Although the subjects of soul sleep, universalism, and annihilationism are somewhat similar, we will address the former separately for clarity’s sake.
Soul sleep is this false idea that when people die (both believers and unbelievers), they remain in a state of slumber until the resurrection (the second advent for believers and the great white throne for unbelievers). In other words, no unbelievers are suffering in Hell or believers enjoying fellowship with God in the third heaven. Those who reject what the Bible actually says about this do so out of a desire to force their theology into Scripture by twisting the text and ignoring all the clear passages. This pattern is the blueprint of all false teaching, so this should not surprise the reader. When a person desires to see something in the context, they will do whatever they have to to get whatever they want out of the text. Then, once they have convinced themselves that it is true, they will go to great lengths to spread the lie.
Nevertheless, this is a relatively easy false teaching to refute with a simplistic and honest approach. The Bible speaks for itself, and if there are any seeming contradictions, it is not because the writers or God got it wrong. Instead, it always comes back on the reader who has either misinterpreted or misunderstood what they have read. That is why a good Spirit-led attitude is so critical in this process.
Some may view soul sleep as an understandable thing to believe in light of what some of the passages below say. It is easy to understand where adherents of this unbiblical teaching get their impression. But just because something is understandable does not make it right or justifiable. But before we continue, we will briefly describe what DOES occur to all upon death. When believers die, their previous physical bodies remain in the ground to rot and decay. But their spirits ascend to the third heaven to dwell within a temporary, interim body until the resurrection. Once Christ returns, the dead in Christ shall rise first; that is to say, their physical bodies will be brought back to life to receive a new eternal and heavenly body forever (1 Thessalonians 4:16-17). Once this occurs, the human spirit temporarily housed in the interim body will enter this new eternal one forever. The resurrection does not happen until Christ’s second advent upon His return to slaughter the armies of the Antichrist. Until then, only temporary abodes exist for all men (believers and unbelievers).
The true story of the rich man and Lazarus is not (as many have assumed) a parable. Nevertheless, it contains truths that bear much information to our present subject. A quick overview of this passage reveals that (before Christ’s death, burial, and resurrection), there were no believers in the third heaven. All those who died in the Lord before these events were sent to the temporary paradise below the earth known as Abraham’s bosom (the same paradise Jesus told the thief on the cross he would see Him in Luke 23:43). Ephesians 4:7-10 adds further weight to this when it tells us that He descended beneath to take captives into captivity to bring them out of the temporary paradise to the third heaven above. Again, this was not THE resurrection or even a resurrection at all. It was a transferring of all the dead in Christ to the third heaven into an interim, temporary body. Since the bodies these believers possess will not remain forever, this could not have been the resurrection spoken of throughout the New Testament. This was only a provisional adjustment meant to last until that time.
19 “There was a rich man who was dressed in purple and fine linen and lived in luxury every day. 20 At his gate was laid a beggar named Lazarus, covered with sores 21 and longing to eat what fell from the rich man’s table. Even the dogs came and licked his sores.22 “The time came when the beggar died and the angels carried him to Abraham’s side. The rich man also died and was buried. 23 In Hades, where he was in torment, he looked up and saw Abraham far away, with Lazarus by his side. 24 So he called to him, ‘Father Abraham, have pity on me and send Lazarus to dip the tip of his finger in water and cool my tongue, because I am in agony in this fire.’25 “But Abraham replied, ‘Son, remember that in your lifetime you received your good things, while Lazarus received bad things, but now he is comforted here and you are in agony. 26 And besides all this, between us and you a great chasm has been set in place, so that those who want to go from here to you cannot, nor can anyone cross over from there to us.’27 “He answered, ‘Then I beg you, father, send Lazarus to my family, 28 for I have five brothers. Let him warn them, so that they will not also come to this place of torment.’29 “Abraham replied, ‘They have Moses and the Prophets; let them listen to them.’30 “‘No, father Abraham,’ he said, ‘but if someone from the dead goes to them, they will repent.’31 “He said to him, ‘If they do not listen to Moses and the Prophets, they will not be convinced even if someone rises from the dead.’”
It is not uncommon to hear some claim that Christ descended to hell to suffer torment for three days. But this is not supported by any Scripture anywhere. Instead, the verses on this subject tell us where He went and why He descended where He did. The first reason Christ went below the earth was to collect all deceased believers to bring them out of Abraham’s bosom to the third heaven above (something we just saw in Ephesians 4:7-10). The second reason was to proclaim His death to all the imprisoned fallen angels responsible for the satanic attack resulting in the Nephilim in Genesis 6 (when angels came down and cohabited with human women to pollute the bloodline of the coming Messiah). We present the passages that confirm this below.
18 For Christ also suffered once for sins, the just for the unjust, that He might bring us to God, being put to death in the flesh but made alive by the Spirit, 19 by whom also He went and preached to the spirits in prison, 20 who formerly were disobedient, when once the Divine longsuffering waited in the days of Noah, while the ark was being prepared, in which a few, that is, eight souls, were saved through water.
4 For if God did not spare angels when they sinned, but sent them to hell, putting them in chains of darkness to be held for judgment; 5 if he did not spare the ancient world when he brought the flood on its ungodly people, but protected Noah, a preacher of righteousness, and seven others;
6 And the angels who did not stay within their own position of authority, but left their proper dwelling, he has kept in eternal chains under gloomy darkness until the judgment of the great day— 7 just as Sodom and Gomorrah and the surrounding cities, which likewise indulged in sexual immorality and pursued unnatural desire, serve as an example by undergoing a punishment of eternal fire.
Although Jude 1:6-7 does state that God left these disobedient fallen angels in eternal chains until the judgment, Revelation 9:1-12 indicates they will be temporarily released during the tribulation as a part of the fifth trumpet judgment to torment unbelieving humanity.
To resume our discussion of soul sleep, below are a few (out of many) typical verses used by supporters of this teaching.
2 Multitudes who sleep in the dust of the earth will awake: some to everlasting life, others to shame and everlasting contempt.
17 It is not the dead who praise the Lord, those who go down to the place of silence;
5 For in death there is no remembrance of you; in Sheol who will give you praise?
50 And Jesus cried out again with a loud voice and yielded up his spirit. 51 And behold, the curtain of the temple was torn in two, from top to bottom. And the earth shook, and the rocks were split. 52 The tombs also were opened. And many bodies of the saints who had fallen asleep were raised, 53 and coming out of the tombs after his resurrection they went into the holy city and appeared to many.
We could have included a host of other passages similar to the ones above. The word sleep does not refer to literal sleep but is used figuratively because the deceased body is motionless as it appears to be in a state of rest. We already know about the interim body of the dead believer before the resurrection. But the unbeliever goes directly to Hell upon death (as the story of the rich man and Lazarus shows clearly). Hell is temporary and the place of torment that contains all of unbelieving humanity since Adam and Eve’s time.
All the passages that mention the dead being unable to praise the Lord because of silence should not be understood to mean that these individuals are in some sleeping, neutral state. People in Hell cannot praise the Lord since He cannot fellowship with them in such a terrible place (and because they hated and rejected Him). And during the pre-cross period, believers were not present in the third heaven because Christ had not yet died and risen to the Father. Yes, believers are worshiping God in the third heaven presently. But David was referring to singing praise to the Lord while physically present on the earth. He was not saying anything about the believer or unbeliever going into a dormant stage. And Mathew 27:50-53 involves a large-scale example of “resuscitation,” not resurrection. These believers were brought back to life as part of God’s plan to help demonstrate the effectiveness of His physical and spiritual death on the cross. Why they, in particular, were selected, only God knows. But (as with the raising of Lazarus John 11 and the young girl Mark 5), these were not instances of resurrection (we could also ask why Jesus chose to raise them specifically). Martha confirms this in John 11:24b when she says, “I know that he (Lazarus) will rise again in the resurrection on the last day.” That last day will occur at the return of Christ. She knew the resurrection was yet future but was unaware that Lazarus would be resuscitated only moments later. This was still a surprise to her but not a contradiction to what she had said. Yes, this man (along with the young girl in Mark 5) died physically. But, instead of going into soul sleep, they were temporarily housed in Abraham’s bosom. The reason for these resuscitations mentioned in the gospels (and during the transitional period of Acts) was that those seeing those works would believe in Jesus. In the apostle’s case, the signs, wonders, and miracles they performed helped confirm their authority and the message they preached. So all those brought back to life were predestined by our Lord for that very purpose. It was true that our Lord’s (and the apostle’s) words were what was truly important. But the miracles still carried great weight in and of themselves.
37 Do not believe me unless I do the works of my Father. 38 But if I do them, even though you do not believe me, believe the works, that you may know and understand that the Father is in me, and I in the Father.”
10 Do you not believe that I am in the Father and the Father is in me? The words that I say to you I do not speak on my own authority, but the Father who dwells in me does his works. 11 Believe me that I am in the Father and the Father is in me, or else believe on account of the works themselves.
The Bible never contradicts itself. So this means that the passages used in support of soul sleep and those used to debunk it in no way contradict each other. The former are misunderstood, and the latter are twisted. All of these verses harmonize with each other when properly understood. The passages below could not be clearer in proving that (upon death) people ascend or descend to either Hell or the third heaven immediately. There is no such thing as soul sleep.
For we know that if the earthly tent we live in is destroyed, we have a building from God, an eternal house in heaven, not built by human hands. 2 Meanwhile we groan, longing to be clothed instead with our heavenly dwelling, 3 because when we are clothed, we will not be found naked. 4 For while we are in this tent, we groan and are burdened, because we do not wish to be unclothed but to be clothed instead with our heavenly dwelling, so that what is mortal may be swallowed up by life.
39 One of the criminals who were hanged railed at him, saying, “Are you not the Christ? Save yourself and us!” 40 But the other rebuked him, saying, “Do you not fear God, since you are under the same sentence of condemnation? 41 And we indeed justly, for we are receiving the due reward of our deeds; but this man has done nothing wrong.” 42 And he said, “Jesus, remember me when you come into your kingdom.” 43 And he said to him, “Truly, I say to you, today you will be with me in paradise.”
6 So we are always of good courage. We know that while we are at home in the body we are away from the Lord, 7 for we walk by faith, not by sight. 8 Yes, we are of good courage, and we would rather be away from the body and at home with the Lord.
21 For to me, to live is Christ and to die is gain. 22 If I am to go on living in the body, this will mean fruitful labor for me. Yet what shall I choose? I do not know! 23 I am torn between the two: I desire to depart and be with Christ, which is better by far; 24 but it is more necessary for you that I remain in the body.
Regarding this last passage above, there is no way Paul could have said what He said with full knowledge that He would have to wait until the resurrection to be with Christ. The argument that soul sleep is peaceful and better than suffering on earth doesn’t change the fact that Paul was speaking of going home to be with Christ immediately. If he were here in our presence and we asked him about this, what kind of an answer do we honestly think we would receive?
Universalism and Annihilationism
There may be variations and differences in universalists’ beliefs (we will address annihilationism further below). Regardless of the variations, they are all false. Generally speaking, it is the belief that the lake of fire is not eternal and that God will reconcile all men to Himself. So the reasoning is that all people will be saved regardless of whether they trusted in Christ or not. Those who have not put their faith and trust in Jesus Christ will be temporarily punished in Hell or the lake of fire but will eventually be brought to heaven once they have “served their time.” Or so this is a variation of what some adherents to this false teaching may believe. Regardless of what all universalists think and how they wish to style themselves, we will show what the Bible teaches on this very matter.
Many people do not like the idea that most human beings will suffer eternal torment away from God forever. The typical question they ask is, “how could a loving God allow such a cruel punishment?” But that thinking stems from an unbelieving heart that wishes to paint a bad picture of the Creator, who is fair and just in everything He does. We will not attempt to combat the challenge that God is unfair (time and space do not permit). Our current topic concerns this false idea that all people will be saved. And what a terrible teaching that neutralizes man’s need for a Savior! This blasphemous notion is no better than saying that we technically do not need God (even if some universalists accept that believing in Jesus is something to be encouraged). Little do they realize (or more like stubbornly refuse to acknowledge) that the lake of fire that replaces hell will see no end.
God created man in response to the Satanic rebellion fostered by Lucifer (now Satan) before the destruction and re-creation of the earth (the Genesis gap). So God created man to replace what was lost (a third of the angelic kind that chose to follow the Devil). The whole point of human existence is to choose either for or against God. But some people do not like the idea of God sending people to the lake of fire. But we know that it isn’t God who forces us how to respond. Instead, every person chooses where they wish to spend eternity because the Lord has graciously endowed us all with the free will to decide which path we want to select. There are no alternatives and no end of life after death (despite what annihilationists wish to believe).
Nevertheless, the best way to refute such claims as universalism or annihilationism is to examine what the Bible says of the matter. We will attempt to survey some of the most substantial passages that confirm that some (most actually) people will spend eternity away from God (in response to universalism) and, therefore, live on forever (in response to annihilationism). There is not one passage biblical passage that supports either of these beliefs. If they are based on Scripture, then they must be present within it. But such is not the case. Fancy arguments and good rhetoric will not change the truth of this matter. It is common for those who wish to defend lies to use whatever they can to convince and manipulate those they engage with. But the truth needs neither of these two things and remains the same no matter how it is attacked (think of throwing a paper airplane at a brick wall).
It is hard to imagine anyone can believe the Bible while rejecting the consequences of unbelief (while asserting that all roads lead to heaven in some cases). Why would anyone need to believe in Jesus Christ if they all got a free ticket to heaven? All the warning passages of the Bible would be pointless. A tremendous amount of God’s Word would ultimately be meaningless if all people went to Heaven because the Bible has doctrines, exhortations, encouragements, warnings, and lessons for a reason, not so that we can ignore them! No, these dangerous lies are so obviously wrong that there are so many arguments and passages that can be leveled against them. We will address verses that confirm the obvious below (this list will be far from complete and comprehensive).
4 Therefore, among God’s churches we boast about your perseverance and faith in all the persecutions and trials you are enduring.5 All this is evidence that God’s judgment is right, and as a result you will be counted worthy of the kingdom of God, for which you are suffering. 6 God is just: He will pay back trouble to those who trouble you 7 and give relief to you who are troubled, and to us as well. This will happen when the Lord Jesus is revealed from heaven in blazing fire with his powerful angels. 8 He will punish those who do not know God and do not obey the gospel of our Lord Jesus. 9 They will be punished with everlasting destruction and shut out from the presence of the Lord and from the glory of his might 10 on the day he comes to be glorified in his holy people and to be marveled at among all those who have believed. This includes you, because you believed our testimony to you.
Entrance into the eternal kingdom requires us to be worthy of it through faith (an opportunity only made possible by the blood of the Lamb). But although Christ set us free from the power of sin and death by granting us a way out of it through His sacrifice on the cross, we must still choose to accept this gracious offer through faith. There is no further necessity to prove that faith is required because that is written everywhere in the Bible, from Genesis to Revelation. This passage, in particular (above), could not be more straightforward: eternal punishment awaits those who refuse God’s offer of redemption. And our passage tells us that God is just, meaning that He will repay all men according to their works (whether done in belief or unbelief). What else could everlasting destruction mean? It means what it means whether read in Greek or English. This is not a textual, grammatical, or linguistic issue; these passages could not be more clear.
41 “Then he will say to those on his left, ‘Depart from me, you cursed, into the eternal fire prepared for the devil and his angels.
Matthew 25:41 is a section taken from the parable of the sheep and the goats. Like so many other verses that reference this topic, it too shows us that the lake of fire is eternal since this parable describes the great white throne judgment for unbelievers.
9 And another angel, a third, followed them, saying with a loud voice, “If anyone worships the beast and its image and receives a mark on his forehead or on his hand, 10 he also will drink the wine of God’s wrath, poured full strength into the cup of his anger, and he will be tormented with fire and sulfur in the presence of the holy angels and in the presence of the Lamb. 11 And the smoke of their torment goes up forever and ever, and they have no rest, day or night, these worshipers of the beast and its image, and whoever receives the mark of its name.”12 Here is a call for the endurance of the saints, those who keep the commandments of God and their faith in Jesus.
The smoke, flames, and all the other terrible elements of the lake of fire will continue forever, showing that it will be the eternal abode for all unbelieving humanity. What else could forever and ever mean? Therefore, no universalism or annihilationism is present in this passage.
“At that time shall arise Michael, the great prince who has charge of your people. And there shall be a time of trouble, such as never has been since there was a nation till that time. But at that time your people shall be delivered, everyone whose name shall be found written in the book. 2 And many of those who sleep in the dust of the earth shall awake, some to everlasting life, and some to shame and everlasting contempt.
We know that the New Heaven and the New Earth will be eternal, a word the passage above uses (everlasting in this case). So why would the lake of fire only be temporary when the same word used to describe eternity is present for “contempt.” So everlasting means the same thing in both cases.
24 The Son of Man goes as it is written of him, but woe to that man by whom the Son of Man is betrayed! It would have been better for that man if he had not been born.”
Matthew 26:24 wouldn’t make any sense if annihilationism and universalism were correct. Why would it have been better for Judas Iscariot never to have been born if he was only going to end up spending eternity with God (universalism) or being completely annihilated after death (annihilationism)? It really would have been better never to have seen the light of day if Hell was all that awaited said person.
36 What good is it for someone to gain the whole world, yet forfeit their soul? 37 Or what can anyone give in exchange for their soul? 38 If anyone is ashamed of me and my words in this adulterous and sinful generation, the Son of Man will be ashamed of them when he comes in his Father’s glory with the holy angels.”