The Intermediate State

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.

Works Cited

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.

Peace under Pressure

Acts 27 records the Apostle Paul’s sea voyage to the city of Rome.  The ship on which he was sailing encountered a severe storm and was eventually shipwrecked.  In the midst of that difficulty, Paul maintained a tremendous sense of peace.  His experience reminds us that the power for peace under pressure comes from the presence of Christ.

The Last Day

The Bible emphasizes that Jesus Christ will return.  However, we are not given specific information about the date of Christ’s return.  We are instead instructed to always be ready for the last day.

“The last day is hidden that every day may be regarded.”  (Augustine)

Enjoyment of God

William Law’s book “A Serious Call to a Devout and Holy Life” is a convicting work that is certainly worthy of its status as a classic in Christian literature.  In chapter 14 of that work he writes (emphasis mine):

I take it for granted, that every Christian, that is in health, is up early in the morning; for it is much more reasonable to suppose a person up early, because he is a Christian, than because he is a labourer, or a tradesman, or a servant, or has business that wants him.

We naturally conceive some abhorrence of a man that is in bed, when he should be at his labour, or in his shop. We cannot tell how to think anything good of him, who is such a slave to drowsiness, as to neglect his business for it.

Let this therefore teach us to conceive, how odious we must appear in the sight of heaven, if we are in bed, shut up in sleep and darkness, when we should be praising God; and are such slaves to drowsiness, as to neglect our devotions for it.

For if he is to be blamed as a slothful drone, that rather chooses the lazy indulgence of sleep, than to perform his proper share of worldly business; how much more is he to be reproached, that had rather lie folded up in a bed, than be raising up his heart to God in acts of praise and adoration?

Prayer is the nearest approach to God, and the highest enjoyment of him, that we are capable of in this life.

It is the noblest exercise of the soul, the most exalted use of our best faculties, and the highest imitation of the blessed inhabitants of heaven.

When our hearts are full of God, sending up holy desires to the throne of grace, we are then in our highest state, we are upon the utmost heights of human greatness; we are not before kings and princes, but in the presence and audience of the Lord of all the world, and can be no higher, till death is swallowed up in glory.

On the other hand, sleep is the poorest, dullest refreshment of the body, that is so far from being intended as an enjoyment, that we are forced to receive it either in a state of insensibility, or in the folly of dreams.

Sleep is such a dull, stupid state of existence, that even amongst mere animals, we despise those most, which are most drowsy.

He therefore that chooses, to enlarge the slothful indulgence of sleep, rather than be early at his devotions to God, chooses the dullest refreshment of the body, before the highest, noblest employment of the soul; he chooses that state, which is a reproach to mere animals, rather than that exercise, which is the glory of Angels.

You will perhaps say, though you rise late, yet you are always careful of your devotions when you are up.

It may be so. But what then? Is it well done of you to rise late, because you pray when you are up? Is it pardonable to waste great part of the day in bed, because some time after you say your prayers?

It is as much your duty to rise to pray, as to pray when you are risen. And if you are late at your prayers, you offer to God the prayers of an idle, slothful worshipper, that rises to prayers, as idle servants rise to their labour.

John Wesley

The Life and Teachings of John Wesley (1703-1791)

John Wesley is recognized as the founder of Methodism.  The term “Wesleyan” is still seen today in the names of churches, colleges, and theological concepts; it reflects the legacy established by this eighteenth-century preacher.

In 1703 John Wesley was born in Epworth, Lincolnshire, England to Samuel and Susanna Wesley.  His father was a rector in the Anglican Church.  The young Wesley was educated at the Charterhouse in London, as well as Christ Church at Oxford, where he received his B.A. in 1724 and his M.A. in 1727.  After graduation he joined his father at the parish in Wroot and was ordained to the ministry the following year.  During his time at Oxford, Wesley was a serious student, with a keen interest in both logic and religion.  However, it was not until 1725 that his “religious” conversion took place.  That was a critical point in the young man’s life, as he was prompted to consider what direction he would go with his life.  Through a number of important influences, including the encouragement of his mother and his reading of Thomas à Kempis, he decided that religion would be his life’s business.

Wesley’s decision to make religion his life business led to his ordination as a deacon in 1725 and then to joining his father in church work at Wroot.  He was his father’s curate (a rector’s assistant) from 1727 to 1729, after which he returned to Oxford.  At Oxford he took over the leadership of the “Holy Club,” a small group of students that had been organized by his brother Charles.  That organization would later come to be called “Methodist,” picking up that name from their methodical approach to Bible study.  They were also known for their strict self-denial, which included acts of charity.  It was during that time at Oxford that both of the Wesley brothers came to be influenced by William Law, an English mystic.  Wesley observed that at this point in his life he did not understand justification by faith, which led to his seeking justification through his own righteous works.  It was also during this time that Wesley developed his views on Christian perfection, which later became recognized as a hallmark of the Methodist movement.

In 1735 Wesley left Oxford and traveled to Georgia as a missionary.  His experience there was disastrous.  Like his father, Wesley was a member of the Society for Promoting Christian Knowledge.  The Society invited Wesley to be a volunteer missionary to Georgia, a colony that had been recently founded by his father’s friend Colonel James Oglethorpe.  He became a parish priest in Savannah, an office in which he served with some success.  However, he also became enthralled with Sophey Hopkey, the niece of Georgia’s chief magistrate, Thomas Causton.  His failed courtship of Sophey caused him to become critical of both Causton and Oglethorpe, and he believed them to be guilty of mismanagement.  Causton brought together a grand jury that indicted Wesley on trumped-up charges, which indictment prompted him to leave Georgia in 1737.  He had, however, helped to strengthen the congregation in Savannah.  Therefore, his experience in Georgia was not entirely a failure despite his somewhat dishonorable departure.

After returning to England, Wesley experienced an evangelical conversion at a society meeting in London on May 24, 1738.  That experience changed his life.  He became convinced that the activities of the Methodist society could be empowered by grace and the Holy Spirit, working through faith in Jesus Christ.  A revival started less than a year after Wesley’s conversion and continued until his death in 1791.  That revival began his fifty-two year itinerant preaching ministry.  During that ministry, Wesley preached over 40,000 sermons while averaging 4,000 miles of travel each year.  However, Wesley can be distinguished from other evangelists in that he did more than just preach.  A unique feature of his ministry was the formation of societies to assist in the strengthening of the people who were awakened and converted during the revival.  Those societies moved across the Atlantic in the 1760s.  The Methodist Societies remained essentially a lay movement.  However, in both America and England the societies were largely influenced by the style and discipline of Wesley himself.

The Methodist movement continued to grow in America, particularly under the leadership of Francis Asbury, who had been appointed by Wesley to serve in America.  The American Methodists wrote to Wesley in 1784 and asked for assistance due to their numerical growth.  Wesley’s response was the ordination of a number of men who would establish an independent Methodist Church in America.  Those men had Wesley’s authority to ordain itinerants.  The itinerants had the authority to preach, but not to serve the sacraments, not even to the many Methodists who did not have access to the sacraments.  The birth of the Methodist Episcopal Church in America can be traced to the Christmas Conference of 1784.

At the Christmas Conference Wesley appointed men to lead the American Methodist movement in America.  It was also at that conference that a number of other church-related documents known as Wesley’s “General Plan” were approved.  Included in those approved documents, which were used as the doctrinal basis of British Methodism, were Wesley’s Standard Sermons and Notes on the New Testament, as well as his abridged versions of the Articles of Religion.  Most modern Wesleyan traditions still retain at least a trace of the “General Plan.”  In the aftermath of the Christmas Conference Wesley’s direct church authority began to decline.  His theological and spiritual legacy could still be seen in Methodism, but the American Methodists began to reject his direct involvement in their affairs.  Wesley was still loved by the American Methodists, but he was losing his ability to have a direct role in the church in America.  Throughout the years, Wesley’s influence has still been apparent in Methodism.  Some of the specific emphases that Wesley passed on include social justice, pietistic holiness, evangelism, and discipline.

In his theology Wesley emphasized justification by faith alone.  Another emphasis of his was the pursuit of holiness, with the goal of that holiness being what he called “Christian perfection” (the belief that it is possible for the Christian to not sin).  He believed strongly in the supernatural, while also appealing to Scripture, reason, and the church fathers to support his intellectual claims.  Later in his life he also increasingly appealed to experience to support his arguments.  Wesley valued liturgical prayer, Eucharistic devotion, and extemporaneous worship.  The personal characteristics that made him an effective leader include his magnetism, his organizational abilities, and his capacity for self-discipline.  Another interesting characteristic of Wesley is his emphasis on charitable giving.  He had a distrust of the rich and was aware of the (often negative) effects that wealth can have on the spiritual life.  In his mind, the only legitimate reason to pursue money was for the sake of being able to give to those in need.

There are many movements and denominations that trace their roots back to Wesley and could therefore be characterized as being in the Wesleyan tradition.  The legacy of Wesley can be seen primarily in the various Methodist denominations, although traces of his legacy can also be seen in other groups, including the Holiness movement, the Pentecostal movement, and the Church of the Nazarene.  The Wesleyan tradition has historically been Arminian, as was Wesley himself.  Free will was an important aspect of Wesley’s theology, and is an aspect that separates Wesleyans from Calvinists.  However, the primary distinction between Wesleyans and Calvinists can be seen in sanctification.  Wesley’s issue with Calvinism stemmed from his belief that justification should lead to sanctification, and that faith should lead to works.  The theology of Wesley and the Wesleyan tradition could be summarized as using justification by faith as the “gateway” to holiness or sanctification.