September 10, 2019

The Intermediate State

Barry Cooper
The Intermediate State

For Christians, death is a homecoming. Today, Barry Cooper portrays the Bible's depiction of what takes place between our death and resurrection.


In recent years, there’ve been a spate of books written by people who have apparently  died and then come back to life, each book claiming to describe exactly what this person experienced after death.

I often see these books being promoted heavily in—of all places—airport terminals, which seems like a rather insensitive place to be reminding people that they’re going to die. 

But the fascination is understandable. What happens to us after death? Where do we go? What do we see or experience, if anything? 

And specifically, what happens to Christians when they die, while they await the resurrection of the body—a resurrection guaranteed by the resurrection of Jesus two thousand years ago?

Well, historically, there’ve been several different answers to this. 

One answer, from Roman Catholicism, is the idea of purgatory. According to this idea, Christians who die but who are still imperfectly purified must undergo a set time of punishment in purgatory, until such time as they are pure enough to be with Christ.

Another answer is the idea of soul sleep, which is a state of personal unconsciousness and temporary separation from Christ.

But both of these ideas fall short of scriptural teaching. One theologian amusingly notes, “The history of the doctrine of the intermediate state shows that it is hard for theologians and people in general to stay within the limits of Scripture and not attempt to be wiser than they can be.”

Although Scripture doesn’t give us exhaustive details about this so-called intermediate state between death and the final resurrection, there are some intriguing clues about what it’ll be like for a believer immediately after they die. 

For example, when the Apostle Paul is under house arrest in Rome, and expecting that death might be just around the corner, he says this to the church in Philippi: “To me to live is Christ, and to die is gain. If I am to live in the flesh, that means fruitful labor for me. Yet which I shall choose I cannot tell. I am hard pressed between the two. My desire is to depart and be with Christ, for that is far better. But to remain in the flesh is more necessary on your account.”

For Christians, then, although life is good, and to be cherished, death will be better, because it means (according to Paul) being “with Christ.”

When we die, while we will “depart” from our bodies, which are planted in the grave, like seeds awaiting their full bloom at the final resurrection, our souls will go immediately to be in the presence of the Lord Jesus Christ.

As R.C. Sproul writes, the biblical answer to this question is that believers will experience “an unbroken continuity of personal, conscious existence such that immediately upon death we are actively in the presence of Christ and of God.”

Again, in 2 Corinthians chapter 5, Paul writes: “We are always of good courage. We know that while we are at home in the body we are away from the Lord . . . and we would rather be away from the body and at home with the Lord.”

So death, for believers, is a homecoming. Not that we will be given our physical resurrection bodies yet—that unimaginable glory will be yet to come—but still, we will be “at home with the Lord,” enjoying an intimacy with Him that isn’t possible as long as we inhabit our present bodies.

Something else worth considering is the way that Jesus Himself, on the cross, speaks to the thief who is being crucified alongside Him. The thief, surely only minutes from death, says to Him, “Jesus, remember me when you come into your kingdom.” 

And Jesus, knowing how close death was to both of them, says to him, “Truly, I say to you, today, you will be with me in paradise.”

If your trust is in Christ, those words will be true for you too. Whatever speculation there may be in the airport best sellers, Christ assures every believer that when we die, we will immediately be with Him in paradise.