Life after death – the intermediate state

By Brian Edgar

Marc Chagall - an angel takes Jesus

There are four connected ideas about death and resurrection which are widespread but wrong.

  • The first idea is that when a Christian dies they go into a disembodied form and wait for the time of the final resurrection (there are significant differences in opinion as to actually what happens during this ‘intermediate state’ – sleep? being in the presence of God? in purgatory?)
  • This concept requires the second idea, which is that the person is understood in a dualistic sense, composed of two parts which can be separated (although again, there are differences of opinion as to how this actually works: body and soul? body and spirit?).  This involves the idea that the ‘real person’ is found in the souls/spirit part and that the person in this form can exist quite independently of the body.
  • Thirdly, this all implies that the Christian is immortal and never really dies. Death is simply the death of the body (which is not the real person) and then resurrection is simply the point at which the person who has been living continuously receives a new body.
  • Finally, the whole scenario suggests that time just keeps on going even after one has left this world (because there is a need for an intermediate state for those who die before the consummation of all things). Eternity then, is endless time.

All of these closely inter-related ideas are unnecessary.

  • Time, as we understand and experience it, is a part of this present created order and there is no period of waiting for the resurrection.
  • So the person does not need to be understood as consisting of two parts but, rather as a complete, unified whole.
  • And all who die face a radical death of the whole of life, not merely the body, which emphasizes the joy of the resurrection of the whole of the person (not merely the body).
  • The resurrection, therefore can take its rightful place as the dominant eschatological theme and it becomes the route to immortality, rather than being an adjunct restitution of the body to an otherwise immortal person.

This is the essence of the argument of the article  ‘Biblical Anthropology and the Intermediate State’ in two parts, the first in The Evangelical Quarterly, ed. I.H.Marshall, Vol. 74 No 1 (January 2002) pages 27 – 46 and the second part in  Vol. 74 No 1 (April  2002) pages 109 – 122.

This paper deals with the claim that the intermediate state represents the only viable historic position of the church and also with the biblical evidence and philosophical motivations which lie behind it. I want to suggest that anthropological monism is to be preferred over dualism and that the adoption of the idea of the intermediate state was an unnecessary theological move. In so doing I shall argue that historically, the intermediate state has not played the central role often attributed to it and that the doctrine arose, not as a requirement of consistency with biblical data nor as a derivative of Christian theology but out of an attempt to synthesise two fundamentally different anthropologies. This will be done by reference to the interpretations of the intermediate state in the early Fathers of the church, in the medieval period, epitomised in Thomas Aquinas, in John Calvin’s Reformation theology and in conservative post-reformation theology especially as reflected in John Cooper. I will argue that it is biblically and philosophically advantageous to work with a fundamentally monist anthropology and an eschatology which involves ‘immediate resurrection’. That is, at the point of death the believer should be viewed from a non-temporal perspective and understood as entering ‘immediately’ into eternal life as a complete and whole person, with every dimension of their being resurrected and transformed. As such, the believer never exists as a divided entity or a bodiless soul.

The full text can be obtained here: BIblical Anthropology and the Intermediate State
The first part of the article is immediately below:

Biblical Anthropology and the Intermediate State’

Traditionally biblical anthropology has been controlled by eschatology.[1] That is, the requirements of eschatology in general and of the intermediate state in particular have lead directly to an anthropologically dualist view of the person. The intermediate state refers to a temporary state of disembodied human existence which occurs after death and prior to the final resurrection of the body and it obviously requires a dualist anthropology in which it is possible to separate body from soul while retaining the life of the person involved. However, in recent years it has become obvious that Christian views on ethical matters as diverse and important as cloning, genetic engineering, mind-brain relationships, euthanasia, embryo experimentation and psychology are just as much linked to theological and biblical anthropology generally as is eschatology. In these moral contexts there are many Christians who are finding anthropological monism more helpful than dualism both in interpreting recent scientific developments and in establishing ethical guidelines for future action.[2] Anthroplogical monism involves a fundamentally holistic view of the person in which there are various aspects or dimensions of life, such as body, soul and spirit,  which are not separable into independently existing entities. Human life is constituted in the unity of these dimensions and therefore, for example, the idea of the person as a disembodied soul is not tenable. This tendency towards monism is reinforced by the fact that biblical theology is, arguably, generally in favour of a monist interpretation of biblical attitudes towards the person.[3] Nonetheless, dualist forms of theoanthropological ontology[4] continue to be strongly defended and they support, and are supported in return, by the concept of the intermediate state.  The authors of the Westminster Confession (1646) were comfortable enough with this as the traditional doctrine to incorporate it in the Confession and, in so doing, they enshrined in protestant orthodoxy a dualist anthropology as well as the intermediate state.

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 in to hell… At the last day, such as are found alive shall not die, but be changed: and all the dead shall be raised up, with the selfsame bodies, and none other (although with different qualities), which shall be united again to their souls for ever.[5]

The present paper deals with the claim that the intermediate state represents the only viable historic position of the church and also with the biblical evidence and philosophical motivations which lie behind it. I want to suggest that anthropological monism is to be preferred over dualism and that the adoption of the idea of the intermediate state was an unnecessary theological move. In so doing I shall argue that historically, the intermediate state has not played the central role often attributed to it and that the doctrine arose, not as a requirement of consistency with biblical data nor as a derivative of Christian theology but out of an attempt to synthesise two fundamentally different anthropologies. This will be done by reference to the interpretations of the intermediate state in the early Fathers of the church, in the medieval period, epitomised in Thomas Aquinas, in John Calvin’s Reformation theology and in conservative post-reformation theology especially as reflected in John Cooper. I will argue that it is biblically and philosophically advantageous to work with a fundamentally monist anthropology and an eschatology which involves ‘immediate resurrection’. That is, at the point of death the believer should be viewed from a non-temporal perspective and understood as entering ‘immediately’ into eternal life as a complete and whole person, with every dimension of their being resurrected and transformed. As such, the believer never exists as a divided entity or a bodiless soul.

An Evaluation of Biblical Evidence for the Intermediate State

Biblical evidence for the intermediate state falls into two categories. Firstly, there is general evidence for a dualist anthropology which argues that a person is best interpreted as an entity which normally exists as the union of two parts (body and soul) which can, in principle, be separated without permanently destroying the person. This is countered by interpretations of such passages which argue that a dualist interpretation of them is either unnecessary or impossible and also by other evidence which points to the person as an indivisible unity (albeit with different – though ultimately inseparable – dimensions of life). It is not possible to cover the whole range of biblical material here, but it is possible to demonstrate that two of the most common defences of anthropological duality, the distinction between sōma and psychē found in the gospels and elsewhere and the inner-outer polarity  esō anthrōpos and exō anthrōpos found in Paul, should not be taken as ontologically dualist.  Secondly, there is the alleged biblical evidence of an intermediate state in which the person exists without a body after physical death but prior to the final resurrection. Various passages are discussed and alternate explanations weighed.

The full text can be downloaded via the link above.


[1] This is seen in the very comprehensive defence of anthropological dualism put forward by John Cooper in Body, Soul and Life Everlasting: Biblical Anthropology and the Monism-Dualism Debate (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1989) and in other writings such as J. Osei-Bonsu, ‘The Intermediate State in the New Testament’, Scottish Journal of Theology, Vol.44 (1991) 169-194 and in Ian Smith ‘Does 2 Corinthians 5:1-8 Refer to an Intermediate State?’ Reformed Theological Review (1996) 55:1, 14-23.

[2] This is seen in Warren S. Brown, Nancey Murphy, and H. Newton Maloney (eds), Whatever Happened to the Soul? Scientific and Theological Portraits of Human Nature (Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 1998)  and in debates in journals with a particular interest in the relationship of biblical anthropology and contemporary, scientifically based ethical issues such as Science and Christian Belief: David Booth, ‘Human Nature: Unitary or Fragmented? Biblical Language and Scientific Understanding’ Vol 10, No 2 (1998), 145-162; Joel B. Green, ‘Scripture and the Human Person: Further Reflections’ Vol. 11, No 1 (1999), 51-63; and Brian G. Edgar, ‘Paul and the Person’ Vol. 12, No 2 (2000), 151-164.

[3] For example, see the opinion of Joel B. Green that ‘Christians who today embrace a monistic account of humanity may do so … assured that this position actually places them more centrally within the biblical material than has usually been granted over the past two millennia.’ In  ‘Scripture and the Human Person: Further Reflections’ in Science and Christian Belief, Vol. 11, No 1 (1999) 62..

[4] ‘Theoanthropology’ is a term I have created from ‘theological anthropology’. It has two advantages. (1) Theoanthropology includes that area of study previously referred to as ‘the doctrine of man’ but the non gender-inclusive form of that term has made it unsuitable for use and an alternative term is needed. (2) The substitution of ‘the doctrine of humanity’ or some such expression is far from satisfactory as it does not provide any conveniently usable noun or adjective. ‘Anthropology’ and ‘anthropological’ are possibilities, but these, of course, refer to the study of humanity in the widest sense and without the adjective ‘theological’ being used are generally taken to refer to what is more properly called ‘cultural anthropology’. The conflation of ‘theological anthropology’ into ‘theoanthropology’ means that it is possible (for example) to speak of ‘theoanthropological ontology’ when the only alternative is to use the cumbersome ‘theological anthropological ontology’.  These two advantages seem to justify the use of the term but there is also the benefit that in contemporary theology theological reflection on the person has become an indispensable part of theological prolegomena. ‘Theoanthropology’ has the advantage of pointing to this intimate connection of thought.

[5]The Westminster Confession, XXXII

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