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Definition

The topic of this essay is the theological significance of human mortality and the question of an ongoing, post-mortem existence beyond the grave.

Summary

This essay explores the significance of human death as a consequence of sin and the idea of a temporary, disembodied existence beyond the grave. The relevant teaching of both testaments is examined in order to ascertain what biblical support there is for some kind of temporary “intermediate state” for the dead that will be experienced between their death and resurrection.  

Arguably it’s the last taboo — a topic normally avoided in polite conversation, with the possible exception of a funeral or memorial service. Even then, however, it seems preferable to celebrate the life of the deceased rather than to focus on their death or current whereabouts. And whenever such is alluded to, death is generally viewed as a kind of portal that transfers people into a celestial extension of the here and now. However, such uniformly positive conceptions of death and the afterlife are far removed from the biblical portrayal, where neither death nor personal eschatology is necessarily a consoling matter.

Bildad quite rightly describes death as “the king of terrors” (Job 18:14), a troubling prospect that fills the human heart with dread (Heb 2:15). This is not surprising given the biblical connection between death and human sin (Gen 2:17; Rom 6:23). While our natural apprehension may be partly due to irretrievable personal loss or a fear of the unknown, it is the judicial aspect of death that makes it such a foreboding reality in Scripture: the correlation between sin, death and divine judgment (cf. Heb 9:27–28).

Death as a consequence of sin

Whatever issues this may raise for a scientific worldview, the Bible suggests that for Adam and his offspring death was the result of human sin. While the precise nature of such death has evoked considerable debate, Genesis certainly implies that physical death is involved (cf. Gen 2:17; 3:19). This is further suggested by the recurring refrain in Genesis 5 (“and he died”), and confirmed by Paul’s teaching in the New Testament (Rom 5:12, 14, 17; 1Cor 15:22). Accordingly, death has well been described as the one certainty in life: one out of one dies. However, Scripture does not  portray death as the end of our existence; beyond death, the Bible attests to the reality of some kind of afterlife, whether in a disembodied or re-embodied state.

Human existence beyond the grave

Traditionally the biblical concept of an afterlife has been understood in terms of two major phases: a disembodied “intermediate state” between physical death and bodily resurrection, and a re-embodied or “eternal state” associated with an eschatological resurrection and final judgment. More recently, the concept of an intermediate state has been challenged by those who reject any idea of a human soul (mainly on the grounds that the traditional distinction between body and soul owes more to Greek Platonism than to canonical Christian Scripture). Thus any idea of a non-corporeal post-mortem existence intrinsically related to the concept of an “intermediate state” is often dismissed on the grounds that biblical anthropology is monistic rather than dualistic. Accordingly, the biblical concept of an afterlife is understood as a strictly post-resurrection experience—the latter being sometimes perceived as instantaneous “resurrection” at death, which ushers people outside time itself. Biblical portrayals of the afterlife are thus interpreted exclusively in terms of the final or eternal state. It is debatable, however, whether all the relevant biblical data can be so understood.

Post-mortem experience in the Old Testament

Admittedly, the Old Testament does not say a great deal about the afterlife, but what it does say seems rather significant. Idioms used in association with death, such as being “gathered to one’s people” or “sleeping/resting with one’s ancestors” are particularly so. Contrary to what some suggest, neither of these expressions is simply synonymous with burial in a family or ancestral tomb (e.g., Gen 25:8–10; 49:33 [cf. 50:13]; Num 20:24–29; 27:13; 31:2; Deut 32:50; cf. also 1Kgs 2:10; 2Kgs 16:20; 21:18). It seems much more likely that these two phrases allude to the realm of the dead (cf. Psa 49:19). The most frequent Old Testament term for such is Sheol, often understood as the common destiny for all people (whether wicked or righteous). It is interesting, however, that Sheol is predominantly associated with the ungodly and those who consider themselves to be under divine judgment. While the denizens of Sheol are generally much less active than their ancient Near Eastern counterparts, they are clearly understood to have an ongoing existence of some kind. Such is self-evident from Old Testament prohibitions on necromancy (e.g., Deut 18:11; Isa 8:19): such injunctions are quite unnecessary unless the dead are thought to have some manner of post-mortem existence. Moreover, while plainly illicit, Saul’s foolhardy “séance” with Samuel (1Sam 28) appears to confirm that this is indeed the case: that the spirits of the dead continue to exist, albeit in some somnolent form, after their earthly demise. While allusions to such post-mortem existence may also be discernible in several other OT texts (e.g., Job 26:5; Psa 73:24), there is significantly more explicit discussion in the intertestamental period, where diverse perspectives are immediately apparent.

Post-mortem experience in the New Testament

By the first century two conflicting schools of thought had thus emerged, represented by the Saducees and the Pharisees respectively. Whereas the Saduccees dismissed any idea of disembodied spirits/angels or the resurrection of the dead, the Pharisees — as well as the Jewish populace at large (cf. Matt 14:26; Luke 24:37–39; John 11:24; Acts 12:15) — embraced both these concepts (Acts 23:8–9). Accordingly, Jesus is addressing both aspects of Sadduccean skepticism in Luke 20 when he defends not only the idea of a future resurrection, but also the idea of an intermediate state (the deceased patriarchs somehow remaining “alive to God”). That the human soul can in some sense exist without (or outside) the body is likewise attested in several other New Testament texts (e.g., Matt 10:28; Luke 23:43; cf. 2Cor 12:2–3). However, perhaps the strongest textual support for the idea of an intermediate state is sought in Luke 16 and two Pauline passages in particular (Phil 1:20–24 and 2Cor 5:6–9).

In Luke 16 Jesus offers the most graphic New Testament depiction of ongoing existence beyond death. While the lesson of the parable is not primarily anthropological or eschatological, it is difficult to conclude that Jesus’ audience was not expected to draw relevant inferences from it, especially given the correlation between the scenario depicted and some common first century eschatological beliefs (cf. 1 Enoch 22; 2 Esdras 7). Thus, whilst one should be cautious about pressing all the details in this parable (e.g., the rich man and Lazarus are both depicted in a corporeal manner, having a finger and tongue respectively, and can communicate with one another), Jesus appears to giving at least tacit endorsement to the idea of a post-mortem, but pre-resurrection, state of being. After all, the rich man’s brothers are evidently still alive, thus the scenario is apparently prior to the general resurrection and final judgment of the last day. Furthermore, while not a conclusive argument, Jesus expressly speaks here of the rich man being in Hades (the Greek equivalent of Sheol) as opposed to being in Gehenna or the lake of fire (cf. Rev 20:14). Thus the scenario portrayed in this parable seems to correlate in some measure with the idea of an intermediate state for both the righteous and the unrighteous. However, this is the only biblical text that lends any support to such an interim conscious punishment for the unbeliever (contra some English translations and commentators, 2Pet 2:4, 9 almost certainly speaks of rebellious angels or people being held for judgment rather than currently being under such judgment and thus experiencing conscious torment). As such, it is arguably mistaken to build such a doctrine on the basis of such a debatable passage.

However, while there may be little or no definitive biblical support for the conscious intermediate state of the wicked, there is much clearer evidence with respect to the righteous. Speaking in relation to remaining alive or dying (Phil 1:20–24 and 2Cor 5:6–9), Paul sharply distinguishes between being “in the body” or “in the flesh” and being “away from the body” or “with Christ.” The latter experience seems to be envisaged as non-corporeal (“unclothed”), rather than being in the eschatological “heavenly dwelling” or “spiritual body” Paul anticipates elsewhere (cf 1Cor 15:44). In keeping with this, Paul elsewhere uses the metaphor of “sleeping” to depict the righteous dead (1Cor 11:30; 15:6, 18, 20, 51; 1Thess 4:13–15; 5:10; cf. John 11:11; Acts 7:60; 13:36). This is not simply a euphemism for death but an ontological claim about the ongoing existence of the dead. This is supported by a number of more oblique references to the intermediate state elsewhere, such as “the spirits of the righteous made perfect” (Heb 12:23) who are nevertheless awaiting resurrection “to a better life” (Heb 11:35), and the heavenly location of “the souls of those who had been slain for the word of God and for the witness they had borne” (Rev 6:9–11; 20:4–5) prior to the final resurrection and judgment (Rev 20:11–15). While the depiction in Revelation is clearly figurative, it is undoubtedly portraying an interim as opposed to the final, post-resurrection, eternal state (cf. Rev 20:4–6, 7–15).

Conclusion

From this brief survey of the relevant biblical evidence it would thus appear that death as God’s judgment on human sin should be understood as an unnatural spiritual state that inevitably ends in the dissolution of the psychosomatic unity intrinsic to living human beings. This, however, is not a permanent dissolution, for the separation of body and soul through physical death is merely temporary. Body and soul will be reunited at the resurrection, issuing in eternal life and immortality for some, or the second death and everlasting shame for others. Thus understood, for some at least, the Bible holds out the prospect of what one author has famously dubbed, “life after ‘life after death’” (N.T. Wright, The Resurrection of the Son of God. Christian Origins and the Question of God, Vol. 3 [Minneapolis: Fortress, 2003], 215).

Further Reading

In relation to Biblical Theology

  • William Hendricksen
  • The Bible on the Life Hereafter
  • Anthony Hoekema
  • Bruce Milne
  • The Message of Heaven and Hell
  • Christopher W. Morgan & Robert A. Peterson (eds)
  • Alec Motyer
  • Life 2: the Sequel. What Happens when you Die?
  • Paul R. Williamson

In relation to contemporary debates

  • John W. Cooper
  • Body, Soul & Life Everlasting: Biblical Anthropology and the Monism-Dualism Debate
  • Anthony C. Thistleton
  • A New Approach to the Last Things
  • Christopher W. Morgan & Robert A. Peterson (eds)
  • Paul R. Williamson

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