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.