The Conditionalist Faith of Our Fathers, vol. 2


VI. Counters Purgatory With Unconscious Sleep of Soul

The oppressive papal dogma of Purgatory, with its inseparable corollary of the conscious torment of anguished souls therein, was the immediate cause of Luther’s counterposition on the sleep of the soul. As we will now see by direct quotations, he repeatedly contended that during death the soul is at rest, devoid of consciousness or pain. He stated many times that the Christian dead are unaware of anything, for they see not, feel not, understand not. They are asleep, oblivious of all passing events. 17 More than one hundred times, scattered over the years, Luther declared death to be a sleep, 18 and repeatedly asserted that in death there is total unconsciousness, and consequent unawareness of the passage of time. 19 He presses the point that death is a sound, sweet sleep. 20 And furthermore, the dead will remain asleep until the day of resurrection, 22 which resurrection embraces both body and soul, when both will be brought together again. Here are sample statements: CFF2 76.3


First, there is Luther’s clear comment based on Ecclesiastes 9:10: CFF2 77.1

“Another proof that the dead are insensible. Solomon thinks, therefore, that the dead are altogether asleep, and think of nothing. They lie, not reckoning days or years, but, when awakened, will seem to themselves to have slept scarcely a moment.” 23 CFF2 77.2


The same thought was interwoven by Luther into the prescribed funeral service for the Christian: CFF2 77.3

“But we Christians, who have been redeemed from all this through the precious blood of God’s Son, should train and accustom ourselves in faith to despise death and regard it as a deep, strong, sweet sleep; to consider the coffin as nothing other than our Lord Jesus’ bosom or Paradise, the grave as nothing other than a soft couch of ease or rest. As verily, before God, it truly is just this; for he testifies, John 11:21: Lazarus, our friend sleeps; Matthew 9:24: The maiden is not dead, she sleeps. CFF2 77.4

“Thus, too, St. Paul in 1 Corinthians 15, removes from sight all hateful aspects of death as related to our mortal body and brings forward nothing but charming and joyful aspects of the promised life. He says there (1 Corinthians 15:42 ff.): It is sown in corruption and will rise in incorruption; it is sown in dishonor (that is, a hateful, shameful form) and will rise in glory; it is sown in weakness and will rise in strength; it is sown in natural body and will rise a spiritual body.” 24 CFF2 77.5


Luther explains that, unconscious of passing time or surrounding events, the sleeping soul will awake at the call of the Life-giver: “Thus after death the soul goes to its bedchamber and to its peace, and while it is sleeping it does not realize its sleep, and God preserves indeed the awakening soul. God is able to awake Elijah, Moses, and others, and so control them, so that they will live. But how can that be? That we do not know; we satisfy ourselves with the example of bodily sleep, and with what God says: it is a sleep, a rest, and a peace. He who sleeps naturally knows nothing of that which happens in his neighbor’s house; and nevertheless, he still is living, even though, contrary to the nature of life, he is unconscious in his sleep. Exactly the same will happen also in that life, but in another and better way.” 25 CFF2 77.6


Death, Luther repeatedly asserts, means lying down in rest, with surcease from life’s cares, until the one great awakening call of all the saints at the resurrection, when they all come from the grave together. Thus: CFF2 78.1

“We should learn to view our death in the right light, so that we need not become alarmed on account of it, as unbelief does; because in Christ it is indeed not death, but a fine, sweet and brief sleep, which brings us release from this vale of tears, from sin and from the fear and extremity of real death and from all the misfortunes of this life, and we shall be secure and without care, rest sweetly and gently for a brief moment, as on a sofa, until the time when he shall call and awaken us together with all his dear children to his eternal glory and joy. CFF2 78.2

“For since we call it a sleep, we know that we shall not remain in it, but be again awakened and live, and that the time during which we sleep, shall seem no longer than if we had just fallen asleep. Hence, we shall censure ourselves that we were surprised or alarmed at such a sleep in the hour of death, and suddenly come alive out of the grave and from decomposition, and entirely well, fresh, with a pure, clear, glorified life, meet our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ in the clouds .... CFF2 78.3

“Scripture everywhere affords such consolation, which speaks of the death of the saints, as if they fell asleep and were gathered to their fathers, that is, had overcome death through this faith and comfort in Christ, and awaited the resurrection, together with the saints who preceded them in death.” 26 CFF2 78.4


Luther rarely alluded to the question of Eternal Torment. In the immensity of the reformatory task, and separation from Catholic dogma in so many other matters, the early theologians of the Reformation Era did not at first examine the foundations of this Augustinian theory. It was enough for Luther that he stated his convictions on the paramount point of the sleep of the soul. No one in that transition hour had as yet grappled with the problem of the traditional Hell concept. 27 CFF2 78.5

In taking his bold stand on the sleep of the soul, Luther was fully aware that he was placing himself on the side of a despised minority. An imposing succession of learned men—the preponderant voice of past centuries, as well as the majority view of contemporary theologians, bishops, universities, the pope, and even many associates—was ranged against him. But neither numbers nor the genius, dignity, and stature of opponents moved the intrepid Luther. Truth, as he conceived it, compelled him to declare his convictions to the world, there to stand on record as his witness. CFF2 79.1

Luther’s stand drew hot fire, and exposed him and those who stood with him to severest reproaches in an age conspicuous for controversial abuse. They were the object of derisive epithets. They were dubbed modern Sadducees, and soon were classed with the despised Anabaptists, and thus destined to draw the blistering fire of Calvin in his forthcoming Psychopannychia. 28 CFF2 79.2

But first we must note the Anabaptists and the Socinians, some of whom suffered persecution for holding to the sleep of the soul in death. We must note them, for they become definite factors in the chapters to follow. CFF2 79.3