Monday, April 29, 2002

The Bible and the Intermediate State

For the New Testament the decisive moment in a person's life is the acceptance of Jesus the Christ, Incarnate Son of the Father, as Saviour & Lord. This is the obedience of faith and includes repenting of sin, trusting in Jesus, and being baptized in water, symbolically into his death, burial and resurrection. Through this act (of man and of God) the baptized believer enters the kingdom of God and becomes a citizen of heaven. Thus when he or she dies it is a dying into Christ Jesus, who has gone before to prepare the way. Or when the Lord Jesus comes again in glory it is a rising to meet him in the air and greet him as the Lord of lords and only Saviour.

The primary interest of the New Testament is not in what happens after death but in the Last Things, the ending of this age with the Second Coming of Christ and the Last Judgment. We can tell this from the last part of both the Apostles' and the Nicene Creeds, which summarize major biblical themes. "I/we look for the Resurrection of the Dead and the Life of the Age to come." Since the great emphasis in the New Testament is upon the Second Coming of Jesus Christ to raise the dead and then to judge both the living and those raised from the dead, little is said about the intermediate state or the interim period -- from the moment of the death of individual persons to the moment of the Parousia, the Revelation of the Son of God in glory upon the earth, when the dead shall be raised.

What is clear in the Bible is that the believer will never be removed from his relation to Jesus Christ. "I am with you always even unto the end of the age/world," said Jesus. And his apostle, Paul, wrote, "Nothing can/shall separate us from the love of God that is in Christ Jesus our Lord."

Though the vast majority of texts concerning the future within the New Testament refer to the Second Coming, the Last Judgment, and Heaven and Hell, there are a few which seem to refer directly to the state of the dead in Christ in this interim and intermediate state or period.

1. Luke 23:42-43, the conversation at Calvary between the penitent thief and Jesus, as they are both being crucified. The thief asked to be remembered when Jesus comes into his kingdom, and Jesus replies, "Truly, I say to you, today you will be with me in Paradise." Here "Paradise" is a way of speaking about heaven (cf. Revelation 2:7) and Jesus is promising this penitent believer that he, without his crucified body, will be with Jesus in God's heaven.

2. Philippians 1:21-23, the apostle Paul's statement of faith and hope. "For me to live is Christ, and to die is gain. If it is to be life in the flesh, that means fruitful labor for me. Yet which I choose I cannot tell. I am hard pressed between the two. My desire is to depart and be with Christ, for that is far better." Paul calls death "gain" because by it there is achieved a closer, deeper relation to the Lord Jesus Christ. To die into Christ is to enter a life that is "far better." And yet it is a life in Christ that is yet to be completed for the resurrection of the dead is yet to be.

3. 2 Corinthians 5:6-9, Paul speaks in the first person plural of his confident hope. "So we are always of good courage; we know that while we are at home in the body we are away from the Lord, for we walk by faith and not by sight. We are of good courage, and we would rather be away from the body and at home with the Lord. So whether we are home or away we make it our aim to please him." To be "away from the body" is to be "at home with the Lord" in the intermediate state waiting for the fullness of redemption at the general resurrection of the dead.

4. Luke 16:19-31, the parable told by Jesus of the Rich Man and Lazarus, where the word "Hades" is used not merely as a designation of the realm of the dead but as a place/sphere of punishment and torment, and the phrase "Abraham's bosom" is used of a place or sphere of blessedness; and both of these places/spheres refer to the intermediate state. This division in the realm of departed souls into the righteous and unrighteous, the accepted and the condemned, is found in Jewish teaching and was taken over by Jesus and his Church. (Note: The clearest statement in the New Testament about the state of those who have died in their sins and await the Last Judgement in the intermediate state is found in 2 Peter 2:9: "The Lord knows how to rescue the ungodly from trial, and to keep the unrighteous under punishment until the day of judgment.")

There is one Christian Hope and that has two parts to it for those who die before the Parousia of the Lord Jesus. There is the interim blessed existence of being dead in Christ (which is to be alive in Him) and then there is the existence of being raised with Him and having a body like unto his glorious body within the communion of the saints and angels in the service of the Holy Trinity and with the beatific vision.

The Rev'd Dr. Peter Toon
Minister of Christ Church, Biddulph Moor,
England & Vice-President and Emissary-at-Large
of The Prayer Book Society of America

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