The Bible and the Future: "The Intermediate State"
It has been customary in the history of theology to divide the Bible's teaching about the future into two parts, the first dealing with the future of the individual believer and the second dealing with the future of the creation. These two divisions are sometimes termed "individual eschatology" and "general eschatology."1 The first addresses such topics as physical death, immortality, and the state of man between death and the resurrection of the body (the "intermediate state"). The second addresses such topics as the expectation of Christ's return or second advent, the "signs of the times," the millennium, the resurrection of the body, the final judgment and the final state.
Though this division of the Bible's teaching about the future into individual and general eschatology is somewhat artificial, it is nonetheless unavoidable. The question of what becomes of the individual believer at death, prior to the return of Christ and the resurrection of the body, cannot be escaped. This is true in part for pastoral reasons. Believers are anxious to know what the Bible teaches about their condition upon death, prior to Christ's return. Pastors and elders who minister the Word of God to the people of God cannot escape the obligation to provide biblical answers to questions about death and what it brings. But it is also true for biblical reasons. The Bible does openly speak of the intermediate state, or of what becomes of believers upon death. Any attempt to summarize the Bible's teaching about the future then, will have to reckon with what it says.
Therefore, in this articles on The Bible and the Future, I want to turn now to the subject of the Bible's teaching about individual eschatology. Having sketched in general terms the biblical perspective upon the future, we will consider in this article the subjects of physical death, immortality and the intermediate state. Only thereafter will we turn to the broader questions of general eschatology.
Before directly considering the question of the intermediate state within a biblical framework, it is necessary to introduce the subject by reviewing what the Bible teaches about death, immortality and the ultimate victory over death which the believer anticipates through union with Christ. For unless we approach the subject of the intermediate state within the confines of a biblical view of death as a consequence of sin and the resurrection of the body as the great hope of the believer for the future, we could easily lose our biblical bearings as we address this subject.
Physical Death as the "Wages of Sin"
Contrary to many modern myths about death — that death is a "natural" part of life, that it marks the cessation of existence, that there is a natural "dignity" in dying well — the Bible paints death with the most stark and sobering of colors. Nowhere in the Bible is death treated as something natural, as something that can easily be domesticated or treated as "a part of life."In the history of the Christian church, a small minority of theologians have tried to argue that death is, at least in some respects, a "natural" part of life and not exclusively the consequence of sin.2 There is no encouragement given us in the Bible to minimize the terror and fearfulness of death as our "last enemy" (1 Corinthians15:26).
The biblical understanding of death begins with the story of the fall into sin and the consequence of man's fall and disobedience in the way of God's judgment and curse. In Genesis 2:17, as part of the stipulation and probation of obedience, Adam was forewarned: "You must not eat from the tree of the knowledge of good and evil, for when you eat of it you shall surely die." Adam, formed from the dust of the earth and made a "living soul" through the in-breathing of his Creator (Genesis 2:7), became liable to death through his act of disobedience, a liability which now falls to all men whom he represented as their covenant head. One does not have to read far in the biblical record to discover that the curse of God upon man because of his sin and disobedience expresses itself most dramatically in the fact that in death he now returns to the dust from whence he was formed (Genesis 3:19).
This is the ruling theme throughout the Scriptures, when it comes to the subject of death. Death brings the dissolution of the body (2 Corinthians 5:1), separation from God and from the creaturely form of man's existence. Life for man as a creature is bodily life; death cuts man off from that life for which he was created in fellowship with God. Physical death is a picture of spiritual death, the loss of that fullness of communion and fellowship with God in the sphere of creation for which man was originally created. Accordingly, the Psalmist fears death because it will cut him off from the opportunity to praise and serve the Lord (Psalm 30:9).
One of the more prominent passages in Scripture on the subject of sin and death is Romans 5:12-21. In this passage the inseparability of sin and death is underscored. This is clear in the opening verse of this portion of Scripture: "Therefore, just as through one man sin entered into the world, and death through sin, and so death spread to all men, because all sinned" (Romans 5:12; cf. 1 Corinthians 15:21). Through the sin of the first Adam, all have become sinners and are subject to the reign of death. This reign of death is the consequence of sin and condemnation; it has spiritual meaning, signifying man's being cut off from God's favor and blessing. Death is even described as the "wages of sin" (Romans 6:23). Thus, the sin of the first Adam which leads to condemnation and death only finds its remedy in the obedience of the second Adam which leads to righteousness and life for all who believe (Romans 5:17-21).
It is this biblical understanding of death as the consequence and punishment of sin that forms the background for the gospel message of salvation and life through Jesus Christ. Christ has come into the world to "render powerless him who had the power of death" and to "deliver those who through fear of death were subject to slavery all their lives" (Hebrews 2:14-15). By means of Christ's resurrection from the dead, the death which results from the sin of the first Adam is overcome (1 Corinthians 15:21). In this respect it can be said that Christ has "abolished death and brought life and immortality to light through the gospel" (2 Timothy 1:10). Even as death is the "wages of sin," so "the free gift of God is eternal life in Christ Jesus our Lord" (Romans 6:23).
This does not mean that believers no longer have to die. Though their death is not a satisfaction for sin nor something that can separate them from God's love in Christ Jesus (Romans 8:38), it remains inevitable. The saying, "there is nothing so certain as death and taxes," needs to be amended in more biblical form to say "there is nothing so certain as death" (taxes can be avoided, death cannot!). But for the believer this certainty does not occasion fear or dread, for it brings a more intimate fellowship with the Lord than that known in this life (Philippians 1:21; 2 Corinthians 5:8). As the Heidelberg Catechism concisely puts it, "Our death is not a satisfaction for our sins, but only a dying to sins and entering into eternal life" (Question 42).
Immorality of the Soul?
If death is inseparably joined in Scripture to the reality of sin and God's curse against it, it should not surprise us that the ultimate horizon of hope for the individual believer beyond this life and the grave is the resurrection of the body. The grace of God toward His people in Jesus Christ, saving them from the "wages of sin," includes the promise of the future glorification of the believer when he comes to share in the power of Christ's resurrection. Christ, the "first fruits," has been raised victorious from the dead, having suffered the curse on behalf of His people. Believers through faith anticipate that when Christ finishes His work and vanquishes our "last enemy," death, they will be given to share in the glory of His resurrection also (1 Corinthians. 15:20-23).
At this point, however, we must be wary of falling into a common error. This error is to minimize death and victory over it through the resurrection of the body, by adopting an unbiblical view of what is sometimes called the "immortality of the soul."
Now, it has long been customary among Christians to use the language of the "immortality of the soul." This language is used in part to stress, correctly, that believers, when they die, do not cease to exist, but continue to enjoy personal existence and communion with God in heaven prior to Christ's return and the resurrection of the body. In this sense, the "immortality of the soul" only means to affirm what I shall, in a subsequent article, argue is the biblical view of the believer's intermediate state.
But this language is sometimes used in an unbiblical way to minimize the reality of death and to render almost superfluous any further hope for the resurrection of the body. In the history of the church, there has been a tendency at this point to read the Bible through the lens of Greek thought. In Greek philosophy it was commonly thought that man is composed of two distinct substances, the one being the "soul," the other being the "body." The first of these, the soul as the higher aspect of man's constitution, was thought to be, by nature, indestructible or immortal. The second of these, the body as the lower aspect of man's constitution, was thought to be, by nature, destructible and mortal. In some more extreme expressions of this kind of thinking, redemption is conceived of as a release of the soul from its imprisonment in the body. Not only are "soul" and "body" distinguishable and separable, but salvation actually comes through their separation in death.
However, there are two biblical themes which this view threatens.
First, in the Bible God alone, in the strict sense of indestructible life, is immortal. Whatever "immortality" man may enjoy, it is always derived as a gift from God's creative hand. Only God as Creator has life of Himself; man as creature always owes whatever life he has to God. If we may speak of the "immortality of the soul" at all, then we must qualify our speaking to preserve this difference. We are not speaking of the inherent indestructibility of the soul, at least not in the sense in which God is indestructible. In 1 Timothy 6:16 God is spoken of as One "who alone possesses immortality and dwells in unapproachable light." Furthermore, in John 5:26 Jesus declares that "just as the Father has life in Himself, even so He gave to the Son also to have life in Himself." In this last passage, there is a clear contrast drawn between the Father and the Son, who owe their life to nothing outside of themselves, and every creature whose life is a gift from God.
Or Resurrection of the Body?
But second, the Bible typically ascribes whatever immortality believers may enjoy as an immortality of the whole man, body and soul, which requires the resurrection of the body. Interestingly, when the Bible speaks of the believer's immortality, it normally refers to the immortality of the body! It is remarkable how in the Bible the language of "immortality," when it is applied to man, typically refers to the believer in his perfected state, in the state of resurrection glory.
This can be illustrated from several New Testament passages. In 1 Corinthians 15:53-54, the apostle Paul affirms: "For this perishable must put on the imperishable, and this mortal must put on immortality. But when this perishable will have put on the imperishable, and this mortal will have put on immortality, then will come about the saying that is written, 'Death is swallowed up in victory.'" Clearly this passage refers not to the immortality of the soul, but to the immortality of the believer in the resurrection state of glory. This is consistent with other passages which speak of "immortality" and "imperishability" not to describe the disembodied state of believers in the interim between death and resurrection, but to describe the future inheritance and blessedness of the redeemed in the future kingdom of God (cf. Romans 2:7; 1 Corinthians 9:25; 1 Peter 1:4). These passages suggest that we would speak more biblically if we spoke of the "immortality of the believer" and understood that to include the resurrection of the body.
Why is it important to notice that, biblically speaking, we might better talk about the "immortality of the resurrection body" of believers than of the "immortality of the soul"? Certainly not in order to deny what most believers rightly affirm when they speak of the "immortality of the soul": that believers, when their body and soul is separated through physical death, continue to enjoy communion with the Lord in the intermediate state. As noted earlier, I shall in fact argue for precisely this understanding of the intermediate state. But I do mean to caution against any view of the believer's future that would minimize what remains central and primary in the biblical view: the resurrection of the body.
The Triune God's work in the redemption of His people in Christ only reaches its perfection in the full participation of believers in Christ's resurrection from the dead. Until this mortal puts on immortality, even the believer's intermediate state of provisional joy in the Lord's presence upon death is incomplete. The hope of the believer for the future does not terminate with the intermediate state, but remains fixed upon the day of Christ's return and the resurrection of the dead.
This cannot be emphasized too much, particularly when the subject of the intermediate state is addressed, since many suspect that an emphasis upon the intermediate state easily distracts us from the central hope of the believer which is the resurrection of the body. However, provided we remember that this hope is central, there is no reason to deny the biblical teaching about the intermediate state. Even the language used, "intermediate," acknowledges that it is a provisional and incomplete form of communion with the Lord. It is precisely "intermediate" because it falls between death and the resurrection of the body at the return of Christ. But though it is in this sense the penultimate, and the resurrection the ultimate hope of the believer, this does not make it any less significant.
The question of the intermediate state is, therefore, just this: what is the circumstance of the believer between death and resurrection? If we have to be wary of the idea of the "immortality of the soul," especially when it diminishes the centrality of the resurrection of the body in the believer's hope for the future, does this prevent us from affirming that there is a conscious fellowship with the Lord that the believer enjoys upon death and prior to the resurrection at the last day? Without falling prey to an unbiblical view of the immortality of the soul or denying the resurrection of the body, may we still speak of a state intermediate between physical death and the final state in the resurrection?
The Bible's teaching about the "intermediate state," the condition of believers between death and the resurrection of the body at Christ's return, has been subject historically to differing viewpoints. Though there has been a general unanimity in the historic Christian church that believers enjoy a provisional and intensified communion with Christ upon death, a communion which involves a conscious experience of fellowship with God through Christ, there have been minority opinions as well.
Introducing the subject of the intermediate state, we identified two great themes in the Scriptures which form the framework within which to approach this subject. The first of these themes is the biblical teaching that death is the "wages of sin." Nowhere in the Bible is death treated as a natural dimension of life, something that can be easily domesticated or treated trivially. Death, to use the biblical metaphor, is our "last enemy." Accordingly, the second theme of prominence is the teaching that salvation brings victory over sin and death, a victory that includes and focuses ultimately upon the resurrection of the body. The biblical hope for the believer's future terminates, not upon the intermediate state, but upon the glorification the believer will experience in union with Christ and all other believers at the consummation of Christ's saving work. The believer does not place his confidence for the future in the "immortality of the soul" but rather in the "resurrection of the body."
There are, however, two minority opinions on the subject of the intermediate state that distort this biblical focus on the resurrection of the body by denying the reality of an intermediate state, in which believers enjoy conscious fellowship with the Lord. These views of the intermediate state wrongly conclude from the biblical teaching about death and the resurrection that there is no living fellowship with God in the state intermediate between death and resurrection.
Before addressing the positive biblical teaching about the intermediate state, we will first consider these two viewpoints. Since they are closely related to the themes discussed, it is appropriate to consider them at this point, before turning to those passages of Scripture that clearly affirm an intermediate state.
Annihilationism or Soul Extinction
The first of these views of the intermediate state might be termed "annihilationism." As this terminology suggests, this view teaches that death brings the annihilation of the whole person, body and soul, the cessation of existence in any form whatsoever. There is no state intermediate between death and the resurrection. Until the resurrection of the body, the believer ceases to exist altogether. In this sense, the resurrection of the body actually involves what amounts to the recreation of the individual person. There is no continuity of existence on the part of the person who dies, between the time of death and of resurrection.
It should be noted that there are at least three different uses of the terminology of "annihilationism." These diverging uses must be borne in mind in order to understand clearly the view we are considering here.
- The first use refers to the view that all individuals, whether believers or unbelievers, cease to exist altogether at death and have no future prospect of life of any kind. This use reflects a materialistic world-view which is anti-Christian. This is not the view of annihilationism that is our interest at this point.
- The second use refers to the view that all human beings are naturally mortal, but some (believers) are given immortality as a gift of God's grace. This view, sometimes called "conditional immortality," can take one of two forms: either believers upon death cease to exist until the time of the resurrection or they enjoy a provisional state of fellowship with the Lord before the time of the resurrection.
- The third use refers to the view that all individuals are created immortal, but God annihilates those whom He does not save (annihilationism proper). Those who do not believe in Jesus Christ and thereby receive the gift of eternal life are liable to annihilation or extinction by a direct act of God's judgment in death.
It should be clear enough from these different uses of the terminology of "annihilationism" that things can become quickly unclear! I mention them here only to clarify the sense in which we are using the terminology. Annihilationism — so far as the question of the intermediate state is concerned — refers to any view that denies an intermediate state by teaching the non-existence of persons after death and prior to the resurrection. Obviously, there are a variety of views of the intermediate state corresponding to these forms of annihilationism: the materialist would deny any future existence whatever; the conditional immortality advocate may or may not affirm an intermediate state; and the annihilationist-proper advocate would affirm some view of an intermediate state, since only those whom God annihilates as an act of judgment cease to exist upon death. For our purpose, however, the only thing that interests us is the teaching, in whatever form it is cast, that there is no existence after death and before the resurrection of the body.
Admittedly, this annihilationist view has had few advocates in the history of the church. However, it has gained an increasing number of advocates in the last century, primarily among two of the major cults, the Jehovah's Witnesses and the Seventh-Day Adventists3 and also among Christian believers who take an exaggerated view of the importance of the resurrection of the body. Advocates of this view have in common the conviction that the biblical teaching of the integrity of man's constitution as a "living soul," (not a soul "having" a body) requires the conclusion that death means annihilation.
The basic form of the argument for this view is, accordingly, quite simple. Because man was created from the dust of the earth and became, after the Creator breathed into him the breath of life, a "living soul" (Genesis 2:7), there is no meaningful sense in which the "soul" of man could survive death and the dissolution of the body. The unity of soul and body is so intimate and necessary to man's existence as a creature that they are inseparable, even upon death. Typically, advocates of this annihilationist view of the intermediate state contend that, to affirm the continued existence of the "soul" between death and resurrection, is to succumb to the influence of Greek thought and to teach an unbiblical view of man's created unity. Because man does not "have" a body, distinguishable from his soul, but is rather a "living soul," there can be no prospect of life apart from the body, even in the so-called intermediate state.
Later we will consider a number of biblical passages that clearly teach an intermediate state, and that speak of man's "soul" or "spirit" as existing after death and apart from the resurrection of the body. These passages contradict the main emphasis of annihilationism. They also show that the major argument for this position is really a biblically unwarranted inference from the teaching of the unity of man's body and soul, as the normal form of his creaturely existence, and the centrality of the resurrection of the body in the biblical view of the future. They show that this view is one based more upon arguments of a general nature than upon the teaching of specific biblical passages.
Soul-Sleep or Psychopannychy
A second and, in terms of historical influence and advocacy, more important view of the intermediate state is what is often termed "soul-sleep" or "psychopannychy." For some of the same reasons that lead to the advocacy of annihilationism, advocates of this view reject the doctrine of an intermediate state or the teaching that believers (and unbelievers) experience any kind of conscious existence after death and before the resurrection. The state between death and resurrection is like that of sleep, an unconscious state in which there is no experience of relatedness to others or the passage of time. Just as sleep is characterized normally by the non-experience of the passage of time, so it is with the intermediate state. The time between falling asleep and awaking is virtually non-existent, at least it is not experienced, so that, upon awakening, it is as though no time elapsed.
In the history of the church, advocates of this view have included: an early, but small, sect of Christians in Arabia, whom Eusebius of Caeserea, a church historian, refers to in his writings; a number of more radical sects among the Anabaptist movement of the sixteenth-century Reformation;4 some of the "Irvingites" in 19th century England; and a number of contemporary Christians who dislike the doctrine of a conscious state of existence between death and the resurrection, fearing that it belittles the importance of the body to man's creaturely existence.
The two most important arguments for this view of the intermediate state are: first, the unity of body and soul is essential to human existence; and second, the biblical references which describe death as a "falling asleep."
The first of these arguments, that the unity of body and soul are essential to human existence, is reminiscent of the major argument of advocates of annihilationism. Because man is a psychosomatic unity (not a soul "having" a body, but a "living soul" or an "ensouled body"), death cuts man off from the possibility of any kind of meaningful experience or continued, conscious existence. It is simply inconceivable that man, his body having dissolved, could enjoy an intermediate state of fellowship with the Lord or others, apart from his body which is the indispensable condition for all human experience.5
The second of these arguments, appealing to biblical passages that describe death as a "falling asleep," is the more important of the two. There are passages already in the Old Testament that describe the death of believers as a kind of sleep in which there is presumably a loss of that conscious experience that belongs to life in the body (cf., e.g.: Genesis 47:30; Deuteronomy 31:16; 2 Samuel 7:12; Psalm 30:9; 6:5; 115:17; Ecclesiastes 9:10; Isaiah 38:18,19). However, this is even more clearly affirmed in the New Testament. In 1 Corinthians 7:39, we read, "A wife is bound as long as her husband lives; but if her husband has fallen asleep, she is free to be married to whom she wishes, only in the Lord" (emphasis mine). Similarly, in a well-known passage regarding the future state of believers, the apostle Paul declares in 1 Thessalonians 4:13, "But we do not want you to be uninformed, brethren, about those who are asleep, that you may not grieve, as do the rest who have no hope" (emphasis mine). Such language, describing the death of believers as a falling asleep, is found in many other New Testament passages (cf., e.g.: Matthew 27:52; John 11:11-13; 1 Corinthians 11:30; 15:20; 15:51; Acts 7:60; Luke 8:52). Since sleep involves the loss of consciousness, advocates of the soul-sleep position argue that these texts clearly teach that believers are in a state of unconsciousness in the intermediate state.
In addition to these two primary arguments, advocates of the soul-sleep position also add others. One of them is an argument from silence. Nowhere, it is noted, do we find in the Scriptures an account of anyone who had been subject to death and subsequently brought to life, whose experience in the interim is recounted in any way. The reason for this absence must be that the person who had died ceased to enjoy conscious experience in the interim period. Another of them is the argument that the believer or unbeliever's experience of a provisional state of bliss or woe in the intermediate state, would be an unwarranted and premature anticipation of the final judgment. Were believers and unbelievers to experience consciously the provisional form of their final state, the final judgment would be anti-climactic for them and serve no essential purpose.
At first glance, these arguments for the soul-sleep position seem insuperable. However, upon closer scrutiny, they prove to be without much punch or cogency. This will become evident, if we consider them one at a time.
The first argument, that the unity of body and soul is essential to human experience, is partially true, but overstated. The normal state of man as a creature is certainly one of the union of his "inner" and "outer" self, soul and body. Death is an abnormal condition, tearing apart what God created and joined together. Death does bring tremendous loss and deprivation; it precludes the fullness of creaturely existence for which man was created. But this does not mean that it necessarily terminates any form of continued, conscious experience and existence. This is not a conclusion warranted by the biblical evidence. For in the Bible, not only do angels experience conscious existence without bodily form, but believers are said to experience fellowship with the Lord, apart from their bodies, upon death (see Hebrews 12:23; Revelation 6:9-11). Though we will have to consider a number of biblical passages that speak of an intermediate state in our next article, suffice it to say now that the biblical teaching about the unity of soul and body, the importance of the future resurrection, and the deprivation that death brings, does not present an insuperable obstacle to the teaching of a conscious, intermediate state.
Furthermore, the second and more directly biblical argument which appeals to the biblical descriptions of death as a falling asleep, is not as formidable as it might first appear. Several observations about these passages are in order. First, in none of the biblical passages describing death as a falling asleep, is the "soul" the subject that sleeps; the person, body and soul, sleeps. You might even argue that, because death results from the dissolution of the body, it is particularly the body which sleeps. Second, the imagery of sleeping means to describe death euphemistically, that is, in a way which demonstrates that its sting and terror have been removed for the believer. This is the reason that those passages which use this language only speak of the death of believers, never of unbelievers! Death is a "falling asleep" only for those who are "in Christ" (1 Corinthians 15:18) or "in Jesus" (1 Thessalonians 4:14), not for those who are outside of Christ. And third, the two ideas that predominate in this euphemism for the death of believers are resting from one's labors and involvement in the struggles/ trials of this life and an entering into a state of peace and joy (cf. Psalm 37:37-39; Isaiah 57:1-2; Philippians 1:23; 1 Thessalonians 5:10; 2 Corinthians 5:8). The idea of a loss of consciousness or felt experience of being in the presence of the Lord or fellow believers does not belong to it. It is a biblically unjustified pressing of the metaphor of sleep to insist that it means to deny consciousness to the believer upon death. This would in fact contradict the teaching of other biblical passages which do ascribe such conscious experience to believers in the intermediate state.
The other two arguments referred to are equally weak and invalid. The argument from silence, for example, has little to commend it. There are only a few instances mentioned in Scripture in which the dead are brought back to life. From these few instances, we are not permitted to establish the universal rule that all persons experience no conscious existence after death and before the resurrection of the body. It may well be that there are good reasons why such persons do not report their experience(s) in their disembodied state. Perhaps what the apostle Paul declares in 2 Corinthians 12:4 holds also for them, when he speaks of having been "caught up into Paradise, and (having) heard inexpressible things, things that man is not permitted to tell." Moreover, the other argument concerning the judgment day supposes that it serves the purpose of revealing for the first time the eternal destiny of believers and unbelievers. But this denies the Scripture's teaching that believers have already the foretaste of "eternal life" (cf. 1 John 5:13; John 5:24; Philippians 1:28; Romans 5:1; 8:1). It also confuses what is constitutive with what is declarative: the final judgment does not constitute or determine the destiny of believers and unbelievers, but only declares publicly, vindicating God's grace and justice, what that destiny is.
In the final analysis, the only antidote for these unbiblical views of the intermediate state is the positive teaching of Scripture itself about this state and its features. Neither annihilationism nor soul-sleep begin to do justice to the biblical teaching about this intermediate state. Both of them wrongly conclude from the Bible's emphasis upon the unity of body and soul, and the future reality of the resurrection of the body, that there can be no conscious experience of communion with or separation from God in the intermediate state.
The comfort of every believer who "falls asleep" in Jesus, according to the Scriptures, is that they go to be "with the Lord." They enter upon death into a new phase of unbroken and conscious fellowship with Christ and His people. This — not annihilation or soul-sleep — is the future prospect of believers in the intermediate state.
It is now time — some might say, past time! — to consider the positive biblical teaching about the intermediate state. If the Bible rejects annihilationism or soul-sleep, what does it teach about the believer in the state intermediate between death and the resurrection?
Though the Bible is reticent on this subject and does not authorize undue speculation about what this state will be like, it does clearly teach that believers, in their "soul" or "spirit," will enjoy a state of conscious and unbroken (even intensified) communion with the Lord Jesus Christ. However, provisional this state may be — awaiting the full redemption of the children of God, including their participation in the resurrection harvest of which Christ's resurrection was the "first-fruits" (1 Corinthians 15:20-23) — it will be a state of great joy in the presence of the Lord.
It is interesting to notice that the Heidelberg Catechism, in its answer to the question concerning the resurrection of the body, begins its answer by referring directly to this intermediate state. Even though the Heidelberg Catechism does not attempt to elaborate upon the meaning of this state, it clearly affirms that the believer enjoys a continued and happy communion with the Lord after death and prior to the day of resurrection: "What comfort does the resurrection of the body afford you? That not only my soul, after this life, shall immediately be taken up to Christ, its Head; but also that this my body, raised by the power of Christ, shall again be united with my soul, and made like unto the glorious body of Christ" (Lord's Day XXII, Q & A 57). It will be my objective in what follows to show the biblical support for this beautiful confession and the comfort it affords believers in the Lord Jesus Christ.
Old Testament Foreshadowings
In the history of the church, including the Reformed churches, the relation between the teaching of the Old Testament and the New Testament has often been described in terms of what is called progressive revelation. The Lord does not reveal everything to His people all at once. The history of redemption also brings a history of revelation, in which the Lord discloses His will and purpose to His people bit-by-bit. Some things that are fully and clearly revealed in the New Testament were only dimly seen and foreshadowed in the Old Testament. John Calvin often employed the metaphor of a child maturing into adulthood to express this relation; the Old Testament is to the New Testament what the instruction of children is to that of adults. Warfield, the great Presbyterian theologian of the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, also compared the Old Testament to the New Testament by describing the first as a dimly lit and the second as a brightly lit room. Things that were only faintly visible in the Old Testament, in the light of the fuller revelation of the New Testament, become more readily visible.
This is especially evident when it comes to the subject of the intermediate state. There is an evident progress in the history of revelation from the Old Testament to the New Testament. Things only foreshadowed in the Old Testament become clearly visible in the New Testament. For this reason, some have even gone so far as to argue that the Old Testament knows nothing of an intermediate state or an existence beyond death in the presence of God. They argue that this is only revealed in the New Testament.
But this is going too far. There are, in fact, some interesting foreshadowings in the Old Testament of the teaching of the New Testament:
- First, the Old Testament vigorously condemns the practice of necromancy or communicating with the dead (e.g. compare Deuteronomy 18:9-12; Leviticus 20:6; 2 Kings 21:6; 23:24; Isaiah 8:19-20; 19:3; 29:4). These passages, in their condemnation of this practice, confirm at the very least a widespread conviction of continued conscious existence after death. This is particularly instructive since the Old Testament uniformly views death as the result of God's judgment curse upon man because of his sin.
- Second, there are two outstanding instances in the Old Testament in which godly believers were immediately translated at death and ushered into the presence of God. These are the instances of Enoch who "was not, for God took him" (Genesis 5:24), and Elijah who "went up by a whirlwind into heaven" (2 Kings 2:11).
- Third, there are passages, particularly in the Psalms, which express the confident hope that there is life for the believing child of God beyond the grave and in distinction from the wicked who go down into "Sheol" under the wrath of God (Job 19:25-27; Psalm 73:24-26; Psalm 1:6; 7:10; 37:18). Despite the fact that the preponderance of references to "Sheol" in the Old Testament simply refers to the "grave" or to the "place of the dead" (e.g. Genesis 37:35; 1 Samuel 2:6), there are instances in which it is colored with the connotation of punishment and judgment upon the wicked, from which the righteous are delivered (Psalm 9:17; Psalm 55:15; Proverbs 15:24; Psalm 16:10; Psalm 49:14).
- Fourth, there is clearly expressed in the Old Testament the expectation of the resurrection of the righteous and the wicked, respectively, unto weal and woe (Hosea 13:14; Daniel 12:2; Isaiah. 26:19).
- And fifth, the covenant communion which the Lord establishes with His people, a communion which brings life out of death and redresses the consequences of sin and the curse, promises the fullness of life in unbroken communion with the Lord. It should not surprise us, therefore, that the Lord Jesus Christ, summarizing the promise of life in covenant with God known to the people of God under the old covenant, should say to the Sadducees, who denied the resurrection, "Have you not read that which was spoken to you by God, saying, 'I am the God of Abraham, and the God of Isaac, and the God of Jacob'? He is not the God of the dead but of the living" (Matthew 22:31-32). This affirmation of life beyond death is born out of an awareness of what the covenant of grace promises.
When these Old Testament foreshadowings are taken together, it does not seem possible to suppress the conclusion that the Old Testament believer anticipated life beyond the grave in communion with the Lord of the covenant. Nor does it seem possible to resist the conclusion that the Old Testament teaches the rudiments of a doctrine of punishment for the wicked and blessedness for the righteous after death. Nevertheless, these remain foreshadowings. Only in the light of the fuller disclosure of new covenant revelation do we find these rudiments confirmed and clarified.
General New Testament Affirmations
There are several passages in the New Testament which make it clear that believers and unbelievers alike, upon death, continue to experience a conscious form of existence.6 However, this form of existence differs dramatically between believers and unbelievers; whereas believers enjoy a life of provisional blessedness in the presence of the Lord, unbelievers experience a provisional foretaste of eternal punishment under the judgment of God. Though our interest is primarily focused upon the experience of believers in this intermediate state, we cannot but mention as we proceed, the corresponding state of unbelievers.
One of the most striking passages in this connection is the well-known parable of the rich man and Lazarus in Luke 16:19-31.7 Jesus describes in this passage the contrasting states of the rich man and Lazarus, first before death, and then after death. Though the rich man enjoyed an existence of luxury and pleasure, subsequent to death he finds himself "in Hades ... in torment" (vs. 23). The poor man by contrast, though he did not enjoy this world's goods during his life, finds himself after death in the bosom of Abraham, in a place of blessedness and honor. Furthermore, Jesus describes the relationship between these respective places and states as one in which a "great chasm" is fixed between them, preventing any passage from one to the other. Without attempting to interpret fully all the details of this passage, it seems clearly to affirm that, immediately upon death, the righteous and the wicked enter upon two separate modes of existence. The righteous are found in a state of provisional blessedness in the presence of God; the wicked are found in a state of provisional and inescapable torment. "Hades" and "Abraham's bosom" do not describe two compartments of the same place (the realm of the dead), but distinct places, like two wholly divergent anterooms to the final state.
This striking affirmation of an intermediate state in Luke 16:19-31, however, does not stand alone in the New Testament. It is confirmed in several other passages as well. For instance, in Luke 23:43, Jesus, speaking to the criminal on the cross who had requested that Jesus remember him "when You come in Your kingdom," answered, "Truly I say to you, today you shall be with Me in Paradise." Now it has been suggested that "today" in this answer should be read with the expression, "Truly I say to you." Thus, Jesus is simply underscoring the time of this pronouncement. Though this is grammatically possible, it is quite unlikely for at least two reasons. First, there is no contextual reason why Jesus would have to stress the fact that He makes this affirmation "today." It would be redundant, for example, were I to add the word "today" in order to underscore the time of my writing this sentence. Second, in other instances in which Jesus uses the formulaic expression, "Truly I say to you," the word "today" is not present. There seems, then, to be no legitimate reason to reject the straightforward reading of this text. Read in its context, Jesus is affirming the criminal's fellowship with Him immediately upon death in "paradise.8
Similarly, in Revelation 7:9-17 the apostle John provides us an account of the circumstance of the saints "before the throne and before the Lamb" (vs. 9) in heaven. In his vision he sees a "great multitude which no one could count" who "are clothed in white robes, and palm branches were in their hands." When, in the course of the vision's recounting, the question is asked, "Who are they, and from where have they come?" (vs. 13), the answer is given: "These are the ones who come out of the great tribulation, and they have washed their robes and made them white in the blood of the Lamb" (vs. 14). The description of these saints clearly expresses conscious communion with and worship of God, though they are not yet experiencing the final state described in Revelation 21 and 22 since they worship "day and night in His temple."9 This description parallels that of Revelation 6:9-10 where the "souls of those who had been slain because of the Word of God" are depicted crying out "with a loud voice, saying, 'How long, O Lord, holy and true, wilt Thou refrain from judging and avenging our blood on those who dwell on the earth?'" It corresponds to the frequent descriptions in Revelation of departed saints who live in the presence of God and reign with Christ in heaven (cf. Revelation 3:12, 21; 4:4; 19:14; 20:4).
In addition to these passages which affirm the believer's conscious fellowship with the Lord in the state intermediate between death and the final state of resurrection glory, there are passages which speak of the unbelieving and wicked experiencing a state of provisional torment upon death. Echoing the language of Luke 16 with its description of the rich man in torment, Christ rebukes the unbelieving in Capernaum in Matthew 11:23, declaring that they "will go down to Hades" rather than to heaven. Here Hades is a place of punishment, reserved for the unbelieving and wicked upon death, a place that anticipates the final punishment of the wicked in hell. This language also corresponds to the language of 2 Peter 2:4 which describes the judgment of God upon disobedient angels who are "kept for judgment" after being "cast" into hell by God.
Admittedly, these New Testament affirmations do not warrant any unnecessary speculation about the intermediate state, whether of believers or unbelievers. They do not provide us a great deal of detail or description of the respective circumstances of believers and unbelievers after death. But they do warrant the general conclusion that believers experience after death a circumstance of provisional blessedness in fellowship with the Lord, and that unbelievers experience after death a circumstance of provisional punishment under the wrath of God. There is an anticipation for believers and unbelievers alike of the declaration of the final judgment, when some will be welcomed into glory, others will be cast into hell.
Two Important Texts
There are still, however, two further New Testament texts that demand our attention. These texts explicitly affirm an intermediate state in which believers will enjoy an intensified communion with the Lord prior to His coming again and the resurrection at the last day. With these texts, the Christian confidence of being ushered immediately into the presence of the Lord, so aptly described as we have seen in Lord's Day 22 of the Heidelberg Catechism, is confirmed.
2 Corinthians 5:1-10
The first of these texts is 2 Corinthians 5:1-10, a passage that follows immediately upon the heels of the apostle Paul's acknowledgment of death before the return of Christ (4:16-18). Though acknowledging this prospect of death and the dissolution of the "earthly tent" of the body which death inevitably brings, the apostle declares his hope in the provision of a "building from God, a house not made with hands, eternal in the heavens" (5:1). He also declares his confidence that, though death brings even diminishment of the believer's creaturely existence in bodily form, it will not separate him or any believer from fellowship with the Lord. Indeed, death will bring the believer a fellowship with the Lord that is, in some largely unexplained sense, even greater than that presently enjoyed in the body.
One of the difficulties of this passage that has troubled many interpreters is the bold affirmation of verse 1 which seems clearly to refer to the ultimate clothing of the believer with an imperishable body, the resurrection body. What troubles some interpreters is the use of the present tense in this verse ("we have a building from God") which suggests the immediate reception of the resurrection body upon death. But this would not fit with the general biblical teaching that the resurrection body is only given in conjunction with the future resurrection of all believers. Some have suggested, therefore, that the apostle Paul is describing a kind of provisional body, given to believers in the intermediate state. But this too finds no support elsewhere in Scripture.
Perhaps the best understanding of this verse is to take the use of the present tense as a way of describing a future which is absolutely certain. When the apostle says, "We have a building from God," he uses this language to describe what is for the believer an "assured possession," namely, the resurrection body which will be given at the resurrection of the last day.10
However we take verse 1, for our purposes verses 6-9 are more directly addressed to the matter of the intermediate state. After acknowledging the diminishment that death, even for the believer, brings in verses 2-5 (the apostle Paul compares death in these verses to "being unclothed"), we read:
Therefore, being always of good courage, and knowing that while we are at home in the body we are absent from the Lord — for we walk by faith, not by sight — we are of good courage, I say, and prefer rather to be absent from the body and be at home with the Lord. Therefore also we have as our ambition, whether at home or absent, to be pleasing to Him.
The contrast drawn in these verses between "being at home in the body" and "being away from the body," and between "being away from the Lord" and "being with the Lord," corresponds to the contrast between our present, bodily existence and our subsequent, bodiless existence after death. This contrast characterizes the respective states of believers before and after death. Thus, these verses affirm that death (being away from the body) means for the believer that he will be at home with the Lord. There is a kind of intensified communion with the Lord, subsequent to death and prior to the resurrection of the body, which believers will enjoy in the interim between death and resurrection.
Though these verses do not provide an opening for all kinds of curious questions about the nature of this being-at-home-with-the-Lord, they do warrant the confession of an intermediate state. The comfort for the believer who walks by faith and not by sight is that he will not experience, even in death, a breaking of the communion with Christ which he now enjoys by faith. Rather, death will bring a new and more intimate fellowship with Christ than that which is presently known in the body.
A second important text which affirms an intermediate state is Philippians 1:21-23. Here we find the apostle Paul making a bold and initially startling declaration about the relative desirability of life and death:
For to me, to live is Christ, and to die is gain. But if I am to live on in the flesh, this will mean fruitful labor for me; and I do not know which to choose. But I am hard-pressed from both directions, having the desire to depart and be with Christ, for that is very much better (emphasis mine).
According to the apostle Paul, he finds himself torn between two desires. On the one hand, recognizing that "to live is Christ," he finds himself pulled in the direction of continued life in the flesh in which he can fruitfully labor for the churches of Jesus Christ. But on the other hand, recognizing that "to die is gain," he finds himself pulled in the direction of wanting to depart in order to be with Christ. This latter desire, unlike the faithless desire of the prophet Elijah, for example, who wanted to abandon his calling and die (1 Kings 19:4), is a genuine one, born of the awareness of what death will bring him (and all believers).
The contrast in these verses, like that in 2 Corinthians 5:1-10, is drawn between life in the body and life (after death) apart from the body. Life in the body does not permit the more intensified communion and fellowship with Christ that only death, putting off the body, will bring. Again, though the expression, to be "with Christ," is not explained in any detail, it expresses the idea of a more intimate communion than that presently known or enjoyed. Thus, this text, like those already discussed, contributes to our understanding of the intermediate state as one of an intensified communion with Christ.
When considering the biblical teaching about the intermediate state, I am reminded of the apostle Paul's citations from the prophecy of Isaiah in 1 Corinthians 2:9: "'Things which eye has not seen and ear has not heard, and which have not entered the heart of man, all that God has prepared for those who love Him.'" The danger here is that we go beyond what the Bible authorizes and begin to speculate in ways that are not helpful to the people of God. There is so much that God has not been pleased to reveal to us about the intermediate state.
However, this should not prevent us from receiving with gratitude what God has been pleased to reveal to us in His Word. If we remember what was emphasized in a previous article — that the great hope of the believer remains fixed upon the glory of Christ's work in the resurrection at the last day, when the first-fruits of the harvest issue in the full in-gathering — we need not shrink back from confessing that not even death can separate us from God's love for us in Christ Jesus! We need not shrink back from the comfort of knowing that, for believers who "die in the Lord," there is the promise of an immediate, an unbroken, and an intensified communion "with the Lord" in the state intermediate between death and resurrection.
Though death may still be recognized as the believer's "last enemy," and though at the gravesite of believers we may confess together "the resurrection of the body," there is every biblical reason for believers to comfort one another with the knowledge that those whose bodies are dissolved and laid in the grave have gone to be with the Lord, which is far better!
This comfort is not a futile shaking of the fist in the face of the inescapable reality of death. It is not the last vestige of Greek thinking that remains like an intruder within the orbit of Christian truth.11
Not at all. It is the confident hope of every believer who can say with the apostle Paul, "For me to live is Christ, and to die is gain ... I am hard-pressed from both directions, having the desire to depart and be with Christ, for that is very much better." As the hymn-writer well expressed it,
I fear no foe, with Thee at hand to bless;
Ills have no weight and tears no bitterness.
Where is death's sting? Where, grave, thy victory?
I triumph still, if Thou abide with me.