Options on the Intermediate State

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.

Options on the Intermediate State

The Real Heavens of God’s Word

In my previous post Heaven Is a Myth. Sort Of. I began the question of what the Bible really teaches about heaven. I suggested that most popular ideas of heaven are myths, though I did not specify exactly what is mythical and what is real. Finally, I listed the three Biblical “places” people call “heaven.” My goal in this post is to continue explaining what each place is for real and give Scripture to back up what I’m saying.

Heaven #1: God’s World

The place in Scripture most often called “heaven” is the place where God and His angels dwell. The Bible says that God is in heaven 1, as well as the angels 2. Yet it does not appear to be some kind of uncreated, purely spiritual presence of God, like some people imagine. Instead, despite the ambiguity created by the use of the word “heavens” also to refer to the sky/space, it does appear to be the case that heaven is a place created by God alongside of “earth,” our physical world 3.

It is at this point we can see a concept of twin realities made by God in creation: earth as man’s place and heaven as God’s place. In heaven we see God and his subject angels 4, and on earth we see man in the image of God and their subject animals 5. God reigns in heaven directly, and His will is always done there 6. On earth, God rules through human beings 7, and because of that weak link His will is not always done here.

Nowhere in Scripture are believers said to go here after death. Indeed, if this heaven actually does have some kind of space, but the dead no longer have spatial bodies, then they cannot “go” there. In fact, they can’t “go” anywhere.

Heaven #2: Paradise

So what happens to believers when they die? They go to Paradise, which the Jews sometimes called Abraham’s bosom 8. We should not think of this place as somewhere physical. It isn’t, because we go there without bodies. After we die our bodies lie in the ground, and our spirits/souls/whatevers, which are not physical, experience whatever happens next. They are not our bodies, so they do not have eyes, noses, ears, skin, or tongues. They do not have senses. Moreover, they lack brains, which largely control the kind of consciousness we experience in our bodies.

What does this mean? Paradise is not at all a normal state that we could imagine. We do not have normal consciousness there, seeing and hearing and feeling and thinking. It has something in common with sleep, but is nonetheless different. This can be proved throughout the Scriptures 9.

Paradise is a peculiar state. It is, on one hand, somewhat abysmal and empty, due to our existence without the bodily half of our nature 10. We’re meant to be in bodies, not without them. Yet it is also blissful and in fact better than our current state of tension with sin and weakness 11. Once we’ve died, the last of the old man will be completely gone, which means we will be with Christ in a better way than now 12. At present we are incomplete and have sin, but then we will be incomplete and without sin.

Heaven #3: Resurrection and New Earth

The final and ultimate reality often called “heaven” (but not by the Bible) is the new creation coming at the last day. This is mostly testified by Isaiah and Revelation, though of course the hope permeates the Scriptures. In the end, when Christ returns to judge the world, everyone will be raised from the dead. Those who are in Christ and have His Spirit will be resurrected to eternal life 13, while the rest will be raised for condemnation 14.

This resurrection will be the second stage of new birth. What God did for our spirit when we first believed He will do for our bodies: a new creation, not starting from scratch but incomprehensibly transforming the old 15. Jesus’ resurrection body is the prototype of our future bodies, and His was not a brand new creation. It “used up” the matter of His original body, leaving an empty tomb 16. It still bore the scars of His saving death 17. God didn’t scrap the original body and make a brand new one; He renewed, restored, and glorified the first physical body. 18

Of course, even though these bodies will remain truly physical and tangible, they will be different than our current bodies. Apparently they can bypass certain normal spacetime restrictions 19. No longer mortal or subject to decay, they will be immortal and incorruptible 20. In some way, even though our bodies will be still physical human bodies, they will be radically changed and new as well 21. C. S. Lewis captured the picture well when he suggested we should “remember that the dullest most uninteresting person you can talk to may one day be a creature which, if you saw it now, you would be strongly tempted to worship.”

As to the new earth, the same pattern of death and resurrection follows. Isaiah and John both wrote about the “new heavens and earth” 22. This world will die in fire 23, but the same Spirit who raised Christ from the dead will similarly raise the entire creation 24. Again, we’re not dealing with God scrapping the old creation and making a new one from scratch. It is recreation, restoration, renewal. It is resurrection, just like Jesus, who is the firstfruits of the new creation 25.

This place, our final destination, will be a completely physical world, somehow connected to the current one, for it will be where we live in our resurrected physical bodies. Its crowning capitol will be the New Jerusalem, described beautifully by John in Revelation 21-22. There God’s heaven (the #1 listing) and our earth will become one 26, since we see that there “God’s home is now among his people! He will live with them, and they will be his people. God himself will be with them” 27. The new creation, not the Paradise where we go when we die, will be home to the “streets of gold” 28 and other beauties, though more than likely these are not literal details but a fanciful and symbolically loaded description meant to give off a particular picture of glory and wonder. It will be our home for all eternity.

Everything beyond this point becomes somewhat speculative. I do think that, since this will be a resurrection world and not some start-from-scratch creation or spiritual plane, there will be lots of stuff remaining from our present age. Art, architecture, music, and such made by Spirit-led believers to glorify God may well surviving the purification by fire. Church buildings hallowed to God’s glory where He has touched many lives may stick around. Natural wonders are sure to remain and be even more glorious than before. The world will dazzle with God’s brilliance, “for as the waters fill the sea, so the earth will be filled with an awareness of the glory of the Lord” 29.

So What?

Having said all of this, why does it matter? What difference does the Biblical picture of heaven make compared to the popular ideas? Much in every way. On the one hand, it is always worthwhile to speak Biblically instead of following unbiblical traditions (the same reason we Protestants pointedly reject certain Catholic doctrines about Mary, even though they’re unimportant). But there is more to it than that.

Framing the issues this way keeps our focus clear. God’s heaven is what we want to emulate and bring to earth, anticipating the way that they will become one in the new creation. Understanding Paradise reminds us how much God cares for our bodily existence, so that we will not neglect or undervalue them. If the physical world will be renewed for our eternal home, there is reason to get out and do real things, knowing that our labors can be preserved. Resurrection brings hope and a certainty towards the defeat of death. Honestly, I could go on, but it would be easier to simply point you to the book Surprised by Hope by N. T. Wright, who covers all of this and the practical applications in much detail.

I’ll close with this:

Then I saw a new heaven and a new earth, for the old heaven and the old earth had disappeared. And the sea was also gone.

And I saw the holy city, the new Jerusalem, coming down from God out of heaven like a bride beautifully dressed for her husband.

I heard a loud shout from the throne, saying, “Look, God’s home is now among his people! He will live with them, and they will be his people. God himself will be with them. He will wipe every tear from their eyes, and there will be no more death or sorrow or crying or pain. All these things are gone forever.” And the one sitting on the throne said, “Look, I am making everything new!” And then he said to me, “Write this down, for what I tell you is trustworthy and true.” And he also said, “It is finished! I am the Alpha and the Omega—the Beginning and the End. To all who are thirsty I will give freely from the springs of the water of life.

Revelation 21:3-8

The Real Heavens of God’s Word