excursus–scaling the wall (part 1)

Few people actually take the time to consider arguments for an unconscious intermediate state because as soon as those arguments appear, a wall of contrary evidence is immediately thrown up around them. Numerous passages from Scripture are used, so that readers are assured that an unconscious sleep until the Lord returns is just unthinkable. In spite of the fact that sleep is the predominant metaphor the Bible uses for death, this wall of evidence seems to indicate that there must be some sort of conscious survival at death.

When we conditionalists say that we hope for a resurrection, not survival, our opponents just assume that we ignore that wall of evidence. They assume that we quickly skip past those texts when we are doing our devotions, and try to pretend that they are not there. On the contrary, we have had to look long and hard at those texts. We stay with those texts until we can reconcile what they actually teach with what the Bible states elsewhere.

What we look for is consistency. If a biblical author states one thing in one text, we do not expect him, or another biblical author, to contradict it in another. If the popular understanding of a particular text seems to be inconsistent with another, we look for an alternate understanding. This is merely doing good theology. Once we come to an alternate interpretation that does not contradict what is taught elsewhere, then we have scaled that portion of the wall.

Our belief is that every portion of that wall can be overcome. We do not believe that any of the evidence presented in favor of a conscious intermediate state is incontrovertible. We are convinced that the popular interpretations of those texts are misinterpretations. We are determined to scale this wall of evidence because we are convinced that it has led our brothers and sisters in Christ to believe something the Bible does not teach.

These articles will address some of the more popular texts which are part of that wall of evidence. They are intended to reveal those inconsistencies that exist with the popular interpretations of the texts when compared to the actual texts themselves. At no point will it be conceded that the actual text itself is in error. We expect the Bible to present a coherent, consistent theology of the intermediate state.

“LONGING TO PUT ON OUR HEAVENLY DWELLING”

(2 Corinthians 5:1-10).

This is not the first text in which the apostle Paul has revealed his hope of life after death. He addressed the issue extensively in his previous letter to the Corinthians. He told them that the future resurrection was a reality, and that if it were not so, then “those … who have fallen asleep in Christ have perished.”[1] Now, the popular interpretation of 2 Corinthians 5 has Paul saying that every believer goes immediately and consciously to heaven when he dies. So, he first teaches that the resurrection is necessary, and then he teaches that it is not. First he teaches that without a resurrection we perish, then he teaches that without a resurrection we will continue to live. Here is one of those inconsistencies that make us take a closer look at that wall of evidence.

In 1 Corinthians 15, Paul taught that believers who have died will be made alive again at the second coming of Christ.[2] The popular interpretation of 2 Corinthians has Paul contradicting that, and saying that believers will remain alive after their deaths and go to be with the Lord. Paul did speak of believers being raised imperishable at the last trumpet,[3] but in 2 Corinthians 5 he appears to teach that something survives which is already imperishable, “a building from God, a house not made with hands, eternal in the heavens.”[4]

We are told that this survival is actually what Paul wants. He wants to be absent from the body (by means of his death) and present with the Lord. After all, he says “we would rather be away from the body and at home with the Lord.”[5] Five years later, he told the Philippians that all his hard work and suffering was so that “by any means possible I may attain the resurrection from the dead.”[6] So, apparently Paul changed his mind again.

Or, there is another interpretation of 2 Corinthians 5 – one that does not contradict what Paul teaches elsewhere. What Paul actually teaches is that believers long to put on their resurrection bodies, which are their building from God, their houses not made with hands, which will be eternal. Their present lives are mortal, perishable, like a tent that is destined to be destroyed. While in these tents, believers groan, not because they want to die, but because they want to put on their resurrection bodies and live.

The popular interpretation of this text completely ignores the words “not that we would be unclothed, but that we would be further clothed, so that what is mortal may be swallowed up by life.”[7] This is where Paul corrects the possible misunderstanding that he is seeking the intermediate state. That state between death and the resurrection is not what Paul longs for. Here is how Paul describes the three states:

1. In the present state, believers are at home in the body, but away from the Lord.[8] He is not visibly here with us, but has gone to heaven, and will return to raise us. He has left his Holy Spirit as a guarantee that he will not leave us in this mortal state forever.[9] So we “we make it our aim to please him”[10] no matter what state we are in.

2. In the intermediate state, believers are dead, and unclothed.[11] They have not yet put on their heavenly dwellings.[12] This is not what Paul wants.

3. In the final state, believers will be raised to life by Christ at his second coming. This is what Paul wants. He would rather be away from his present, mortal body, and already at home with the Lord.[13]

Nowhere in this entire passage does Paul speak of going someplace when he dies. He never mentions the soul or spirit – except the Holy Spirit, who is given to us now as a guarantee of the resurrection to come. Paul is not recommending or commending or anticipating his own death. He does not anticipate an afterlife, but the resurrection life. Yet the popular interpretation of this text centers on the assumption that Paul is saying he would rather die than keep on living.

There is nothing Christian about wanting to die. Life – even this present, mortal life – is a gift from God, and should be preserved and cherished. Any philosophy or theology that teaches otherwise is unchristian, and any text that appears to represent a desire for death is misinterpreted.

“THERE WAS A RICH MAN…” (Luke 16:19-31).

Those who use Jesus’ parable of the Rich Man and Lazarus as proof of a conscious intermediate state fall into two camps: those who insist it is not a parable, but a true story, and those who realize that it is a parable but still say that its depiction of a conscious afterlife is accurate anyway.

Conditionalists agree with most biblical scholars who recognize that the passage is a parable. It begins with the very same words as the parable of the dishonest manager: “there was a rich man.”[14] A parable is any story that can be placed (Gk. ballo) alongside (Gk. para) something else to illustrate it. There are two parables in Luke 16, each illustrating a different message, and each having a different intended audience.

Jesus taught the parable of the dishonest manager to his disciples.[15] It involved a story of a steward who faced his immanent dismissal. He decided to adjust the debts owed his master so that his kindness to the debtors would encourage one of them to hire him later. When the master found out about it, he commended him, because even though he had been dishonest toward him, he had (in a sense) been faithful to the debtors.

Jesus used this parable to teach them to be faithful with their money. The teaching that the parable is intended to illustrate is this: “make friends for yourselves by means of unrighteous wealth, so that when it fails they may receive you into the eternal dwellings.”[16] In other words, Jesus taught his disciples to be faithful to God, and invest their money in his kingdom.

Now, if one were inclined to take this parable as doctrine describing how believers should communicate, there is a problem. Jesus appears to be commending dishonesty. The hero of the parable is a person who succeeded because he did not do what he was supposed to. He told lies and broke promises. There was a possibility that the disciples might not understand that he was teaching about faithfulness to God, and they might think he was teaching deception as moral good. Such is the case with parables. If one does not keep in mind the main point, a parable can be misinterpreted and lead the reader to the wrong conclusions.

The intended audience of the second parable is not the disciples, but “the Pharisees.”[17] These men were enemies of Jesus and the gospel. Unlike the disciples, they were not repentant. They were not seeking to be faithful. In the story, the rich man, who dies unrepentant, pleads with Abraham to raise Lazarus from the dead and send him back to his father’s house. He has four brothers who are still alive, but he knows that they too are heading to “this place of torment”.[18]

But Abraham refuses, because the brothers “have Moses and the prophets,” and if they do not hear them, “neither will they be convinced if someone should rise from the dead.”[19] The message of this parable is that those who refuse to heed the warnings of scripture will not be convinced even if they see someone (like Jesus) who is raised from the dead. He is telling the Pharisees that they already have all the evidence they are going to get. They will face judgment someday, and there will be no excuses.

The story that Jesus uses to convey this message – like the previous one – can be misinterpreted if the reader does keep in mind its purpose. This rich man did not go to hell. He “was buried.”[20] Yet, somehow in the grave he is able to see Lazarus, who is not in heaven, but was carried (bodily) to Abraham’s side. The story turns Hades – the intermediate state – into something that the Bible says that it is not. Elsewhere, the Bible describes Hades as a place of darkness[21], silence[22], and sleep[23].

In fact, eight chapters before this, Luke has Jesus describing the death of a little girl. He told the mourners that she was sleeping.[24] When his friend (also called Lazarus) died, Jesus told his disciples “Our friend Lazarus has fallen asleep, but I go to awaken him.”[25] So, either Jesus has changed his mind about the nature of death, or the story he is telling the Pharisees is not intended to teach that kind of doctrine. Why, after all, would Jesus throw his pearls (of new truth about eschatology) before the swine of the Pharisees?

The Pharisees were probably already familiar with this story, but were surprised at the ending Jesus gave it. They expected the rich man to be blessed in the afterlife, the same as he was in life. They expected the beggar to be cursed in the afterlife, the same as he was in life. The Pharisees believed what the Hindu religion teaches: that the next life carries over the judgments of this one. But Jesus’ story taught them that the blessings they are experiencing now are preventing them from seeing what God’s judgment will bring. Its dramatic reversal of fortune is the reason Jesus chose to tell the story.

The Bible consistently places judgment after the resurrection. Jesus himself had said “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.”[26] This story places judgment before that event. Surely Jesus would not contradict himself. So, in order to take this parable literally as a description of the intermediate state, one has to assume that there will be two judgments: one during the intermediate state, and one after the resurrection.

Since Lazarus is (ostensibly) already experiencing “good things” and being “comforted” at Abraham’s side, it also appears to teach that believers are rewarded at death. But Jesus taught (above) that believers will be rewarded at the resurrection. So, in order to accommodate this story, a doctrine of multiple rewards (as well as punishments) must be devised.

If this parable is not permitted to walk on all fours, it accomplishes what Jesus intended: warning the Pharisees that they are not blessed simply because they are rich. But allowing this parable to rewrite the Bible’s clear anthropology and eschatology elsewhere is gross abuse of its words. Those who use it to teach that the intermediate state is conscious – in direct opposition to the many clear, didactic passages that teach otherwise, are allowing the obscure text to overrule the clear ones.

They also read into the story elements that are not there. There is no mention of heaven or hell. There are no spirits or souls: the rich man’s body is in torment – unless spirits have eyes and tongues. Moreover, Jesus is telling the story, but he is not in it. Judgment takes place without the only divinely appointed judge. Also, there is no mentioning of faith in the story. The rich man is judged because he was rich but not compassionate; Lazarus is blessed (apparently) because he was poor. Yet those who use this parable insist that it describes the hell that unbelievers will face, and the heaven that believers can expect when they die.

No, we will not take this parable “literally.” Doing so requires a complete rework of biblical theology. Only if one’s mind is already made up about the intermediate state would such a passage be actual evidence in favor of it being conscious. In other words, if it were not for the teaching of Greek philosophy which introduced the notion of disembodied souls in an underworld, those reading this story would never have used it to defend such a concept.

“TODAY YOU WILL BE WITH ME IN PARADISE” (Luke 23:43).

Our Lord’s assurance to the penitent thief on the cross sounds so obviously in favor of a conscious intermediate state that for some that settles the argument altogether. Yet even that evidence is not incon-trovertible. The Greek of the original text contained no punctuation. By merely placing the comma after the word “today” instead of before it, the reader finds Jesus saying “I say to you today, you will be with me in Paradise.” Thus Jesus gives assurance to the penitent thief that he will remember him when he comes in his kingdom, which is what the thief had asked for. In fact, two early manuscripts of Luke have the thief asking Jesus to “remember me on the day of your coming.” This may have reflected a more literal rendering of what the thief had said in Aramaic. Jesus’ response, then, might have been a specific reference to that day. The word “today” can also be translated “this day.” Jesus may have been telling the thief that “this day” (the day I come again) “you will be with me in paradise.” So Jesus’ words could be translated in such a way as to convey something different than assurance that the thief would join him in heaven that day.

There is also evidence to suggest that the thief did not die that day. That would make Jesus mistaken if he had assured the thief that both of them would go to heaven that day. John records that since Jesus died on the day of Preparation, the Jews asked that those crucified be taken down from their crosses so as not to be hanging on Passover. The soldiers intended to break the legs of each person on a cross, so that neither could revive and escape. They did so to each of the thieves on either side of Jesus because they were both still alive.

When they came to Jesus, he was already dead. To ensure that he was really dead, they plunged a spear into his side. John mentions these things because they actually fulfill two prophecies. John records “For these things took place that the Scripture might be fulfilled: “Not one of his bones will be broken.” And again another Scripture says, “They will look on him whom they have pierced.””[27]

The cruelty of the cross was that it was a painful and embarrassing way to die. However, since the pressure of gravity usually made it impossible to breathe, it was a relatively quick death. The two thieves were removed from the cross, and their legs broken. They would endure a slow death of exposure. They probably died after sundown, which would have been considered the next day by Jewish reckoning.

Jesus had taught his disciples that death was a sleep that required a resurrection to wake up from. Also, after his resurrection, he told Mary Magdalene “I have not yet ascended to the Father.”[28] So neither the thief nor Jesus made it to heaven on that day. That combination of evidence shows that Luke 23:43 as it stands in our English Bibles is a mistranslation.

{to be continued}


[1] 1 Corinthians 15:18.

[2] 1 Corinthians 15:23.

[3] 1 Corinthians 15:52.

[4] 2 Corinthians 5:1.

[5] 2 Corinthians 5:8.

[6] Philippians 3:11.

[7] 2 Corinthians 5:4.

[8] 2 Corinthians 5:6.

[9] 2 Corinthians 5:4-5.

[10] 2 Corinthians 5:9.

[11] 2 Corinthians 5:4.

[12] 2 Corinthians 5:2.

[13] 2 Corinthians 5:8.

[14] Luke 16:1-13.

[15] Luke 16:1.

[16] Luke 16:9.

[17] Luke 16:14.

[18] Luke 16:27-28.

[19] Luke 16:31.

[20] Luke 16:22.

[21] Job 10:21-22; 17:13; Lamentations 3:6.

[22] Psalm 31:17; Ezekiel 32:21,27; Psalm 94:17; 115:17; Isaiah 38:18; Ecclesiastes 9:10.

[23] Psalm 13:3; 1 Kings 2:10; 11:21, 43; 14:20, 31; 15:8, 24; 16:6, 28; 22:40, 50; 2 Kings 8:24; 10:35; 13:9, 13; 14:16, 22, 29; 15:7, 22, 38; 16:20; 20:21; 21:18; 24:6; 2 Chr. 9:31; 12:16; 14:1; 16:13; 21:1; 26:2, 23; 27:9; 28:27; 32:33; 33:20.

[24] Luke 8:53.

[25] John 11:11.

[26] John 5:28-29.

[27] John 19:36-37 ESV.

[28] John 20:17 ESV.

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