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Shall we sleep in heaven?

22 November 2013


Do we sleep in heaven?

In Christian thought, heaven has been seen as the ultimate attainment of bliss by the redeemed. At All Saintstide many sing "Hark the sound of holy voices" to celebrate their joy in heaven, as with "love and peace they taste for ever, and all truth and knowledge see, in the Beatific Vision of the Blessed Trinity". That magnificent hymn resonates in every verse with the language and vivid imagery of those chapters of Revelation where the activity of the blessed is described as ceaseless praise and worship.

Descriptions of the life of heaven are inevitably symbolic, in the only language at our disposal, but accordingly it is not one of somnolent slumber. Admittedly, several New Testament texts (e.g. 1 Thessalonians 4.14-16) do equate death with sleep, and describe the condition of departed believers as having "fallen asleep". The Greek verb koimaomai/koimasthai was a common metaphorical euphemism for death, but when used by Christians it included belief that there would be an awakening to resurrection life, to be with Christ. So, Paul, in 1 Corinthians 15, proclaimed Christ "the first fruits of those who have died (or fallen asleep)", and "we will not all die (or sleep) but we will all be changed" (1 Corinthians 15.20 and 15.51).

The stark contrast between pagan (and neo-pagan) fatalism and Christian hope becomes evident in Antiquity. The Roman poet Catullus utterly despaired of any hereafter except sleep: "when the sun sets, it sets to rise again: but for us, when our brief day is over, there is one endless night that we must sleep."

When we turn to the Christian convert and theologian St Augustine of Hippo, we indeed hear of rest, but rest with a difference: "there we shall rest and we shall see; we shall see and we shall love; we shall love and we shall praise" (City of God Book XXII, chapter xxx). More than once, Augustine singles out the whole business of the praise of God in heaven: "uplifting one another to the same praise in most fervent love to one another and to God, all the citizens of that city will say Alleluia, inasmuch as they say Amen". (Sermon CCCLXII.29).

In realms of heavenly glory, there is no more sleep, but an assent to God's work of redemption, and an endless Alleluia chorus that praises him.

(Canon) Terry Palmer

Magor, Monmouthshire


What we do or don't do in heaven, assuming we get there, is hard to know. In Revelation 21.4b, the voice from the throne says: "Death will be no more; mourning and crying and pain will be no more, for the first things have passed away." Sleep is a feature of the creation. It is also a gift of God: "he gives his beloved sleep" (Psalm 127.2). Jesus slept on the boat in the storm and needed waking (Matthew 8.25).

A more pressing question is what sleep means in this life. St Paul wants us to wake up (Romans 13.11). Sleep is a metaphor for inattentiveness: "Are you still sleeping and taking your rest?" (Mark 14.41). It is also a time of openness to God, as in the dreams of Jacob and both Josephs. It can also be a euphemism for death (Mark 5.39b).

So, whether in heaven or earth, we are called to be awake and alert to the fulfilment of the Kingdom.

(Canon) Andrew Bishop

Christ said that we shall be accountable for all our actions. Do we have to watch our every thought and action? How can we do this?
G. C.


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