Having been brung up on the King James Version of the Bible, I was familiar with such verses as these:
“After that, he was seen of above five hundred brethren at once; of whom the greater part remain unto this present, but some are fallen asleep” (1 Cor. 15:6).
“Behold, I shew you a mystery; We shall not all sleep, but we shall all be changed” (1 Cor. 15:51).
Modern versions, however, render such passages differently. For instance, the NRSV: “Then he appeared to more than five hundred brothers and sisters at one time, most of whom are still alive, though some have died” (1 Cor. 15:6). “Listen, I will tell you a mystery! We will not all die, but we will all be changed” (1 Cor. 15:51).
In the KJV (more literally translating the Greek), Christian believers generally did not “die.” They “fell asleep.” Why the change in newer versions? Is theology at stake here?
Why do we so easily say that Christians “die,” when the New Testament teaches that really only the body dies, and even that death is not permanent? For the New Testament insists on the resurrection of the body; the reuniting of body and spirit in wholeness; the full meaning of New Creation in the larger Renewed Creation. Not just naked soul survival.
Checking NT passages, we find more than a dozen places where the KJV speaks of Christians (or righteous Jews such as Lazarus) “falling asleep,” not “dying.” E.g., Mt. 9:24; Jn. 11:11 (Lazarus); Acts 7:60 (Stephen); 1 Cor. 11:30, 15:6, 18, 51; 1 Thess. 4:13-15; 2 Pt. 3:4.) Yet modern translations render nearly all these passages as death. Which is at best only half true.
Well, I decided to ask four of my respected biblical-scholar-type friends about this: Craig Keener, Ben Witherington, Fred Long (all Asbury Seminary), and Richard Middleton (Roberts Wesleyan College). They should know.
Here was my question: Does the NT ever say that Christians have “died”? Or does it always use “fell asleep”? (whatever the tense). All four kindly responded.
Richard Middleton: “That’s a good question. [He suggested some good places to check.] The language of “sleep” in the NT seems to derive from the OT idea of someone ‘lying down’ with their ancestors.”
Fred Long: “Great question. I looked up some instances of apothnasko ‘to die’ in BDAG. Paul speaks of his own potential dying in Phil. 1:21. Heb. 9:27 speaks of humans dying once. Jesus predicts his own death in John 12:33 and 18:32. Peter envisions his own potential dying for Jesus as Messiah in Matt. 26:35; cf. Paul’s willingness to die in Acts 21:13.
“Rev. 14:13 speaks of blessedness for those who die in the Lord. Also, then there is Christ’s death affirmed in Rom. 5:8, 14:15; 1 Cor. 15:3; 2 Cor. 5:14f; 1 Thess. 5:10; 1 Pt. 3:18, etc. Finally, Paul affirms in Rom. 14:8 ‘if we live, we live for the Lord, or if we die, we die for the Lord; therefore whether we live or die, we are the Lord’s.’
“So, there are many indications that Christians did not at all shy away from speaking of death, in general, or speaking specifically of their own, likely because Christ faced it so squarely and directly.”
Ben Witherington: “[The language of falling asleep] goes back to early Judaism, and Jesus uses it, for example of Jairus’ daughter. It seems to be a term used by those who believe in resurrection, hence death is only a temporary condition from which one arises healthy and well. It is not used to describe the condition of the dead, for example it is not used to suggest they are snoozing in the afterlife.
“Yes, Jesus and Paul both refer to death as well as sleep when it comes to Christians, but sleep is the preferred term due to the resurrection belief.”
Craig Keener: “‘Fall asleep’ was a regular idiom for death in antiquity, appearing both in literature and on tombstones, both in Jewish and Gentile sources. Because it’s a regular idiom, translators probably felt the need to render it in English idiom.
“Terms for dying apply to Christians in Acts 9:37, 21:13, 25:11; Rom. 8:36, 14:8; Phil. 1:21; certainly such language appears often for Jesus (e.g., 1 Cor. 15:3; 1 Pt. 3:18).
“Nevertheless, your point is well taken, in that the NT emphasis is on our past death with/in Christ and consequently our sharing his resurrection. Death is a transition, but we do not grieve in the same way as those who have no hope.”
The “point well taken” is that it is fully appropriate today to use “falling asleep” language when referring to the physical death of Christians. For Christians, death simply does not mean the same thing as it does to those who die without hope of bodily resurrection in Christ and the restored new heaven and earth. Creation healed.
So yes, there is a theological point.
It does seem to me that when NT writers use “death” with regard to believers, or to Jesus Christ, they are in context emphasizing physical death. Perhaps it was this that Peter had in mind when he wrote: “For Christ also suffered for sins once for all, the righteous for the unrighteous, in order to bring you to God. He was put to death in the flesh, but made alive in the spirit” (1 Pt. 3:18).
Our problem is that we have no English verb that means “to die physically but not to die spiritually,” or “to die in the spacetime physical dimension but not in larger transcendent dimensions.”
In the meantime I still prefer, for Christians, the language of “falling asleep”—not at all to sugarcoat the harsh and painful reality of physical death, but to signal that when we say a sister or brother in Christ has “died,” we realize that we are saying only half the truth.
Further thought: Richard Middleton shares these articles on this subject: