By ‘intermediate state’ we mean the state of the believer after death but before the final resurrection.
Calvin wisely cautions:-
‘it is neither lawful nor expedient to inquire too curiously concerning our souls’ intermediate state. Many torment themselves overmuch with disputing as to what place the souls occupy and whether or not they already enjoy heavenly glory. Yet it is foolish and rash to inquire concerning unknown matters more deeply than God permits us to know. Scripture goes no farther than to say that Christ is present with them, and receives them into paradise [cf. John 12:32] that they may obtain consolation, while the souls of the reprobate suffer such torments as they deserve.’ (Institutes, 3:XXV, 6)
Death as ‘sleep’
One question that arises is whether, or to what extent, this state should be thought of as ‘sleep’.
There are certainly some scriptures (1 Th 4:13, for example) that refer to death as ‘sleep’. These, however, should not be understood as teaching that those who die in the Lord are unconscious and remain so until our Lord’s return.
The doctrine of Psychopannychy, or soul-sleep, has been advocated by a small Arabian sect in Eusebius’ time, by some Anabaptists, some Irvingites, and by Jehovah’s Witnesses.
The following references make it clear that the dead do not have an unconscious existence: Lk 16:23; 23:43; Jn 11:25,26; Acts 7:59; 1 Cor 15:8; Php 1:23; Rev 6:9-11; 7:9. ‘Paul prefers (2 Cor. 5:8) or desires (Phil. 1:23) to depart and be in Christ’s presence. He would hardly have viewed unconscious rest with Christ in heaven as ‘far better’ than conscious communion with Christ on earth.’ (Murray Harris, NDT, art. ‘Intermediate State’)
However, Scripture does often liken death to sleep, Gen 47:30; Deut 31:16; 2 Sam 7:12; Mt 27:52; Lk 8:52; Jn 11:11-13; Acts 7:60; 1 Cor 7:39; 15:6,18. The comparison is apt, because:-
- Sleep implies rest from labour, Rev 14:13.
- Sleep implies cessation of activity in the environment of one’s wakeful life.
- Sleep is a prelude to awakening, 1 Thess 4:16.
Paul can hardly have been thinking of unconscious existence when he stated that he longed to ‘depart and be with Christ’, Php 1:23.
Tom Wright, in his book Surprised by hope (pp183-187) describes the state of the Christian departed in terms of ‘restful happiness’. It is ‘sleep’ in the sense that the body is ‘asleep’ (that is, dead), while the real person continues. The individual is held firmly in the conscious presence of Jesus Christ while they await the resurrection of the body. This intermediate state may be referred to as ‘paradise’.
Mounce comments on the NT use of the word ‘koimaō‘ (to fall asleep): ‘When biblical authors want to focus on death as an entrance into the intermediate state and therefore as something temporary, they use koimaō. After the tragic stoning of Stephen, Luke tells us that he simply “fell asleep” (Acts 7:60); physical death is not the true end for Stephen. Paul likely has a pastoral motive when he uses koimaō in 1 Cor. 7:39; 11:30, where he touches on the “sensitive” topics of the death of a spouse and death as a result of judgment. The bodies of the saints who have “fallen asleep” were raised at the death of Jesus (Mt 27:52). Jesus says that “our friend Lazarus has fallen asleep, but I go to awaken him,” before he raises him from the dead (Jn 11:11).’ (Complete Expository Dictionary)
Death as ‘nakedness’
In 2 Cor 5:3f Paul develops an extended metaphor: between death and resurrection we are ‘unclothed’ (without bodies). We long to be ‘clothed’ with our resurrection bodies. The clothing imagery may extend as far as 2 Cor 5:8.
But ‘both images (sleep and nakedness) should be recognized as essentially metaphorical in substance, seeking to express the inexpressible, and neither should be made to carry more theological weight than it is able.’ (L. J. Kreitzer, in DPL, art. ‘Intermediate State’)
Do the dead pray for us?
Wright notes that there is no biblical warrant for supposing that the faithful departed are actively engaged in praying for us, or that we should pray to them. In particular,
We should be very suspicious of the medieval idea that the ‘saints’ can function as ‘friends at court’, so that, while we might be shy of approaching the King ourselves, we know someone who is, as it were, ‘one of us’, to whom we can talk freely and who will maybe put in a good word for us.
This practice calls into question
the immediacy of access to God through Jesus Christ and in the Spirit which is promised again and again in the New Testament…If you have a royal welcome awaiting you in the throne room, for whatever may be on your heart and mind, whether great or small, why would you bother hanging around the outer lobby trying to persuade someone there, however distinguished, to go in and ask for you? To question this, even by implication, is to challenge one of the central blessings and privileges of the gospel.
Veneration (and invocation) of the saints is an idea more pagan than Christian. It has its roots in the world of late Roman antiquity, with its panoply of gods, lords, demi-gods and heroes. But it has no place in Christian thought and practice.
Should we pray for the dead?
Not quite so straightforward are Wright’s views on praying for the dead. Even though we should not pray to the departed saints, we may (he suggests) pray for them and with them:-
Since both the departed saints and we ourselves are in Christ, we share with them in the ‘Communion of Saints’. They are still our brothers and sisters in Christ. When we celebrate the eucharist they are there with us, along with the angels and archangels. When then should we not pray for and with them?
The Reformers opposed praying for the dead because they saw this as bound up with the notion of purgatory. But if we (rightly) get rid of the idea of purgatory, then
I see no reason why we should not pray for and with the dead…that they will be refreshed, and filled with God’s joy and peace.
This strikes me as being a rather extraordinary lapse. In the very section in his book where he is insisting that ‘it’s vital to ground one’s beliefs in scripture itself’ he comes up with a notion for which he does not even attempt to provide any scriptural support.
Not the final state
For many Christians, their hope is pinned on ‘going to heaven when we die’. But this is a travesty of biblical teaching, not least because it confuses the intermediate state with the final state. That final state involves the resurrection of the body, the establishment of the new heavens and the new earth, and the completed triumph and eternal reign of God.
J.I. Packer has a helpful summary of biblical teaching on what happens after death.
The separation of body and soul at death is both a fruit of sin and a divine judgement, Gen. 2:17; 3:19, 22; Rom. 5:12; 8:10; 1 Cor. 15:21. This separation is a sign of the separation from God that first brought about physical death, and will be deepened after death for those who leave this life without Christ. Death is, accordingly, to be seen as an enemy, 1 Cor 15:26 and a terror, Heb 2:15.
For believers, death retains pain, but no longer terror. Our Saviour has gone ahead to prepare a place for us, Jn 14:2f. To die is ‘to depart and be with Christ, which is better by far’, Phil 1:21,23. Being ‘away from the body’ with mean being ‘at home with Christ’, 2 Cor 5:8.
At death the souls of believers are made perfect in holiness and are enter the worshiping life of heaven, Heb 12:22-24.
The notions of purgatory and soul-sleep are unscriptural. The faithful departed have a variety of relationships, activities and enjoyments, Luke 16:22; 23:43; Phil. 1:23; 2 Cor. 5:8; Rev. 6:9-11; 14:13.
Death is gain for believers, Phil 1:21. But it will be even greater gain to be re-embodied at the resurrection, 2 Cor 5:1-4.
Based on Concise Theology.