But we do not want you to be uninformed, brothers, about those who are asleep, that you may not grieve as others do who have no hope. For since we believe that Jesus died and rose again, even so, through Jesus, God will bring with him those who have fallen asleep. -- 1 Thessalonians 4:13-14
I've talked about this before, but I've had several people I know pass on recently. A couple of my older cousins died in the last two week. A lot of us still have burials and even when we do cremations, a lot of times we have a viewing of our loved one looking as though they are asleep. Our image of death takes on the association of unconsciousness. The Bible uses this figure of speech. Jesus spoke of death as sleep. It was common in Greek thought as well.
Does it mean, though, that a person knows nothing and is in oblivion until the Resurrection? Jesus raised several people from the dead, most notably Lazarus (John 11), but there are few reports on the subject prior to what we call today "near death experiences". There is now a whole body of literature containing reports of those who were pronounced dead but were resuscitated. More recent studies in this area seem to confirm that people were aware of what was happening around them and had perspectives and information gleamed from being momentarily separated from their dying physical bodies. Although I believe without question that the spirit of an individual lives on when the person departs the physical body, I remain skeptical about the nature of NDEs, for the most part.
If I go back to the Bible, however, I see a story Jesus told about a rich man and a beggar named Lazarus (Luke 16:19-31). These men were dead but were aware of their conditions, the one in torment and the other in ease and comfort. The rich man in hell is certainly aware of Lazarus and his much better situation. He is also concerned that his still-living brothers do not suffer the same fate as he.
Another passage, 1 Peter 3:19, speaks of Jesus preaching to "the spirits in prison". There has long been debate and doubt as to what Peter was describing. Did he mean that, between His death and resurrection, Jesus proclaimed Himself and His gospel to those had failed to heed the warnings of Noah? Augustine suggests that Christ was present in the preaching of Noah, but in any case, those "spirits in prison" appear to be consciously aware of their state.
What I know for certain is that Jesus is alive right now. I know that we do not pass into oblivion when we die, that physical death is not the end but a transition. I know that to be absent from the body is to be present with the Lord (2 Corinthians 5:6-8) -- and not just present, but "at home" with the Lord, abiding with Him forever.
So, if I'm home with my wife and one of the kids calls and talks to her, when she gets off the phone, she will often tell me in detail what was said. Why would we think it would be any different for those who are right now at home with the Lord, if we pray, speaking to Him? I find it comforting to know that the friends and family members who have passed beyond the horizon of my earthly, physical vision may, at the very least, hear news of me through Christ.
As far as I am concerned, that is the least controversial and debatable view. I know there are those who believe in "soul sleep" and a great white throne judgment when all will be awakened, raised, and separated. I think it is a mixing of concepts about what constitutes resurrection, but I would not want to fall out with anyone over it. I think "soul sleep" is confusing what happens to the body that "sleeps" in death with what happens to the spirit and the conscious soul. I would add that even in sleep, we dream.
No, those who have "fallen asleep" are more alive and awake than ever. Perhaps there are those who were not quite ready for the full presence of Christ at death and who must undergo a sifting in what some call purgatory. I do not know about that, but I would not be surprised that it is true. Those who reject Christ and reject truth must pass into hell for they would find neither peace nor place in heaven.
But there are many right now experiencing the fullness of eternal life, joy, love, peace, and understanding. The pains and fears of their past material existence are forgotten or transformed. Perhaps they are overwhelmed with the richness and beauty and glory of it all, yet I do not think the mother forgets the child or the father the son. The man does not forget his wife. I doubt seriously a good man forgets his hounds or his horse, and I know the dog will not forget his master.