Martin Luther and the State of the Dead

A careful analysis of Martin Lutherís writings reveals more than 300 instances where he rebuts the medieval view of the soul, substituting in its place an undeniable "soul sleep" (psychopannychism). Indeed, all the essentials of the psychopannychistic view of man are found in Luther's writings; most of them stated repeatedly: the separate existence of the soul, its unconscious sleep in death, its exclusion from Christ's presence until the resurrection, and the ultimate reunification of body and soul at the last day as the true way to immortality and eternal life.

In his lectures on Ecclesiastes (1526), Luther asserted that the dead are "completely asleep" and do not "feel anything at all . . . they lie there not counting days or years; but when they are raised it will seem to them that they have only slept a moment."1 Commenting on Ecclesiastes 9:5, Luther said that he knew of no more powerful passage in Scripture showing that the dead are asleep and unconscious:

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, KJV)

Verse 10 was another text proving "that the dead do not feel anything," since they are "completely asleep":2

Whatsoever thy hand findeth to do, do it with thy might; for there is no work, nor device, nor knowledge, nor wisdom, in the grave, whither thou goest (Ecclesiastes 9:10, KJV).

In Luther's commentary on 1 Corinthians 15, Luther argued that before Christ's resurrection, death was "true and eternal death," but now "It has become merely a sleep."

"For what was a true and eternal death prior to this and without Christ is now, since Christ has passed from death to life and has arisen, no longer death; now it has become merely a sleep. And so the Christians who lie in the ground are no longer called dead, but sleepers, people who will surely also arise again. For when we say that people are asleep, we refer to those who are lying down but will wake up and rise again, not those who are lying down bereft of all hope of rising again. Of the latter we do not say that they are sleeping but that they are inanimate corpses. Therefore by that very word Ďasleepí Scripture indicates the future resurrection."3

Speaking of a Christian who has died in faith, Luther wrote "it is but a night before He [Christ] rouses us from sleep."4 The faithful who die, Luther said, "died in such a manner that after they had been called away from the troubles and hardships of this life, they entered their chamber, slept there, and rested in peace."5

Unlike William Tyndale, who believed that the soul of man ceases to exist upon a man's death, Luther believed that the soul was a separate entity which leaves the body at death. Luther wrote, "After death the soul enters its chamber and is at peace; and while it sleeps, it is not aware of its sleep."6

Of the Old Testament patriarchs, such as Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, Luther wrote that each was "gathered to his people," to rest, to sleep, to await "resurrection and the future life."7 "There is no doubt that those who have been gathered to their people are resting...There is a place for the elect where they all rest...The human soul sleeps with all senses buried, and our bed is like a sepulchre...they rest in peace."8 Precisely where these souls rest, Luther admitted, "we do not know what that place is, or what kind of place it is."9

In 1544, two years prior to his death, Luther summarized his belief in his commentary on Genesis:

"Thus after death the soul enters its chamber and is at peace; and while it sleeps it is not aware of its sleep. Nevertheless, God preserves the waking soul. Thus God is able to awaken Elijah, Moses, etc., and so to control them that they live. But how? We do not know. The resemblance to physical sleep -- namely that God declares that there is sleep, rest, and peace -- is enough. He who sleeps a natural sleep has no knowledge of the things that are happening in his neighbour's house. Neverthless, he is alive, even though, contrary to the nature of life, he feels nothing in his sleep."10

Luther believed that the return of Christ would terminate the sleep of death and bring to reality the hope of eternal life promised by Christ. This, Luther affirmed, is "the chief article of Christian doctrine":11

"For since we call it [death] 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 Saviour Jesus Christ..."12

 

Compiled by: Philip Kapusta


Footnotes:

1. M. Luther, "Notes on Ecclesiastes," in Lutherí's Works, trans. and ed. J. Pelikan and ed. H. T. Lehmann (St. Louis, MO: Concordia, 1972), 15:150.

2. Ibid., p. 147.

3. M. Luther, "Commentary on 1 Corinthians 15," in Lutherí's Works, trans. and ed. J. Pelikan and ed. H. T. Lehmann (St. Louis, MO: Concordia, 1973), 28:109-110.

4. Ibid.

5. M. Luther, "Commentary on Genesis, Chapters 21-25," in Lutherí's Works, trans. and ed. J. Pelikan and ed. H. T. Lehmann (St. Louis, MO: Concordia, 1964), 4:312-313.

6. Ibid., 313.

7. Ibid., 309-310.

8. M. Luther, "Commentary on Genesis, Chapters 45-50," in Lutherí's Works, trans. and ed. J. Pelikan and ed. H. T. Lehmann (St. Louis, MO: Concordia, 1966), 8:317-318.

9. Ibid., p. 317.

10. M. Luther, "Commentary on Genesis, Chapters 21-25," in Lutherí's Works, trans. and ed. J. Pelikan and ed. H. T. Lehmann (St. Louis, MO: Concordia, 1964), 4:313.

11. M. Luther, "Commentary on 1 Corinthians 15," in Lutherí's Works, trans. and ed. J. Pelikan and ed. H. T. Lehmann (St. Louis, MO: Concordia, 1973), 28:94.

12. M. Luther, "Sermon, the Twenty-fourth Sunday after Trinity," cited in H.T. Kerr (ed.), A Compend of Luther's Theology (Philadelphia, PA: 1943), p. 242.

 

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