In “God’s mercy and the death-state” Jefferson Vann shows that death as it is presently experienced by all is a demonstration of the merciful nature of God.
One of the truths the Bible reveals about God’s character is that he is merciful – compassionate, even to those who do not deserve mercy. In fact, the Old Testament often highlights God’s two attributes of grace and mercy. God shows that he is gracious (חַנּוּן) when he chooses to bless those who do not deserve it, and that he is merciful (רַחוּם) when he chooses to not immediately punish those who deserve punishment.1
Traditionalists see the death-state as the point where God’s mercy ends, and his wrath begins. But we conditionalists do not view the death-state that way. Our study of the biblical terms for the death- state (chief among them being the Hebrew שְׁאוֹל [sheol] and the Greek ᾅδης [hades]) has led us to accept that it is a temporary state of unconsciousness which will be interrupted by resurrection for both the saved and the lost. God’s wrath is not being poured out on anyone during this intermediate state. The death-state is a judgment, but it is not a judgment for our sins. It is a judgment for Adam and Eve’s original sin. Because of that, the death-state is universal, experienced by saint and sinner alike.
The wrath of God is presently being stored up for all sinners, and will be experienced on “the day of wrath and revelation of the righteous judgment of God.”2 So, the popular notion that hell begins at death is a mistake. Hell is γέεννα [Gehenna], a punishment that can only come from God, and can only be experienced by those whom God has determined to destroy – soul and body.3
the death-state is merciful, because it is temporary
The present death-state that everyone experiences until the coming of Christ is a judgment, but it is also a mercy. It is a mercy because it is temporary. It is temporary because “an hour is coming, in which all who are in the tombs will hear His voice, and will come forth.”4 Lazarus woke from his sleep when his master called his name, and commanded him to come forth from his tomb. The same will be true of everyone who dies. Each of us has a resurrection in our future. For some it will be a resurrection of life, for others it will be a resurrection of judgment. But without that resurrection, neither the eternal life of the saved nor the punishment of the lost can begin.
The truth of the coming resurrection has always been a great comfort and consolation for believers, allowing us to stare the reality of our coming date with death in the face, and still put our hope in God. Like Job, we know that we will rot in the grave, but we also know that we will experience a future resurrection. Job confidently stated that even after his skin would be destroyed, he would see God from his own resurrected flesh.5 God in his mercy has placed a limit on the death-state. It is a prison from which every prisoner will be eventually released. Death and Hades will give up all the dead which are in them, and then the judgment for individual sins will commence.6
The Bible speaks of a first death and a second death. Because we are all children of Adam, we all experience the first death, but the saved will be exempt from the second death. This is the death that Christ experienced in our place, as our sacrificial substitute.7 Both deaths are literal deaths. Christ did not have to suffer something besides death to pay for our sins. His literal death sufficed. The difference between the first death and the second is the resurrection in between death one and death two.
But the second death will not be interrupted by a resurrection. The first death is temporary, but the second death will be permanent. The destruction of the lost will involve torment, but not perpetual torment. It will be an ὄλεθρον αἰώνιον – a permanent destruction.8
the death-state is merciful, because all are unconscious in it
Another way the death-state shows God’s mercy is that it is the same experience for all. At death, every person experiences the same state of unconsciousness. It is a sleep, from which someone will have to be awakened to live again. It is described as a place of darkness, a land of forgetfulness, a place of silent rest for all. See my article Sheol in the Bible: The Old Testament Consensus for the biblical support of this assertion. In my summary at the end of that article, I conclude that Sheol is a silent, dark state or condition in which everyone exists at death, and can only live again by a resurrection from the LORD.
Because the death-state is not a judgment for individual sins, we need not be concerned that our unsaved relatives and friends are already experiencing pain and torment (and will for possibly thousands of years) before the resurrection. In the traditionalist system of interpretation, those unfortunates who were born thousands of years ago have already begun to be punished for their sins, and will experience that perpetual torment longer than anyone else. But the unconscious sleep of the intermediate state disallows such foolishness. It admits only one judgment day, and that after the resurrection.
After our relatives and friends die, there is nothing we can do about their eternal state. We cannot pray them out purgatory, or anything like that. But we can rest in the assurance that they are not suffering yet, because they have not yet been raised to face judgment. We can also be confident that whatever punishment they face will be proportionate to their individual sins, and meted out by a gracious and merciful Judge. His purpose will not be to revel in their discomfort for eternity, but to rid his universe of anything that does not conform to his will.
But, until that day when God’s wrath is unleashed, that wrath is being held back, stored up. Nobody is experiencing it in the intermediate state. For this reason, even though death is an enemy, we can also see it as a mercy. The death-state puts us all at the mercy of a God who refuses to allow death to be the final act in our story. He must raise us all to life again, and he will determine our eternal fate. And since it is he who will make that determination, we know it will be just – and merciful.
1 Exodus 34:6; Deuteronomy. 4:31; 2 Chronicles. 30:9; Nehemiah. 9:17, 31; Psalm 78:38; 86:15; 103:8; 111:4; 112:4; 145:8; Joel 2:13; Jonah 4:2.
2 Romans 2:5 NASB.
3 Matthew 10:28.
4 John 5:28-29 NASB.
5 Job 19:26.
6 Revelation 20:13.
7 Galatians 1:4; Mark 14:24; Ephesians 5:2.
8 2 Thessalonians 1:9.