Ministers often deal with death and the inevitable questions that come with it. The very nature of death raises difficult questions. It is not uncommon for children to be offered well-intended words of comfort after the death of a family member or someone they may have known. We often say something such as “Grandma is in heaven,” hoping to comfort confused and sad little ones who are dealing with a topic that even learned theologians do not fully understand. Yet, while “Grandma is in heaven” is certainly not a wrong answer if Grandma was a believer in Jesus Christ, the answer is incomplete and may even be misleading. To put the matter in biblical perspective, if Grandma was a believer, she is now in the presence of the Lord, awaiting His return and the resurrection of her body.
What happens to people when they die is an often explored but frequently misunderstood aspect of Christian theology, usually discussed under the heading “the intermediate state.” Given the potential for misunderstanding, it is helpful to begin with a brief definition of what we mean when we speak of the intermediate state. It is that period of time between a believer’s death (and their immediate entrance into the presence of the Lord) and the resurrection of the body at the time of Christ’s return. When Jesus raises the dead on the last day, disembodied souls are reunited with their bodies, made imperishable (1 Cor. 15:35–58), as the preparation to dwell for all eternity in the new heaven and earth (Rev. 21).
In several well-known passages, Paul specifically addresses the matter of what happens to believers between the time they die and Christ’s return. According to 2 Corinthians 5:8, believers immediately enter the presence of God at their physical death. This is what we mean when we speak of heaven. The Apostle writes, “We would rather be away from the body and at home with the Lord.” Paul also spoke of how he desired “to depart and be with Christ, for that is far better” (Phil. 1:23). When we die, we are “with Christ,” immediately entering the presence of God.
Believers immediately enter the presence of God at their physical death.
The most vivid biblical picture of heaven is that depicted in Revelation 4–6, a glorious scene of what transpires in the heavenly throne room before Jesus returns. While the scene revealed there is wonderful, it is well worth noting that the saints in heaven are crying out, “O Sovereign Lord, holy and true, how long before you will judge and avenge our blood on those who dwell on the earth?” (6:10). Those who have died before us and are already in God’s presence and who are now experiencing the intermediate state long for the return of Jesus Christ to earth on the day of resurrection and judgment.
There are three significant misunderstandings of the intermediate state as just described. The first misunderstanding of the intermediate state, commonly known as “soul sleep,” is that upon a believer’s death, the soul “sleeps” until the day of resurrection. In this view, there is no conscious awareness of being in the presence of the Lord from the time we die until we awaken on the day of Jesus’ return. We die and then “sleep” until Christ returns. This view was addressed by John Calvin in his first major theological treatise, a book with the catchy title Psychopannychia. The error here is that death brings about an unconscious state, much like sleep. Believers remember nothing from the moment they breathe their last until they awaken in the resurrection. But this view cannot account for the biblical passages just mentioned that speak plainly of a believer’s conscious presence with the Lord immediately after death, experiencing the glories of the heavenly scene described in Revelation 4–6.
A second misunderstanding is the notion that the intermediate state is a time for sinful humans to be purged of the presence of any remaining indwelling sin. The chief example of this error is the Roman Catholic doctrine of purgatory. The idea that the intermediate state is a time of purification arises from the mistaken belief that even though someone dies believing in Jesus Christ, he may not yet have reached a sufficient state of personal holiness to enter heaven. A time of purification is required so that after death his soul is rendered “pure” enough to enter into the full joy of fellowship with the saints. This view assumes that the merits of Jesus Christ alone (His life of obedience, His death for our sins) cannot render a believer sufficiently “holy” to enter heaven upon death. However, the gospel is grounded in the promise that Jesus provides all that we need to be reckoned a “saint” and rendered holy by virtue of our union with Jesus Christ through faith. Positionally, we are holy at our justification, while practically, we grow in holiness throughout our lives until we are made fully holy in our glorification.
The third misunderstanding (perhaps the most common view in modern America) is to confuse the intermediate state (disembodied existence) with the eternal state so that there is no expectation of the resurrection of the body as the Bible clearly teaches (1 Cor. 15:12 ff.). In this view, death liberates the soul (already “pure”) from the sinful body. Since there is no resurrection from the dead, people exist after death as conscious, invisible spirits. Many people, including professing Christians, even believe that these spirits are present with us in this life, offering us solace and consolation in moments of trial, or when we grieve for them and then “feel” their presence. Such beliefs may be heartfelt, but have no biblical basis, as they ignore the biblical teaching regarding the resurrection of the body. This misunderstanding also encourages those who are grieving to seek comfort through the unseen presence of the spirits of their departed loved ones rather that in the great Christian hope of the resurrection of the body.
We can know that, when Grandma died, she did not fall asleep. In heaven, she is not being purged of sin. If Grandma was a believer, she was immediately glorified and went into the presence of Christ. Jesus accomplished that for her on the cross and in His life of perfect obedience. She consciously awaits the resurrection, even now as she beholds the face of her Savior.
Dr. Kim Riddlebarger is senior pastor of Christ Reformed Church in Anaheim, Calif., and a co-host of the White Horse Inn radio program. He is the author of A Case for Amillennialism and First Corinthians in the Lectio Continua series.