A Consideration of The Intermediate State
An examination of this subject immediately encounters a number of difficulties, with one of the most significant being that the term “intermediate state” is non-existent in the Bible. Therefore, a study of this topic is at best a discussion of what can be inferred from a handful of key passages. The term “intermediate state” has come to refer to the state of the believer after death but before the return of Christ. The intermediate state is a sort of “in-between place,” as it is often thought that at the return of Christ a new bodily existence will begin. The intermediate state is therefore where the believing dead will go to await that new existence. It should be clarified that a belief in the intermediate state assumes that there will be a future bodily resurrection. Belief in a bodily resurrection has led to an interest in the state and status of the dead before the resurrection occurs (Kreitzer, 438). This study will briefly interact with the Biblical evidence and theological conclusions that pertain to discussions about the intermediate state.
The Biblical teaching about the state of the dead after death and before the resurrection is more fully developed in the New Testament than in the Old Testament. However, the idea of an intermediate state is not completely absent from the Old Testament. For example, Job seems to have some awareness of a future resurrection in Job 19:25. Jesus seems to be thinking of an intermediate state in Matthew 22:32. In that passage he quoted Exodus 3:6 and stated (after referencing Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob) that God is not the God of the dead but of the living. In the New Testament two important passages that discuss physical death and resurrection are Matthew 22:30-32 and 1 Corinthians 15. The Bible also teaches that there is a unity between soul and body and that both are important in understanding what it means to be human (Gen. 2:7). The account of Saul and the witch at Endor (1 Sam. 28:7) has been appealed to for information about the intermediate state, but the many interpretative issues surrounding this passage make it unwise to press it for details (Helm, 1043).
One of the most popular passages in this discussion is Christ’s story of the rich man and Lazarus in Luke 16:19-31. Paul Helm believes that this story is a parable, although Jesus never directly says that. This account is also thought to have symbolic character (v. 22) and is recognized as being primarily focused on teaching about how the present life impacts a person’s eternal destiny. For these reasons Helm maintains that care must be exercised in extracting information about the intermediate state from this story (Helm, 1043). In contrast to Helm’s reluctance to admit that the account of the rich man and Lazarus is of much value in this discussion, Murray J. Harris thinks it deserves consideration. Harris acknowledges that this story was primarily told for the purpose of illustrating the dangers of wealth and the importance of repentance. However, he also believes that it is reasonable to look at this account for some basic details about the intermediate state (Harris, 47-48).
Of special interest to Harris is that the final destinies of both the rich man and Lazarus were fixed; neither could be changed (Lk. 16:23, 25-26). This story is clearly depicting the intermediate (not the final) state, as life on earth was continuing (vv. 27–29) and the resurrection and judgment were in the future (vv. 27–31). According to this account both the rich man and Lazarus were aware of their surroundings. Lazarus was comforted in Abraham’s bosom (vv. 22–23, 25) and the rich man was tormented in Hades (vv. 23–25, 28). The rich man also demonstrated a memory of the past, as Abraham instructed him to remember his lifetime (v. 25) and as he was able to remember that his family had rejected the Scriptures (vv. 27–30). The rich man’s dialogue with Abraham suggests the dead have a sense of perception (vv. 27–28) and the ability to reason (v. 30) (Harris, 47-48).
Those three characteristics of consciousness, memory, and rationality are also suggested as being visible in the martyr’s plea for vindication in Revelation 6:9-10. In that account the martyrs ask God how long it will be until their deaths are avenged. Additionally, Paul preferred (2 Cor. 5:8) and desired (Phil. 1:23) to leave this earth and be with the Lord, which would not make sense unless fellowship with Christ is more profound after death than during this life. We can learn from the New Testament that deceased believers are secure in God’s care (Lk. 23:46; cf. Acts 7:59), are at rest from their labors (Heb. 4:10; Rev. 14:13), and are experiencing spiritual life (1 Pet. 4:6). The idea of a conscious intermediate state can be countered by a consideration of the verb ‘sleep’ (koimasthai), which is used fifteen times to refer to dead people. This verb was a common euphemism for death and is sometimes thought to suggest a time of “suspended animation” between death and resurrection. Harris considers the evidence and concludes that the dead “fall asleep” in the sense that they no longer participate in this world, yet they are fully conscious in their new environment. Paul only uses this verb of Christians, not of men in general, suggesting the peaceful passing that should characterize Christians (Harris, 47-48).
Whether or not the intermediate state is one of disembodiment is an issue that this study is not able to address. However, we can seek to summarize by stating two conclusions often drawn from the Biblical evidence. The first conclusion is that even after physical death the person lives on as a distinct individual personality. In the case of believers that existence is understood as being in the presence of God (e.g., Phil. 1:23). Both believers and unbelievers are thought to be conscious and aware of their location after death. The second conclusion is that the existence in the intermediate state is not a fully human existence because the souls does not possess a body. The body is understood as an essential part of being human and is somehow connected with what is means to be made in the image of God. The dead believer awaits the resurrection of the body, at which point he will experience complete freedom from sin and be in the presence of Christ (1 Cor 15:50–58). It is much less clear from the Bible what exactly will immediately happen to those who die outside of Christ. Even in light of the scarcity of Biblical material on this topic, it can be stated with certainty that dead believers will experience a resurrection to life and dead unbelievers will experience a resurrection to judgment (Jn. 5:29) (Helm, 1043).
The primary issue in discussions about the intermediate state seems to be the degree of consciousness that is experienced by the dead. The story of the rich man and Lazarus is the classic text in these discussions. We have already looked at this passage, but it has not yet been emphasized that there is a “great chasm” that has been fixed between the blessed and the damned. This story is subject to many interpretations, ranging from some taking the details to extremes to others saying that the details are meaningless. However, this story does not seem to be completely meaningless, especially if consideration is given to Jesus’ statement to the criminal that they would be together in Paradise (Lk. 23:43), and apparently aware of their location (Smith, 609).
The three major views in Christian theology on the intermediate state are “soul sleep” (dead persons are completely unconscious), “restful bliss or conscious torment” (dead believers are conscious in the blissful presence of Christ and dead unbelievers are consciously in torment apart from God), and purgatory (the Roman Catholic belief that dead persons undergo various levels of sufferings in order to receive purification from their sins). There are also some theologians who completely deny the existence of the intermediate state, concluding that the dead immediately enter their eternal abode (Grenz, 67). In light of the Biblical evidence we have looked at I believe that the second option (conscious bliss or conscious torment) is the one that makes the most sense. It could be objected that in the story of the rich man and Lazarus Jesus was not seeking to teach about the intermediate state. Perhaps not, but he was no doubt aware of what he was saying. In light of my conviction that Jesus is the Son of God, I am willing to accept his statements about the intermediate state.
Grenz, Stanley, David Guretzki, and Cherith Fee Nordling. Pocket Dictionary of Theological Terms. Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 1999.
Harris, Murray J. “The New Testament View of Life After Death.” Themelios: Volume 11, No. 2, January 1986 (1986).
Helm, Paul. “Intermediate State.” In Baker Encyclopedia of the Bible, eds. Walter A. Elwell and Barry J. Beitzel. Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Book House, 1988.
Kreitzer, L.J. “Intermediate State.” In Dictionary of Paul and His Letters, eds. Gerald F. Hawthorne, Ralph P. Martin, and Daniel G. Reid, eds. Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 1993.
Smith, S.M. “Intermediate State.” In Evangelical Dictionary of Theology: Second Edition. Ed. Walter A. Elwell. Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Academic, 2001.