Prof. Engelsma is professor of Dogmatics and Old Testament in the Protestant Reformed Seminary.
by the “intermediate state,” Reformed theology refers to the state and place of people upon their death. It is the state intermediate between earthly life and the eternal destiny of every person entered into as the outcome of the final judgment. The intermediate state is the biblical answer to the question, “What happens to people when they die?” Implied is that physical death does not annihilate men and women, who were originally created in the image of God. People do not cease to exist when they die. Rather, they pass into another form of existence in another place.
This subject properly belongs to eschatology. Eschatology concerns the end, or goal, of all things. At death, every man reaches the goal that God has appointed for him personally. His earthly life has served its purpose in God’s great plan for history. He has reached his own everlasting destiny, according to God’s predestination of him. And at the moment of death he enters into the full enjoyment or suffering of his destiny, imperfectly (for his body does not yet share in the enjoyment or suffering), but decisively.
Because the intermediate state is one’s personal end, theology refers to it as “individual escha-tology,” in distinction from the end of the entire world, which is “general” or “cosmic” eschatology.
In the nature of the case, the intermediate state, or “individual eschatology,” is an aspect of the truth of the last things that is of immediate concern and great importance to everyone. All humans must, and do, seriously consider the question, “What will happen to me at the moment of death?” The intermediate state is the one eschatological end that can come for a man “at any moment.” In addition, all of us are busy burying those we love, family and church members. At their deathbed and in the graveyard, we ask, “What of them?”
Consideration of the intermediate state as an important aspect of biblical eschatology is necessary. Although the intermediate state is admittedly not a prominent truth in Scripture, Scripture does teach it, especially the New Testament. The state of the believer at death belongs to Christ’s salvation of him. The certain prospect of the intermediate state is a precious aspect of the Christian’s comfort in life and especially in dying.
A clear and firm grasp of the truth of the intermediate state is made necessary by errors on the subject. The most grievous error is the Roman Catholic doctrine of purgatory. Purgatory is not a minor matter, but an error of monstrous proportions both theologically and practically.
There is also the error of soul-sleep. This error was prevalent at the time of the Reformation among the Anabaptists. In the 1960s, the preaching of soul-sleep, in a sermon on Question 57 of the Heidelberg Catechism, occasioned a split in the Reformed Churches in the Netherlands (“liberated”).
Somewhat related to the theory of soul-sleep is the teaching of some contemporary theologians that the entire person dies. Nothing of a man survives death. Everything goes down into the grave. This teaching denies the soul as a spiritual substance that can exist apart from the body. Life in the soul after death is dismissed as Greek philosophy.
Another reason for including the intermediate state in a study of the last things is that it is desirable that Reformed theology give account of its faith over against philosophy’s vague teaching of the “immortality of the soul.” The only genuine, sure hope of life after death is the hope of the believer for the intermediate state. This hope is grounded, not in the empty speculations of men’s minds, nor in the wild fantasies of men’s feelings, but in the solid revelation of Scripture. And the life of the Christian after death is radically different from the lifeless, boring existence of philosophy’s immortal soul.
In addition, the doctrine of the intermediate state is creedal. Answer 42 of the Heidelberg Catechism states, “Our death is . . . only a dying to sins and entering into eternal life.” In Answer 57, the Catechism declares that the believer’s “soul, after this life, shall be immediately taken up to Christ its Head.” In Chapter 32, on “the state of men after death,” the Westminster Confession of Faith teaches:
The bodies of men, after death, return to dust, and see corruption; but their souls (which neither die nor sleep), having an immortal subsistence, immediately return to God who gave them. The souls of the righteous, being then made perfect in holiness, are received into the highest heavens, where they behold the face of God in light and glory, waiting for the full redemption of their bodies: and the souls of the wicked are cast into hell, where they remain in torments and utter darkness, reserved to the judgment of the great day. Besides these two places for souls separated from their bodies, the Scripture acknowledgeth none.
Scripture ascribes an intermediate state to both the believer and the unbeliever. At death, the godly beggar is carried by the angels into Abraham’s bosom; the rich man, who had despised Moses and the prophets, finds himself in hell, “being in torments” (Luke 16:22, 23). The emphasis of Scripture is the intermediate state of the believer. His state upon death is twofold.First, in the body he is dead, in the grave, decaying, and returning to the dust whence he came. Second, in the soul, he is alive with Christ in heaven.
Strangely, that aspect of the intermediate state consisting of the believer’s death in the body is sometimes overlooked by Reformed theologians. They concentrate exclusively on the state of the believer in his soul. But the reality of the believer’s death in the body and of his being in the grave in his body may not be overlooked. This is the aspect of the intermediate state that is obvious. We see the dead body in the coffin. We take the body to the cemetery. Even though, incorrectly, we say about the body that it is not mother, or dad, or brother or sister so-and-so, because they are now in heaven, the fact remains that, correctly, we treat the body as though it still has very strong connections with mother, or dad, or brother or sister so-and-so. We do not discard it like non-human rubbish, but bury it with solemn ceremony.
The Word of God concerning death must be honored for the believer as well as for the unbeliever: “Dust thou art, and unto dust shalt thou return,” so that “thou return unto the ground” (Gen. 3:19). According to this Word of God, it is not merely a body that returns to the ground. “Thou”—the man himself—returns to the ground. Biblically, a human is both body and soul. Scripture rejects the pagan notion that a human is a soul, which happens to be encumbered for awhile with a body.
By explaining the intermediate state as first of all the death and burial of the body we do justice to the biblical description of the intermediate state that some misunderstand as teaching soul-sleep. Scripture teaches that dead believers sleep. Three times in I Thessalonians 4:13-18 the apostle speaks of the sleeping of the dead saints: “concerning them which are asleep” (v. 13); “even so them also which sleep in Jesus will God bring with him” (v. 14); “we which are alive and remain unto the coming of the Lord shall not prevent them which are asleep” (v. 15). Verse 16 makes plain that those who sleep are “the dead in Christ.” Thus, the apostle describes the intermediate state of believers as sleep. It is not soul-sleep, but it is sleep.
Inasmuch as the dead saints sleep, their resurrection at Jesus’ coming will be the awakening of them: “And many of them that sleep in the dust of the earth shall awake, some to everlasting life” (Dan. 12:2). According to the apostle in I Thessalonians 4:13ff., that which wakens believers from their sleep is resurrection: “the dead in Christ shall rise first” (v. 16). Since resurrection here pertains to the body, it is evident that the sleeping of dead believers refers to their sleeping in the body. The teaching of the Bible is not soul-sleep, but “body-sleep.”
One important aspect of the intermediate state of the believer is his sleeping in the body. As regards the body’s sharing in and contributing to the enjoyment of Christ, the believer who has died is unconscious. In his body, the place of the believer who has died is the grave.
Only the conception of the intermediate state that includes and emphasizes the believer’s death and burial in the body harmonizes with the truth of the resurrection of the dead. In the resurrection, Jesus will raise the dead, that is, the dead saints. He will not merely raise our dead bodies, but us ourselves, who are dead and in the grave as to our bodies.
Nothing less than this is the biblical view of the coming resurrection. In I Thessalonians 4:14, the comfort for those who mourn the death of loved ones is, “even so them also which sleep in Jesus will God bring with him.” They slept in their dead body, and they are awakened in the resurrection of their body. I Thessalonians 4:16promises the resurrection, not merely of dead bodies, but of “the dead in Christ,” that is, of the dead people themselves.
The death, burial, and resurrection of Jesus Christ forbid that we understand the intermediate state exclusively of life with God in the soul. During the three days prior to His bodily resurrection, Jesus lay in the grave. It was not merely His body that lay there. Jesus Himself was in the grave. “For as Jonas was three days and three nights in the whale’s belly; so shall the Son of man be three days and three nights in the heart of the earth” (Matt. 12:40). He lay sleeping in Joseph’s tomb. Article 19 of the Belgic Confession correctly uses personal language in describing Christ’s burial: “He lay in the grave.” On Easter Sunday, He arose. He arose in the body, to be sure, for at death He committed His spirit into His Father’s hands and earlier He had assured the penitent robber that that robber would be with Him in Paradise that very day (Luke 23:46; Luke 23:39-43). Nevertheless, in the body Jesus Himself arose, even as He Himself was dead and buried.
The truth that the believer is as much his body as his soul, so that the intermediate state of the believer is his sleeping in his own, dead body, has practical implications for our proper respect for the dead body of the Christian and for our solemn burial of his body. The notion that the dead body may be handled carelessly and even contemptuously, because the soul has been taken up to Christ, is profane, not Christian. The Second Helvetic Confession gives the Christian view of the dead body of the “faithful.”
The Burial of Bodies. As the bodies of the faithful are the temples of the Holy Spirit which we truly believe will rise again at the Last Day, Scriptures command that they be honorably and without superstition committed to the earth, and also that honorable mention be made of those saints who have fallen asleep in the Lord, and that all duties of familial piety be shown to those left behind, their widows and orphans. We do not teach that any other care be taken for the dead. Therefore, we greatly disapprove of the Cynics, who neglected the bodies of the dead or most carelessly and disdainfully cast them into the earth, never saying a good word about the deceased, or caring a bit about those whom they left behind them (Art. 26, Reformed Confessions of the 16th Century, ed. Arthur C. Cochrane, The Westminster Press, 1966, pp. 294, 295).
Cremation is not an option for Christians. The reason is not only the pagan origins of the burning of dead bodies, or that those who practice cremation lack the hope of the resurrection of the body and in some cases dread the possibility of the resurrection of the body and foolishly think to avoid resurrection (and judgment) by means of cremation. Nor is the reason only that burial accords with and expresses the Christian hope of the sowing of the body in the expectation of the harvest of the resurrection (I Cor. 15:35-44). But the reason for burial is also that in that body the believer has fallen asleep. It is fitting that the sleeping believer be put to bed in the earth. Burial is distinctively Christian culture. It is the only honorable treatment of the body of the God-fearing man or woman that the Bible knows, Old Testament as well as New Testament. Modern environmental concerns must give way to Christian culture.
Exactly because the intermediate state consists in part of the believer’s death in the body, the intermediate state, blessed aspect of eschatology though it is for the Christian, is not and cannot be the main hope of the child of God. In the body, the child of God who has died is still subject to the power of death and the grave. In the body, he lacks the enjoyment of the salvation in Christ. In the body, he is not actively praising and serving God. “Wilt thou shew wonders to the dead? shall the dead arise and praise thee? Shall thy lovingkind-ness be declared in the grave? or thy faithfulness in destruction? Shall thy wonders be known in the dark? and thy righteousness in the land of forgetfulness?” (Psalm 88:10-12). Scripture does teach the intermediate state, but this teaching is relatively subdued.
The believer’s death in the body, however, is not the whole story about the intermediate state. Indeed, it is not the main part of the story. The main part of the story is life, joy, and glory. According to this other aspect of the intermediate state, the believer is not subject to the power of death, but enjoys deliverance from death. His place is not the grave, but heaven. He does not sleep, but is conscious and active.