When believers die and “have fallen asleep in Christ” (1 Cor. 15: 18), does that mean that that they are utterly unaware of anything until the resurrection?
There are some who think so. Their arguments are largely based on the literality of the figure of sleep and what is said regarding death in the OT. For example: “For the living know that they shall die; but the dead know not anything” (Ecc. 9: 5) and “For in death there is no remembrance of thee; in Sheol who shall give thanks unto thee?” (Ps. 6: 5). Those who take this position appear to interpret the NT in the light of the OT instead of the other way round. However, many things in the OT are left unexplained, and it is a far safer course of interpretation to interpret the Old in the light of the New. Again, it is argued that the figure of sleep, used to describe the state of death, the “unclothed” condition (2 Cor. 5: 4), must be given its full force. Such argue that to be asleep is to be unconscious, and that therefore a person in the sleep of death is also unconscious of anything. This is not correct. A person who is asleep has a reduced level of awareness, but he is not without it altogether. For example, God has often spoken to men in dreams. Thus I read “an angel of [the] Lord appears in a dream to Joseph, saying, Arise, take to [thee] the little child and his mother, and flee into Egypt, and be there until I shall tell thee; for Herod will week the little child to destroy it” (Matt. 2: 13). Joseph was clearly aware of what the angel had said to him while asleep for he acted on his dream when he awoke.
Many of the NT Scriptures that bear on this matter such as Luke 16: 19–31 and 2 Cor. 5: 1–10 are areas of controversy and some such as Phil. 1: 21–26 also involve differences of opinion on the sense of the Greek text. In order to answer the question therefore, I will take a single Scripture in which the sense of the text is abundantly clear and beyond controversy, and base my argument entirely on it.
In 2 Cor. 12: 1–4 Paul recounts an incident in which he describes himself abstractly as “a man in Christ” who was “caught up to [the] third heaven” and “into paradise, and heard unspeakable things said which it is not allowed to man to utter”. Now clearly, in that state, whatever it was, he was conscious for he “heard … things”. This is my first point. As to his actual state he says “whether in [the] body I know not, or out of the body I know not, God knows” (v2). He was completely ignorant as to the state he was in. This is the second point. Now this pronouncement as to Paul’s state is given not once, but twice (see v3). If the Bible says a thing once, we must of course pay attention to it; if a thing is said twice then we must pay particular attention to it. Thus Paul’s ignorance of his state is stressed and we must take careful note of it. He did not know whether he was in the body or out of the body—in essence, whether he was alive or dead.
However, in sharp contrast, writing earlier in the same epistle, the same writer, Paul introduces the subject of the unclothed state of the believer with the words “For we know” (2 Cor. 5: 1, my emphasis). Not only did Paul know exactly what was entailed in being “unclothed” (2 Cor. 5: 4), the state of a person in death before resurrection, but it was common knowledge—he says “we know” (v1, my emphasis). This is my point number three. Now bearing these three points in mind, let us make a premise and suppose for the moment that it was Paul’s understanding that in death a person knows nothing. Our premise then is that Paul believed and taught that the state of death involved a person being entirely unconscious, having no awareness whatsoever. How then, I ask, could he have written that twice repeated statement in 2 Cor. 12 that he didn’t know what state he was in? For when he was caught up to the third heaven and into paradise, he was conscious and he did hear things and was clearly fully aware of his surroundings. How could he then say “whether in [the] body I know not, or out of the body I know not, God knows” (v2)? How could he claim that he did not know whether he was in the body, and thus alive, or out of the body and thus in death? The answer is that he could never have written that statement if the premise I proposed is correct. It would be obvious to him what state he was in! But the fact is that he did write that twice repeated statement of v2. Hence the premise is wrong and Paul well knew that “being with Christ” (Phil. 1: 23) does not describe an unconscious state. Thus 2 Cor. 12 indirectly tells us that in death a person is conscious. Yes, the believer may know nothing further of this world, the scene in which his body still lies waiting the resurrection, but his spirit is with Christ (see Acts 7: 59) and in the conscious enjoyment of His company.