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October 2018 Credo

One of the most important themes in Christian eschatology (the doctrine of the last things) is the intermediate state, that is, the continued existence of the person between his death and final resurrection. But the concept of the intermediate state is also riddled with problems as a result of which many different theories have been proposed.

One of the reasons why it is difficult to conceive of the intermediate state is the dearth of biblical material on this subject. While both the Old and New Testaments do allude to the continued existence of the deceased, they do not supply enough information that would enable us to construct a clear picture. In addition, the incidental way in which the Bible treats this topic has led some Christians to think – mistakenly, in my view – that it does not regard it as important.

While the first reason why the idea of the intermediate state has to do with the Biblical text itself, the second reason is philosophical and theological. There has been a significant shift in both philosophical and theological anthropology from the dualisms of Plato (4 century BC) and Rene Descartes (17th century) to a physicalism that eschews the distinction between body and mind (soul).

According to this understanding, nothing ‘survives’ the biological death of a human being. Put differently, when a human being dies, that human being simply ceases to exist. It is not difficult to see why the concept of the intermediate state, which postulates the continual existence of the human being who is biologically dead, is at odds with this materialist view.

Several theories have been proposed by theologians throughout the history of the church on the intermediate state.

Some of these theories work on the dualism of body and soul that the Bible itself purportedly upholds, and try to speculatively join the dots suggested by the sketchy biblical data. Others, in embracing the modern physicalist view of the human being, effectively dismiss the need to even think about an intermediate state.

One of the more prominent theories about the intermediate state is soul-sleep. Theologians and groups from diverse backgrounds and of different convictions – Luther, the Anabaptists, the Socinians, and the Seventh-Day Adventists – have proposed different versions of this theory.

Martin Luther famously described the intermediate state as ‘a deep and dreamless sleep without consciousness or feeling’. In a 1533 sermon Luther wrote: ‘We are to sleep until he comes and knocks on the grave and says, “Dr Martin, get up”. Then I will arise in a moment and will be eternally happy with him’.

Theologians are quick to point out that this view of the intermediate state presents serious problems and difficulties. While Scripture does use ‘sleep’ to describe death (e.g., John 11:11), surely this expression must not be understood literally. Rather it should be seen as a figure of speech, a euphemism.

Additionally, Scripture seems to depict the intermediate state as a personal and conscious existence. Although the parable of the rich man and Lazarus (Luke 16:19-31) is not purposed to teach us about the nature of the intermediate state, it is nonetheless a reliable depiction. As Millard Erickson has rightly pointed out, in telling this parable, it is unlikely that Jesus would ‘mislead us on this subject’.

A most curious proposal came from the pen of Lewis Sperry Chafer, who was the president of Dallas Theological Seminary from 1936 to his death in 1952. A dispensationalist theologian, Chafer posited that the dead is given ‘an intermediate body’ while awaiting the resurrection. At the resurrection, they will receive the final spiritual body that Paul describes in 1 Corinthians 15.

Needless to say, there is no scriptural basis whatsoever for this theory.

A theory that is gaining ascendency is total death. This theory – which aligns itself with the modern physicalist anthropologies alluded above – maintains that nothing survives the physical death of an individual. The proponents of this view are therefore effectively saying that there is no intermediate state.

According to a version of this theory, at the resurrection, God will ‘re-assemble’ this individual who had died in a way that guarantees the identity of that individual. The Lutheran theologian Jürgen Moltmann maintains that God is able to do this because he has in his mind the form (German: Gestalt) of the individual which serves as the basis for his re-constitution of that individual at the resurrection.

The problem with this theory is that it is does not square with the witness of Scripture. For example, if death is the total annihilation of the individual, what could Paul have meant when he suggested that the deceased believer is in the presence of Christ (Philippians 2:3)? How could we make sense of Jesus’ promise to the repentant thief that he will be with him in paradise on the very day of their deaths (Luke 23:43)?

Finally, some scholars have argued that there is no need to envision an intermediate state because the dead will be instantaneously resurrected. W.D. Davies expounded this view in Paul and Rabbinic Judaism (1970).

According to Davies, by the time Paul wrote 2 Corinthians he had already distanced himself from rabbinic Judaism’s idea of disembodiment at death. ‘[The dead] would on the contrary, be embodied’, writes Davies, ‘and there is no room in Paul’s theology for an intermediate state of the dead’.

Davies has however ignored a large body of Pauline texts which indicates quite clearly that the apostle believed in the disembodied ‘survival’ of the deceased (Phil 3:20-21; 1 Thess 4:16-17; Rom 2:3-16; 1 Cor 4:5).

The evangelical theologian Anthony Hoekema has argued that there are simply too many passages in the NT that point to the intermediate state for the concept to be ignored: Luke 23:42-43; Philippians 1:21-23; 2 Corinthians 5:6-8. In the same way, there are too many passages that speak of the separation of the soul from the body at death in Scripture for Christians to uncritically embrace a merely physicalist anthropology.

To be sure, the Bible does present a unitary concept of the human being. But it also indicates that at death, this unity is temporarily dissolved due to the separation of body and soul.

In addition, there can be no denying that Scripture teaches that the soul (however one may wish to describe it) continues in personal, conscious existence after the physical death of the individual. It is only at the resurrection that body and soul are brought together once again.

The Bible does speak of an intermediate state between death and resurrection. But the scarcity of biblical material cautions us against being too dogmatic in our conception of the nature of this mode of existence.

Dr Roland Chia is Chew Hock Hin Professor of Christian Doctrine at Trinity Theological College and Theological and Research Advisor for the Ethos Institute for Public Christianity.