What happens after a person dies? Christians understand that the dead shall be resurrected when Christ returns. However, what happens to a person who has died before the resurrection occurs? This question deals with what theologians call the intermediate state. The intermediate state refers to the state of existence “between death as an individual phenomenon and the final judgment and consummation” (Elwell, ed. 2001, 608). That is to say, it is the period of existence between death and the resurrection of Christ. Differences of interpretations exist as it pertains to the intermediate state. Some have felt that the soul sleeps during this period and is inactive, thus this view is called soul sleep. Others have felt that the soul dies during this period and revives during the time of the resurrection. Such a view is called soul death. The traditional view of the church is that the soul lives on in a disembodied state until the time of the resurrection. This view is called soul survival. Which view holds credibility with the biblical text?
Soul Sleep: is the intermediate state a sleeping state?
Alan Cairns notes that soul sleep is “The notion that the soul sleeps between death and the resurrection.* This theory was held by some Anabaptists* and is the teaching of modern-day Seventh Day Adventism.* It rests upon the assumption that the use of the term sleep in Scripture to describe death, means cessation of consciousness and is not used metaphorically of the dead body” (Cairns 2002, 428). As Cairns denoted, modern Seventh Day Adventists holds that the soul remains inactive during the intermediate state. Some hold that the person after experiencing death is transported immediately to the time of the resurrection. While this is certainly within the power of God, it does not hold that such a view holds merit with the biblical text. Why?
Such a view stems from a misunderstanding of the phrase “asleep in Christ.” Paul uses the phrase “asleep in Christ” in 1 Corinthians 15. However, a closer examination of Paul’s teaching in fact denies the tenability of soul sleep. Paul states that if Christ had not been risen from the dead, “Then those also who have fallen asleep in Christ have perished. If in Christ we have hope in this life only, we are of all people most to be pitied” (1 Corinthians 15:18-19). When cross-referencing this passage of Scripture with other Pauline teachings (such as those presented under soul survival), it becomes clear that Paul is merely using a figure of speech when referring to those who have died in Christ as those who were “asleep in Jesus.” If anything seemed asleep, it was the bodies of those who had perished in Christ and not the soul. Due to the argument of Paul in this passage of Scripture and in others pertaining to the life that one finds in Christ, the position of soul sleep loses much ground. But what of the position termed soul death?
Soul Death: is the intermediate state a dead state?
For those in the Jehovah’s Witnesses movement, the belief of soul death is prevalent. This is the belief that the soul of an individualism ceases to exist after one’s death. Thus, as one’s human body dies, so does the human soul. In this view, Christ’s resurrection of all saints will revive the human’s body, soul, and spirit. Often, this view stems from a misunderstanding of the phrase “dead in Christ.” Paul writes that “the Lord himself will descend from heaven with a cry of command, with the voice of an archangel, and with the sound of the trumpet of God. And the dead in Christ will rise first” (1 Thessalonians 4:16, emphasis mine). However, soul death stems from the same misconceptions of terminology that the adherents of soul sleep hold. Such a view seems to quickly lose ground when one considers the teachings of Christ and Paul on the matter of life after death (as will be seen in the following section). If advocates of soul sleep and soul death are mistaken as it pertains to the view of the intermediate state, then only one view is left. Does soul survival stand firm with the biblical text?
Soul Survival: is the intermediate state a living state?
Traditionally, the church has affirmed the doctrine of soul survival. That is to say, this is the belief that the soul survives death and continues to remain conscious until it is reunited with the body at the time of the resurrection. Does such a view hold merit? Several passages of Scripture seem to indicate that soul survival is the correct view.
Living with ancestors in Old Testament.
It is difficult to obtain a clear view of the afterlife from the Old Testament, although one can affirm the belief that an afterlife did exist from particular texts. Nevertheless, the saints from the Old Testament believed that “God who would ultimately redeem them, and if the specifics of what would transpire after death were not clear, their faith in God was and from this arose an assurance that God would not abandon them in the darkness” (Elwell 1996, “The Intermediate State”). It appears that the Old Testament affirms some form of existence after death. It was said that after he died, Abraham “was gathered to his people” (Genesis 25:8). The writer of Ecclesiastes writes that “the dust returns to the earth as it was, and the spirit returns to God who gave it” (Ecclesiastes 12:7). While it is outside the scope of this article, it can also be affirmed that Old Testament saints believed in a compartmentalization of the afterlife—a section of the afterlife devoted to the faithful as they resided with God and a section that was devoted to those who were rebellious against God. If one is not convinced by the teachings of the Old Testament, one will need to consider the teachings of Christ.
The teachings of Christ pertaining to life after death.
On several occasions, Christ affirmed the existence of the faithful’s life after death. Jesus states that an hour is coming when “all who are in the tombs will hear his voice and come out” (John 5:28) at the great resurrection. Some would take part in the resurrection of the righteous and others would take part in the resurrection of the unrighteous. Yet, how could anyone hear anything if one was dead or asleep before the resurrection? Jesus also provides the parable of the rich man and Lazarus in Luke 16:19-31 where Jesus affirms that the faithless rich man suffers while faithful Lazarus is found in Abraham’s bosom (aka. “Paradise”). Both individuals continued to exist after death. Jesus also notes that “if anyone keeps my word, he shall never taste death” (John 8:52). How is it possible that Jesus’ teaching remains valid if one ceases to exist after one dies? Jesus’ teachings demonstrate the validity of soul survival. But wait…there’s more.
Jesus’ promise to thief on the cross.
When Jesus was on the cross, he conversed with a criminal on the cross. One criminal denied the work of Jesus, whereas the other criminal affirmed that Jesus was the Christ, the Son of the Living God. The criminal cried out saying, “Jesus, remember me when you come into your kingdom” (Luke 23:42). Jesus replied, “Truly, I say to you, today you will be with me in Paradise” (Luke 23:43). Jesus’ promise is only reasonable within the paradigm of soul survival.
Paul’s teaching pertaining to the intermediate state.
Paul’s teachings affirm soul survival. Paul states that “while we are at home in the body we are away from the Lord…we would rather be away from the body and at home with the Lord” (2 Corinthians 5:6, 8). Thus, one can live for Christ while in the body and will live with Christ while outside the body. This is a clear indication that the spirit survives death. Paul also writes to the Philippians that “for me to live is Christ, and to die is gain” (Philippians 1:21). Here again, Paul affirms soul survival.
Spirits in prison.
Peter references the existence of individuals who survive death—which also holds ramifications for the way one interprets the Old Testament. In an odd passage of Scripture, Peter denotes that when Christ died he “went and proclaimed to the spirits in prison, because they formerly did not obey” (1 Peter 3:19). Whatever Peter may reference, it is clear that souls survive death.
Presentation of saints in Revelation.
In Revelation, John sees the martyred saints crying out to God inquiring, “O Sovereign Lord, holy and true, how long before you will judge and avenge our blood on those who dwell on earth” (Revelation 6:10)? Here again, the Bible affirms that the souls of individuals continue to consciously exist beyond the confines of the grave.
It is clear that soul survival best fits the biblical text. Advocates of soul death and soul sleep seem to accept an erroneous and misconstrued interpretation of particular terms while ignoring clear biblical teachings to the contrary. The intermediate state will be a spiritual state. It is a state of existence that stands as a time that the spirit of a person is separated from the person’s physical existence. Yet, it must be understood that the intermediate state is not the final state of existence. This existence exists only until the time of the final resurrection. At such a time, the spirit of an individual will be reunited with the person’s body. The spirit and soul have been redeemed and recreated at the moment of salvation. The body will be redeemed and recreated by the final resurrection that will occur. Finally, all of creation will be redeemed and recreated when God creates a “new heaven and a new earth” (Revelation 21:1ff). Therefore, one can take comfort in knowing that Jesus’ words pertaining to eternal life is meant as eternal in duration. There will be no time when a person is not. The Christian will live forever with Christ while on earth, as a disembodied spirit in the intermediate state, and finally as a recreated person after the final resurrection.
Cairns, Alan. Dictionary of Theological Terms. Belfast; Greenville, SC: Ambassador Emerald International, 2002.
Elwell, Walter A., ed. Evangelical Dictionary of Theology. Second Edition. Grand Rapids: Baker Books, 2001.
Elwell, Walter A., ed. Evangelical Dictionary of Biblical Theology. Grand Rapids: Baker Books, 1996.
Unless otherwise noted, all Scripture comes from the English Standard Version. Wheaton: Crossway, 2001.
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