I have received two questions from readers of the News concerning the intermediate state, that is, the state of believers between their deaths and the resurrection of their bodies. Both concern the difficulty of understanding how the soul, parted from the body, can live without the body.
This is not an easy question to answer, for we know so little both of the mighty works of God and the life we will live outside of the body in heaven. We should also remember that the question applies to the wicked, as well as the righteous, although their end is hell.
The question has been faced since early in the church’s history. Calvin wrote a book against “soul sleep” in which he denied the view that the soul at death enters a state of unconsciousness. One Dutch theologian proposed the idea that the souls of the elect live out of and through the body of the exalted Christ before the resurrection of their bodies. Other theories have also been offered.
In Reformed churches, the denial of soul sleep is a confessional matter. “What comfort doth the ‘resurrection of the body’ afford thee? That not only my soul after this life shall be immediately taken up to Christ its Head; but also, that this my body, being raised by the power of Christ, shall be reunited with my soul, and be made like unto the glorious body of Christ” (Heidelberg Catechism, Q. & A. 57).
This is clearly biblical teaching. In Luke 23, the thief nailed alongside Jesus’ cross asked to be remembered by Christ when He came into His kingdom (42). The Lord responded, “To day shalt thou be with me in paradise” (43).
Some Roman Catholics, in the interests of defending the horrible doctrine of purgatory, claim that a comma should be placed after the words “To day,” as do the cults. The meaning then would be that Jesus’ words to the thief merely meant that He spoke these words “To day,” that is, the day on which He died on the cross and was talking to the thief, as if the verse were: “Today I say to you, ‘You shall be with me in paradise.’” That is a forced interpretation that the text will not allow. The truth is that Jesus promised the repentant thief that, on the very day they were hanging on their respective crosses and would presently die, they will be together in heaven.
Other proof can be found in Revelation 6:9-10. When the fifth seal is opened, John saw the “souls” of the martyrs crying out, “How long, O Lord, holy and true, dost thou not judge and avenge our blood on them that dwell on the earth?” The point here is that the souls of God’s people are already in heaven and even ask how long it will be before Christ comes to destroy the wicked.
A problem arises with the resurrection of those Jesus brought forth from the grave: the daughter of Jairus, the son of the widow of Nain and, most notably, Lazarus. Where were their souls after they died and before Jesus raised them?
It seems impossible that these three were recalled from heaven itself. That would have been a most terrifying experience for these three people. They would have to have been brought back from their blissful life in glory, where they sinned no more, to a world of pain and bitterness, only to have to face death once again.
My dogmatics professor in seminary thought that he could not explain the question in any other way than that God prepared a special place for their souls in which place they remained unconscious until Jesus called them back to this life. But he acknowledged, as we all do, that the ways of an infinite God are unknowable and beyond comprehension.
One more problem remains and the awareness of it may go a long way to explaining the issue of the intermediate state. The simple fact of the matter is that we have very little understanding of what heaven is like. We know only what the Bible reveals to us, and Scripture’s revelation of heaven is always by means of figures, analogies and symbolic language.
God reveals heaven to us in language that is not always literal because He desires to keep the knowledge of heaven from us, perhaps so that He may surprise us with its glory when we arrive there. Scripture speaks of heaven in such, sometimes mysterious, language because heaven is so completely different from what we know here on earth that no earthly language can be created to describe it. Paul states that, when he was taken up into the third heaven, he heard “unspeakable words” (II Cor. 12:4), by which he means that there were no words in any human language that could describe what he heard: the words of heaven being too “heavenly.”
People have many misconceptions about heaven. Some think it will be the place where they can continuously do what they like best here on earth: play golf or whatever. Others look forward to seeing loved ones who have died before them, thinking that their interactions with them will largely be the same as before. Yet they forget that all earthly relationships shall come to an end, and our heavenly relationship will be to Christ and our spiritual family in the perfected kingdom of God.
When we do finally enter glory two things will be outstandingly wonderful: we shall see our Saviour face to face and our depravity will be no more. We will, I am sure, be like the Queen of Sheba who fainted when she saw the glory of Solomon and his Jerusalem, exclaiming, “the half was not told me” (I Kings 10:7).
When we come to heaven and see it in all its glory, we will do one thing and one thing only: praise the God who through Christ has done so wondrously. Now already there are times when heaven touches earth and the result is a miracle: marvellous things take place. All the glorious records of those times are in the Scriptures to spur us on to faithfulness. The greatest miracle of all is the crucifixion and resurrection of our Lord Jesus Christ, the eternal Son of God incarnate.
Let us live expecting unexpected wonders in Christ in the world to come, as we pray, “Come, Lord Jesus, come quickly.” Prof. Herman Hanko