Post-Death Existence of Man--Intermediate State
The Problem · Alternative Proposals · Biblical Teaching · Systematic Formulation · Apologetic Interaction · Relevance to Life and Ministry
There are two major divisions to eschatology: cosmic and individual.. Cosmic eschatology concerns the future of the entire human race and our universe. This paper is only concerned with the issue of individual eschatology--an examination of the personal future of each person upon death.
What is the state of the dead? Where do we go upon death? Is death the end of human existence, or is there life after death? Are there stages in post-death afterlife? These questions have inevitably been asked by every human who ever existed. We desire to know if there is life beyond the grave, and if there is, what kind of life it will be. In this paper I will detail the most significant answers that have been given to this question by both Christians and non-Christians alike, offer a critique to each, and formulate the most consistent model to answer the above questions.
Materialism holds to the view of death as the final state of man. There is no afterlife, and thus there is no intermediate state between death and a resurrection. This conviction arises from a particular view of humanity. It is denied that man is a dualistic being, composed of both a material and immaterial existence. To the materialist there is no soul in man, and thus nothing that can survive the death of the body. Man is little more than a machine—once his physical energy is depleted, he ceases to function and to exist.
Reincarnationists believe in an afterlife, but the afterlife is simply another life on earth once again. There are some differences between Eastern and Western versions of reincarnation. The Eastern branch believes that living creatures can come back in the form of another person, animal, or plant, while Westerners tend to limit reincarnation to other human beings. What is important to note is that the afterlife is on earth, in a physical existence, not a disembodied state of existence apart from the physical cosmos.
Closely allied with the doctrine of reincarnation is the concept of karma. This teaching asserts that one's past actions affect their present life, and their present actions will in turn affect the next life they will occupy. Good deeds will bring good karma, and thus a better afterlife, whereas evil deeds will bring bad karma, and thus a worse afterlife. "After the soul has fulfilled its destiny, and learned its lessons and become sufficiently enlightened, it reverts to a divine status or is absorbed into (or realizes its timeless identity with) the divine All."1 Thus the succession of lives ceases once one's karma has become perfected through good works. This is the ultimate hope of all reincarnationists, i.e. a deification into the ultimate reality.
There are many groups who hold to reincarnation. Hinduism, Buddhism, and many other Eastern religions subscribe to the concept. There are even some atheists who maintain this view of the afterlife.
Soul-sleep, also known as psychopannychy, teaches that man's body/soul sleeps in an unconscious state until the resurrection of the dead, at which time the body/soul will be revived. The Biblical terminology which speaks of a soul, spirit, heart, or body of man are not referring to different parts of man, some of which perish at death and some of which survive in a disembodied existence, but all describe the self of man.
The Biblical basis for such a teaching is derived from the many passages which speak of death as "sleep" (Daniel 12:2; Matthew 27:52; John 11:11-14; Acts 13:36). If man is said to sleep at death, how can it be conceived that part of man is still conscious? Ecclesiastes 9:5 seems to make it clear that the dead are not conscious: "For the living know that they shall die: but the dead know not any thing, neither have they any more a reward; for the memory of them is forgotten." Also, Daniel 12:2 says, "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." Since these dead are said to be sleeping until the time when they are awoken (resurrection), they must be in some sort of soul-sleep during the intervening time. Finally, in I Thessalonians 4:14 Paul taught that Jesus would bring back with him those who sleep. This indicates that the souls of the dead will be in a state of sleep until the time of the church's rapture.
The anthropological view supporting soul-sleep is monistic, meaning that man is viewed constitutionally as one being, not capable of being separated into different elements. This is in contradistinction to the dichotomist and trichotomist views of man which view man as consisting of two or three elements respectively. Monists do confess that man is made up of both material and immaterial aspects (which is similar to the dichotomist teaching that man is body and soul/spirit, but contrary to the materialist position that man is only material), namely a body and the breath of God that brings life to the body (Genesis 2:7), but do not believe that these are two aspects of man's person capable of separation in a continued existence. Man has a "soul" but the soul is inextricably connected with the body so that the two become interchangeable terms referring to the one self. It is just as impossible for the soul to have life apart from the body as it is for the body to have life apart from the soul. When the body dies, the soul also dies; when the body is resurrected, the soul will also be resurrected along with it. To be human is to have a body. To imagine an existence of man without a body is like imagining water that is not wet.
Although this doctrine has been held by various individuals throughout church history (including the Anabaptists), it has never been a dominating doctrine. Martin Luther, however, was sympathetic to the doctrine. The largest modern-day movement advocating this doctrine is the Seventh Day Advenistism and Jehovah's Witnesses.
The doctrine of the immortal soul was first taught by Plato. With the Greek conception of the material world as being the lowest form of reality, and the realm of forms being the highest reality, the desire of man is to escape the material world of the body and live eternally in pursuit of wisdom apart from the fleshly appetites of the body which war against wisdom. The body is little more than a temporary prison of the blessed soul of man. After death the soul is released from this prison, and goes on to live eternally in an incorporeal existence to pursue wisdom eternally. Those who were evil will be punished "under the earth," and the righteous will be exalted "in a heavenly place."2
The conscious-soul view of the intermediate state maintains that upon death the soul separates from the body (Ecclesiastes 9:4); the souls of the righteous going directly into the presence of God, while the souls of the wicked going directly to hell, both awaiting the resurrection of the dead and the final judgment. This view is predicated on a dualistic view of man, seeing him as both material body and immaterial soul which is capable of a separate existence from the body. Although the soul survives death in a conscious existence, such is not the desired or intended end of man's existence (II Corinthians 5:1-8). It is the resurrection of the body, which will be rejoined with its separated soul at the coming of the Lord, which the Christian awaits in hope (Romans 8:23; I Corinthians 15; Philippians 3:21; I Thessalonians 4:13-18). Only at the resurrection of the body is our redemption complete. It is this future and eternal material existence which separates the conscious-soul and immortal soul views of the afterlife.
Biblical support to indicate that there is a conscious existence of the soul which survives the death of the body includes the parable of the Rich Man and Lazarus (Luke 16:19-31), where Jesus spoke of the soul of Lazarus being carried to hell to conscious torment, while his brothers were still alive on earth. Jesus also told the thief on the cross that he would be with Him in Paradise on that very same day (Luke 23:43). Paul told the Corinthians that to be absent from the body is to be present with the Lord (II Corinthians 5:6, 8), and the Philippians that he desired to depart in the death of his body, and to be with Christ which was better than life in the body (Philippians 1:23).
Prominent theologians who taught/teach a conscious-soul existence for the intermediate state include Tertullian, Basil of Caesarea, Jerome, Cyril of Jerusalem, Chrysostom, Augustine, Thomas Acquinas, Martin Luther, John Calvin, Jonathan Edwards, George Whitefield, and John Wesley. Most present-day evangelicals hold to this position, including noteworthy theologians such as J.I. Packer, D.A. Carson, Millard Erickson, and John Gerstner.
Also known as conditional immortality, annihilationism teaches two different destinies for two differing groups of individuals. The righteous dead go immediately into the presence of God, while the unrighteous dead go to hell. What distinguishes this view from the conscious-soul view is that the former teaches that both the wicked and the righteous will live for eternity, whereas annihilationism maintains that only the righteous possess an immortal soul and will live eternally. The wicked will endure the torments of hell for a short period of time, but will eventually be annihilated by the fires of hell.
The major tenet of this view is that God alone has immortality (I Timothy 1:17; 6:16). Man was created mortal, not immortal. In order for man to become immortal, God must bestow this gift upon him. Scripture indicates that He has chosen to give the gift of eternal life only to those who believe; but it is just that—a gift (John 10:28; 17:3; Romans 2:7; 6:22-23; I Corinthians 15:53-54; Galatians 6:8; II Timothy 1:10). The wicked do not share in the same gift, but rather pass into non-existence. It would be quite strange for God to will the eternal existence of those who oppose His will and holy character.
There is a solid Biblical basis for believing that the wicked will cease to exist. Scripture speaks of the destiny of the wicked as being one of destruction (Matthew 7:13; 10:28; I Thessalonians 1:9), perishing (John 3:16), and death (Romans 6:23; James 5:20; Revelation 20:14).
Theologically it is argued that the love of God would not allow souls to suffer eternally, and that such suffering is disproportionate to the crimes committed. It would seem to cast a shadow over the justice of God if justice requires eternal punishments for temporal crimes.
The most notable theologians early in church history who held to a similar teaching are Justin Martyr and Theophilus of Antioch. Quite a few evangelicals have also espoused to this view including John Stott, Philip E. Hughes, John Wenham, and Edward Fudge. The largest modern movement holding to this doctrine is Seventh Day Adventisim.
We derive the term purgatory from the Latin pugare, meaning "to make clean, purify." Purgatory is part of the kingdom of God; a temporal abode of those who have died under the graces of the church, but were not perfected in grace during this life. It is a place of punishment intended to purge the soul of the believer from venial sins (less severe, as compared to mortal sins such as adultery and murder). It is supposed "that some die with smaller faults for which there was no true repentance, and also the fact that the temporal penalty due to sin is it times not wholly paid in this life."3 The duration one spends in purgatory depends on the severity and amount of venial sins committed, compared with the amount of satisfaction given to God for those sins in this life. While it is recognized that God forgives us of sin, the Scripture is clear that there are yet consequences to sins which must be met. God forgave Moses and Aaron of their sin but still refused them to enter the promised land (Numbers 20:12). David's sin of adultery and murder were forgiven, yet his child was still killed by the Lord (II Kings 12:13-14). Purgatory, then, is a place of penal and purifying suffering to finish the sanctification of partially sanctified Christians.
One's time spent in purgatory can be lessened by prayers of the living saints, masses said in behalf of the departed dead, or by the purchase of indulgences. Although we may be forgiven of sins, God still demands satisfaction for those sins. If one does not meet that satisfaction in this life, they will meet it in the afterlife in purgatory.
The Biblical basis for such a teaching is hinted at in the Apocryphal book of II Maccabees, where it is said that Judas, the commanding officer of the Israeli army
sent twelve thousand drachmas of silver to Jerusalem for sacrifice to be offered for the sins of the dead, thinking well and religiously concerning the resurrection (For if he had not hoped that they that were slain should rise again, it would have seemed superfluous and vain to pray for the dead). And because he considered that they who had fallen asleep with godliness, had great grace laid up for them. It is therefore a holy and wholesome thought to pray for the dead, that they may be loosed from sins (II Maccabees 12:43-46).
There are two primary passages in the NT used to support this teaching. Matthew recorded Jesus as declaring that the sin of blasphemy against the Spirit would not be forgiven in this age, nor in the age to come (Matthew 12:32). Such a statement would be meaningless if there could not be some other sins forgiven in the age to come, i.e. in the age following death. The second passage is I Corinthians 3:11-15 wherein Paul describes the Christian life in terms of perishable and imperishable building materials used to build on the foundation of Christ. It is said that "every man's work will be made known: for the day will indicate 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 remain which he has built thereon, he shall receive a reward. If any man's work will be burned, he will suffer loss: but he himself will be saved; yet so as by fire" (vs. 13-15). The fire to which Paul refers to is believed to be referring to the fires of purgatory, which although the soul will suffer loss in purgatory, the soul itself shall ultimately be saved.
The idea of a place of purgatory wherein saints are purified before entering the presence of God began as early as the inter-testamental times with the Maccabees. The belief in the church began quite early also. Church Fathers Origen, Ambrose, Jerome, Gregory, Augustine, Cyprian, and Clement of Alexandria are of the most notable contenders of a purgatorical view, although this doctrine did not become dogmatized and fully developed until the Medieval Ages. The doctrine of purgatory is one of the dogmas of the Catholic and Orthodox Church
The Bible, while addressing the issue of the afterlife, does not present any systematic formulation on the topic. Any teaching that is to be derived from the Biblical data must be arranged from scattered or scanty evidence. It might be said that the Biblical portrait of the afterlife is deficient at best, leaving much to be desired on this ever-so relevant issue.
When man was formed by God the material part of man was formed from the earth, and then God breathed into that man the breath of life to make man a living soul, or living being (Genesis 2:7). It is the breath of God that animates the body, not the body itself. If life could not come from the material portion of man alone, but needed the breath of God, we have reason to believe that man is much more than just a material being, and that death is more than the wearing out of the physical body.
Man was created and placed in Eden, a perfect paradise created by God. God warned Adam that the day He ate of the fruit of the Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil he would die (Genesis 2:17). Because of man's disobedience to God's command to not eat of the Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil (Genesis 2:17; 3:6), man was dispelled from the Garden.
The question arises as to the way in which Adam could be said to die the day he ate the forbidden fruit? There are two prevailing explanations to this question. The first and most common focuses on the spiritual aspect of death, viewing death primarily in its Semitic connotation of separation, and secondarily in terms of physical death; hence, Adam became spiritually separated from God the day he sinned, but it would be some time before he died physically.
A second understanding, offered by Anthony Hoekema, sees God's words, "In the day you eat of it you shall surely die" to be a Hebrew idiom meaning, "As surely as you eat of it, you will die" (See I Kings 2:37; Exodus 10:28).4 God's intent was not to say that on the very same day that Adam sinned he would die physically, but that as surely as he would disobey God physical death would come. This interpretation preserves the most basic meaning of muth (the Hebrew word for death) as physical death, while avoiding the obvious fact that Adam did not die the same day he sinned. To support the idea that physical death, and not spiritual death, is the focus in Genesis 2:17, Hoekema notes the surrounding context in which physical death is the focus. The Lord dispelled Adam and Eve from the Garden so that they could not partake of the Tree of Life and live forever (Genesis 3:22-23). If physical death was not the punishment for Adam's sin such an action would not be necessary. It is clear that man must die because of his sin against God. What this teaches us, then, is that death was not part of man's original make-up. God did not intend for man to die, but put man under this curse as a punishment for his sin.
In Exodus 3:6 God declared to Moses that He is the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, all of whom had long since passed away. Jesus used this statement of God to demonstrate to the Saducees (who did not believe in an afterlife) that the fathers were still conscious after death (Matthew 22:23-33). It was reasoned that if God could still say that He was the God of the fathers even after their physical death, some part of them must have survived death.
At the end of King Saul's life, after Samuel passed away, he sought a medium in Endor to bring up Samuel from the dead so that he might speak with him. To the witch's surprise Samuel was summoned to speak with Saul and condemn him for his activities and pronounce judgment upon him (I Samuel 28:13-19). Samuel said to Saul, "Moreover the LORD will also deliver Israel with you into the hand of the Philistines. And tomorrow you and your sons will be with me. The LORD will also deliver the army of Israel into the hand of the Philistines" (v. 19). Because it is said that Saul (who was wicked) would be with Samuel (who was righteous) some presume that the dead are in a state of sleep until the eschatological resurrection and judgment of all men. It is reasoned that Saul could not be with Samuel if Samuel was in a place of conscious blessedness after death. All such speculation becomes void, however, when Samuel's statement is understood to be referring to the grave. Saul would soon be joining Samuel in the death of the body.
Some have argued that the person the witch summoned was not really Samuel at all, but a spirit of some sort. The text, however, does not support such a conclusion. The image of the one brought up looked like Samuel (v. 14), the text calls him Samuel (v. 15-16), and the image prophesied the word of YHWH to Saul which did come to pass (v. 19). If the image truly was not Samuel, the text gives no indication that such is the case, or who else it might be.
Poetry and Wisdom
The poetic and wisdom literature of the OT often speak of sheol, variously translated in the OT as "grave," "hell," et al. Sometimes the word has no other meaning than the state of death, or the abode of the dead (Genesis 37:35; 42:38; 44:29, 31; I Samuel 2:6; II Samuel 22:6; I Kings 2:6, 9; Job 7:9; 17:16; 24:19; Ps 6:5; 30:3; 49:14--2x; 49:15; 88:3; 89:48; 141:7; Proverbs 5:5; 7:27; 9:18; 23:14; 27:20; 30:16; Ecclesiastes 9:10; Song of Solomon 8:6; Isaiah 28:15, 18; 38:10, 18; Ezekiel 31:15, 16, 17; 32:21; 32:27; Hosea 13:14; Habakkuk 2:5). Other times the word might be seen to refer to a literal place of post-death existence (Job 11:8; Psalm 49:14-15; 55:15; Isaiah 14:15), although there is no clear use of sheol to refer to a place of hell similar to the concept of hell found in the NT.
Several psalms seem to indicate that there is no conscious existence after death. David said, "For in death there is no remembrance of you: in the grave who will give you thanks?" (Psalm 6:5; See also 30:9; 88:10-11; 115:17). These need not, however, be understood to mean that there is no intermediate state of man, but rather that the physical dead cannot praise God with the company of living believers once they have passed away.
There are several psalms which speak of the perishing of the wicked.. David said, "As smoke is driven away, so drive them away. As wax melts before the fire, so let the wicked perish at the presence of God" (Psalm 68:2; See also 1:6; 37:20; 112:10). Verses such as these have been used to support the annihilationist's position, but the texts do not justify such an interpretation. Each reference need not refer to anything more than the perishing of the earthly life of the wicked. To press the analogy any farther is to do injustice to the text. That the psalms are referring to earthly life is evident from the context of Psalm 68:2, where David continued to say, "But let the righteous be glad; let them rejoice before God." The wicked would perish from in death on the battlefield, but the righteous would remain to praise God.
There are several statements in Job that are of interest to the idea of the afterlife. Some of Job's statements seem to indicate the materialist's position, i.e. there is no afterlife. For example, Job said, "As the cloud is consumed and vanishes away: so he that goes down to the grave shall come up no more." This same Job, however, goes on to say in another speech, "For I know that my redeemer lives, and that he shall stand at the latter day on the earth: And after my skin is destroyed, yet in my flesh I will see God: Whom I will see for myself, and mine eyes will behold, and not another. How my heart yearns within me" (Job 19:25-27). Such a statement would not make sense if Job did not believe in a future resurrection of his body (See also Job 14:14-15).
David also believed in a physical resurrection of the dead: "As for me, I will behold your face in righteousness: I will be satisfied when I awake beholding your likeness" (Psalm 17:15). This verse would appear to support the soul-sleep position because of David's reference to awaking in the presence of God, although such a reference may only be metaphoric, referring to the moment at which David's spirit enters the presence of God at death.
Asaph confessed a belief in the afterlife saying, "You will guide me with your counsel, and afterward receive me to glory. … My flesh and my heart may fail, but God is the strength of my heart and my portion forever" (Psalm 73:24, 26).
Solomon believed man possessed a spirit that continued on after the death of the body, saying, "Who knows the spirit of man that goes upward, and the spirit of the beast that goes downward to the earth?" (Ecclesiastes 9:4). This spirit goes upward to return to the God who gave it (Ecclesiastes 12:7). Such a description fits well with the conscious-soul view.
YHWH spoke a prophecy of doom against Babylon, saying, "They shall sleep a perpetual sleep, and not awake…" (Jeremiah 51:57). This has been used to support annihilationism, but the context makes it clear that the metaphor is to the utter destruction of the Babylonian kingdom and its inhabitants. There is nothing in the context to demonstrate that the subject at hand is the afterlife, which would need to be demonstrated in order to use this verse to support annihilationism.
Ezekiel's vision of the valley of dry bones which come back to life, although not blatant, does indicate a belief in a future resurrection (Ezekiel 37:1-14). Isaiah made it clear that a future resurrection awaits the people of God when he declared, "Your dead shall live; together with my dead body they shall arise. awake and sing, you who dwell in dust; for your dew is like the dew of herbs, and the earth shall cast out the dead" (Isaiah 26:19 NKJV).
Daniel is clear that there is life beyond the grave: "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). The fact that these are said to sleep, and that they will not awake until this time seems to confirm the teaching of soul-sleep. It should be noted, however, that such an interpretation is not necessary if we understand the reference to be to the dead body sleeping in the grave, and not the souls of man. There is nothing in this verse that would preclude the continued conscious existence of the soul after death which will be rejoined to the sleeping body.
Jesus appears to have held a dualistic view of man based on His statement to His disciples: "Fear not them which kill the body, but are not able to kill the soul: but rather fear him which is able to destroy both soul and body in hell," (Matthew 10:28). Such a statement would not make sense if man was only a materialistic being who ceased to have any conscious existence upon death.
The Synoptics give evidence that man has a soul which maintains a conscious existence apart from the body, between death and the resurrection. Jesus told the thief on the cross, "Today you will be with me in paradise" (Luke 23:43; italics mine). Unless we are to believe that Jesus did not really mean that very self-same day, the only conclusion we can make in regards to this statements is that after the thief died on the cross he would enter Paradise with Jesus. If, when Jesus died, His personal existence in His human spirit did not survive, Jesus could not go anywhere the day He died, but would remain in a state of sleep until His resurrection.
The transfiguration also gives evidence that man has a soul which lives on beyond death (Matthew 17:1-8; Mark 9:2-10). Moses’ body was buried by God, yet the apostles saw Moses. They could not have been seeing His physical body because the resurrection has not yet occurred, so they must have been seeing his spirit. If the human spirit does not survive death Moses could not have been with Jesus. The fact that the apostles were able to identify the man as Moses indicates that he looked like a human person, and would teach us that the human spirit is an incorporeal entity resembling the physical image of the person.
Jesus also told the parable (some believe it to be a real event) of the Rich Man and Lazarus (Luke 16:19-31). Many who hold to an intermediate state believe it to be a real story, whereas those who believe in soul-sleep generally believe it to be a parable. Soul-sleep contenders argue that "since" it is a parable, Jesus' story should not be taken literally, because literally it would teach an intermediate state. Such a conclusion is not valid. All of Jesus' parables are based on real life events, even if they are not speaking of an actual historical event in particular. There are people who sow seeds, draw nets, etc. None of Jesus' parables were fictitious, so neither should this parable be taken as such. It is portraying reality, even if the characters were tailored for the purpose of making a point. According to Jesus, Lazarus was carried away to Abraham's bosom and the rich man was sent to hell, where he remained in conscious torment. Such a portrayal, again, demonstrates Jesus' belief in a conscious existence of the soul after death.
The Synoptics describe hell using two primary Greek words: hades and gehenna. Hades usually translates the OT word sheol. While hades is sometimes used simply to designate the grave in fashion like sheol (Acts 2:27, 31; I Corinthians 15:55), it also is used to describe the torment of the wicked after death (Luke 16:23; Revelation 20:14). Gehenna occurs twelve times, all in the Synoptics except for one occurrence in James 3:6 (Matthew 5:22, 29-30; 10:28; 18:19; 23:15, 33; Mark 9:43, 45, 47; Luke 12:5), and is the Greek form of the Hebrew words ge hinnom, which refers to the valley of Hinnom. This valley was south of Jerusalem, and was associated with sin and God's judgment (II Kings 23:10; II Chronicles 28:3; 33:6; Jeremiah 7:31-33; 19:6-7). This valley became the city garbage dump recognized by smoke, fire, and maggots.5 Jesus referenced this valley to portray the reality of a place of torment for the wicked (Matthew 23:33; 25:41).
Jesus made it clear that hell is a place of eternal punishment, referring to it as "everlasting fire" (Matthew 25:41). Jesus also compared the duration of the eternal bliss of the righteous with the eternal judgment of the wicked (Matthew 25:41). The fact that the nature of both destinies is described by the same Greek word, aionios, testifies to the fact that both destinies are unending.. Jesus also described hell as a place where the "worm does not die," (Mark 9:43-48), quoting Isaiah 66:24. Such teachings are contrary to the annihilationist position.
Upon his stoning Stephen prayed, "Lord Jesus, receive my spirit" (Acts 7:59). Such a statement only makes sense if the spirit is a component of the human existence capable of separating from the body. If man was only body, or if the soul of man sleeps upon death, there could be no soul for Jesus to receive.
Paul testified "that there shall be a resurrection of the dead, both of the just and unjust," (Acts 24:15). Such preaching of a coming resurrection was a common theme of the apostolic preaching (Acts 4:2; 17:18; 23:6; 24:15, 21).
Concerning hell, Paul taught that unbelievers would be punished with everlasting destruction from the presence of the Lord (II Thessalonians 1:9). Although this could be understood as though the everlasting punishment is destruction, thus confirming the annihilationist position, it seems better to understand the destruction as being the eternal separation from the presence of God, not the cessation of being.
Paul also said in Philippians 1:21-23, "For to me to live is Christ, and to die is gain. But if I live in the flesh, this is the fruit of my labor: yet what I shall choose I cannot tell. For I am in a strait between the two, having a desire to depart, and to be with Christ; which is far better." If Paul died he would "depart." Where would he go? He says he would go to be with Christ. Where is Christ? In heaven. Was Paul only speaking of the resurrection at which time He would be with Christ? No, because there will be no departing to be with Christ at the resurrection. The body died on the earth, and will be resurrected from the earth.
In II Corinthians 5:1-9 Paul said:
Now we know that if the earthly tent we live in is destroyed, we have a building from God, an eternal house in heaven, not built by human hands. Meanwhile we groan, longing to be clothed with our heavenly dwelling, because when we are clothed, we will not be found naked. For while we are in this tent, we groan and are burdened, because we do not wish to be unclothed but to be clothed with our heavenly dwelling, so that what is mortal may be swallowed up by life. Now it is God who has made us for this very purpose and has given us the Spirit as a deposit, guaranteeing what is to come. Therefore we are always confident and know that as long as we are at home in the body we are away from the Lord. We live by faith, not by sight. We are confident, I say, and would prefer to be away from the body and at home with the Lord. So we make it our goal to please him, whether we are at home in the body or away from it" (NIV).
When Paul speaks of this earthly tent being destroyed, he is referring to death. Even though we may not have an earthly body, we do have an "eternal tent" in heaven. Paul describes the experience following the dissolving of our earthly tent in death as being naked. We desire to get out of this tent (be unclothed), not because we do not wish to be clothed, but because we want to have our mortality swallowed up in life. While we are still in our body we are absent from the Lord, but being absent from the body is to be present with the Lord. This clearly teaches an intermediate state. For those who believe in soul sleep, there will never be a conscious moment of the believer apart from a bodily existence, because he sleeps after he dies and awakes in the same body he died in at the resurrection. Only a doctrine of an intermediate state could allow for one to be absent from the body (death) and yet present with the Lord, waiting to be clothed again with a body (resurrection).
In I Thessalonians 4:15 Paul taught that the righteous dead were asleep, and would be raised at the coming of the Lord (v. 16). While such terminology lends credence to the doctrine of soul-sleep, we have no exegetical reason to believe that Paul was referring to anything other than the body, using "sleep" as a metaphor or euphemism for death. Regardless of this issue, Paul clearly taught the resurrection of the body in this passage.
Concerning the resurrection of the righteous Paul taught that Jesus would "change our vile body, that it may be fashioned like unto his glorious body" (Philippians 3:20, 21). The resurrection body will be a physical, bodily existence, but will be perfected. Paul explained this phenomenon by comparing the resurrection with familiar concepts. For as the flesh of man and of beasts is the same in substance, but not in quality; as all the stars are made of the same matter, but have different degrees of brightness; as a seed of grain grows into a different appearance, but comes from the same substance, so we shall retain the substance of the body, but it will be changed wherein its condition will become more excellent (I Corinthians 37-44).. The corruptible body will not perish or vanish away, but, divested of corruption, will be clothed with incorruption (I Corinthians 15:42-44, 49-54). The final destiny of the righteous is not a disembodied existence as taught by the doctrine of the immortal-soul, but a perfect bodily existence.
The resurrection of the dead is also implied in I Corinthians 6:14 where Paul said that God will raise us up as He raised up Christ, concluding then, that we should glorify God in our bodies (I Corinthians 6:14, 20). If the Spirit of God dwells in us we can be assured that we are Christ's and will be raised from the dead just as He was raised from the dead (Romans 8:11). With such an assurance we eagerly wait for the redemption of our bodies (Romans 8:23).
Jesus taught the resurrection of the dead, saying, "This is the Father's will which has sent me, that of all which he has given me I should lose nothing, but should raise it up again at the last day" (John 6:39), and again, "Marvel not at this; for the hour is coming in which all that are in the grave shall hear his voice, and shall come forth" (John 5:28, 29). Jesus Himself is the resurrection and life (John 11:25).
In I John 3:2 John declared that when the Lord returns we shall be like Him, because we will see Him as He is. It is at this time that our bodies will be changed like His body, as Paul explained (Philippians 3:21).
Revelation 6:9-11 teaches a conscious existence of the soul after death, picturing martyrs (disembodied individuals) under the altar in heaven that are crying out to God asking Him how long He will wait to avenge them of their enemies. How were they existing apart from a body and before the resurrection if humans are mere bodies? There must exist a soul of man that is received to God immediately upon death. Some will object to this Scripture being used to demonstrate a conscious existence of the soul apart from the body because it appears in Revelation, which is highly symbolic. While it is true that Revelation is highly symbolic, this fact does not necessarily mean that this in itself is symbolic. Even if this is symbolic, symbols are not meaningless, empty concepts, but stand for a true reality, of the which they represent. How could this symbolic picture be portrayed if indeed there is no soul which continues in conscious existence after death?
Revelation 14:10-11 makes it clear that those who follow the antichrist will not be annihilated, but endure everlasting torment: "And the smoke of their torment ascends up for ever and ever: and they have no rest day nor night, who worship the beast and his image, and whosoever receives the mark of his name" (v. 11).
Other New Testament Writings
James explained death as a separation of the spirit from the body (James 2:26). The author of Hebrews similarly spoke of the "spirits of just men made perfect" (Hebrews 12:23) in contradistinction to the rest of the church. Such statements indicate a continuation of the spirit after death.
Other Scriptural evidence that the human spirit survives death in an intermediate state awaiting the resurrection of the body is found in I Peter 3:18-22. Although the identity of these spirits is disputed, many expositors believe they are the spirits of dead men who lived in Noah's day. If so, then there is evidence here that one's spirit survives death in an intermediate, disembodied state.
Death is an experience common to all originating with Adam's sin (I Corinthians 15:21-22). Death is appointed for all (Hebrews 9:27), but was not the intended course for humanity. It was a judgment for sin, and is our enemy (I Corinthians 15:26). It was told Adam that if he ate of the Tree of Knowledge of Good and Evil he would surely die (Genesis 2:17). While it is understood that the immediate death experienced was of a spiritual nature (separation from fellowship with God), the curse of physical death also came upon Adam in time.
It does not appear that man, in his physical body, was created immortal. The Genesis text indicates that man would have lived forever only if he had eaten of the Tree of Life. After Adam sinned God told the angel, "Behold, the man is become as one of us, to know good and evil: and now, lest he put forth his hand, and take also of the tree of life, and eat, and live for ever: Therefore the LORD God sent him forth from the garden of Eden, to till the ground from whence he was taken" (Genesis 3:22-23). The Garden was then protected by an angel so that Adam could not eat of the Tree of Life (v. 24). It appears that Adam would have lived forever had he eaten even once of the Tree of Life. It might be said then that man was made mortal with the potential to become immortal, but God evicted Adam and Eve from the Garden in judgment to ascertain that they would not live forever in their sinful existence.
The Bible says that God "alone has immortality" (I Timothy 6:16). Those who advocate annihilationism argue that this means that only God can exist eternally, and that the only men who will exist eternally will be those to whom God grants eternal life. Those who are not granted eternal life will eventually perish in the Lake of Fire into non-existence. While such an interpretation of death and immortality sounds attractive, the Biblical portrayal of eternal life is not simply the duration of life, but the quality of life in fellowship with God. Paul used "immortality" and "eternal life" in the same breath to convey two different concepts: "To them who by patient continuance in well doing seek for glory and honor and immortality, eternal life" (Romans 2:7). Those who seek for all three things (glory, honor, and immortality) will be given eternal life. Clearly immortality is being distinguished from eternal life.6 As such it must be concluded that the Biblical teaching that the saints will inherit eternal life does not mean that non-saints will cease to exist in the future. The Bible teaches that the wicked will suffer eternally.
Although all Christians will experience death (except those alive at the rapture—I Thessalonians 4:15-17; I Corinthians 15:51-52), it is not a curse which has power over the believer. Jesus Christ was victorious over death, abolishing it in His body (II Timothy 1:10). Death could not hold Jesus Christ, and neither can it hold those who are in Christ. Death will be swallowed up in victory at our resurrection (I Corinthians 15:54-57), and eventually be destroyed altogether (I Corinthians 15:25-26; Revelation 20:14).
Human Composition/Intermediate State
The Biblical view of man is that he is a dualistic being, both immaterial (soul/spirit) and material (body). Jesus declared that man can kill the body, but not the soul (Matthew 10:28). Stephen called on God to receive his spirit at death (Acts 7:59), disembodied souls are pictured in heaven (Revelation 6:9), and Moses' spirit appeared with Jesus on the Mount of Transfiguration (Matthew 17:3; Mark 9:4). James made it clear that death is the separation of the spirit from the body (James 2:26), and Solomon declared that at death the spirit returns to God. It seems clear that there is an immaterial aspect to man's existence which is separable from his physical body.
Such a picture of humanity does not mean that we must divide man into different "parts" as though each is a separate entity in isolation from others. Man is a constitutional unity. It is said that God breathed into man the breath of life and he became a living soul (Genesis 2:7). Man is a composite, psychosomatic being that was intended to be an embodied soul. Millard Erickson terms the nature of humanity a "conditional unity," saying, "The normal state of man is as a materialized unitary being. In Scripture man is so addressed and regarded. … The monistic condition can, however, be broken down, and at death it is, so that the immaterial aspect of man lives on even as the material decomposes. At the resurrection, however, there will be a return to a material or bodily condition."7 He notes that we should not think of death as the separation of two "parts" of our existence as much as we should view the survival of the soul/spirit as the "assumption of a different condition by the self."8
What is the Biblical portrait of the soul's existence after death? While not much is said concerning the intermediate state of the soul/spirit between death and resurrection, there are a few passages which make it clear that the soul of man goes to Paradise with Christ, or to hell. The righteous will go to be with Christ even as Jesus promised the thief on the cross saying, "Today you will be with me in paradise" (Luke 23:43). When Paul was anticipating the death of his body he regarded the situation as beneficial to him because death in the body would mean that he would depart to be with Christ (Philippians 1:23). Such a state of affairs was in contradistinction to abiding in the flesh (v. 24). The most explicit passage teaching the state of affairs after death is II Corinthians 5. Here Paul made it clear that his present earthly body was not his final abode (II Corinthians 5:1). As long as we are in this earthly body we are absent from the Lord (v. 6). The desire to be with Christ transcends our desire for a bodily existence, causing us to desire to be absent from the body and present with the Lord (vs. 4, 8).
The unrighteous also exist consciously after death, but in hell apart from Christ. In Jesus' parable of the Rich Man and Lazarus, the Rich Man found himself immediately in hell upon death, suffering in conscious torment (Luke 16:23-24), though he was dead as was Lazarus (vs. 22, 31). This is the only solid Scriptural testimony to the suffering of the unrighteous in hell upon death and before the resurrection of their body, with the possible exception of Matthew 18:8 and Revelation 20:14. Most all other references to hell for the wicked are eschatological in nature (Matthew 8:12; 22:13; 25:30, 41, 46).
The suffering of the wicked will be eternal in nature. The eternal duration of the punishment for the wicked is compared with the eternal bliss of the righteous (Matthew 25:41). The word for eternal in this verse (aion) is the same Greek word used for "eternal God" (Romans 16:26) and "King Eternal" (I Timothy 1:17). Jesus also spoke of hell as the "fire that shall never be quenched" (Mark 9:43), and as the place where the worm does not die (Mark 9:44, 46, 48). According to Paul the wicked are punished with everlasting punishment (II Thessalonians 1:9). Even though all the wicked will suffer eternally, not all shall suffer to the same degree (Matthew 11:22-24; Luke 10:12, 14), but those suffering most will be those who have rejected the greatest amount of revelation (Mark 12:38-40; Luke 12:47-48; Romans 2:12).
Death is not the final state of man as materialism teaches, and neither is the ultimate end of man that of a disembodied soul. The Biblical focus is on the resurrection from the dead, not on the intermediate state, or the immortality of the soul. Because man is a unified being our eschatological hope is not the mere continued existence of the soul, but the resurrection from the dead.9 In the resurrection our souls will be reunited with our bodies. Although the doctrine of the resurrection was not a focal doctrine in the OT, it became quite central in the NT with the resurrection of Jesus Christ from the grave..
Believers have been redeemed in their inner man, but yet await the redemption of our bodies at the resurrection (Romans 8:23; Ephesians 1:13-14). Those who have been filled with God's Spirit can rest assured that they will be resurrected as was Christ (Romans 8:11; II Corinthians 5:4-6; Ephesians 1:13-14). Paul strongly defended the doctrine of the resurrection against the Greek notion of the immortality of the soul. He argued against the Corinthian church that to deny a resurrection of the body is to deny the very heart of the Christian faith, because Christianity rests on the fact that Christ rose from the dead (I Corinthians 15:13-17). Christ has been raised and we shall follow in His steps at His coming (I Corinthians 15:20, 23-24, 52-54).
The resurrection body will be similar to our current bodies, yet different. Jesus' post-resurrection body is our only Biblical model of what our resurrection will be similar to. Although Jesus still retained His physical body upon His resurrection (Matthew 28:29; Luke 24:37-40; John 20:27, 29), He had abilities not available to normal human beings. For example, on two occasions Jesus appeared to the disciples in the midst of a room without ever having come through a door (John 20:19; Luke 24:36). On another occasion He merely vanished before Cleopas' and another disciple's eyes (Luke 24:18, 31). He seems to have been released from at least some of the laws normal matter is subject to. Even Jesus' appearance was not always recognized (Matthew 24:16; Mark 16:12; John 20:14-15; 21:4, 12). Jesus had a physical, yet changed body.
Jesus' special abilities were not due too a lack of human flesh, but due to a different human flesh. Jesus' flesh had been glorified and was then superseded by, and operated by higher laws so that He could not be bound to the same limitations of humanity as He was before He was glorified.
Paul said Christ would change our bodies to be like His body (Philippians 3:21; See also I Corinthians 15:51-54). The resurrection should not be thought of as a mere resuscitation of the body, but as a resuscitation and changing of the body.10 If the body was only raised from the dead to exist as it had before death we have no reason to believe that the body would not die again. Paul, however, described the resurrection body as being incorruptible (I Corinthians 15:52-53). He also contrasted the resurrection body with the physical body, calling the former a "spiritual body" and the latter the "natural body."11 Such a comparison keys us into the fact that there will be a difference between our present and future bodily existence. Paul made it clear that unchanged flesh and blood cannot inherit the kingdom of God (I Corinthians 15:50).
Paul anticipated that the Corinthians would ask what kind of body the dead will be resurrected with. To answer this question Paul illustrated three analogies: farming (I Corinthians 15:37-38), living organisms (v. 39), and cosmology (vs. 40-41). The seed planted by a farmer grows out to have a different appearance than that which was originally planted, yet is of the same essence. God determines what body different seeds will have (v. 38). Then Paul argued that just as there are different types of flesh (flesh of humans, animals, birds, and fish), which differ in composition, but not essence, so will the resurrection body be. Likewise the earth, sun, moon, and stars all have a glory and splendor about them, but their splendor varies.
These analogies are like the resurrection of the dead. We die a natural human body, but we are raised with an incorruptible body (v. 42). Our bodies die in dishonor (because of sin), but are raised in glory (because of Christ—v. 43). Our bodies die in weakness, but are raised in power (v. 43). Our bodies die as natural bodies, but are raised as spiritual bodies (v. 44). Just as the seed planted becomes something different in appearance after its death (but not different in essence), so will the dead be raised after death with a different appearance (not different in essence), but the same body. Just as all flesh is not the same flesh, so is the resurrection. Our resurrected flesh will be different than our natural flesh in that it will never die again, will be without disease, etc. (Revelation 21:4). Just as the sun, moon, and stars differ in their glory and splendor, so will our body differ in glory and splendor upon the resurrection of the dead. Millard Erickson summed up the teaching of Scripture succinctly when he said, "There is a utilization of the old body, but a transformation of it in the process. Some sort of metamorphosis occurs, so that a new body arises. This new body has some connection or point of identity with the old body, but is differently constituted. Paul speaks of it as a spiritual body (1Cor 15:44), but does not elaborate [on its nature]."12
If the physical world is the truly the only existing reality, to the exclusion of any non-physical realities, it would spell the end of Christianity. Christianity teaches the existence of God, angels, and a human soul which lives on in heaven or hell after the death of the body. Both cannot be true. Because of the implications of this view for Christianity, it must be seriously grappled with.
Materialists tend to idolatrize the scientific method, relying solely on evidence which can be tested empirically. If it cannot be measured, demonstrated, or proven through examination by the five senses, it is not considered true knowledge, but mere belief. We must question if there is common knowledge of things to which the scientific method cannot be applied, which are non-physical in nature, and are indeed true. The fact is that there are many things we know of which are non-physical, and yet we confess their existence and truth, and even base our lives upon them.13 Ideas, concepts, numbers, motives, and feelings are all non-physical things we know exist, even though they cannot be tested empirically. No lawyer has seen, weighed, touched, or smelled a motive, nor has any math teacher ever ran into a number. Feelings have no substance, but can wound us deeper than a physical wound itself. We cannot smell, feel, or test a concept, yet such exist in abundance. Seeing that there are many things which we cannot see or test empirically, yet we know they exist, there is no rational reason to deny the existence of God or a rational soul of man simply because we cannot see them or test them empirically.
Scientists have often scoffed at the idea of a human soul which survives death simply because they have never been able to locate the soul. To deny the existence of a soul on these grounds is absurd. One can only measure something if they have the right tools. It would be impossible to measure a non-physical entity with physical instruments and methods. The method of inquiry and the object of inquiry are incompatible. It would be like trying to buy a car at a grocery store—it simply will not work.
Scientists have made great advancements in understanding how our bodies function, and how our brains work, but no scientist has ever been able to see our thoughts, or access our memories. They can see the physical processes the brain goes through when thinking and remembering, but they cannot see or know the thoughts themselves. This knowledge is a personal knowledge. Scientists can explain the physical processes that occur when one experiences certain feelings, but the feelings themselves are not merely chemical. Chemical processes do not hurt, yet feelings can.14 We are more than a mere factory of cells. Our minds are more than mere brains. To claim that we are only a network of firing synapses is reductionistic at best, and misleading at worst. Common sense leads us to believe that man is more than just physical.
We must also ask if man is merely physical, how is it that man sustains his identity? Virtually every molecule in our body is replaced every seven years. Someone who is forty-nine years of age has had seven completely different bodies during their lifetime. The body a man is in at forty-nine is not the same body he was in at twenty-one. How can one's identity be maintained if their physical body (which is the only aspect of their identity in the materialist view) has been replaced by new pieces seven times?15 Should we conclude that there have been seven different persons in that one existence? Such a conclusion is contrary to common-sense and common experience. How could man retain his identity unless his identity also consisted of something non-physical? It would appear that man's identity goes beyond his physical components. We retain our identity even though our bodies go through radical changes.
The real issue boils down to man's consciousness. How is it that man is conscious of himself, his surroundings, his thoughts, and his feelings? How is it that man has a memory which can recall past events, and an imagination which can think upon future possibilities and situations. Greg Koukl, sensing the tension between the materialist's concept of reality and human self-consciousness, asked, "If consciousness is just a property created by the brain, then when you make a decision who or what does the deciding?"16 If our thoughts and decisions are mere physical processes, not informed by a rational soul, then our decisions and actions are determined by our genetics and surroundings. We are not free, but slaves to physical processes beyond our control. Such a belief takes away all true individual responsibility and freedom, and the very will of man itself.
Reincarnation contradicts the most basic educational psychology: we can only learn from the knowledge of our past mistakes. Reincarnationalists assert that someone is reincarnated in order to learn lessons not learned in past lives, but how can one learn lessons they failed to learn in the past if there is little or no continuity between the memory of the past and the present consciousness?17 Even though many who claim to believe in reincarnation claim to recall past events, the events are relatively few in comparison to all the events and tests they would have endured in their hundreds or thousands of past lives. One can only learn from mistakes they can remember. If we do not remember what we learned in past lives, we are apt to fail the same lessons in the next.
One must also question the way in which the number of living things can increase and decline throughout time, and yet the number of souls being reincarnated remains constant. Souls are not continuously being created, and souls continue to be taken out of the reincarnational cycle as they reach nirvana. With such a situation we would expect for there to be less reincarnations with each succeeding generation, and thus less living organisms, yet the populations of living things continue to grow as a whole, not diminish. Where are these new souls coming from?
Reincarnation teaches that we are imprisoned in bodies over and over again because of past evils we have committed. The question arises as to what started the process. There had to have been a first evil committed causing the process of all past reincarnations, so that the souls could once again be perfected. What was that first-cause? If all souls were originally in a state of paradise, how could they commit evil in the first place? If such a paradise could allow for evil to occur, causing souls to be reincarnated time and time again, what is the purpose of obtaining perfect karma so that one can return once again to that paradise? Who is to say that the soul will not fall again?18
The whole thrust of the Biblical witness opposes any concept of reincarnation, and its twin companion, karma. Hebrews 9:27 declares, "And just as it is appointed for men to die once, but after that the judgment." The Bible does leave any room for multiple lives. Death is the finality of our sojourn on this earth. After that we will be judged as to where we will spend our eternal destiny: heaven or hell.
Karma teaches that one must perfect their works in order to receive salvation from the cycle of reincarnation, but the Bible teaches us that we are saved by grace through faith, not of works (Ephesians 2:8-9). It is not our good works that earns us salvation, but God's mercy and free gift of eternal life through Jesus Christ (John 3:16; 17:3; Titus 3:5; Jude 21). It is Christ who is our righteousness (I Corinthians 1:30). He has become sin in our stead so that we can become righteous in Him (II Corinthians 5:21). We do not become perfect so that we may be saved, but are saved so that we can be perfected at our glorification by Christ.
Reincarnation and the Biblical teaching differ in several respects. Reincarnation teaches that matter is essentially evil, as does Greek dualism. The Bible teaches that we will be resurrected in our physical bodies, on a new earth, and in a new Jerusalem. The Biblical salvation is not an escape from the physical realm, but the perfecting of the same. "Reincarnation posits a future life in a different body (or even a different order of physical life), while resurrection promises that one’s own body will take on a new, incorruptible, glorified form."19
Soul-sleep has become an ever increasingly popular view of the post-death existence of man. Its two major arguments consist of the constitutional make-up of man, and the Biblical data. Each of these arguments will be examined in order.
The anthropology of soul-sleep is monistic, meaning that man is constitutionally one being, not able of being separated into different elements. This would rule out the doctrine of the immortal soul, and the doctrine of an intermediate, conscious, disembodied state. It is this doctrine of monism which must be evaluated.
There are several arguments advanced for a strict psychosomatic, monistic human existence. One such argument observes that there is a "radical interrelatedness between the physical and the psychical."20 That which occurs in the body greatly affects one's mind. Our bodily functions even affect human consciousness. Damage to the brain affects one's memory, consciousness, and conceptual ability. Scientists have even demonstrated that our sensory functions are chemically produced.
While it is obvious that our physical and psychical elements are closely related, and what affects one affects the other, does this observation mean that the two could never exist apart from one another? It has already been demonstrated in the critique of materialism that there is more to being human than physical processes, and more to the mind than the brain itself. Our minds are our self-consciousness, which cannot be viewed or measured by another. Millard Erickson offers an analogy to demonstrate why it is illegitimate to presume that because two elements work together, and have an effect upon one another, that they could never exist apart from one another. A trailer can be hooked up to the back of a truck. The presence of the trailer does affect the performance of the car: it slows it down, prohibits normal acceleration, and does not allow for as sharp of turns as is possible when the truck is not pulling the trailer. Such a connection does not prohibit, however, the truck from ever separating itself from the trailer.21
While it is true that man is a psychosomatic being, connected in mind and body (as the scientific community also confirms), a completely monistic view is incompatible with certain portions of the Scripture (the same source of authority from which the doctrine of soul-sleep is derived). As has already been noted, several passages teach a separation of the soul from the body upon death, with the soul continuing on in a conscious, disembodied existence. Paul spoke of being away from the body and present with the Lord (II Corinthians 5:8), and in another place of departing from his flesh (physical life) so that he might be with Christ which was far better (Philippians 1:21-23). Jesus' statement, "And do not fear those who kill the body but cannot kill the soul; but rather fear him who can destroy both soul and body in hell" (Matthew 10:28), is nearly impossible to interpret without postulating some dualistic form of man's constituency. If man is a monistic being whose soul is nothing more than an appellation referring to the self, how could someone destroy the body but not the soul? The two are the same thing. If man's soul dies when man's body dies, then Jesus' statement would become nonsensical, if not false, because it would not be possible for a man to kill the body without also killing the soul.
James made it clear that at death the spirit leaves the body (James 2:26). The Biblical concept of death is separation. If the immaterial part of man dies with the physical body of man because man is monistic in composition, James's statement would not make sense. It would be impossible to have a body without a spirit, whether both are alive or both are sleeping.
The strongest Scriptural support for the doctrine of soul-sleep is the multiple references to the dead as sleeping. These include Daniel 12:2; Matthew 27:52; John 11:11-14; and Acts 13:36. Daniel 12:2 and I Thessalonians 4:14 do seem to indicate that believers are sleeping until the time of their resurrection, but we must question what is being referred to as asleep? If man is a dualistic being, as the Scripture and experience seem to indicate, it is quite probably that the Biblical authors were merely referring to the death of the body. The story of Lazarus seems to make this clear. Jesus was referring to the death of Lazarus, but used the term "sleep" to describe it (John 11:11-14). We have no exegetical reason to believe that sleep refers to anything else than the death of the physical body. The truth of Daniel and I Thessalonians are upheld when understood in this light. Those who sleep will be resurrected, i.e. their bodies will come back to life and be restored. In no way can it be thought that these texts demand the sleeping of the soul upon death, or prohibit the conscious existence of a part of man after death. At best they merely demonstrate that the body sleeps upon death.
First Thessalonians is cited as proof that the soul of man sleeps with the physical body because Paul described believers as sleeping in Christ, even at the time of the rapture (I Thessalonians 4:14-15). This interpretation completely ignores what Paul said. First, Paul said that those who sleep in Christ, God will bring back with Him from heaven (while descending to the earth), but then it is said that the dead (sleeping) in Christ will be the first to rise in the air to meet the Lord. How can the dead be coming back with Christ from heaven, and at the same time be on the earth to rise up to meet Him? The only way this could be possible is if the their spirit/soul was already with Him in heaven, and was returning with Him to be rejoined with their sleeping body. Those that were sleeping in Jesus were the dead saints who had gone on to be with Christ, but would be the first ones to be rejoined with their body at the rapture.
The term sleep itself does not indicate the cessation of consciousness. It is a metaphor to explain death, similar to the English phrases, "passed away," "expired," or "deceased." As in any metaphor, "sleep" as applied to death is intended to bring to mind some crucial points of comparison between physical sleep and physical death. First, "as the sleeper does not cease to exist while his body sleeps, so the dead person continues to exist."22 Secondly, even when we sleep our brains are still conscious, and continue to function, so it is at death. Part of our person continues to function in consciousness even while physically sleeping. Finally, sleep and the death of the body are both temporary states of man.23
At first glance Ecclesiastes 9:5 does seem to teach that upon death we cease to function and know, but this verse must be understood in light of the theme and context of the entire book. The theme of Ecclesiastes is the way things appear "under the sun," i.e. to man. From man’s earth-bound perspective the dead body does not know anything. It is a mere lifeless body. But let it not be thought that Solomon was denying any afterlife, or intermediate existence of man upon death; rather, he was showing that death is the cessation of opportunities with regard to this life (9:5-6). The people in this life forget the dead eventually. Solomon was making a case for making the most out of this life, because once it is over, it is over (under the sun). When understood that this verse approached death from man's perspective and experience on earth, rather than to teach on the afterlife, there is no reason to postulate the cessation of a conscious existence of man after death and before the resurrection.
The underlying philosophy behind this teaching is the Greek metaphysical dualism which views matter as evil and spirit as good. Is the body a mere prison for the soul? Is matter evil? Simply put we have no data or empirical evidence to believe it is. Studies demonstrating the correlation and unification of the body and mind give evidence against such a view. From a Biblical perspective God created the entire physical realm, including the human body. It can hardly be thought that matter is evil if God created it. It is not matter that hinders the soul of man, but the sinful heart of man itself. We wait for our sinfulness to be eradicated from our hearts, not an escape from the material world.
While this view is compatible with the Biblical teaching that the immaterial existence/personality of man survives death, it stops short by claiming that man's final destiny is a disembodied existence. Man's true identity is found only in the eternal soul. The Bible teaches that man can exist apart from a physical body, but such is not the desired end (II Corinthians 5:1-8). The Christian hope is the resurrection of the body, or a re-unification of the body and spirit in one entity once again. The body is not necessary for any type of human existence, but existence is intended to be a bodily existence. It was for this reason that even our Lord was resurrected from the dead, and continues to live in a glorified, yet bodily existence, and we shall soon follow in His likeness.
Annihilationism argues that eternal punishment is not a just punishment for temporal sins; the punishment outweighs the crimes committed. This argument is an attack against God's justness and character, but is a worthy charge nonetheless. How could God punish sinners with an eternal punishment and still be just? It depends on how one views sinners. If one views sinners as being ignorant of God and His laws, grace, and mercy, such a punishment does seem undeserved. But the Biblical teaching on sinners does not match the picture of misinformed, innocent, or ignorant people who would live for God if only they knew of Him. God has given all men the ability to know Him through the creation and conscience (Romans 1-2). Instead of accepting and serving God through this means of God's universal self-disclosure, men suppress the knowledge of God and follow after their own lusts (Romans 1:18-32). Men who do not serve the one true God do so because they love darkness rather than light (John 3:19), and follow after the lusts of their heart, and the world, rather than God (II Timothy 4:10). They love unrighteousness rather than the truth (II Thessalonians 2:10; II Peter 2:15). God merely respects the freedom of choice of those who do not love Him, and refuse to serve Him. Knowing Him, they still will not bow their knee to Him in this life, and neither will they in the life to come. God does not send someone to hell against their will, but honors their will to be separate from God. God honors their choice to live separate from His fellowship with eternal separation between He and they. The consequences of the temporal sins are not in disproportion to the sins of unbelievers, because all sin surrounds the ultimate sin of unbelief, which is the temporal rejection of God. Eternal punishment is simply the honoring of the temporal desire of the unbeliever, and to allow them to experience the consequences of their decision, i.e. to live separate from the fellowship of God.24
In regards to the term "destruction" found in several texts regarding the punishment of the wicked should be pointed out that such a term is not tantamount to the concept of extinction. Eternal destruction does not mean eternal extinction, but rather separation from the presence of God (II Thessalonians 1:9). Often the Hebrew and Greek words standing behind the English "destruction" refer to utter ruin, but not to utter extinction of existence. Even scientist Werner von Braun noted, "Science has found nothing that can disappear without a trace. Nature does not know extinction. All it knows is transformation!"25 If this applies to the physical world, why not the soul of man?
Annihilationism contradicts several key Biblical passages. Jesus said that the wicked would be cast into everlasting fire (Matthew 25:41). He went on to say in verse forty-six, "And these shall go away into everlasting punishment: but the righteous into life eternal." The contrast between the eternal existence of the wicked is being contrasted to the eternal state of the wicked. Annihilationists claim that the eternal punishment in view for the wicked refers to an age of punishment (as the Greek adjective aionios often refers to), not eternal in nature. "Eternal," then, should not be understood quantitatively, but qualitatively.26 Jesus is not speaking of a duration of time of punishment for the wicked, but rather of the quality of the punishment and the result of the punishment (annihilation), i.e. the punishment has everlasting effects. Such an interpretation ignores the parallelism of Jesus' words. The same Greek word, aionios, is used for the eternal destiny of both the righteous and the wicked. To change the meaning of the adjective in mid-sentence is to do an injustice to the way language works. The only way in which Jesus could use the same word in the same breath to refer to two different concepts would be to give us some indication that He was doing so. Any such indication is absent from the text.
Revelation 14:10-11 also objects to the idea that the wicked shall be annihilated in hell after a period of suffering. Those who follow the beast are said to be tormented with fire and brimstone forever, having no rest day or night. We cannot escape the conclusion that such torment refers to a quantitative amount of time, not a qualitative period of suffering. There is no way to conceive of the words "for ever and ever" and "day and night" to be referring to anything but eternal time.
The primary argument against the doctrine of purgatory is the lack of the Biblical witness in its behalf. The canonicity of the Maccabean books is highly questionable, and is objected to by non-Catholics. To base a doctrine off of a disputed book is not a good basis to start with. Even then, the Maccabean passage does not expunge a purgatorical view, but would only lend itself to such a view.
As for Matthew 12:32, this text does not teach that there exists a place of purgatory as it is explained by Catholic theology. If anything this text teaches that there could be forgiveness of some sins in the afterlife without ever describing how such is done, or upon what basis. It seems that Jesus' reference to the lack of forgiveness in this age and the age to come is to emphasize the fact that the sin will never be forgiven, not to teach that some sins will be forgiven or that a place of purgatory exists.
Finally, an exegesis of I Corinthians 3:11-15 would never lead one to a doctrine of purgatory. At best it might be an allusion to such a place, but it is clear that this passage is not teaching a place of purgatory to perfect or cleanse saved people from their sinfulness. Rather, it is teaching that a person's worthless works (wood, hay, and stubble) will not benefit them in the afterlife, but only the enduring works of worth (gold, silver, precious stones). The reference to fire is just as metaphorical as are the references to gold, silver, precious stones, wood, hay, and stubble. Christians' works do not consist of such elements, and neither does the trying of our works actually consist of fire. Paul's use of fire and the elements was to demonstrate that just as some elements endure testing while others do not, so also only certain works of the believer will have eternal benefit.
The doctrine also contradicts the very meaning of salvation. Salvation is the restored fellowship of the alienated sinner to God. How can one who is in a restored relationship with God have to endure punishment for their sins before coming into the direct presence of God? To claim that one is saved, yet has to endure punishment for their sins before entering heaven is to deny the grounds and purpose of our redemption. Jesus' sacrifice on our behalf was to redeem us from sin and its curse of death (Romans 6:22-23). We have already died to sin (Romans 6), and have been sanctified by the offering of Jesus' body once for all (Hebrews 10:10), being perfected forever by the same (Hebrews 10:14). It is said that God will remember our sins no more (Hebrews 10:15). Such could not be the case if all venial and unrepentant sins had to be purged in the fires of purgatory.
This doctrine presupposes that there are two types of Christians: those who have been perfected and those who have not. Such a distinction is not Biblical. Nowhere do we find in Scripture that some Christians are sub-Christian, while others are perfected Christians. We all continually fall short of God's glory (Romans 3:23). Every person who maintains faith in Jesus Christ is a Christian. A Christian is a Christian. One whose level of sanctification has not reached the level of another believer's does not make them any less of a Christian; it only demonstrates that they have more room to grow.
Ultimately the doctrine of purgatory denies the Biblical doctrine of justification by faith, opting instead for a doctrine of salvation by works. One can only enter directly into the presence of God if they are good enough. Those who are not good enough must be purged of their sinfulness before entering God's holy presence. Essentially the purpose of Christ is to help us perfect ourselves, rather than to allow Christ to perfect us, He Himself being our sanctification. But Christ is our righteousness and sanctification (I Corinthians 1:30). Any righteousness we might possess is not our own. It is the alien righteousness of Christ imputed to us (Romans 4-5; Philippians 3:9). We are saved by God's grace through, not by our perfect obedience to His law (Ephesians 2:8-9). We are saved in Christ, and do not stand justified before God by our own works, but on the basis of Christ's work on our behalf (II Corinthians 5:21).
Relevance to Life and Ministry
Death is an experience common to all. Every rational person to ever exist has (most assuredly) contemplated what will happen to them after death. When ministering to families of the deceased ministers are often asked where their loved ones are, if they can see what is going on in earth, etc. The question of post-death existence is relevant to every living person. To be able to respond to this question is of the utmost importance. The answers given can bring hope or despair to the living. We can minister to the living by demonstrating that death is not the final victor of the believer. Death will be swallowed up in victory (I Corinthians 15:54).
The same can be said of ministering to the dying. They are preparing to end the days in their flesh and are eager to know what awaits them after their last breath of air. The doctrine of the intermediate state allows us to warn the unrighteous of their pending doom, or comfort the righteous with their pending glory.
Often one will hear it said at the funeral of a Christian, "This is not Brother Bob laying here in this casket, but only the shell that Brother Bob lived in. Brother Bob has gone on to be with Christ." Such a statement reflects the Greek conception of the immortality of the soul, wherein the spirit is viewed as that which is real and eternal, and the body is viewed as a mere transitory host for the spirit. While it is true that there is more to Brother Bob than what lies in the casket, and that Brother Bob's spirit has gone on to be with the Lord, it is not true that the dead corpse is not Brother Bob. We are not just our spirit, but are body and spirit. God created us with bodies as part of our identity. We are psychosomatic, dualistic beings. To be human as God intended us to be we must be in an embodied existence. The doctrine of the resurrection teaches us that God will one day resurrect our dead corpse because the body is part of who we are (I Thessalonians 5:23). Our bodies have been purchased by Christ and will one day be redeemed by Him (Romans 8:23; I Corinthians 6:15-20). As such we should not say that the corpse was just a shell that the "real" person lived in. The corpse is part of the real person, and will one day be rejoined to its spirit.
The doctrine of the afterlife also makes us more alert to how we are living our lives in the present. When we realize that this world is not the end of our existence, but how we live today, and the decisions we make will have eternal consequences, it will cause us to be more careful as it pertains to the way in which we conduct our temporal lives. This life is transitory for the next. This world is not our home, but we are pilgrims and sojourners in a foreign land (Hebrews 11:13). The greatest fulfillment of life will not be experienced here on earth, but in heaven with our resurrected Lord. Let us all live our lives to the Lord; for whether we live are die, we are the Lord's (Romans 14:7-9).
Erickson, Millard J. Systematic Theology. Grand Rapids: Baker Book House, 1985.
Hanna, Edward J. "Purgatory," The Catholic Encyclopedia. Available from
Hoekema, Anthony A. The Bible and the Future. Grand Rapids: William B. Eerdman's
Publishing Company, 1979.
"Is 'Soul Sleep' Biblical?" Available from http://www.bible.org/docs/q&a/q&a-249.htm; Internet.
Kareeft, Peter and Ronald Tacelli. A Handbook of Christian Apologetics. Downers Grove: InterVarsity Press, n.d. Quoted in "What Does the Bible Say About Reincarnation?" Available from http://www.bible.org/docs/q&a/q&a-135.htm; Internet.
Koukl, Greg. "All Brain, No Mind." Available from http://www.str.org/free/commentaries/philosophy/nomind.htm; Internet.
______. "Do Immaterial Things Exist?" Available from http://www.str.org/free/commentaries/philosophy/doimmate.htm; Internet.
______. "Whose Deck Is It?" Available from http://www.str.org/free/commentaries/philosophy/whosedec.htm; Internet.
Lewis, Gordon L. and Bruce A. Demarest. Integrative Theology, vol. 3. Grand Rapid: Zondervan, 1996.
Peterson, Robert A. "Undying Worm, Unquenchable Fire," Christianity Today, 23 October 2000, 34.
von Braun, Werner. "Immortality," "This Week Magazine" in The Denver Post. January 24, 1960. Quoted in Gordon L. Lewis and Bruce A. Demarest, Integrative Theology, vol. 3. Grand Rapid: Zondervan, 1996.
1. Peter Kareeft and Ronald Tacelli, A Handbook of Christian Apologetics (Downers Grove: InterVarsity Press, n.d.), n.p., quoted in (no author) "What Does the Bible Say About Reincarnation?;" available from http://www.bible.org/docs/q&a/q&a-135.htm; Internet; accessed 2 December 2000. <back>
2. Plato Phaedrus 248-9. <back>
3. Edward J. Hanna, "Purgatory," The Catholic Encyclopedia; available from http://www.newadvent.org/cathen/12575a.htm; Internet; accessed 13 December 2000. <back>
4. Anthony A. Hoekema, The Bible and the Future (Grand Rapids: William B. Eerdman's Publishing Company, 1979), 81. <back>
5. Gordon L. Lewis and Bruce A. Demarest, Integrative Theology, vol. 3 (Grand Rapid: Zondervan, 1996), 461. <back>
6. The Greek word used in the passage which says God alone has immortality is athanasia, while the word used in Romans 2:7 is aphtharsia. Both of these words are translated as immortality, and have great semantic overlap. Both refer to unending life, but the latter term can refer more specifically to the inability for something to be corrupted resulting in death. Such a usage is clear in I Corinthians 15:53-54 where both words are used side by side. The bare fact that Paul used a different word in Romans 2:7 than in I Timothy 6:16 does not thwart the fact that in Romans 2:7 "immortality" (unending and incorruptible existence) is used in contradistinction to "eternal life." <back>
7. Millard J. Erickson, Systematic Theology (Grand Rapids: Baker Book House, 1985), 537. <back>
8. Ibid., 538. <back>
9. Hoekema, 95. <back>
10. Erickson, 1198. <back>
11. The word translated "physical" is psuchikos, which is derived from psuche, the Greek word for soul. This would literally be translated as "soulish" body, but the context makes it clear that this reference is to the physical body itself, not the soul of man in particular. Often "soul" is used to refer to the whole person, not just the immaterial portion of man (Acts 7:14; Acts 27:37; I Peter 3:20). <back>
12. Ibid., 1198. <back>
13. Greg Koukl, "Do Immaterial Things Exist?"; available from http://www.str.org/free/commentaries/philosophy/doimmate.htm; Internet; accessed December 19, 2000. <back>
14. Greg Koukl, "All Brain, No Mind;" available from http://www.str.org/free/commentaries/philosophy/nomind.htm; Internet; accessed 19 December 2000. <back>
15. Greg Koukl, "Whose Deck Is It?;" available from http://www.str.org/free/commentaries/philosophy/whosedec.htm; Internet; accessed 19 December 2000. <back>
16. Greg Koukl, "All Brain, No Mind;" available from http://www.str.org/free/commentaries/philosophy/nomind.htm; Internet; accessed 19 December 2000. <back>
17. Kareeft and Ticelli. <back>
18. Ibid. <back>
19. Ibid. <back>
20. Erickson, 531. <back>
21. Ibid., 534. <back>
22. "Is 'Soul Sleep' Biblical?;" available from http://www.bible.org/docs/q&a/q&a-249.htm; Internet; accessed 4 December 2000. <back>
23. Ibid. <back>
24. Lewis and Demarest, 488. <back>
25. Werner von Braun, "Immortality," "This Week Magazine" in The Denver Post (January 24, 1960), quoted in Gordon L. Lewis and Bruce A. Demarest, Integrative Theology, vol. 3 (Grand Rapid: Zondervan, 1996), 487. <back>
26. Robert A. Peterson, "Undying Worm, Unquenchable Fire," Christianity Today, 23 October 2000, 34. <back>
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