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The Comfort of “Soul Sleep”

Eugène Carrière Sleep - 1897

In December 2019 my father drew his last breath and I took comfort in knowing that he was not in heaven watching over my family and me. As he voiced before passing, heaven would not be peaceful if he was forced to watch us face life’s challenges unable to intervene. 

One of the tenets that sets the Seventh-day Adventist Church apart from most other Christian denominations is its Fundamental Belief about the state of the dead. This week’s Sabbath school lesson discusses the dangers of spiritualism:the idea that the spirits of people who died can communicate with the living. 

This was not the first time my father died. As he was returning from work in 1984, he fell asleep driving around 70 miles per hour when he arrived at an infamously dangerous curve nicknamed “dead man’s turn.” He had not buckled his seat belt causing his head to break through the windshield, hit a pole, and split open. The car slid up the pole at a 90-degree angle before slamming back to the ground resulting in my dad’s head returning back through the glass into the vehicle.

An off-duty paramedic witnessed the crash and rushed to my father’s aid to find no pulse or signs of life. Refusing to give up he began CPR and successfully brought my dad back to consciousness. Over 24-hours later a CT scan revealed my father’s broken neck and he was required to wear a halo-vest for six months to stabilize it.

I will never forget how he looked when we came to visit him in the hospital once he was responsive. As we all huddled in his room one of my siblings asked him jokingly, “Dad, what was it like to die?” 

Here was a human who crossed the mysterious threshold of life and death and returned to tell us about it! We all leaned forward in anticipation for his answer. “It was like a blink. I was conscious and awake driving, and then the next thing I remember I was in the hospital.” He told us it was like those nights when you sleep so deep that you do not remember the night at all, but rather close your eyes for a second and suddenly it is morning with no memory of what took place in between. I was hoping for an exciting glimpse into heaven, so his response was somewhat disappointing. But there was relief in knowing that death is just a blink for the person who passes, without a concept of the time lost. 

Although colloquially called “soul sleep, the official term in Adventist belief number 26 (Death and Resurrection) regarding the state of the dead is an “unconscious state.” Examples of it can be found throughout the Bible. For example, when looking at the story of Lazarus rising from the dead (John 11, NKJV), would it not be cruel to interrupt Lazarus’s perfect state in heaven by bringing him back to life to return to this corrupt earth, only to die again later? 

Additionally, the story of Jesus’s resurrection helps prove the Adventist idea of soul sleep.When Jesus met Mary at his tomb before the other disciples saw him, at first, she thought he was the gardener and wondered where his body was hidden. But when he called her name she recognized him and began to worship. Jesus then said to her, “Don’t cling to me, for I haven’t yet ascended to my Father” (John 20:17, NKJV).

 If anyone was worthy of going to heaven when they died, it would have been Jesus, the only perfect person. Yet, he did not go to heaven upon death  but instead rested until he was resurrected. If people go to heaven when they die, why have the second coming? 

Thinking loved ones are in heaven looking down can often ease the pain of grief for many. However, it seems that a conscious soul in heaven would experience many painful emotions while observing the realities on earth. We do not need our loved ones watching over us because God not only does this, but lives in and through us.

Although I miss my dad, I am grateful that he is no longer suffering on this earth or in heaven powerlessly witnessing from afar. In the words of my father, it is just a blink. 

Image: Eugène Carrière, “Sleep,” 1897. National Gallery of Art.

About the author

Krystalynn Westbrook-Martin is the former vice principal for spiritual life at Auburn Adventist Academy. She has served as a minister, teacher, and administrator in the Seventh-day Adventist Church for over two decades. She is currently completing a PhD in Transformative Social Change, with an emphasis in Peace and Justice Studies. More from Krystalynn Westbrook-Martin.
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