I have crusaded here before against the conflation of life-after-death with life-after-life-after-death (to use N. T. Wright’s terminology), of the “heaven” we go to upon death with the “heaven” which is really the new creation earth united with God’s presence in the future. And my theological focus has mostly been on the latter of these, the resurrection and the restoration of the cosmos in the age to come. Nonetheless, the real question about what happens immediately after death is still at least somewhat important, and some of what I’ve been reading recently has gotten me thinking about it.
This subject, the state of human beings between death and resurrection, is of course better known as the intermediate state. The usual focus is on believers. What precisely do we, as Christians, experience postmortem? In this post, I just feel like outlining some of the basic theological options, along with their strengths and weaknesses. I am still quite unsure what I think about this, but I’ll mention what I’m thinking these a’days.
On to the options. I’ve titled them myself; not all of them have set names.
- Sensory heaven
- The average pew-dweller, due to the common kind of preaching which does conflate the intermediate state with the new creation, often imagines that after we die we get to experience a fully sensory world, tangible and visible and tactile, paved with gold and filled with mansions. This, however common, is terribly mistaken with no biblical evidence whatsoever. The descriptions it makes use of come from Revelation 21-22, which describe the future new earth, not anything which is a present reality. Moreover, it ignores the fact that our physical bodies are literally in the ground, not transported to another physical realm, after death, and the fact that senses are all strictly physical phenomena, not something you experience spiritually.
- Spiritual bliss
For those who realize that there is no biblical reason to think we will be able to experience a sensory reality of heaven after death, there is a next step of simply affirming a kind of spiritual bliss. What this actually is like, we cannot imagine now. We only know that it is a different quality of existence and consciousness than what we experience now, but it is bliss in the presence of God in Christ. This tends to draw strength from texts like 2 Corinthians 5:1-10 and Philippians 1:21-23. In this view, we will experience the glory of God in Christ in some way without body or sense until we are reunited with our bodies in the resurrection.
This view is common among people who have dispensed with the first, erroneous notion. Nonetheless, there are some criticisms which have been leveled at it. For one, it may be unclear what human conscious experience could even be without our bodies, which include our brains. All of our emotions, thinking, and consciousness have always been massively physiological, involving brain and hormone and the like. What kind of “consciousness” would we have separated from our brains? Also, there are biblical statements which seem to imply a lack of consiousness in the intermediate state, particularly in Ecclesiastes (and some of the Psalms). It is questionable to what extent the rather unspecific statements in 2 Corinthians 5 and Philippians 1 might overcome these themes. As a final note, this view is often accused of importing the idea of the immortality of the soul from paganism, with the assertion that the Judeo-Christian tradition originally understood men as entirely mortal in flesh unless raised to glory.
- Soul sleep
The soul sleep view is common in some circles, though definitely a minority view. Perhaps its most well-known proponent was Martin Luther. In soul sleep, the intermediate state is unconscious. You die, and the next thing you experience is the resurrection, however many years may separate the two events. This view takes very seriously the rather shadowy statements about the afterlife in the Old Testament especially, taking advantage of the ambiguity in the New Testament statements which might imply consciousness in the intermediate state. That much of the Bible reflects a view something along these lines is almost a consensus in the higher world of scholarship.
Perhaps the largest problem the soul sleep view faces is the near unanimity of Christian tradition. Soul sleep has always, with a few exceptions, been on the fringes of Christian theology. While we have little data on the views of the very first Christians outside the sparse information in the New Testament, the earliest references we do have are from Eusebius, who argued against a group as unorthodox for teaching a form of soul sleep. The Catholic Church has declared it heretical, as have some smaller groups. None of this, however, can mean all too much for adherents to sola Scriptura.
- Total obliteration/Christian mortalism
Often soul sleep and Christian mortalism are classed or defined together, but I decided they would make more sense to separate them distinctly. In soul sleep, human souls are still supposed to be alive in some sense. They may not strictly conscious, but they are still truly alive and existing. What may go by Christian mortalism can go much further. I speak of total obliteration of the human person. Body, soul, spirit, identity, whatever else go into the grave together and lose everything until the final resurrection, which raises the whole person. Most of what has been said about soul sleep also applies to this kind of mortalism, with a few key differences.
At the biblical level, Christian mortalism has a harder time handling texts like 2 Corinthians 5 and Philippians 1. There are plausible solutions to them, but what is questionable about that is nonetheless questionable. On the other hand, Christian mortalism does have the upper hand in the “immortal soul is pagan” argument, as only this view completely repudiates the idea. For Christian mortalists, humanity is entirely mortal apart from God’s resurrection power. Again, a great deal of modern biblical scholarship sees a view like this as quite plausible in light of the historical-linguistic-cultural-contextual evidence in Scripture.
I’m really not sure what to add to this, only that I find the correct view here difficult to discern. Parts of me are attracted to all of them, except obviously the first. What do people here think? I’m ready to play critic or Devil’s advocate to any of them if you comment.