Awake or Asleep?


This post is appearing on my blog tomorrow, but I thought I’d preview it here first:

The Daily Office reading earlier this week included 1 Thessalonians 5.4-11. Reading it I noted something curious.

The passage here follows a discussion about the timing of the Day of the Lord. Paul in this text says that those who are “awake” and who “belong to the day” don’t have to fear being surprised by the Day compared to those who are “asleep” and who “belong to the night.” This is a binary opposition you find a lot in the bible.

The curiosity occurs toward the end of the passage where Paul discusses Jesus’s death. In relation to these two groups–the awake and the asleep–Paul says this:

What is odd here is that, given Paul’s dichotomy, we’d expect him to just talk about the awake. We expect Paul to say something like this: “He died for us, those who are awake, so that we may live together with him.” Instead, Paul includes the asleep along with the awake: “He died for us so that, whether we are awake or asleep, we may live together with him.”

Of course, given my universalist sensitivities I’m intrigued by the inclusion of the asleep, who earlier in the passage are said to “belong to darkness,” in Paul’s final vision of salvation. For comparison with the NIV above, here is the ESV:

I’ve never see this passage referenced in a discussions of universalism. Have you? Given how Paul describes the two groups earlier in this text it is startling to find them both embraced by the salvation story toward the end.

Christ died for us so that, whether we are awake or asleep, we may live together with him.

That’s Good News.


…i think you’ve found an immensely tiny nail and hit it very squarely on the head!
that fits incredibly well with my own UR sensibilities. i have to confess a strange fear of reading the Bible which i’ve struggled with for years (before UR), that everything good i’d come to believe would be disproven and i’d find God condemning me and everyone i cared about. usually this fear has proven irrational, but it still limits my reading.

you have demonstrated here why i should not fear the Word, as it contains such amazing hope.

so anyway, letting that be, i think this is truly fascinating, that the dichotomy is brought together in the end.
so what does a sleeping person have to fear in the day of the Lord? i am guessing it’s a big wakeup call, quite literally. i think those that turn off their ability to engage with life in a good way and thus are sleeping will suddenly be woken by the bright light of day and realise that it’s time to get to work. they will find, soon enough, that the work they feared is not at all hard, and that it’s so fulfilling that they’ll wonder why they ever chose to sleep to avoid it.

maybe we can find some help from Solomon to define what “sleeping” in this context means. he talks often about the sluggards. maybe the laziness he describes goes deeper than simple laziness.

could it really be so simple that the wicked get a wakeup call, including a bright, blinding light as the curtains are rudely pulled back and their Father shouts “UP UP UP!” and join the rest of us for breakfast and then we go off to live a glorious, productive day? seems to be what Paul is saying anyway.

thanks Richard, that is an amazing thing you’ve found!


of course, the one thing that confuses this and makes it ambiguous is that in chapter 4, he is talking about dead believers, who he ALSO terms as being asleep. i think the context of the chapter 5 portion causes it to lean towards your interpretation though as he has in this section defined those asleep as belonging to the darkness…


You make a good point. In the phrase in question Paul might be referring to those who are “asleep in Christ.” But as we both note, the immediate context of the phrase aligns the asleep with those associated with darkness. The various uses of “asleep” give the text a range of meanings.


good old Paul! Peter did say he was difficult to understand lol!
if only he’d stuck to one metaphor at a time!


Yeah, but there are other verses… :sunglasses:


true, but i have to say…the difficulties i raised would be ones raised by ECT proponents, and while i agree it’s a little vague, the context i feel supports Richard’s conclusion…
this actually feels even MORE confirmation. if those who sleep willfully belong to darkness, and Christ makes it so we can live with Him regardless of being asleep (belonging to darkness) or awake (preferable, belonging to light), then …wow!


I think I would feel a little guilty of deception if I quoted 1 Thess 5 to promote UR and did not, at the same time, quote 1 Thess 4 to give a more complete picture:

1Th 4:13-17 But I would not have you to be ignorant, brethren, concerning them which are asleep, that ye sorrow not, even as others which have no hope. For if we believe that Jesus died and rose again, even so them also which sleep in Jesus will God bring with him. For this we say unto you by the word of the Lord, that we which are alive and remain unto the coming of the Lord shall not prevent them which are asleep. For the Lord himself shall descend from heaven with a shout, with the voice of the archangel, and with the trump of God: and the dead in Christ shall rise first: Then we which are alive and remain shall be caught up together with them in the clouds, to meet the Lord in the air: and so shall we ever be with the Lord.


mate that’s exactly what i was referring to lol
Paul re-defines the definition of sleeping people in chapter 5, and so it’d not make sense for him to jump back to the chapter 4 definition.


Pretty cool insight there, Richard :slight_smile: Thanks for sharing :slight_smile:


This is, perhaps, not the place to bring it up, but I’ll try it anyway: is anybody else convinced that Paul is a great reason to abandon biblicism? Diarmaid MacCulloch describes Paul as grasping and grappling with the meaning and definitions of Christ. And not that only, but he’s always having a conversation where we only hear half. As much as I love, admire, and am indebted to Paul’s ministry, I’m increasingly convinced he’s more of a sign post than a scriptural automaton.

I might compare Paul to Plato and Aristotle; he’s great at identifying problems and beginning discussions, but not the most satisfying solution to those problems. This isn’t to say that Paul’s stuff isn’t True for me, only that he’s True in a broad sense, not always a specific sense. His answers are circumstantially contingent (as in, he’ll phrAse things in order to answer specific people at a specific time), not axiomatic. So, while Paul is right about why Jesus is important and he correctly assesses the magnitude of that importance, I unconvinced that his letters are specifically correct about how Jesus applies here and now. Paul has started a conversation that the church will continue until Jesus returns.

If that derails things, ignore me :slight_smile:

If someone’s got a helpful admonition, I’m always down for those, too.


That’s how I see it. Paul was doing two things. 1) Trying to make sense of his own experience in the wake of his encounter with Jesus of being a Torah-observant Jew called to missionary work with Gentiles. 2) Put out fires in the new churches he planted. That’s hardly conducive for systematic theological reflection. Paul’s work is more biographical, developmental, and occasional.


that’s interesting…the church puts a huge emphasis on Paul’s teaching as laying the foundation of theology…maybe that’s the wrong approach?

maybe Rob Bell’s right to term everything a “conversation”


I seem to see a movement to discredit Pauline Christianity. Is this what you are getting at?


I’ve noted that passage before, but as far as I can recall I’ve never tried to use it as a ‘proof’ for UR.

The way I see this in the context is that Paul begins by speaking of the physically dead and our hope for their resurrection, and then in his following exhortation he transitions to the metaphorical usage of death and life so common to Christianity. “Formerly dead in sins, now alive in Christ” – death and life become a choice: “therefore let us not sleep.”

I think Paul is absolutely brilliant – but yes, hard to understand at times and his words easily twisted, as Peter noted. No doubt he is reminding his audience of things which he taught in much more depth in their presence.



Not on my part. My comment above was simply pointing out that we shouldn’t be expecting, given how Paul was doing his theology, complete consistency and comprehensiveness. Paul was a missionary, writing on the fly and speaking to particular theological or pastoral issues. He didn’t hunker down for 20 years in peace and solitude to ponder and write a Summa Theologia.


Hi Richard:

I like the idea. However, IF in fact there are only 2 possible states of existence --awake and asleep – then sure, this is good news and this works. Except that it seems there’s at least one other category Paul uses in his thinking and that’s spiritually “dead”. So it seems possible, if not likely, that Paul here is introducing a new subcategory of spiritual sloth, or inattentiveness and is labeling it “sleep” to contrast it with the more active and engaged spiritual state of “wakefulness”. This new subcategory, if we can call it that, seems to refer to those who are considered to be believers – ie have experienced repentance and conversion – but whose zeal has waned, who have lost their initial enthusiasm, and thus this passage is an exhortation to rouse back to full spiritual arousal and commitment.

Just as Paul thus might be accused of being a little bit sloppy with his word choice here using sleep to mean different things, so too with the notions of darkness and light. Usually darkness seems to refer to a condition of complete unawareness or lack of knowledge. But here that meaning morphs a bit into perhaps a falling back by, I’m suggesting, a loss of former zeal…

In verse 10 of ch5, it also appears he may not be referring to the prior few verses, but, as pilgrim notes, back to the “sleep” of chapter 4 which I’ve taken to be physical death ie unawareness and unconsciousness of those who died as believers. But that’d be just like Paul wouldn’t it? veering off onto tangent, sidebar sorts of riffs then coming back to his topic. And of course I always get the sense, when reading Paul, that any competent basic English teacher would hand this back to Paul and say “nice first draft Paul; but PLEASE tighten and tidy it up man!! And try not to distract from your main points by all these secondary issues; interesting and important as they may be.”

That it’s not a passage we would dream of using to bear the full weight of our Universalist convictions seems clear; but once one sees Universalism in so many other writings of Paul, it certainly doesn’t surprise us if we should see UR confirmed in yet another way by Paul…



TRMII could you provide some examples of what you’re saying?


Bob, I think you articulated my issue with Paul perfectly! It’s not that he’s not right, just that he’s not (as Richard and others pointed out) laying down a systematic theology. Paul is, perhaps, the voice of new Christian enthusiasm crying out in the wilderness of an earthly empire. Amid all the emperors claiming to be gods he says that all things hold together in Christ.

My example would be these two chapters of Thessalonians. Any critical thinker would know to not undermine one of your metaphors by employing it for another use with the same terminology. I think Paul is True in a sense closer to the sense that art is True. It is not always True in the sense of logical necessity, though sometimes it is!

I didn’t know there was such a category. Without trying to be an ass, I think Paul would join me in laughing that such a term exists. Paul, likely, would insist that there can only ever be Christian Christianity. Am I right to suspect that Pauline Christianity is the term for the theological foundation the church has built on/around/with Paul’s writing? If so, then I’d say I’m not so much looking to discredit it as realizing, finally, that it’s a fool’s errand. I’ll sooner build my Christianity around Christ than Paul, though I think Paul is an invaluable lens into what Christ means. If I may be so bold I will say that Paul is like the editor of an old text. He illuminates and analyzes in his glosses, but might not be the only way of getting at the text. From the stark fact of Christ overturning the world as we know it, Paul is the first surviving record of at the attempt to transmute that into human endeavor.


Sooooo Paul didn’t purpose or realize that millions of people for thousands of years would be pouring over every word he wrote in an effort to understand who God was?! Wow. He must realllly be wishing he could re-write some things! :blush: Seriously though…Great discussion. I gave up being a biblicist a while back. I have less headaches. :slight_smile: