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First Thoughts

The Intermediate State

What Does Not Happen When You Die?

There are so many future realities Christians are looking forward to in the afterlife, such as every tear being wiped away (Revelation 21:4), all sin and death being done away with (1 Corinthians 15:26), receiving our new bodies (1 Corinthians 15:50-55), and seeing Jesus face-to-face (1 Corinthians 13:12; Revelation 22:4).

Christians are right to put their hope in Christ and eagerly await all of those glorious future realities that God has promised will come to pass. But all those specific truths, among many others, will not actually come to pass when we die. They will not be our experience right away when we die. Those specific promises aren’t fulfilled until Jesus returns!

Some believers will still be alive on the earth when Jesus returns (1 Corinthians 15:51; 1 Thessalonians 4:17), but that likely will not be the fate for most of us. There is a gap in time and a gap in the fulfillment of God’s promises. We don’t receive all of these future blessings right when we die.

We need to be clear to distinguish the Bible’s teaching from some wrong ideas. The Roman Catholic teaching of a temporary place called purgatory is wrong because Jesus’ sacrifice for our sins was completed “once for all” (Hebrews 7:27; 9:12; 10:10), so nothing else needs to be added to it now or in the afterlife. The belief in “soul sleep” by Seventh Day Adventists and Jehovah’s Witnesses is also wrong because our soul does not become unconscious after we die. These groups misunderstand that the biblical metaphor for “sleep” is a way of describing the temporary nature of death (John 11:11; 1 Thessalonians 4:13; 5:10; Acts 7:60). We will not always be dead because we believe in the future resurrection from the dead (1 Corinthians 15:42-49). But we will be conscious the whole afterlife, as I’ll describe below.

If these other views are incorrect, then what does the Bible teach will happen during this gap in time between our death and the return of Christ when God will fulfill all of His promises? In short, we will enter the “intermediate state.”

What’s the Intermediate State?

The Bible teaches that because of sin, you will die (before Christ returns). So even though we are no longer under condemnation for our sin (Romans 8:1), death is still “the last enemy,” and we will face that enemy when our mortal life ends (1 Corinthians 15:26). Death is not the ceasing of existence, but separation. In death, our soul (or spirit) will separate from our body. That’s why when Jesus died, he “gave up his spirit” (Matthew 27:50). James 2:26 also says that “the body apart from the spirit is dead.” In death, our body lays in the grave awaiting its physical resurrection when Jesus returns (1 Corinthians 15:35-55). We don’t get our new bodies when we die. The Bible teaches that “we shall all be [physically] changed…at the last trumpet” (1 Corinthians 15:51-52), which happens at the return of Christ.

So, our bodies lay in the ground, but what happens to our souls? Well, the Bible teaches that to be “away from the body” also means that we are “at home with the Lord” (2 Corinthians 5:8). In contemplating life or death, Paul says that his “desire is to depart and be with Christ” (Philippians 1:23). In the context, it is very clear he is referring to death as the departure of his fleshly body. So, when we die, we are “with Christ” as a disembodied soul. This is a sinless, conscious, and blessed existence. We will be in paradise with Jesus (Luke 23:43). But it is not the best part of the afterlife. We will still be waiting for the final redemption when sin, death, and the devil are finally destroyed when the final judgment takes place and God eternally consigns everyone to either the lake of fire or the new heavens and the new earth, and when we receive our new resurrected and glorified bodies…and all of this takes place when Jesus returns!

The intermediate state is not the eternal state. However, even though it is not the best part of the afterlife, it is still a blessed part as we are with our Savior.

Why is the Intermediate State Important?

For some Christians, the Bible’s teaching on the “intermediate state” might be unfamiliar and even sound strange. Oftentimes, Christians speak as though our final reality in the eternal state is our immediate reality at death, but that just isn’t the case. But why is it important that we believe in the intermediate state and talk about it as Christians? Let me offer four reasons:

  1. The intermediate state reminds us that death is not natural. Sometimes, I’ve heard people say that “death is a natural part of life.” But we were created to live, not die. Death is an alien invasion to the good creation that God made. Death is part of the curse of sin and disobedience to our loving Creator. We should mourn any death, even as we have hope that believers in Christ won’t stay dead forever (1 Thessalonians 4:13). Death is an enemy; it’s the last enemy that we are still waiting for Christ to finally and fully overcome at His return.
  2. The intermediate state teaches us that redemption is not complete. God made us whole, as body and soul, at creation (Genesis 2:7). Because we are not meant to live as disembodied souls, we will continue to groan in eager expectation for the future redemption of our bodies (Romans 8:22-23). Revelation 6:10-11 describes believers in the intermediate state, and they are crying out to God to avenge their blood by judging the unbelievers. We will be aware that redemption is not complete in the intermediate state, and we will long for Christ to finish the work He began.
  3. The intermediate state points to resurrection as a future reality. Christ now has His gloried, perfect, and resurrected body. And His resurrection is the firstfruits and guarantee of our future resurrection (1 Corinthians 15:20-23). But we will still be waiting for our new body even after we die. We will not live eternally as a disembodied soul but as a creational whole person, both body and soul. Christ “will transform our lowly body to be like his glorious body” (Philippians 3:21), but we will still be waiting for that new body until Christ returns.
  4. The intermediate state keeps our focus rightly on the return of Christ. Death is not our future hope. Yes, in death, we will cease to experience pain and sin, but that doesn’t mean we are looking forward to death. We are looking forward to being with Christ! Because death is an enemy, and because redemption is not complete when we die, and because we will still be waiting for the future resurrection, it keeps our focus where it rightly belongs. We are “waiting for our blessed hope, the appearing of the glory of our great God and Savior Jesus Christ” (Titus 2:13).

Richard Lucas (Ph.D., The Southern Baptist Theological Seminary) is the Pastor of Teaching and He is the co-editor of Covenantal and Dispensational Theologies: Four Views on the Continuity of Scripture.

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