What Happens to Us When We Die?
I would like to float something out to you folks. Several times, in the past few months, I’ve bumped into comments from folks talking about what happens after we die that are confusing, misleading, and doctrinally vague. In one case, a person teaching a Bible class offended it deeply when he left them with the impression that at death our souls are asleep and are unaware of being with the Lord, until the Day of Resurrection. I understand the need to teach what “the Resurrection of all flesh” is all about, and that in our zeal to comfort those who mourn, we not give the impression that their loved one is just kind of “translated,” body and soul, to heaven and that the Resurrection is but an afterthought, but it has seemed to me, again, lately, via several comments I’ve read here and there, that it seems some are under the impression that the Scriptures teach a kind of “soul sleep.” Has anyone else heard this? Where do you think it is coming from?
Here is why we Lutherans absolutely reject and condemn any notion that at death our souls are “asleep” and unaware of heaven until the Day of Resurrection. This is how Francis Pieper handles this issue in his Christian Dogmatics, [also available in a digital edition] which remains to this day one of the very finest explanations of Lutheran theology available in English. If it is not required reading of all who aspire to the office of the ministry, it surely should be. This is from Volume 3, p. 511 and following:
The State of Souls Between Death and Resurrection
Holy Writ reveals but little of the state of the souls between death and the resurrection. In speaking of the last things, it directs our gaze primarily to Judgment Day and the events clustering around it. With their coming to faith, the blessedness of the Corinthians was complete except for the bliss awaiting them at “the coming of our Lord Jesus Christ” on Judgment Day (1 Cor. 1:7). And with Paul the Philippians and all Christians confess: “We look for the Savior, the Lord Jesus Christ, who shall change our vile body” (Phil. 3:20–21). See also Col. 3:4; 1 Thess. 4:13 ff.; 2 Tim. 4:7–9; Titus 2:13. Great significance the Day of Judgment and its sequels have also for unbelievers. They “shall be punished with everlasting destruction from the presence of the Lord and from the glory of His power when He shall come” (2 Thess. 1:9–10). But what meanwhile becomes of the soul? What is the state of the souls between death and the resurrection?
Of the souls of the unbelievers (ἀπειθήσαντες) Scripture declares that they are kept ἐν φυλακῇ, “in prison,” a place of punishment [Vol. 3, Page 512] (1 Pet. 3:19–20).16 Of the souls of the believers we are told not merely in general that they are in God’s hand (Acts 7:59; Luke 23:46), but also in particular that they dwell with Christ and in Paradise, Phil. 1:23; “I have a desire to depart and to be with Christ; which is far better.” (Luke 23:43)17 The “being with Christ” or “in Paradise” of the departed believing souls must certainly be an augmentation of the communion with Christ which Christians enjoy here on earth, because Paul adds: “which is far better,” πολλῷ μᾶλλον κρεῖσσον, better than his communion with Christ here on earth. Moreover, the life “in Paradise,” which Christ promised the soul of the believing malefactor, certainly bespeaks a blissful state of the soul after death.18 These texts surely make it evident that the departed souls of the believers are in a state of blessed enjoyment of God, even though we know nothing further as to the manner of their blessed communion with God. Deductions from the nature of the soul, e. g., that it cannot be inactive,19 are uncertain and therefore not to be urged in theology. A soul sleep which excludes a blessed enjoyment of God [psychopannychism]20 must be definitely rejected on the basis of Phil. 1:23 and Luke 23:43. A sleep of the soul which includes enjoyment of God (says Luther) cannot be called a false doctrine. …
Men have also dreamt of an intermediate body for departed souls. Kahnis reports: “Theologians (Schleiermacher) and philosophers (Fichte, Weisse, Goeschel) have come to the conviction that without a material foundation the survival of the soul is inconceivable” (Dogm., 2d ed., II, 522). This idea appeals to Kahnis himself. Likewise to Macpherson, who reasons: “It may fairly be assumed that during the period that elapses between the death of an individual and the coming of Christ, which brings with it the general resurrection, he wears a body suitable to his condition during that period, which in the resurrection to judgment is changed for that spiritual body which he will wear throughout eternity” (Christ. Dogm., 1898, p. 453). He adds: “Schleiermacher, in particular, has dwelt upon the impossibility of our conceiving or imagining a human spirit unassociated with a body.” But this idea of an intermediate body is foreign to Scripture. [Vol. 3, Page 515] Schleiermacher’s inability to conceive of a human spirit unassociated with a body does not warrant the adoption of this notion. Schleiermacher would not have had to worry about a bodiless soul had he borne in mind that there is a personal and omnipotent Spirit, fully able to keep a soul in existence without its body.
Before leaving the subject of the souls of the departed, we record the following facts: 1. Departed souls do not return to this world. This is a standing rule and divine arrangement (Luke 16:27–31). Moses and Elias, who appeared on the Mount of Transfiguration and spoke with Christ (Matt. 17:3), are to be counted with the risen.26a 2. There is no Scripture warrant for attributing to the souls of the departed a direct knowledge of particular things and happenings on earth (Is. 63:16: “though Abraham be ignorant of us, and Israel acknowledge us not”). To invoke the departed saints for their intercession and help, as Rome enjoins,26b is not only idolatry, but also folly.27 3. Scripture offers no hope for the conversion of departed souls. Such wishful thinking rests entirely on human speculation. In 1 Pet. 3:18–19 a preaching of judgment, and not a preaching of the Gospel, is meant. See Vol. II, 315 f., for details.
Source: Francis Pieper, Christian Dogmatics, electronic ed., 3:511-515 (St. Louis: Concordia Publishing House, 1999, c1950, c1951, c1953).