What is soul sleep?
Soul sleep is the term used to describe a teaching about the condition of the soul after death. Before going any further, let me say that this is a false teaching. It's one that is not often spoken about, but it is important that we understand both the teachings and the errors on soul sleep.
The doctrine of soul sleep claims that the soul literally sleeps until the time of the bodily resurrection when it is awakened. During this time the person is not conscious, and has no awareness of their condition or state. This teaching also claims that the soul resides in the memory of God until its awakening. Seventh Day Adventists teach this doctrine, but it is a completely false teaching with absolutely no biblical support. And, there is a great deal of biblical information to prove it false.
Jehovah's Witnesses teach a variation of this doctrine called annihilation, which claims the body and soul cease to exist at death. This teaching is similar to the Seventh Day Adventists teaching of soul sleep, but different in that the soul lies in a state of death (not unconscious sleep) until it is made alive (not awakened) in the bodily resurrection. With the recent death of Prince, who was a Jehovah's Witness, it should be a reminder to us of the importance of knowing what the Bible teaches about the eternal destiny of the soul.
Soul Sleep — A False Teaching
Both of these teachings are in grave error (pun intended). Although both the Seventh Day Adventists and the Jehovah’s Witnesses use Scripture to support their beliefs, they do so incorrectly. The apostle Peter spoke of such teachings coming from people who are unlearned and unstable and therefore they “twist the Scripture” (2 Peter 3:16) and make it say something that it does not teach. So, what Scripture do they "twist" and misinterpret?
Both Seventh Day Adventists and the Jehovah's Witnesses use a verse from Ecclesiastes as the foundation for their doctrines. They take this verse out of context to support what they believe:
"For the living know that they shall die: but the dead know not any thing, neither have they any more a reward; for the memory of them is forgotten." (Ecclesiastes 9:5)
Ecclesiastes 9:5 needs to be understood in the full context. These are "the words of the Preacher, the son of David, king in Jerusalem" (Ecclesiastes 1:1) and he is speaking from a human, or earthly, perspective about physical death. He is not making doctrinal statements about the condition of the soul after death. The soul is not physical, it is spiritual. The Preacher is not saying that the soul dies, nor is he saying that it enters into an unconscious state at death. He is speaking of a person's earthly existence ceasing, the futility of earthly gain and the fleeting influence of the departed.