excursus: scaling the wall (part 3)

 

When anyone dares to suggest that sleep is an appropriate way to describe someone’s death, opponents are often quick to respond. They tend to build a wall of evidence, consisting of texts which appear to support some kind of conscious survival after death. Those of us who hold to an unconscious intermediate state have scaled that wall. We see inconsistencies that exist with the popular interpretations of the texts when compared to the actual texts themselves.

Some of the texts have simply been misinterpreted, like …

    • 2 Corinthians 5:1-10, which expresses Paul’s desire to put on his resurrection body at the return of Christ, not to go to heaven when he dies.
    • Luke 16:19-31, in which Jesus employs a scary tale about woe in Hades to show the Pharisees that just because they are rich today, their eternal state is not secure.
    • The bringing up of Samuel by the Medium at Endor (1 Samuel 28) was a miracle God allowed to rebuke Saul for his disobedience. It was an unusual event – all miracles are. It cannot prove that people are normally conscious at death.

Other texts have been mistranslated.

· There is some evidence to show that neither Jesus nor the thief on the cross actually went to heaven on the day that Jesus died. The traditional translation of Luke 23:43, then, is a mistake. Jesus was assuring the repentant thief that they would be together on the day about which he asked: the day Christ comes in his kingdom.

· Jonah’s cry “out of the belly of hell” (Jonah 2:2 KJV) was the cry of a man who felt he was about to die, and go to Sheol, the grave. It says nothing and proves nothing about the intermediate state.

Many of the remaining texts that serve as that wall of evidence fall into the misinterpretation category. They include the following:

“Moses and Elijah appeared and began talking with Jesus” (Matthew 17:3).

The transfiguration involved a number of miracles, including the sudden appearance of two great men from Israel’s past. The Bible specifically tells us that Moses had died and was buried.[1] Many think the Bible teaches that Elijah never died. However, there is some evidence that his ride into the heavens on a fiery chariot was a round trip. Some time after his famous trip to outer space[2] — possibly as much as two years after – king Jehoram gets a letter from Elijah.[3] Unless one argues that the Israelite postal service was really efficient, it appears that Elijah returned to write that letter. In other words, Elijah lived a normal life and presumably died a normal death.

All of this is to say that if Moses and Elijah reappeared physically to talk to Jesus at the mount of transfiguration, then both had been resurrected for that purpose. Their appearance was miraculous, and it proved the power of God, but it did not prove that they had been conscious in the intermediate state.

Yet the Bible does not specifically say that they had been resurrected. It says they appeared. Then, after talking with Jesus for some time, they disappeared. Later, when Jesus spoke to his disciples who saw it, he told them that it was a vision.[4] The appearance, and then disappearance of these two Old Testament saints was a vision designed to draw attention to the one who believers today should be paying attention to. As the voice said from the cloud “This is my beloved Son; listen to him.”[5] This story is about the doctrine of revelation: how God has definitively spoken to us through his Son. To make this story about consciousness after death is to highjack it.

“GOD … IS NOT GOD OF THE DEAD, BUT OF THE LIVING”

(Matthew 22:32)

Among the many opponents to Jesus and his message were the Sadducees. They had emerged as a sect from Second Temple Judaism who had jettisoned all belief in the supernatural. Chief among the supernatural concepts that they had rejected was the idea that God would resurrect the faithful. After a group of Sadducees learned that Jesus was in town, they approached him with a question. It was an elaborate question that (they felt) showed how ridiculous it is to believe that God would resurrect anyone.

“Now there were seven brothers among us.

The first married and died, and having no

children left his wife to his brother. 26 So

too the second and third, down to the

seventh. 27 After them all, the woman died.

28 In the resurrection, therefore, of the

seven, whose wife will she be? For they all

had her.”[6]

Perhaps these Sadducees imagined that Jesus would say “Now that you mention it, resurrection does seem a silly idea doesn’t it?” But Jesus attacked these Sadducees. He told them, “You are wrong, because you know neither the Scriptures nor the power of God.” He was arguing that resurrection was not so silly. The Bible promises it, and God is able to deliver on that promise.

In defense of the resurrection, Jesus quotes Exodus 3:6, where God identifies himself to Moses as “the God of your father, the God of Abraham, the God of Isaac, and the God of Jacob.” While the text does not tell us whether Amram was alive at that time, it is quite clear that Abraham and Isaac and Jacob had been dead for some time. So how can that text prove the legitimacy of the resurrection? Jesus said that God “is not God of the dead, but of the living.”[7] what legitimizes the hope of resurrection is not that people survive their deaths, but that God does.

Abraham, Isaac and Jacob will live again, because God always lives.

Again, this text says absolutely nothing about the intermediate state. It does not say that Abraham, Isaac and Jacob are asleep, but neither does it assert that they are awake. The proof of the resurrection that Jesus puts forth in answer to the Sadducees’ question is the existence of God. Since God is alive, those who died are alive to him. This is much like Jesus’ response to Martha who weakly told Jesus that she knew her brother would be raised at the resurrection on the last day. Jesus responded “I am the resurrection and the life.”[8] Her problem was not her concept of the resurrection, but her failure to see that the Resurrection was standing in front of her.

“A MAN … CAUGHT UP TO THE THIRD HEAVEN”

2 Corinthians 12:2

Arguing for the legitimacy of his apostleship to some obstinate Corinthians, Paul decided to prove that he was acceptable as a spiritual leader because of the “visions and revelations” he had received.[9] He told of a time some fourteen years earlier when he had been caught up to heaven and “heard things that cannot be told, which man may not utter.”[10] Paul’s experience was so real to him, that he was unsure whether he was transported to heaven bodily, or whether it was a vision. Let us, for the sake of argument, assume that Paul had been transported bodily to heaven. Would that event teach us anything about the intermediate state? Obviously not. It would only prove that such a trip is possible, for someone who is alive. It would teach us nothing about a person’s state at death.

Or, for the sake of argument, let us assume the opposite — that Paul’s experience was a vision in which Paul was allowed to see heaven, but his body did not travel there. That would not be substantially different from any of the other visions of heaven recorded in the Bible. There is nothing in the text to suggest that Paul was dead. Ergo, this statement teaches nothing about the nature of the intermediate state.

JESUS “DIED FOR US SO THAT WHETHER WE ARE AWAKE OR ASLEEP WE MIGHT LIVE WITH HIM” (1 Thessalonians 5:10)

Paul unashamedly used the sleep metaphor to describe the death of believers. In this text, he divides the Christian population into two groups. There are two groups today whom Jesus has died for: those who are awake, and those who are asleep. Those of us who are awake are obviously believers in Jesus who have not yet died. Those who are asleep are those who have already fallen asleep in death and await resurrection day so that they can live again.

What is the hope of these two groups? Our blessed hope is that the Lord will return some day and reunite both groups. Jesus died for us in order to make that possible. He died for us on the cross so that whatever group we are in (dead or alive) we can be with him in eternity. There is no statement about the state of consciousness that dead believers are experiencing. In fact, this passage is about what Jesus has done, and our assurance of what he will do for us.

Those who use this passage as part of that wall of evidence hope to convince readers that it is saying that all believers are presently alive with Christ. However, behind that hope is a theological tradition that says that everyone is alive, Christian or not. The tradition affirms the concept that everyone has an immortal soul, which cannot die, and must remain alive forever. This text says nothing of such an innate immortality. The only immortality it promises is for those who are in Christ, who have benefitted from his sacrificial death on the cross.

“THE SOULS OF THOSE WHO HAD BEEN SLAIN …CRIED OUT WITH A LOUD VOICE” (Revelation 6:9-10)

It is really pulling from the bottom of the barrel to take a passage from an apocalyptic vision and try to use it to prove a doctrine, but people continue to consistently do it. We have no right to assume that beheaded souls can normally cry out than to assume that God’s throne normally has a literal lamb on it who is also a lion. The book of Revelation tells God’s truth using symbols, and to take those symbols as proof of their own existence is to misuse the text.

However, John probably knew some of those souls that he saw depicted in the vision. Some of them might have been his close friends. When he saw them crying out to God for justice, he was identifying with their cry. He wanted Christ to return and bring his judgment. But those who use this text merely as proof that disembodied souls remain alive do not believe that such souls are really crying out for justice. They think that once those souls were separated from their bodies they went to heaven and are experiencing the reward of eternal bliss. You cannot have it both ways. Either the righteous remain alive and go to their reward at death or they do not. In this passage, the righteous who have died are not yet vindicated. They wait for a resurrection.

“MY DESIRE IS TO DEPART AND BE WITH CHRIST” (Philippians 1:23)

Paul was contemplating the ramifications of his eventual death. He knew that whether he continued to live, or he died, either way Christ would get the glory. “Christ will be honored in (his) body, whether by life or by death.”[11] “For (him) to live is Christ, and to die is gain”[12] because all he has to look forward to is being raised at Christ’s second coming. That resurrection hope had become Paul’s obsession. His explained the “gain” that he hoped for later in this same letter to the Philippians:

“Indeed, I count everything as loss because

of the surpassing worth of knowing Christ

Jesus my Lord. For his sake I have suffered

the loss of all things and count them as

rubbish, in order that I may gain Christ

9 and be found in him, not having a

righteousness of my own that comes from

the law, but that which comes through faith

in Christ, the righteousness from God that

depends on faith- 10 that I may know him

and the power of his resurrection, and may

share his sufferings, becoming like him in

his death, 11 that by any means possible

I may attain the resurrection from the dead.”[13]

As Paul was contemplating the consequences of whether or not he died in Christ’s service or continued to live, a third option emerged in his mind which he said was “far better.” He said “My desire is to depart and be with Christ, for that is far better.”[14] He was saying that the best thing to happen for him is for Jesus to break the clouds and call him to himself. Then Paul would depart and be with Christ. That would be more glorious than either of the other options. But, until that happens, Paul is content to continue serving the Christ of the resurrection.


How stable is that wall of evidence looking now? God’s word proves many things, and it is profitable for doctrine. But it nowhere proves the conscious intermediate state. Our hope in Christ is not found in human nature, it is found in a divine rescuer. We hope not to survive death but to be raised to new life.


[1] Deuteronomy 34:5-7.

[2] 2 Kings 2:11.

[3] 2 Chronicles 21:12.

[4] Matthew 17:9 (ESV, KJV, NASB, NET, NKJV, NRSV, HCSB, LEB).

[5] Mark 9:7 ESV.

[6] Matthew 22:25-28 ESV.

[7] Matthew 22:32.

[8] John 11:25.

[9] 2 Corinthians 12:1.

[10] 2 Corinthians 12:4.

[11] Philippians 1:20.

[12] Philippians 1:21.

[13] Philippians 3:8-11.

[14] Philippians 1:23.

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