Tuesday, 27 May 2008

Intermediate State

The intermediate state is a part of classic reformed doctrine. The Westminster Confession puts it like this. "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 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 judgement of the great day. Besides these two places for souls separated from their bodies, the scripture acknowledgeth none."

I’m not so keen on the term of “immortal subsistence”. If it is taken to mean the possession by humans of an immortal essence, then this is unfortunate phrasing. The Bible never uses the term the ‘immortality of the soul’. ‘Immortality’ is a divine attribute (Rom. 1:23, 1 Tim. 1:17, 6:16) or a blessing shared by God with his people (Rom. 2:7, 1 Cor. 15:53-54, 2 Tim 1:10). Human existence is radically contingent on God sustaining it. If immortality simply means the statements which follow in the section, then it is unobjectionable.

I do think that the affirmation of the intermediate state is important. It means that upon death the righteous are in the presence of God waiting for the redemption of their bodies. The phrase ‘highest heaven’ implies that there is no in-between position which could be construed as limbo or soul sleep. The proof texts offered in the WCF are Heb 12:23 (which speaks of “the spirits of just men made perfect”); 2 Cor 5:1,6,8; Phil 1:23. Acts 3:21 and Eph 4:10 are also referred to, both of which speak of Christ’s place in heaven, presumably because believers are with him.

The NT presentation of the ‘intermediate state’ is as a positive but incomplete state. This is clearest in 2 Cor 5:1-10, in which Paul hints that he expects to be ‘unclothed’ before he is ‘clothed’ in the resurrection. Even ‘unclothed’ is still to be ‘at home with the Lord’. The same pattern is found in Philippians, in which Paul longs to be “with the Lord” after death, but also looks forward to Jesus' transformation of his body (Phil 3:20-21). 

The most common objections I hear runs, "after death we are in eternity, so the idea of waiting does not have any place" and "we don't understand how time and eternity operate, so we can't say anything about what happens between death and resurrection.  The insight which convinced me that we should think about the intermediate state was A.T. Lincoln pointing out that "the heavenlies" are part of creation and participate in history and in time. He writes, “the image should not… leave the impression of the heavenly dimension as a static reality, for it signifies a reality which is, but is yet to come… the heavenly realm is part of the forward-moving history of salvation… it has a dynamic effect on the believing community, as its mother providing life and as realm of freedom making possible liberation from the bondage of the old age”. A.T. Lincoln, Paradise Now and Not Yet, (Cambridge/ New York: Cambridge University Press, 1981) 29. 

The intermediate state has three important implications. One is that it shows that for the believer death never conquerors, not even for a while. Further it says that there is no need for further purgation or sanctification for believers after death.  It also means that we really do dwell in the communion of the saints. We are raised with Christ in the heavenlies (Eph 2:6) and share in the life and worship of all the saints. We do not pray for the dead, and there is little Biblical idea of them praying for us, but we do pray with them.

I have not said anything here about the intermediate state for unbelievers. That might wait for later.

For an extended defence of the ‘intermediate state” see C.P. Venema The Promise of the Future (Banner of Truth, 2000), 35-63. D. Bloesch The Last Things (IVP, 2004), 133-47 offers a very carefully developed view that of “an interim state of partial happiness and mitigated suffering between death and the final resurrection on the last day”.

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