Why does the Bible refer to being “asleep” instead of “dead” for the believers who have died?


I had a discussion with some orthodox Christians about the subject of death. They claimed that the dead to whom they pray are not actually dead but instead they are “asleep”. Then, when it comes to resurrection, they claim that God will resurrect the dead. I explained to them that only people who are alive can pray to God, not dead saints who are friends with Jesus Christ. Please help me clarify this subject. When does death mean “dead” and when does death mean “asleep”? The subject of our discussion was praying to the dead saints who in turn intercede for us with God in prayer. Thank you.

In order to understand this subject, we need to get a good definition of the Greek word that is translated “asleep”. The Greek word is “koimontai” (κοιμωνται ) and is found 18 different times in the New Testament. This word means “to sleep, to be asleep” and is a figure of speech used to transmit the idea that a person has died, physically. Even though it is used 18 times in the New Testament, only 3 of those times refer to physical sleep. Here are the 3 which refer to physical sleep.

And as they were going, behold, some of the guard came into the city and declared all the things that were done to the chief priests. And being assembled with the elders, and taking counsel, they gave enough silver to the soldiers, saying, Say that His disciples came by night and stole Him away while we slept (koimontai). And if this comes to the governor’s ears, we will persuade him and make you free from care. And taking the silver, they did as they were taught. And this saying was spread among the Jews until today. (Matthew 28:11-15)

The second reference to physical sleep is found while Jesus is praying in the garden of Gethsemane, just before going to the cross.

And when He rose up from prayer and had come to His disciples, He found them sleeping (koimontai) because of sorrow. (Luke 22:45)

We find the word one more time, in the Acts of the Apostles, when the angel comes to free the believers from prison.

And when Herod was about to bring him out, the same night Peter was sleeping (koimontai) between two soldiers, bound with two chains. Also guards were keeping the prison before the door. (Acts 12:6)

The other 15 references of the word “κοιμωνται ” in the New Testament are figures of speech and they all refer to physical death.  I want to invite you to take a tour with me through these passages and see what we can learn about physical death “being asleep”.

And, behold! The veil of the temple was torn in two from top to bottom. And the earth quaked, and the rocks were sheared, and the tombs were opened, and many bodies of the saints who had fallen asleep (koimontai) arose, and coming out of the tomb after His resurrection they went into the holy city and appeared to many. (Matthew 27:51-53)

We see that being “asleep” here refers to the saints who were dead and in the grave yet they came out once Jesus died on the cross. The next reference gives even more clarity to the fact that being “asleep” refers to being dead. This is the resurrection of Lazarus.

He said these things; and after that He said to them, Our friend Lazarus sleeps (koimontai). But I go so that I may awaken him out of sleep (koimontai). Then His disciples said, Lord, if he sleeps, he will get well. But Jesus spoke of his death, but they thought that He had spoken of taking rest in sleep. Then Jesus said to them plainly, Lazarus is dead. (John 11:11-14)

The first reference of “sleep” used by Jesus refers to Lazarus being physically dead. The disciples response to this was “sleep” in the physical sense of the word and not the figure of speech. Jesus clearly explains later by saying that Lazarus being “asleep” means that he is dead, physically.

The first ever Christian martyr, Saint Stephen, was stoned to death and the word used for his physical death is “sleep” or “asleep”.

And kneeling down, he cried with a loud voice, Lord, do not lay this sin to their charge. And when he had said this, he fell asleep (koimontai). (Acts 7:60)

The next passage to analyze is also in Acts and we see the word “koimontai” used once again.

For after he had served his own generation by the will of God, David fell asleep (koimontai) and was added to his fathers and saw corruption. (Acts 13:36)

From the context it is easy to tell that this is physical death because it says that David, while he “slept” experienced decay (corruption in the text). This same word is used 6 times in I Corinthians, Paul’s epistle to the church in Corinth. Each reference has in mind physical death.The first case is when a Christian woman’s husband dies, she is able to remarry in the Lord.

The wife is bound by the law as long as her husband lives, but if her husband sleeps (koimontai) in death, she is at liberty to be remarried to whom she will, only in the Lord. (I Corinthians 7:39)

The next reference is for Christians who are in the New Covenant yet are not faithful to the Covenant, living in sin and taking the Lord’s Supper in an unworthy manner. They are saints because they were sanctified by the blood of Jesus Christ when they entered into the New Covenant. If they continue to live in sin and do not come to their senses, then they will be punished by God with, weakness, sickness, and finally physical death, or as the text says, they will be “asleep” (koimontai).

For this cause many among you are weak and sickly, and many sleep (koimontai). (I Corinthians 11:30)

Our next passage is First Corinthians 15, where Paul’s dedicates an entire chapter to the resurrection of the saints from the dead. The word “sleep” or “asleep” is used only in view of Christians who entered the New Covenant and then died in Christ. When Paul speaks of Jesus showing Himself to the brethren (believers who entered the New Covenant) after His death, burial, and resurrection, he says that some of them who saw Him, are now asleep (physical death).

Afterward He was seen by over five hundred brothers at once, of whom the greater part remain until this present day, but also some fell asleep (koimontai). (I Corinthians 15:6)

The next reference is of those who placed their faith in Christ and then later died physically. They had hope that Jesus would resurrect their bodies.

And if Christ is not raised, your faith is foolish; you are yet in your sins. Then also those that fell asleep (koimontai) in Christ were lost. If in this life only we have hope in Christ, we are of all men most miserable. But now Christ has risen from the dead, and has become the firstfruit of those who slept (koimontai). (I Corinthians 15:17-20)

The next text refers to Jesus’ coming to take the believers. There some believers who are “asleep” and they will be resurrected fist. Those who remain alive when Christ returns will be transformed without experiencing physical death.

Behold, I speak a mystery to you; we shall not all fall asleep (koimontai), but we shall all be changed; (I Corinthians 15:51)

The final text that we will analyze is First Thessalonians where Paul uses the word “sleep” or “asleep” twice.

But I would not have you ignorant, brothers, concerning those who are asleep (koimontai), that you be not grieved, even as others who have no hope. For if we believe that Jesus died and rose again, even so God will also bring with Him all those who have fallen asleep (koimontai) through Jesus. For we say this to you by the Word of the Lord, that we who are alive and remain until the coming of the Lord shall not go before those who are asleep. For the Lord Himself shall 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. 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 so we shall ever be with the Lord. (I Thessalonians 4:13-17)

The text is clear, those who are asleep are dead. They were believers in Jesus Christ during life. Verse 16 says that those who are asleep are “dead in Christ”. Or in other words, they were saints during life because they were followers of Christ, under the New Covenant.

All of the passages that we have analyzed that deal with death using the figure of speech “asleep”, refer to the physical death of the saints, people who followed Christ during their lifetimes by entering the New Covenant. This figure of speech was purposely used to show the difference between death for believers (who sleep) compared to death for nonbelievers who are in Hades (the place of the dead) where there is much suffering as they await the final day of judgment when they will be condemned to eternity in the lake of fire.

None of the above mentioned text give any evidence that the saints who died in Christ are able to pray for the living here and now.  Praying to the saints is not a Biblical practice. No one in the First Church prayed to the saints, neither the church members nor the Apostles. May the Lord help us to stay strong in the faith that was handed down once for all by Jesus Christ. Help us never to add to or take away from the message of the Bible but instead to live out the truths that we have been given from the Lord.

Translation by: Erik Brewer