After Death, What is the ‘Intermediate State’?

The intermediate state is a person’s condition between physical death and the resurrection. For the believer, it is a time of conscious bliss in the presence of the Lord; but for the unbeliever, it is a time of conscious torment.

According to the New Testament, death is the separation of the soul (or spirit) from the body. The body physically deteriorates, while the soul of the believer is in conscious fellowship with God. Contrary to popular thought, Christians do not become angels in the intermediate state — or ever. At the consummation of the age (at the return of Christ), the soul will be reunited with the resurrected body (1 Thessalonians 4:14-17).

As with the word “trinity,” “intermediate state” does not appear in the Bible. Yet both concepts are biblical. To the dying thief, Jesus said, “Today you will be with me in paradise” (Luke 23:43). The Apostle Paul indicated that the alternative to his being in the body was being present with the Lord (2 Corinthians 5:6,8). These statements affirm that in some fashion the believer is ushered into the presence of the Lord immediately at death. 

Yet the New Testament frequently affirms a future resurrection of the body. In fact, while Paul understood that to die is gain because it is a departure to be with Christ, he also understood bodily resurrection to be the ultimate salvation (Romans 8:18-23). Together, these two truths — the soul’s immediate presence with the Lord and a future bodily resurrection — imply an intermediate state in which the soul awaits the resurrection of the body. 

Some theologians have resisted this idea of a disembodied soul, claiming that it is unduly influenced by Plato, who believed that salvation consists of the soul becoming eternally liberated from the body that enslaves it. But although biblical Christianity and Platonism agree that the soul can exist apart from the body, Christianity, in contrast to Platonism, insists that human beings are incomplete without the body. Paul described humans in this disembodied state as “naked” and “unclothed,” implying that their condition is temporary and imperfect even while being at home with the Lord (2 Corinthians 5:3-4, 8). Thus, Christians derive their beliefs concerning the intermediate state from the Bible, not from ancient Greek thought.

Other theologians deny the intermediate state altogether, claiming that in the biblical view humans are unified beings, having no components. That is, when the person dies, the total person dies. The resurrection will involve the total person. But while the Bible does present human beings as unified, the unity is not a radical, absolute one. Several biblical texts indicate that human souls survive the death of the body. (See, for example, Psalm 31:5; Luke 23:43, 46; Acts 7:59; Philippians 1:23-24; 2 Corinthians 5:8; Hebrews 12:23; and Revelation 6:9.)

The doctrines of purgatory and soul sleep challenge the biblical concept of the intermediate state. The Roman Catholic Church teaches that during the period between death and resurrection, Christians who need further purification from sin before entering heaven will exist in purgatory, experiencing varying degrees of punishment. 

Attempts to offer biblical support for purgatory are feeble at best. Rather, it is the unbiblical system of Roman Catholic thought that demands postulating the existence of purgatory. When one accepts the biblical teachings on the sufficiency of Christ’s death and justification by faith alone, no role remains for a purgatory. On the contrary: “There is therefore now no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus” (Romans 8:1). Purgatory is incompatible with the numerous biblical passages that speak of the believer’s immediate transition from death to the presence of the Lord.

Martin Luther, some Anabaptists in the Reformation, Jehovah’s Witnesses, and Seventh-Day Adventists have advanced the idea of soul sleep — that the soul exists in a state of unconsciousness between death and the resurrection. Doubtless, the Bible at times likens death to sleep. Four times in 1 Corinthians 15, and three times in 1 Thessalonians 4, Paul used the imagery of sleep in reference to death. But several considerations suggest that the soul is not in a state of unconscious existence after death — including the many biblical passages presented above that argue for conscious existence after death.

In light of the biblical evidence, passages that associate death with sleep should be interpreted metaphorically. Just as God is like a rock in some ways, death is like sleep in some ways; in the intermediate state, one has no relation to the present world, and one rests from one’s labors. Moreover, when Paul stated his preference to depart and be in Christ’s presence (Philippians 1:23), it is highly unlikely that he was preferring a state of unconscious existence. 

With its greater emphasis on the final state, the Bible has relatively little to say concerning the intermediate state. Yet, this doctrine has obvious implications for pastoral ministry. In a time of bereavement, believers want to know the present status of their loved one. Christians should be informed on this issue in order to minister to grieving relatives and friends.  

— Walter E. Johnson is dean of the College of Christian Studies and professor of philosophy and Christian studies at North Greenville University.