In this Section, a question is addressed which cannot be answered, with confidence, on this side of death, which is the great line of demarcation for all living things. In the time interval between the death of your current body and your resurrection with a new body, you will exist in the intermediate state as a disembodied soul comprising intellect, will and heart, the latter being the sum total of all your emotions. What will you be doing during this time interval? Scripture is substantially silent on this issue and communication, across the boundary between life and death, does not exist. Therefore we can only surmise.
Theologians have attempted to address this issue for centuries but much of their commentary rings hollow and downright depressing unless you look forward to existing as an isolated recluse endlessly contemplating great truths in the solitary recesses of your own intellect. Consider the teaching of Bishop Martensen which depicts the intermediate state as one resembling solitary confinement.
The departed are described in the New Testament as souls, or spirits (1 Pet 3:19-20); they are divested of corporeity, have passed away out of the whole range of full daylight activity, and are waiting for the new and perfect body with which they shall be ‘clothed upon.’ That state immediately following death must therefore be the direct contrast of the present. In contrast with the present state, it must be said that the departed find themselves in a condition of rest, a state of passivity, that they are in ‘the night wherein no man can work’ (John 9:4). Their kingdom is not one of works and deeds, for they no longer possess the conditions upon which works and deeds are possible. Nevertheless, they live a deep spiritual life; for the kingdom of the dead is a kingdom of subjectivity, a kingdom of calm thought and self-fathoming, a kingdom of remembrance in the full sense of the word, in such a sense, I mean, that the soul now enters into its inmost recesses, resorts to that which is the very foundation of life, the true substratum and source of all existence.
This description of existence in the intermediate state raises many red flags! Here are some of them.
Over 150,000 people die every day worldwide. Many have lost their mental faculties because of brain injury, Alzheimer’s disease, stroke, drug addiction, physical aging, brain tumors and general abuse and decay of the human body. When the intellect, will and heart, of such an individual, is separated from his/her body and takes up existence as a human soul, what is its condition? Is God constantly making Carbonite like copies of each soul at regular intervals so that He can use an uncorrupted copy in the intermediate state?
About 3000 babies die every day on the same day they were born. That number pales compared to the 125,000 fetuses aborted each day. Each newborn and each fetus has a soul but the development of intellect, will and heart for both a fetus and a newborn is primitive. What is the condition of each soul at death? According to Roman Catholic theology, the Limbus Infantum may be the abode of the souls of unbaptized infants. This is not regarded as a place either of suffering or happiness. Thomas Aquinas stated that although unbaptized infants are deprived forever of the happiness of the saints, they suffer neither sorrow nor sadness in consequence of their privation. If we view the Limbus Infantum as inconsistent with the love of God, what is the fate of infant souls? Are they nurtured by the souls of departed humans or by angels perhaps? Does a baby’s soul grow to maturity in the intermediate state? Are they instead condemned forever to a shadow existence in a lonely life of abandonment? Are they forever deprived of anything like a mother’s love and tenderness or growth to maturity?
As Christians, we spend decades of our lives on the front lines of the Great War. In the monumental struggle between good and evil, the primary Allowed Weapon for God’s human soldiers is prayer because, alone, we don’t stand a chance against the dark powers. Remember, the battle is spiritual and must be fought in God’s strength, depending on the Word of God and on God through prayer. The verbal Word of God is called the sword of the spirit. That sword is one of two offensive weapons in the full armor of God (Eph 6:10-18). The other offensive weapon is prayer. Only by prayer are we able to firmly grasp the hilt of the sword in our human hands, remove it from its scabbard and wield it against the invisible forces of evil. Prayer is the spiritual strength driving the sword of the spirit in our hands as we strive side by side with Jesus Christ to: (1) restore and repossess His corrupted creation which He has set free from the bondage of evil (healing); (2) help the unsaved cross the finish line of salvation and become disciples of Christ as they are being nudged by the Prevenient Grace of God which calls and convicts every soul to be set free from the bondage of sin (evangelism) and (3) by training and right living, prevent the influence of sin from undermining the Christian walk of the saved (discipleship). I may not have charismatic gifts. My relationship with Jesus may not always be as personal as I might wish. But I can stand up as an infantryman in the army of our commander in chief. However, are we to believe that as soon as we cross the boundary of death and enter into the intermediate state, we are benched; cut from the varsity team and sent to the showers? Are we no longer of any value in moving the Great War to completion?
We Christians are meant to be social creatures. We are supposed to be reconciled with one another and united in the Church of Jesus Christ. But as soon as we cross the boundary of death and enter into the intermediate state, do we suddenly stop ministering to our neighbors and embark on an existence of solitary, introverted contemplation? What about fellowship with friends and family?
Human beings generally like to work. Most of us tend to dislike a pure, monotonous, idyllic existence. Is an existence of total isolated introspection what we should anticipate when we pass to the intermediate state?
In 2 Cor 5:8, Paul said: We are of good courage, I say, and prefer rather to be absent from the body and to be at home with the Lord. Paul was confident that immediately after death he would be with Jesus Christ in a wonderful place. Is it logical to believe that Paul desired death so that he could be thrust into a gloomy dungeon of solitary confinement?
In Phil 1:23 Paul said: But I am hard-pressed from both directions, having the desire to depart and be with Christ, for that is very much better. In the words of Charles Hodge: “Nothing can be more utterly inconsistent with the nature of the Gospel, than the idea that the fire of divine life as it glows in the hearts of God’s elect, is, at death, to be quenched in the damp darkness of an underground prison, until the time of the resurrection.” But is that what some theologians are asking us to believe?
In Luke 23:43 Jesus said to the thief on the cross: Truly I say to you, today you shall be with Me in Paradise. Did the thief expect to move from death to a shadow realm of floating, disembodied souls, vaguely aware of their surroundings, where he would be expected to contemplate deep theological mysteries during an existence of never ending thought?
I don’t know the answer to the question ask in the title of this Section of Theology Corner; but neither did the army of theologians who weighed-in on this question over many centuries. However, I am reasonably confident about two things:
- When we presume to understand something only partially revealed about God, his intentions or his handiwork and our understanding is inconsistent with or antithetical to what we already know with confidence, then we are surely on thin ice.
- It is likely we will be pleasantly surprised by what is given to us and expected from us in the intermediate state.