In the February News, I answered a question concerning the intermediate state, that is, the state of the soul between the believer’s death and the final coming of Christ, when all the bodies of the dead shall be raised. I say, the state of the soul between the believer’s death and the final coming of Christ but we must remember that the question also can be asked concerning the impenitent wicked. Do their souls go to hell, while their bodies remain in the grave until the resurrection? Yes (Luke 16:19-31). Quite naturally, however, the discussion almost always concerns the elect.
Although the question I face now was submitted by the same person who asked the last one and although the question I am going to answer is not clearly stated, I think the reader is concerned with those who were raised from the dead by the Lord or by His prophets, that is, brought back to this life.
There are a number of such cases in Scripture. Elijah and Elisha both raised young boys, born in the apostate Northern Kingdom, from the dead. The bones of Elisha were given power by God to raise an unknown man from the dead, when his body was hastily thrown into the prophet’s grave, as those who were going to bury him had to flee for their lives from a Syrian raiding party (II Kings 13:20-21). The Lord also raised the daughter of Jairus, the son of the widow of Nain and Lazarus.
These last three whom Christ raised were raised in an interesting order, for each was dead longer than the one whom He previously raised. The daughter of Jairus was raised shortly after she died, the son of the widow of Nain was raised as he was being carried away to be buried and Lazarus was raised after he had been dead for four days and already buried.
I said in my earlier article that the only possibility for the intermediate state of those brought back to this life was that God prepared some special place for their souls until their bodies were raised. Such provision of their souls would be a kind of short period of soul sleep. But the Bible does not give us any information about this question and we can only speculate.
There are other aspects to this question of the intermediate state that only make the question more difficult.
The Scriptures teach that during the history of this world, before the coming of Christ and the final resurrection, the souls of believers are consciously in heaven. The word of Christ to the thief on the cross was that today he would be with Him in Paradise (Luke 23:43). The fifth seal, when opened, reveals the souls of the elect under the altar who are eager for their fellow saints to join them in glory when their cause would be vindicated (Rev. 6:9-11).
It is highly unlikely that, when Lazarus and the others I mentioned died, they were taken to heaven. Anyone who has been in heaven would not want to return to this present, fallen world, for he would take on a depraved human nature once again after he had tasted the delight of moral perfection. This is not even mentioning going from the glory and joy of Christ’s presence back to the misery of this corrupt and violent earth.
This brings up the question of the Lord’s resurrection and exaltation. Christ arose from the dead and appeared to His disciples and others in the forty days between His resurrection and ascension. Where was Jesus during those forty days? Was He in heaven? Did He only return to earth for His ten or eleven appearances? Or was He in this earthly creation somewhere for forty days, though invisible?
The appearances themselves include aspects that we do not understand. He appeared in different forms to different people (Mark 16:12). He may have appeared to Mary as a gardener. Did He ever appear without nail holes in His hands to the disciples?
There is a striking passage in John 21 where we are told that, when the Lord appeared to some of His disciples who were fishing, they wanted to ask who He was but they did not dare, for they knew it was Jesus. They thought they recognized Him, but they were not sure and wanted desperately to ask (12).
When the Lord appeared, He did so in a way that would lead one to the conclusion that He had been with them all the time but that He was invisible. When He twice stood before His disciples in the upper room in John 20, He passed through locked doors or walls (or simply appeared), and knew exactly what they had been talking about. He was there all the time but they could not see Him. Had He not told them, “Lo, I am with you alway, even unto the end of the world” (Matt. 28:20)?
Stranger yet, when we go to heaven and when our bodies are raised to be joined with our souls, we will not need, nor be able, to eat earthly food. Yet our Lord, in the period before His ascension and exaltation at His Father’s right hand, ate fish and honey in the presence of His disciples (Luke 24:41-43) in His resurrection body.
So the questions multiply—and I have no answers to them. They are puzzling and outside the realm of our experience. In fact, the wonderful works of God are, after all, works that belong to heaven, but burst into our earthly creation to reveal to us that God is the God of His people and that His work of salvation is from heaven, not from this earth. It is a marvel beyond us. No wonder that, when God’s works are revealed in Christ, they are more distant yet from our understanding, though they are performed right in front of us. When heaven breaks into our earthly creation full of sin and death, one will stand with one’s hand over one’s mouth, and be filled with awe and wonder.
The wicked deny it all and will not believe what they cannot explain. The righteous bow in humility and confess it all to be true, for our God saves us in Christ—a wonder of grace that takes eternity to understand and to praise the One who does such miracles.
I have written all I know of what the Bible teaches us. There is more, far more. I cannot wait to see it all. That will be glory, the glory of our Triune God! Prof. Hanko