In two previous articles on the subject of the intermediate state, I have attempted to clear a pathway for presenting the positive biblical teaching on what becomes of believers in the state intermediate between death and the resurrection of the body on the last day. In the first article, the biblical teachings regarding physical death as the “wages of sin” and the believer’s hope for the resurrection of the body were reviewed. In the second article, two unbiblical views of the intermediate state, “annihilationism or soul extinction” and “soul sleep,” were rejected as incompatible with the Scriptural understanding of this state.
It is now time—some might say, past timer—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 Cor. 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.
OUR 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 Deut. 18:9–12; Lev. 20:6; 2 Kings 21:6; 23:24; Isa. 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” (Gen. 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; Ps. 73:24–26; Ps. 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. Gen. 37:35; I Sam. 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 (Ps. 9:17; Ps. 55:15; Prov. 15:24; Ps. 16:10; Ps. 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 (Hos. 13:14; Dan. 12:2; Isa. 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” (Matt. 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.1 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 Judgement 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 16:19–31.2 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 m 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 straight forward reading of this text. Read in its context, Jesus is affirming the criminal’s fellowship with Him immediately upon death in “paradise.”3
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.”4 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. Rev. 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.5
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 affrrm 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 fmd 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 tom 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.6 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.
1. I use the language “form of existence” to emphasize that only the believer enjoys “life” in communion with God through Christ. Though the unbeliever continues to “exist,” he does not “live,” at least not in the biblical sense of life which is life indeed.
2. There is some debate as to whether this is a parable or a story based upon historical events. Though I believe it is appropriately designated a “parable,” it is not explicitly identified as such in the text. Some appeal to the “parabolic” character of this passage to suggest that it cannot be used to support any doctrine about the intermediate state. But this is a case of special pleading; the passage makes its point, only if the descriptions offered really referred to actual states of affairs. The biblical authors typically do not suffer the modern notion that you can affirm a truth, though it has no basis in actual reality!
3. The term “paradise” is also used in the new Testament in 2 Cor. 12:4 (“the whole earth has become the temple, the dwelling place of God with His people through the lamb”) and there is no longer any “night” there.
4. In Revelation 21 and 22, the new heavens and the new earth do not have a temple (the whole earth has become the temple, the dwelling place of God with His people through the lamb) and there is no longer any “night” there.
5. John Calvin, in his Commentary on the Second Epistle of Paul to the Corinthians (Calvin’s New Testament Commentaries, ed. by D.W. Torrance and T.F. Torrance; Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1964), p. 67, makes a helpful comment on this verse: “With this Paul contrasts a building that will last forever, although it is not clear whether he means by this the state of blessed immortality that awaits believers after death or the incorruptible and glorious body as it will be after the resurrection. Either meaning is quite suitable, but I prefer to lake it that the blessed state of the soul after death is the beginning of this building, but its completion is the glory of the final resurrection. This explanation is better supported by the context.”
6. John Cooper, in his Body, Soul, & Life Everlasting: Biblical Anthropology and the Monism-Dualism Debate (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1989), provides a good contemporary defense of the Bible’s teaching of an intermediate state. Cooper approaches the issue from a biblical, theological and philosophical perspective, arguing that the Bible teaches a kind of “holistic dualism” (man was created as a psychosomatic unity of body and soul, though these latter are distinguishable aspects of his constitution) which fits with its teaching of an intermediate state in which the “soul” or “inner man” goes to be with the Lord and enjoys continued, conscious existence.
Dr. Venema, editor of this department, teaches Doctrinal Studies at Mid-America Reformed Seminary, Orange City, IA.