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.
In our previous article, 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 in our next article, then, we will first consider these two viewpoints in this article. Since they are closely related to the themes discussed in our previous article, 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 re-creation 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 four 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 immorality 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 tenninology 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 mayor 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 Adventists,1 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” (Gen. 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.
In our next article, 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 Ana-baptist movement of the sixteenth-century Reformation;2 some of the “lrvingites” 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 dement passages 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 annihiliationism. 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.3
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.: Gen. 47:30; Deut. 31:16; 2 Sam. 7:12; Ps. 30:9; 6:5; 115:17; Eccles. 9:10; Is. 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 I 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, New Testament passages (cf., e.g.: Matt. 27:52; John 11:11–13; 1 Cor. 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 Heb. 12:23; Rev. 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 Cor. 15:18) or “in Jesus” (I Thess. 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. Ps. 37:37–39; Is. 57:1–2; Phil. 1:23; 1 Thess. 5:10; 2 Cor. 5:8). The idea of a loss ofconsciousness 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 Cor. 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; Phil. 1:28; Rom. 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. To this positive biblical teaching and solid comfort we turn next month.
1. I am well aware of the debate whether the Seventh-Day Adventists are a cult. In my judgment, they are probably best described as a seriously (doctrinally) deformed expression of evangelical Christianity, bearing several “cult-like” features. Cf. Anthony A. Hoekema, “Appendix E: The Teachings of Seventh-Day Adventists and Jehovah’s Witnesses on the Life After Death: in his The Four Major Cults (Grand Rapids: Eerdmons, 1963), pp. 345–371, for a discussion of the teachings of these groups on the intermediate state.
2. It is interesting to note that John Calvin, early in his reforming work, wrote a treatise against certain Ana-baptist defenders of the doctrine of “soul-sleep,” entitled, Psychopannychia. An English translation of this tract, still a worthwhile treatment of the arguments for and the biblical reasons against soul-sleep, can be found in: Selected Works of John Calvin: Tracts and Letters, ed. by Henry Beveridge and Jules Bonnet. Vol. 3 (Edinburgh: Colvin Translation Society. 1851; Boker Book House reprint), pp. 414-490. The 40th Article of King Edward VI’s 42 Articles (a precursor of the later 39 Articles of the Anglican Church) also addressed these Ana-baptist teachers of the doctrine of soul-sleep: “They which say that the souls of those who depart hence do sleep being without all sense, feeling or perceiving fill the Day of judgment, do utterly dissent from the right belief disclosed to us in Holy Scripture.”
3. This raises one of the peculiar problems of the “soul-sleep” position: if human experience requires the body, then doesn’t death bring the end of all experience and existence, including the human experience known as “sleeping”? Another way of putting the question would be this: if human existence is always bodily existence, doesn’t death mark the termination of human existence, including that of the “soul”? It seems odd to affirm the existence, including the “sleeping” of something, namely, the human “soul,” when death is regarded as the end of any meaningful form of human existence.