Prof. Engelsma is professor of Dogmatics and Old Testament in the Protestant Reformed Seminary. Previous article in this series: November 1, 2005, p. 64.

The intermediate state is an aspect of the hope of the covenant people of God. It is part of their hope because God has made known in His Word that life and bliss in the soul upon their death are benefits of His covenant with them. The comfort of life with God in the soul is not on the foreground in Scripture simply because the intermediate state is not the main hope of the church. The resurrection of the body in the Day of Christ is the main hope. But neither is testimony to the intermediate state lacking.

The Old Testament Witness to the Intermediate State

Contrary to the thinking of some, there is witness to the intermediate state in the Old Testament, even though this witness is not as clear and strong as that of the New Testament. The Old Testament combines the intermediate state and the resurrection of the body as one hope for future good after death. It does not sharply distinguish the two elements of the hope of the God-fearer in the face of death, just as it does not sharply distinguish the two stages of the coming of the Messiah. But with all due regard for the fearful gloominess of death and the grave, something that the New Testament by no means denies or minimizes, the Old Testament holds before the God-fearing man or woman the bright prospect of life and glory after death. This prospect includes the intermediate state, as well as the resurrection of the body.

Psalm 16:9-11 is prophecy of the bodily resurrection of Jesus Christ: “My flesh also shall rest in hope. For thou wilt not leave my soul in hell; neither wilt thou suffer thine Holy One to see corruption.” This is the inspired, authoritative interpretation of the apostle in Acts 2:24-32. David spoke “of the resurrection of Christ, that his soul was not left in hell, neither his flesh did see corruption.” Because of the resurrection of the head of the covenant, resurrection is also the hope of all Jehovah’s covenant people. And this hope in the face of death and the grave takes the form of an all-embracing expectation that God will “shew me the path of life: in thy presence is fullness of joy; at thy right hand there are pleasures for evermore” (Ps. 16:11). The intermediate state cannot be excluded from this expectation, since the ground of the expectation of great good after death is Jehovah as “the portion of mine inheritance and of my cup” (Ps. 16:5).

When the psalmist comes to his senses in Psalm 73, he realizes that the trouble-filled life of God’s Israel must be viewed in light of the end of this life, just as the trouble-free life of the wicked must be evaluated in light of the end of that life. For the psalmist and all those who are “of a clean heart” the end of earthly life consists of the Lord’s receiving them to glory (Ps. 73:24). There is no reason to limit this to the resurrection of the body in the Day of Christ. The text simply speaks of “afterward,” that is, after this trouble-filled earthly life ends in death. “Afterward,” there will be reception to glory—glory in the soul at once, glory in the resurrection body in the Day of Christ.

The passage opposes the notion that glory for the true Israelite who has died is held in abeyance until the resurrection. Verse 23 lays the basis for the confidence of glory “afterward” in the Psalmist’s being “continually with thee.” This is covenant fellowship with the living God of Israel. Death cannot interrupt this communion. In addition, Psalm 73 threatens the ungodly with destruction immediately upon their death. Their “end” is “desolation, as in a moment,” a desolation in which they are “utterly consumed with terrors” (Ps. 73:17-19). Just as the destruction and desolation of the ungodly do not wait for the final judgment, but begin at the instant of death, so also, according to the comparison of the psalm, the end of the godly is bliss at the moment of their death.

The comfort of Psalm 23 follows everyone who has Jehovah as his shepherd through death. The shepherd’s love and care give goodness and mercy “all the days of my life.” When this life is over, “I will dwell in the house of the LORD for ever” (Ps. 23:6). We distinguish between the intermediate state prior to the resurrection of the body and the eternal state following the resurrection of the body. Psalm 23 includes both as the “for ever” that follows death. During this “for ever” the child of God dwells with God in His house. He dwells there in the soul during the intermediate state; he dwells there in body and soul during the eternal state. But the future of the child of God after death is dwelling in the house of God.

The New Testament Witness to the Intermediate State 

What is dim and indistinct in the Old Testament is clear and distinct in the New Testament. The bright light that the gospel of the resurrection of Jesus Christ has shined on the Christian’s hope illumines his expectation of good at the moment of death.

In John 11:26 Jesus taught that “whosoever liveth and believeth in me shall never die.” Never dying is a benefit of the resurrection of Jesus Christ mentioned in John 11:25: “Jesus said unto her, I am the resurrection, and the life.” One benefit of the resurrection of Christ for those who believe in Him is their own bodily resurrection. This the Lord promised in John 11:25: “he that believeth in me, even though he may die, yet shall he live” (my translation; the KJV is confusing here).

But there is also another benefit of Christ’s resurrection for the believer. One who lives spiritually, by virtue of the regenerating work of the Spirit in his heart, and believes in the risen Christ shall never die. He shall not die even when he does die physically. The spiritual life that is in him does not die. It cannot die. It is a life beyond the reach of the killing power of physical death. Even at the moment of physical death, the believer continues to live the spiritual life that he has received from Christ in the Spirit. He lives this life in his soul. In this way, the believer lives through his death, triumphs over death, and passes through death into the enjoyment of everlasting life in the soul.

The reason is the presence in the believer of the resurrection life of Christ. This life is immortal. Since this life has become the believer’s own, the believer is immortal. The intermediate state must be reality, because the believer is immortal. Through faith, Jesus Himself, who is the resurrection and the life, indwells the believer. Jesus is immortal in the believer. Death may kill the body, temporarily, but with regard to his spiritual life—Christ in him—death cannot kill the believer. This demands the intermediate state.

Christ taught the conscious life of Abraham’s children—believers—in heaven at the moment of death in the parable of the rich man and Lazarus (Luke 16:19-31). Death for beggar Lazarus meant being carried by the angels into Abraham’s bosom. This is conscious enjoyment of blessedness, for “now he is comforted” (Luke 16:25). That the beggar consciously enjoys bliss at death, in his soul, is implied by the rich man’s suffering torments in his soul: “in hell he lift up his eyes, being in torments” (Luke 16:23).

The most vivid, forceful expression of the truth of the intermediate state as consolation and hope to a miserable sinner in the wretchedness of his dying was Jesus’ word to the penitent evildoer on the cross: “Verily I say unto thee, today shalt thou be with me in paradise” (Luke 23:43). This is the hope of those for whom Christ died immediately upon their death and before the resurrection of the body: “Today.” This is the hope of the conscious enjoyment of great good: “in paradise.” This is a sure hope: “Verily I say unto thee.” This is the hope of everyone who, like the murderer and robber to whom Christ gave the promise, repents of his sins and trusts in the Lord to be remembered for good (Luke 23:42), for that man was as wicked and unworthy an inheritor of paradise as ever there was. And the explanation of the intermediate state, the necessity that elect, repentant, believing men and women live with Christ in heaven in their soul at death, is the inseparable union of Christ and His people: “with me.”

In accordance with Christ’s own doctrine, especially His well-known word to the penitent evildoer, the apostles made the intermediate state part of their gospel of hope. Indeed, it was Paul’s own personal hope. Regarding his own death, he was confident that he would not be “ashamed.” Dying would be “gain.” The reason is that in departing this life in death he would “be with Christ, which is far better” (Phil. 1:20-24). The thought is that dying would be instant gain because he would be with the Lord at once. But this can only be in his soul, for his body would be in the grave.

The hope of the apostle is obviously not soul-sleep. A state of lacking all experience of communion with Christ is not better than the fellowship we have with Christ in this life. If dying means soul-sleep, dying is loss.

Being with Christ at death is not the hope only of the apostles or of a few extraordinary Christians. In II Corinthians 5:1ff., the Word of God assures all believers that “if our earthly house of this tabernacle were dissolved, we have a building of God, an house not made with hands, eternal in the heavens.” We have this house in heaven at the moment of the dissolving of our earthly life, and we are “clothed upon with our house” immediately upon our being unclothed with regard to earthly life (II Cor. 5:2-4). In language reminiscent of Philippians 1, the apostle declares, in vivid Greek, that all Christians have the confidence of faith that “emigration” from the body—death—will be “home-coming” to the Lord Jesus Christ. To be home with the Lord is so desirable that we are “willing rather to be absent from the body, and to be present with the Lord” (II Cor. 5:6-8).

Two passages in the book of Revelation clearly teach both the fact and nature of the intermediate state of elect believers. Revelation 6:9-11 has the martyrs in heaven (“under the altar”) in their souls prior to the end of all things and the resurrection of the body. In their souls, the martyrs are conscious. They cry out to God for justice upon the cruel enemies of the church in the world.

According to Revelation 20:4-6, those who suffered and died for the witness of Jesus and for the Word of God live and reign in their souls with Christ in heaven. This state precedes the resurrection of the bodies of all men and the final judgment. Verse 6 describes the translation of the believer in his soul to heaven as “the first resurrection.” Such is the bliss and glory of the intermediate state that all those who enjoy it are “blessed and holy” (Rev. 20:6).

Jesus Himself is the pattern for all His own. When He died, He commended His spirit, or soul, into the hands of His Father (Luke 23:46). Thus, in His spirit, He was in paradise with the penitent evildoer on the very day that He died (Luke 23:43). That Jesus is the pattern for His people is evident in Acts 7:54-60, the account of the martyrdom of Stephen. Stephen too in dying committed his spirit to God, although by committing it to the Lord Jesus (Acts 7:59). Stephen did this in the expectation that Jesus, whom he saw standing at the right hand of God, was ready to receive him in his spirit and that in his spirit he would immediately see and enjoy the glory of God in the face of Jesus Christ (Acts 7:55).

The Intermediate State of the Unbeliever

Scripture says even less about the state of the unbeliever after death than it does about the state of the believer. As is also true of its teaching about the resurrection of the body, Scripture is mainly interested in the future salvation of the elect believer. Nevertheless, both b
y the implied contrast with the intermediate state of the believer and by explicit warnings, Scripture does teach the intermediate state of those who die in unbelief and disobedience.

The intermediate state of the ungodly is the suffering of the torment of hell in the soul. Physical death is a horror for everyone who dies outside of Jesus Christ. For him too, death is the violent, painful tearing apart of body and soul. Death dissolves his earthly life. Since earthly life with its relations, positions, pleasures, and possessions is his all, death for him is pure loss. Upon the preliminary judgment that immediately follows death for every human, in which he must give account of his unrighteous life and deeds to the just Judge, the unbeliever is cast away, in his soul, into hell. There the soul, which was always spiritually dead, suffers the dreadful torment of eternal death as terrible, but perfectly just, punishment for sin.

As was already noticed, Psalm 73:17-20 describes the end of the ungodly, an end that begins at the moment of their death, as “destruction” and “desolation” in which they are “utterly consumed with terrors.” There is no warrant in the passage to limit this destruction to the suffering of the ungodly in their body in the Day of Christ. Since their “end” is the moment of their death, there is every reason to regard the destruction of the wicked as their suffering the torments of hell in their soul immediately upon dying.

Jesus teaches that the intermediate state of the reprobate wicked is hellish torment in the parable of the rich man and Lazarus (Luke 16:14-31). Having died, “in hell he [the rich man] lift up his eyes, being in torments.” This is the state of the rich man prior to the end of earthly history in the Day of Christ, for the time is still the day of salvation, as the request of the rich man on behalf of his brothers shows. This instruction concerning the punishment of the wicked in their soul in the intermediate state is in harmony with Jesus’ warning elsewhere that men are to fear Him who “is able to destroy both soul and body in hell” (Matt. 10:28).

Peter’s description of the destiny of the traitor at death, ominous by its very restraint, can be understood no otherwise than as referring to Judas’ descending into perdition in his soul: Judas went “to his own place” (Acts 1:25). The grave is not Judas’ “own place.” Burial in the ground, he shares with all who die. Nor is the reference to the place of punishment Judas will occupy, in the body, after the final judgment. The thought of the text is that Judas went to his place at once, so soon as he had committed suicide. Joseph Addison Alexander is correct when he charges that the various efforts that have been made to “escape from the obvious but fearful sense of these words” are merely “ingenious but unnatural expedients to avoid the plain sense of the words, as substantially synonymous with what is elsewhere called the place of torment(Luke 16:28)” (A Commentary on the Acts of the Apostles, Banner of Truth, 1963, p. 36).

Not even the body of the unbeliever escapes the wrath of God in the time between death and the Day of Christ. The death of the body of the unbeliever, or, to speak more precisely, the death of the unbeliever in his body, is the punishing act of a wrathful God. This is the case, regardless whether the unbeliever dies violently in a catastrophe or “peacefully” in his bed of old age. God destroys him.

Even though the body of the unbeliever lies in the grave, or exists as ashes, having been cremated, it is not at rest. Scripture does not speak of unbelievers falling asleep at death. The body of the unbeliever awaits the resurrection of damnation. God has an angry eye on that body, whether in a grave or an urn, reserving it unto resurrection and final judgment in order that in the body and soul that sinned the unbeliever may suffer the punishment that divine justice requires. Such a state of the body is not restful sleep.

It is a fearful thing to fall into the hands of the living God. It is a fearful thing already in this life. It is a still more fearful thing at the instant of death. It will be the most fearful thing at the final judgment.