Foundations: No.81 Autumn 2021

“With Me in Paradise” – Questions About the So-Called “Intermediate State”: Is it Biblical and it is Pastorally Helpful?


Does this experience sound at all familiar? You are in a spacious hospital waiting room, hoping to see the doctor as soon as possible, although the large number of patients does not give you huge cause for optimism. Then, to your surprise and relief, a mere ten minutes after your appointment time your name is called out, and you are ushered along a couple of passageways, expecting to see the doctor right away. But no – you will not be seen just yet! You find yourself in another waiting room, much smaller and more cramped than the first, perhaps nothing more than a single row of seats in a narrow corridor, and there you must wait for another hour before your name is called again.

In this Paper I want to examine what is commonly called the intermediate state, the experience of Christian believers immediately after death. Is it somewhat analogous to the experience I have just described? Is it true that believers, after death, in a disembodied state, find themselves in a “place”, variously termed Sheol or Hades, altogether darker and narrower than this present world, where they will remain for hundreds or even thousands of years before the last day, when the dead are raised? Or might we even imagine that passing from this life to the next is similar to making the transition from physical worship gatherings to their virtual equivalents under interminable Covid lockdowns, in which we seem to lose rather more than we gain?

At the very outset, let me anticipate the conclusion that I will reach and dispel gloomy pessimism. I want to suggest that the terminology “intermediate state” is unfortunate, especially if it conveys the idea of a kind of in-between no-man’s land, a shadowy and indeterminate realm which is neither “heaven” nor “hell”, comparable to the Asphodel Meadows of Greek mythology. Instead, I will conclude that the souls of believers, immediately after death, go to be “forever with the Lord”, with the risen and exalted Christ himself, which Paul declared to be “far better” (Phil 1:23). The great hope of the Christian believer is to be with Christ, forever. Those who die in Christ are unquestionably gainers, not losers!

1. Pastoral Considerations

The question of what happens at death, or more specifically what happens immediately after death, will never cease to be one of great pastoral importance. It is a pressing question at the best of times, and at the moment it certainly does not feel like “the best of times”. At the precise time of writing these words – the morning of 27 January 2021 – we have heard that the official death-toll from Covid-19 in the UK has just reached six figures, 100,162 to be exact; how much larger it will be by the time you read these words is anyone’s guess. However we may interpret data, a great number of people have died from Covid-19 in the UK in the last twelve months.

But when we take away each of those qualifying factors: (1) Covid-19 as the cause of death, (2) the UK as the place of death and (3) the last twelve months as the time of death, that number soars to levels which are beyond human computation – “unnumbered souls are dying, and pass into the night”.[1]

“What exactly will happen to me immediately after I die?” is a very direct and immediate question, and a most pastorally pressing question. Are pastors, indeed all Christians, sufficiently equipped and confident to be able to answer it? Attendees at this conference are, I take it, all professing Christians, and many are pastors. We have to comfort and help the dying, and we also need to minister to the relatives and friends of those who die, both before and after death.

So we have to begin by considering the subject of death in general. I wonder if you can remember when it first dawned on you that everyone has to die? I remember being about six years old and being told by an older relative that if someone was very ill, “they might die”. I didn’t know what the word “die” meant; I thought it sounded something like “dive” and a picture of a swimming-pool came into my childish mind. Then I understood that “die” meant something like “sleep”, but never waking up. I do recall a kind of dread at the thought. It was similar with our own children a generation later. We were talking with them about Elijah, the widow of Zarephath and her son who was extremely ill and who died (1 Kgs 17:17). “Why was he so ill? Couldn’t they make him better? But didn’t they have any Calpol?” I can well remember the distraught reaction of our children when we told them that we all have to die.

For the Christian believer, we must say, death has lost its sting (1 Cor 15:55-56). The gospel of Jesus Christ has delivered “all those who through fear of death were subject to lifelong slavery” (Heb 2:14-15). As John Calvin says (and we will return to him in far greater detail later):

Let us turn to the examples of other saints, and see how they felt on this subject. When Noah dies he does not deplore his wretched lot. Abraham does not lament. Jacob, even during his last breath, rejoices in waiting for the salvation of the Lord. Job sheds no tears. Moses, when informed by the Lord that his last hour is at hand, is not moved. All, as far as we can see, embrace death with a ready mind. The words in which the saints answer the call of the Lord uniformly are, Here I am, Lord!’[2]

But alongside the “ready mind” which saints exhibit as they anticipate their own death, we must place the sorrow and mourning associated especially with the death of loved ones. It was godly men who not only buried Stephen but “made great lamentation over him” (Acts 8:2), though he had “died well”, giving a magnificent testimony. And we should never forget the silent tears of the Lord Jesus himself at the tomb of Lazarus (John 11:35), even though he was about to summon him out of the grave. It was the sight of weeping relatives and friends that moved Jesus to his own weeping. The bitterness of death is not passed, not for those who mourn and grieve, even though believers do not grieve without hope (1 Thess 4:13). It is unrealistic, unbiblical and un-Christian to make light of death by denying that it remains our “enemy” in certain senses. Death remains a tragedy, a reminder of our sin and fallenness. Those hundreds of Covid victims whose numbers are announced every day – they have indeed “sadly died”, the Christian and the non-Christian alike. As Robert Letham notes, “[m]ourning is not a sign of a lack of faith; it is a demonstration of our humanity”. [3]

But what about the one who has died? What happens immediately after death? H. G. Wells, in his altogether bleak vision of the future, The Time Machine, depicts the “Time Traveller” poised to venture into the future: “I suppose a suicide who holds a pistol to his skull feels much the same wonder at what will come next as I felt then.”[4] Macabre though the illustration might be, that “wonder” is entirely understandable. To return to a medical analogy, when you are about to undergo an operation or any significant medical procedure, you are reassured when the doctor, surgeon or anaesthetist tells you, “this is what we are going to do to you over the next couple of hours”. Is it impertinent to wonder what is going to “be done to me” in the months, years, perhaps centuries immediately following my death? Or is it even proper to think in terms of months, years, perhaps centuries? These are among the questions which I will ask.

Martyn Lloyd-Jones crystallises the whole matter by articulating the kinds of questions which should readily come to every human mind:

What is death? What happens after death? What is our whole life leading to? What is the future? What of the future? … We all want to know our own destiny, and personal future.[5]

He continues:

as we look at these matters we are not animated by some mere theoretical or academic interest. Every one of these subjects is intensely practical and it is the business of Christian people to be familiar with the biblical teaching with respect to them.[6]

At the most straightforward level of all, is it enough for a believer to be able to say, “when I die I am going to heaven”? Do we immediately feel the urge to nuance and qualify their words by bringing in the vocabulary of the intermediate state, of Sheol and of Hades, of the immortality of the soul, of the bodily resurrection, of the new heavens and the new earth? This paper is written to enable us to think with clarity in these matters.

II. Mapping our route

The cautionary counsel of Herman Bavinck is extremely apposite as we begin to think about this question:

The history of the doctrine of the intermediate state shows that it is hard for theologians and people in general to stay within the limits of Scripture and not attempt to be wiser than they can be. The scriptural data about the intermediate state are sufficient for our needs in this life but leave unanswered many questions that may arise in the inquisitive mind.[7]

It is inevitable that our minds will be “inquisitive” as we probe these areas, but in relation to this doctrine, more than many others, we must be content to let a veil hang over the answers to many of our questions for as long as we live in this present world. Curiosity has killed cats, and it can also be the undoing of theologians. The danger of an investigation of this kind is that it can encourage indulgent speculation which drifts well away from its scriptural moorings.

But cats are known for their survival rates. The pastoral situations in which we find ourselves – as well as our own very personal and individual reflections on the subject of death – will necessarily prompt a spirit of enquiry which may be edifying rather than distracting or even injurious. So, heeding Bavinck’s advice, I will seek to “stay within the limits of Scripture” as I focus on what I trust are fairly well-defined questions. In particular:

Is the believer conscious after death? Is there any sense in which he/she “sleeps”? Is it right to speak about the immortality of the soul? Does the believer experience the passing of time as we understand it? Can there be any kind of “physical” dimension to their existence? Is the bodiless intermediate state one of incompleteness and imperfection that denies them a level of true joy?

There are possible avenues of inquiry which I will, by and large, choose not to investigate. These include the subject of purgatory and the possibilities that those who have died outside Christ will be offered some kind of second chance. I will avoid these questions largely because I believe that the majority of readers of this paper will already share my convictions: that purgatory is an unbiblical accretion and that Scripture itself makes it abundantly clear that “it is appointed for man to die once, and after that comes judgment” (Heb 9:27).[8]

I will begin with a historical overview, in which the work of Calvin will occupy much of my attention. Following this I will proceed to an examination of certain biblical texts, before moving to a wider consideration of some relevant questions which are suggested. This will then lead up to some concluding thoughts, the sum of which will be that those who die in Christ, immediately after death, will be “forever with the Lord”.

III. Historical Overview

1. The Early and Medieval Period

In the immediate aftermath of the closure of the New Testament canon there was little thought given to any such concept as “the intermediate state”. The Apostolic Fathers, by and large, looked forward to the impending return of Christ and simply accepted that “at death the devout immediately experience the blessedness of heaven and the wicked the punishment of hell”.[9] Gradually, however, as the centuries rolled by and it became more likely that the parousia might not be so imminent, the idea of an intermediate state began to take hold, as Berkhof explains, “by such men as Justin Martyr, Irenaeus, Tertullian, Novatian, Origen, Gregory of Nyssa, Ambrose and Augustine”.[10] This is quite a significant roll-call, all the more impressive because it features mighty theologians of both east and west, though the way in which these Fathers formulated their doctrine was far from uniform. However, there were others “who favored the idea that at death the souls of the righteous immediately entered heaven, namely, Gregory of Nazianze (sic), Eusebius and Gregory the Great”.[11]

If it were a matter of simply weighing the names on either side of the balance, the support for an intermediate state might seem to win. Berkhof adds a note of caution, however, commenting that “[i]n the Alexandrian School the idea of the intermediate state passed into that of a gradual purification of the soul, and this in course of time paved the way for the Roman Catholic doctrine of purgatory”.[12] This is a salutary warning, insofar as too great a preoccupation on the intermediate state, specifically its “intermediate” character, could tend towards erroneous and ultimately heretical views which call into question the complete efficacy of gospel grace during the believer’s life. The history of this doctrine tends to suggest that it is difficult to detach a discussion about the intermediate state from related questions dealing with the purgation of souls who are in that state.

Throughout the Early and Medieval period, the influence of Greek philosophy – Plato and his successors in the east, supremely in Alexandria, in the Early period; Aristotle predominantly in the Latin west in the Middle Ages and coming to full development in Thomas Aquinas – was massive. The entire cosmology of the Church during these centuries can only be appreciated when we grasp the extent to which it was shaped, to a greater or lesser extent (but more often greater) by a commitment to the axioms of Greek philosophy. Tertullian to a great measure, and Augustine more than anyone, sought to break that mould. But it is not until the Reformation, and the work of Calvin in particular, that we find a wholehearted return to the supreme authority of the Bible to determine what might be known about the state of believers after death, let alone the whole host of other vital subjects to which Calvin and the Reformers gave their attention.

2. Calvin’s Psychopannychia[13]

Calvin wrote Psychopannychia in order to combat Anabaptists who were widely perceived to be enemies of the Reformation as well as disorderly radicals. As one of his biographers, Jean Cadier, notes, “Throughout Europe the term Anabaptist was synonymous for a revolutionary, dangerous agitator, a destroyer of the established order and accepted doctrines.”[14] This background explains Calvin’s rather waspishly polemical style, certainly in his Preface, though he becomes more warmly pastoral as he proceeds.

Perhaps the most immediately imposing feature of Calvin’s work is that it was written in Orleans in 1534, in Calvin’s twenty-fifth year, two years before he had set sight on any spire in Geneva, and while under the fire of persecution which surrounded him and others joined to the cause of the Reformation in France. It was Calvin’s first theological treatise and it is no lightweight offering, running to some seventy-five pages in the Baker edition.[15]

But it is not only Calvin’s youth and inexperience in penning this treatise which is impressive. It is, above all else, his theological method, which could be summarised very simply as “Scripture first”. Cadier notes that “Calvin begins by refuting [his opponents’] opinions by means of a thorough biblical study. Thus from the first he uses the biblical method which will always be his method.”[16] Calvin himself states that his aim throughout is to state his case “by clear passages of Scripture”. Various other authorities, says Calvin, must give place to Scripture, including “human wisdom”, “Philosophers”, including Plato and Aristotle; indeed “the whole body of Sages”.[17]

What error does Calvin seek to combat? According to Cadier, it is “the affirmation that the soul either sleeps after death until the day of judgment, or else that it is a vital breath which, as it is unable to persist without a body, dies with the body until the resurrection of the whole man”.[18] In the Preface, Calvin explains that his purpose is to repress “the extravagance of those who, alike ignorantly and tumultuously, maintain that THE SOUL DIES OR SLEEPS”.[19] This is especially important for us to grasp. It is not simply soul-sleep but soul-death against which Calvin is taking aim. This he sets out in very graphic language:

At first, some only vaguely alleged that THE SOUL SLEEPS, without defining what they wished to be understood by “sleep”. Afterwards arose those psychoktonoi, who murder Souls, though without inflicting a wound.[20]

Calvin, therefore, is not combatting the sleep of the soul, if by sleep is meant nothing more than pleasant rest and refreshment. His target is better appreciated as something more akin to death, the cessation of the living, animal functions of the soul, something that might seem closer to annihilation than to “sleep”.[21]

Calvin begins the treatise proper with a careful definition of the terms he is going to employ, above all the true identity of the soul. For Calvin, the “soul” is not a substitute or a synonym for “life”, which has a wider meaning.[22] Importantly, he maintains that the human soul, and not the body, is the image of God in man, because God “is a Spirit, and cannot be represented by any bodily shape”.[23] Therefore, “we hold that nothing can bear the image of God but spirit, since God is a Spirit”.[24] But if the human soul is the image of God in man, then that soul cannot die because God himself cannot die. This understanding of the soul is an essential step in Calvin’s thinking: to deny thought, understanding, reason and imagination to the soul is to contradict its very nature:

For those who admit that the soul lives, and yet deprive it of all sense, feign a soul which has none of the properties of the soul from itself, seeing that its nature, without which it cannot possibly exist, is to move, to feel, to be vigorous, to understand.[25]

That the soul is distinct from the body; that it is not some subsidiary aspect of the functioning of the body, is clear in Calvin’s understanding. Christ, at his death, committed his spirit into the hands of his Father (Luke 23:46; Psa. 31:6), and Stephen followed the same pattern (Acts 7:59).[26] And when John records that Christ yielded up his spirit at death (John 19:30), “[t]hese words cannot refer to the panting or action of the lungs”.[27]

It is important, then, to understand that Calvin is especially concerned that anything resembling the death of the soul is an error which should be combatted with the greatest urgency.

If we accept without reservation that the human soul cannot die, that it continues to live even though the body has died, is it at all permissible to say that the soul “sleeps”? No, certainly not if “sleep” is to be equated with unconsciousness.

Robert Letham describes how soul-sleep, if it existed, might be experienced: “In sleep one is unaware of the passage of time, so after death there will be no experience of any intervening interval, but it will feel as though one is passing straight to the judgment.”[28] This is unacceptable to Calvin because it implies the negation of the essential functioning of the soul.

It is not the soul that “sleeps” in any sense, argues Calvin; and indeed nowhere in Scripture is it ever said that any human soul “sleeps” in death. “Sleep” is predicated of the whole human person, and is used in Scripture as a euphemism for the death of the body, “as equivalent to lying or being stretched out, as sleepers do when stretched on the ground”.[29]

To substantiate his argument, Calvin makes extensive use of Luke 16:19-31, the narrative of the rich man and Lazarus. I use the word “narrative” quite deliberately, because that is how Calvin viewed it. Following Tertullian, Irenaeus, Origen, Cyprian, Jerome, Ambrose and indeed Augustine, Calvin took this passage as “a narrative rather than a parable, inasmuch as the name [of Lazarus] is added”.[30]

In one of the most important and helpful passages in his treatise, Calvin describes in a most comforting and pastoral manner the experience of “rest” which believers enjoy after death. It is noteworthy that Calvin does not disparage the vocabulary of “sleep” – he only wants to guard it against mistaken interpretations:

Feeling desirous, as far as we can, to satisfy all, we will here say something respecting THE REST OF THE SOUL WHEN, IN SURE TRUST IN THE DIVINE PROMISE, IT IS FREED FROM THE BODY. Scripture, by the bosom of Abraham, only means to designate this rest. First, we give the name of “rest” to that which our opponents call “sleep”. We have no aversion, indeed, to the term sleep, were it not corrupted and almost polluted by their falsehoods. Secondly, by “rest” we understand, not sloth, or lethargy, or anything like the drowsiness of ebriety[31] which they attribute to the soul; but tranquility of conscience and security, which always accompanies faith, but is never complete in all its parts till after death.[32]

Calvin is quite content not only to concede but positively to affirm the “rest” of the soul following physical death.

For the time being, we will allow Calvin himself something of a “rest”, but we will return to some of these questions a little later in the paper.

3. Bavinck v Berkhof

In the briefest fashion I will summarise the somewhat differing thought of two Reformed giants, Herman Bavinck (1854-1921) and Louis Berkhof (1873-1957) on the subject of the intermediate state. Less than twenty years separated their births, but several thousand miles of Atlantic Ocean separated them for most of their lives: Berkhof’s family emigrated from the Netherlands to Grand Rapids, Michigan, when young Louis was just nine.[33]

In general, Bavinck is a good deal happier than Berkhof to use vocabulary associated with the intermediate state, especially that of “hades”. “According to the New Testament”, he writes, “all the dead will be in hades, the realm of the dead, until the resurrection”.[34] He continues:

Jesus, too, as long as he was in the state of death, dwelt in hades, even though it could not hold him there (Acts 2:27, 31). He, after all, descended to the “lower parts of the earth” (Eph 4:9). And so all the dead are “under the earth” (Phil 2:10). Not only the wicked but also believers find themselves in hades after death. They are the dead in Christ.[35]

Consider Berkhof, by contrast: “The usual position of Reformed Churches is that the souls of believers immediately after death enter upon the glories of heaven.”[36] And to quote him at greater length:

This view [that the souls of believers immediately after death enter upon the glories of heaven] would seem to find ample justification in Scripture, and it is well to take note of this, since during the last quarter of a century some Reformed theologians have taken the position that believers at death enter an intermediate place, and remain there until the day of resurrection. The Bible teaches, however, that the soul of the believer when separated from the body, enters the presence of Christ.[37]

We notice that Berkhof sounds altogether queasier about “an intermediate place”. Of course, we would very much like to get Bavinck and Berkhof together in one place to discuss this question publicly, but this might prove difficult; not only were they separated by several thousand miles of ocean but, if each of them is right, they are each in entirely different realms at the present time!

Which of them is right, or can they both be right? At this point it is instructive simply to set out what the Reformed Confessions say on the subject of the intermediate state, if indeed they say anything.

4. The Historic Reformed Confessions

Heidelberg Catechism, Question and Answer 57

Q. How does “the resurrection of the body” comfort you?

A. Not only will my soul be taken immediately after this life to Christ its head, but also my very flesh will be raised by the power of Christ, reunited with my soul, and made like Christ’s glorious body.[38]

Second Helvetic Confession, Question 26

THE STATE OF THE SOUL DEPARTED FROM THE BODY. For we believe that the faithful, after bodily death, go directly to Christ, and, therefore, do not need the eulogies and prayers of the living for the dead and their services. Likewise we believe that unbelievers are immediately cast into hell from which no exit is opened for the wicked by any services of the living.[39]

Westminster Confession, Chapter 32, Paragraph I

The bodies of men, after death, return to dust, and see corruption; but their souls (which neither die nor sleep), having an immortal subsistence, immediately return to God who gave them. The souls of the righteous, being then made perfect in holiness, are received into the highest heavens, where they behold the face of God in light and glory, waiting for the full redemption of their bodies: and the souls of the wicked are cast into hell, where they remain in torments and utter darkness, reserved to the judgment of the great day. Besides these two places for souls separated from their bodies, the Scripture acknowledgeth none.[40]

Westminster Larger Catechism, Question and Answer 86

Q. What is the communion in glory with Christ, which the members of the invisible church enjoy immediately after death?

A. The communion in glory with Christ, which the members of the invisible church enjoy immediately after death is, in that their souls are then made perfect in holiness, and received into the highest heavens, where they behold the face of God in light and glory, waiting for the full redemption of their bodies, which even in death continue united to Christ, and rest in their graves as in their beds, till at the last day they be again united to their souls. Whereas the souls of the wicked are at their death cast into hell, where they remain in torments and utter darkness, and their bodies kept in their graves, as in their prisons, till the resurrection and judgment of the great day.[41]

If indeed they say anything, not one of these Reformed Confessions acknowledges any third realm to which the souls of those who have died go, other than glory and damnation; yes, heaven and hell. The Westminster Standards are somewhat fuller in acknowledging that the bodies of believers remain in their graves, but even these graves are “beds”, and their bodies, decomposing and buried though they are, remain “united to Christ”.[42]

The language used of believers: “my soul be taken immediately after this life to Christ its head”; “go directly to Christ”; “received into the highest heavens”; “where they behold the face of God in light and glory”, aligns wholly with Berkhof’s understanding as against Bavinck’s.

IV. Scriptural Overview

Why have I dealt with the historical aspect first before coming to Scripture second? Because we are true heirs of Calvin when we give pride of place to Scripture, but Scripture seldom speaks into a vacuum. We are now in a better position to make greater sense and use of the biblical data. We find, first of all, that there is development of this doctrine – it is true of all doctrines, of course – as we progress from the Old to the New Testament.

1. Old Testament

If I were to select one adjective that may appear to describe Old Testament data on the subject of the life after death, it would be “murky”. At first blush, there may seem to be little substantial difference between the Old Testament’s position and that of the pagan nations which surrounded Israel. Martyn Lloyd-Jones speaks of “the belief that the soul goes on to some vague, ill-defined condition where everything is nebulous and indistinct with no definition”.[43] This is very similar to the Greek conception of the underworld.

But is this a fair statement of the Old Testament’s teaching? First of all, we should appreciate the generally earth-bound context of Old Testament hope. Bavinck notes that:

[t]he eschatological hope of Israel’s pious was almost exclusively directed towards the earthly future of the nation, the realization of the kingdom of God. The question concerning the future of individuals in Sheol remained totally in the background. God, nation, and land were inseparably bound up with each other, and individuals were incorporated in that “covenant” and viewed accordingly.[44]

If “murkiness” has decidedly negative connotations rather than positive ones, then Sheol, the key vocabulary in the Old Testament, has so far more. It is not a “place” that anyone would wish to go. Jacob would go down to Sheol with sorrow (Gen 37:35); the rebels in the wilderness would “go down alive” into Sheol as a punishment (Num 16:30); God’s anger burns “to the depths of Sheol” (Deut 32:22); the one who goes down to Sheol does not return (Job 7:9); no one in Sheol praises God (Psa 6:5); it is seen as somewhere where the wicked go in silence (Psa 31:17). Many more examples could be given.

But what exactly is Sheol? Is it one “place” to which everyone, both righteous and wicked, go without exception? If Jacob feared to go to Sheol, and Korah and his rebels were likewise plunged into Sheol, what other conclusion could we draw?

Berkhof helpfully navigates the biblical data:

When sheol and hades [sic] designate a locality in the literal sense of the word, they either refer to what we usually call hell, or to the grave. Descent into sheol is threatened as a danger and as a punishment for the wicked. Ps. 9:17; 49:14; 55:15; Prov. 15:11; 15:24; Luke 16:23 (hades). The warning and threatening contained in these passages is lost altogether, if sheol is conceived of a neutral place whither all go. From these passages it also follows that it cannot be regarded as a place with two divisions. The idea of such a divided sheol is borrowed from the Gentile conception of the underworld, and finds no support in Scripture. It is only of sheol as the state of death that we can speak as having two divisions, but then we are speaking figuratively. Even the Old Testament testifies to it that they who die in the Lord enter upon a fuller enjoyment of the blessings of salvation, and therefore do not descend into any underworld in the literal sense of the word, Num. 23:5,10; Ps. 16:11; 17:15; 73:24; Prov. 14:32.[45]

There is, maintains Berkhof, no such thing as a “divided sheol”, but Sheol, broadly speaking, denotes either the grave or the realm of punishment for the wicked, that is hell. The same conclusion, in general, can be stated in relation to Hades, effectively the New Testament equivalent for Old Testament Sheol.

But note how Berkhof also says that “[e]ven the Old Testament testifies to it that they who die in the Lord enter upon a fuller enjoyment of the blessings of salvation”. The references to this enjoyment may not be nearly as prominent on the pages of the Old Testament as they are in the New, but that does not mean that they are any less valuable and authoritative, nor that Christian preachers should not declare them with wholehearted and full-throated confidence. I give a few of the most striking examples here without any additional comment.

For I know that my Redeemer lives,
and at the last he will stand upon the earth.
And after my skin has been thus destroyed,
yet in my flesh I shall see God,
whom I shall see for myself,
and my eyes shall behold, and not another. (Job 19:26-27)

Therefore my heart is glad, and my whole being rejoices;
my flesh also dwells secure.
For you will not abandon my soul to Sheol,
or let your holy one see corruption.
You make known to me the path of life;
in your presence there is fullness of joy;
at your right hand are pleasures forevermore. (Ps 16:9-11)

As for me, I shall behold your face in righteousness;
when I awake, I shall be satisfied with your likeness. (Ps 17:15)

But God will ransom my soul from the power of Sheol,
for he will receive me. (Ps 49:16)

Nevertheless, I am continually with you;
you hold my right hand.
You guide me with your counsel,
and afterward you will receive me to glory.
Whom have I in heaven but you?
And there is nothing on earth that I desire besides you.
My flesh and my heart may fail,
but God is the strength of my heart and my portion forever. (Ps 73:23-26)

The reading of these passages should dispel any idea that Old Testament hope, even Old Testament eschatological hope, was merely vague and “murky”.

2. New Testament

Nevertheless, in the New Testament, the doctrine of personal eschatology is taught far more fully than in the Old Testament. Why is this? It is because now, in these last days, God’s saving purpose “has been manifested through the appearing of our Saviour Christ Jesus, who abolished death and brought life and immortality to light through the gospel” (2 Tim 1:10).

The light of the gospel of Christ is like the light of the sun compared to the light of the stars which are drowned out by comparison. And the great announcement of the apostolic gospel is, of course, the resurrection of Jesus Christ from the dead, that bodily resurrection in which all who obey the gospel will share.

In that clearer and brighter light of the gospel, many more features of our eschatological hope come into view, including those which we might categorise as belonging to the “intermediate state” – if indeed such a category is to be admitted. It remains the case, overwhelmingly, that the great burden of the New Testament future hope is bound up with the bodily resurrection from the dead.[46] But that does not prevent us from shining that “greater light” into those texts which speak more specifically about what happens immediately after death to those who die trusting in Jesus. And one factor predominates throughout: those who die in Christ go to be with Christ immediately.

I will look at several verses and make brief comments which underline this theme of the believer going to be with Christ when he/she passes from this life:

And he said to him, “Truly, I say to you, today you will be with me in paradise.” (Luke 23:43).

The dying Jesus told the dying criminal that “Today”, on that very day, the two of them would be in “paradise”.[47] Paradise is the word used by the Septuagint to describe the Garden of Eden (Gen 2:8-15), where God himself walked among the first created people (Gen 3:8). So what is the essence of “paradise”? It is juxtaposed alongside “with me”, which suggests that “paradise” is to be with Christ. As I have written elsewhere:

[E]verything which is symbolized by this picture of paradise is bound up in the presence of Jesus Christ himself. To be in everlasting fellowship with the Saviour, freed from the body of sin and delivered from death is to truly be in paradise. The believer, when he dies, goes to a destination of complete peace and rest, because there he is with his beloved Saviour… If the Lord promises paradise to this man, then surely every dying believer has a right to say, “I am on my way to paradise.”[48]

I am hard pressed between the two. My desire is to depart and be with Christ, for that is far better. (Philippians 1:23)

If for Paul, living meant “Christ” and departing meant something “better” than Christ then what, we imagine, could “better” possibly mean? Who or what is “better” than Christ? The only plausible solution is that Paul means he will be yet closer to Christ, will know more of Christ, than he did during his earthly life. Letham elaborates on this:

It would consist of heightened communion with Christ; he would be in close personal proximity to Christ, taking up residence with him; his union with Christ would be expressed in new ways that would surpass his present condition. Perhaps Paul’s experience when the glorified Christ encountered him on the road to Damascus gave him a foretaste of that heightened communion and so whetted his appetite that he had a strong desire… to depart and be with Christ.[49]

It seems quite clear that a communion and enjoyment of this kind can scarcely be compatible with anything resembling soul-sleep, if by that expression we mean unconsciousness. William Hendriksen, commenting on this verse, has some helpful insights on this subject:

Now it cannot be argued that it is “far better” to be in a state of sleep, with the soul in an unconscious condition. No, that would not be “far better” than the conscious communion of the believer with our Lord in this world. Paul is enjoying his present communion: “For to me to live”, he says, “is Christ”. To go into a state of unconsciousness cannot be better than that. No, Paul says that to die is far better because it means he will be with Christ, and will enjoy His presence face to face. It must mean that, otherwise Paul has no argument.[50]

Yes, we are of good courage, and we would rather be away from the body and at home with the Lord. So whether we are at home or away, we make it our aim to please him (2 Corinthians 5:8-9).

Paul’s preference to be “away from the body and at home with the Lord” is entirely consistent with his “desire is to depart and be with Christ” in Philippians 1:23. One question that should be asked – and I will come back to it later – is whether his present body is itself a hindrance to his enjoyment of Christ. It is clear from 5:4 that Paul is “burdened” while he is in the “tent” of his body, and it is not being “unclothed” that he seeks so much as being “further clothed”. And whilst this seems to be a reference to a future resurrection body rather than a disembodied state, the impetus of this passage is on being “at home with the Lord”. Charles Hodge comments on these verses:

The Christian’s heaven is to be with Christ, for we shall be like him when we see him as he is. Into his presence the believer passes as soon as he is absent from the body, and into his likeness the soul is at death immediately transformed; and when at the resurrection, the body is made like unto his glorious body, the work of redemption is consummated. Awaiting this consummation, it is an inestimable blessing to be assured that believers, as soon as they are absent from the body, are present with THE LORD.[51]

The key element of the transition, then, is not so much that believers go from “body” to “no body”, but that they are with Christ in a dimension which was not possible while they were in the body. It is noteworthy in this connection that Hodge is quite unembarrassed to speak of “seeing” Christ even though this seeing would not be the kind of physical “seeing” we are familiar with in this life, on the assumption that the believer, immediately after death, is in a disembodied state.

Indeed, even now, true “seeing” is not a matter of the physical organ of sight, but of the soul being enlightened.[52] We will consider in a later section how it is that the soul of a departed believer might function in the absence of a physical body.

I know a man in Christ who fourteen years ago was caught up to the third heaven – whether in the body or out of the body I do not know, God knows. And I know that this man was caught up into paradise – whether in the body or out of the body I do not know, God knows – and he heard things that cannot be told, which man may not utter (2 Corinthians 12:2-4).

Granted, this passage does not deal with any “intermediate state” – or does it? At what point in his life did this “man in Christ” make this sublime journey? It is tantalising to speculate that when Paul was stoned in Lystra, was taken for dead and subsequently got up and continued his work (Acts 14:19-20) that he was actually dead for a time. But given that Paul himself did not know whether he was “in the body” or “out of the body”, and especially in view of his own prohibition on what could be related from his experience, Bavinck’s warning that theologians should “not attempt to be wiser than they can be” rings loud and clear.[53]

We are on firmer ground when we identify the “third heaven” of verse 2 with the “paradise” of verse 3. In the cosmology with which Paul was familiar, the “first heaven” was the realm of meteorology, the “second heaven” that of astronomy, and the “third heaven” was the dwelling-place of God and the angels who serve him. That realm is here equated with “paradise”: where God is, there Christ is (Luke 23:43); and there, we can deduce, believers will be after death.

And I heard a voice from heaven saying, “Write this: Blessed are the dead who die in the Lord from now on.” “Blessed indeed”, says the Spirit, “that they may rest from their labours, for their deeds follow them!” (Revelation 14:13)

Is there a degree of risk in taking verses from the Book of Revelation and applying them, perhaps over-literally, to the matter at hand? That might be more the case with a passage like Revelation 6:9-11, which I almost included in this section but eventually cut out. Unlike that passage, this verse does not form part of a vision but is a direct verbal communication from heaven. It speaks of the “blessedness” of those who die in Christ and also their “rest”.

As we have seen in other New Testament verses, this “blessedness” comes from the fact that believers die “in the Lord” and cannot be separated from their Lord by death (Rom 8:38). A doctrine of going to be “with Christ” at death is therefore wholly consistent with this verse. Moreover, and interestingly in the light of Calvin’s theology, the state of believers following their death is one of “rest”, but not “sleep”.

The passages I have considered here suggest a number of questions which will be addressed in the section which now follows.

V. Further Questions

I cover six questions here. The fact that I will habitually place quotation marks around the words “intermediate state” should be understood as conveying my general discomfort with that terminology, a discomfort which I trust is already evident and will become more so as I continue!

1. Did Christ Enter Any “Intermediate State”?

The question appears to be of paramount importance. If our doctrine of soteriology is bound up with union with Christ, then what happened to Christ between his death and his resurrection might seem of some interest if believers are to draw conclusions about their own experience between death and resurrection. Paul affirms this union with Christ in both death and resurrection (Rom 6:5; Phil 3:10). But we need to apply careful caveats here. There are both continuities and discontinuities between Christ’s experience and ours in this regard. There are some obvious discontinuities: Christ had no “body of death” (Rom 7:24) as do those who put their trust in him. Christ died as sin-bearer; none of us ever will. Christ yielded up his soul to death voluntarily in a way that his followers do not. Christ was in the grave for just three days; for the vast majority of believers it will be much longer than this.

Against that, however, Calvin argues that Christ’s experience of death must be seen as the paradigm for the experience of those who follow him, because it is in his human nature, not his divine, that Christ suffers and dies:

[b]elievers in the midst of death acknowledge him as their leader, and while they behold their death sanctified by his death, have no dread of its curse. This Paul intimates when he says, that he was made conformable to his death, and should attain to the resurrection of the dead (Phil 3:10). This conformity, here begun by the cross, He followed out until He should complete it by death.[54]

Referring to Peter’s sermon on the Day of Pentecost, and to Acts 2:27 in particular, Calvin explains that

Christ asks and expects two things of his Father – not to abandon his soul to perdition, nor allow himself to be subjected to corruption. This was fulfilled. For his soul was supported by divine power, and did not fall into perdition, and the body was preserved in the tomb till its Resurrection.[55]

Because the Father answered his Son’s prayer, he is sympathetic to all who are in union with Christ: Christ has drawn the sting from death, as Calvin goes on to describe:

There is no doubt that Christ, when he offered himself to suffer in our stead, had to contend with the power of the devil, with the torments of hell, and the pains of death. All these things were to be done in our nature, that they might lose the right which they had in us. In this contest, therefore, when He was satisfying the rigour and the severity of the Divine justice, when he was engaged with hell, death and the devil, he entreated the Father not to abandon him in such straits, not to give him over to the power of death, asking nothing more of the Father than that our weakness, which he bore in his own body, might be freed from the power of the devil and of death. The faith on which we now lean is, that the penalty of sin committed in our nature, and which was to be paid in the same nature, in order to satisfy the Divine justice, was paid and discharged in the flesh of Christ, which was ours.[56]

The real value of Christ’s own “intermediate state” – here I use the expression in a merely temporal sense to denote the time between his death and resurrection – is that he drew the sting of death, in order to “deliver all those who through fear of death were subject to lifelong slavery” (Heb. 2:15).

2. Can the Human Soul Function Without the Body?

This has been one of the main objections raised by advocates of soul-sleep. The human constitution is composed of body and soul, these two being distinct but not separable. The suggestion that the soul is active while the body is dead and decomposing might seem to be too significant a concession to the Greek idea of the immortality of the soul; it might even head us off in the direction of Gnosticism. Venema summarises the problem:

Because human beings are a psychosomatic unity (not souls “having a body”, but “living souls” or “ensouled bodies”) death cuts them off from the possibility of any meaningful experience or continued conscious existence. It is therefore inconceivable that human beings, their bodies having dissolved, could enjoy an intermediate state of fellowship with the Lord or others apart from their bodies, which are indispensable to all meaningful human experience.[57]

On account of this difficulty, some have raised the suggestion of some kind of “intermediate corporality”. And it may seem at first sight that the Scriptures lend this idea some support. We read of Samuel (1 Sam 28:14), earthly kings (Isa 14:9) and the Gentile dead (Ezek. 31:18; 32:19) in corporeal terms, as well as Moses and Elijah (Matt 17:3; Mark 9:4; Luke 9:30). But Bavinck is quite insistent that

from this mode of speech in Scripture one cannot infer anything about the corporeality of souls after death. Scripture can speak of God and angels, of the souls in Sheol, of joy in heaven and torment in hell only by using human language, with imagery derived from earthly conditions and relations. But alongside this it states clearly and decisively that God is spirit and that the angels are spirits, and by saying this it gives us a standard by which all these anthropomorphic expressions need to be understood. And it does the same with respect to the dead.[58]

He continues:

We know only of spirit and matter. An “immaterial corporeality” is a contradiction that was inauspiciously taken from theosophy into Christian theology and seeks in vain to reconcile the false dualism of spirit and matter, of thesis and antithesis.[59]

It is true, Bavinck concedes, that in terms of human beings in this present life, “all their activities are bound to the body and dependent on it, not just the vegetative and animal functions but also the intellectual ones of thinking and willing”. And yet,

the soul’s dependence on the body does not necessarily exclude its independence… Thinking and knowing are activities of the soul; it is not the ear that hears or the eye that sees but the psychic “I” of a human being that hears and sees through the eye.[60]

If this kind of instrumentality can be predicated of certain human organs, such as the eye, why can it not be predicated of the entire human body? Hendriksen agrees. “A man who is a genius of an organist can have music in his soul without having any organ on which to express it. His musical consciousness is not removed from his soul by taking the organ away from him.”[61]

It must be acknowledged that these types of consideration take us to the very limits of what we can reasonably know and say about the respective functions of the body and the soul. We simply do not live in a realm in which the two can be decoupled from one another. Death, in this present world, is the only true decoupling – and it is to be understood as an unnatural and indeed grievous decoupling. For that reason, the climatic eschatological hope of God’s people consists not in the immortality of the soul, but in the resurrection of the body according to the pattern of Christ, a body which, of course, is joined to an eternal soul.

3. How Should Believers View Their Souls and Their Bodies Before Death?

This question is, in one sense, a corollary of the previous one, and it does not address the “intermediate state” as such; rather it back-projects the question into this present life. To return to Calvin once more; there are times when, to us, he appears to write like an ascetic at best; and a Gnostic at worst:

[b]oth in the body and out of the body we labour to please the Lord… we shall perceive the presence of God when we shall be separated from this body – we will no longer walk by faith but by sight, since the load of clay by which we are pressed down, acts as a kind of wall of partition, keeping us far away from God.[62]

The “load of clay”?! Calvin’s view of the body seems, to our twenty-first century ears, which are accustomed to hearing so much about a “holistic” view of our “psychosomatic unity”, disparaging as well as dualistic. However, it is not the material nature of the body per se that Calvin is considering but rather this body, the present body of sin and corruption, which believers will gladly put off at death. He goes on to clarify:

The body, which decays, weighs down the soul, and confining it within an earthly habitation, greatly limits its perceptions. If the body is the prison of the soul, if the earthly habitation is a kind of fetter, what is the state of the soul when set free from this prison, when loosed from these fetters? Is it not restored to itself, and as it were made complete, so that we may truly say, that all which it gains is so much lost to the body?[63]

It may be that in our days of gyms (remember those?), Pilates, Joe Wicks and Urban Outfitters, that Christians need to ask whether we have begun to esteem the body too highly and the soul too lightly. Paul reminds Timothy, “for while bodily training is of some value, godliness is of value in every way, as it holds promise for the present life and also for the life to come” (1 Tim. 4:8).

The body and the soul are not opposite and equal components of our nature, like two symmetrical parts in an Ikea flatpack.[64] The fundamental difference between the body and the soul needs to be understood. What is that difference? For Calvin, it is that the present “body of death” is subject to decay; the soul, which is immortal, can never decay. Calvin, of course, lived in an era in which bodily decay was far more evident wherever he looked; he buried a wife, a son and possibly a number of daughters as well. A century later, John Owen was bereaved of his wife and eleven children.

It needs to be re-emphasised that Calvin is very far from being any kind of anti-materialist. It is not that the body is inferior to the soul by virtue of being material rather than spiritual. The original material creation was “very good”; God’s judgment on sin plunged it into decay. And the resurrected bodies of believers, along with the entire renewed creation, will all be “very good”, and will never be liable to sin, decay or death.

4. Is There Any Sense At All In Which Believers “Sleep” After Death?

We have noted how frequently the Bible speaks of death as “sleep”. This appears to be, essentially, a euphemism, as Berkhof explains:

[t]his Scriptural representation is simply based on the similarity between a dead body and a body asleep. It is not unlikely that Scripture uses this euphemistic expression, in order to suggest to believers the comforting hope of the resurrection.[65]

But might it be the case that Scripture intends to convey something more profound when it speaks of “sleep”? After all, we are more aware today than ever, in our culture of sleeping tablets, sleep clinics and sleep counselling, that the sleeping person – body and soul! – is far from inactive or merely unconscious. Bill Bryson, in what may be one of the last of his phenomenally popular (as well as readable and interesting) books, makes the observation:

Sleep has been tied to a great many biological processes – consolidating memories, restoring hormonal balance, emptying the brain of accumulated neurotoxins, resetting the immune system… It would seem to be, in short, a kind of nightly tune-up for the body… Sleep is clearly about more than just resting… Whatever sleep gives us, it is more than just a period of recuperative inactivity.[66]

In Bryson’s work, the complete absence of the Creator is, for any Christian, its saddest feature. But it provokes some fascinating questions. Is the “rest” of our souls, after death, any kind of “tune-up” for the resurrection which is to follow? We are all aware of the healing properties of sleep, and how a really sound and deep night of sleep can, without exaggeration, revive both the soul and the body. Why does the Lord give “his beloved” sleep? (Ps 127:2) Might it be, in a measure, because our present (and pleasant!) sleep is intended to be a picture or even – dare we say – a “type” of the true “sleep” that believers will know between death and resurrection?

Hendriksen picks up on some of these ideas:

This comparison of death to sleep is very appropriate; for (1) sleep implies rest from labor; the dead also rest from their labors (Revelation 14:13); (2) sleep implies a cessation of participation in the activities pertaining to the sphere in which one has been busy during the hours of wakefulness; the dead also are no longer active in the world which they have left; and (3) sleep is generally a prelude to awakening; the dead also will be awakened.[67]

Each of Hendriksen’s three points merits our careful thought. But perhaps the most poignant is the final one. Jesus, having told her parents that she was “sleeping”, spoke to Jairus’ daughter and said, “Talitha cumi”, “Little girl, I say to you, arise” (Mark 5:41). It may be compelling to see this as a foretaste of what will take place when all the “sleeping” dead in Christ will hear the voice of the Son of God, and live (John 5:25-29).

Again, there is a measure of speculation in some of these observations, which we do well to watch closely. But we can surely say that if indeed “sleep” is an accurate description of the experience of believers between death and bodily resurrection, it will not be mere unconsciousness. That could scarcely be anticipated by Paul as “far better” (Phil 1:23) than the communion with Christ which he already enjoyed in his earthly life.

5. Do Believers in the “Intermediate State” Experience Any Measure of Dissatisfaction?

Enough may have already been said to provide a fairly clear and short answer to this question. But lingering concerns may still arise. Are believers, when all is said and done, confined within that narrow corridor or waiting room, frustrated and champing at the bit to be united with their future resurrection bodies? Letham’s handling of this subject might seem to suggest a semblance of resignation, almost disappointment. Commenting on 2 Corinthians 5:6-9, he says:

Here the verbs lack the visceral power associated with our expectation of the resurrection. “We are always of good courage” (v.6). This is not Paul’s number one hope; it is something to be accepted. The reason for this is that there are pluses and minuses associated with our condition after death.[68]

He continues, perhaps in a somewhat more optimistic vein:

From one perspective we will suffer loss, but yet, in an enfeebled and broken condition, we will be given access to the heightened communion with the glorified Christ, an experience beyond our current calculations.[69]

Letham, more than many scholars, emphasises the negative, privative aspects of an “intermediate state” perhaps seeking to prepare believers for the reality that it will not be a matter of going straight to fully consummated glory. But to think in terms of an existence which we might describe as “better, but not that great”, or “a bit of a let-down”, or something akin from going from full lockdown to Tier 4 restrictions during a Covid outbreak, would be highly mistaken, and entirely contrary to the consistent witness of faithful believers in both Old and New Testament.[70]

To be fair to Letham, the vocabulary of “heightened communion with the glorified Christ, an experience beyond our current calculations”, is entirely in keeping with apostolic witness. At the same time, it is a joyful communion tinged with anticipation of something even better, perhaps like the first stage of a long-awaited holiday: all the packing and hard work is done and there is a sense that the final destination, very best of all, is yet to come – and it will last forever. There is no dissatisfaction or frustration in this phase, though there is still longing. Calvin, once again, strikes the most helpful balance:

Still, something is wanting which they desire to see, namely, the complete and perfect glory of God, to which they always aspire. Though there is no impatience in their desire, their rest is not yet full and perfect.[71]

That desire is only met when Psalm 17:15 is fulfilled: “As for me, I shall behold your face in righteousness; when I awake, I shall be satisfied with your likeness.”

6. What About Those Who Die Outside Christ?

This question is bound to be asked and it needs to be addressed.

It should be quite clear by now that there is no spiritual realm of Sheol/Hades where the souls of both believers and unbelievers go after death. There is no “waiting room” where all are kept together, waiting to be called higher, or sent lower, as it were. Can we speak of Sheol or Hades in any sense? Only if we mean that the bodies of all people – believer and unbeliever – are alike in Sheol/Hades, if by those expressions we mean the grave, or the earth. But just as it is appropriate to speak of the souls of believers being in “the third heaven”, or “Abraham’s bosom”, or “Paradise”, or simply “heaven”, so we must think of the souls of unbelievers being in “hell”, or “Hades”, rightly understood.[72]

W. G. T. Shedd outlines the classic Reformed position which we have already seen in the case of Berkhof, in particular:

The substance of the Reformed view, then, is, that the intermediate state for the saved is Heaven without the body, and the final state for the saved is Heaven with the body; that the intermediate state for the lost is Hell without the body, and the final state for the lost is Hell with the body. In the Reformed, or Calvinistic eschatology, there is no intermediate Hades between Heaven and Hell, which the good and evil inhabit in common. When this earthly existence is ended, the only specific places and states are Heaven and Hell. Paradise is a part of Heaven; Sheol, or Hades, is a part of Hell. A pagan underworld containing both Paradise and Hades, both the happy and the miserable, like the pagan idol, is “nothing in the world”. There is no such place.[73]

This is important because it emphasises that the great, final and permanent separation between the righteous and the wicked is established at death. Shedd cites both Old and New Testament to substantiate his argument:

According to Asaph, when the wicked die they are plunged into ruin. They become a desolation is a moment. They are swept away utterly by terrors (Psalm 73:12-19). When “the rich man” dies, he descends to a place of torments, from which there is no escape (Luke 16:23, 26). And when Judas committed suicide, he went “to his own place”, the place of perdition naturally (Acts 1:25).[74]

Those brief and sombre words of Acts 1:25 – “to his own place” – are ominously powerful. I am sure that many powerful sermons could be preached from this text. Christian preachers must of course speak openly and clearly about the reality of everlasting punishment. Nevertheless, preachers do not “preach hell” any more than the historic creeds of the Christian faith “confess hell”. At one level God’s eternal punishment is “strange” and “alien” to him (Isa 28:21). The church must proclaim Christ crucified and risen, and the promise of eternal life, to a world that is already under just condemnation due to sin. At the same time, we must not hide the fact that, left to ourselves, we are under the just sentence of eternal condemnation.

VI. Space, Time and T. F. Torrance

One final question merits a little more space before I conclude. It amounts to this: Does the believer, after death, experience the passing of time as he/she did during earthly life? If time passes at the same rate as it does on earth, then the “intermediate state” could last for many centuries, indeed millennia. How long has Abel, for example, been waiting for the resurrection? Has that vast stretch of time, for him, whipped by in a matter of days or even seconds; or did he/does he/will he experience a more or less instantaneous transition to a resurrection body? Is it even plausible to speak of time at all when considering the existence of departed believers?

This is a subject which could fill a paper in its own right. 2 Peter 3:8 tells us that “with the Lord one day is as a thousand years, and a thousand years as one day”. The context here is the apparent slowness of God in bringing his promises to a fulfilment; these words are given to assure waiting believers that the Lord will not delay any longer than is necessary according to his counsel. In Revelation 10:6 we read about there being no more delay in the execution of God’s purposes; Abraham Kuyper was among those who held that Revelation 10:6 teaches the suspension of time.[75] More recently, Anthony Thiselton has dealt with this matter and has arrived at the conclusion that the believer “will know nothing of the intermediate state… his or her ‘sleep’ cannot be interrupted”.[76]

But perhaps the fullest and most interesting treatment of this subject comes from Thomas F. Torrance (1913-2007), for twenty-seven years Professor of Christian dogmatics at New College, Edinburgh. Torrance was one of the intellectual giants of the twentieth century, as much at home with the metaphysics of Plato, Aristotle and the Stoics as he was with modern quantum physics and Einstein’s theories of relativity. A student of Karl Barth, and to a large extent imbibing Barth’s doctrine of Scripture, he differed more widely from others generally categorised as neo-orthodox, especially Bultmann, whom he believed was guilty of minimising the importance of the historical, this-worldly aspect of Christ’s life and work on earth, from incarnation to resurrection, reducing it to a merely existential “Easter-faith”.[77] It is fair to say that Torrance is viewed with a measure of suspicion by theologians who hold to Reformed confessionalism; he was viscerally opposed to the idea of limited atonement, although it would be unfair to describe him as a universalist.[78] But there is a profound brilliance about his mind that sometimes – not always! – makes his writing almost intoxicating.

Torrance’s two key works that concern us now are his Space, Time and Incarnation[79] followed by Space, Time and Resurrection.[80] The first work, which is a far stodgier read than the second – Torrance never “tweeted” in his life – deals more specifically with the subject of space, whereas the second work, which I am referencing in this paper, considers time; although Torrance never detaches space from time but perceives them as a unified continuum. He rejects the Aristotelian idea of the universe as a “receptacle” or “container” which exists necessarily, and instead sees space-time, not as a void which God must populate with created entities, but as a created entity in itself. For Torrance,

it is necessary to see that the resurrection means the redemption of space and time, for space and time are not abrogated or transcended. Rather are they healed and restored, just as our being is healed and restored through the resurrection. Of course we cannot separate our being from space and time for space and time are conditions and functions of created existence and the bearers of its order. The healing and restoring of our being carries with it the healing, restoring, reorganizing and transforming of the space and time in which we now live our lives in relation to one another and to God.[81]

Therefore, for Torrance, God’s redemption of all creation includes the redemption of space-time itself. We need to grasp this in order to make sense of statements such as the following:

The kind of time we have in this passing world is the time of an existence that crumbles away into the dust, time that runs backward into nothingness. Hence the kind of historical happening we have in this world is happening that decays and is so far illusory, running away into the darkness and forgetfulness of the past.[82]

This is the nature of time in the present, earthly age, characterised by death and decay, and “illusory” in the sense that its events and achievements crumble into dust and will not stand for ever. But by contrast, what about Christ’s resurrection?

As happening within this kind of time, and as event within this kind of history, the resurrection, by being what it is, resists and overcomes corruption and decay, and is therefore a new kind of historical happening which instead of tumbling down into the grave and oblivion rises out of the death of what is past into continuing being and reality. This is temporal happening that runs not backwards but forwards, and overcomes all illusion and privation of being. This is fully real historical happening so real that it remains real happening and does not slip away from us, but keeps pace with us and outruns us as we tumble down in decay and lapse into death and the dust of past history and even comes to meet us out of the future.[83]

Christ’s resurrection, for Torrance, is the great event by which the entire plane of God’s existence intersects with our own space-time existence in this world which is in bondage to decay. When we embrace Christ by faith, we are caught up into his own existence, his own glorious life which cannot decay or grow old:

That is how we are to think of the risen Christ Jesus. He is not dead but alive, more real than any of us. Hence he does not need to be made real for us, because he does not decay or become fixed in the past. He lives on in the present as real live continuous happening, encountering us here and now in the present and waiting for us in the future.[84]

What are the implications of this view for the intermediate state? Torrance recognises that this is a specific and important area of application:

But what about the individual, and what about the death of the believer? This is where it is impossible for us to think completely together the two times in which we are involved, yet we may discern something of how the two “moments” fall together in our being in Christ. When the believer dies, he goes to be with Christ and is in his immediate presence, participant in him and made like him. This is to each believer the parousia of Christ to him. Yet when this is regarded on the plane of history and of the on-going processes of the fallen world, the death of each believer means that his body is laid to sleep in the earth, waiting until the redemption of the body and the recreation of all things at the final Parousia. Looked at from the perspective of the new creation there is no gap between the death of the believer and the parousia of Christ, but looked at from the perspective of time that decays and crumbles away there is a lapse in time between them. How do we think these together? Only by thinking of them exclusively in Christ, in the one person of Christ in whom human nature and divine nature are hypostatically united, and in whom our human existence and history are taken up into his divine life. We must think Christologically here. But when we relate Christology to the time form of this world what we do see is that the Church is sent out in the mission of the everlasting Gospel into history, under the sway of earthly authorities and powers, and within the structures of space and time.[85]

It is worth reading this paragraph through at least three times. Torrance’s thinking in this area is deeply absorbing and to my mind, highly plausible. He does not hold to soul-sleep, as did the Anabaptists whom Calvin opposed. Indeed, his solution completely avoids any kind of “intermediate state”. It is not that the believer’s soul advances through the remaining time before the resurrection in such a way that it seems to pass instantaneously; it is rather that he/she is translated to an entirely different plane or realm of being, outside the space-time continuum which is characteristic of this present world.

It is true that Torrance’s thesis might not have been reached apart from his imbibing large doses of Aristotle and Einstein, as well as Barth; but the question we need to ask is whether he is faithful to Scripture. Of course, we are under no obligation to accept his views. For some people they are too abstruse, opaque or philosophically conditioned. Letham is unwilling to take them on board:

It seems that the claims of neither Torrance nor Thiselton are entirely in harmony with the classic teaching. As for me, I am in no rush to find out whether this is so; besides, once I do find out, I will be unable to inform you. It is more than sufficient to know that we will be “with Christ”.[86]

Amen to at least two-thirds of that. And a double Amen to the last sentence.

VII. Conclusion

I choose to finish with some stirring, even exhilarating, thoughts from the saintly Thomas Boston (1676-1732). It is noteworthy that in his famous Human Nature in its Fourfold State, and in the course of a fairly lengthy section entitled The Difference between the Righteous and the Wicked in their Death, Boston gives no hint of anything remotely “intermediate” about the believer’s condition immediately after death. The righteous man “is adorned with robes of glory”[87]; in departing from this present world “they enter on their eternal state”[88]; “they shall have a joyful entrance into the other world”.[89] For Boston, as for many in the mainstream Reformed tradition, it is unthinkable to interpose any kind of intermediate “world” which comes between “earth” and “heaven”. He continues:

Death can do them no harm. It cannot even hurt their bodies: for though it separates the soul from the body, it cannot separate the body from the Lord Jesus Christ. Even death is to them but sleep in Jesus (1 Thess. 4:14). They continue members of Christ, though in a grave. Their dust is precious dust, laid up in the grave as in their Lord’s cabinet. They lie in a grave mellowing, as precious fruit laid up to be brought forth to him at the resurrection.[90]

So much for the body. And what about the soul?

When the dying saint’s speech is stopped, his eyes set, and his last breath drawn, the soul gets safe away into the heavenly paradise, leaving the body to return to its earth, but in the joyful hope of a reunion at its glorious resurrection. But how can death hurt the godly? It is a foiled enemy: if it cast them down, it is only that they may rise more glorious. “Our Saviour Jesus Christ hath abolished death” (2 Tim 1:10). The soul and life of it is gone: it is but a walking shade that may fright, but cannot hurt saints: it is only the shadow of death to them, it is not the thing itself; their dying is but as dying, or somewhat like dying. Stephen, the first Christian martyr, though stoned to death, yet only fell asleep (Acts 7:60). Certainly the nature of death is quite changed, with respect to the saints. It is not to them, what it was to Jesus Christ their Head: it is not the venomed ruining thing wrapped up in the sanction of the first covenant.[91]

So, our conclusion must be one of joy and triumph. The believer who belongs to Jesus Christ is going to be with Christ immediately and forever! There is no cramped corridor, no waiting room in which we will wearily see out the remaining centuries. No dying believer, as far as I know, ever gloried in going to the “intermediate state”. No hymn, as far as I know, contains the words “intermediate state” and if any did, they probably would never be sung.[92] But heaven, paradise, glory, immortality – above all the Lord Jesus Christ himself – all this is the stuff of countless hymns:

Forever with the Lord!
Amen! So let it be.
Life from the dead is in that word,
’Tis immortality.

Here in the body pent,
Absent from Him, I roam,
Yet nightly pitch my moving tent
A day’s march nearer home.

My Father’s house on high,
Home of my soul, how near
At times to faith’s foreseeing eye
Thy golden gates appear!

Ah, then my spirit faints
To reach the land I love,
The bright inheritance of saints,
Jerusalem above!

Forever with the Lord!
O Father, ’tis Thy will.
The promise of that faithful word
E’en here to me fulfil.[93]


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