Table of Contents
Part III: The Nature of the Interval
SURVEY OF THOUGHT
REGARDING THE INTERMEDIATE STATE
The problem of the soul's state during the interval
between death and the resurrection of the body has
been recognized, of course, ever since the closing of the New
Testament canon. The idea of a period of
waiting has always tempted more creative minds to fill the space
with imaginative happenings, and the
tendency to moralize about these happenings and turn them into
some kind of purgatorial scenario has
been natural enough. Once begun, the process invited elaboration
and such works as Dante's Divine
Comedy were the almost inevitable outcome.
By the time of the Reformation,
such scenarios had acquired so gross a quality that the whole
purgatory was vehemently repudiated in Protestant theology. Yet
the circumstances which had inspired
the concept remained to invite a continuing debate. How was
the soul engaged in that interval?
Our minds are so constituted that
we find it disturbing to have to admit that the future beyond
holds some rather critical unknowns. This is particularly so
when we seem to have such clear and
reassuring promises about the situation relating to either end
of the interval. Thus the nature of this
interim period continues to be a matter of dispute.
Soul in the interval:
conscious or unconscious?
Only two "solutions"
have found wide acceptance among Christian people. The first
is not really a solution
at all but merely a more candid statement of the problem itself:
we shall experience a tentatively, happy,
half-complete, "sort of personal," existence. And the
second is rather unsatisfactory because it entirely
disengages the soul from the situation during that interim: we
simply sleep through the problem.
So we end up either with a disembodied
spirit fully conscious of a certain "incompleteness"
with a genuine sense of uncertainty. Or we end up in the total
unconsciousness of a deep sleep until we
are awakened to rejoin our bodies. The phrase "present with
the Lord" merely describes where we
Joy while awaiting judgment?
The genuine "uncertainty"
of which I speak results from the fact that we shall be, for
so long, in the
presence of the very One who is to be our Judge when the time
comes to be assessed as to the worth of
our life's work in the Lord. That such a judgment is in store
for us is quite clear from 1 Corinthians 3:13-15:
Every man's work shall be made
manifest: for the day shall declare it, because it shall be
revealed by fire; and the fire shall try every man's work of
what sort it is. If any man's work
abide which he hath built thereupon, he shall receive a reward.
If any man's work shall be
burned, he shall suffer loss: but he himself shall be saved;
yet so as by fire.
How, then, shall
we be at ease in his presence knowing that it will be his task
after a while to pronounce
judgment on our lives? Paul is very explicit about this
coming event; and though the soul's salvation is
not in jeopardy at all, our spiritual stature certainly is, while
we await the Judge's decision a situation hardly conducive
to unalloyed joy in the interim.
Soul sleep: unconscious
existence until the judgment?
As for those who hold to a deep
sleep, they do have a number of Scriptures which seem to support
position. Yet, as an alternative, it seems equally disturbing.
It implies a kind of non-existence for an
unknown period of time in which we are quite helpless.
It is certainly true that the concept
of soul-sleeping is implied in many places (cf. Deuteronomy 31:16;
7:21; Psalm 17: 15; Daniel 12:2; John 11:11; Acts 7:60; l Corinthians
11:30; 15:6, 18, 20; 1 Thessalonians 4:14;
5:10(1)). Yet it
is a view which has been widely condemned by Christian writers
in recent years.
This is partly because the idea
became associated with certain distortions of Scripture which
have led to
highly questionable theologies (such as modern Seventh Day Adventism).
The commonly applied principle
of guilt by association has discouraged more than one promising
line of enquiry in recent years,
preventing any open-minded appraisal of its worth. No one wants
to be accused of heresy. Yet the
association is often quite coincidental. No doubt Arius, for
example, believed that two and two makes four.
But this does not mean that every seminary student who has learned
this basic mathematical truth is
automatically suspect as a potential Arian heretic!
At any rate, the concept of soul-sleeping
is certainly intimated in the works of some of the very earliest
Church Fathers, so it is by no means merely a recent development.
Tatian (c. 110172) in his
Address to the Greeks wrote: "The human soul consists
of many parts, and is not
1. "And the Lord said unto Moses, Behold,
you shall sleep with your fathers. . . ." Deuteronomy 31:16.
". . .for now I shall sleep in the dust. . .
." Job 7:21. "As for me I [David]
will behold thy face in righteousness; I shall be satisfied,
when I awake, with thy
likeness." Psalm 17:15. "And many
of them that sleep in the dust of the earth shall awake, some
to everlasting life, and some to
shame and everlasting contempt." Daniel 12:2. "[Jesus]
said to them [the disciples], Our friend Lazarus sleeps; but
I go that I may awake him out of sleep." John 11:11.
"And [Stephen] kneeled down and cried
with a loud voice, Lord, lay not this sin to their charge. And
when he had said this, he fell asleep." Acts 7:60.
"For this cause many are weak and sickly among
you, and many sleep." 1 Corinthians 11:30 "After
that, he [Jesus] was seen of above five hundred brethren at once,
of whom the greater part remain
unto this present, but some are fallen asleep." 1 Corinthians
15:16. "If Christ be not raised,
your faith is vain: you are yet in your sins. Then they also
which are fallen asleep in Christ are perished." 1
Corinthians 15:18. "But now is Christ
risen from the dead and become the firstfruits of them that slept."
1 Corinthians 15:20. "For if we believe
that Jesus died and rose again, even so them also which sleep
in Jesus will God bring with him." I Thessalonians
4:14. "For God hath not appointed us to
wrath but to obtain salvation by our Lord Jesus Christ, who died
for us that, whether we wake or sleep, we should live together
with him." I Thessalonians 5:9, 10.
simple: it is composite,
so as to manifest itself through the body; neither could it
ever appear without the body; nor does the flesh rise again
without the soul."(2) [emphasis mine.] This absolute interdependence
of body and soul seems to preclude a state of disembodied consciousness
until their reunion. How else
could this be better described, therefore, than as a "sleep"?
The question of what happens to the soul in
this interim of unconsciousness was not, however, crystallized
into a doctrine of actual soul-sleeping
until somewhat later, particularly among certain Arabian and
Armenian sects, though traces of the view
constantly appear in the writings of the Church Fathers. I may
say that this is not my position, as will be
apparent in the next chapter. But if all that is meant is that
the soul is as unconscious as any man is when
asleep, then the term (as used in Scripture) is surely very appropriate,
to say the least.
In his Church History, Eusebius
(c. 265339) speaks of the Arabian Christian sects which
influenced by Origen (c. 185254) who adopted this view.
They, however, went beyond soul-sleep. The soul
had no conscious existence and perhaps in fact no existence
at all in the absence of the body.(3) It is
today believed that there was a strong Jewish influence in these
Arabian communities which was partly
responsible for this trend of thought.
Petrus Pomponatius (d.1525) who
openly espoused the view that the soul without the body was as
the body without the soul and therefore quite unconscious, was
roundly condemned by a papal bull dated
1513. The view had already been condemned by various councils
(Lyons, 1274; Ferrara, 1438; Florence, 1439;
Trent, 154563), even though it had actually been advocated
by Pope John XXII (d.1304).
It is not unlikely that Pomponatius
was influenced by the fact that he had studied both philosophy
medicine at Padua. He also possessed an independent turn
of mind which brought him into confrontation
with the ecclesiastical authorities. But his family being of
noble rank, he was merely censured and
escaped further penalty by saying he was only speaking philosophically!
In the light of certain modern
trends in neurophysiology (discussed in Chapter
8) it is at least interesting to see that a man with a not
altogether dissimilar educational background (at a far less sophisticated
level of course than that of
Eccles) should have tended towards the same opinion: namely,
that consciousness or mindedness is effectively suspended as
such as soon as the brain ceases to function and begins to disintegrate.
2. Tatian: Address to the Greeks, chapter
15, in Ante-Nicene Fathers, New York, Charles Scribner's
Sons, 1913, vol.2, p.71.
3. Eusebius: see footnote re Arabian Christian sects in his Church
History, chapter 6, section 32, in the Nicene and Post-Nicene
Fathers, Oxford, Parker & Co., Second Series, 1890, vol.1,
suppose it must normally be a disturbing thought to many people
that there should be a period ofcomplete "silence"
as it were (a descriptive word used in Psalm 115:17(4)) between death and
resurrection, especially since certain Scriptures clearly promise
the believer immediate passage into the
Lord's presence which suggests a very different prospect.
A resurrected body unnecessary?
Thus commentaries and theologies
which deal with the intermediate state of the soul are tempted
speak in one breath as though the soul can be perfectly happy
though disembodied while in the next
breath noting that the body is essential to the soul's completion.
The important thing is to avoid any
admission that there might in fact be an "interval"
of unconsciousness between death and resurrection.
Thus Robert L. Dabney, in a paper on the theology of R. J. Breckinridge
(18001871), wrote in his usual
rather brusque manner:(5)
[Breckinridge] very properly
repeats, and in animated, eloquent language, the familiar old
truth, that our whole interest in a future existence depends
on the continuance of our proper
and conscious identity. But he then most preposterously asserts
that the united immortal
existence of body as well as soul is essential to a proper conscious
personal identity. [my
previously that bodily resurrection is essential and hence assured,
it is, according to
Dabney, quite preposterous to make this an absolute requirement
of personal conscious identity. The less
rational the argument, the greater the need for dramatic emphasis
-- in this case by the use of somewhat
abusive language! The defense of a fully conscious intermediate
state unfortunately is often if not
always presented in a highly emotional way. Only by pounding
the desk (or pulpit) can one carry any
4. "The dead praise not the Lord, neither
any that go down into silence." Psalm 115:17
5. Dabney, R.L., Discussions: Evangelical and Theological,
London, Banner of Truth Trust, 1967 (reprint of1890), vol.1,
conviction to an audience
likely to observe that the argument itself is faulty in its reasoning.
On this same issue Franz Delitzsch
quoted Johann Heinrich Ursinus (15341583) as having written:(6)
It is impossible that
the [disembodied] soul should continue in an unnatural state
into which it has fallen . . . by means of sin, and
for which God did not create it. For although
after death, souls live and praise the Highest, yet they are
not the entire man, but only an
essential piece of man. . . .
On this account, in
order that God might not have created man in vain which
is contrary to
his wisdom man must, although by death perchance
he has ceased to be a man, nevertheless, by
resurrection of his body again become a man and remain one for
ever. [emphasis mine]
we have the problem merely restated once more. No resolution
is offered. According to Ursinus,
the soul is not truly human apart from the body; so one
has to ask, What kind of a ghost is it that "lives and
praises the Highest" while it exists in a condition which
can only be described as "in vain" meanwhile?
W. G. T. Shedd attempted to resolve
the problem by acknowledging it, yet making it seem of no
consequence. He wrote:(7)
Between death and the resurrection,
when the human body and soul are separated,
although there is self-consciousness in the disembodied spirit
and so the most important
element in personality, yet there is an incomplete human personality
until the resurrection
of the body restores the original union between soul and body.
. . .
Soul taken by itself is a particular
intelligent substance yet not a person because
it is an
incomplete part of a greater whole. It requires to be
joined to a body before there can be an
individual man. . . .[my emphasis]
It is hard to
conceive of a more unsatisfactory resolution of a problem that
is clearly a very real one. What
6. Ursinus: as quoted by Franz Delitzsch,
A System of Biblical Psychology, translated by Robert
E. Wallis (2nd edition, 1899), Grand Rapids, Baker reprint, 1966,
7. Shedd, W. G. T., Dogmatic Theology, Grand Rapids, Zondervan
reprint (of 1888), vol. 2, p.270 and 278.
kind of an impersonal,
incomplete abstraction of intelligent substance, unindividuated
is here in view praising God and rejoicing in the Lord meanwhile?
The problem is still with us. In
the Zondervan Pictorial Encyclopedia of the Bible, the
article on the
Intermediate State concludes that "even for the righteous,
the intermediate state would seem to be one
of imperfection, partly because the spirit is without bodily
manifestation and partly because the joys of
heaven are not forthcoming for the saints until after
the Second Coming and the final Judgment."(8) Can
one honestly say that a state of conscious imperfection is what
we hope for as we long to be with the
Lord? In what sense does such a state fulfill the promise that
when we see Him we shall be like Him (1 John
3:2(9))? But there
is no logical alternative except a state of unconsciousness or
"sleep" in Jesus which at
least has the advantage of eliminating all sense of time
if there is any time to be passed.
A. H. Strong in his Systematic
Theology addresses the same question, cutting the Gordian
Knot by merely
ignoring it: "The Scriptures affirm the conscious existence
of both the righteous and the wicked after
death and prior to resurrection. In the intermediate state the
soul is without a body, yet this state is for
the righteous a state of conscious joy, and for the wicked a
state of conscious suffering."(10)
I find it difficult to think
of any single statement or passage of Scripture which actually
supports the view
that such consciousness is experienced prior to the resurrection
of the body. If the story of Dives and
taken literally, it is instructive. Dives has a tongue, Lazarus
has a finger, and Abraham has a
8. Article on the "Intermediate State"
contributed by R. K. Harrison in Zondervan Pictorial Encyclopedia
of the Bible, edited by Merrill C. Tenney, Grand Rapids,
Zondervan, 1975, vol. 3, p.296, col. b.
9. "But we know that, when he shall appear, we shall be
like him, for we shall see him as he is." 1 John 3:2.
10. Strong, A.H. Systematic Theology, Valley Forge, PA.,
Judson Press, 1906 (1974 reprint of 3 volumes in 1), p.998.
11. "There was a certain rich man, who was clothed in purple
and fine linen, and fared sumptuously every day: and there was
a certain beggar named Lazarus, who was laid at his gate, full
of sores, and desiring to be fed with the crumbs which fell from
the rich man's table: moreover, the dogs came and licked his
sores. And it came to pass that the beggar died, and was carried
by the angels into Abraham's bosom: the rich man also died, and
was buried. And in hell he lifted up his eyes, being in torments,
and sees Abraham afar off, and Lazarus in his bosom. And he cried
and said, Father Abraham, have mercy on me, and send Lazarus,
that he may dip the tip of his finger in water, and cool my tongue,
for I am tormented in this flame. But Abraham said, Son, remember
that you in your lifetime received your good things, and likewise
Lazarus evil things: but now he is comforted, and you are tormented.
And beside all this, between us and you there is a great gulf
fixed: so that they which would pass from hence to you cannot;
neither can they pass to us, that would come from thence."
bosom. . . . Can this,
then, really indicate that it is a preview of the state of the
soul before the general
resurrection, seeing tongue and finger and bosom belong to a
body? And if it cannot be taken literally,
then the usual interpretation loses much of its force. It is
not at all certain that this story of Dives and
Lazarus was designed to teach what it is commonly made to teach.
In its context it seems rather to be a
warning to those entrusted with wealth not to forget they also
have a very serious duty towards the poor,
and that they will be called to an accounting. Privilege and
responsibility must never be divorced. To make
his point, the Lord seems to have simply adopted an imagery commonly
accepted by the Jews and
therefore more readily understood. But to provide a picture of
the state of the saved and unsaved
between death and resurrection was almost certainly not
the purpose for which the Lord Himself intended it. It is hardly
a sufficient basis for anything more than this.(12)
Ambrose, the spiritual father of
Augustine, taught that the soul, so long as it is separated from
the body, is
suspended in a kind of ambiguous condition (ambiguo suspenditur).
In commenting on this, Shedd
observed that there was a wide divergence of opinion within the
declarations of any writer of that period
of doctrinal development (i.e., during the third and fourth centuries
in particular). And he added: "One
thing is certain, that the nearer we approach the days of the
Apostles, the less do we hear about an
underworld or of Christ's descent into it."(13)
It has been widely held that the
body is only raised in order to enhance the happiness
of the saints. It
must logically follow that the bodies of the unsaved are only
raised to enhance their misery. The idea of
the first seems innocent enough, but the logical consequence
of the second seems most repugnant.
If "enhancement" is the sole
purpose of the resurrection of the body and if the soul can get
enough without it anyway, then the resurrection of the body seems
to leave us on the horns of a dilemma.
12. Yet Shedd observed that while the doctrine
of the Intermediate State has had considerable variety of construction,
owing to the mixing of mythological elements within the biblical,
the presentation which Christ gives in the parable of Dives and
Lazarus has largely furnished the basis of the doctrine of an
intermediate place as it later developed (Dogmatic Theology,
vol. 2, p.59). It is therefore important to point out, contrary
to what is sometimes held, that the use of the phrase "a
certain rich man" to introduce the story does not mean that
it is certainly to be taken as history and not a mere parable.
Luke 12:16 employs a similar opening, but states clearly that
what follows is a parable ("He spake a parable unto them,
saying, The ground of a certain rich man. . . ." Luke 12:16).
See also Luke 13:6; 19:11 and 12; 20:9 -- all of which open with
the words "a certain. . ." though each is statedly
13. Shedd, W. G. T., Dogmatic Theology, Grand Rapids,
Zondervan reprint (of 1888), vol. 2, p.593, fn.
The enhancement of the
pleasure of the saints is achieved only by a process that inevitably
the misery of the lost(14).
I have to
ask myself, then, whether this is really an acceptable idea.
If it involves someone dear to me
whose misery is to be magnified as a direct consequence of a
programme (the resurrection of the body)
which is really designed solely for the enhancement of my pleasure,
can I honestly view this as a happy
prospect? The idea was indeed suggested in Medieval times, for
it seemed a logical necessity if the body
is not entirely necessary to the conscious existence of
The intermediate state a conscious one?
Moreover, the current concept
of the intermediate state has the odd effect of converting it
into a kind of
pre-trial provisional reward (or punishment) before the
Judge gets around to pronouncing his judgment
as to the actual reward (or punishment) to be awarded.
In the Wycliffe Encyclopedia
it is observed:(15)
Since all Bible-believing
Christians believe in the resurrection of the body and the future
judgment, it follows that all believe in an intermediate state
between death and resurrection.
Not all Christians, however, agree as to the condition
of the dead during this interval. All
recognize that it is different from the condition of those living
on earth, and some believe that
it is at least in certain details quite different from what
it will be, subsequent to the
The problem in the doctrine
of the intermediate state, then, is the nature of the existence
the righteous and the wicked dead prior to the resurrection.
sums up the nature of the problem, but it contrbutes nothing
towards a possible resolution, though it seems to be taking for
granted that it is a conscious state since this is really why
thre is a problem to begin with. It is a useful operating principle
in the solution of many problems to ssume, first of all, that
14. Since the unsaved also face the same situation,
it could be termed for them "a slightly reduced version
of ultimate retribution", as James T. Addison put it in
his Life After Death in the Beliefs of Mankind, Boston,
Houghton Mifflin, 1932, p.202.
15. In an article contributed by Robert G. Rayburn in Wycliffe
Bible Encyclopedia, Chicago, Moody Bible Institute Press,
edited by Charles F. Pfeiffer, et al., 1975, vol.1, p.850,
of the problem itself
is sometimes to be found in what everyone agrees upon.
In this issue, the problem would therefore seem to be rooted
in the general agreement that the intermediate state is a conscious
one, which mightthus be the basic error. Until we abandon this
fundamental assumption, it may be we shall never find a solution
to the problem it creates.
In A. R. Fausset's Bible Cyclopedia
under Resurrection, the author observes: "Essentially
the same body
wherewith the unbeliever sinned shall be the object of punishment,
in order that every one may receive
the things done by the instrumentality of (Greek dia)
the body (2 Corinthians 5 :10(16))."(17)
adds an additional reason for the emphasis on the body. And since
the Lord Jesus is to judge all men and
not just the unsaved (cf. Matthew 25:32(18) the sheep and the goats), it would seem
resurrection of the body could only be awaited in fear and trembling
by saint and sinner alike if the
intermediate state is a fully conscious one. For even though
the saints will undoubtedly be happy indeed
to see the dross purged away in the flame of the final judgment,
it is still difficult to think of being in the
Lord's presence for centuries or even for millennia waiting and
wondering how much will be left to
commend after the flame has done its work.
I am not here thinking of anything
even vaguely approaching a purgatory. I am thinking only of the
that the fire will try every man's work of what sort it has been,
and many of us may well discover that
there is little left to commend even though we ourselves
shall indeed be saved (1 Corinthians 3:15(19)).
Motive is the moral test of action,(20) and who knows his own heart (1 Samuel 16:7 and Jeremiah
How many, or should we really say how few, of our good
deeds had a pure motive behind them? Who can
16. "For we must all appear before the
judgment seat of Christ, that every one may receive the things
done in his body, according to that he hath done, whether it
be good or bad." 2 Corinthians 5:10.
17. Fausset, A. R. Bible Cyclopedia, New York, Funk &
Wagnalls, undated, c.1880, p.604.
18. "When the Son of man shall come in his glory, and all
the holy angels with him, then shall he sit upon the throne of
his glory: and before him shall be gathered all nations: and
he shall separate them one from another, as a shepherd divides
his sheep from the goats." Matthew 25:31, 32.
19. "If any man's work shall be burned, he shall suffer
loss; but he himself shall be saved; yet so as by fire."
1 Corinthians 3:15.
20. For some thoughts on the basis of rewards and punishment,
see the author's Sovereignty of Grace, Grand Rapids, Baker
Book House, 1979, p.247f, 250f, and chapter 14.
21. "But the Lord said unto Samuel, Look not on his countenance,
or on the height of his stature; because I have refused him:
for the Lord sees not as man sees; for man looks on the outward
appearance, but the Lord looks on the heart." 1 Samuel 16:7.
"The heart is deceitful above all things, and desperately
wicked: who can know it?" Jeremiah 17:9.
stand such a fire?
As to the concept of purgatory,
it was in the Alexandrian School of Theology that the idea of
the intermediate state passed into that of a period of gradual
purification of the souls of the saints to
prepare them for entry into the direct presence of God. And this
in the course of time opened the way for
the Roman Catholic doctrine of purgatory with all the embroideries
such as one finds in Dante's Divine
Comedy. It is a trait of the human mind that when we find
ourselves with a blank space of time to fill,
imagination like a little child is always eager to
supply a scenario.
The Reformers rejected this doctrine
unequivocally, and according to Louis Berkhof, they also rejected
"the whole idea of a real [his emphasis] intermediate
state which carried with it the idea of an
intermediate place [emphasis mine]. They held that those
who died in the Lord at once entered into the
bliss of heaven, while those who died in their sins at once descended
Soul sleeping rejected by the creeds
Unfortunately, this of course still
left entirely unanswered the vexing problem of why the body should
some subsequent time be raised and reunited with the soul. In
itself, the statement does not address this
problem at all: it merely rejects (and quite properly) an existing
but abortive attempt to deal with the
G. C. Berkouwer frankly acknowledges
the mystery which hangs on the substantive reality of a soul
disembodied during this period of waiting. He says: "Scripture
itself gives us no help in a search for an
analyzable anthropological solution." He asks, "When
the 'soul' is separated from the body, what activity
is it still able to carry out?" And, quoting H. Dooyeweerd,
he says, "The unqualified answer is obviously
Which is at least forthright, but still needs further elucidation.
John Calvin at first strongly opposed
the concept of soul-sleeping and wrote a tract entitled
Psychopannychia in which he condemned it. As he matured,
he seems to have felt that the issue was not
really made clear in Scripture, and he came to view the matter
as one of those "non-fundamental"
22. Berkhof, Louis, Systematic Theology,
Grand Rapids, 1939, p.681. Berkhof had previously observed, "sheol.
. . is certainly represented as a state of more or less conscious
existence, though not one of bliss" (p.675). One wonders
what a "more or less conscious" state would signify.
23. Berkouwer, C. G., Man: The Image of God, Grand Rapids,
Eerdmans, 1975, p.255, 256.
doctrines about which
there could be considerable room for disagreement without loss
of fellowship. In a
later edition of the Institutes, he wrote (IV, i ,12):
Why should there
be a division on this point, if one church be of opinion that
souls, at their
departure from their bodies, are immediately removed to heaven;
and another church
ventures to determine nothing respecting their local situation,
but is nevertheless firmly
convinced that they live unto the Lord; and if this diversity
of sentiment on both sides be free
from all fondness for contention and obstinacy of assertion?
A diversity of opinion respecting
these non-essential points ought not to be a cause of
discord among Christians.
A somewhat similar
shift of opinion, back and forth, was evident also in England
at that time. In 1552 there was a Fortieth Article attached to
the Thirty-Nine Articles of the Church of England, which
reads as follows:
The souls of them that
depart this life do neither die with their bodies nor sleep idly.
which say that the souls of such as depart hence do sleep, being
without sense, feeling, or
perceiving, until the day of judgment, or who affirm that the
soul dies with the body, and at
the last day shall be raised up with the same, do utterly dissent
from the right view declared
unto us in Holy Scripture.
years later this Article was deleted by Archbishop Parker and
does not form any part of the
Articles of belief as finally subscribed to by the clergy in
1562. The Church of England abstained from any
definite censure of those who held a contrary view.
Thus the problem has clearly
remained unresolved throughout the centuries and one must accept
that there is still room for re-consideration of the issue.
The fear that any state of unconsciousness
is to be equated with virtual non-existence is entirely
unfounded but it seems to be very commonly held by those who
reject the concept of soul-sleeping. Yet
we know from daily observation that in this life there is no
necessary connection whatever between
unconsciousness and non-existence. In terms of vital processes,
we are just as alive while we are asleep as
we are while we are awake: surely this could be just as true
for the spirit as for the body if necessary.
idea of a kind of half-existence, of almost "impersonal"
identity, in the interim between death and
resurrection is hardly a meaningful one. Whereas we really ought
to have no difficulty with either of the two alternatives which
remain: (a) a deep sleep involving total unconsciousness but
no loss of identity, or
(b) a fully conscious state because of immediate reunion with
the new body. The first assumes that a
time interval really exists but is not experienced: the second
assumes that there is no interval whatever
because there is NO TIME FOR IT!
The argument that the soul
can be happy and personally identifiable without the body inevitably
the resurrection of the body quite unnecessary and therefore
challenges the many explicit passages of
Scripture (especially in Paul's epistles) that lay emphasis upon
The proposal that the righteous
are at ease in the Lord's presence even though still awaiting
assessment of their past life while the wicked spend these same
centuries or millennia in a state of
partial penalty until the resurrection of the body heralds the
final reward and the final punishment,
strikes one as a most unbelievable circumstance in either case.
A tentative expectation of reward yet to
be clarified, and a mild form of penalty yet to be applied in
full, seems much more like a period of
probation for the righteous and of pre-trial imprisonment for
the wicked. This scarcely bears the stamp of
the justice or the mercy of the One who is the God and Father
of our Lord Jesus Christ. Nor does it seem a
sufficient basis for Paul's excitement at the prospect of leaving
this present world and passing on to be
with the Lord.
Theory of soul sleeping tested
It may be useful to bring this
survey to a close by a little exercise in "sanctified imagination."
Let us assume for the moment that
we really do continue in some kind of ghostly form while awaiting
bodies the saints in a conscious state of joyful anticipation
in the Lord's presence, and the lost in a
state of fearful anticipation of a terrible prospect in the future.
And on the basis of this scenario, let us
consider very briefly the seemingly necessary course of events
pertaining to a few representative biblical
characters about whom we have sufficient information to make
it reasonable to attempt a reconstruction
of what would actually have to happen in their particular case.
It will then be seen that there are some
indeed yet to be answered.
I have chosen (1) Adam,
(2) Cain, (3) Lazarus of Bethany, and (4) Paul
each of whose "destinies" can
be pretty well taken for granted. Adam surely died a redeemed
soul; Cain almost certainly did not. Lazarus
made an advance journey and returned at a unique period in history
in which the Lord was present on the
earth (which He was not, in the same sense, either before His
Incarnation or after His Ascension). As to
Paul, we have the advantage of knowing from his own inspired
writings some very important clues as to
his precise expectations.
For each of these, let us exercise
a little freedom and try to visulaize the possible course of
events following their respective deaths, assuming they
experienced an interim state in possession of full consciousness
while awaiting the Last Day and the resurrection of their bodies.
(1) I have chosen
Adam because (a) he has obviously the longest to wait,
and (b) he has perhaps the most
reason to feel the burden of responsibility as the father of
a race which, but for him, might have
peopled the world with joy and gladness rather than pain and
tragedy, and (c) he alone (with Eve) once
experienced the reality of a perfect world and the unalloyed
joy of living in it, and therefore would have
reason to feel the greatest sense of loss. Unlike Adam and Eve,
the rest of us are born in sin and raised in
trouble: they were created perfect and enjoyed the pleasure of
a garden paradise, idyllic in its setting.
So, according to present views
of this interim between death and resurrection, for thousands
Adam would presumably be witness to the constant arrival in his
interim "place" of millions of his
descendants who come to share his temporary disembodied condition,
all of whom have experienced in
life sorrow and shame and vexation of spirit for which he himself
was in a sense responsible. Until the
final trial and Judgment (which is yet to come after the resurrection
of the body), he could not know
whether anything at all would be left to comfort him or whether
the whole of his almost one thousand
years of life would prove to have produced only perishable results.
His salvation would not be in question,
but the nature of his crown would be.
Can one really imagine his being
at ease in the Lord's presence with such an uncertain future
waiting to hear the final assessment yet to be pronounced on
his life? We may argue that when he left this
world, the past fell
away to be forgotten so that no such sad thoughts would plague
his waiting. But the
Judgment he would have to wait for is clearly a real judgment
(for good and bad), of whatever "sort" it is (Romans
14:10 and 2 Corinthians 5:10(24)), even if when it is over he will rejoice and have
praise of God asevery one of us is to do (1 Corinthians
4:5(25)). The problem
is this waiting in the presence of the Judge for
6000 years until the verdict is rendered.
"hated his brother" and was therefore a "murderer"
(1 John 3:12(26))
and we know that "no
murderer hath eternal life" (1 John 3:15(27)). He seems clearly to have died unrepentant and "cursed
fromthe earth" (Genesis 4:5-11(28)).
Assuming, as seems likely, that
Cain being "of that wicked one" (1 John 3:12) died
unsaved, we have the
situation of a condemned prisoner who nevertheless awaits 6000
years for the official confirmation of his guilt, a kind of pre-trial
custody until judgment is handed down by the Judge. Multiplied
by the millions who must find themselves in the same unhappy
position, this taxes one's imagination. It seems contrary to
24. "But why do you judge your brother?
or why do you set at nought your brother? for we shall all stand
before the judgment seat of Christ." Romans 14:10. "For
we must all appear before the judgment seat of Christ, that every
one may receive the things done in his body, according to that
he hath done, whether it be good or bad." 2 Corinthians
25. "Therefore judge nothing before the time, until the
Lord come, who both will bring to light the hidden things of
darkness, and will make manifest the counsels of the hearts:
and then shall every man have praise of God." 1 Corinthians
26. "For this is the message that we have heard from the
beginning, that we should love one another. Not as Cain, who
was of that wicked one, and slew his brother. And wherefore slew
he him? Because his own works were evil, and his brother's righteous."
1 John 3:12.
27. "Whosoever hates his brother is a murderer: and you
know that no murderer has eternal life abiding in him."
1 John 3 :15.
28. "In the process of time it came to pass, that Cain brought
of the fruit of the ground an offering unto the Lord. And Abel,
he also brought of the firstlings of his flock, and of the fat
thereof. And the Lord had respect unto Abel and to his offering.
But unto Cain and to his offering he had not respect. And Cain
was very wroth, and his countenance fell. And the Lord said unto
Cain, Why are you wroth? And why is your countenance fallen?
If you do well, shall you not be accepted? And if you do not
well, sin lies at the door. And unto you shall be his [its] desire
and [but] you shall [can] rule over him [it]. And Cain talked
with Abel, his brother; and it came to pass, when they were in
the field, that Cain rose up against Abel his brother, and slew
him. And the Lord said unto Cain, Where is Abel your brother?
And he said, I know not: Am I my brother's keeper? And he said,
What have you done? The voice of your brother's blood cries unto
me from the ground. And now you are cursed from the earth, which
has opened her mouth to receive your brother's blood from your
hand." Genesis 4:3-11.
of justice that for
different lengths of time (depending on how long ago they lived)
the unsaved are
to suffer varying degrees of punishment before actually
standing in the presence of the Judge to be sentenced. The assignment
to such an interim state is itself a penalty.
have identified Lazarus as the Lazarus of Bethany because
I have in mind the beloved brother of
Martha and Mary rather than the afflicted soul who sat and begged
at the rich man's table.
Lazarus presents us with an instance
of a man who was unequivocally dead (since his body was already
and yet was resuscitated and returned to his former condition
of life, only to die later.
His case illustrates two facets
of the present issue. First, we have not the slightest intimation
recollection (after his recovery) of conscious experience on
the other side of the grave.(30) This is indeed
an argument from silence, but it seems almost certain that the
very notoriety attached to his
resuscitation at the time (cf. John 11:45 and also 12:17-19(31)) would have guaranteed
the survival of at
least some such stories beyond the mere fact of his recovery
if he had had any such stories to tell.
Clearly, he was well known locally and the number of people who
were curious about him was evidently
very considerable. The news must have spread far and wide because
Jerusalem was crowded with
visitors from many parts of the world, it being Passover time.
One would certainly expect at least some
record of subsequent conversations with friends on such a fundamentally
important and fascinating
subject. We do not even have a "Gospel of Lazarus"
among the many spurious "testaments" or "gospels"
like those attributed to Mary, Nicodemus, and other well known
persons who figure prominently in the
But we see another facet
of the whole matter brought into focus by considering what would
happen to the departed spirit of Lazarus while the Lord was still
in the flesh. This is, of course, true of any
29. He was even legally dead, since
he had passed the probationary period of entombment for three
days and nights without evidence of revival, a period which was
required by law to certify death in those days.
30. On "out-of-body" experiences, refer to footnote (261) in
31. "Then many of the Jews which came to Mary, and had seen the things
which Jesus did, believed on him." John 11:45. "The
people that were with him [Jesus] when he called Lazarus out of the grave
and raised him from the dead, bare record. For this cause the people also
met him [on the day of the triumphal entry into Jerusalem], for that they
heard that he had done this miracle. The Pharisees therefore said among
themselves, Perceive you how you prevail nothing? Behold the world is
gone after him!" John 12:17-19.
of those raised by the
Lord during those thirty-three years, but especially true of
Lazarus, for his contemporaries must (since it was a view widely
held) certainly have assumed his spirit had departed to
a nether world. They would be particularly curious in this instance
even if the case of Jairus' daughter or the widow of Nain's
son did not stir them in this regard since these two were not
yet certifiably dead.
Lazarus had died: if he then became
a fully conscious ghost for the few intervening days while his
was resting in the tomb, and if as a ghost he was present with
the Lord during that period, must he not
then have walked across the garden where the tomb was, in ghostly
company with Him as they
approached his own tomb? Did he then pass on into the tomb through
the stone closure, there to wait in
the darkness, as it were, until he received orders to come forth,
once more united with a reconstituted
body? Moreover, if we assume that his soul passed into the Lord's
presence, would it not be a purified soul
made perfect -- since, when we see Him, we shall be like Him
(1 John 3:2(32))?
Then did that purified soul
return to the still mortal, and therefore far from perfect body,
only to be re-contaminated again?
Does this kind of scenario make
any sense whatever? Yet if we assume that Lazarus remained fully
conscious while his body lay in the grave, some such scenario
seems to be needed in order to give us any
kind of "picture" of events with respect to the activities
of his spirit until the time of his temporary
reprieve. The whole situation in this instance, as in all such
cases of resuscitation, is wrapped in
Suppose, however, one accepts the
idea that after death the spirit remains unconscious in God's
until He sends it with Jesus to be re-united with a glorified
body, then the problem is resolved: for Lazarus
never had any consciousness whatever in the interim he
was, as Jesus said, "asleep." God sent his
spirit back to rejoin the resurrected body as Jesus called him
forth from the tomb.(33)
(4) The position
of Paul presents certain interesting anomalies because
of his own clearly stated
32. "Beloved, now are we the sons of
God, and it does not yet appear what we shall be: but we know
that, when he shall appear, we shall be like him, for we shall
see him as he is." I John 3:2.
33. It must be remembered, of course, that this was an exceptional
instance, for the resurrected body was the old body, not
the new one which Lazarus will, one day, be clothed in.
he declares joyfully that to be absent from this earthly body
is to be present with the Lord (2
Corinthians 5 :8(34)).
He says he is quite confident of this and may I interject,
so am I! But he by no means wishes to be in the presence of the
Lord "unclothed" (2 Corinthians 5:4(35)). This is not what he wants. So he
clearly looks forward to being "clothed" in the Lord's
presence, i.e., embodied in a new body. This
embodiment, he tells us, is to be realized when the Lord comes
again. He is most explicit on this point.
The fact is that there must be
a resurrection of the dead or else, as Paul points out, those
who have fallen
asleep in Christ are perished! (1 Corinthians 15:13, 18).(36) This is quite clear. Without
asleep in Christ must be written off. They are "lost"
(Greek apolumi). They are not half-saved: they are
perished entirely, as though they had never been. Everything
hinges on resurrection. . . and what can this
mean except resurrection of their bodies? A certain number who
are still alive when the Lord does
return will obviously not fall asleep at all. But these, too,
will undergo a transformation of body "in the
twinkling of an eye" -- and at the last trump: the very
signal identified in 1 Thessalonians 4:16(37) as the
sound of the "trumpet of God" which marks the end of
this present age.
Thus everything, including even
the salvation of the spirit or soul, clearly depends upon the
reunion of the
perfected spirit with the resurrected perfected body. Then shall
a corrupted body put on incorruption and
a mortal spirit put on immortality (1 Corinthians 15:5254(38)). This will place the
whole man not merely in
the position of being capable of not sinning and so capable of
not dying, but in the position of being
IN-capable of doing either ever again. Sin and death will
be constitutionally beyond us, as temptation is
34. "We are confident, I say, and willing
rather to be absent from the body and to be present with the
Lord." 2 Corinthians 5:8.
35. "For we that are in this tabernacle do groan, being
burdened: not that we would be unclothed, but clothed upon, that
mortality might be swallowed up of life." 2 Corinthians
36. "If there is no resurrection of the dead, then is Christ
not risen. . . . For if the dead rise not, then is Christ not
raised: and if Christ be not raised, your faith is vain: you
are yet in your sins. Then they also who are fallen asleep in
Christ are perished." 1 Corinthians 15:13, 16-18. Either
they have already perished (since they have yet no body) or they
have a body already (because they have been resurrected.)
37. "For the Lord Himself shall descend from heaven with
a shout, with the voice of the archangel and with the trump of
God." 1 Thessalonians 4:16.
38. "In a moment, in the twinkling of an eye, at the last
trump: for the trumpet shall sound, and the dead in Christ shall
be raised incorruptible, and we shall be changed. For this corruptible
must put on incorruption, and this mortal must put on immortality.
So when this corruptible shall have put on incorruption, and
this mortal shall have put on immortality, then shall be brought
to pass the saying that is written, Death is swallowed up in
victory." 1 Corinthians 15:52-54.
God Himself (James. l:13(39)).
It is impossible to suppose
that Paul looked eagerly forward to an interim of "undress"
simply because he
groaned in his present body. Burdened as his present body indeed
was, he still did not prefer to be
disembodied in spite of the relief this might seem to afford.
His sinful body was still to be preferred to no
body at all. The idea of a ghostly half-existence was not by
any means what he wished for. "We do not
want to be unclothed," he said. Unlike the Greek
philosophers, Christians have never seen disembodiment as something
to be preferred. A naked soul is not a happy prospect for man.
Paul wanted to be absent from this body and present with the
Lord, but not without embodiment (2 Corinthians 5:2(40)). He wanted to be whole
as he stood in the presence of his Lord. Only so could he be
like Him when he was to meet Him face to face and see Him as
He is a Man in a glorified body.
Does any of this suggest
for a moment that he was anticipating with joy an interim of
an interim of shadowy existence in a state of imperfection? Did
he really expect to have to wait in
uncertainty as to how his life would be assessed, and to do this
meanwhile as a mere ghost of his former
self? And would he be incognito as he awaited reunion
with his body? After all, even the Lord needed his
body to establish his identity. Would not Paul need his for the
Of Paul we therefore at least know
this: a ghostly existence was not at all the prospect he eagerly
for. And as John had put it, this wonderful climax is to come
"when He shall appear" and not before.
Somehow, we have to reconcile this with 2 Corinthians 5:8,(41) for both promises are
Quest for resolution
Attempts to construct a behind-the-scenes
scenario for the departed lead to absurdities when an
39. "Let no man say when he is tempted,
I am tempted of God: for God cannot be tempted with evil."
40. "For in this we groan, earnestly desiring to be clothed
upon with our house which is from heaven." 2 Corinthians
41. "We are confident, I say, and willing rather to be absent
from the body, and to be present with the Lord." 2 Corinthians
interval of conscious waiting is
introduced, and the simple law of parsimony certainly suggests, by the
very complexity of the problems thus created, that such re-creations
are pointing in the wrong direction.
Some of the scenarios portrayed
in Appendix I, Section B, are absurd in the extreme. It is true
seem to find points of coincidence cropping up between these
stories and certain passages in the New
Testament which at least appear to reflect some details of them
(cf. for example, Ephesians 4:8-10; 1 Peter
3:18-20; 4:6; 2 Peter 2:4; and some others like Jude 6; see Appendix
I). These passages have caused such
endless discussion and argument that it seems unlikely I can
contribute usefully to the debate over their
precise meaning. But in the immediate subject matter of this
volume, it appears to me that we have a
sufficiently new understanding of the true nature of time, as
opposed to eternity, that a resolution may
now be within our reach.
It need not surprise us that new
light should come "so late in the day," as it were.
I cannot help quoting
here in this connection a statement made by Bishop Joseph Butler
(16921752) who said:(42)
Hindrances in the way
of acquiring natural and supernatural light and knowledge have
of the same kind. It is admitted that the whole scheme of Scripture
is not yet understood: so if
it ever comes to be understood before the restitution of all
things and without miraculous
interpositions, it must be in the same way that natural knowledge
is arrived at, by the
continuance and progress of learning and liberty, and
by particular persons attending to,
comparing, and pursuing intimations scattered up and down it
which have been overlooked
and disregarded by the generality of the world.
For this is the way all improvements
are made, by thoughtful men tracing out obscure hints,
as it were dropped for us by nature accidentally, or which seem
to come into our minds by
chance. Nor is it at all incredible that a book which has
been so long in the possession of
mankind should contain many truths as yet undiscovered. [emphasis
at last, we come to the "resolution" so long promised
in the preceding pages. . . .
42. Butler, Joseph, Analogy of Religion:
as quoted by J. B. Heard, The Tripartite Nature of Man,
Edinburgh, T. & T. Clark, 1868, p.280.
Copyright © 1988 Evelyn White. All rights
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