The intermediate state is the state of the soul between physical death and the return of Jesus Christ.
Earlier this week someone asked me what subject I was going to speak on in Oak Lawn [Illinois]. I told him that I intended to speak on the subject, 'The Intermediate State.' And then he asked me a curious question: 'Do you think that subject is a matter of mere curiosity?'
I did not know what to answer right away. I thought, 'Is it possible that the motive of the request to speak on this particular subject is really nothing but human curiosity, a desire to delve into things that are hidden from us—secret things?'
I pondered that, and finally came to the conclusion that, though the question concerning the intermediate state can indeed be explored philosophically, the people of God in the past have not concentrated their attention on these things out of mere curiosity, but out of faith and hope. Moreover, it cannot be true that the subject is one of mere curiosity, because, after all, the material concerning it is found in Holy Writ, in the Scriptures. Without the Scriptures we would know nothing about the things concerning the salvation that God prepared for us from before the foundation of the world. Least of all would we know about the things between the time of our physical death and the time of the Lord's coming: the intermediate state.
The Scriptures speak of it abundantly—at least sufficiently for us to form some conception about that state between death and the resurrection. Already in the old dispensation the psalmist declared that God would not leave his soul in hell, and that, on the contrary, He would show him the path of life even through the mystery of physical death. As the psalmist in Psalm 73 puts it, 'Thou shalt guide me with thy counsel and afterward [daarna, as the Dutch has it] receive me to glory' (Ps. 73:24).
In the New Testament the passages that concern the intermediate state are many. The Lord says to the penitent thief on the cross, 'Today thou shalt be with me in paradise' (Luke 23:43). The Lord says to His disciples during His earthly sojourn that He is going away to the house of many mansions, where He is going to prepare a place for them, and that as soon as He has prepared a place for each of them, He will come again to receive them unto Himself that they might also be where He is (John 14:1-3).
II Corinthians 5 is a very striking passage. Not only does it speak of the heavenly house which we shall enter the moment that the earthly house of this tabernacle shall be dissolved, but it also speaks of being absent from the body. Not only that, but the apostle, together with all believers, makes the confession in the eighth verse that we long to be absent from the body in order that, when we are absent, we may be present with the Lord. It seems as if the apostle means to say that our present bodies interfere with, are obstacles to, our being really present with the Lord, and for that reason he longs to be absent from the body in order that he may be present with the Lord. The apostle, in Philippians 1:20-23, says that he longs to lay down his life and be with the Lord, 'which is far better.' And if you read the book of Revelation, you find that heaven--heaven in its present state--is densely populated. Heaven is not empty. The saints are there, and before the throne of the Lamb they shout their hallelujahs in the presence of God.
So I say once more, it is certainly not out of mere curiosity that you asked me to speak tonight on the intermediate state. Therefore, I will try to enlighten you somewhat on that subject in the light of Scripture.
When I speak on this subject, I first of all want to call your attention to the fact that it involves a very difficult problem. In the second place, I want to call your attention to the different views of the intermediate state. And, finally, I will speak to you on the scriptural answer to this question.
As I already said, by the intermediate state we refer to the state of man between the time of his physical death and the final resurrection. Between those two events lies what is called the intermediate state (the tusschen toestand, in Dutch).
We must not forget that, in itself, the intermediate state involves the wicked as well as the righteous. Both enter for a time into an intermediate state.
In Scripture there are two terms used to denote that state between death and the resurrection, one in the Old Testament and one in the New. The term in the Old Testament is sheol. The term in the New Testament is hades.
Both of these terms are used also to denote hell. Sheol is sometimes hell, and hades is also sometimes correctly translated as hell. That is, both terms refer sometimes to the place in which the wicked dead experience the wrath of God for their sins.
More often, however, the terms do not refer directly to a place, either hell or heaven, but rather to what I would call the state of the dead. The dead are indeed in a certain place from the very beginning of their absence from the body. Nevertheless, the fundamental idea of the terms sheol and hades is that of a state: the state of the soul between the time of physical death and the final resurrection.
When tonight I speak on the intermediate state, I would like to limit myself to the intermediate state of the righteous. I will leave the question concerning the state of the ungodly immediately after death out of consideration.
A Difficult Conception
Now, as I said, teaching about the intermediate state presents a very difficult problem. The intermediate state refers to the state of man in the absence of the body. That is very difficult for us to comprehend. In the second place, it refers to the state, not so much of all mankind but of the believer, of the Christian. You cannot talk in one breath of the believer and of the unbeliever when you speak of the intermediate state. That is impossible. Finally, it is a difficult problem because it concerns the question of heaven—of heaven as it now is. It is difficult enough to conceive of the heavenly things as they finally shall be. But because the final kingdom of heaven is pictured in Scripture, we can at least have some kind of conception of it. The Bible speaks of the new creation, and of the creature that shall be delivered from the bondage of corruption and shall enter into the glorious liberty of the children of God. But that is not the question. The question is not about the final state. The question is not about the final realization of the kingdom of God in glory. The question is about heaven as it is. That is much more difficult.
I must say a little about each of these elements in order at least to impress upon your minds the difficulty of the problem.
First of all, man is one, not two. Let me emphasize that. Man is not two beings but one being. Often that is denied. At least we often have the idea that man is sort of a spirit in a box. If it were that simple, there would be no problem being absent from the body. Then it would simply be this: that the spirit is imprisoned in the body for awhile, and then at death, as a separate entity, the spirit simply leaves the body. But that is not the case. Man is a physical, psychical, spiritual, personal being in the present world.
Let me explain. Picture to yourself several concentric circles, one circle in another. All of these circles together are the whole man. The outward circle is the body, the body as you see it. My body! A wonderful thing is that body, with its five senses: the seeing, the hearing, the smelling, the tasting, the touching. That is the body—the wonderful physical instrument through which I see. My body itself does not see; my body cannot see. But my body is the physical instrument whereby I see, I hear, I taste, I touch, I smell. See what? The world. I see the world! You can easily understand that. If I had no senses at all, I would have no contact with the world. Yet the body would still be living, and my soul would still be living in the body. That is the body. It is the instrument of my soul, or spirit, whereby I stand in a fivefold contact with this present world.
Now imagine, inside that outer circle, another circle, a circle close to the edge of the former circle. That circle I would call the spiritual or soul aspect of the body. The body is connected with the soul somehow, you understand. It is not true that the body is a box in which the soul is imprisoned. Oh, no! There is a very intimate connection, a very intimate relation, an organic connection between the spirit, the soul, and the body. Because of that, there is an inner aspect of my body that is connected with the soul. I think that the inner aspect is what the doctors call the nervous system. It is the nervous system that is the inside of the eye, of the ear, of the touch, of the taste, and of the smell by these the soul is connected with the body.
Thirdly, imagine a third circle inside of that second circle. That third circle I would call the physical side of the soul. Perhaps we can find that aspect of man in the brain. If you had no brain at all its different cells and all its different compartments--you could have no contact with the world. Even though you had the spiritual side of the body, the nervous system, without the brain you would still have no contact with the outside world. The brain is the instrument of the intellect and the will, the instrument of the rational and moral being, the instrument of the soul in its narrowest sense.
What is the soul? The soul is the seat of mind and will, which are the two faculties of the soul. Without the brain, there would be no mind, and there would be no will. There would be no sensation or perception. The brain is the physical aspect of the soul, while the soul itself is the intellect and will.
Inside one more circle is what the Bible calls the spirit of man. The spirit of man is that which God originally created to be adapted to Him. The spirit of man is the highest part of him, the centre of his being.
Now imagine one dot in the centre of all those circles. That centre of it all is the person. That is what I call my I, the I that always remains the same and never changes. I was born as a little baby. I grew up. I learned my trade in the old country. I came to this country. I went to school to study for the ministry. I graduated. I became a minister of the gospel. I had all kinds of troubles, and still have, because I preach the truth. I, I, I: the same I. That I never changes. My soul changed; my body changed; my mind changed; my intellect changed; my will changed. But I am always the same. And presently, beloved, I die.
I die. What does that mean? That means that I—the same I that was born almost 70 years ago, the same I that lived in the changeable nature that same I now passes through another transformation. That is death. Death is, after all, nothing but atransformation. Death is not annihilation. Death is a transformation from one state to another, just as the Lord speaks of the seed that falls into the earth and dies and then brings forth much fruit. That death of the seed, you understand, does not mean that the seed disappears. Oh, no! A seed of wheat that you plant in the earth stays there and is transformed in the earth. It does not disappear. It is so transformed that the living kernel sprouts up and grows into a fully developed wheat plant. So is death, death both for the righteous and the wicked. But I am speaking now particularly of the death of the righteous. Death is a mystery. but death nevertheless means a transformation.
What transformation? Negatively, the transformation according to which I—the same I—am 'absent from the body.' Do you understand? The apostle says in II Corinthians 5:1, 'We know that if our earthly house of this tabernacle were dissolved....' That is the negative side of the transformation we call death. This tabernacle is going to be dissolved. This tabernacle in which I live, in which I was born, in which I am speaking to you tonight, is going to be dissolved. That is, the senses are going to disappear: the eye, the ear, the nose, the smell, the taste, the touch. It is all going to disappear through death. It is going to disappear as far as I am concerned. And the nervous system, the soul side of the body, is going to dissolve. Also the brain, the physical side of the soul, is going to be dissolved. All that will be left is a transformed soul and a transformed spirit transformed in such a way that instead of seeing earthly things, I will see heavenly things. Instead of sensing with whatever senses I may have on earth, in heaven I will sense, I will taste, I will feel heavenly things. Concretely, it means that instead of seeing the world and hearing the world and all things in the world, I will see Christ and hear Christ and be with Him, 'which is far better,' says the apostle Paul. It is that kind of transformation.
But do you not see that this presents a problem? Do you not see that we cannot possibly conceive of a spirit, of an I, of a person—of a human person—without a body? Do you not see that without my body, I am blind, I am deaf, I am senseless? Besides. do you not understand that though we can speak of these things at present while we are still in the earthly house of this tabernacle, we can never quite understand what heaven will be the present heaven?
Philosophical Answers to the Problem
All kinds of different answers—mostly philosophical—have been given concerning that problem. I will mention a few of them. There are the views of 'universalism.' Universalism is of two kinds: hypothetical universalism and absolute universalism.
Hypothetical universalism means that the soul after death will have a second chance. Having experienced death, the pains and sorrow and suffering of death, that soul will be induced to convert itself and come to Christ. That was the idea of the late English preacher Campbell Morgan. I will never forget the day I was at school and he lectured, or rather preached, on the text the end of which is, 'And I, if I be lifted up from the earth, will draw all men unto me' (John 12:32). Campbell Morgan had the habit of preaching exactly one hour. He would be on the platform for one hour, and when the hour was finished, he simply quit. This text was the end of the passage on which he spoke, and I was waiting for him to explain the verse. Finally, about five minutes to twelve—he spoke from eleven to twelve—he said this: 'Now I don't care what you believe, whether you are Lutheran or Calvinist or Arminian. That is not my concern. I'll simply tell you exactly what the text means.' Then he said that the text means this, that, somehow or other, all men that have ever lived in the world or that shall still live in the world will have a chance to come to Christ. That is hypothetical universalism. After death, the soul shall have another chance to be saved. and if that chance is neglected, that soul will then go to hell.
Strict absolute universalism means that everybody will finally be saved. According to this view, God is the Father of all men. All men, simply by virtue of the fact that they are men, are the children of God. In one way or another all men will in the end be saved. Only the most liberal in the history of the church have held to this position.
Roman Catholic View
According to the Roman Catholic view, hades or sheol is divided into compartments. One is the limbus infantum, that is. the abode of infants. Another is the limbus patrum, the abode of the fathers of the Old Testament. Another is purgatory. I am not interested now in the limbus infantum, which means that there is a separate compartment in hades for the infants who have died before baptism. They do not go to heaven or to hell, but somewhere in between. Rome's view of purgatory is premised on the view that really no one can go to heaven immediately alter death unless he is perfectly holy, perfectly righteous, perfectly clean before he dies. Purgatory, really, is for all the faithful, no matter how good, except those who are officially canonized by the Pope or those who have done a sufficient number of good works to have earned the right to enter into heaven immediately. Purgatory, therefore, is an intermediate state between death and heaven. After death there must still be a sort of intermission, a sort of transition, a state in which the soul becomes pure and prepared to go to heaven. That is the Roman Catholic idea.
That, of course, is pure speculation. There is no basis whatever for anything like that in Scripture, and if anything condemns that idea of purgatory, it is certainly the word of Jesus to the penitent thief: 'Today shalt thou be with me in paradise' (Luke 23:43). Today! If anyone should have gone to purgatory, it was certainly the thief on the cross. He had no good works. He was not pure and clean so as to be fit for heaven—not before he died. Yet the Lord said to him, 'Today shalt thou be with me in paradise.'
Theory of Soul-Sleep
Another theory that is rather prevalent is 'soul-sleep.' It is the theory that between physical death and the resurrection the soul lapses into a state of sleep, of unconsciousness. It is rather striking that a man in my own congregation once believed that. I think he was a child of God, but shortly before he died he called me and, instead of taking hold of the comfort of the house of many mansions and of the house of God, he wanted to argue with me about soul-sleep. He was dying: in fact, he did not live more than two hours after that. I told him, 'Brother, one thing I'll tell you: it won't be long before you will find out that you are mistaken. That's all. I don't want to argue with you about it; within a few hours you'll find out surely that you're wrong.'
There are still people in the Reformed churches who cling to the idea of soul-sleep. They believe that after death the soul falls asleep and enters into a state of unconsciousness. They claim to have proof--scriptural proof. For proof they call attention to the fact that the Bible, both in the Old and New Testaments, calls death a 'sleep.' Moreover, they point to certain saints who died and were called back to the present life, and they argue that the souls of those people were asleep in the state of death. Lazarus was sleeping, the Lord says, and the Lord was going to wake him up (John 11:11). The daughter of Jairus too is said to have been sleeping (Luke 8:52). All of these passages, and especially the Scriptures that speak of death as a sleep, those who believe in soul-sleep quote as proof for their position.
Now. in the first place, I maintain that the soul cannot sleep. The body sleeps. But the soul is always wide awake. In fact, I find that my soul is often so wide awake that I solve all kinds of problems while my body sleeps. I have sometimes made entire sermons in my sleep. I have made a theme and divisions for a sermon in my sleep, and when I awakened, I found that the correct theme and divisions are exactly what I had worked out while sleeping. When I was in school, I sometimes struggled with a very difficult mathematical problem in trigonometry or calculus late into the night, and when I finally fell asleep I solved the problem in my sleep. I assure you that the soul never sleeps The fact that we dream is proof that the soul does not sleep.
The body, however, does sleep. Sleep is physical. A study of those passages in which Scripture speaks of death as a sleep will reveal that in every instance the reference is to the body. Oh. yes, death is a sleep as far as the body is concerned. The body is laid asleep in the grave with a view to the resurrection, whether for the wicked or the righteous. The body shall be awakened at the time of the resurrection. In that sense death is a sleep. Physical death is the temporary sleep of the body in the grave until the Lord wakes up the body. But the soul does not sleep.
As far as Lazarus and the daughter of Jairus are concerned, there is no support for soul-sleep in those passages of Scripture at all. I think that there was a special provision made for Lazarus, for the daughter of Jairus, for the young man of Nain, and for others who were called back to this present life. A special provision was made, so that we can say of Lazarus that he slept, and of the daughter of Jairus that she slept. And of all those whom the Lord called back to this present life it can be said that they slept. It is in fact impossible to think that Lazarus first went to heaven and then was called back to this wicked world into the body of this death; or that the young man of Nain was called back from glory into the present state of corruption; and likewise the daughter of Jairus. Oh, no! I think, indeed, that in those cases their souls remained unconscious until the Lord called them back into the present life. But no support can be found in these miraculous resurrections for a common sleep of the soul after death.
Scriptural View of the Intermediate State
Scripture tells us in no uncertain terms, in the first place, that the saints after death will continue to exist consciously. In the second place, the Bible instructs us that the state of the saints after death will be reached at once, without any intermission. And finally, the Scriptures teach that this conscious state immediately after the moment of death will be a state of glory. Of glory!
Let me explain a moment. In the first place, the Bible tells us that there is a house of many mansions. If you will study the Scriptures, you will find that that house of many mansions is not to be identified with the new creation, but is certainly the state of the saints and of Christ immediately after death. Christ went, immediately after death, into the state of the house of many mansions. And He tells us, 'Whither I go, thou canst not follow me now.... And if I go and prepare a place for you, I will come again, and receive you unto myself; that where I am, there ye may be also' (John 14:2). In chapter 5 of II Corinthians we are told that if the earthly house of this tabernacle is dissolved, we have a building of God, a house not made with hands, eternal in the heavens. We have this building of God immediately after the house of this present tabernacle is dissolved. There is nothing in between. We have a house of God not made with hands, eternal in the heavens. That is not a temporary body. That is not a body that will come at the resurrection. No! That is the state of the saints immediately after death in the house of God with Christ.
The apostle Paul says it will be far better for him to die and pass on, for then he will be with Christ (Phil. 1:21-23). He will be with Christ immediately after death. As I already quoted, Christ's promise to the penitent thief was, 'Today thou shalt be with me in paradise.' Today! That means, in the first place, that the death of believers cannot be generalized into the death of every man. What happens in the death of believers is not only that the body is separated from the soul, but also that the outward man is separated from the inward man, the new man from the old man. The old man is earthy. The old man is sinful. The old man is corrupt and defiled. The new man is heavenly, holy, and immortal. Immortality characterizes the new man. And therefore the words of Jesus Christ apply here: 'He that believeth in me, though he were dead, yet shall he live: and whosoever liveth and believeth in me shall never die. Believest thou this?' (John 11:25.26). That is immortality beyond physical death. Besides, I emphasize that the passing into glory is immediate. Immediate! When I die, I hope to be with Christ. I look forward to glory when I die. That is my personal testimony to you tonight. That is my hope. And that longing for heaven, beloved, shall not have to wait for its realization even one moment.
It is often asked, 'Where is heaven?' Commonly the idea is that heaven is far, far away; far beyond the starry skies, far beyond the farthest star in the sky. I do not believe it! When I die, I will go to heaven; and I think heaven will be right near me, right close. I cannot see it. Of course not! I have no eyes to see it. I have no ears to hear it yet. But Christ is here, and heaven is here. penetrating into our present existence. When I die, I shall not have to journey miles and miles, perhaps thousands and thousands and millions of miles, to get to heaven. The exit from my body will be the entrance into glory—immediate transformation into glory. That is my expectation.
Into glory! How? I do not know, for what 'eye hath not seen, nor ear heard, neither have entered into the heart of man' (I Cor. 2:9) I cannot picture to you tonight. For that we must wait until we get to heaven. But one thing is sure: in heaven there will be the glory of a threefold, perfect fellowship. This to me is sufficient. In the house of many mansions in heaven I shall have perfect fellowship with God and see Him face-to-face and know Him as I am known. If there were nothing else than that in heaven, that would be enough to make heaven heaven. Perfect, sinless, spotless fellowship with the God of my salvation in Christ Jesus. God is there! My God and My Father! And I will have fellowship with Him—forever!
Secondly, there is Christ. Christ! Our eldest brother who died for us, who loved us even unto death, and bore for us all the wrath of God, that we might have everlasting life in Him. I long to see Him. I will see Him! Oh, not just to knock on His door to ask Him whether I may come in, but to see Him forevermore! To fellowship with Him. To enjoy His presence.
Finally, in heaven there is the perfect fellowship of the saints. The saints! All the saints that have gone before us in the absence of the body, from Adam to the present moment and to the moment when the Lord shall take the last elect into heavenly glory. That whole throng of saints will be in heaven, and all shall glorify the God of our salvation in perfection, each with his own song, expressing his own theme, and in his own voice, in one grand harmony. That will be glory, beloved!
Although Scripture certainly comforts us with the assurance of immediate glory of the house of many mansions that is the intermediate state, it nevertheless always fixes our eye upon the final end of all things. The intermediate state is not the final end, neither for us nor for the saints who have gone before us into heaven. We and they together must still wait and look for the final coming of our Lord Jesus Christ and the final rest. That is the perfect object of our hope. Then, when the whole church of the elect shall have been gathered in the new heavens and the new earth, and when the tabernacle of God shall be with men forever, then our hope shall be realized. Until that time they and we, in heaven and on earth, must wait and long for the coming of the day of Jesus Christ, our Lord. 'He which testifieth these things saith, Surely I come quickly. Amen. Even so, come, Lord Jesus' (Rev. 22:20).
Herman Hoeksema (1886-1965) was born in Groningen, the Netherlands on March 13, 1886 and passed away in Grand Rapids, MI on September 2, 1965. He attended the Theological School of the Christian Reformed Church and was ordained into the minitry in September of 1915.
"H.H." is considered one of the founding "fathers" of the Protestant Reformed Churches in America. He and his consistory (Eastern Ave. Christian Reformed Church in Grand Rapids, MI) were suspended and deposed from their offices in 1924-1925 because of their opposition to the "Three Points of Common Grace" adopted by the Christian Reformed Church in the Synod of Kalamazoo, MI in 1924. He, together with Rev. George M. Ophoff, Rev. H. Danhof and their consistories continued in office in the "Protesting Christian Reformed Church" which shortly thereafter were named the "Protestant Reformed Churches in America."
Herman Hoeksema served as pastor in the 14th Street Christian Reformed Church in Holland, MI (1915-1920), Eastern Ave. Christian Reformed Church in Grand Rapids, MI (1920-1924), and First Protestant Reformed Church in Grand Rapids, MI (1924-1964), He taught in the Seminary of the Protestant Reformed Churches from its founding and retired in 1964.
For an enlarged biography, see: Herman Hoeksema: Theologian and Reformer