Few people actually take the time to consider arguments for an unconscious intermediate state because as soon as those arguments appear, a wall of contrary evidence is immediately thrown up around them. Numerous passages from Scripture are used, so that readers are assured that an unconscious sleep until the Lord returns is just unthinkable. In spite of the fact that sleep is the predominant metaphor the Bible uses for death, this wall of evidence seems to indicate that there must be some sort of conscious survival at death.
When we conditionalists say that we hope for a resurrection, not survival, our opponents just assume that we ignore that wall of evidence. They assume that we quickly skip past those texts when we are doing our devotions, and try to pretend that they are not there. On the contrary, we have had to look long and hard at those texts. We stay with those texts until we can reconcile what they actually teach with what the Bible states elsewhere.
What we look for is consistency. If a biblical author states one thing in one text, we do not expect him, or another biblical author, to contradict it in another. If the popular understanding of a particular text seems to be inconsistent with another, we look for an alternate understanding. This is merely doing good theology. Once we come to an alternate interpretation that does not contradict what is taught elsewhere, then we have scaled that portion of the wall.
Our belief is that every portion of that wall can be overcome. We do not believe that any of the evidence presented in favour of a conscious intermediate state is incontrovertible. We are convinced that the popular interpretations of those texts are misinterpretations. We are determined to scale this wall of evidence because we are convinced that it has led our brothers and sisters in Christ to believe something the Bible does not teach.
These articles will address some of the more popular texts which are part of that wall of evidence. They are intended to reveal those inconsistencies that exist with the popular interpretations of the texts when compared to the actual texts themselves. At no point will it be conceded that the actual text itself is in error. We expect the Bible to present a coherent, consistent theology of the intermediate state.
The Unconscious Intermediate State Part 1
“LONGING TO PUT ON OUR HEAVENLY DWELLING” (2 Corinthians 5:1-10).
This is not the first text in which the apostle Paul has revealed his hope of life after death. He addressed the issue extensively in his previous letter to the Corinthians. He told them that the future resurrection was a reality, and that if it were not so, then “those … who have fallen asleep in Christ have perished.”1 Now, the popular interpretation of 2 Corinthians 5 has Paul saying that every believer goes immediately and consciously to heaven when he dies. So, he first teaches that the resurrection is necessary, and then he teaches that it is not. First he teaches that without a resurrection we perish, then he teaches that without a resurrection we will continue to live. Here is one of those inconsistencies that make us take a closer look at that wall of evidence.
In 1 Corinthians 15, Paul taught that believers who have died will be made alive again at the second coming of Christ.2 The popular interpretation of 2 Corinthians has Paul contradicting that, and saying that believers will remain alive after their deaths and go to be with the Lord. Paul did speak of believers being raised imperishable at the last trumpet,3 but in 2 Corinthians 5 he appears to teach that something survives which is already imperishable, “a building from God, a house not made with hands, eternal in the heavens.”4
We are told that this survival is actually what Paul wants. He wants to be absent from the body (by means of his death) and present with the Lord. After all, he says “we would rather be away from the body and at home with the Lord.”5 Five years later, he told the Philippians that all his hard work and suffering was so that “by any means possible I may attain the resurrection from the dead.”6 So, apparently Paul changed his mind again.
Or, there is another interpretation of 2 Corinthians 5 – one that does not contradict what Paul teaches elsewhere. What Paul actually teaches is that believers long to put on their resurrection bodies, which are their building from God, their houses not made with hands, which will be eternal. Their present lives are mortal, perishable, like a tent that is destined to be destroyed. While in these tents, believers groan, not because they want to die, but because they want to put on their resurrection bodies and live.
The popular interpretation of this text completely ignores the words “not that we would be unclothed, but that we would be further clothed, so that what is mortal may be swallowed up by life.”7 This is where Paul corrects the possible misunderstanding that he is seeking the intermediate state. That state between death and the resurrection is not what Paul longs for. Here is how Paul describes the three states:
- In the present state, believers are at home in the body, but away from the Lord.8 He is not visibly here with us, but has gone to heaven, and will return to raise us. He has left his Holy Spirit as a guarantee that he will not leave us in this mortal state forever.9 So we “we make it our aim to please him”10 no matter what state we are in.
- In the intermediate state, believers are dead, and unclothed.11 They have not yet put on their heavenly dwellings.12 This is not what Paul wants.
- In the final state, believers will be raised to life by Christ at his second coming. This is what Paul wants. He would rather be away from his present, mortal body, and already at home with the Lord.13
Nowhere in this entire passage does Paul speak of going some place when he dies. He never mentions the soul or spirit – except the Holy Spirit, who is given to us now as a guarantee of the resurrection to come. Paul is not recommending or commending or anticipating his own death. He does not anticipate an afterlife, but the resurrection life. Yet the popular interpretation of this text centres on the assumption that Paul is saying he would rather die than keep on living.
There is nothing Christian about wanting to die. Life – even this present, mortal life – is a gift from God, and should be preserved and cherished. Any philosophy or theology that teaches otherwise is unchristian, and any text that appears to represent a desire for death is misinterpreted.
“THERE WAS A RICH MAN…” (Luke 16:19-31).
Those who use Jesus’ parable of the Rich Man and Lazarus as proof of a conscious intermediate state fall into two camps: those who insist it is not a parable, but a true story, and those who realize that it is a parable but still say that its depiction of a conscious afterlife is accurate anyway.
Conditionalists agree with most biblical scholars who recognize that the passage is a parable. It begins with the very same words as the parable of the dishonest manager: “there was a rich man.”14 A parable is any story that can be placed (Gk. ballo) alongside (Gk. para) something else to illustrate it. There are two parables in Luke 16, each illustrating a different message, and each having a different intended audience.
Jesus taught the parable of the dishonest manager to his disciples.15 It involved a story of a steward who faced his immanent dismissal. He decided to adjust the debts owed his master so that his kindness to the debtors would encourage one of them to hire him later. When the master found out about it, he commended him, because even though he had been dishonest toward him, he had (in a sense) been faithful to the debtors.
Jesus used this parable to teach them to be faithful with their money. The teaching that the parable is intended to illustrate is this: “make friends for yourselves by means of unrighteous wealth, so that when it fails they may receive you into the eternal dwellings.”16 In other words, Jesus taught his disciples to be faithful to God, and invest their money in his kingdom.
Now, if one were inclined to take this parable as doctrine describing how believers should communicate, there is a problem. Jesus appears to be commending dishonesty. The hero of the parable is a person who succeeded because he did not do what he was supposed to. He told lies and broke promises. There was a possibility that the disciples might not understand that he was teaching about faithfulness to God, and they might think he was teaching deception as moral good. Such is the case with parables. If one does not keep in mind the main point, a parable can be misinterpreted and lead the reader to the wrong conclusions.
The intended audience of the second parable is not the disciples, but “the Pharisees.”17 These men were enemies of Jesus and the gospel. Unlike the disciples, they were not repentant. They were not seeking to be faithful. In the story, the rich man, who dies unrepentant, pleads with Abraham to raise Lazarus from the dead and send him back to his father’s house. He has four brothers who are still alive, but he knows that they too are heading to “this place of torment”.18
But Abraham refuses, because the brothers “have Moses and the prophets,” and if they do not hear them, “neither will they be convinced if someone should rise from the dead.”19 The message of this parable is that those who refuse to heed the warnings of scripture will not be convinced even if they see someone (like Jesus) who is raised from the dead. He is telling the Pharisees that they already have all the evidence they are going to get. They will face judgment someday, and there will be no excuses.
The story that Jesus uses to convey this message – like the previous one – can be misinterpreted if the reader does keep in mind its purpose. This rich man did not go to hell. He “was buried.”20 Yet, somehow in the grave he is able to see Lazarus, who is not in heaven, but was carried (bodily) to Abraham’s side. The story turns Hades – the intermediate state – into something that the Bible says that it is not. Elsewhere, the Bible describes Hades as a place of darkness21 , silence22, and sleep23.
In fact, eight chapters before this, Luke has Jesus describing the death of a little girl. He told the mourners that she was sleeping.24 When his friend (also called Lazarus) died, Jesus told his disciples “Our friend Lazarus has fallen asleep, but I go to awaken him.”25 So, either Jesus has changed his mind about the nature of death, or the story he is telling the Pharisees is not intended to teach that kind of doctrine. Why, after all, would Jesus throw his pearls (of new truth about eschatology) before the swine of the Pharisees?
The Pharisees were probably already familiar with this story, but were surprized at the ending Jesus gave it. They expected the rich man to be blessed in the afterlife, the same as he was in life. They expected the beggar to be cursed in the afterlife, the same as he was in life. The Pharisees believed what the Hindu religion teaches: that the next life carries over the judgments of this one. But Jesus’ story taught them that the blessings they are experiencing now are preventing them from seeing what God’s judgment will bring. Its dramatic reversal of fortune is the reason Jesus chose to tell the story.
The Bible consistently places judgment after the resurrection. Jesus himself had said “an hour is coming when all who are in the tombs will hear his voice and come out, those who have done good to the resurrection of life, and those who have done evil to the resurrection of judgment.”26 This story places judgment before that event. Surely Jesus would not contradict himself. So, in order to take this parable literally as a description of the intermediate state, one has to assume that there will be two judgments: one during the intermediate state, and one after the resurrection.
Since Lazarus is (ostensibly) already experiencing “good things” and being “comforted” at Abraham’s side, it also appears to teach that believers are rewarded at death. But Jesus taught (above) that believers will be rewarded at the resurrection. So, in order to accommodate this story, a doctrine of multiple rewards (as well as punishments) must be devised.
If this parable is not permitted to walk on all fours, it accomplishes what Jesus intended: warning the Pharisees that they are not blessed simply because they are rich. But allowing this parable to rewrite the Bible’s clear anthropology and eschatology elsewhere is gross abuse of its words. Those who use it to teach that the intermediate state is conscious – in direct opposition to the many clear, didactic passages that teach otherwise, are allowing the obscure text to overrule the clear ones.
They also read into the story elements that are not there. There is no mention of heaven or hell. There are no spirits or souls: the rich man’s body is in torment – unless spirits have eyes and tongues. Moreover, Jesus is telling the story, but he is not in it. Judgment takes place without the only divinely appointed judge. Also, there is no mentioning of faith in the story. The rich man is judged because he was rich but not compassionate; Lazarus is blessed (apparently) because he was poor. Yet those who use this parable insist that it describes the hell that unbelievers will face, and the heaven that believers can expect when they die.
No, we will not take this parable “literally.” Doing so requires a complete rework of biblical theology. Only if one’s mind is already made up about the intermediate state would such a passage be actual evidence in favour of it being conscious. In other words, if it were not for the teaching of Greek philosophy which introduced the notion of disembodied souls in an underworld, those reading this story would never have used it to defend such a concept.
“TODAY YOU WILL BE WITH ME IN PARADISE” (Luke 23:43).
Our Lord’s assurance to the penitent thief on the cross sounds so obviously in favour of a conscious intermediate state that for some that settles the argument altogether. Yet even that evidence is not incontrovertible. The Greek of the original text contained no punctuation. By merely placing the comma after the word “today” instead of before it, the reader finds Jesus saying “I say to you today, you will be with me in Paradise.” Thus Jesus gives assurance to the penitent thief that he will remember him when he comes in his kingdom, which is what the thief had asked for. In fact, two early manuscripts of Luke have the thief asking Jesus to “remember me on the day of your coming.” This may have reflected a more literal rendering of what the thief had said in Aramaic. Jesus’ response, then, might have been a specific reference to that day. The word “today” can also be translated “this day.” Jesus may have been telling the thief that “this day” (the day I come again) “you will be with me in paradise.” So Jesus’ words could be translated in such a way as to convey something different than assurance that the thief would join him in heaven that day.
There is also evidence to suggest that the thief did not die that day. That would make Jesus mistaken if he had assured the thief that both of them would go to heaven that day. John records that since Jesus died on the day of Preparation, the Jews asked that those crucified be taken down from their crosses so as not to be hanging on Passover. The soldiers intended to break the legs of each person on a cross, so that neither could revive and escape. They did so to each of the thieves on either side of Jesus because they were both still alive.
When they came to Jesus, he was already dead. To ensure that he was really dead, they plunged a spear into his side. John mentions these things because they actually fulfil two prophecies. John records “For these things took place that the Scripture might be fulfilled: “Not one of his bones will be broken.” And again another Scripture says, “They will look on him whom they have pierced.””27
The cruelty of the cross was that it was a painful and embarrassing way to die. However, since the pressure of gravity usually made it impossible to breathe, it was a relatively quick death. The two thieves were removed from the cross, and their legs broken. They would endure a slow death of exposure. They probably died after sundown, which would have been considered the next day by Jewish reckoning.
Jesus had taught his disciples that death was a sleep that required a resurrection to wake up from. Also, after his resurrection, he told Mary Magdalene “I have not yet ascended to the Father.”28 So neither the thief nor Jesus made it to heaven on that day. That combination of evidence shows that Luke 23:43 as it stands in our English Bibles is a mistranslation.
The Unconscious Intermediate State Part 2
Sleep is the predominant way that the Bible describes death. That leads conditionalists to assume that death is a period of unconsciousness that everyone will experience until resurrected for judgment. Yet when we assert that assumption, opponent are often quick to build a wall of evidence, consisting of texts which appear to support some kind of conscious survival after death.
We do not believe that any of the evidence presented in favour of a conscious intermediate state is incontrovertible. We are convinced that the popular interpretations of those texts are misinterpretations. We are determined to scale this wall of evidence because we are convinced that it has led our brothers and sisters in Christ to believe something the Bible does not teach.
These articles address some of the more popular texts which are part of that wall of evidence. They reveal those inconsistencies that exist with the popular interpretations of the texts when compared to the actual texts themselves. At no point will it be conceded that the actual text itself is in error. We expect the Bible to present a coherent, consistent theology of the intermediate state.
In part 1, 2 Corinthians 5:1-10 was examined, and the text was shown to be in agreement with Paul’s theology in 1 Corinthians 15 and elsewhere. His desire to put on his heavenly dwelling was not a desire to go to heaven when he died, but a desire to be resurrected when Jesus returns.
The Rich Man and Lazarus (Luke 16:19-31) was shown to be a parable that Jesus taught the Pharisees. Its purpose was not to explain the intermediate state, but to warn the Pharisees not to presume that since they are rich in this life it is proof that God approves of their behaviour. Jesus’ clear teaching is that death is a sleep from which one must be raised to live again.
Jesus’ words to the thief on the cross as they appear in our English Bibles “today you will be with me in Paradise” (Luke 23:43) are a mistranslation. Neither Jesus nor the thief went to heaven that day. Jesus assured the thief that they would be in Paradise on the day about which the thief asked: the day he comes in his kingdom.
“WHY HAVE YOU DISTURBED ME?” (1 Samuel 28)
The Bible consistently describes the intermediate state between death and resurrection as an unconscious sleep, from which good and evil must be awakened before beginning to experience their eternal destiny. The story of Saul’s consultation with the medium at Endor seems to contradict that theology, but it really does not.
If this was really a revival of Samuel, it was a miracle of God. The medium herself was surprised to see him.29 She probably expected a demon pretending to be him. The demons are deceivers, and one of their favourite forms of deception is pretending to be dead relatives, or ghosts. They use this tactic to incite fear, bring confusion, and keep their control over people. The LORD knows of this tactic, and for that reason expressly forbids attempts to communicate with “the dead”. Saul, himself, prohibited all such attempts at necromancy. ((1 Samuel 28:3.)) When faced with an absence of communication from the LORD due to the death of Samuel, Saul attempted to break his own rule.
Note that she did not see Samuel descend from heaven. She said she saw him “coming up out of the earth”.30 This makes sense in light of biblical cosmology which has all the dead in Sheol, the grave, awaiting a resurrection. Normally, the only way to awake from this state of unconscious sleep is to be resurrected. Apparently, Samuel was allowed to wake up without being raised, but this is an obvious exception, which should not be taken as evidence against the normal biblical cosmology.
Samuel’s question to Saul was not “why have you interrupted my bliss in heaven and brought me down”? It was “why have you disturbed me by bringing me up”?31 These are the words of an old man aroused from a deep sleep. They are certainly not what one would expect from someone already experiencing eternal joy at God’s side. Samuel’s partial resurrection was not at all what God had promised. He did not appreciate it. Like Paul, he did not enjoy this idea of being alive apart from his promised resurrection body. Paul made it absolutely clear that he did not desire to be “unclothed” – that is, to be a disembodied spirit.32
By contrast, many today seem to cherish the idea of being set free from the confines of their bodies so that they can fly to heaven, released from their physical prison. When people talk like that, they sound more like Plato than Paul. The eschatological blessed hope of the return of Christ appears to be replaced by an anthropology – or even a thanatology. But the Christian hope is Christ himself. Christians put their hope in Christ, not death.
If Samuel had been in heaven when aroused by Saul, why did he tell Saul “tomorrow you and your sons shall be with me” (19)? Was God judging Saul for his disobedience, and then accepting him in heaven anyway? If that was the case, why did that lead to such fear for Saul? The evidence does not match the traditional concept of death. It makes perfect sense if Samuel intended to resume his sleep in Sheol awaiting a resurrection. Saul and his sons (including Jonathan) would join him in that sleep, and be raised at the return of Christ.
There is only one other option that fits both what is said in 1 Samuel 28 and the traditional cosmology of going to heaven or hell at death. If Samuel had been “brought up” instead of “brought down” he must have been in hell. Samuel served God well in life, but just for the sake of argument, let us assume that it was not enough and he wound up being tormented in hell. Would that scenario rescue the text of 1 Samuel 28 from its apparently contradictory state? No, even if we assume Samuel is in hell, it doesn’t explain what Samuel actually said to Saul:
And Samuel said, “Why then do you ask me, since the LORD has turned from you and become your enemy? 17 The LORD has done to you as he spoke by me, for the LORD has torn the kingdom out of your hand and given it to your neighbour, David. 18 Because you did not obey the voice of the LORD and did not carry out his fierce wrath against Amalek, therefore the LORD has done this thing to you this day. 19 Moreover, the LORD will give Israel also with you into the hand of the Philistines, and tomorrow you and your sons shall be with me. The LORD will give the army of Israel also into the hand of the Philistines.”33
These are the words of a prophet who defends God for his justice, who condemns Saul for his disobedience, and who champions David for his faithfulness. Perhaps one might imagine Samuel in hell gloating over the fact that Saul and his other sons would soon be joining him, but that would include Jonathan as well – a man whom the Scriptures approves.
No, Samuel could not be in hell. He is approved by God, yet he is somewhere that requires him to be “brought up” so that he can communicate with Saul. Sheol is that place.
People sometimes casually cast forth this story as part of that wall of evidence proving that people are alive after they die. They go on to use this as prove of their assumption that this disembodied state is part of God’s reward to believers. Death should not be the reward for which the believer seeks. We should seek our reward in resurrection life.
The story of the medium at Endor is the exception that proves the rule. It is an example of someone who apparently did experience life apart from his resurrection body (although briefly). Samuel went back to sleep. He is part of that group who were “all were commended for their faith, yet they did not receive what was promised. For God had provided something better for us, so that they would be made perfect together with us.”34 He will experience resurrected life when all believers do – at the second coming. His unusual experience at Endor is not the norm.
“OUT OF THE BELLY OF HELL” (Jonah 2:2)
Yet another Old Testament prophet, Jonah, appears to have been sent to the wrong place. The King James Version of Jonah 2:2 reads “I cried by reason of mine affliction unto the LORD, and he heard me; out of the belly of hell cried I, and thou heardest my voice.” Some actually have the audacity to quote this text as proof, not only that there was such a thing as hell in Old Testament times, but that people were alive in it.
Most modern translation correct the foul-up, which is merely a translation issue. The King James translators were apparently all traditionalists, and sought every opportunity to place the concept of hell-at-death in the Bible. When they encountered the Hebrew word Sheol, and the context made it possible for them to translate it as hell, they did so. But numerous times the word Sheol obviously referred to the place that a righteous person went at death. No fear, they simply translated Sheol in those passages as “the grave.” For example:
“And all his sons and all his daughters rose up to comfort him; but he refused to be comforted; and he said, For I will go down into the grave unto my son mourning. Thus his father wept for him.”35
“The LORD killeth, and maketh alive: he bringeth down to the grave, and bringeth up.”36
“O LORD, thou hast brought up my soul from the grave: thou hast kept me alive, that I should not go down to the pit.”37
But when the bad guys were getting theirs, these KJV translators saw a good opportunity to show people that when a bad guy dies, he goes consciously to hell, not unconsciously to the grave. So they translated the same Hebrew word – Sheol – as hell. For example:
“The wicked shall be turned into hell, and all the nations that forget God.”38
“Let death seize upon them, and let them go down quick into hell: for wickedness is in their dwellings, and among them.”39
“Her feet go down to death; her steps take hold on hell.”40
“Hell and destruction are before the LORD: how much more then the hearts of the children of men?”41
Translating the same word in such a different way was dishonest, and – to be fair – some modern translations have sought to correct it. The NLT has Jonah speaking from “the land of the dead” which is OK, except that it gives the impression that Sheol is some kind of physical territory. The NIV simply says “From the depths of the grave I called for help, and you listened to my cry.” That is a much better translation, since it parallels the previous stich “In my distress I called to the LORD, and he answered me.”
But most modern translations (e.g. ESV, NASB, NET, NKJV, NRSV, HCSB, LEB) simply choose not to translate the word Sheol. Not wanting to appear as watering down the traditional concept of hell, they leave the word untranslated – which leaves its interpretation up to the reader. The problem with that is it refuses to correct the misconceptions that readers have had in the past. So, people are still free to imagine Jonah and David and Jesus and others in some place called hell, when all the Scripture says is that they all went to the grave. The difference is that Jesus was raised from Sheol (or its Greek equivalent, Hades).42
Those of us who are convinced of the unconscious intermediate state are not going to change our minds because others quote texts which have been mishandled and abused. We ask for actual didactic evidence from the Bible that people survive death. Lacking that, we will trust what the Bible actually says about our hope. It is not survival of the soul, but the return of the Saviour.
The Unconscious Intermediate State Part 3
When anyone dares to suggest that sleep is an appropriate way to describe someone’s death, opponents are often quick to respond. They tend to build a wall of evidence, consisting of texts which appear to support some kind of conscious survival after death. Those of us who hold to an unconscious intermediate state have scaled that wall. We see inconsistencies that exist with the popular interpretations of the texts when compared to the actual texts themselves.
Some of the texts have simply been misinterpreted, like …
- 2 Corinthians 5:1-10, which expresses Paul’s desire to put on his resurrection body at the return of Christ, not to go to heaven when he dies.
- Luke 16:19-31, in which Jesus employs a scary tale about woe in Hades to show the Pharisees that just because they are rich today, their eternal state is not secure.
- The bringing up of Samuel by the Medium at Endor (1 Samuel 28) was a miracle God allowed to rebuke Saul for his disobedience. It was an unusual event – all miracles are. It cannot prove that people are normally conscious at death.
Other texts have been mistranslated.
- There is some evidence to show that neither Jesus nor the thief on the cross actually went to heaven on the day that Jesus died. The traditional translation of Luke 23:43, then, is a mistake. Jesus was assuring the repentant thief that they would be together on the day about which he asked: the day Christ comes in his kingdom.
- Jonah’s cry “out of the belly of hell” (Jonah 2:2 KJV) was the cry of a man who felt he was about to die, and go to Sheol, the grave. It says nothing and proves nothing about the intermediate state.
Many of the remaining texts that serve as that wall of evidence fall into the misinterpretation category. They include the following:
“Moses and Elijah appeared and began talking with Jesus” (Matthew 17:3).
The transfiguration involved a number of miracles, including the sudden appearance of two great men from Israel’s past. The Bible specifically tells us that Moses had died and was buried.43 Many think the Bible teaches that Elijah never died. However, there is some evidence that his ride into the heavens on a fiery chariot was a round trip. Sometime after his famous trip to outer space44 — possibly as much as two years after – king Jehoram gets a letter from Elijah.45 Unless one argues that the Israelite postal service was really efficient, it appears that Elijah returned to write that letter. In other words, Elijah lived a normal life and presumably died a normal death.
All of this is to say that if Moses and Elijah reappeared physically to talk to Jesus at the mount of transfiguration, then both had been resurrected for that purpose. Their appearance was miraculous, and it proved the power of God, but it did not prove that they had been conscious in the intermediate state.
Yet the Bible does not specifically say that they had been resurrected. It says they appeared. Then, after talking with Jesus for some time, they disappeared. Later, when Jesus spoke to his disciples who saw it, he told them that it was a vision.46 The appearance, and then disappearance of these two Old Testament saints was a vision designed to draw attention to the one who believers today should be paying attention to. As the voice said from the cloud “This is my beloved Son; listen to him.”47 This story is about the doctrine of revelation: how God has definitively spoken to us through his Son. To make this story about consciousness after death is to highjack it.
“GOD … IS NOT GOD OF THE DEAD, BUT OF THE LIVING” (Matthew 22:32)
Among the many opponents to Jesus and his message were the Sadducees. They had emerged as a sect from Second Temple Judaism who had jettisoned all belief in the supernatural. Chief among the supernatural concepts that they had rejected was the idea that God would resurrect the faithful. After a group of Sadducees learned that Jesus was in town, they approached him with a question. It was an elaborate question that (they felt) showed how ridiculous it is to believe that God would resurrect anyone.
“Now there were seven brothers among us. The first married and died, and having no children left his wife to his brother. 26 So too the second and third, down to the seventh. 27 After them all, the woman died. 28 In the resurrection, therefore, of the seven, whose wife will she be? For they all had her.”48
Perhaps these Sadducees imagined that Jesus would say “Now that you mention it, resurrection does seem a silly idea doesn’t it?” But Jesus attacked these Sadducees. He told them, “You are wrong, because you know neither the Scriptures nor the power of God.” He was arguing that resurrection was not so silly. The Bible promises it, and God is able to deliver on that promise.
In defence of the resurrection, Jesus quotes Exodus 3:6, where God identifies himself to Moses as “the God of your father, the God of Abraham, the God of Isaac, and the God of Jacob.” While the text does not tell us whether Amram was alive at that time, it is quite clear that Abraham and Isaac and Jacob had been dead for some time. So how can that text prove the legitimacy of the resurrection? Jesus said that God “is not God of the dead, but of the living.”49 what legitimizes the hope of resurrection is not that people survive their deaths, but that God does.
Abraham, Isaac and Jacob will live again, because God always lives.
Again, this text says absolutely nothing about the intermediate state. It does not say that Abraham, Isaac and Jacob are asleep, but neither does it assert that they are awake. The proof of the resurrection that Jesus puts forth in answer to the Sadducees’ question is the existence of God. Since God is alive, those who died are alive to him. This is much like Jesus’ response to Martha who weakly told Jesus that she knew her brother would be raised at the resurrection on the last day. Jesus responded “I am the resurrection and the life.”50 Her problem was not her concept of the resurrection, but her failure to see that the Resurrection was standing in front of her.
“A MAN … CAUGHT UP TO THE THIRD HEAVEN” 2 Corinthians 12:2
Arguing for the legitimacy of his apostleship to some obstinate Corinthians, Paul decided to prove that he was acceptable as a spiritual leader because of the “visions and revelations” he had received.51 He told of a time some fourteen years earlier when he had been caught up to heaven and “heard things that cannot be told, which man may not utter.”52 Paul’s experience was so real to him, that he was unsure whether he was transported to heaven bodily, or whether it was a vision. Let us, for the sake of argument, assume that Paul had been transported bodily to heaven. Would that event teach us anything about the intermediate state? Obviously not. It would only prove that such a trip is possible, for someone who is alive. It would teach us nothing about a person’s state at death.
Or, for the sake of argument, let us assume the opposite — that Paul’s experience was a vision in which Paul was allowed to see heaven, but his body did not travel there. That would not be substantially different from any of the other visions of heaven recorded in the Bible. There is nothing in the text to suggest that Paul was dead. Ergo, this statement teaches nothing about the nature of the intermediate state.
JESUS “DIED FOR US SO THAT WHETHER WE ARE AWAKE OR ASLEEP WE MIGHT LIVE WITH HIM” (1 Thessalonians 5:10)
Paul unashamedly used the sleep metaphor to describe the death of believers. In this text, he divides the Christian population into two groups. There are two groups today whom Jesus has died for: those who are awake, and those who are asleep. Those of us who are awake are obviously believers in Jesus who have not yet died. Those who are asleep are those who have already fallen asleep in death and await resurrection day so that they can live again.
What is the hope of these two groups? Our blessed hope is that the Lord will return someday and reunite both groups. Jesus died for us in order to make that possible. He died for us on the cross so that whatever group we are in (dead or alive) we can be with him in eternity. There is no statement about the state of consciousness that dead believers are experiencing. In fact, this passage is about what Jesus has done, and our assurance of what he will do for us.
Those who use this passage as part of that wall of evidence hope to convince readers that it is saying that all believers are presently alive with Christ. However, behind that hope is a theological tradition that says that everyone is alive, Christian or not. The tradition affirms the concept that everyone has an immortal soul, which cannot die, and must remain alive forever. This text says nothing of such an innate immortality. The only immortality it promises is for those who are in Christ, who have benefitted from his sacrificial death on the cross.
“THE SOULS OF THOSE WHO HAD BEEN SLAIN …CRIED OUT WITH A LOUD VOICE” (Revelation 6:9-10)
It is really pulling from the bottom of the barrel to take a passage from an apocalyptic vision and try to use it to prove a doctrine, but people continue to consistently do it. We have no right to assume that beheaded souls can normally cry out than to assume that God’s throne normally has a literal lamb on it who is also a lion. The book of Revelation tells God’s truth using symbols, and to take those symbols as proof of their own existence is to misuse the text.
However, John probably knew some of those souls that he saw depicted in the vision. Some of them might have been his close friends. When he saw them crying out to God for justice, he was identifying with their cry. He wanted Christ to return and bring his judgment. But those who use this text merely as proof that disembodied souls remain alive do not believe that such souls are really crying out for justice. They think that once those souls were separated from their bodies they went to heaven and are experiencing the reward of eternal bliss. You cannot have it both ways. Either the righteous remain alive and go to their reward at death or they do not. In this passage, the righteous who have died are not yet vindicated. They wait for a resurrection.
“MY DESIRE IS TO DEPART AND BE WITH CHRIST” (Philippians 1:23)
Paul was contemplating the ramifications of his eventual death. He knew that whether he continued to live, or he died, either way Christ would get the glory. “Christ will be honoured in (his) body, whether by life or by death.”53 “For (him) to live is Christ, and to die is gain”54 because all he has to look forward to is being raised at Christ’s second coming. That resurrection hope had become Paul’s obsession. His explained the “gain” that he hoped for later in this same letter to the Philippians:
“Indeed, I count everything as loss because of the surpassing worth of knowing Christ Jesus my Lord. For his sake I have suffered the loss of all things and count them as rubbish, in order that I may gain Christ 9 and be found in him, not having a righteousness of my own that comes from the law, but that which comes through faith in Christ, the righteousness from God that depends on faith- 10 that I may know him and the power of his resurrection, and may share his sufferings, becoming like him in his death, 11 that by any means possible I may attain the resurrection from the dead.”55
As Paul was contemplating the consequences of whether or not he died in Christ’s service or continued to live, a third option emerged in his mind which he said was “far better.” He said “My desire is to depart and be with Christ, for that is far better.”56 He was saying that the best thing to happen for him is for Jesus to break the clouds and call him to himself. Then Paul would depart and be with Christ. That would be more glorious than either of the other options. But, until that happens, Paul is content to continue serving the Christ of the resurrection.
How stable is that wall of evidence looking now? God’s word proves many things, and it is profitable for doctrine. But it nowhere proves the conscious intermediate state. Our hope in Christ is not found in human nature, it is found in a divine rescuer. We hope not to survive death but to be raised to new life.
- 1 Corinthians 15:18.
- 1 Corinthians 15:23.
- 1 Corinthians 15:52.
- 2 Corinthians 5:1.
- 2 Corinthians 5:8.
- Philippians 3:11.
- 2 Corinthians 5:4.
- 2 Corinthians 5:6.
- 2 Corinthians 5:4-5.
- 2 Corinthians 5:9.
- 2 Corinthians 5:4.
- 2 Corinthians 5:2.
- 2 Corinthians 5:8.
- Luke 16:1-13.
- Luke 16:1.
- Luke 16:9.
- Luke 16:14.
- Luke 16:27-28.
- Luke 16:31.
- Luke 16:22.
- Job 10:21-22; 17:13; Lamentations 3:6.
- Psalm 31:17; Ezekiel 32:21,27; Psalm 94:17; 115:17; Isaiah 38:18; Ecclesiastes 9:10.
- Psalm 13:3; 1 Kings 2:10; 11:21, 43; 14:20, 31; 15:8, 24; 16:6, 28; 22:40, 50; 2 Kings 8:24; 10:35; 13:9, 13; 14:16, 22, 29; 15:7, 22, 38; 16:20; 20:21; 21:18; 24:6; 2 Chr. 9:31; 12:16; 14:1; 16:13; 21:1; 26:2, 23; 27:9; 28:27; 32:33; 33:20.
- Luke 8:53.
- John 11:11.
- John 5:28-29.
- John 19:36-37 ESV.
- John 20:17 ESV.
- 1 Samuel 28:12.
- 1 Samuel 28:13.
- 1 Samuel 28:15.
- 2 Corinthians 5:4.
- 1 Samuel 28:16-19 ESV.
- Hebrews 11:39-40 NET.
- Genesis 37:35 KJV (also Genesis 42:38; 44:29, 31).
- 1 Samuel 2:6 KJV.
- Psalm 30:3 KJV (also 49:15; 88:3; 89:48).
- Psalm 9:17 KJV.
- Psalm 55:15 KJV.
- Proverbs 5:5 KJV.
- Proverbs 15:11 KJV.
- Psalm 16:10; Acts 2:27-31.
- Deuteronomy 34:5-7.
- 2 Kings 2:11.
- 2 Chronicles 21:12.
- Matthew 17:9 (ESV, KJV, NASB, NET, NKJV, NRSV, HCSB, LEB).
- Mark 9:7 ESV.
- Matthew 22:25-28 ESV.
- Matthew 22:32.
- John 11:25.
- 2 Corinthians 12:1.
- 2 Corinthians 12:4.
- Philippians 1:20.
- Philippians 1:21.
- Philippians 3:8-11.
- Philippians 1:23.