When a person dies, where does his or her spirit and body go until the Second Coming?

Throughout its history, the church has struggled with the concept of what is called the “intermediate state”—our position between the time we die and the time Christ consummates his kingdom and fulfills the promises that we confess in the Apostles’ Creed. We believe in the resurrection of the body. We believe there will be a time when God reunites our soul and our body, and that we will have a glorified body even as Christ came out of the tomb as the “firstborn from the dead.” In the meantime, what happens?

The most common view has been that, at death, the soul immediately goes to be with God and there is a continuity of personal existence. There is no interruption of life at the end of this life, but we continue to be alive in our personal souls upon death.

There are those who have been influenced by a cultic view called psychopannychia, more famously known as soul sleep. The idea is that at death the soul goes into a state of suspended animation. It remains in slumber, in an unconscious state, until it is awakened at the time of the great resurrection. The soul is still alive, but it is unconscious, so that there is no consciousness of the passing of time. I think this conclusion is drawn improperly from the euphemistic way in which the New Testament speaks about people in death being asleep. The common Jewish expression that they are “asleep” means they are enjoying the reposed, peaceful tranquility of those who have passed beyond the struggles of this world and into the presence of God.

But the overall teaching of Scripture, even in the Old Testament, where the bosom of Abraham was seen as the place of the afterlife, there is this persistent notion of continuity. Paul put it this way: To live in this world is good; the greatest thing that can ever happen is to be participating in the final resurrection. But the intermediate state is even better. Paul said that he was caught between two things.

On the one hand, his desire was to depart and be with Christ, which is far better, and on the other hand, he had a desire to remain alive and continue his ministry on this earth. But the apostle’s judgment that the passing beyond the veil of death to that intermediate state is far better than this one gives us a clue, along with a host of other passages. Jesus said to the thief on the cross, “I say to you, today you shall be with me in paradise.” The image of Dives and Lazarus in the New Testament (Luke 16:19-31) indicates to me that there is a continuity of life and of consciousness in that intermediate state.

©1996 by R.C. Sproul. Used by permission of Tyndale.
Scripture taken from the New King James Version®. ©1982 by Thomas Nelson.
Used by permission. All rights reserved.