Sunday, April 09, 2006

Luther’s Understanding of “Soul Sleep” (Part Three)

This will be the third installment of my examination of the Seventh Day Adventist usage of Martin Luther. Previous entries can be found here:

The Seventh Day Adventist Luther: Soul Sleep and the Immortality of the Soul(Part One) :A look at the use of Luther’s notion of ‘soul sleep’ and a refutation of Adventists who hold Luther believed in the mortality of the soul.

The Seventh Day Adventist Luther (Part Two) : Do Adventists appeal to Luther to show the validity of ‘soul sleep”? A look at selective citations from Luther found in Adventist web pages.

In this entry, I’d like to take a look at Luther’s understanding of ‘soul sleep.’ Soul sleep’ is the idea that after death the soul ‘sleeps’ until the final resurrection. The soul is said to hibernate until the resurrection- when it is then awakened and reunited with its body.

Did Luther believe this? The answer is yes, speculatively. He did so in somewhat undogmatic terms, always cautioning his readers that we don’t have full understanding of this subject. At times he says things that contradict ‘soul sleep’- his was not a dogmatic conclusion. Luther knew that describing the state of the dead was speculative theology. The state of the dead was prone to wild speculation during his time. He would not join in to such folly.

This can be seen early in his career in a letter to Nicholas von Amsdorf (January 13, 1522). Luther responded to the question of what happens to the soul after death. Note how Luther responds cautiously:

Concerning your “souls,” I have not enough [insight into the problem] to answer you.  I am inclined to agree with your opinion that the souls of the just are asleep and that they do not know where they are up to the Day of Judgment. I am drawn to this opinion by the word of Scripture, “They sleep with their fathers.”  The dead who were raised by Christ and by the apostles testify to this fact,  since they were as if they had just awakened from sleep and didn’t know where they had been. To this must be added the ecstatic experiences of many saints. I have nothing with which I could overthrow this opinion. But I do not dare to affirm that this is true for all souls in general, because of the ecstasy of Paul,  and the ascension of Elijah and of Moses (who certainly did not appear as phantoms on Mount Tabor). 

Who knows how God deals with the departed souls? Can’t [God] just as well make them sleep on and off (or for as long as he wishes [them to sleep]), just as he overcomes with sleep those who live in the flesh? And again, that passage in Luke 16 [:23 ff.] concerning Abraham and Lazarus, although it does not force the assumption of a universal [capacity of feeling on the part of the departed],yet it attributes a capacity of feeling to Abraham and Lazarus, and it is hard to twist this passage to refer to the Day of Judgment.

I think the same about the condemned souls; some may feel punishments immediately after death, but others may be spared from [punishments] until that Day [of Judgment]. For the reveler [in that parable] confesses that he is tortured;  and the Psalm says, “Evil will catch up with the unjust man when he perishes.” You perhaps also refer this either to the Day of Judgment or to the passing anguish of physical death. Then my opinion would be that this is uncertain. It is most probable, however, that with few exceptions, all [departed souls] sleep without possessing any capacity of feeling. Consider now who the “spirits in prison” were to whom Christ preached, as Peter writes:  Could they not also sleep until the Day [of Judgment]?  Yet when Jude says concerning the Sodomites that they suffer the pain of eternal fire, he is speaking of a present [fire]."[LW 48:360-361]."

Note above, for Luther, the soul does sleep, but he does make exceptions. As Paul Althaus explains, “Some Bible passages do compel Luther to make certain exceptions to the rule that the dead sleep. God can also awaken them for a time- just as he allows those of us here upon the earth to alternate between waking and sleeping. And the fact that they are asleep does not hinder souls from experiencing visions and from hearing God and the angels speak” [Paul Althaus, The Theology of Martin Luther (Philadelphia: Fortress Press, 1963), 415].

Above, Luther says “It is most probable, however, that with few exceptions, all [departed souls] sleep without possessing any capacity of feeling.” Elsewhere though he says, “It is true that souls hear, think, see after death, but how they do it we do not understand” [Source: Ewald Plass, What Luther Says III:384]. Luther thus made contrary statements that even in death, the believer still consciously knows God and serves Him. This can be seen in a comment made in his last lectures on Genesis:

For how is Abraham a servant of God after his death? Will God not be able eventually to forget Abraham? Today he certainly still serves God, just as Adam, Abel, and Noah serve God. And this must be carefully noted; for it is divine truth that Abraham is living, serving God, and ruling with Him. But what the nature of that life is, whether he is asleep or awake, is another question. We do not have to know how the soul rests. It is certain that it is alive.” [LW 5:74].

Ewald Plass says Luther held “paradoxical, if not, incongruous, conclusion” on the state of the dead [What Luther Says III: 385]. He cites this comment from Luther’s last lectures on Genesis:

But now another question arises. Since it is certain that the souls are living and are in peace, what kind of life or rest is this? But this question is too lofty and too difficult for us to be able to define it. For God did not want us to know this in this life. Thus it is enough for us to know that souls do not go out of their bodies into the danger of tortures and punishments of hell, but that there is ready for them a chamber in which they may sleep in peace.

Nevertheless, there is a difference between the sleep or rest of this life and that of the future life. For toward night a person who has become exhausted by his daily labor in this life enters into his chamber in peace, as it were, to sleep there; and during this night he enjoys rest and has no knowledge whatever of any evil caused either by fire or by murder. But the soul does not sleep in the same manner. It is awake. It experiences visions and the discourses of the angels and of God. Therefore the sleep in the future life is deeper than it is in this life. Nevertheless, the soul lives before God. With this analogy, which I have from the sleep of a living person, I am satisfied; for in him there is peace and quiet. He thinks that he has slept barely one or two hours, and yet he sees that the soul sleeps in such a manner that it also is awake.”[LW 4:313].

But what of those who reject Christ? Do they go to immediate damnation? Luther again responds cautiously, noting he is undecided when they receive punishment:

“…[W]hen the ungodly die, whether they have departed long ago, before the coming of Christ, or today, after Christ has been revealed, they go simply to damnation. But we do not know whether their damnation begins immediately after death; for it is written (Rom. 14:10) that all will have to stand before the judgment seat, and John 5:29 states: “Those who have done good will come forth to the resurrection of life, and those who have done evil, to the resurrection of judgment.

Accordingly, we should remember that after Christ the bosom of Abraham has come to an end and that all the promises about the coming Seed have been fulfilled. We have other and far more glorious promises that were given us by the Son of God, who became incarnate, suffered, and was raised again. If we do not believe these, we are condemned forever. But I am unable to say positively in what state those are who are condemned in the New Testament. I leave this undecided.”[LW 4:316].

His writing on the subject also vacillates. Commenting on the departed Urbanus Rhegius, Luther says, “We are to know that he is blessed and that he has eternal life and eternal joy and participation with Christ in the heavenly Church. For now he has learned, seen with his own eyes, and heard those things which he here in the church on earth explained according to God’s word” (Source: WA 53:400; Paul Althaus, The Theology of Martin Luther (Philadelphia: Fortress Press, 1963), 415]. Also speaking of another departed person, “Sickness carried him off to heaven to our Lord Jesus Christ” [Althaus, 415]. Althaus notes that Luther held time was irrelevant from the eternal perspective. For those who die, their awakening from “soul sleep” is felt as immediate. Luther says, “Here you must put time out of your mind and know that in that world there is neither time nor a measurement of time, but everything is one eternal moment” [Source: WA 10III, 194; Althaus, 416].

What can be concluded of Luther’s view? I would assert the following: Luther’s position on this subject is undogmatic. He considers the subject speculative theology. Hence, his opinion doesn’t always add up.

What can be said of Seventh Day Adventist usage of Luther on this point? I suggest they incorrectly present a dogmatic Luther who uses “soul sleep” to refute purgatory and saint worship, which I maintain is not the case. To use Luther correctly, they should at least note Luther’s opinion was speculative and undogmatic. He didn’t approach the text of Scripture with the same certainty on “soul sleep” they do. Luther doesn’t even have the same theological motivations for the doctrine of “soul sleep” that the Adventists do. What motivates the Adventists on this doctrine? What motivated Luther? These seem to be crucial questions for anyone wishing to use Luther as an authority.


Anonymous said...

Thanks for another helpful series, James. It doesn't sound like Luther would agree with Cliff that his speculations on "soul sleep" should be considered "so much light about the gospel."

James Swan said...

Thanks Ree. I think I actually have one more entry in me. I'm no expert on SDA doctrine- but the question "what function does soul sleep play in SDA theology?" seems to me to be the real issue. The answer is, it plays a role because of the Investigative judgement. Souls need to be "asleep."


Anonymous said...

Hi James, as an SDA I actually enjoyed reading your article. It seems to me that Luther was at best neutral in the issue of what the 'soul' is doing after death. However, he seems more or less convinced that 'sleep' is what takes place after death, yet is like you said, hesitant to label it as a Scriptural fact, the notable examples in your quotes include Christ's 'preaching to those in prison' and the wicked of Sodom and Gomorrah. After a dogmatic reason for rejecting soul immortality, Tyndale comes closer. One thing I'm confused about, is how and why you tie 'soul sleep' with the SDA doctrine of Investigative Judgment. Maybe a little elaboration on that would be helpful.

God bless,
L. V. Sapian