Note: I offer these reflections as thoughts-in-process. They represent my thinking-in-process and may in fact miss the mark. I ask readers to read this article accordingly.
While all of us hope in the resurrection and await in our heavenly inheritance, we have to admit a major gap in our knowledge. What happens immediately after we die? Heaven, as we understand it, lies deep in the future (Rev 21–22). The resurrection does too. So if our resurrection body and the new heavens and earth lie in the future, where do we go when we die and in what form will we exist? What assurance do we give those who die in the Lord now about their afterlife?
Randy Alcorn recently argued that we receive an temporary material body and that we enter into a material plane of existence that is somewhere in our universe (or one like it). Since these matters require some theological speculation, I appreciate Alcorn’s attempt to make sense of what happens immediately after we die. That said, I wonder if there might be a better way to answer the question than Alcorn has.
Following that train of thought, here is my attempt to answer the question of what happens immediately after we die.
First, we immediately enter into the presence of God
At the end of the Book of Revelation, John describes the coming of the new heavens and new earth (chs. 21–22). So if our heavenly end lies in the future, where do we go when we die? Added to this, if the resurrection of our body lies in the future too, then do we exist after we die without a body?
First, we can affirm what Scripture clearly states. As Paul notes, to be apart from our body means to be with the Lord (2 Cor 5:8). In 2 Corinthians 5:8, Paul uses the word body to point to our biological flesh and its properties (passions, desires, hunger, pain, thirst, etc.). In this way, no text explicitly states that we will receive a temporary material body before the resurrection body. What is clear at least is that we will be with the Lord when we die.
Second, we leave the regular patterns of space and time
Randy Alcorn tentatively reads passages like the story of the rich man and Lazarus in Luke 16 or Stephen’s vision of God in Acts 7 as proof that the intermediate state has a material reality within space-time. I admit that this certainly may be the case. However, I do not think the scriptural passages that Alcorn cites prove his case.
The rich man and Lazarus. For example, he cites the rich man and Lazarus story as proof of the materiality of the intermediate state (the scenery, the finger, the tongue). Yet the whole story is a parable. It follows long line of parables that begin with:
- “There was a man who had two sons” (Luke 15:11; the parable of the prodigal son)
- “There was a rich man who had a manager” (Luke 16:1; the parable of the dishonest manager)
- “There was a rich man who was clothed in purple and fine linen” (Luke 16:9; the parable of Lazarus and the rich man)
Nobody claims the prodigal son story describes a specific historical event; it was a teaching tool to explain grace. No one claims there was a specific historical dishonest manager; it was a teaching tool to explain faithfulness. Likewise, no one should expect that the parable about rich man and Lazarus describes a specific historical event; it’s a parable to instruct on how to live and to listen to God now.
Since the other parables describe generic events in our world, it is possible that the rich man parable generically does too. I am not convinced, however. First of all, consider what that means. If the intermediate heaven features saints in the “good place” who watch sinners in the “bad place,” then the saints will see the suffering of sinners in Hades and even converse with them. That is not the picture Revelation 6:9–11 paints (although more could be said about what this passage means).
And we may imagine what that might mean if our wife or child is in a bad place; do we stand in the good place in the joy of our salvation while we watch over a chasm to see our son or daughter suffering? That is rather odd and cruel sounding. And it is hard to imagine an intermediate heaven featuring such a spectacle.
Besides, Scripture describes the intermediate state often by the term Sheol, a place where both good and bad go. Whatever that means exactly, I am quite sure that Jesus’ parable communicates at least this: Lazarus who had nothing will receive much in the next life; whereas the rich and selfish man will receive nothing and enter into misery. What form that actually takes, I am not quite sure. But I do not think this parable intends to communicate with exactness what that will look like.
Body and soul. Instead, I propose that what Stephen saw in Acts 7:55–56 or where Paul went in 2 Corinthians 12:2 constitute previews of our spiritual vision provided by God in these unique circumstances to Stephen and Paul. Humans are made up of body and soul—in an irreducible union of the two. The soul, however, does not contain the same properties of the flesh when considered in itself. The soul has no flesh, marrow, bone, nerves, passions, and so on.
The soul is the invisible parallel to the visible form of our body. It provides us our imaginations, our consciousness, and our spiritual vision. And since it has no biological properties, it does not decay through the progression of changes over time like our flesh does. In short, the soul lasts forever. It is immortal because of its internal structure, its mode being.
Of course, Scripture assumes this reality. Jesus died and had no body for three days. His human soul did not cease from existence! What we call death really just means biological death—not the total cessation of life! The soul persists.
And indeed, God is Spirit (John 4:24) and so our angels (Heb 1:14). They exist without meat and bones. They have no flesh as we do. And yet we share partly in this angelic capacity of spiritual existence since we, once again, are the irreducible union of body and soul—the soul being the immaterial and invisible aspect of who we are, which includes the spirit.
Lest we implicate our soul by standards of the flesh, we should be quick to affirm, as Tertullian had around 200 AD in On the Soul, that the soul is a kind of body. It is not some ghostly thing. It has substance—stuff. It exists invisibly in a different mode than we do in our flesh. But it is not a ghost—that in fact lives in our world but has no stuff to it. Souls are bodily in an invisible and immaterial way. Or else how could angels battle in heaven (Rev 12)? How could invisible realities intersect and affect other invisible realities and our visible reality?
They do and can because a soul is not a ghost. A soul is a substantial thing, united to our flesh, and holding the faculties of thought, will, reason, consciousness and so on. Therefore, I strongly disagree with Alcorn’s suggestion that we will receive a temporary material body. We have no need for a disposable sleeve. We are souls.
We will exist as spirits like angels and God does as we await the reunion of our soul to our glorified body in which we can finally enter into the fullness of what it means to be human—to be one new human being created in Christ Jesus (e.g., Eph 2:15; 4:24; Col 3:10).
Third, we live full lives in anticipation of our reunion with our bodies
For this point, filling in the blanks requires a certain amount of speculation. That said, when I say speculation, I mean conclusions that follow from sound first principles that revelation reveals. In other words, I speak about a grounded speculation in revelation and first principles.
Creation and redemption. To explain what I mean, we need to remember the biblical story to know what God created to be, what we lost, what Christ gained for us, and what our destiny is. When we do that, we can speculate with some confidence about what our intermediate existence will look like.
To begin with, Genesis 1 tells us that God created humanity in his Image. And in the garden where he placed Adam and Eve, two trees stood. The first was the tree of life, and if Adam and Eve stayed close to the tree of life, they would continue to be sustained by the life that God bestows. That is, they would not enter into either fleshly death (mortality and corruption) nor spiritual death (corruption).
Before the Fall, Adam and Eve only knew how to will what was good. They had no cognitive ability to decide or deliberate between good and evil. Yet the serpent entered the garden and tempted Eve with the tree of good and evil. He promised her she would be like God by knowing the difference between good and evil. He was right, but he deceived her because he did not explain how such knowledge would devastate the human race, including Eve.
Eve ate and Adam with her. They then lost their natural goodness and ability to follow their natural will; they become corrupt. Their wills now turned towards the possibility of evil. When a choice came to them between good and evil, they now deliberated about whether to do good or evil! Sin corrupted them thoroughly.
And God exiled them from the tree of life so that they no longer could eat from it to sustain their flesh and soul. The flesh decays until biological death, and the soul corrupts through choosing evil over and over to the point that evil makes one inhuman—so twisted against God’s good intent and against our natural will that he gave us. We sear our consciousness.
But God promised Eve a redeemer who would crush the serpent’s head (Gen 3:15). That reversal came with Christ who became human for our sake (e.g., John 1:14). Yet he assumed a non-fallen nature. And therefore did not deliberate between good and evil; he always did right because he modelled perfect humanity—one whose will perfectly accomplishes God’s will.
Why retell this story? The answer is because by understanding what we were and what we have lost and what Christ has gained for us, we can begin to understand what it might mean to live after our biological death.
When Christ redeems us now, we unite to him by the Spirit who renews our mind (nous; Rom 12:1–2). The nous renewal comes by way of union with the mind of Christ, that is, we have the mind of Christ (1 Cor 2:16). In context, Paul contrasts spiritual persons (ὁ δὲ πνευματικὸς) with physical persons (ψυχικὸς δὲ ἄνθρωπος; 1 Cor 2:14–16).
To be a Spiritual person is defined as having the Spirit of God (1 Cor 2:15). That is to say, the Spirit mediates the mind of Christ to us as he renews our mind. Our mind unites to Christ’s mind (e.g., Phil 2:5). Our will to his; our love to his. As he overcame sin and temptation through listening to his natural will in perfect unison with God’s will, we now follow his example to guide us as we choose what is good, acceptable, and perfect.
He continues to make this same contrast in 1 Corinthians 15:44 in which we all gain spiritual bodies (σῶμα πνευματικόν). Knowing our present redemption and our future redemption, we can then infer quite specifically what the intermediate state might look like.
Today, although our flesh decays and our passions war against our nous/the mind (e.g., Rom 7:24), our soul (where our nous dwells) renews day by day in the image of Christ. At the resurrection, our glorified body returns to us without corruption or mortality—it becomes a new creation. Then our renewed soul and glorified body unite so that we can become as Christ is, the perfect human being. We can pursue and enjoy the fullness of incorrupt humanity.
That means that when we leave our body of flesh on earth, we continue to exist as renewed souls apart from the passions of the flesh that produce sin in us. We can then enjoy a sort of purified existence of being truly human that anticipates the reunion with its visible body which no longer contains the principle of sin: “flesh and blood cannot inherit the kingdom of God” (1 Cor 15:5). I do not think this means that we have no visible body! Rather, it means that our glorified body loses the fallen capacities of passions, desires, and sin.
Therefore, the intermediate state constitutes a time of joyous growth into what it means to be human without the trappings of sinful flesh while we joyously await the fullness of glorified humanity when our soul reunites with our glorified bodies. Christ already enjoys this state because he is the firstfruit of the resurrection. In Jesus, the perfect human, we share in the perfection of humanity. And that means joy and fulfillment of the human arts (that will have to be further explained in another article entirely!).
Practically, I see no reason to affirm a temporary material body, and I think that such a body could undercut our hope for the resurrection and misconstrue human anthropology. Souls are substantial but incomplete without their visible partner, the body. A half-way resurrection is not what we need. We need a full union with a glorified human body. The soul does not need a sleeve; it needs the glory to which it is called: “To this he called you through our gospel, so that you may obtain the glory of our Lord Jesus Christ” (2 Thess 2:14).
Here is how I answer the question. When we die, we leave our body on earth and our soul immediately enters into God’s presence. We then live apart from the visible standards of time, corruption, and change. I cannot tell you precisely what that means since I have not experienced it. But I can tell you that it will mean that our spiritual vision will open up to the extent that we will be able to perceive and grasp the spiritual realm, the invisible world.
At the resurrection, we will be able to fully enjoy both the visible and the invisible world since our bodies will have perfect spiritual sight, being spiritual, glorified, immortal, and incorruptible. The intermediate state gets us half-way there as we live full lives with spiritual vision; we see God and the invisible powers. We are substantial yet without the resurrection of our bodies. We hope for that resurrection so that we can become fully Christlike in his resurrection body and therefore fully human in all that we were created to be.
In short, it means that we enter into the fullness of our joy in our vision of God.