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 series of 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 and two subsequent articles 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.”2 There is no encouragement given us in the Bible to minimize the terror and fearfulness of death as our “last enemy” (1 Cor. 15:26). 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 (Gen. 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 (Gen. 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 Cor. 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 (Ps. 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” (Rom.5:12; cf. I Cor. 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” (Rom. 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 (Rom. 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” (Heb. 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 (I Cor. 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 Tim. 1:10). Even as death is the “wages of sin,” so “the free gift of God is eternal life in Christ Jesus our Lord” (Rom. 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 (Rom. 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 (Phil. 1:21; 2 Cor. 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).
IMMORTALITY 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 (I Cor. 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. Rom. 2:7; I Cor. 9:25; 1 Pet. 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 in a future article. 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 ofHis 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?
To this question we will turn more directly in our next article.
1. The term eschatology is a combination of two words, eschatos, meaning “last” or “end,” and logos, meaning “word.” Eschatology then is the study of (word about) the lost things or endtimes in the light of Scripture.
2. 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. In the earty Church, Celestius, a disciple of the British monk. Pelagius, taught this view. The Socinians, a radical branch of the Reformation, also taught it. In recent centuries, theologians who have sought to accommodate their views to evolutionism, including Karl Barth, have simply token it as a given that death is a natural feature of human life.
Dr. Venema, editor of this department, teaches Doctrinal Studies at Mid-America Reformed Seminary in Orange City, IA.