Intermediate State

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One Hand Clapping and JollyBlogger are disagreeing on what the intermediate state is like for believers. Donald argues that we are not Cartesian souls encamped within bodies but body-soul unities, and thus when we're unbodied we won't really exist for a time until the resurrection. David argues that we will be fully conscious in the intermediate state, awaiting resurrection. I disagree with both of them. What seems to be the best way to take all the biblical data is to see the intermediate state as a genuine state with some level of consciousness but not with anything like the kind of consciousness we have in our embodies state. It's hard to get any sense of what level or kind of consciousness this will be without making interpretive decisions on which passages one takes as primary, and I'm not going to do that here. My main point is to argue for something in between the views of David and Donald.

I think this is one of those issues where each view has some scripture that seems to contradict it. I'm not going to deal with the details of any passage, though if people want to raise details in the comments, I'll be happy to engage with those then. Donald raised a number of linguistic and cultural issues that I also don't want to deal heavily with. That's also fair game in comments. I wanted to focus this post on two issues.

David quotes Paul in I Corinthians, but it's also worth thinking about what he says in Philippians. The overall sense I get from Paul in general is that upon death he'll immediately be with Christ, and he seems to expect that to be delightful enough to long for it At the same time, he seems to think it will not be fully us how we are meant to be, using the metaphor of nakedness to give a very particular sense. His audience included those who would have immediately connected nakedness with utter shamefulness, and this is shameful enough that it will involve longing for the resurrection body. There's reason to think that whatever form we may have in the intermediate state won't involve many of the things we currently enjoy. I don't see any reason to assume that we'll be fully conscious. That doesn't mean we won't have any consciousness at all. My expectation is that the truth is somewhere between the views of these two stalwart blogging pastors.

The other issue is that many of the scriptures often cited on this issue are so easily figurative that I don't think they can be made to show much. For instance, the Revelation passage that David mentions about souls crying out for justice isn't clearly saying that there are conscious souls crying out. This is imagery, not in propositional form. Its point is at root that there are all those people who haven't been avenged, whose deaths, so to speak, cry out for justice. David doesn't discuss the Ecclesiastes verse that seems to suggest that the dead aren't aware. There are a few similar statements in Job, the Psalms, and a few times in the prophets. Not all of these can be dismissed as a partial perspective, a quotation of someone who is just saying something false, or figurative language, though some of them might be.

Psalm 6:5, attributed to David, says "For in death there is no remembrance of you; in Sheol who will give you praise?" Psalm 88:10-12 says "Do you work wonders for the dead? Do the departed rise up to praise you? Is your steadfast love declared in the grave, or your faithfulness in Abaddon? Are your wonders known in the darkness, or your righteousness in the land of forgetfulness?" Heman seems to be saying the same thing as David, calling for God's deliverance on the grounds that he won't be able to praise him once he's dead.

The metaphor for sleep is common in the New Testament for death of believers, and Jesus uses it of Lazarus. It's not clear that death is like sleep in including unconsciousness, since it may just be the element of its being something that will end with a new state of wakefulness, but the most obvious way to take it is that consciousness in the intermediate state isn't like consciousness in the embodied state. It's important to remember also that sleep doesn't always involve no state of consciousness. Dreaming, for example, is a state of consciousness, and it's something we associate very closely with sleep.

The Lazarus passage that David also brings to bear against Donald's view is a parable. It's consistent with its parabolic nature that judgment doesn't come until Christ comes, as scripture tells us, so of course it's consistent with its parabolic nature that no one actually suffers in this way until Christ comes. Since it's a parable, its main point is that judgment is sure and will lead to suffering for those who don't believe. The easiest way to avoid contradiction is to take it as not referring to what the intermediate state will be but parabolically projecting the regret post-judgment on those who have died and treating it as if they could wish to tell people to avoid that. I can't see an easier way to fit it with the passages in which judgment is later. Psalm 146:4 seems to say that thoughts end with death. See also Psalm 115:17; Ecclesiastes 3:19-21; 9:5, 10; Isaiah 38:18.

In the end I think there are biblical grounds to be suspicious of the view that the intermediate state is no state at all and therefore involves no consciousness. At the same time, I see no reason to assume that those reasons require full consciousness and cognitive and emotional states anything like what we experience when embodied. I really don't think we can press the biblical statements on this to tell us much in the way that people with our categories would want to know about, and there's some difficulty in establishing clearly what's going on in the various passages brought to bear on this question.

I'm not trying to come up with a good synthesis at the moment, just bringing together the range of scriptures to show that there are reasons against both Donald's complete nonexistence view and David's full consciousness view. My best suggestion is that the intermediate state is in some way conscious but in a very limited way, enough to justify the statements that death brings an end to thoughts and makes our deaths little different from those of animals, while also allowing for some kind of being better for being in Christ's presence and some kind of shameful nakedness of being unclothed. A good resource on the different ways to interpret these verses is here.

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What happens to the soul after death? That question has sparked a lively discussion among two blogging theologians (Donald Sensing, David Wayne) and a philosopher (Jeremy Pierce). Each has made intriguing contributions and presented plausible explanati... Read More

Leaving Time from Prosblogion on April 1, 2005 8:52 AM

Evangelical Outpost has joined the intermediate state debate (cf. my contribution to that discussion here). The views on the table were cessation of existence and then resurrection, an intermediate state of complete consciousness, and my own tentative ... Read More

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