Lazarus "sleeping"

Dear forum members,
today I had a conversation with somebody who claimed that Jesus compared death to just a kind of sleep, using the example of Lazarus where Jesus says he is only “sleeping” (John 11, 11-13).
I tried to explain to her how I has thought that was meant: That Jesus used that picture of sleeping here just in order to say that lazarus had not died for good, but that he would “wake him from the dead”.
But that this didn’t mean at all that Jesus death IN GENERAL compared to just a sleep.

I am not sure though if I put that right… just thinking now, does it say somewhere anyway that when we die, at first we will be in a kind of sleep, until we resurrect on the last day?

I think I never really thought so much about Jesus’ choice of words in the Lazarus story. Any comments that might help me say the right thing when I talk to that other person again?

I am sure Luther believed this.

This is a difficult question. But I agree with your interpretation. Remember when Jesus resurrected the little girl? He also said she was only asleep, and in that instance His meaning was more clear, because the people who had gathered there laughed at Him, which gave me the impression that He meant “asleep” in the alive sense.

Death is not sleep and the human soul does not sleep in death.

Sleep is a body function; only bodies can sleep!

Sleeping was used by our LORD as a comforting metaphor because (a) the dead human body initially looks very much like a sleeping body; (b) someone asleep is unharmed and can easily be awakened; © although the dead are not unharmed, our LORD has as total power to undo death as to undo sleep.

But from the cross, HE told His companion in death that “today” they would be together in Paradise; you aren’t “with” somebody if both are asleep.

And some years later, St. Paul said “absent from the body; present with the LORD”.

Soul sleep is not Biblical or Church doctrine.


You are right to say that Jesus was comparing Lazarus’ death to sleep to show his death was only temporary, like sleep is. There’s no reason to think that Jesus believed that we are unconscious after death.

Your friend sounds like she might be a Seventh Day Adventist, since they believe in something called soul sleep, which basically says that the soul goes into an unconscious limbo state until the resurrection. It’s based on a faulty interpretation of certain verses in the Old Testament.

There are some Old Testament texts which do sound on the surface like the soul is unconscious. But this is because in the Old Testament they didn’t have the full revelation that we do in the New Testament. There was a gradual progression in their understanding of the afterlife. So the older books like Psalms and Ecclesiastes and Job (which are the typical ones they will cite as evidence for their teaching) have a dim view of death and describe it as a dull existence, where later books like Wisdom and 2 Maccabees describe those who died not as unconscious, but as alive and with God. Maccabees even shows Jeremiah the prophet and Onias the high priest, who were both dead when the book was written, praying for Israel’s army.

It would probably be helpful to explain that concept to her and then to show her what the New Testament says about the afterlife. She may not accept Maccabees as Scripture, but she will accept the Gospels.

Lk 16:19-26

There was a rich man, who was clothed in purple and fine linen and who feasted sumptuously every day. 20 And at his gate lay a poor man named Lazarus, full of sores, 21 who desired to be fed with what fell from the rich man’s table; moreover the dogs came and licked his sores. 22 The poor man died and was carried by the angels to Abraham’s bosom. The rich man also died and was buried; 23 and in Hades, being in torment, **he lifted up his eyes, and saw Abraham far off and Lazarus in his bosom. 24 And he called out, ‘Father Abraham, have mercy upon me, and send Lazarus to dip the end of his finger in water and cool my tongue; for I am in anguish in this flame.’ **25 But Abraham said, ‘Son, remember that you in your lifetime received your good things, and Lazarus in like manner evil things; but now he is comforted here, and you are in anguish. 26 And besides all this, between us and you a great chasm has been fixed, in order that those who would pass from here to you may not be able, and none may cross from there to us.’

Lazarus, Abraham, and the rich man are clearly conscious here, even after they died. If the afterlife really is just an unconscious existence, then this story really doesn’t make sense. Jesus is trying to show here what happens if we don’t love our neighbor and God. But the same truth can be conveyed by just saying that at the resurrection the rich man will be punished and Lazarus rewarded. So why not just say that, if we really are unconscious until the resurrection? Why would he describe this fictional existence after death if that’s not the truth?

There’s also Luke 20:38, where Jesus says God is "not God of the dead, but of the living; for all live to him.” In other words, people who die are not gone and dead, they are alive with God.

My favorite though is Phillipians 1:21-24:

For to me to live is Christ, and to die is gain. 22 If it is to be life in the flesh, that means fruitful labor for me. Yet which I shall choose I cannot tell. 23 I am hard pressed between the two. My desire is to depart and be with Christ, for that is far better. 24 But to remain in the flesh is more necessary on your account.

St. Paul says he wishes to die and be with the Lord. Not be unconscious. And notice he says this is far better than being alive. Being unconscious is not far better than being alive. This saying of Paul makes no sense if soul sleep is true.

thank you for the replies.

You know, I sometimes find it difficult to get into a discussion with somebody about scripture, because I am afraid I might say something wrong! In my heart I feel the meaning (or A meaning?), but then when I must state what I mean I get really insecure, because I would not say something wrong about what the Church teaches.

Even now after reading this on the forum, and the replies that really helped me (thank you again for all the explanations)… suddenly I wonder, if I am not sure if those who replied are theologioans, or better yet, that a priest said so… am I allowed to take it for “fact”?
(If I had thought about this, I may not even have asked here. But now thinking that might be scrupulosity kicking in, which I ave decided to kick out :)).

I mean, if for every faith discusion I have with somebody have to go ask a priest, then I’d start taking too much of their time again, as before…:blush::blush: Hmmm… not sure now. Just writing spontaneously. Sometime sof course it IS good to ask a priest.


Well in the Byzantine tradition when someone dies it is said they have “fallen asleep.” It even says that in the Liturgy.

“Remember, O Lord, your servant ______, who has fallen asleep.”

“Again we pray for the blessed and ever-memorable holy Orthodox patriarchs; and for the blessed and ever-memorable founders of this holy house; and for all our fathers and brethren, the Orthodox departed this life before us, who here and in all the world lie asleep in the Lord.”

I would also point out that in previous centuries the Catholic Church called the Assumption the Dormitio Mariae, or “falling asleep” of Mary. In fact you can still see paintings depecting her death, or falling asleep, all over old churches in Italy and Europe. That is still the name for the feast in the Byzantine tradition. The point being is death is ultimately destroyed. The tomb won’t hold any of us.

Sound’s like you friend is referring to the doctrine “Soul Sleep”.

No, he believed in the Communion of The Saints, same as Catholics do.

The idea of Sole Sleep is in the Jehovah’s Witness and Seventh Day Advent sects.

Hi Kathrin, We are only Catholics in the Pew like yourself. If you would like to be better equipped to discuss Catholic understanding of Sacred Scripture, listen to a few of these discussions from the EWTN radio show Called to Communion with David Anders.

Lazarus must have been dead tired. :rotfl:

No need to appeal to foreign rites and customs of “previous centuries.” Just look at the ordinary Roman Rite of the mass.

Meménto étiam, Dómine, famulórum famularúmque tuárum N . . . et N . . . qui nos præcessérunt cum signo fídei, et dórmiunt in somno pacis. Ipsis, Dómine, et ómnnibus in Christo quiescéntibus, locum refrigérii, lucis et pacis, ut indúlgeas, deprecámur. Per eúndem Christum Dóminum nostrum. Amen.

You might he surprised.

I wouldn’t worry about saying the wrong thing or feeling like you’re having to say “I don’t know” all the time. There’s nothing wrong with not having an answer right away. In fact, it actually shows that you are an honest person, and want to give the person asking you something the truth, and not just your opinion. Trust me, that will make more of an impression on a non-Catholic than if you were to always act like you know everything. :thumbsup:

Ha, Robyn, you may be right :).

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