Many children have been taught a simple prayer to say before they go to bed. “Now I lay me down to sleep. I pray the Lord my soul to keep. And if I die before I wake. I pray the Lord my soul to take.” We don’t often think about it, but sleep and death have much in common. The Bible often refers to death as sleep.
In one sense, sleep is the ultimate act of trust. When we go to sleep, we let go of conscious life. We close our eyes and trust that we will open them in the morning. We are, for the most part, unconscious of our surroundings while we sleep. We have no control over anything that is happening around us.
Sleep is a very important aspect of our lives. We cannot survive long without sleep. Sleep deprivation can cause physical and emotional trauma. On one occasion, while I was in college, I stayed up all night studying. (Not a great idea.) The next morning I made my way to my first class. I was the first one to arrive. I slumped into a seat and just stared at the desk in front of me. As I stared mindlessly, the desk began to smoke. The smoke emerged from the top of the desk and rolled over the sides onto the floor. I watched in fascination as the smoke enveloped the desk. Then the door to the classroom opened and the smoke instantly disappeared. I was hallucinating because of a lack of sleep.
God designed sleep as a way to revitalize our body and our spirit. During sleep the muscles of our body relax and repair. The body goes to work rebuilding itself. Energy is shifted away from voluntary motion to internal activity. Not only does our body get to work, so does our mind. Scientists have determined that one of the functions of dreaming is to help us process all of the information we have taken in during the day. We have all had the experience of struggling to figure something out. After a good night’s sleep, the answer seems to magically emerge. Our mind has been sorting and decoding information all night. Sleep is essential to our overall well-being.
So what does sleep have to do with death? The Bible often refers to death as sleep, because for the believer, it is a temporary loss of consciousness. Physical death is the birth canal into eternal life. We go to sleep on this earth and we awaken in the presence of Christ.
We can approach physical death either in a state of trust or anxiety. For those who do not have a relationship with Jesus Christ, their approaching death is a fearful thing. They do everything in their power to fight against it, right up to their last breath. For them, death is not slipping into sleep, but descending into unknown darkness. Many people are afraid that there is nothing on the other side of death. Therefore they hang onto this life, even when it is painful and ugly.
On the other hand, those who know Christ can face death with confidence. It is not that we don’t value life, it is that we can face death without fear. Jesus has parted the curtain of death for us. As the time of his death approached, he comforted his disciples with the truth that physical death is not the end of the story.
"Do not let your hearts be troubled. Trust in God; trust also in me. In my Father's house are many rooms; if it were not so, I would have told you. I am going there to prepare a place for you. And if I go and prepare a place for you, I will come back and take you to be with me that you also may be where I am.” John 14:1-3
Jesus parted the curtain of death and revealed that there is a place of rest on the other side. That place of rest is entered through placing our trust in Christ. Thomas asked Jesus how to get to the Father’s house. Jesus assured him that it was through faith in Him.
Thomas said to him, "Lord, we don't know where you are going, so how can we know the way?" Jesus answered, "I am the way and the truth and the life. No one comes to the Father except through me.” John 14:5-6
For the believer in Christ, death is the ultimate restorative sleep. All the hurts, wounds and damage that has been inflicted upon us in this life are repaired for eternity. The anxiety, questions and doubts that often plague us are wiped away. We are welcomed into an eternal home that can never be taken away from us. What we see as a tragic goodbye on this side of death is really a joyous welcome home on the other side.
There have been times when I struggled with the thought, what if I go to sleep and never wake up. As followers of Christ, we don’t have to be anxious about that. We can sleep in peace, because we know that no matter what happens we are secure in Christ.
Brothers, we do not want you to be ignorant about those who fall asleep, or to grieve like the rest of men, who have no hope. We believe that Jesus died and rose again and so we believe that God will bring with Jesus those who have fallen asleep in him. According to the Lord's own word, we tell you that we who are still alive, who are left till the coming of the Lord, will certainly not precede those who have fallen asleep. For the Lord himself will come down from heaven, with a loud command, with the voice of the archangel and with the trumpet call of God, and the dead in Christ will rise first. After that, we who are still alive and are left will be caught up together with them in the clouds to meet the Lord in the air. And so we will be with the Lord forever. Therefore encourage each other with these words. 1 Thessalonians 4:13-18.