What Does Adventism Teach About the State of the Dead?
First, we will establish what the Adventist church teaches about the intermediate state of the dead between death and the second coming of Christ. While there may be some pockets of dissention from this view, in my experience, this teaching is one of the distinctive teachings in Adventism that is quite universally believed and accepted, along with belief in the current validity of keeping the seventh-day Sabbath (Saturday).
Adventist Fundamental Belief #26
“Death and Resurrection: The wages of sin is death. But God, who alone is immortal, will grant eternal life to His redeemed. Until that day death is an unconscious state for all people. When Christ, who is our life, appears, the resurrected righteous and the living righteous will be glorified and caught up to meet their Lord. The second resurrection, the resurrection of the unrighteous, will take place a thousand years later. (Rom. 6:23; 1 Tim. 6:15, 16; Eccl. 9:5, 6; Ps. 146:3, 4; John 11:11-14; Col. 3:4; 1 Cor. 15:51-54; 1 Thess. 4:13-17; John 5:28, 29; Rev. 20:1-10.)”
Let’s break that down into a clear statement. Doctrine #26 states that the body and the soul are indivisible. The body cannot exist without the soul, and the soul cannot exist without the body. They are inseparable and completely interdependent. So when a person dies, the breath - spark of life, or animating life force - is gone. The spirit and soul are nonexistent, except in the memory of God, until the resurrection. At that point, it is taught, God recreates the person with an immortal body and animates it with breath (which is considered to be “spirit”). He then invests the new body with the same mind and personality that the other body had, and the person comes to life. The blueprint of the person that has existed in the mind of God, since death, is put back into the person so that the same thoughts and personality are recreated.
Still describing Adventist theology, prior to the second coming of Christ (beginning in 1844): those who have already died come into judgment to decide if they will be lost or saved. Finally, the living will be judged, for the purpose of determining final destiny. This is known as the Investigative Judgment. When the fate of all who have ever lived is determined, probation will close, after which time, no one can change camps. Christ will then return to Earth, and the righteous dead will be raised in the first resurrection. Along with the righteous living, they will receive immortal bodies, and be invested with immortal souls (conditional immortality), then taken to Heaven. They will remain there with Christ for a thousand years, during which time they will join Christ in judging the wicked. During that time, the Earth will be desolate and populated only by Satan and his host.
At the end of the millennium the righteous will come back to Earth, along with the Holy City. At this point, the wicked are raised with their old bodies and will join with Satan and the evil angels. Together, they will surround the Holy City to attack and conquer it. But fire will come from God and destroy Satan, his host and lost humans utterly, and they will be nonexistent (annihilation). How long they are burned depends on how bad their sins were. “Hell” is a finite period of time based on level of sin. It comes to an end with the annihilation of all the wicked, including Satan and his host. The Earth will finally be cleansed and there will be no more wicked beings. There will be nothing left of them for the rest of eternity.
To Summarize Adventist beliefs on the state of the dead
(Did I say clear? I know. It’s complicated.) here is an outline:
1) The body and soul cannot exist independently.
2) The “spirit” that returns to God is just breath, an animating spark of life.
3) The person remains unconscious and unaware until the resurrection (soul sleep).
4) The first resurrection includes only the righteous.
5) At the Second Coming of Christ the righteous dead are raised and, along with the righteous living, are given immortal bodies (conditional immortality).
6) The immortal bodies are invested with the blueprint of thoughts, emotions, and personalities they had when they died.
7) They will be taken to Heaven for a thousand years and, along with Christ, will judge the wicked who are still dead.
8) The wicked are unconscious during this time. The earth is desolate and Satan and his evil angels are wandering the earth unable to deceive the nations.
9) At the end of the thousand years Christ, the redeemed and the Holy City will return to Earth.
10) The wicked will be raised with their old bodies.
11) The “evil hordes” will surround the Holy City and attempt to possess it.
12) Fire will come from God and utterly destroy Satan, his demons and wicked humans.
13) From this point forward they will cease to exist for all eternity (annihilation).
Origins of the Doctrine of Soul Sleep and Annihilation in Adventism
There are a number of related teachings that go by various names - some of which I can barely pronounce - including: psychopannychism, thnetopsychism, annihilationism, inclusionism, soul sleep, the state of the dead and conditional immortality. It’s interesting to know that there are only three groups of any note that hold to the notion of soul sleep. They are Seventh-day Adventists, Jehovah’s Witnesses and the well-renowned Christadelphians. Who? Annihilationism first appeared in the fourth century in a book from Arnobius of Sicca. It was condemned in the Second Council of Constantinople in 553. “In the 1800’s, the United States saw a minimal emergence of annihilationism, primarily in new fringe groups like the Jehovah’s Witnesses and Seventh-day Adventists.” Hell Under Fire, p.197. Morgan goes on to say that in addition to these groups, a number of liberal theologians have more recently embraced a belief in annihilation. The Mormons also believe in annihilation. Among the Mennonites who hailed from the Anabaptists there are a few adherents to annihilation along with some in the Church of Christ, and smatterings of liberal theologians.
How did the teaching of soul sleep and annihilation originate within Adventism? It actually came thru a Methodist preacher named George Storrs. In 1837 he read a tract written by one of his contemporaries, Deacon Henry Grew, from Pennsylvania. At the time, Grew was serving as a Baptist minister, but left when he began teaching soul sleep (also known as conditional immortality), since it contradicted Baptist belief and teaching.
Storrs was drawn to the teachings both of soul sleep and annihilation because he believed that it better reflected his conception of the mercy of God. He decided to write his own tract, followed by six published sermons in 1841. These were widely distributed in 200,000 tracts. It was after the publication of his teaching that Storrs joined with the Millerites, and became a preacher in that movement. He was very convincing and a number of Millerites were converted to his way of thinking.
Charles Taze Russell was one of those people. Russell had already become a follower of William Miller, and embraced his teaching that Jesus would return to Earth in 1844. When that event failed to happen, the Millerite movement splintered into various other Adventist groups. Russell also became a student of George Storrs’, and an Adventist. He eventually joined the editorial staff of the The Midnight Cry and Herald of the Morning, an Adventist publication devoted to the message of Christ's soon return. Because of disagreements with its editor, N. H. Barbour, he went from there to start the Watch Tower and subsequently the Jehovah’s Witnesses. It was in Russell’s new journal (then called Zion’s Watch Tower and Herald of Christ’s Presence), in 1879, that he reaffirmed his belief that the Millerite movement of 1844 began the "modern day fulfillment of end-times prophecies.”
It’s interesting to note the similarities even in the publications of the groups that were birthed out of the Millerite movement: The Herald of the Morning, The Review and Herald, and Zion’s Watch Tower and Herald of Christ’s Presence - further evidence of the origins in these false prophetic movements. So the connection to the similar views, with respect to the state of the dead, is traceable from Adventism to the Jehovah’s Witnesses. Russell modified it somewhat in that he taught that the wicked are never resurrected and remain as if they had never been after death. So the teaching of soul sleep emerged from “Adventists” who had their origins in the Millerite movement.
Interestingly, William Miller did not endorse the teaching of soul sleep and denounced it publicly, as did Josiah Litch, I. E. Jones, and the Signs of the Times. However, Joseph Bates, James White, and Ellen White espoused Storrs’ teachings, and when the break was made with the Millerites, by the formation of the doctrine of the Investigative Judgment, they took the doctrine of soul sleep with them. It was the Investigative Judgment doctrine that necessitated this belief in soul sleep for the newly-minted Adventist group. One could not have deceased going to Heaven before the Investigative Judgment was completed. It was in the Investigative Judgment (beginning in 1844) that people’s fates were determined - and not until then. It wouldn’t do to go to Heaven at death and then have the verdict changed. One could picture an angel going to the doomed person standing beside the sea of glass saying, “Excuse me, John. I’m so very sorry, but a mistake has been made and you are going to be transferred. The climate in your new location is quite warm but you will still have a waterfront view - of the Lake of Fire.”
The Investigative Judgment made this doctrine mandatory. In addition to soul sleep, since one could go into nonexistence during the time between death and resurrection, the doctrine of annihilation became an easy next step.
Ellen White, in her book Life Sketches Pp. 49-50, describes the genesis of her belief in annihilation as she relates her experience: “One day I listened to a conversation between my mother and a sister, in reference to a discourse which they had recently heard, to the effect that the soul had not natural immortality. Some of the minister's proof texts were repeated. Among them I remember these impressed me very forcibly: ‘The soul that sinneth, it shall die.’ Eze. 18:4. ‘The living know that they shall die: but the dead know not anything.’ Eccl. 9:5. ‘Which in His times He shall show, who is the blessed and only Potentate, the King of kings, and Lord of lords; who only hath immortality.’ 1 Tim. 6:15, 16. ‘To them who by patient continuance in well-doing seek for glory and honor and immortality, eternal life.’ Rom. 2:7… I listened to these new ideas with an intense and painful interest. When alone with my mother, I inquired if she really believed that the soul was not immortal. Her reply was, that she feared we had been in error on that subject, as well as upon some others. ‘But, mother,’ said I, ‘do you really believe that the soul sleeps in the grave until the resurrection? Do you think that the Christian, when he dies, does not go immediately to heaven, nor the sinner to hell?’ She answered: ‘The Bible gives us no proof that there is an eternally burning hell. If there is such a place, it should be mentioned in the Sacred Book.’ ‘Why, mother!’ cried I, in astonishment, ‘this is strange talk for you! If you believe this strange theory, do not let any one know of it; for I fear that sinners would gather security from this belief, and never desire to seek the Lord.’”
Ellen White’s Take On Soul Sleep
Ellen White considered the teachings of soul sleep and annihilation to be proof of God’s revelation of special knowledge to the remnant church of God. It elevated the new church to a position of honor in contrast to all other churches which she had categorized as Babylon. “Every species of delusion is now being brought in. The plainest truths of God's Word are covered with a mass of man-made theories. Deadly errors are presented as the truth to which all must bow. The simplicity of true godliness is buried beneath tradition. The doctrine of the natural immortality of the soul is one error with which the enemy is deceiving man. This error is well-nigh universal…This is one of the lies forged in the synagogue of the enemy, one of the poisonous drafts of Babylon.” Evangelism p. 247
One of the primary fears that continues to sustain the teaching of soul sleep is the fear of deception by the enemy. It is taught that if one believes in the immortality of the soul, then Satan and his angels will be able to impersonate the departed and deceive thousands. Interestingly, it is also this fear that has created the Adventist resistance to the Holy Spirit. It has paved the way for any supernatural happening to be suspect as a deception from the enemy. Here are some statements that expose the roots of those fears.
“Through the two great errors, the immortality of the soul and Sunday sacredness, Satan will bring the people under his deceptions. While the former lays the foundation of spiritualism, the latter creates a bond of sympathy with Rome. The Protestants of the United States will be foremost in stretching their hands across the gulf to grasp the hand of spiritualism; they will reach over the abyss to clasp hands with the Roman power; and under the influence of this threefold union, this country will follow in the steps of Rome in trampling on the rights of conscience.” GC p. 588
It is these fears that have fueled wrong decisions regarding prayer in schools, abortion and other godly principles that cut across the very foundations that have protected this nation. In an article in Ministry Magazine, John Stevens, then Director of Religious Liberty in the Pacific Union Conference wrote, “Abortion is a religious moral issue and should not be legislated. If it is, the New Christian Right could eventually exercise its political clout on Sunday observance. The danger is not in whether an issue is Scripturally correct or not, but the loss of constitutional freedom.” Fear seems to be the major motivator for the doctrines that run athwart mainstream Christian belief.
”As spiritualism more closely imitates the nominal Christianity (any church not Adventist) of the day, it has greater power to deceive and ensnare. Satan himself is converted, after the modern order of things. He will appear in the character of an angel of light. Through the agency of spiritualism, miracles will be wrought, the sick will be healed, and many undeniable wonders will be performed. And as the spirits will profess faith in the Bible, and manifest respect for the institutions of the church, their work will be accepted as a manifestation of divine power.” GC p. 588
While the Bible does warn us of Satan masquerading as an angel of light, it has been carried to the extreme in Adventism. Many will not accept any manifestations of the Holy Spirit since the time of Ellen White. Another common theme demonstrated in the quotation above is the creation of barriers of suspicion toward any other Christian church.
In the following quotation we see the doctrines of the Sabbath and soul sleep linked together again. In a separate study we will show how both of these doctrines are tied to the doctrine of the Investigative Judgment.
“Satan will have power to bring before us the appearance of forms purporting to be our relatives or friends now sleeping in Jesus. It will be made to appear as if these friends were present; the words that they uttered while here, with which we were familiar, will be spoken, and the same tone of voice that they had while living will fall upon the ear. All this is to deceive the saints and ensnare them into the belief of this delusion. I saw that the saints must get a thorough understanding of present truth, which they will be obliged to maintain from the Scriptures. They must understand the state of the dead; for the spirits of devils will yet appear to them, professing to be beloved friends and relatives, who will declare to them that the Sabbath has been changed, also other unscriptural doctrines. They will do all in their power to excite sympathy and will work miracles before them to confirm what they declare. The people of God must be prepared to withstand these spirits with the Bible truth that the dead know not anything, and that they who appear to them are the spirits of devils…I saw the rapidity with which this delusion was spreading. A train of cars was shown me, going with the speed of lightning. The angel bade me look carefully. I fixed my eyes upon the train. It seemed that the whole world was on board, that there could not be one left. Said the angel; ‘They are binding in bundles ready to burn.’ Then he showed me the conductor, who appeared like a stately, fair person, whom all the passengers looked up to and reverenced. I was perplexed and asked my attending angel who it was. He said, ‘It is Satan. He is the conductor in the form of an angel of light. He has taken the world captive. They are given over to strong delusions, to believe a lie, that they may be damned. This agent, the next highest in order to him, is the engineer, and other of his agents are employed in different offices as he may need them, and they are all going with lightning speed to perdition.’" Early Writings pp. 87-88.
Since we have not yet established the biblical teaching on the subjects of soul sleep and annihilation, I will here propose some hypothetical questions to bear in mind for future review. If we find the doctrine of soul sleep to be in error, the quotation above has serious implications regarding the source of this vision. Who is the angel that showed her that the Sabbath was still mandatory for Christians, and who created fears that would cause people to reject the manifestations of the Holy Spirit and to embrace the doctrine of soul sleep? Who would the stately, fair person be whom he is opposing?
Could the Doctrine of Soul Sleep Stand On Scripture Alone?
The quotations above are just a sampling of the foundational teaching about soul sleep as taught by the Seventh-day Adventist Church. Now, with that as a background, let’s turn, as we did with the Sabbath study, to the message Herschel Hughes delivered at Celebration Center on January 17, 2006. “You must reject your false views about death as I am the Creator of life and the immortality of the soul, and at the moment of death, I call home to be with me, all the souls of my true believers.”
So what is the truth? For most of its history, Adventism has not made apology for admitting their doctrines were derived from the Bible as supported by the writings of Ellen White. The current General Conference President, Jan Paulsen, states it this way, “And the inspired authorities on which these and other doctrines (investigative judgment and sanctuary messages) are based, namely the Bible supported by the writings of Ellen White, continue to be the hermeneutical foundation on which we as a church place all matters of faith and conduct. Let no one think that there has been a change of position in regard to this.” And while there are many who would reject that assertion, it is difficult to sustain any other conclusion after careful study of those doctrines under the scrutiny of the word of God.
With growing exposure to other Christian dialogue, some have attempted to put distance between themselves and those who overtly acknowledge dependence on Ellen White’s writings for doctrinal derivation. But I find it odd, with doctrines such as the Investigative Judgment and soul sleep, that there could be any denial that their origins stem from the early development of the SDA church. One would be hard-pressed to find any Christian churches that espouse either of those beliefs. Soul sleep has no notable adherents outside the confines of Seventh-day Adventism, Jehovah’s Witnesses, Church of God Abrahamic Faith, and Christadelphians.
Throughout the history of the Christian church there have been only scattered, small pockets of those who have promoted the teaching of soul sleep, conditional immortality or annihilation. Both universalism and annihilation are becoming more popular recently, in liberal theological circles, as flip sides of the belief that God wouldn’t assign the wicked to hell for eternity. Their conclusions are based on moral outrage and misunderstanding the implications of hell, rather than on new exegetical biblical evidence. Whatever their origins, this constellation of doctrines deserves close attention because of their implications to our understanding of the human spirit, the Holy Spirit and our interactions with the spiritual realm. So, with a bit of trepidation, and an enormous awareness of the limitations of our capacity to comprehend the subject, we will launch out into a study of the reality of the unseen.
Summary of Adventist Teaching On Soul Sleep
1) Soul sleep, conditional immortality, and annihilation are all related doctrines.
2) Soul sleep is the belief that between death and resurrection both believers and unbelievers are nonexistent and have no conscious thought.
3) Conditional immortality is the belief that those who are saved are granted eternal life at the resurrection while the lost are punished and then exterminated permanently and eternally. They cease to exist in any form. This includes Satan and his angels.
4) The four groups who teach soul sleep are: Seventh-day Adventists, Jehovah’s Witnesses, Church of God Abrahamic Faith and Christadelphians.
5) George Storrs took the teaching of soul sleep from a tract he read, on which he based his own writings on the subject.
6) Storrs became a Millerite and convinced a number of their group to join him in this belief.
7) William Miller rejected the teaching, but Joseph Bates, James and Ellen White, and Charles Taze Russell accepted it.
8) Russell was on the staff of The Midnight Cry and Herald of the Morning, an Adventist publication devoted to the Midnight Cry message. He went from there to start the Jehovah’s Witnesses, taking the teaching with him.
9) Ellen White considered Sunday observance and a belief in the immortality of the soul to be “the two great errors” by which Satan would draw people into his deceptions.
10) The Seventh-day Adventist Church teaches that those who do not believe in soul sleep will be taken into occult activities and spiritualism.
11) One of the great fears instilled in Ellen White's readers was the belief that if they didn’t believe in soul sleep, demons would impersonate their dead relatives and tell them that the Sabbath had been changed to Sunday.
12) The Seventh-day Adventist Church holds soul sleep as one of its 28 fundamental beliefs.
Link to the next section in the "Spirit" study is at the end of the quiz and in the "Spirit" Table of Contents.
Quiz for Adventist Teaching On Soul Sleep (Oh, try it. It's fun!)
Circle the correct answers:
1) Soul sleep teaches that:
A. At death the spirit goes to Heaven or Hades.
B. At death a person becomes nonexistent until the resurrection.
C. Sabbath afternoon naps restore your soul.
D. The lost will be unconscious when they die but the saved go to Heaven.
2) Conditional immortality means:
A. At the resurrection the saved are given new bodies
B. The saved are raised with their old bodies that are then changed to be immortal.
C. At the judgment the saved are given immortality but the lost are not.
D. The lost are never raised after they die.
3) Annihilation is the belief that:
A. Babies who die and were born to lost parents are never resurrected.
B. Only Adventists will go to Heaven. Everyone else will be lost.
C. When Jesus comes again the lost will be killed by the brightness of His coming.
D. When the lost are thrown into the lake of fire they will burn up and cease to exist.
4) Soul sleep is believed by:
A. Seventh-day Adventists, Jehovah’s Witnesses and Christadelphians.
B. Baptists, Methodists and Presbyterians
C. Catholics, Lutherans and Episcopalians
D. Bethel Church in Redding, Church on the Hill in Redlands and Harvest Rock
5) Seventh-day Adventists believe that (Choose the incorrect answer):
A. The spirit in a person is just a breath, animating force or spark of life.
B. The spirit and soul cannot exist apart from the body.
C. To be away from the body is to be with the Lord.
D. At death both the saved and lost are nonexistent until the Second Coming.
6) The teaching of soul sleep came to Adventism thru:
A. George Storrs
B. Charles Taze Russell
C. Hiram Edson
D. Elizabeth Barrett Browning
7) All of the following rejected the teaching of soul sleep except:
A. William Miller
B. James and Ellen White and Joseph Bates
C. The Signs of the Times
D. Josiah Litch
8) What did Ellen White teach are the two great errors that would draw people into Satan’s lies?
A. Unbelief in the death of Christ for our salvation
B. Sunday observance and the doctrine of the immortality of the soul
C. Rejection of the Bible as the inspired word of God
D. Denial of the divinity of Christ
9) What has been the strongest warning to those who reject the teaching of soul sleep?
A. Satan will deceive them by appearing to them as the departed dead.
B. It would create a fear of death.
C. People would be eager to die so they could be with Christ.
D. Indian burial grounds would be desecrated.
10) All of the following doctrines are taught and believed by the Adventist Church except:
A. Soul sleep
B. Conditional immortality
D. The immortality of the soul
Answers: 1-B, 2–C, 3–D, 4-A, 5–C, 6–A, 7-B, 8–B, 9–A, 10-D
The Next Chapter: The Human Spirit
If you had to give a definition of "soul," could you? What about "spirit"? What's the difference between the two? Do humans have spirits? Is spirit the animating breath from God that brings a person to life?