procedure. Death is not sleep. One may resemble the other, but they are in fact two different things. Andrew T. Lincoln concurs: The New Testament use of sleep for death “was not meant to indicate the actual state of those who had died as some sort of unconscious existence but was a metaphor that stressed the temporary and reversible effect of death.”23 Similarly, Bruce Reichenbach insisted that “the metaphor ‘sleep’. . . does not describe the ontological state of the dead, but rather refers to the possibility of the deceased: that though they now no longer exist, by the power of God they can be re-created to live again.”24
The biblical description of death is that of termination or annihilation (Job 7:21; 14:12). When the person dies, nothing remains, as the breath of life returns to God and the body decomposes to the basic elements from which it was formed (Ps. 146:4; Eccl. 12:7). As Haynes explained, “the union of two things, earth and breath, served to create a third thing, soul. The continued existence of the soul depended wholly upon the continued union of breath and body. When that union is broken and the breath separates from the body, as it does at death, the soul ceases to exist.”25 Samuele Bacchiocchi put it this way: Death is presented in Scripture “as a return to the elements from which man originally was made. . . . [Death is] the termination of one’s life, which results in the decay and decomposition of the body. . . . [It means] the deprivation or cessation of life.”26 Even though this cannot be fully equated with sleep, this metaphor has gained a considerable importance in the Adventist understanding of death. But, even more worrisome are those statements that may sound like an endorsement of the soul‑sleep concept, as if death were in fact an intermediate state in which the person lies inactive in the grave until the resurrection morning.
There is no question that there will be a resurrection, as in the case of Jairus’ daughter, Lazarus, and several others, besides Christ Himself. Some will be resurrected “to everlasting life” and some “to shame and everlasting contempt” (Dan. 12:2). And the resurrection to everlasting life will be possible precisely because of the resurrection of Christ (1 Cor. 15:17, 18; 1 Thess. 4:14). This is also how the expression “the firstborn from the dead” (Col. 1:18; Rev. 1:5) or “the firstfruits of those who have fallen asleep” (1 Cor 15:20) has traditionally been understood. To use a classical statement, “the resurrection of Christ is a pledge and proof of the resurrection of His people.”27 So the biblical teaching is that, though death means complete termination or annihilation, it is not final or definitive, except for what the Bible calls “the second death,” which refers to the final extermination of the wicked (Rev. 20:14; 21:8). For believers, death does not have the last word (1 Cor. 15:26, 54, 55).
But then comes the paradox: if death means termination, resurrection is much more than an awakening. It truly means re-creation. If there is nothing left, there is nothing to be awakened or to come out of the tomb. All aspects of the present life reach their end at death. The memory of the personality and character of the deceased is preserved only in the mind of God. Sometimes not even the bones are extant. Yet, they will live again (John 5:25, 28; Rev. 20:6).
“Our personal identity is preserved in the resurrection, though not the same particles of matter or material substance as went into the grave. . . . The spirit, the character of man, is returned to God, there to be preserved. In the resurrection every man will have his own character. . . . The same form will come forth. . . . It lives again bearing the same individuality of features. . . . There is no law of God in nature which shows that God gives back the same identical particles of matter which composed the body before death. God shall give the righteous dead a body that will please Him.”28
So, to be resurrected, there has to be a new creation, this time not from dust, but from heaven. There is no physical link between this life and the new life in the resurrection. “Though they no longer exist, by the power of God they can be recreated to live again”29—a re-creation out of nothing, a new life out of our annihilated and crushed life. Thus, the awakening metaphor, also frequently used in the Bible, is simply the counterpart of the sleep metaphor. One is just the logical equivalent of the other. As sleep does not convey the nature of death, awakening does not express the character of resurrection.
The Adventist view on what happens at death has been sometimes misunderstood: First, because the way we ourselves have occasionally used the sleep metaphor to describe death; and second, as a result of the dualistic connotation traditionally associated with soul‑sleep. It could be argued that this comes from a reading of Adventist literature unmindful of the larger context of biblical anthropology in which these statements are made. This, however, is no excuse for not making every effort to express our understanding of the subject as clearly and completely as possible.
Sleep is not a description of the nature of death. Death means complete cessation of life with all that that includes. Sleep can be used to portray death only phenomenologically. On the lips of Jesus, the metaphor does carry an important meaning, but that is only related to the assurance and immediacy of the resurrection, not to death as such. This raises a further point, and that is whether it is valid to refer to death as an intermediate state. If death means cessation and resurrection a re-creation, is it not misleading to talk about an intermediate state? Is there truly a state of the dead to talk about? Would it not be semantically—and anthropologically—more precise to refer to death as an intermediate or an intervening period (of time) rather than a state? By misusing the sleep metaphor, we risk the failure of doing justice to the seriousness of death and of detracting from the true meaning of the resurrection.
Wilson Paroschi, PhD, is Professor of New Testament Interpretation at Southern Adventist University, Collegedale, Tennessee, U.S.A.
NOTES AND REFERENCES