Is It True the Bible Teaches That After We Die We Will Enter a 'Soul Sleep'?

Question from a reader:

Is it true the Bible teaches that after we die we will enter a “soul sleep”? Ecclesiastes 12:7 says the spirit returns to God. If there were no soul sleep wouldn’t that verse say the spirit goes straight to Heaven or Hell?

Answer from Julia (Stager) Mayo:

Thank you for your concern regarding Heaven and holding us accountable to what the Bible teaches. Allow me to respond to your concern. First, in response to your question regarding Randy’s article Do We Remain Conscious After Death? Randy cites Ecclesiastes 12:7 as a refutation to the theory of soul sleep. The verse states, as you say, “the spirit returns to God”. Randy’s point here is that this verse indicates there is no interim period. If there were a time of soul sleep the spirit would not be returning to God directly.

The Biblical doctrine of the afterlife develops through the entire Bible (As God revealed more of his Word to humanity, we learn more about what life is after we die). Therefore by understanding what has been revealed in all of Scripture we can have a more complete and confident understanding of Heaven and Hell. Since Jesus has come and spoken concretely about Hell, we can take Him at his word (who more so?). For more on this you can read these articles (some by Randy and some by other respected theologians).

It’s important to distinguish the Jewish concept of afterlife (as presented in the Old Testament) and the Christian concept of the afterlife (as presented by Jesus and in the New Testament in concert with the Old Testament). Sheol was seen traditionally as a place where all souls go to await judgment (whether sheol held souls consciously or unconsciously is not applicable to those living under the New Covenant, which is us). Under the New Covenant there is no need for sheol because we are judged at the time of death.

In Randy’s words, “Sheol is not hell; to the Hebrew mind it is death; a place where the soul waits for resurrection and judgment.”

Julia (Stager) Mayo holds a Master of Arts in Biblical and Theological Studies from Western Seminary. She was previously part of the Eternal Perspective Ministries staff, and still does occasional research work for Randy Alcorn.