What about the Intermediate State in 2 Corinthians 5:6-8? Problem Texts for Holistic Eschatology, Part 4

The core hope of New Testament eschatology is the resurrection of the body and a renewed earth. This is the central argument of my book A New Heaven and a New Earth: Reclaiming Biblical Eschatology.

But there are some New Testament texts that seem (on the surface) to contradict this holistic vision of redemption. So I devoted two chapters in the book to addressing such “problem texts.”

In previous blog posts I examined two such texts (1 Thessalonians 4 and Matthew 24), both of which are typically thought to teach the “rapture” of believers to heaven at Christ’s return. I concluded that neither text actually teaches this idea.

But my examination of “problem texts” led me to wonder about the so-called “intermediate state” (or “interim state”), the idea of a temporary period between death and resurrection when the righteous (or their “souls”) are with Christ in heaven, awaiting resurrection.

When I began researching the topic I was ready to concede that there might be some sporadic evidence in the New Testament that pointed to such an intermediate state, even though it was clear from Scripture that this was not the core Christian hope.

C. S. Lewis on the Intermediate State

I was thus initially prepared to concur with C. S. Lewis when he stated in his book on Miracles:

“The earliest Christian documents give a casual and unemphatic assent to the belief that the supernatural part of a man survives the death of the natural organism. But they are very little interested in the matter. What they are intensely interested in is the restoration or ‘resurrection’ of the whole composite creature by a miraculous divine act.”

Admittedly, this was a decidedly unbiblical way of putting the matter, since there is no “supernatural part” of a human being; we are thoroughly “natural” creatures. I was nevertheless glad to see that Lewis affirmed that resurrection/restoration was the true focus of New Testament eschatology.

Like Lewis, however, I assumed that a few biblical texts might in fact portray an interim state for the righteous, in advance of their final destiny of resurrection and new creation.

N. T. Wright on the Intermediate State

Like Lewis, N. T. Wright has also affirmed the validity of an intermediate state, which he thinks was accepted by most first-century Jews and the New Testament. He calls this “life after death,” which is why he coins the phrase “life after life after death” to describe the resurrection and renewed creation.

Wright’s point is that while we may believe in “life after death” (an interim state, presumably in heaven), this is not the genuine Christian hope. And he affirms that too much concern with this can detract from our proper focus, which is that God intends to renew earthly life, starting now.

However, my own study of the New Testament texts that purportedly teach (or mention) an intermediate state has convinced me that none of them actually does.

Absent from the Body, Present with the Lord

Since I can’t deal with all the relevant texts here (for that you’ll have to read the book), let me illustrate my point with 2 Corinthians 5:6-8. More than any other New Testament text, this one seems clearly to indicate a blessed hope in heaven immediately after death. Even the literary context of these verses in 2 Corinthians seems to support an otherworldly orientation.

In an extended discussion (stretching from 2 Corinthians 4:8 to 5:10), Paul appears to contrast bodily life in the present with a heavenly, eternal future. At the end of chapter 4 he speaks of our outer nature wasting away, while our inner nature is being renewed (4:16), and contrasts what is seen and transitory with what is unseen and eternal (4:18).

It makes perfect sense, then, that in chapter 5 Paul would say:

So we are always confident; even though we know that while we are at home in the body we are away from the Lord—for we walk by faith, not by sight. Yes, we do have confidence, and we would rather be away from the body and at home with the Lord. (2 Corinthians 5:6-8)

On the surface, these verses seem to emphasize a heavenly future. Doesn’t Paul say plainly that he would prefer to be “at home with the Lord” (presumably in heaven) than in his present body (on earth)? Doesn’t this clearly teach the hope of heaven that begins immediately at death (when we are separated from our bodies)?

I think we need to be just a bit suspicious of our habituated approach to such texts, given the biblical teaching of God’s plan to redeem creation.

Paul’s Desire for the Resurrection Body

The first thing we should note is that Paul has already stated in 5:1-4 that his actual hope is for the heavenly dwelling that God has prepared (the resurrection body). Speaking of the contrast between the present body and the resurrection body, Paul says:

For we know that if the earthly tent we live in is destroyed, we have a building from God, a house not made with hands, eternal in the heavens. For in this tent we groan, longing to be clothed with our heavenly dwelling—if indeed, when we have taken it off we will not be found naked. For while we are still in this tent, we groan under our burden, because we wish not to be unclothed but to be further clothed, so that what is mortal may be swallowed up by life. He who has prepared us for this very thing is God, who has given us the Spirit as a guarantee. (2 Corinthians 5:1-4)

Using the metaphor of the body as a dwelling or house, Paul says he doesn’t want to be “naked” or “unclothed” (that is, disembodied) in the eschaton, but rather to be clothed with a new, resurrection body, a building or dwelling prepared by God, hence “not made with hands” (5:1).

Paul’s use of the phrase “not made with hands” for the resurrection body (pictured as a building) may be dependent on the words attributed to Jesus: “We heard him say, ‘I will destroy this temple that is made with hands, and in three days I will build another, not made with hands’” (Mark 14:58).

While the resurrection is future, Paul affirms that we already have—in some sense—the hoped-for building or dwelling “in the heavens,” which is being made or prepared by God himself. This is part of a pervasive New Testament pattern of texts that indicate that what God is presently preparing for us (in heaven) will be revealed (on earth) at the coming of Christ.

Does Paul Have Contradictory Hopes?

Here it is important to note that Paul clearly states in 5:1-2 that his hope is for the resurrection body and he affirms in 5:3-4 that he does not want to be “naked” or “unclothed” (that is disembodied).

And yet Paul says that he prefers to be away from the (present) body and at home with the Lord (5:8).

Could Paul have contradictory hopes? Does Paul long for the resurrection while shunning a disembodied state and also prefer a disembodied state to his present life?

Perhaps he has a hierarchy: the resurrected body, then a disembodied state in heaven, then the present earthly body? Many read the text this way.

The Connection between Resurrection and the Presence of the Lord

However, we don’t need such an artificial solution to this seeming contradiction. Rather, we need to pay attention to Paul’s key statement near the end of chapter 4 about the basis of his hope even in the midst of tribulations and suffering (4:8-12).

The reason Paul says he can live faithfully in the midst of suffering is that: “we know that the one who raised the Lord Jesus will raise us also with Jesus, and will bring us with you into his presence” (2 Corinthians 4:14).

Note that there is no separation here of resurrection and being with Christ. Not only does Paul look forward to the resurrection, but he conceives of being in a resurrected (embodied) state in the Lord’s presence.

Being “in the Lord’s presence” in 4:14 is equivalent to  being “at home with the Lord” in 5:8. There is no convincing reason to separate this latter statement from Paul’s hope of resurrection, except that we are habituated to reading the text this way.

In context, Paul is not speaking of being with Christ immediately at death. Rather, he is looking to the second coming, at which time we will be raised and be with Christ in the new creation.

A plain reading of 2 Corinthians 5:6-9 in the context of 5:1-2 and especially 4:14 thus suggests that being at home with the Lord is nothing other than Paul’s expectation that the Lord will dwell with redeemed humanity in a new creation (the vision of Revelation 21-22).

Thus it is not at all clear that 2 Corinthians 5 actually teaches an intermediate (disembodied) state as any part of the Christian hope.

Beyond Lewis and Wright

Thus, much as I respect C. S. Lewis, I think he may have been wrong in his comment about the New Testament’s “casual and unemphatic assent” to personal survival at death. And N. T. Wright (a contemporary scholar for whom I have the utmost regard) may also have conceded too much in his claim that Second Temple Judaism and the New Testament typically assume an intermediate state. Having studied the relevant texts I am surprised at how little evidence there actually is for this idea in the New Testament, certainly less than I had expected.

In the end, however, it does not matter. Authentic Christian hope does not depend on an intermediate state; neither do Christians need the Platonic notion of an immortal soul in order to guarantee personal continuity between present earthly existence and future resurrection life.

The Basis for Christian Hope

The God who brought the universe into being is the guarantor of the eschatological future. In the memorable words of 2 Timothy 1:12 (which became the refrain of a famous 1883 hymn by Daniel W. Whittle): “I know whom I have believed, and am persuaded that he is able to keep that which I have committed unto him against that day” (KJV). We place our hope in the God of Jesus Christ, the Lord of the universe, who is able to raise the dead and who has promised to renew heaven and earth.

Whatever we think about the intermediate state (and I acknowledge that belief in such a state is dear to many Christians), it is clear from Scripture that “heaven” is not the final destination of the redeemed. Even supposedly “problem” texts fit remarkably well with the dominant tenor of Scripture, which portrays the redemption of the entire created order and understands human redemption as the restoration of bodily life on earth—that is, the renewal of God’s creational intent from the beginning.

The Eschaton Has Arrived—Actually Just the Book

Today I received a copy of my newly published book A New Heaven and a New Earth: Reclaiming Biblical Eschatology. My publisher (Baker Academic) informed me it arrived at their offices on Friday (Halloween) and they immediately sent me a copy.

I know I should be used to this by now (since this isn’t my first book), but I tend to write about one book per decade (I’m a bit slower than Tom Wright or Jamie Smith), so it’s not often I get to see one of my books fresh off the press. Actually, I seem to be picking up publication speed, since the gap between my first and second books was eleven years, then ten years between the second and third, and now nine years between the third and fourth—though I wasn’t actually working on each book for the entire in-between time.

Originally, A New Heaven and a New Earth was supposed to have been published a couple of years earlier (2012). I received the invitation from Baker to write the book back in fall 2007 and did a bit of research in summer 2008. Then I spent much of my sabbatical in spring and summer 2009 working on the project and got some of the chapters written. I had originally planned a short seven-chapter book, with the idea of doing more work in summer 2010 and completing it it in 2011, but a computer crash when I was nearly done (in August 2011) set me back just as the teaching semester was about to begin. So I put off completing it till the following summer.

This led Baker to advertize it as being published in 2013, which was jumping the gun, since I had not submitted a manuscript even by the end of summer 2012.

By then I had concluded there was more that I wanted to say, so I added a few more chapters. At that point I also realized that some chapters were becoming overly long, so I divided them into two (some long chapters really had two separate chapters hiding there). In the end, the book became thirteen chapters (or twelve chapters plus an appendix, as the publisher has organized it).

I submitted the completed manuscript to Baker at the start of October 2013. Due to the recession many publishers (Baker included) had cut staff, and they told me that they had more books in the pipeline than they could get to the shelves as quickly as they would like. So I knew it would be a while before mine would be published. They indicated it would be about a year (the book did have to go through required rounds of editing, from the publisher, back to me, and around again a couple of times).

Various websites selling the book have indicated differing publication dates, either late November or early December. But during the past summer Baker informed me that the book would be ready by November 1—and they were actually a day early!

I don’t know exactly when the book will be available in stores (online or brick-and-mortar), but I’ve been told it will be ready for a conference on Faith and Work that I’m speaking at this coming weekend (November 7-8). And it will also be on sale at the annual meetings of various academic societies in San Diego in the third week of November (the Evangelical Theological Society, the Institute for Biblical Research, the Society of Biblical Literature, and the American Academy of Religion).

So the eschaton hasn’t arrived; but the book certainly has.

Singing Lies in Church

In a previous post entitled “The Bible’s Best Kept Secret” I summarized the logic of redemption in the Scriptures—that God loves this world and intends to redeem it. Grounded in the holistic worldview of the Old Testament, the New Testament envisions God’s renewal of creation at Christ’s return, rather than God taking us out of this world to “heaven,” conceived of as an immaterial realm. Indeed, contrary to much popular eschatology, nowhere does the Bible ever say that “heaven” is the eternal destiny of the righteous.

The Eschatology of Classic Christian Hymns

So why do so many in the church assume a heavenly afterlife? The answer lies in Christian hymnody. It is primarily from what they sing that those in the pew (or auditorium) typically learn their theology, especially their eschatology. And the trouble is that a holistic vision of the future is found only rarely in popular Christian piety or in the liturgy of the church. Indeed, it is blatantly contradicted by many traditional hymns (and contemporary praise songs) sung in the context of communal worship.

Preparing for Heaven

From the classic Charles Wesley hymn, “Love Divine, All Loves Excelling,” which anticipates being “changed from glory into glory/ till in heaven we take our place,” to “Away in a Manger,” which prays, “And fit us for Heaven, to live with Thee there,” congregations are exposed to—and assimilate—an otherworldly eschatology.

Some hymns, like “When the Roll Is Called up Yonder,” inconsistently combine the idea of resurrection with the hope of heaven: “On that bright and cloudless morning when the dead in Christ shall rise,/ And the glory of His resurrection share;/ When His chosen ones shall gather to their home beyond the skies,/ And the roll is called up yonder, I’ll be there.

Some hymns even interpret resurrection without reference to the body at all, such as “Must Jesus Bear the Cross Alone?” which in one stanza regards death as liberation (“Till death shall set me free”) and in another asserts: “O resurrection day!/ When Christ the Lord from Heav’n comes down/ And bears my soul away.”

A hymn like “When We All Get to Heaven” may be too obvious, but notice that “The Old Rugged Cross” ends with the words, “Then He’ll call me some day to my home far away/ Where his glory forever I’ll share.”

And “Just a Closer Walk with Thee” climaxes with the lines: “When my feeble life is o’er,/ Time for me will be no more;/ Guide me gently, safely o’er/ To Thy kingdom shore, to Thy shore.

A Perpetual Worship Service

This notion of a perpetual worship service in an otherworldly afterlife is a central motif in many hymns, like “My Jesus I Love Thee,” which affirms that “In mansions of glory and endless delight,/ I’ll ever adore Thee in heaven so bright.”

Likewise, “Come Christians, Join to Sing” affirms that “On heaven’s blissful shore,/ His goodness we’ll adore,/ Singing forevermore,/ ‘Alleluia! Amen!’”

In a similar vein, “As with Gladness Men of Old” asks in one stanza that “when earthly things are past,/ Bring our ransomed souls at last/ Where they need no star to guide” and in another stanza expresses the desire that “In the heavenly country bright/ . . . There forever may we sing/ Alleluias to our King!”

From Hymns to Contemporary Praise Songs

Thankfully, most hymnals no longer have the sixth verse of “Amazing Grace,” which predicts: “The earth shall soon dissolve like snow,/ The sun forbear to shine;/ But God, who called me here below,/ Will be forever mine.

Yet Chris Tomlin’s contemporary revision of this classic hymn, known as “Amazing Grace (My Chains Are Gone),” reintroduces this very verse as the song’s new climax, ready to shape the otherworldly mindset of a fresh generation of young worshipers unacquainted with hymnals.

And this just begins to scratch the surface of worship lyrics that portray the final destiny of the righteous as transferal from an earthly, historical existence to a transcendent, immaterial realm.

As the popular theologian and preacher A. W. Tozer is reputed to have said: “Christians don’t tell lies; they just go to church and sing them.”

Perhaps that is too harsh; nevertheless, I can testify to the steady diet of such songs that I was exposed to, growing up in the church in Kingston, Jamaica, which certainly reinforced the idea of heaven as otherworldly final destiny.

An Alternative Vision of the Future

I am, however, perpetually grateful that along with such exposure I came to know, through sheer proximity, the this-worldly theology of Rastafarianism, especially as mediated through the music of Bob Marley and the Wailers. While I am a committed Christian and thus cannot affirm everything found in Rasta theology, I nevertheless discern a deeply rooted biblical consciousness in the lyrics of many Wailers’ songs.

For example, the song “We an’ Dem” (on the Uprising album) claims that “in the beginning Jah created everything/ and he gave man dominion over all things” and “Pass It On” (on the Burnin’ album) asserts that “In the kingdom of Jah/ Man shall reign.” These lyrics express (in androcentric language, admittedly) the biblical vision of this-worldly dignity granted humans at creation, a dignity which will be restored in the kingdom of God.

And Peter Tosh’s version of “Get Up, Stand Up” (a song he co-wrote with Marley), understands well the implications of eschatology for ethics, when it contrasts the doctrine of the rapture with a desire for justice on earth:

“You know, most people think,/ A great God will come from the skies,/ And take away every little thing/ And lef’ everybody dry./ But if you know what life is worth,/ You would look for yours/ Right here on earth/ And now we see the light,/ We gonna stand up for our rights.” (From the Equal Rights album.)

The song goes on to critique the “preacher man” for taking the focus off earthly life and affirms that the singer is “Sick and tired of this game of theology,/ die and go to heaven in Jesus name.”

This is the very theology that leads Marley, in the song “Talkin’ Blues” (from the Natty Dread album), to admit, “I feel like bombing a church,/ now that you know that the preacher is lying.”

But if Tozer is right, it isn’t just the preacher who is lying, but also the worshipers who blithely sing hymns of escape to an ethereal heaven—when the Bible teaches no such thing.

What the Bible does teach is the theme of my new book, A New Heaven and a New Earth: Reclaiming Biblical Eschatology (Baker Academic, 2014).