State of the human person after death and before the final resurrection. Such teaching is more developed in the NT than in the OT, though it is a mistake to think that reference to it is totally absent in the OT (Jb 19:25). According to Christ, the intermediate state is deducible from such texts as Exodus 3:6 (Mt 22:32). Even in the NT, an account of the intermediate state is not given explicitly but may be inferred from teaching about the physical death and resurrection of all people, but especially of believers. This is taught by Christ himself (Mt 22:30–32) and by the apostles, particularly Paul (1 Cor 15). In addition, the biblical teaching that the human being is a unity of soul and body and not simply a soul that happens to be embodied (Gn 2:7) has implications for a person’s state after death. From such data two conclusions regarding the intermediate state may be drawn. The first is that physical death is not the total cessation of the life of the individual but that the person lives on, not merely in the memories of those who survive, but as a distinct personality, and in the case of believers with awareness of the loving presence of God (Phil 1:23). The second conclusion is that such an existence is not a fully human existence but is incomplete or anomalous, since being embodied is essential for an individual to be in God’s image. The individual, surviving death, awaits the resurrection of the body when, in the case of a Christian, he or she will experience complete redemption, a state of complete emancipation from sin in the presence of Christ (1 Cor 15:50–58). The biblical data regarding the character of the intermediate state of those who are outside Christ is less clear, including as it does the difficult reference to Christ’s preaching to the “imprisoned” spirits (1 Pt 3:19–20).

Scripture is restrained in its portrayal of what life in the intermediate state is like. Paul says of himself that after his death he will be “with Christ, which is far better” (Phil 1:23) but he gives no details. Nor is it wise to look for such details in such biblical incidents as that of Saul and the medium at Endor (1 Sm 28:7), which is subject to a number of different interpretations. Even Christ’s parable of the rich man and Lazarus (Lk 16:19–31), because of its obviously symbolic character and its avowed purpose of teaching about the importance of the present life for a person’s eternal destiny, must be treated with caution. Perhaps the most that can be said is that the dead in Christ are “immediately with God” and that they rest in his loving presence until the resurrection, while the unsaved are in a comfortless condition awaiting their resurrection to judgment (Jn 5:29).

Discussion of the intermediate state in the history of Christian thought has focused upon three separate aspects that may help to clarify the biblical data further. First, under the influence of Greek philosophical ideas, there has been a recurring Platonic influence in Christian theology in which the Pauline contrast between the flesh and the spirit has been misinterpreted and the soul has been emphasized at the expense of the body, with the result that the prospective resurrection of the dead and its eschatological setting has either been played down or eliminated altogether because of its allegedly physical (and therefore unspiritual) aspect. The doctrine of the immortality of the disembodied soul is sometimes substituted for the idea of an intermediate state prior to resurrection, but without any warrant from Scripture. In modern theology a tendency to discount the historical has tended to displace the earlier discounting of the physical, but with much the same effect, at best a spiritualizing of postmortem existence, at worst a denial of any such existence. But it is clear from Scripture that the intermediate state is a state between two phases of embodiment, the present state of physical embodiment and that of “spiritual embodiment” (1 Cor 15:44), which is to occur at Christ’s second coming (v 23).

Second, during the Reformation, a controversy arose between John Calvin and some of the Anabaptists over “soul sleep.” Calvin vehemently maintained that the intermediate state is one of conscious awareness of God’s presence—something his opponents denied. For Calvin such a denial was equivalent to holding that the soul is annihilated at death and to denying that Christ exercises rule over the dead before they are resurrected. Calvin’s view is supported by Paul’s affirmation that nothing separates the believer from the love of God—not even death (Rom 8:35–39). The biblical teaching that upon death the believer “sleeps” (1 Thes 4:14) is interpreted to mean that the dead no longer communicate with the living on earth and no longer engage in labor, but are in repose. To “fall asleep in Jesus” is thus to enjoy the presence of Jesus in a disembodied state, the nearest analogy of which in present experience may be found in dreaming when the awareness of the dreamer does not depend upon the functioning of any of the bodily senses.

A third focus for Christian thought has been on whether or not a person’s eternal state is fixed at the time of death, or whether repentance and spiritual growth and purgation are possible or inevitable after death. It is the teaching of the Roman Catholic Church that death is followed by purgatory for all who are imperfect. In purgatory the soul is freed from the remnants of sin, and the period of purgation may be lessened by the gifts, prayers, and masses of those who survive the deceased. Such a view is rejected by most Protestants as being inconsistent with the biblical teaching on the complete and finished work of Christ (Heb 9:28), on the impossibility of one human being meriting or otherwise gaining grace for another (Lk 17:10), and on the biblical teaching that the eternal state of the soul is determined by its condition at death (Heb 9:27).

[1]Elwell, W. A., & Comfort, P. W. 2001. Tyndale Bible dictionary. Tyndale reference library . Tyndale House Publishers: Wheaton, Ill.