This is called the intermediate state. What happens to you during the in-between time, between your death and going to heaven and then your being reunited with your transformed, resurrected body?
Let’s set the stage.
You pass away. Your body goes into the ground, but where does your spirit (or soul) go? Further, the Scriptures promise a final resurrection, where you will be reunited with your body. This body is the one you had when you died, but now it has been completely transformed and glorified and made new. Your body will be like Jesus’s body is right now in heaven—immortal and imperishable—and everyone recognizes it is Jesus. Likewise, everyone will know it is you.
However, between your passing and the final resurrection, what will happen to you? What is your existence like? Will you exist as a disembodied soul (and / or spirit)?
Believe it or not, the Scriptures is not as full and clear as one would expect or wish for.
Let’s dispense with defective ideas, first.
1.. Does the soul sleep after you die?
No. Some denominations and one cult teach this, and they get it from the metaphor of sleeping. Jesus said the dead Lazarus is only asleep, and Jesus is going there to wake him up (John 11:11). Paul used the same imagery in a discussion of the dead in Christ (1 Thess. 4:15).
In reply, the Scriptures affirm that the soul or spirit (or both) live on (see below). In Lazarus’s case, John clarifies for us: “His disciples replied, ‘Lord, if he sleeps, he will get better.’ Jesus had been speaking of his death, but his disciples thought he meant natural sleep. Then he told them plainly, ‘Lazarus is dead…’” (John 11:12-14). In 1 Thess. 4:15, Paul is using the same metaphor, but it means literal death.
2.. Do we receive a body immediately after we die?
In 2 Cor 5:1-5, Paul writes that when our earthly tent (body) we live in is destroyed, we have an eternal dwelling from God in heaven, not built by human hands.
For 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. 2 Meanwhile we groan, longing to be clothed instead with our heavenly dwelling, 3 because when we are clothed, we will not be found naked. 4 For while we are in this tent, we groan and are burdened, because we do not wish to be unclothed but to be clothed instead with our heavenly dwelling, so that what is mortal may be swallowed up by life. 5 Now the one who has fashioned us for this very purpose is God, who has given us the Spirit as a deposit, guaranteeing what is to come. (2 Cor. 5:1-5)
If this eternal building or dwelling is our new body, then there is no intermediate state, no elapse of time. Call it an interim body, a spirit-body of some sort, which will be further replaced at the final resurrection with yet another body, the one you died in, but transformed and glorified.
So these steps could happen:
B.. Interim spirit-body (of some sort)
C.. Resurrected body (the one you had at death, but now transformed and glorified)
Some theologians do teach an interim body, before the final one. So this idea is not all that deficient. They may be right. Other Scriptures seem to affirm we are a disembodied soul (see below).
Now let’s shift to doctrines held by the vast majority of theologians and scholars who also believe that the Scriptures are authoritative.
3.. What did the early church believe?
These church fathers believed that the soul (and / or spirit) lives on:
Irenaeus (c. 125-c. 202)
Clement of Rome (late first century)
Ignatius (late first century, early second)
Justin Martyr (c. 100-c. 165)
Athenagoras (flourished second century)
Origen (c. 185-c. 254)
Methodius (c. 260-c. 311)
These and other authors were mainly concerned about the resurrection of Jesus (as we all should), but on the occasion that they wrote about the intermediate state they were unanimous that the soul lives on in a disembodied state.
For quotations from their writings, see Geisler, pp. 1222-23.
4.. What do the Scriptures say about the soul living on?
On the Mount of Transfiguration, Moses and Elijah, appeared to Jesus, and their bodies had been dead for centuries. It was possibly their soul without their physical body that appeared (Matt. 17:3). Or they may have been embodied temporarily.
In Luke 23:43, Jesus assured the repentant thief on the cross that today he would be with him in paradise. It is not possible that his body would undergo an instant resurrection. His soul therefore would be with him.
In Luke 23:46, Jesus cried with a loud voice, “Father, into your hands I commit my spirit!” His soul (and / or spirit) lived on, without his body being resurrected at that point in time. But his body was resurrected on early Sunday morning (cf. Luke 24:44; 2 Cor. 12:2, 4).
In Acts 7:56, 59 Stephen the first martyr, cried the same words: “Lord Jesus, receive my spirit. So the spirit (and / or soul) is separate from the body; it survives death, and it will instantly be with the Lord.
In 1 Cor 5:5, Paul has to turn over a sinful man to Satan, so that even if his body is destroyed, his soul (and / or spirit) will be saved on that day of the Lord Jesus—at judgment that enables him to enter into heaven (probably not the final judgment of good and bad works, when we will have our resurrected bodies).
2 Cor 5:8 says that to be absent from the body is to be present with the Lord.
Phil. 1:21 says that to live is Christ, to die is gain. So death gives on a gain, which implies the survival of the soul. It does not sleep, but is conscious.
In Phil. 1:23-24, Paul writes that to depart (i.e. die) is to be with Christ, but he has a mission to carry out in his flesh (i.e. his body). So he is with Christ in a conscious state.
In Heb. 12:22-23, our spirits will be made perfect in heaven, before God the judge.
In Rev. 6:9-10, John the Revelator sees martyrs in heaven, whose bodies lie on the earth. These souls are alive and conscious and enjoying heaven.
In Rev. 20:4 John said he saw the souls that had been beheaded for their witness to Jesus and the Word of God, probably the same ones as in Rev. 6:9-10. They are fully alive and disembodied and conscious in the presence of God.
5.. What is the conclusion so far?
All these verses teach a conscious state of bliss for the saved souls (and a conscious state of punishment for the unredeemed souls, but that was not covered here in this post).
6.. But couldn’t those verses teach an interim body before the final resurrection?
It must be conceded that some of those verses might teach that, as for example Moses and Elijah (Matt. 17:3). But in the case of the Transfiguration, it could be a visionary appearance.
Most of the verses show that when we exist in our disembodied souls (and / or spirits), our souls must have a recognizable form, whatever it is made of and whatever final shape it takes.
7.. Can these disembodied souls come back to haunt us?
No, despite Charles’s Dickens best effort in the Christmas Carol about Scrooge who repents of his stinginess. Souls go immediately to heaven or hell and await final judgment.
8.. What happens to the unredeemed, lost souls after they die, then?
In Luke 16:19-31, the Parable of the Rich Man and Lazarus, Jesus indicates that the unredeemed, stingy rich man is in Hades, in fiery torment, while Lazarus, the poor man, is in Abraham’s bosom or side. Most scholars take this to be a parable that does not describe the afterlife, but is about the rich and the poor, and God’s favor is on the poor, as opposed to the selfish, stingy rich. Similar stories are found in rabbinic teachings.
Rich Man and Lazarus: True Events or Just a Parable?
However, if the parable does describe the fate of the unredeemed, then they do suffer punishment, until the final resurrection, when they are judged at the Great White Throne judgment (Rev. 20:11-14). And then their punishment continues in the lake of fire.
1.. Punishing: it is called eternal, conscious torment. The unredeemed eternally and relentlessly experience conscious torment in the fires of hell. That is, Hitler and your kind and generous but unredeemed grandmother will bob up and down forever in the lake of hell, next to each other. This is the traditional view.
2.. Annihilating or extinguishing: the unredeemed, after they have been sufficiently punished in the fires of hell, will be annihilated or evaporated or caused to no longer exist. This theory is also called terminalism or conditionalism; the eternality of the soul depends only on God or is conditional only on God. The soul is not automatically eternal by virtue of being a soul. People are punished in hell for a time suitable to their good or bad deeds, but then they pass out of existence or their soul is destroyed. The ending may not be a happy one, but this theory eliminates the eternal torment. This view is gaining momentum.
3.. Restoring: the unredeemed, after they have been sufficiently punished in the fires of hell for a duration suitable to their good or bad deeds, are brought into God’s presence and restored and reconciled to him. This view is also gaining momentum.
The issue of the afterlife and hell is more complicated than standard preachers believe. If you believe in eternal conscious torment, then do not call the people who believe in the other two options heretics or unorthodox. There is plenty of Scriptural support for the other two theories.
Please click on the three-part series for more information:
1. Hell and Punishment: Eternal, Conscious Torment
2. Hell and Punishment: Terminal Punishment
3. Hell and Punishment: Universalism
Yes, the second two options really have plenty of Scriptural support. Go to the Sources section below, and click on the link, and then find Steve Gregg’s excellent book. (I was surprised by the Scriptures and their reasonable and logical interpretations).
Therefore, tell people to whom you witness and who object to the first option as awful and unjust for a loving God that there are other biblical options about hell, but we must prepare for the worst-case scenario (the first one).
Better still, tell them that maybe God in his providence has not made the hellish afterlife perfectly clear in its details, as evidenced by the fact that reasonable interpreters can disagree on it, but God did make it clear how to get there—faith in Jesus Christ as their Lord and Savior.
I consider the topic of hell and punishment to be a secondary issue. I like this wise statement:
“in essentials, unity. in nonessentials, liberty, in all things, charity (love).”
Don’t call someone heterodox or a heretic for believing in the latter two theories.
9.. Why do you say soul and / or spirit?
Because many teachers, the majority in the Renewal Movement, believe in three parts of humankind: body, soul and spirit. Call it a tripartite human.
Others teach that humankind is made up of body and soul, a bipartite human. Heart and spirit and inner being and inner man are just synonyms for soul.
In this present post, I did not want to get distracted with this issue, so I split the differences.
Here is my post about that:
Is Humankind Two or Three Parts?
I offer my own opinion at the link.
10.. What is the conclusion, then?
The Scriptures indicate that after the redeemed die, they go immediately into heaven. They are conscious—fully alive in heaven! Their spirits / souls seem to be disembodied. Or they may have an interim body. However, I prefer to take the Scriptures that imply a disembodied spirits / soul. It seems needlessly complicated to believe in an interim body. But how exactly this issue of an interim body (or not) gets sorted out—I leave it in the hands of God. I’ll just be happy that I will, by his grace, get to be in heaven in his presence.
The reason the Scripture is not as full on this doctrine of the interim state is that Scripture is focused on the final victory and vindication of the Messiah, when he comes back and we receive our transformed, resurrected body, just like Jesus had (and has) when he appeared to his disciples in the four Gospels. When he returns, he will make heaven and earth brand new, and we will rule and reign under him on a newly created earth. Heaven as it currently exists before the Second Coming is not the final destination. A new-heaven-and-new-earth “kissing” is the ultimate destination.
So how does this post help me grow in Christ?
As I noted in another post, let’s imagine that you have recently lost a loved one, say, your mother or favorite aunt. But she is not lost to God. So how can she be lost to you, when you know where she is? She feels fulfilled and complete. She is temporarily home now. She doesn’t feel the pain and sorrow of missing you. She thinks of you often, but she wants you Up There, not that she will visit you as a ghost! That’s an insult to God, her and Scripture.
Don’t try to contact her by seances or the occult. You may be hearing from satanic spirits.
Magic, Witchcraft, Sorcery, and Fortunetelling
And don’t try to go Up There prematurely. Find your purpose, and serve it out until God calls you home.
Lean into God during your grief of temporarily losing your mother or aunt (or anyone else). Don’t reject him or get mad at him. He’s got them in his arms, now. He wants you to see them again. You do that best by getting intimate with God through Christ.