Christianity postulates that there will be a resurrection of the body at the end of the age. Because many people physically die before that time, in what state of being do they exist until that time? That state of being is called an "intermediate state"because it stands between our state of being while alive on earth and our final state of being that will include a resurrected body.
In the Old Testament little was revealed by God concerning the specifics of the afterlife. Believers died in hope of what God in his mercy would yet do for them. Their trust was in God who would ultimately redeem them, and if the specifics of what would transpire after death were not clear, their faith in God was and from this arose an assurance that God would not abandon them in the darkness. In some instances their faith took concrete shape, as in Psalm 49:15, "God will redeem my life from the grave; he will surely take me to himself, " or in Job 19:25-27, "I know that my Redeemer lives and after my skin has been destroyed, yet in my flesh I will see God. I myself will see him with my own eyesI, and not another." The future resurrection is spoken of in Daniel 12:2. But what the precise state of those who die will be was not disclosed in any detail.
In the New Testament, Jesus affirms the certainty of the coming resurrection ( Matt 22:23-30 ; Luke 14:14 ; John 5:28-29 )which, of course, requires the existence of an intermediate state. These passages shed light on it. In Matthew 22:31-32, Jesus affirms the coming resurrection of the dead, but then says no one is really dead, that is, snuffed out of existence. Because God says, "I am the God of Abraham, Israel and Jacob, " they are not dead, but living. lu 16:19-31 tells us of two who retain consciousness after their demise and the thief is told in lu 23:43, "You will be with me in Paradise today." None of this tells us what the interim body is like, but it does tell us that a conscious existence, morally continuous with this life awaits usParadise or Abraham's bosom for the righteous, torment for those who reject God's offer of mercy.
The apostle Paul looks forward to being with Christ upon death ( Php 1:20-24 ) and believed that Christ would bring with him those who had previously died ( 1 Thess 4:14 ). Paul also says that at the second coming the dead in Christ will rise first ( 1 Thess 4:17 ).These are not contradictory ideas. To Paul, those who die in Christ go immediately into Christ's presence in a noncomplete (unresurrected) form, there to await his second coming when their soul will be reunited with a resurrected body. Those who are alive at that moment will be instantly transformed ( 1 Cor 15:50-53 ; 1 Thess 4:17 ).
When reflecting on what it will be like to be in that interim state between death and resurrection, Paul likens it to being unclothed. The soul has shed its body and is naked ( 2 Cor 5:3-4 ). Paul appears to have somewhat ambivalent feelings about entering this state. On the one hand, he does not look forward to being bodiless Greeks thought positively about leaving the body behind at death, but Jews did not. On the other hand, to be away from the body is to be at home with the Lord, and that is a highly desirable state ( 2 Cor 5:6-8 ). Paul does not attempt to describe what the disembodied soul is like; he only knows it is a temporary state. At the resurrection of the dead we will be made complete again, like Christ in his resurrected body.
Walter A. Elwell
Bibliography. P. Cotterell, What the Bible Teaches about Death; K. Hahnhart, The Intermediate State in the New Testament; A. A. Hoekema, The Bible and the Future; X. Len-Dufour, Life and Death in the New Testament; H. R. Mackintosh, Immorality and the Future.
Copyright © 1996 by Walter A. Elwell. Published by Baker Books, a division of
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Bibliography InformationElwell, Walter A. "Entry for 'Intermediate State'". "Evangelical Dictionary of Theology".