The body of the dead believer is no better than any dead person. But it is the condition of the soul that sets apart the believer’s intermediate state – it is to be in the presence of the Savior that once defined his earthly life (Phl 1:21).
A recent death in our Church generated much lament. The brother was so young, and so actively useful in our ministries. What is more, he had no known precondition. This event drove me to refresh the subject of the intermediate state of the righteous. It is compelling to think of an answer to the condition of one who dies in Christ, but before the consummation at the Second Coming of Christ.
Other subjects attach to this issue which are beyond the purview of this article. One may logically ask about the constitution of man – as body and soul (spirit). Or one’s view of heaven, and its counterpart of hell, may be evaluated. But they can only be assumed at this point, subordinate to the main question, What happens to the believer at death before Jesus’ return in triumph?
A view held mostly by fringe cults is that the soul is in a state of unconscious sleep, awaiting the end at Christ’s coming or the Judgment Day. This notion sounds plausible because there are, in both Old Testament and New Testament, references to dying as ‘sleeping.’ It only takes a step to make the conclusion that the reference is to the soul.
Its main error is the rush to conclusion that it can refer to nothing else but the soul. But some key references to ‘sleep’ as descriptive of death should lead to a different deduction. The connection is made in Matthew 27:52: “The tombs also were opened. And many bodies of the saints who had fallen asleep were raised.” Here, those that are described as “fallen asleep” are explicitly “bodies of the saints.” This is a difficult passage that does not now demand detailed exposition. Suffice it to conclude that the figure of sleep for death is clearly that of the body. Another reference is the death of Stephen with this conclusion: “And as they were stoning Stephen, he called out, ‘Lord Jesus, receive my spirit.’ And falling to his knees he cried out with a loud voice, ‘Lord, do not hold this sin against them.’ And when he had said this, he fell asleep.” (Acts 7:59-60 ESV). It only needs pointing out that Stephen expected welcome by Jesus to his spirit as he was dying. And when he died, it was described as, “he fell asleep.” Clearly, the spirit of Stephen was received by Jesus, but his body fell asleep.
The simple reason for this figure of sleep as reference to the body is the counterpart of the resurrection as being raised (as in being awakened) from death (sleep). This is Paul’s corrective to the misconstruction of the Thessalonians who thought that the dead in Christ had missed out on the blessing of the Second Coming. On the contrary, they will even precede those who are alive: “since we believe that Jesus died and rose again, even so, through Jesus, God will bring with him those who have fallen asleep” (1 Thess. 4:14 ESV).
This error was so obvious that the young John Calvin wrote his first book in 1534 to refute soul-sleep. Its title was Psychopannychia (Literally, “All-night-vigil of the soul”). So obvious was the error that Calvin in his youth could easily demolish this notion.
No Death Wish
On the other end of the spectrum is the belief that such is the happy state of the soul of the righteous dead that their death should rather be celebrated than mourned. This attitude is only a small step away to justifying death-wish. But this is also wrong.
Death is not a good thing. The biblical position is to regard death as the consequence of sin (Romans 5:12, 18; 6:23). Adam, had he obeyed the test in the garden, was made to live in a confirmed eternal life. But his sin has brought death – not only to him, but to all his posterity. Therefore, death is considered an enemy – the last to be subdued at the end which is through the resurrection of the body (1Cor 15:26).
The believer’s death is still rightly to be mourned. So the brethren, as they buried Stephen, “made great lamentation” (Acts 8:2). One reason for this is that earthly fellowship with the dead is totally cut-off. We may look forward to a reunion, and we do not mourn as those without hope (1Thes 4:13). But we still rightly mourn.
That Paul asserts, “To die is gain” (Phl 1:21) is regularly misconstrued as a positive view of death for the believer. But Paul does not say that death is gain. But rather because of Christ, the event of dying (an evil in itself) can result for the believer something that can be counted as gain. Note, however, that this is tempered by Paul’s assertion of desire (even preference) to live on and bear fruit of service (1:19, 24).
To look at death as itself desirable is inconsistent with the New Testament teaching about death. Dying is not the blessed hope of the believer. The Second Coming of Christ is (Titus 2;14). There is still a rightful fear of death itself, but redemption should have delivered the believer from the bondage of this fear (Heb 2:14, 15; 2Cor 5:1ff).
Paul does describe the state after-death of the believer as “far better” (Phl 1:23). There is one reason that he consistently thrusts to prominence. At the believer’s death, just like any dead person, his body begins to decay; but his soul/spirit is in the presence of Christ’s company. His summary of the believer is “to depart and be with Christ” (Phl 1:23). In another place, “absent from the body, but present with the Lord” (2Cor 5:8). There can be no more explicit description of the believer’s condition beyond death. The body of the dead believer is no better than any dead person. But it is the condition of the soul that sets apart the believer’s intermediate state – it is to be in the presence of the Savior that once defined his earthly life (Phl 1:21). Other passages corroborate this. To cite just one more, Jesus promised the penitent thief on the cross, “Today, you shall be with me in paradise” (Luke 23:43).
It is right to describe the after-life of the righteous as “far better.” It is so in comparison to this earthly life. But in the redemptive plan of God, it is not yet the best. Thus the souls in the intermediate state still express their longing for the day of consummation (Rev 6:10). The best is yet to come. And that is the reunion of body and soul at the resurrection. This is now the Final State where the saints’ inheritance is not just heaven, but heaven and earth (2Pet 3:13).
Grieving and Solace
The foregoing thoughts will mean the mixture of grieving and solace when a beloved believer dies. There will be pain from the poignant void left behind; but there will be anticipation for the reunion yet to come. For as long as we have not crossed that dividing river of death, such will be the lot of brethren left behind on earth. But make no mistake. It is not the living to say goodnight to the dead in Christ. It is those who have departed to be with Christ who must say goodnight to us who remain in this dark world of sin and death.