Oct 2, 2023

What Is the Intermediate State?

3 Min Read

“She is not dead but sleeping” (Luke 8:52). Jesus made this comment about Jairus’s daughter when He was about to raise her from the dead. Frequently the Bible refers to death by the figure of “sleep.” Because of this image, some have concluded that the New Testament teaches the doctrine of soul sleep.

Soul sleep is usually described as a kind of temporary suspended animation of the soul between the moment of personal death and the time when our bodies will be resurrected. When our bodies are raised from the dead, the soul is awakened to begin conscious personal continuity in heaven. Though centuries may pass between death and final resurrection, the “sleeping” soul will have no conscious awareness of the passing of time. Our transition from death to heaven will seem to be instantaneous.

Soul sleep represents a departure from orthodox Christianity. It remains, however, as a firmly entrenched minority report among Christians. The traditional view is called the intermediate state. This view holds that at death, the believer’s soul goes immediately to be with Christ to enjoy a continuous, conscious, personal existence while awaiting the final resurrection of the body. When the Apostles’ Creed speaks of the “resurrection of the body,” it is not referring to the resurrection of Christ’s human body (which is also affirmed in the Creed) but to the resurrection of our bodies at the last day.

But what happens in the meantime? The classical view is that at death the souls of believers are immediately glorified. They are made perfect in holiness and enter immediately into glory. Their bodies, however, remain in the grave, awaiting final resurrection.

In the intermediate state we will enjoy the continuity of conscious personal existence in the presence of Christ.

Jesus promised the thief on the cross that “today you will be with me in Paradise” (Luke 23:43). Those who support the concept of soul sleep argue that Jesus could not have meant that He would meet the thief in paradise that very day because Jesus would be dead for three days and He had not yet ascended. Although Christ’s ascension had indeed not yet occurred and His body certainly was in the grave, He had commended His spirit to the Father. We are assured that at the moment of His death, the soul of Jesus went to Paradise as He declared. Soul sleep advocates argue that most English editions of the Bible have misplaced the comma. They read it this way: “I say to you today, you will be with Me in Paradise.”

With this change in punctuation the “today” then refers to the time Jesus is speaking rather than the time Jesus will meet the thief in Paradise. This punctuation is unlikely, however. It was perfectly obvious to the thief on what day Jesus was conversing with him. It was hardly necessary for Jesus to say He was speaking “today.” This waste of words for a man gasping for breath in the throes of crucifixion is highly unlikely. Rather, consistent with the rest of the biblical evidence to the intermediate state (see especially Phil. 1:19–26 and 2 Cor. 5:1–10), the promise to the thief is that he would be reunited with Christ in Paradise that very day.

The state of the believer after death is both different and better than what we experience in this life, though not as different or as blessed as it will be in the final resurrection. In the intermediate state we will enjoy the continuity of conscious personal existence in the presence of Christ.

Mankind’s probation ends at death. Our ultimate destiny is decided when we die. There is no hope of a second chance of repentance after death, and there is no place of purging such as purgatory to improve our future condition. For the believer, death is immediate emancipation from the conflict and turmoil of this life as we enter into our state of blessedness.

Though death brings rest to the soul and the Bible often refers to death by the euphemism of sleep, it is not proper to assume that in the intermediate state the soul sleeps or that we remain unconscious or in a state of suspended animation until the final resurrection.

This article is part of the The Reformation Study Bible collection.