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The Intermediate State: What the Bible Tells Us

What happens after you die? In this post, we investigate the intermediate state—the state and the fate of each individual immediately after death but before the final resurrection.

The intermediate state is important for a couple of reasons: First, we need to wrestle with our own mortality. What will become of us when we die? Second, we must consider how we minister to the dying and bereaved. What hope do we offer them, and what details does the Bible give us for life beyond the grave?

Scripture has a great deal to teach us on this topic, and that’s what we’ll explore in this post, excerpted from Michael F. Bird's Evangelical Theology.

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Greek and Jewish understanding of death

The place of the dead is described with two mains words in Scripture: Sheol in the Old Testament and Hades in the New Testament. Unfortunately the Greek word hades is erroneously translated as “hell” in some English versions of the New Testament. The words Sheol and Hades refer to the abode of the dead, but not necessarily the final place of torment for the wicked.

In Hellenistic religious thought, Hades was the Greek god of the underworld, but Hades commonly referred to the realm of the underworld itself, where the souls of the dead endured a shadowy existence. Eventually the idea of postmortem rewards and punishments in Hades entered Greek thought, probably through Homer. Jewish views of the afterlife most likely developed independently of Greek thought, but Greek-speaking Jews did take on similar words and concepts from Greek and Roman views of Hades and the afterlife. The Hebrew concept of the place of the dead is called sheol; it is a place of darkness and gloom with a fading existence. The Hebrew word for sheol was translated as hades in the Septuagint, which explains the ten occurrences of hades in the New Testament (Matt 11:23; 16:18; Luke 10:15; 16:23; Acts 2:27, 31; Rev 1:18; 6:8; 20:13 – 14).

Jewish beliefs about a future day of judgment and the resurrection of the dead began to impact ideas about Sheol and Hades. Resurrection was a divine act of God bringing the dead in Hades back to life. Jewish writings are fairly consistent about Sheol and Hades as the place to which the dead depart (e.g., 2 Macc 6:23; 1 En. 102.5; 103.7; 2 Bar. 23.4), but the ultimate distinction between the righteous and the wicked at the final judgment could be anticipated during the temporary mode of existence in Hades. The best examples of this are 1 Enoch 22.1 – 14 and 4 Ezra 7.75 – 101, where the righteous and wicked are separated in Hades until the final judgment, with mixed fortunes for each group ahead of that day.

This provides the context for understanding several texts about “Hades” and the “imprisoned spirits” in Luke 16:19 – 31 and 1 Peter 3:19 – 20. The New Testament teaches that the kingdom of God will advance in such a way that the “gates of Hades/death” will not be able to break it. Moreover, the gates of Hades/death were thought to keep the dead imprisoned in its realm and only God can open the gates; yet the risen Lord says to John the Seer: “I am the Living One; I was dead, and now look, I am alive for ever and ever! And I hold the keys of death and Hades”; this text means that he has acquired the divine power to release people from the realm of the dead.

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What the Gospels say about the intermediate state

How the parable of the rich man and Lazarus depicts the afterlife

A number of texts from Luke provide information about a possible intermediate state. The most controversial is the parable of the rich man and Lazarus in Luke 16:19–31:

There was a rich man who was dressed in purple and fine linen and lived in luxury every day. At his gate was laid a beggar named Lazarus, covered with sores and longing to eat what fell from the rich man’s table. Even the dogs came and licked his sores.

The time came when the beggar died and the angels carried him to Abraham’s side. The rich man also died and was buried. In Hades, where he was in torment, he looked up and saw Abraham far away, with Lazarus by his side. So he called to him, “Father Abraham, have pity on me and send Lazarus to dip the tip of his finger in water and cool my tongue, because I am in agony in this fire.”

But Abraham replied, “Son, remember that in your lifetime you received your good things, while Lazarus received bad things, but now he is comforted here and you are in agony. And besides all this, between us and you a great chasm has been set in place, so that those who want to go from here to you cannot, nor can anyone cross over from there to us.”

He answered, “Then I beg you, father, send Lazarus to my family, for I have five brothers. Let him warn them, so that they will not also come to this place of torment.

Abraham replied, “They have Moses and the Prophets; let them listen to them.”

“No, father Abraham,” he said, “but if someone from the dead goes to them, they will repent.”

He said to him, “If they do not listen to Moses and the Prophets, they will not be convinced even if someone rises from the dead.”

The key thing to remember about this passage is that it is a fictive narrative designed to reinforce the point made in Luke 16:14 – 18 about the terrible dangers of the love of money. It is the ancient equivalent to vignettes about “St. Peter’s Gate” or the “Pearly Gates,” where the meaning is moral rather than literal. So although this parable refers to the intermediate state, personal eschatology is not its main point.

With that caveat in mind, we can conclude the following:

  1. The story corresponds with what we saw above, where the concept of Hades developed in Jewish thought so that the division of the final judgment between the righteous and the wicked was already anticipated in the abode of the dead.
  2. It also reflects the view found in the Testament of Abraham 20.14, which refers to a “paradise” in the afterlife where there is the “bosom of Abraham,” and how Abraham’s descendants there enjoy “peace and rejoicing and life unending.”

Luke’s parable is a hyperbolic depiction of an existence in the afterlife that affirms an intermediate state in Hades prior to the final resurrection, but its major concern is Abraham’s refusal to the rich man’s request to send a messenger, and so it highlights the inexcusable behavior of the rich and the penalty that awaits them.

Jesus’ remarks on the cross about the afterlife

Also in the gospel of Luke, there is a curious remark uttered by Jesus on the cross. When one of the bandits crucified with Jesus asks him, “Remember me when you come into your kingdom” (Luke 23:42), Jesus replies with the promise, “Truly I tell you, today you will be with me in paradise” (23:43).

The saying is problematic because the other two appearances of paradeisos in the New Testament both refer to heaven (2 Cor 12:4; Rev 2:7). Yet Jesus did not go to heaven between the cross and resurrection. We find this clearly in the Johannine resurrection narrative, where the risen Jesus tells Mary: “Do not hold on to me, for I have not yet ascended to the Father. Go instead to my brothers and tell them, ‘I am ascending to my Father and your Father, to my God and your God’ ” (John 20:17).

So if Jesus was not in “heaven,” then where did he go? What is this “paradise” he promised the bandit?

Most likely, “paradise” here denotes the intermediate state and is another way of referring to Hades. This comports with the biblical teaching that when Jesus died, he went to the waiting place of the dead (Acts 2:27, 31; 1 Pet 3:19 – 21). The Greek word paradeisos was a Persian loanword that denoted an enclosed park surrounded by a wall. It was known to Hellenistic authors like Xenophon and adopted by Jewish authors to refer to Eden in the creation account in Genesis 2:8 – 10, 16 (LXX). It was also used to describe the future state so that the future city of Jerusalem will be like the garden of Eden (Ezek 36:35; cf. 28:13; 31:8 – 9). In subsequent Jewish thought, paradise also referred to the present abode of departed patriarchs, the elect, and the righteous (1 En. 60.7 – 8, 23; 61.12; 70.4; 2 En. 8.1 – 8; 9.1; 42.3; Apoc. Mos. 37.5). Paradise here is an intermediate state that is neither heaven nor hell; it is the waiting place of the dead, the blissful location within sheol or hades.

What the stoning of Stephen tells us about the afterlife

Shifting to Luke’s second volume, the Acts of the Apostles, Stephen is stoned for his testimony to Jesus’ exaltation to the right hand of God (Acts 7:55 – 60). As he is bludgeoned with stones, Stephen exclaims, “Lord Jesus, receive my spirit’” (7:59). This mirrors the words of Jesus himself at his crucifixion, “Father, into your hands I commit my spirit” (Luke 23:46). It is christologically significant that while the Lucan Jesus prays to the Father to receive his spirit at his crucifixion, Stephen prays that Jesus would receive him beyond his martyrdom.

What Luke presents to his readers is not a platonizing of the afterlife; more likely these three texts (Luke 16:19 – 31; 23:43, 46; Acts 7:55 – 60) exhibit belief in an intermediate state located in Hades before the resurrection and then in heaven after the resurrection.

What Paul says about the intermediate state

References to an intermediate state were not a mainstay of Paul’s eschatological teachings that focused primarily on Christ’s parousia, the resurrection, and the final judgment. Information about an intermediate state must be inferred from Paul’s remarks elsewhere. Paul writes to the Philippians from Ephesus about his imprisonment and possible execution:

I eagerly expect and hope that I will in no way be ashamed, but will have sufficient courage so that now as always Christ will be exalted in my body, whether by life or by death. For to me, to live is Christ and to die is gain. If I am to go on living in the body, this will mean fruitful labor for me. Yet what shall I choose? I do not know! I am torn between the two: I desire to depart and be with Christ, which is better by far; but it is more necessary for you that I remain in the body. (Phil 1:20 – 24)

Paul contrasts “living in the body” with departing to “be with Christ, which is better by far.” Paul provides no data about the nature of this state, where it takes place, or what form he exists in there, and we can only assume that death entails a removal from his body and transportation to instant intimacy with the Savior.

The place where Paul discourses specifically about the postmortem fate of the individual, starting with himself, is 2 Corinthians 5:1 – 10:

For we know that if the earthly tent we live in is destroyed, we have a building from God, an eternal house in heaven, not built by human hands. Meanwhile we groan, longing to be clothed instead with our heavenly dwelling, because when we are clothed, we will not be found naked. For while we are in this tent, we groan and are burdened, because we do not wish to be unclothed but to be clothed instead with our heavenly dwelling, so that what is mortal may be swallowed up by life. Now the one who has fashioned us for this very purpose is God, who has given us the Spirit as a deposit, guaranteeing what is to come.

Therefore we are always confident and know that as long as we are at home in the body we are away from the Lord. For we live by faith, not by sight. We are confident, I say, and would prefer to be away from the body and at home with the Lord. So we make it our goal to please him, whether we are at home in the body or away from it. For we must all appear before the judgment seat of Christ, that everyone may receive what is due them for the things done while in the body, whether good or bad. (italics added)

It is often alleged that in these verses Paul has abandoned the apocalyptic eschatology of 1 Corinthians 15, with its future resurrection of the body, for a resurrection into a spiritual body into God’s presence immediately after death. But this is hardly likely since Paul’s reference to “we know” (5:1) introduces a rehearsed doctrine rather than a newly fashioned one. Second, Paul has intimated earlier in the letter his continued affirmation of the resurrection (1:9 – 10; 4:14) and affirms it again a few sentences later (5:15). Third, 1 Corinthians 15 and 2 Corinthians 5 share a lot of vocabulary, such as “unclothed” and “earthly.” Paul’s teaching on the future remains consistent, though in 2 Corinthians 5 he does begin to talk about the immediate postmortem fate of the individual, starting with himself.

Paul had intimated an interval between death and resurrection that was a bodiless one (1 Cor 15:35 – 38) and a temporary state (15:32 – 44). Now as he faces the expectation of death ahead of the parousia, he turns his mind to what lies in store for him. If Paul expected to receive a spiritual resurrection body after his death, it leads one to wonder why he would still anticipate the Lord’s return in the future since resurrection and parousia have been consistently bound together in his eschatology across the Thessalonian and Corinthian correspondences and also later in Philippians and Romans.

What Paul appears to envisage immediately upon death is not a spiritual resurrection, but a future spiritual mode of existence that is transcendent, yet not fully actualized until the parousia. There is a transition from the sarkic (fleshly) and somatic (bodily) form of existence into a heavenly dwelling in the company of the Lord, characterized by a heightened form of interpersonal communion with Christ.

Yet this state is clearly something that is prior to Christ’s parousia and the resurrection because it is ahead of the judgment of believers when their resurrection will take place. Paul hopes to please the Lord in both his bodily state and in his heavenly dwelling, knowing that he will stand before Christ at the final judgment. In any case, the promise of the Spirit and the object of faith is such that he looks forward to leaving his body, imagining a time away from the body in this eternal dwelling, and then presumably being raised to stand at the final judgment.

What Revelation says about the intermediate state

The book of Revelation focuses attention on the events leading up to the final state of a new heaven and a new earth (Rev 22:1 – 5). Still, John makes some comments about a possible intermediate state for believers after death and before their resurrection.

The state of the martyrs according to Revelation

First, when John the Seer refers to the state of the martyrs, it is clear that they exist in a heavenly dimension that is at once both blissful and yet not entirely satisfying.

For example, see Revelation 6:9–11:

When he opened the fifth seal, I saw under the altar the souls of those who had been slain because of the word of God and the testimony they had maintained. They called out in a loud voice, “How long, Sovereign Lord, holy and true, until you judge the inhabitants of the earth and avenge our blood?” Then each of them was given a white robe, and they were told to wait a little longer, until the full number of their fellow servants and brothers and sisters were killed just as they had been.

And here’s Revelation 7:13–17:

Then one of the elders asked me, “These in white robes — who are they, and where did they come from?” I answered, “Sir, you know.” And he said, “These are they who have come out of the great tribulation; they have washed their robes and made them white in the blood of the Lamb. Therefore, “they are before the throne of God and serve him day and night in his temple; and he who sits on the throne will shelter them with his presence. Never again will they hunger; never again will they thirst. The sun will not beat down on them, nor any scorching heat. For the Lamb at the center of the throne will be their shepherd; he will lead them to springs of living water. And God will wipe away every tear from their eyes.”

In Revelation 6, the martyrs cry out for vindication and look forward to the judgment and wrath that are set to follow upon those who mistreated and murdered them. In Revelation 7, the martyrs enter into the presence of the throne room of heaven and engage in heavenly worship and enjoy heavenly peace, and they are shepherded by the Lamb, who comforts them. This penultimate stage depicts departed saints as being in the presence of God in heaven.

Are Hades and hell the same thing?

Another thing to note from Revelation is the relationship between “Hades” and “hell.” In Revelation, Hades is closely related to “death” and thus stands for the waiting place of the dead rather than the final place of the condemned (Rev 1:18; 6:8; 20:13 – 14). Though the Greek word for “hell” (gehenna) does not occur in Revelation, there is mention of a “lake of fire/burning sulfur” that amounts to the same thing (19:20; 20:10, 14 – 15; 21:8). Note that “death and Hades were thrown into the lake of fire. The lake of fire is the second death” (20:14). That is, Hades is thrown into hell. That would mean that no one is in hell yet, and the contents of Hades will be dumped into hell at the final judgment.

In view of all of this, I would represent the intermediate state as follows:

According to the scheme sketched above:

  1. Prior to Christ’s ascension, all who died descended to Sheol/Hades, which was divided into two parts, one for the wicked and one for the righteous.
  2. At Christ’s ascension, he went into heaven and took with him all of the saints in the paradisal part of Sheol/Hades, while the wicked remain in Sheol/Hades, waiting for judgment.
  3. Upon death new covenant believers go to be with Christ in heaven ahead of the general resurrection, while the wicked descend to Sheol/Hades waiting for judgment.
  4. Eventually Sheol/Hades will be thrown into hell and all believers will share in the new heavens and new earth.

It’s important to note that an affirmation of a future resurrection does not demand that there is no conscious existence in a nonbodied, postmortem state ahead of the resurrection. When Paul dies, he intends to be with Christ, which is better than his current bodily existence (Phil 1:23); yet he also thinks of the immediate postmortem state as something temporary, like a car on loan from a mechanic, waiting for the original vehicle to be renewed (cf. 1 Cor 15:35 – 38). So it seems that upon death, the separation of body and soul is both blessing and a bummer, something enjoyable but also somewhat ephemeral. The unity of the material and immaterial parts of one’s being are the norm, but death ruptures that norm ahead of the resurrection. Yet, despite the awkward disunity of body and soul at death, believers still enjoy God’s presence and look forward to the day when they will be raised in a psychosomatic unity of body and soul in God’s everlasting kingdom.

Christ is the place of rest

It is difficult to plot the exact place and type of existence in the intermediate state. No text, save perhaps 2 Corinthians 5, discourses on it at length. But overall it seems that Joachim Jeremias was correct when he writes: “The New Testament consistently represents fellowship with Christ after death as the distinctively Chris tian view of the intermediate state.”

The intermediate state has to be articulated primarily in christological terms. Paul is clear that one departs to be with Christ (Phil 1:23), and according to John the Evangelist, where Christ is, there believers will also be (John 14:3). For nothing, not even death or demons, will separate believers from the love of God that is in Christ Jesus our Lord (Rom 8:38 – 39). The intermediate state brings fellowship with Christ, and in him we find also the continued fellowship of believers ahead of the final consummation (Heb 12:23). Death does not eradicate the believer’s union with Christ or communion with fellow believers. Whatever life is ahead in the eschatological future, interim and final, it can only be a “life in Christ.”

Today's post is adapted from Michael F. Bird's Evangelical TheologyGet free access to the just-released Evangelical Theology Video Lectures for 14 days.

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