John 11:11-16 HCSB He said this, and then He told them, "Our friend Lazarus has fallen asleep, but I'm on My way to wake him up." (12) Then the disciples said to Him, "Lord, if he has fallen asleep, he will get well." (13) Jesus, however, was speaking about his death, but they thought He was speaking about natural sleep. (14) So Jesus then told them plainly, "Lazarus has died. (15) I’m glad for you that I wasn't there so that you may believe. But let's go to him." (16) Then Thomas (called "Twin") said to his fellow disciples, "Let's go so that we may die with Him."
Here Jesus calls death “sleep” as does Paul (1 Corinthians 11:30) and quite a few OT authors (Psalm 13:3, 76:5,6 Job 14:10-12, Daniel 12:2). Here is just one example:
Daniel 12:2-3 HCSB Many of those who sleep in the dust of the earth will awake, some to eternal life, and some to shame and eternal contempt. (3) Those who are wise will shine like the bright expanse of the heavens, and those who lead many to righteousness, like the stars forever and ever.
For the Christian there is the certainty of waking to a resurrection morning. But for the wicked there is deep uncertainty – as in the words of Shakespeare’s Hamlet
To die, to sleep--
To sleep--perchance to dream: ay, there's the rub,
For in that sleep of death what dreams may come
When we have shuffled off this mortal coil,
Must give us pause.
Now there are two viewpoints on this.
The second option is supported by references such as the following:
Revelation 6:9-11 MKJV And when He had opened the fifth seal, I saw under the altar the souls of those who had been slain for the Word of God, and for the testimony which they held. (10) And they cried with a loud voice, saying, Until when, Master, holy and true, do You not judge and avenge our blood on those who dwell on the earth? (11) And white robes were given to each one of them. And it was said to them that they should rest yet for a little time, until both their fellow servants and their brothers (those about to be killed as they were) should have their number made complete.
The souls of the martyrs are:
b) aware of God
c) able to communicate with God.
Philippians 1:21-24 MKJV (21) For to me to live is Christ, and to die is gain. (22) But if I live in the flesh, this is the fruit of my labor. Yet I do not know what I shall choose. (23) For I am pressed together by the two: having a desire to depart and to be with Christ, which is far better. (24) But to remain in the flesh is more needful for you.
Paul thought that to die was to be immediately with Christ, and was far better than this life, which cannot be said of total unconsciousness.
Matthew 17:1-4 MKJV And after six days Jesus took Peter, James, and John his brother, and brought them up into a high mountain apart. (2) And He was transfigured before them. And His face shone as the sun, and His clothing was white as the light. (3) And behold, there appeared to them Moses and Elijah talking with Him. (4) And Peter answered and said to Jesus, Lord, it is good for us to be here. If You will, let us make here three tabernacles; one for You, and one for Moses, and one for Elijah.
At the Transfiguration Moses and Elijah came down on the mountain and talked with Jesus in the presence of the three main apostles (Peter, James and John). Thus Moses and Elijah were conscious and aware, able to travel and communicate and not unconscious at all.
Luke 16:22-26 MKJV And it happened that the beggar died and was carried by the angels into Abraham's bosom. The rich one also died and was buried. (23) And in hell he lifted up his eyes, being in torments, and saw Abraham afar off, and Lazarus in his bosom. (24) And he cried and said, Father Abraham, have mercy on me and send Lazarus so that he may dip the tip of his finger in water and cool my tongue, for I am tormented in this flame. (25) But Abraham said, Son, remember that you in your lifetime received your good things, and likewise Lazarus evil things. But now he is comforted and you are tormented. (26) And besides all this, there is a great chasm fixed between you and us; so that they desiring to pass from here to you cannot, nor can they pass over to us from there.
Here Jesus teaches full consciousness after death and prior to resurrection, this includes consciousness of both agony and bliss, including the ability to perceive other souls and to know their condition and to communicate with them.
Thus when Jesus said Lazarus “slept” He meant that He was conscious of God’s love and perhaps of God’s plan during His four days in the grave.
So death is not to be feared by the righteous for we will be with God in glory and in great comfort. We will not vanish into a big black hole, but will meet Christ and the angels and know the Presence, power and glory of God.