A person who has trusted in the Lord Jesus Christ as his Savior goes immediately to heaven to be in the presence of the Lord. Though their body is in the grave and decomposes, their soul and spirit (the immaterial part, the real person) goes immediately into the presence of the Savior. At the rapture (the return of the Lord for the church) the dead in Christ return with Him and their bodies are raised so that their souls and spirits are joined with their resurrected, glorified bodies. At the same time, those who are alive when Christ returns are simply transformed into their glorified bodies like that of the Savior’s. There is no intermediate place or condition of soul sleep. Rather, believers are in heaven with the Lord and very much aware of His presence. Here are a few verses that illustrate this:
Phil. 1:21-23. “For to me, to live is Christ, and to die is gain. 22 But if I am to live on in the flesh, this will mean fruitful labor for me; and I do not know which to choose. 23 But I am hard-pressed from both directions, having the desire to depart and be with Christ, for that is very much better;”
When Paul wrote this, he was imprisoned in his own apartment, chained daily to a Roman soldier while waiting for his trial with the very real the possibility he would be put to death. Though he was confident of deliverance from physical death at this time, he was also confident that to die meant to be with Christ which he declared to be far better, a statement which hardly fits with the concept of “soul sleep.”
2 Cor. 5:6-8. “Therefore, being always of good courage, and knowing that while we are at home in the body we are absent from the Lord, 7 for we walk by faith, not by sight, 8 we are of good courage, I say, and prefer rather to be absent from the body and to be at home with the Lord.”
In this passage, the Apostle Paul specifically tells us that to absent from the body (a reference to physical death), not only meant to be in the presence of the Lord, but it was like going home. See also John 14:1f, and 12:26.
1 Thess. 4:13-18. 13 But we do not want you to be uninformed, brethren, about those who are asleep, that you may not grieve, as do the rest who have no hope. 14 For if we believe that Jesus died and rose again, even so God will bring with Him those who have fallen asleep in Jesus. 15 For this we say to you by the word of the Lord, that we who are alive, and remain until the coming of the Lord, shall not precede those who have fallen asleep. 16 For the Lord Himself will descend from heaven with a shout, with the voice of the archangel, and with the trumpet of God; and the dead in Christ shall rise first. 17 Then we who are alive and remain shall be caught up together with them in the clouds to meet the Lord in the air, and thus we shall always be with the Lord. 18 Therefore comfort one another with these words.
The reference to “sleep” in this passage is a metaphor for death which compares one thing (physical death) to another (sleep). It is used of believers because for us, death is somewhat like sleep. The use of the word “sleep” for death is used only of believes in the New Testament. The aim of this metaphor is to suggest what death is like and means to the believer, but this must be understood in the light of all of Scripture:
(1) As the sleeper does not cease to exist while his body sleeps, so the dead person continues to exist. The grave is like a bed for the body.
(2) As the immaterial part of man when asleep is still functioning to some degree in that he dreams and his sub-conscious is still at work, so likewise the believer’s soul and spirit are awake and enjoying the presence of God.
(3) As sleep is temporary, so also is the death of the body. Sleep is a figure of speech for death and anticipates resurrection but it is not meant to suggest soul sleep. This is evident from the above verses, Phil. 1:23 and 2 Cor. 5:8.
The verb “to sleep,” koimao, is used of both natural sleep (Matt. 28:13; Luke 22:45; Acts 12:6), and of death, but only of the death of the Christian (here in vss. 13, 14, 15; Matt. 27:52; Jn. 11:11; 1 Cor. 7:39; 11:30; 15:6, 18, 51; 2 Pe. 3:4). In 1 Thess. 5, the word used for sleep is a different Greek word and in the context refers, not to physical death, but to spiritual and moral complacency.
In our section under “Pastoral Helps” there is a funeral message entitled, “What Death Means to the Believer in Christ.” You might find that lesson helpful as well.