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2. The Intermediate State

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What is the intermediate state? This refers to “the conscious existence of people between physical death and the resurrection of the body.”1 This is important to consider because some believe in something called soul sleep which simply means people’s souls will rest in an unconscious state or temporarily cease to exist between the death of the body and their resurrection to eternal life or eternal judgment. This view is taken from verses that describe death as sleep (John 11:11-14, 1 Cor 11:30 NIV). However, Scripture is very clear that people will be conscious in the intermediate state—either suffering in hell or enjoying the blessings of heaven (Lk 16:22-26).

With that said, Scripture also teaches that the current heaven and hell are only temporary holding places, and the inhabitants will eventually reside in the new heaven and earth or the lake of fire. Revelation 21:1-4 describes the new heaven and earth that believers will eternally reside in. It says,

Then I saw a new heaven and a new earth, for the first heaven and earth had ceased to exist, and the sea existed no more. And I saw the holy city—the new Jerusalem—descending out of heaven from God, made ready like a bride adorned for her husband. And I heard a loud voice from the throne saying: “Look! The residence of God is among human beings. He will live among them, and they will be his people, and God himself will be with them. He will wipe away every tear from their eyes, and death will not exist any more—or mourning, or crying, or pain, for the former things have ceased to exist.”

Likewise, Revelation 20:12b-15 says this about the lake of fire, which the current hell (or hades) will be thrown into:

So the dead were judged by what was written in the books, according to their deeds. The sea gave up the dead that were in it, and Death and Hades gave up the dead that were in them, and each one was judged according to his deeds. Then Death and Hades were thrown into the lake of fire. This is the second death—the lake of fire. If anyone’s name was not found written in the book of life, that person was thrown into the lake of fire.

The Intermediate Heaven

There is not much information given in Scripture about the intermediate heaven, but there is enough for one to develop a theology of it and avoid confusing the temporary state with the eternal state. For example, often when thinking of the present heaven, people overemphasize it by considering it our final home; however, it is not. Second Peter 3:13 says, “But, according to his promise, we are waiting for new heavens and a new earth, in which righteousness truly resides.” Also, in Revelation 5:10, heaven’s inhabitants say this about the redeemed, “You have appointed them as a kingdom and priests to serve our God, and they will reign on the earth.” It was originally God’s will for people to rule under him on the earth, and the redeemed will do that in the eternal state, while also having access to heaven which in its final form will reside on the earth (Rev 21:2-3, 10).

Another misunderstanding about the intermediate heaven is that people often believe that it shares the same promises of the final form of heaven, such as there being no more “mourning” or “crying” there (Rev 21:4). This is not necessarily true. For example, Revelation 6:9-11 describes the souls of those who had been martyred during the tribulation and their petitions to God. It says,

Now when the Lamb opened the fifth seal, I saw under the altar the souls of those who had been violently killed because of the word of God and because of the testimony they had given. They cried out with a loud voice, “How long, Sovereign Master, holy and true, before you judge those who live on the earth and avenge our blood?” Each of them was given a long white robe and they were told to rest for a little longer, until the full number was reached of both their fellow servants and their brothers who were going to be killed just as they had been.

A few things can be discerned from this description of the souls in the intermediate heaven. (1) They were aware of what was happening on the earth and (2) were also mourning those events. Though some think believers are unaware of the events on the earth because it would take away their happiness, that does not appear to be the case. These martyred believers are mourning before the Lord and asking when he would judge those on the earth. Since in the intermediate heaven believers are more like God, they not only rejoice over righteousness—such as when a person accepts Christ (Lk 15:7)—they also mourn over sin and desire justice, as our God does. Psalm 7:11 says, “God is a just judge; he is angry throughout the day.” No doubt, believers in heaven, who appear to be aware of the events on the earth, also share God’s anger and mourning over sin. Another potential evidence that believers are aware of what is happening on the earth is Hebrews 12:1. It says, “Therefore, since we are surrounded by such a great cloud of witnesses, we must get rid of every weight and the sin that clings so closely, and run with endurance the race set out for us.” The author pictures an amphitheater with the great heroes of the past (spoken of in Hebrews 11) watching us and probably cheering us on as we run. Certainly, this fits the picture of heaven’s inhabitants rejoicing over the salvation of one soul (Lk 15:7). (3) Another aspect we can discern about the souls of the righteous in the intermediate heaven is that they are not just aware of events on the earth, but they also are aware of one another, including their past suffering. In 1 Corinthians 13:12, Paul said this about heaven: “For now we see in a mirror indirectly, but then we will see face to face. Now I know in part, but then I will know fully, just as I have been fully known.” This may specifically refer to the eternal state, but it also probably has ramifications for the intermediate heaven. In heaven, it seems people will have a fuller knowledge of things, including God and other people. Christ may have pictured this in Luke 16:9 when he said, “And I tell you, make friends for yourselves by how you use worldly wealth, so that when it runs out you will be welcomed into the eternal homes.” In the verse, Christ described believers who gave generously while on earth being welcomed into “eternal homes” by friends who were blessed (and possibly saved) through their giving. These friends in heaven apparently had full knowledge of others’ generous giving on earth and how it affected them spiritually. In heaven, we will have a fuller knowledge of ourselves, others, and God. (4) Finally, we can also learn from the description of martyred saints in Revelation 6 that believers in the intermediate heaven might have some type of spirit body. They are given white robes to wear (6:11). Clearly, they do not have resurrected bodies yet, but they appear to have some type of tangible form that can wear a robe.

Likewise, another misconception about the intermediate heaven is that people often believe nothing sinful can enter it, as will be true of the new heaven (Rev 22:14-15). However, it must be remembered that there was a fall in heaven before there was a fall on earth (Rev 12:4). Satan and one-third of the angels rebelled against God, and though they were cast out, they still have access to heaven. In the book of Job, Satan is shown appearing before God and the angels (Job 1:6 and 2:1). Also, in 1 Kings 22:19-23, there is a similar scenario. As King Ahab and Jehoshaphat prepare to go to battle, an assembly of angels appears before God, and a lying spirit volunteers to go out and deceive those kings so they will go to war and Ahab will die. Finally, in Revelation 12, which will happen at some point during the tribulation period, Satan and his demonic angels will stage a final war against God and his angels and be permanently cast out of heaven. Revelation 12:7-9 says:

Then war broke out in heaven: Michael and his angels fought against the dragon, and the dragon and his angels fought back. But the dragon was not strong enough to prevail, so there was no longer any place left in heaven for him and his angels. So that huge dragon—the ancient serpent, the one called the devil and Satan, who deceives the whole world—was thrown down to the earth, and his angels along with him.

No doubt, because of Satan’s rebellion, Scripture says that to God the intermediate heaven is not pure. In Job 15:15, Eliphaz says, “If God places no trust in his holy ones, if even the heavens are not pure in his eyes.” Though Eliphaz, Job’s misguided friend, said this, it appears to be correct. In Hebrews 9:22-24, in the context of the earthly tabernacle and its articles needing to be purified with the blood, the author says the heavenly sanctuary needed to be purified by Christ’s blood:

Indeed according to the law almost everything was purified with blood, and without the shedding of blood there is no forgiveness. So it was necessary for the sketches of the things in heaven to be purified with these sacrifices, but the heavenly things themselves required better sacrifices than these. For Christ did not enter a sanctuary made with hands—the representation of the true sanctuary—but into heaven itself, and he appears now in God’s presence for us.

Surely, the intermediate heaven is not perfect before God, which is why Satan and his angels have access to it. It needed to be purified by Christ’s blood and will need to be defended against Satan’s attacks (Rev 12:7-9).

The greatest aspect of the intermediate heaven, which will continue in its final state, is unbroken access to God (cf. Rev 22:4). In 2 Corinthians 5:8, Paul said this: “Thus we are full of courage and would prefer to be away from the body and at home with the Lord.” In addition, in Philippians 1:23, Paul said this about dying, “I have a desire to depart and be with Christ, which is better by far.” Surely, as the Psalmist said, there is “absolute joy” in God’s presence (Ps 16:11). There, believers will “rest from their hard work” (Rev 14:13) in the sense of the burdens of their labor, as they enjoy God and serve him.

Though the intermediate heaven will bring peace, joy, and rest from labor for believers, it is not their final home. Since heaven has been tainted by sin like earth has, God will renew them both, so believers may inhabit and serve God eternally there. Second Peter 3:10-13 says,

But the day of the Lord will come like a thief; when it comes, the heavens will disappear with a horrific noise, and the celestial bodies will melt away in a blaze, and the earth and every deed done on it will be laid bare. Since all these things are to melt away in this manner, what sort of people must we be, conducting our lives in holiness and godliness, while waiting for and hastening the coming of the day of God? Because of this day, the heavens will be burned up and dissolve, and the celestial bodies will melt away in a blaze! But, according to his promise, we are waiting for new heavens and a new earth, in which righteousness truly resides.

We will consider the new heaven in greater detail when studying cosmic eschatology later in this book.

Paradise or Abraham’s Side

With all that said, many believe that before Christ’s resurrection, the righteous did not reside in heaven but in paradise or Abraham’s bosom in a place called sheol, which was in the center of the earth. Sheol is a general term used in the Old Testament, which can be translated as “grave” or “realm of the dead” (Gen 37:35, Ps 16:10, 86:13, Ecc 9:10, Hosea 13:14, Job 14:13, 26:6, etc.).2 When referring to the realm of the dead, it is believed to have had two compartments—one for the righteous (Abraham’s side) and one for the unrighteous (hell). Between these two places was a “great chasm” which no one could cross (Lk 16:26). This great chasm indicated that after death, a person’s fate was sealed and could not be changed.3 These two places in sheol are referred to in Christ’s story about a poor man named Lazarus and a rich man. In Luke 16:22-26, Christ said:

Now the poor man died and was carried by the angels to Abraham’s side. The rich man also died and was buried. And in hell, as he was in torment, he looked up and saw Abraham far off with Lazarus at his side. So he called out, ‘Father Abraham, have mercy on me, and send Lazarus to dip the tip of his finger in water and cool my tongue, because I am in anguish in this fire.’ But Abraham said, ‘Child, remember that in your lifetime you received your good things and Lazarus likewise bad things, but now he is comforted here and you are in anguish. Besides all this, a great chasm has been fixed between us, so that those who want to cross over from here to you cannot do so, and no one can cross from there to us.’

This story gives strong support for believers going to paradise, or Abraham’s side, before Christ’s resurrection. Those who reject this view say Christ’s story was a parable—a fictional story given to teach a spiritual principle. However, what makes this story unique is that Christ uses names, which never happens in parables. Christ speaks of Abraham (a real person) and a poor man named Lazarus. Using the names of real people instead of, for example, the “older brother” and “younger brother” in the parable of the prodigal son gives credence that the story was an actual event, including paradise being within sheol.

Apparently, Christ visited paradise, which was in sheol, after his death. In Luke 23:43, Christ said, “I tell you the truth, today you will be with me in paradise.” Paradise, and the believers in it, were most likely moved to heaven after Christ’s resurrection (cf. 2 Cor 12:2-4). Ephesians 4:8-9 (NIV) may refer to this when it says, “This is why it says: ‘When he ascended on high, he took many captives and gave gifts to his people.’ (What does ‘he ascended’ mean except that he also descended to the lower, earthly regions?” When ancient kings defeated an enemy, they would not only take enemy prisoners and lead them through their cities in a victory parade as trophies, but also commonly recapture their own soldiers, who were previously taken as prisoners.4 When Christ ascended from sheol to heaven, he took his people to heaven with him. This was the view of the early church. John MacArthur said this about the early church’s belief:

Early church dogma taught that the righteous dead of the Old Testament could not be taken into the fullness of God’s presence until Christ had purchased their redemption on the cross, and that they had waited in this place for His victory on that day. Figuratively speaking, the early church Fathers said that, after announcing His triumph over demons in one part of Sheol, He then opened the doors of another part of Sheol to release those godly captives. Like the victorious kings of old, He recaptured the captives and liberated them, and henceforth they would live in heaven as eternally free sons of God.5

Intermediate Hell

In the same way that believers reside in the intermediate heaven awaiting their resurrection and their entering the new heaven and earth, unbelievers reside in the intermediate hell, often called hades. It is a place of temporary conscious torment for the wicked. As pictured in Jesus’ story about Lazarus and the rich man, which was previously discussed (Lk 16:22-26), the rich man in hell remembered Lazarus, desired for his brothers to not come to the same place of torment, and also desired for a drip of water to cool his tongue, because he was suffering in the flames. In hell, people will consciously suffer for their sins and eventually be resurrected to be judged by Christ for their sins and then thrown into the lake of fire to suffer eternally (Rev 20:12-15). The final form of hell will be discussed more thoroughly when considering cosmic eschatology later in this book.

Conclusion

The intermediate state is where deceased unbelievers and believers temporarily reside. Unbelievers currently reside in a place of conscious suffering called hell, and believers reside in a place of conscious blessing called the intermediate heaven. Each awaits their destiny in the eternal state, either in the lake of fire or the new heaven (Rev 20:15) and the new earth (Rev 21:1).

Reflection

  1. What stood out most in the reading and why?
  2. In what ways do people commonly confuse the intermediate heaven with the eternal heaven?
  3. In what ways does the intermediate heaven differ from the eternal heaven and in what ways are they similar?
  4. Where did deceased believers reside before Christ’s resurrection? (People have different views on this.) Support your answer with Scripture.
  5. What is the intermediate hell like?
  6. What other questions or applications did you take from the reading?

Copyright © 2021 Gregory Brown

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1 MacArthur, J., & Mayhue, R. (Eds.). (2017). Biblical Doctrine: A Systematic Summary of Bible Truth (pp. 839–840). Wheaton, IL: Crossway.

2 Accessed 7/22/20 from https://www.gotquestions.org/Old-Testament-believers.html

3 Accessed 7/22/20 from https://www.gotquestions.org/Old-Testament-believers.html

4 MacArthur, J. F., Jr. (1986). Ephesians (p. 138). Chicago: Moody Press.

5 MacArthur, J. F., Jr. (1986). Ephesians (p. 140). Chicago: Moody Press.

Related Topics: Eschatology (Things to Come)

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