Solomon taught that “the living know that they will die, but the dead know nothing” (Eccl. 9:5). For him, the intermediate state between death and resurrection was not a time to look forward to. Like all other biblical authors, he looked forward to the resurrection unto eternal life. He never denied the reality of death. Indeed, he taught that all people now living know that their death is coming. But after death, no one knows anything.
He taught that the intermediate state is universal. everyone will experience it, and all will experience it the same: a state of unconscious survival. It is not non-existence. It merely is a state of existence where one is not conscious or aware of the passage of time and cannot know anything.
This was Solomon’s view, and he held that view with other Old Testament writers:
“Those who are wise must finally die, just like the foolish and senseless, leaving all their wealth behind” (Psalm 49:10 NLT).
Death happens to everyone, and no one can “take it with them.” It is a universal event that all will experience. Being wise will not keep you from experiencing death. The wise will join the foolish in that one place. The Hebrews called it Sheol.
It was the place of waiting on God. Sooner or later, we will all meet at that station and await the resurrection train to take us to our next destination. The station (Sheol) itself is not our destination.
“But he said, “My son shall not go down with you, for his brother is dead, and he is the only one left. If harm should happen to him on the journey that you are to make, you would bring down my gray hairs with sorrow to Sheol”” (Genesis 42:38 ESV).
Jacob did not want his sons bringing Benjamin down to Egypt. He thought he had already lost Joseph to Sheol, and didn’t want to lose Benjamin as well. Such a loss would only mean death for Jacob, and joining his sons in Sheol.
But – wait a minute. Isn’t Sheol just another word for hell? No, it is not. The Hebrews did not see Sheol as a place of punishment for anyone. Sheol is the station where everyone waits in an unconscious state for resurrection to their final state: either eternal life or eternal death. Jacob expected to one day go to Sheol. He would never have expected to go to hell, and he would have never expected Joseph to go to hell.
“Oh that you would hide me in Sheol, that you would conceal me until your wrath be past, that you would appoint me a set time, and remember me!” (Job 14:13 ESV).
Job actually looked forward to death and the intermediate state (Sheol). He wanted to forget the pain and unfair treatment he had experienced in life. His hope was not that he would be rewarded at death, but that death would be hidden (in a state of unconsciousness) and the resurrected back to life at an appointed time when God remembered him. That is the hope of the New Testament as well.
“Do not marvel at this, for an hour is coming when all who are in the tombs will hear his voice and come out, those who have done good to the resurrection of life, and those who have done evil to the resurrection of judgment” (John 5:28-29 ESV).
We are all waiting for that hour. For some of us, we will be alive when the train comes in. Others are in their tombs, and waiting at the station. The Greeks called the station Hades. And it corresponds to the Hebrew Sheol. It is a state of unconsciousness where the dead wait for life. It is not the final state. Ears which have long since crumbled to dust will one day hear again. They will hear their master’s voice, calling them to their eternal destiny.
Even Jesus himself waited at the Hades station between his death on Good Friday and his resurrection to life again on Easter Sunday.
“For David says concerning him, “‘ I saw the Lord always before me, for he is at my right hand that I may not be shaken; therefore my heart was glad, and my tongue rejoiced; my flesh also will dwell in hope. For you will not abandon my soul to Hades, or let your Holy One see corruption. You have made known to me the paths of life; you will make me full of gladness with your presence.’ “Brothers, I may say to you with confidence about the patriarch David that he both died and was buried, and his tomb is with us to this day. Being therefore a prophet, and knowing that God had sworn with an oath to him that he would set one of his descendants on his throne, he foresaw and spoke about the resurrection of the Christ, that he was not abandoned to Hades, nor did his flesh see corruption. This Jesus God raised up, and of that we all are witnesses” (Acts 2:25-32 ESV).
Peter preached that Jesus waited at the Hades station, but was not allowed to wait long. After three days God raised him from his state of unconscious sleep and gave him life again. Unlike everyone else who has gone there, Jesus was not abandoned to Hades, and his body never saw corruption. His resurrection is our guarantee that we, too, will one day be raised to life.
Paul put it this way:
“But in fact Christ has been raised from the dead, the firstfruits of those who have fallen asleep. For as by a man came death, by a man has come also the resurrection of the dead. For as in Adam all die, so also in Christ shall all be made alive. But each in his own order: Christ the firstfruits, then at his coming those who belong to Christ” (1 Corinthians 15:20-23 ESV).
Paul knew very well when the resurrection would come. It would take place “at his coming.” He was using a harvest metaphor to explain what happens at death. Death is a kind of planting of a person in Hades until the time of harvest comes. For Christ, his time of harvest has come, for he was the Firstfruits. For us, we await our time of harvest, which will happen at the second coming of Christ. The point is, our reward does not come at death. We are planted in the ground, and await the one who has the power to raise us up again. Until that happens, we sleep. Christ experienced this sleep as well. He did not cease to exist, but he did cease to function, and was absolutely dead from Good Friday until Easter Sunday.
The intermediate state is not a time of purgatorial purging of sin, nor is it a time of reward or punishment. Jesus told a story where he seemed to be saying that (Luke 16:19-31) but he was not teaching his disciples doctrine about the intermediate state. He was teaching the Pharisees about true riches (16:11). He adapted a story from their own folklore and twisted the ending so that the Pharisees “who were lovers of money” ((16:14) could see that God cares more about people like Lazarus than he does about their money. Jesus never intended this story to contradict all that the Bible teaches about the unconscious state of death. To use this story in that way is to take it out of its original context intended purpose.1
The Bible teaches that the waiting station of Sheol/Hades is a time when the eyes see no light:
“Consider and answer me, O LORD my God; light up my eyes, lest I sleep the sleep of death” (Psalm 13:3 ESV).
There is no awareness of things that are happening. There is no consciousness of either good or evil. And that is how it really should be. God’s people could not experience joy if they saw their loved ones suffering and falling into the devil’s traps.
The Bible teaches that absolutely no worship takes place in Sheol/Hades:
“For in death there is no remembrance of you; in Sheol who will give you praise?” (Psalm 6:5 ESV).
If you want to worship God, you had better not wait until you die. You will be invited to no angelic choruses. That is all the more reason for you to raise your voice in praise to the God who promises you a resurrection unto eternal life – a chance to praise his name for eternity in a resurrected body with resurrected lungs that can shout, and resurrected hands that can clap, and resurrected feed that can dance!
Death is a waiting station. It is not a time of reward. It is a time where we all pay the price for our ancestor’s rebellion, because the wages of their sin is death for all. But the waiting station is not the end of the journey. Thanks be to God who promises a resurrection unto eternal life at Jesus’ second coming. See you there!
1For more information about the story of the Rich Man and Lazarus, see Edward Fudge, The Fire That Consumes (Cascade Books, 2011) chapter 14: Jesus: Fire (Parable of the Rich Man and Lazarus).