The New Testament says very little about the state of the dead during the intermediate period between their falling asleep and their awakening on the day of the resurrection. We must agree with G. C. Berkouwer that what the New Testament tells us about the intermediate state is nothing more than a whisper.33 The primary concern of the New Testament is with the events that mark the transition from this age to the Age to Come: the return of Christ and the resurrection of the dead.
Our major source of information for the New Testament view of the state of the dead are the 11 references to hades (which is the Greek equivalent of the Hebrew sheol) and 5 passages commonly cited in support of the belief in the conscious existence of the soul after death. The 5 passages are: (1) Luke 16:19-31, where we find the parable of the Rich Man and Lazarus; (2) Luke 23:42-43, which reports the conversation between Jesus and the thief on the cross; (3) Philippians 1:23, where Paul speaks of his "desire to depart and be with Christ"; (4) 2 Corinthians 5:1-10, where Paul uses the imagery of the earthly/heavenly houses and of the unclothed/clothed conditions to express his desire to "be away from the body and at home with the Lord" (2 Cor 5:8); and (5) Revelation 6:9-11 which mentions the souls of the martyrs under the altar crying to God to avenge their blood. We proceed to examine each of the above in the order given.
The Meaning and Nature of Hades. The Greek word hades came into Biblical use when the translators of the Septuagint chose it to render the Hebrew sheol. The problem is that hades was used in the Greek world in a vastly different way than sheol. While sheol in the Old Testament is the realm of the dead, where, as we have seen, the deceased are in an unconscious state, hades in Greek mythology is the underworld, where the conscious souls of the dead are divided in two major regions, one a place of torment and the other of blessedness.
Edward Fudge offers this concise description of the Greek conception of hades: "In Greek mythology Hades was the god of the underworld, and then the name of the nether world itself. Charon ferried the souls of the dead across the rivers Styx or Acheron into his abode, where the watchdog Cerberus guarded the gate so that none might escape. The pagan myth contained all the elements of the medieval eschatology: there was the pleasant Elysium, the gloomy and miserable Tartarus, and even the Plains of Asphodel, where ghosts could wander who were suited for neither of the above. Ruling beside the god was his queen Proserpine (or Persephone), whom he had raped from the world above."34
This Greek conception of hades influenced Hellenistic Jews, during the intertestamental period, to adopt the belief in the immortality of the soul and the idea of a spatial separation in the underworld between the righteous and the godless. The souls of the righteous proceeded immediately after death to heavenly felicity, there to await the resurrection, while the souls of the godless went to a place of torment in hades.35 The popular acceptance of this scenario is reflected in the Parable of the Rich Man and Lazarus to be examined shortly.
This view of hades as a place of torment for the wicked eventually entered into the Christian Church and influenced even Bible translators. It is noteworthy that the word hades, which occurs 11 times in the New Testament, is translated in the KJV 10 times as "hell"
and 1 time as "grave." The RSV transliterates the word as "Hades." The translation of hades as "hell" is inaccurate and misleading, because, with the exception of Luke 16:23, the term refers to the grave or the realm of the dead, not to a place of punishment. The latter is designated as gehenna, a term which also occurs 11 times in the New
Testamentand is rightly translated "hell," since it refers to the lake of fire, the place of doom for the lost. Hades, on the other hand, is used in the New Testament as the standing equivalent of sheol, the realm of the dead or the grave.
Jesus and Hades.
In the Gospels, Jesus refers to hades three times. The first use of hades is found in Matthew 11:23, where Jesus upbraids Capernaum, saying: "And you, Capernaum, will you be exalted to heaven? You will be brought down to Hades" (cf. Luke 10:15). Here hades, like sheol in the Old Testament (Amos 9:2-3; Job 11:7-9), denotes the deepest place in the universe, just as the heaven is the highest. This means that Capernaum will be humiliated by being brought down to the realm of the dead, the deepest place in the universe.
The second use of hades in the teaching of Jesus occurs in the parable of the rich man and Lazarus (Luke 16:23). We shall return to this shortly. The third use is found in Matthew 16:18, where Jesus expresses His confidence that "the gates of Hades shall not prevail" against His church. The meaning of the phrase "the gates of Hades" is illuminated by the use of the same expression in the Old Testament and Jewish literature (3 Macc 5:51; Wis. of Sol 16:13) as a synonym for death. For example, Job asks rhetorically: "Have the gates of death been revealed to you, or have you seen the gates of deep darkness?" (Job 38:17; cf. Is 38:18). The underworld was pictured as enclosed with cliffs, where the dead were locked in. Thus, what Jesus meant by "the gates of Hades" is that death shall not prevail against His church, obviously because He had gained the victory over death.
Like all the dead, Jesus went to hades, that is, to the grave, but unlike the rest He was victorious over death. "For thou wilt not abandon my soul to Hades, nor let thy Holy One see corruption" (Acts 2:27; cf. 2:31). Here hades is the grave where Christ's body rested for only three days and, consequently, did not "see corruption," the decay process resulting from a prolonged interment. Because of His victory over death, hades-the grave is a defeated enemy. Thus, Paul exclaims: "O death, where is thy sting? O grave [hades] where is thy victory?" (1 Cor 15:55, KJV). Here hades is correctly translated "grave" in the KJV since it is in parallel with death.
Christ now holds the keys to "death and Hades" (Rev 1:18), He has power over death and the grave. This enables Him to unlock the graves and call forth the saints to everlasting life at His coming. In all these passages, hades is consistently associated with death, because it is the resting place of the dead, the grave. The same is true in Revelation 6:8, where the pale horse has a rider whose name "was Death, and Hades followed him." The reason "Hades" follows "Death" is obviously because hades, as the grave, receives the dead.
At the end of the millennium, "Death and Hades" will give up their dead (Rev 20:13) and "then Death and Hades were thrown into the lake of fire. This is the second death, the lake of fire" (Rev 20:14). These two verses are significant. First, because they tell us that eventually hades will give up the dead, which indicates again that hades is the realm of the dead. Second, they inform us that at the End, hades itself will be thrown into the lake of fire. By means of this colorful imagery, the Bible reassures us that at the End, both death and the grave will be eliminated. This will be the death of death, or as Revelation puts it, "the second death."
This brief survey of the use of hades in the New Testament clearly shows that its meaning and usage is consistent with that of sheol in the Old Testament. Both terms denote the grave or the realm of the dead and not the place of punishment of the
The Rich Man and Lazarus.
The word hades also occurs in the parable of the rich man and Lazarus, but with a different meaning. While in the 10 references we have just examined hades refers to the grave or the realm of the dead, in the parable of the rich man and Lazarus it denotes the place of punishment for the ungodly (Luke 16:23). The reason for this exceptional use will be explained shortly. Obviously, dualists make great use of this parable to support the notion of the conscious existence of disembodied souls during the intermediate state (Luke 16:19-31). Because of the importance attached to this parable, we need to examine it closely.
First, let us look at the main points of the story. Lazarus and the rich man both die. Their situations in life are now reversed after their death. For when Lazarus died, he "was carried by angels to Abraham's bosom" (Luke 16:22), whereas the rich man was taken to hades where he was tormented by scorching flames (Luke 16:23). Although a great gulf separated them, the rich man could see Lazarus in Abraham's bosom. So he pleaded with Abraham to send Lazarus on two errands: first, to "send Lazarus to dip the end of his finger in water and cool his tongue" (Luke 16:24) and second, to send Lazarus to warn his family members to repent lest they experience the same punishment. Abraham denied both requests for two reasons. The first, because there was a great chasm that made it impossible for Lazarus to cross over to help him (Luke 16:26); the second, because if his family members did "not hear Moses and the prophets, neither will they be convinced if some one should rise from the dead" (Luke 16:31).
Before looking at the parable, we need to remember that contrary to an allegory like Pilgrim's Progress, where every details counts, the details of a parable do not necessarily have any significance in themselves, except as "props" for the story. A parable is designed to teach a fundamental truth, and the details do not have a literal meaning, unless the context indicates otherwise. Out of this principle another grows, namely, only the fundamental teaching of a parable, confirmed by the general tenor of Scripture, may be legitimately used for defining doctrine.
Unfortunately, these two fundamental principles are ignored by those who wish to use the details of a parable to support their views. For example, Robert Peterson draws a lesson from each of the major characters of the parable. "First, like Lazarus, those whom God helps will be borne after their death into God's presence. . . . Second, like the rich man, the unrepentant will experience irreversible judgment. The wicked survive death too, only to endure 'torment' and 'agony.' . . . Third, through Scripture, God reveals himself and his will so that none who neglect it can legitimately protest their subsequent fate."40
Peterson's attempt to draw three lessons from the parable ignores the fact that the main lesson of the parable is given in the final punch line: "If they do not hear Moses and the prophets, neither will they be convinced if someone should rise from the dead" (Luke 16:31). This is the main lesson of the parable, namely, nothing or no one can supersede the convicting power of the revelation that God has given us in His Word. To interpret Lazarus and the rich man as representative of what will happen to the saved and the unsaved immediately after death means to milk the parable for lessons foreign to its original intent.
The Problems of a Literal Interpretation. Those who interpret the parable as a literal representation of the state of the saved and unsaved after death are faced with insurmountable problems. If the narrative is an actual description of the intermediate state, then it must be true in fact and consistent in detail. But if the parable is figurative, then only the moral truth to be conveyed need concern us. A literal interpretation of the narrative breaks down under the weight of its own absurdities and contradictions, as becomes apparent under scrutiny.
Contenders for literalism suppose that the rich man and Lazarus were disembodied spirits, destitute of bodies. Yet the rich man is described as having "eyes" that see and a "tongue" that speaks, as well as seeking relief from the "finger" of Lazarus-all real body parts. They are portrayed as existing physically, despite the fact that the rich man's body was duly buried in the grave. Was his body carried away into hades together with his soul by mistake?
A gulf separates Lazarus in Heaven (Abraham's bosom) from the rich man in hades. The gulf is too wide for anyone to cross and yet narrow enough to permit them to converse. Taken literally, this means that Heaven and Hell are within geographical speaking and seeing distance from each other so that saints and sinners eternally can see and communicate with one another. Ponder for a moment the case of parents in Heaven seeing their children agonizing in hades for all eternity. Would not such a sight destroy the very joy and peace of Heaven? It is unthinkable that the saved will see and converse with their unsaved loved ones for all eternity across a dividing gulf.
Conflict With Biblical Truths. A literal interpretation of the parable contradicts some fundamental Biblical truths. If the narrative is literal, then Lazarus received his reward and the rich man his punishment, immediately after death and before the judgment day. But the Bible clearly teaches that the rewards and punishments, as well as the separation between the saved and the unsaved will take place on the day of Christ's coming: "When the Son of man comes in his glory, . . . and before him will be gathered all the nations, and he will separate them one from another" (Matt 25:31-32). "Behold, I am coming soon, bringing my recompense, to repay everyone for what he has done" (Rev 22:12). Paul expected to receive "the crown of righteousness" on the day of Christ's appearing (2 Tim 4:8).
A literal interpretation of the parable also contradicts the uniform testimony of the Old and New Testaments that the dead, both righteous and ungodly, lie silent and unconscious in death until the resurrection day (Eccl 9:5-6; Job 14:12-15, 20, 21; Ps 6:5; 115:17). A literal interpretation also contradicts the consistent use of hades in the New Testament to denote the grave or the realm of the dead, not a place of punishment. We have found that in 10 of its 11 occurrences, hades is explicitly connected with death and the grave. The exceptional use of hades in this parable as a fiery place of torment (Luke 16:24) derives, as we shall shortly see, not from Scripture, but from current Jewish beliefs influenced by Greek mythology.
Current Jewish Concepts. Fortunately for our investigation, we have Jewish writings that illuminate the parable of the rich man and Lazarus. Especially revealing is the "Discourse to the Greeks Concerning Hades," written by Josephus, the famous Jewish historian who lived during New Testament times (died about A. D. 100). His discourse parallels very closely the narrative of the rich man and Lazarus. In it Josephus explains that "Hades is a subterraneous region where the light of this world does not shine. . . . This region is allowed as a place of custody for souls, in which angels are appointed as guardians to them, who distribute to them temporary punishments, agreeable to every one's behavior and manners."41
Josephus points out, however, that hades is divided into two regions. One is "the region of light" where the souls of the righteous dead are brought by angels to the "place we call The Bosom of Abraham."42 The second region is in "perpetual darkness," and the souls of the ungodly are dragged by force "by the angels allotted for punishment."43 These angels drag the ungodly "into the neighborhood of hell itself," so that they can see and feel the heat of the flames.44 But they are not thrown into hell itself until after the final judgment. "A chaos deep and large is fixed between them; insomuch that a just man that hath compassion upon them, cannot be admitted, nor can one that is unjust, if he were bold enough to attempt it, pass over it."45
The striking similarities between Josephus' description of hades and the parable of the rich man and Lazarus are self-evident. In both accounts we have the two regions that separate the righteous from the ungodly, the bosom of Abraham as the abode of the righteous, a great gulf that cannot be crossed, and the inhabitants of one region who can see those of the other region.
Josephus' description of hades is not unique. Similar descriptions can be found in other Jewish literature.46 What this means is that Jesus capitalized on the popular understanding of the condition of the dead in hades, not to endorse such views, but to drive home the importance of heeding in this present life the teachings of Moses and the prophets because this determines bliss or misery in the world to come.
Jesus' Use of Current Beliefs. At this juncture, it may be proper to ask, "Why did Jesus tell a parable based on current beliefs that do not accurately represent truth as set forth elsewhere in the Scripture and in His own teachings?" The answer is that Jesus met people on their own ground, capitalizing on what was familiar to them to teach them vital truths. Many of His hearers had come to believe in a conscious state of existence between death and the resurrection, though such a belief is foreign to Scripture. This erroneous belief was adopted during the intertestamental period as part of the process of Hellenization of Judaism and had become a part of Judaism by the time of Jesus.
In this parable, Jesus made use of a popular belief, not to endorse it, but to impress upon the minds of His hearers an important spiritual lesson. It should be noted that even in the preceding parable of the Dishonest Steward (Luke 16:1-12), Jesus uses a story that does not accurately represent Biblical truth. Nowhere, does the Bible endorse the practice of a dishonest administrator who reduces to half the outstanding debts of creditors in order to get some personal benefits from such creditors. The lesson of the parable is to "make friends for yourselves" (Luke 16:9), not to teach dishonest business practices.
John Cooper acknowledges that the parable of the rich man and Lazarus "does not necessarily tell us what Jesus or Luke believed about the afterlife, nor does it provide a firm basis for a doctrine of the intermediate state. For it is possible that Jesus simply uses popular images in order to make his ethical point. He may not have been endorsing those images. He may not have believed them himself because he knew them to be false." 47
Cooper then asks the question: "What does this passage tell us about the intermediate state?" He flatly and honestly replies: "The answer may be, 'Nothing.' The dualist case cannot lean on this text as a main support."48 The reason he gives is that it is most difficult to draw conclusions from the imagery of the parable. For example, Cooper asks: "Will we be bodily beings [in the intermediate state]? Will the blessed and the damned be able to see each other?"49
Jesus and the Thief on the Cross. The brief conversation between Jesus and the penitent thief on the cross next to Him (Luke 23:42-43) is used by dualists as a major proof for the conscious existence of the faithful dead in paradise before the resurrection. Thus, it is important to take a close look to the words spoken by Jesus to the penitent thief.
Unlike the other criminal and most of the crowd, the penitent thief did believe that Jesus was the Messiah. He said: "Jesus, remember me when you come into your kingdom" (Luke 23:42). Jesus answered him, "Truly I say to you today you shall be with me in paradise" (Luke 23:43). A major problem in the interpretation of this text is caused by the location of the comma, which in most translation, is placed before "today." Thus, most readers and commentators assume that Jesus said: "Today you shall be with me in paradise" Such reading is interpreted to mean that "on that very day"50 the thief went to paradise with Christ.
The original Greek text, however, has no punctuation and, translated literally, reads: "Truly to you I say today with me you will be in paradise." The adverb "today-semeron" stands between the verb "I say-lego" and "you will be-ese." This means that grammatically the adverb "today" can apply to either of the two verbs. If it qualifies the first verb, then Jesus said: "Truly I say to you today, you shall be with me in paradise."
Translators have placed the comma before the adverb "today," not for grammatical reasons, but for the theological conviction that the dead receive their reward at death. One would wish that translators would limit themselves to translating the text and leave the task of interpretation to the reader.
The question we are facing is: Did Jesus mean to say, "Truly, I say to you today. . ." or "Today you shall be with me in paradise"? Those who maintain that Jesus meant the latter appeal to the fact that the adverb "today" does not occur elsewhere with the frequently used phrase "Truly, I say to you." This is a valid observation, but the reason for this exceptional attachment of the adverb "today" to the phrase "Truly, I say to you" could very well be the immediate context. The thief asked Jesus to remember him in the future when He would establish His messianic kingdom. But Jesus responded by remembering the penitent thief immediately, "today," and by reassuring him that he would be with Him in paradise. This interpretation is supported by three major considerations: (1) the New Testament meaning of paradise; (2) the time when the saved will enter upon their reward in paradise, and (3) the time when Jesus Himself returned to Paradise.
What Is Paradise? The word "paradise-paradeisos" occurs only three times in the New Testament-twice in addition to this use in Luke 23:43. In 2 Corinthians 12:2-4, Paul relates an ecstatic experience of being "caught up into paradise," which he locates in "the third heaven" (2 Cor 12:2). It is evident that for Paul, paradise is in heaven. In Revelation 2:7, the Lord gives this promise: "To him who conquers I will grant to eat of the tree of life, which is in the paradise of God." Here paradise is associated with the tree of life, which, according to Revelation 22:2, will be found in the New Jerusalem: "On either side of the river [there is] the tree of life with its twelve kinds of fruit, yielding its fruit each month." All of this suggests that paradise is the eternal habitation of the redeemed in the restored "Garden of Eden."
Therefore, when Jesus assured the penitent thief of a place with Him in "paradise," He was referring to the "many mansions" in His "Father's house" and to the time when He would "come to receive unto Himself His own (John 14:1-3). Throughout His ministry, Jesus taught that the redeemed would enter into His Father's Kingdom at His coming: "Come, O blessed of my Father, inherit the kingdom prepared for you from the foundation of the world" (Matt 25:34; 16:27). Paul taught the same truth. At Christ's second coming, the sleeping saints will be resurrected and the living saints translated, and all "shall be caught up together . . . in the clouds to meet the Lord in the air; and so we shall always be with the Lord" (1 Thess 4:17). It is at that time, following the resurrection of the righteous, that the thief will be with Jesus in Paradise.
When Did Jesus Return to Paradise? Those who interpret Christ's statement to the thief as meaning that on that very day the thief went to paradise to be with Christ, assume that both Jesus and the thief ascended to heaven immediately after their death. But such a conclusion can hardly be supported by Scripture.
The Scriptures expressly teach that on the day of His crucifixion, Christ went into the grave-hades. At Pentecost, Peter proclaimed that in accordance to David's prophecy (Ps 16:10), Christ "was not abandoned in Hades, nor did his flesh see corruption," but was raised up by God (Acts 2:31-32). Hades, as we have seen, is associated consistently in the New Testament with the grave or the realm of the dead. The only exception is Luke 16:23, where hades denotes a place of torment, not paradise. Such meaning derives from popular Jewish conceptions influenced by Greek mythology, not from Scripture. What this means is that Christ could hardly have told the thief that on that very day he would be with Him in paradise, when He knew that on that day He would be resting in the grave.
Those who would argue that only Christ's body went into the grave while His soul ascended to heaven ignore what Jesus said to Mary on the day of His resurrection: "Do not hold me, for I have not yet ascended to the Father" (John 20:17). It is evident that Jesus was not in Heaven during the three days of his burial. He was resting in the grave, waiting for His Father to call Him back to life. Thus, the thief could hardly have gone to be with Jesus in Paradise immediately after his death when Jesus Himself did not ascend to the Father until some time after His resurrection. To appreciate more fully the meaning of being "with Christ in paradise," let us look at Paul's use of the phrase "being with Christ."
"To Depart and Be With Christ." In writing to the Philippians, Paul says: "My desire is to depart and be with Christ, for that is far better. But to remain in the flesh is more necessary on your account" (Phil 1:22-23). Dualists consider this text one of the strongest proofs that at death the soul of the saved immediately goes into the presence of Christ. For example, Robert Morey states: "This is the clearest passage in the New Testament which speaks of the believer going to be with Christ in heaven after death. This context deals with Paul's desire to depart this earthly life for a heavenly life with Christ. There is no mention or allusion to the resurrection in this passage."51
The fundamental problem with this interpretation is the failure to recognize that Paul's statement, "My desire is to depart and be with Christ" is a relational and not an anthropological statement. By this I mean, it is a statement of the relation that exists and continues between the believer and Christ through death, not a statement of the "state" of the body and soul between death and the resurrection.
Helmut Thielicke correctly points out that the New Testament is not concerned about a 'state' which exists between death and resurrection, but for a relation that exists between the believer and Christ through death. This relationship of being with Christ is not interrupted by death because the believer who sleeps in Christ has no awareness of the passing of time. As Thielicke puts it, "The removal of a sense of time means for those who are awakened that the long night of death is reduced to a mathematical point, and they are thus summoned out of completed life."52
The attempts to extract from Paul's statement support for the belief in the transit of the soul to heaven at death are unwarranted because, as Ray Anderson rightly observes, "Paul did not think the question of the status of the person between death and resurrection was a question that needed to be considered."53 The reason is that for Paul those who "die in Christ" are "sleeping in Christ" (1 Cor 15:18; 1 Thess 4:14). Their relation with Christ is one of immediacy, because they have no awareness of the passing of time between their death and resurrection. They experience what may be called "eternal time." But for those who go on living on earth-bound temporal time there is an interval between death and resurrection. The problem is that we cannot synchronize the clock of eternal time with that of our temporal time. It is the attempt to do this that has led to unfortunate speculations and controversies over the so-called intermediate state.
By expressing his desire "to depart and be with Christ," Paul was not giving a doctrinal exposition of what happens at death. He is simply expressing his longing to see an end to his troubled existence and to be with Christ. Throughout the centuries, earnest Christians have expressed the same longing, without necessarily expecting to be ushered into Christ's presence at the moment of their death. Paul's statement must be interpreted on the basis of his clear teachings regarding the time when believers will be united with Christ.
With Christ at His Coming. Paul addresses this question in his letter to the Thessalonians where he explains that both the sleeping and living believers will be united with Christ, not at death, but at His coming. "The dead in Christ will rise first; then we who are alive, who are left, shall be caught up together with them in the clouds to meet the Lord in the air; and so we shall always be with the Lord" (1 Thess 4:17).54 The "so" (houtos) refers to the manner or way in which believers will be with Christ, namely, not by dying, but by being resurrected or translated at His coming. Basil Atkinson notes that the word "so" in Greek houtos "means 'in this way.' Its place here at the beginning of the sentence makes it emphatic, so that the meaning of the sentence becomes: 'And this is the way that we shall be for ever with the Lord,' implying that there is no other way and leading us to conclude that we shall not be with the Lord till the day of the resurrection."55
It should be noted that in describing the union with Christ which believers will experience at His coming, Paul never speaks of disembodied souls being reunited with resurrected bodies. Rather, he speaks of "the dead in Christ" being risen (1 Thess 4:16). Obviously, what is risen at Christ's coming is not just dead bodies but dead people. It is the whole person who will be resurrected and reunited with Christ. Note that the living saints will meet Christ at the same time "together with" the resurrected saints (1 Thess 4:17). Sleeping and living saints meet Christ "together" at His coming, not at death.
The total absence of any Pauline allusion to an alleged reunion of the body with the soul at the time of the resurrection constitutes, in my view, the most formidable challenge to the notion of the conscious survival of the soul. If Paul knew anything about this, he would surely have alluded to it, especially in his detailed discussion of what will happen to sleeping and living believers at Christ's coming (1 Thess 4:13-18; 1 Cor 15:42-58). The fact that Paul never alluded to the conscious survival of the soul and its reattachment to the body at the resurrection clearly shows that such a notion was totally foreign to him and to Scripture as a whole.
G. C. Berkouwer correctly observes that "New Testament believers are not oriented towards their 'private bliss' so that they forget the coming Kingdom, but they do indeed await being 'with Christ,' for in Him they acquired a new future."56 The eschatological hope of being with Christ is not an individualistic hope realized at death by disembodied souls, but a corporate hope realized at Christ's coming through the resurrection ,or translation, of the whole person and of all the believers.
Paul's desire "'to depart and be with Christ' does not reflect a wish for an intimate 'entre nous [between us experience]' in heaven, because the phrase is integrally related to cosmic redemption at the end of time."57 The cosmic, corporate dimension of the "with Christ" experience is clearly evident in the same epistle to the Philippians, where Paul speaks repeatedly of the consummation of the Christian hope on the day of Christ's coming. He reassures the Philippians that "he who began a good work in you will bring it to completion at the day of Christ's coming" (Phil 1:6). The completion and consummation of redemption takes place not by going to be with Christ at death, but by meeting with Christ on the glorious day of His coming.
It is Paul's prayer that the Philippians "may be pure and blameless for the day of Christ" (Phil 1:10). On that day, Christ "will change our lowly body to be like his glorious body, by the power which enables him even to subject all things to himself" (Phil 3:21). It is this change from mortality to immortality that makes it possible for believers to be with Christ. This is why in the same epistle Paul tells that he was "straining forward" toward that day because he knew that he would receive "the prize of the upward call of God in Christ Jesus" (Phil 1:13-14), not at death, but at the glorious day of Christ's coming.
"At Home With the Lord." In 2 Corinthians 5:1-10, Paul expresses again the hope of being with Christ by using several striking metaphors. This passage is rightly regarded as the "crux interpretum," primarily because the figurative language is cryptic and open to different interpretations. Unfortunately, many interpreters are eager to derive from this passage, as from Philippians 1:22-23, precise anthropological, chronological, or cosmological definitions of life after death. Such concerns, however, are far removed from Paul, who is using the poetic language of faith to express his hopes and fears regarding the present and future life, rather than the logical language of science to explain the afterlife. All of this should put the interpreter on guard against reading into the passage what Paul never intended to express.
The passage opens with the preposition "for-gar," thus indicating that Paul picks up from chapter 4:16-18, where he contrasts the temporal, mortal nature of the present life which is "wasting away" (2 Cor 4:16) with the eternal, glorious nature of the future life, whose "eternal weight of glory [is] beyond all comparison" (2 Cor 4:17). Paul continues in chapter 5 developing the contrast between temporality and eternity by using the imagery of two dwelling places representative of these characteristics.
"For we know that if the earthly tent we live in is destroyed, we have a building from God, a house not made with hands, eternal in the heavens. Here indeed we groan, and long to put on our heavenly dwelling, so that by putting it on we may not be found naked. For while we are still in this tent, we sigh with anxiety; not that we would be unclothed, but that we would be further clothed, so that what is mortal may be swallowed up by life. He who has prepared for us this very thing is God, who has given us the Spirit as a guarantee" (2 Cor 5:1-5).
In this first section of the passage, Paul uses two sets of contrasting metaphors. First, he contrasts "the earthly tent," which is subject to destruction, with the "building from God, a house not made with hands," which is "eternal in the heavens." Then Paul highlights this contrast by differentiating between the state of being clothed with the heavenly dwelling and that of being found naked.
The second section, verses 6 to 10, is more straightforward and contrasts being in the body and therefore away from the Lord, with being away from the body and at home with the Lord. The key statement occurs in verse 8 where Paul says: "We are of good courage, and we would rather be away from the body and at home with the Lord."
The enormous variety of interpretations of this passage can be grouped into three main views, each the direct result of some presuppositions. The history of interpretation of 2 Corinthians 5:1-10 clearly shows how much exegesis and interpretation are influenced by presuppositions. We briefly state and evaluate each of the three main views which may be called: (1) the intermediate state, (2) the resurrection of the body after death, and (3) the resurrection of the body at Christ's coming.
The Intermediate State. Most past and present scholars maintain that in this passage Paul describes the existence of the believer in heaven with Christ during the intermediate state between death and resurrection.58 Briefly stated, this interpretation runs as follows: The tent and the present clothing are the earthly existence. Being unclothed represents dying and the resulting state of nakedness signifies the disembodied existence of the soul during the intermediate state. The building we have in heaven represents, for some, the body that will be reattached to the soul at the resurrection, while for others, it is the soul itself that dwells in heaven.
Robert Morey defends the latter view, saying: "Where in Scripture are we told that our resurrection body is already created and waiting in heaven for us? The only rational answer is that Paul is speaking of the soul's dwelling in heaven." 59 On the basis of these verses, Morey argues that "The place of dwelling [of the soul] while [the person is] alive is on earth, while the place of dwelling after death is in heaven."60
Three major problems exists with the intermediate-state interpretation of this passage. First of all, it ignores that the contrast between the heavenly building and the earthly tent is spatial and not temporal. By this we mean that Paul is contrasting the heavenly mode of existence with the earthly mode of existence. He is not discussing the disembodied state of the soul between death and resurrection. Now, if the apostle had expected to be with Christ at death in his disembodied soul, would he not have alluded to it in this context? Would he not have said, "For we know that if the earthly tent we live in is destroyed . . ." we shall be with our souls in the presence of God in heaven. But, in all of his writings, Paul never alludes to the survival and existence of the soul in the presence of Christ. Why? Simply because such a notion was foreign to Paul and to Scripture.
Second, if the state of nakedness is the disembodied existence of the soul in the presence of Christ during the intermediate state, why does Paul shrink back at the thought of being "found naked" (2 Cor 5:3)? After all, this would have fulfilled his earnest desire to be "at home with the Lord" (2 Cor 5:8). The fact is the notion of nakedness as the state of the soul stripped from the body is found in the writings of Plato and Philo,61 but not in Paul's writings.
Third, if the heavenly building is "the soul's dwelling in heaven," then believers must have two souls, one on earth and the other in heaven because Paul says that "we have a building from God." The present tense indicates a present possession. How can the believer's soul be in heaven with Christ and on earth with the body at the same time?
A Resurrection Body After Death. A number of scholars argue that the heavenly building is the resurrected body, which believers receive immediately at death.62 Allegedly, Paul teaches that life in the earthly body, which is represented by the "earthly tent" (2 Cor 5:1, 4), is followed immediately by the acquisition of the resurrection body, represented by "the building from God, eternal in the heavens" (2 Cor 5:1). Thus, Paul is supposed to reject altogether an intermediate disembodied condition of "being naked" or "unclothed" (2 Cor 5:3-4). This view rests on the premise that during the interval between the writing of 1 and 2 Corinthians, Paul had some close brushes with death that caused him to give up his earlier hope of surviving the Parousia and came to believe, instead, that believers receive their resurrection bodies at the moment of their death.63
A fundamental problem with this interpretation is the assumption that Paul in later years abandoned the hope of the resurrection at the Parousia in favor of an immediate resurrection at death. If that were true, Christians would face the dilemma of not knowing which Paul to believe: the earlier or the later Paul? Fortunately, such a dilemma does not exist because Paul never changed his view on the time of the resurrection. This is indicated by the immediate context of the passage under consideration, which specifically mentions the resurrection at the Parousia: "Knowing that he who raised the Lord Jesus will raise us also with Jesus and bring us into his presence" (2 Cor 4:16). Paul could hardly have stated it more clearly that Christ will raise us and bring us into His presence at His coming and not at death.
If Paul had modified his views of the resurrection time since he wrote 1 Corinthians 15, it is doubtful whether he would have said, "we know" (2 Cor 5:1), which implies a known teaching. Furthermore, even in his later writings, Paul explicitly links the resurrection with the glorious return of Christ (Rom 8:22-25; Phil 3:20-21). It is hard to believe that Paul would have altered his eschatology twice.
Resurrection Body at the Parousia. In recent years, a number of scholars have defended the view that the heavenly building is the "spiritual body" given to believers at the time of Christ's coming.64 There are, indeed, elements in this passage which support this view. For example, the idea of putting on the heavenly dwelling (2 Cor 5:2) and the statement that when we are further clothed, the mortal will be swallowed up with life (2 Cor 5:4). These statements are strikingly similar to the imagery found in 1 Corinthians 15:53, where Paul discusses the change that believers will experience at Christ's coming: "For this perishable nature must put on the imperishable, and this mortal nature must put on immortality."
The proponents of this view rightly protest against an eschatology of heaven which focuses on the individual bliss experienced immediately after death. Their strongest argument is that "if Paul expected to receive the spiritual body at once [at death] then a resurrection at the Last Day would no longer be necessary."65
To state it simply, the proponents of this view interpret Paul's metaphors as follows: While living on this earth we are clothed with the "earthly tent" of our mortal body. At death we are "unclothed" when our bodies are "destroyed" in the grave. At Christ's coming, we will "put on the heavenly dwelling" by exchanging our mortal bodies for the glorious immortal bodies.
Overall, we lean toward this interpretation. Yet there is a major weakness in all three interpretations, namely, they interpret the passage by focusing primarily on the body, whether it be the "spiritual body" given to individual believers at death, or to all the believers together at Christ's coming. But Paul here is not trying to define the state of the body before death, at death, or at Christ's coming, but two different modes of existence.
Heavenly and Earthly Modes of Existence. After rereading the passage countless times, I sense that Paul's primary concern is not to define the state of the body before and after death, but rather to contrast two modes of existence. One is the heavenly mode of existence which is represented by the "building from God, a house not made with hands, eternal in the heavens" (2 Cor 5:1). The other is the earthly mode of existence which is typified by "the earthly tent" which is "destroyed" at death.
The meaning of the imagery of "putting on" or "being clothed" with "our heavenly dwelling" may have more to do with accepting Christ's provision of salvation than with "the spiritual body" given to believers at the Parousia. We find support for this conclusion in the figurative use of "heavenly dwelling" with reference to God and of "being clothed" with reference to the believer's acceptance of Christ.
Paul's assurance that "we have a building from God" (2 Cor 5:1) reminds us of such verses as "God is our refuge and strength" (Ps 46:1), or "Lord, Thou hast been our dwelling place" (Ps 90:1).66 Christ referred to Himself as a temple in a way that is strikingly similar to Paul's imagery of the heavenly dwelling "not made with hands." He is reported to have said: "I will destroy this temple that is made with hands, and in three days I will build another, not made with hands" (Mark 14:58). If Paul was thinking along these lines, then the heavenly dwelling place is Christ Himself and the gift of eternal life He provides to believers.
How, then, does a believer put on "the heavenly dwelling"? A look at Paul's use of the metaphor of clothing may provide an answer. "As many as were baptized into Christ were clothed with Christ" (Gal 3:27). In this text, the clothing is associated with the acceptance of Christ at baptism. Paul also says: "This perishable being must be clothed with the imperishable, and what is mortal must be clothed with immortality" (1 Cor 15:53, NEB). Here the clothing represents the reception of immortality at Christ's coming. These two references suggest that the "clothing" can refer to the new life in Christ, which is accepted at baptism, renewed every day, and consummated at the Parousia, when the final clothing will take place by means of the change from mortality to immortality.
In the light of the above interpretation, to "be found naked" or "unclothed" (2 Cor 5:3-4) may stand in contrast with being clothed with Christ and His Spirit. Most likely "naked" for Paul stands not for the soul stripped from the body, but for guilt and sin which results in death. When Adam sinned, he discovered that he was "naked" (Gen 3:10). Ezekiel allegorically describes how God clothed Israel with rich garments but then exposed her nakedness because of her disobedience (Ez 16:8-14). One may also think of the man without "the wedding garment" at the marriage feast (Matt 22:11). It is possible, then, that being "naked" for Paul meant to be in a mortal, sinful condition, bereft of Christ's righteousness.
Paul clarifies what he meant by being "unclothed" or "naked" versus being "clothed" when he says: "So that what is mortal may be swallowed up by life" (2 Cor 5:4). This statement is interpreted in the light of 1 Corinthians 15:53 to mean that our mortal bodies will be changed into spiritual bodies. But is Paul in 1 Corinthians 15:53 primarily concerned with the body as such? A careful reading of 1 Corinthians 15 suggests that Paul addresses the question of the body parenthetically, merely to answer the question, "How are the dead raised? With what kind of body?" (1 Cor 15:35). After showing the continuity between the present and the future body, Paul moves to the larger question of the transformation that human nature as a whole will experience at Christ's coming: "For this perishable nature must put on the imperishable, and this mortal nature must put on immortality" (1 Cor 15:53).
The same holds true of 2 Corinthians 5. Paul is not concerned with the state of the body or the soul as such before or after death. Incidentally, he never speaks of the soul nor of the "spiritual body" in 1 Corinthians 5. Instead, Paul's concern is to show the contrast between the earthly mode of existence, represented by "earthly tent," and the heavenly mode of existence, represented by the "heavenly dwelling. The former is "mortal" and the latter is immortal ("swallowed up by life;" 2 Cor 5:4). The former is experienced "at home in the body" and "away from the Lord" (2 Cor 5:6). The latter is experienced "away from the body" and "at home with the Lord" (2 Cor 5:8).
The failure to recognize that Paul is speaking about two different modes of existence and not about the state of the body or soul after death, has led to unneccesary, misguided speculations about the afterlife. A good example is Robert Peterson's statement: "Paul confirms Jesus' teaching when he contrasts being 'at home in the body' and 'away from the Lord' with being 'away from the body and at home with the Lord' (2 Cor 5:6, 8). He presupposes that human nature is composed of material and immaterial aspects."67
This interpretation is gratuitous, because neither Jesus or Paul are concerned with defining human nature ontologically, that is, in terms of its material or immaterial components. Instead, their concern is to define human nature ethically and relationally, in terms of disobedience and obedience, sin and righteousness, mortality and immortality. This is Paul's concern in 2 Corinthians 5:1-9, where he speaks of the earthly and heavenly modes of existence in relationship to God, and not of the material or immaterial composition of human nature before and after death.
The Souls Under the Altar. The last passage we examine is Revelation 6:9-11, which reads: "When he opened the fifth seal, I saw under the altar the souls of those who had been slain for the word of God and the witness they had borne; they cried out with a loud voice, 'O Sovereign Lord, holy and true, how long before thou wilt judge and avenge our blood on those who dwell upon the earth?' Then they each were given a white robe and told to rest a little longer, until the number of their fellow servants and their brethren should be complete, who were to be killed as they themselves had been."
This passage is often cited to support the notion that the "souls" of the saints exist after death in heaven as disembodied, conscious spirits. For example, Robert Morey emphatically states: "The souls are the disembodied spirits of the martyrs who cry out to God for vengeance on their enemies. . . . This passage has always proven a great difficulty to those who deny that believers ascend to heaven at death. But John's language is clear that these souls were conscious and active in heaven."68
This interpretation ignores that apocalyptic pictures are not meant to be photographs of actual realities, but symbolic representations of almost unimaginable spiritual realities. John was not given a view of what heaven is actually like. It is evident that there are no white, red, black, and pale horses in heaven with warlike riders. Christ does not appear in heaven in the form of a lamb with a bleeding knife wound (Rev 5:6). Likewise, there are no "souls" of martyrs in heaven squeezed at the base of an altar. The whole scene is simply a symbolic representation designed to reassure those facing martyrdom and death that ultimately they would be vindicated by God. Such a reassurance would be particularly heartening for those who, like John, were facing terrible persecution for refusing to participate in the emperor's cult.
The use of the word "souls-psychas" in this passage is unique for the New Testament, because it is never used to refer to humans in the intermediate state. The reason for its use here is suggested by the unnatural death of the martyrs whose blood was shed for the cause of Christ. In the Old Testament sacrificial system, the blood of animals was poured out at the base of the altar of burnt offerings (Lev 4:7, 18, 25, 30). The blood contained the soul (Lev 17:11) of the innocent victim that was offered as an atoning sacrifice to God on behalf of penitent sinners. Thus, the souls of the martyrs are seen under the altar to signify that symbolically they had been sacrificed upon the altar and their blood has been poured at the base. In chapter 2 we noted that in the Old Testament the soul is in the blood. In this instance, the souls of the martyrs are under the altar because their blood had been symbolically poured at the base of the altar.
The language of sacrificial death is used elsewhere in the New Testament to denote martyrdom. Facing death, Paul wrote: "For I am already on the point of being sacrificed" (2 Tim 4:6). The apostle also says that he was glad "to be poured out as a libation" for Christ (Phil 2:17). Thus, Christian martyrs were viewed as sacrifices offered to God. Their blood shed on earth was poured symbolically at the heavenly altar. Thus their souls are seen under the altar because that is where symbolically the blood of the martyrs flowed.
No Representation of Intermediate State. The symbolic representation of the martyrs as sacrifices offered at the heavenly altar can hardly be used to argue for their conscious disembodied existence in heaven. George Eldon Ladd, a respected evangelical scholar, rightly states: "The fact that John saw the souls of the martyrs under the altar has nothing to do with the state of the dead or their situation in the intermediate state; it is merely a vivid way of picturing the fact that they had been martyred in the name of God."69
Some interpret the "white robe" given to the martyrs as representing the intermediate body given to them at death.70 But in Revelation, the "white robe" represents not the intermediate body, but the purity and victory of the redeemed through Christ's sacrifice. The redeemed who come out of the great tribulation "have washed their robes and made them white in the blood of the Lamb" (Rev 7:14). "The church at Laodicea is counseled to buy gold, white robes, and eyesalve (Rev 3:18), a strange suggestion if white robes are glorified bodies."71 The "souls" being clothed with white robes most likely represent God's recognition of their purity and victory through "the blood of the Lamb" in spite of their ignominious deaths.
The souls of the martyrs are seen as resting beneath the altar, not because they are in a disembodied state, but because they are awaiting the completion of redemption ("until the number of their fellow servants and their brethren should be complete" Rev 6:11) and their resurrection at Christ's coming. John describes this event later on, saying: "I saw the souls of those who had been beheaded for their testimony to Jesus and for the word of God, and who had not worshipped the beast or its image and had not received its mark on their foreheads or their hands. They came to life, and reigned with Christ a thousand years. . . . This is the first resurrection" (Rev 20:4).
This description of the martyrs as "beheaded for their testimony to Jesus and for the word of God" is very much like that of Revelation 6:9. The only difference is that in chapter 6 the deceased martyrs are told to rest, while in chapter 20 they are brought to life. It is evident that if the martyrs are brought to life at the beginning of the millennium in conjunction with Christ's coming, they can hardly be living in heaven in a disembodied state while resting in the grave.
To sum up, the function of the vision of the martyrs under the heavenly altar is not to inform us on the intermediate state of the dead, but to reassure believers, especially the martyrs who in John's time and later centuries gave their lives for the cause of Christ, that God ultimately would vindicate them.
Conclusion. Our study of the state of the dead during the interim period between death and resurrection has shown that both the Old and New Testaments consistently teach that death represents the cessation of life for the whole person. Thus, the state of the dead is one of unconsciousness, inactivity, and sleep that will continue until the day of the resurrection. Our analysis of the usage of the word sheol in the Old Testament and of hades in the New Testament has shown that both terms denote the grave or the realm of the dead and not the place of punishment for the ungodly. There is no bliss or punishment immediately after death, but an unconscious rest until resurrection morning.
The notion of hades as the place of torment for the wicked derives from Greek mythology, not Scripture. In mythology hades was the underworld where the conscious souls of the dead are divided in two major regions, one a place of torment and the other of blessedness. This Greek conception of hades influenced some Jews during the intertestamental period to adopt the belief that immediately after death the souls of the righteous proceed to heavenly felicity, while the souls of the godless go to a place of torment in hades. This popular scenario is reflected in the Parable of the Rich Man and Lazarus.
The popular view of hades as a place of torment for the wicked crept into the Christian Church and eventually even influenced Bible translators. In the KJV, for example, hades is translated "hell" instead of "grave" in 10 of the 11 occurrences of the term. This inaccurate translation has misled many uninformed Christians into believing that at death the souls of the wicked are thrown into hellfire, where they await the resurrection of their bodies which will only serve to intensify their agony in hell.
Our study of all the relevant Biblical passages has shown that the notion of the intermediate state in which the souls of the saved enjoy the bliss of Paradise, while those of the unsaved suffer the torments of hell derives not from Scripture, but from Greek dualism. It is most unfortunatethat during much of its history, Christianity by and large has been influenced by the Greek dualistic view of human nature, according to which the body is mortal and the soul immortal. The acceptance of this deadly heresy has conditioned the interpretation of Scripture and given rise to a host of other heresies such as Purgatory, eternal torment in hell, prayer for the dead, intercession of the saints, indulgences, and etherial view of paradise.
It is encouraging to know that today many scholars of all religious persuasions are launching a massive attack against the traditional dualistic view of human nature and some of its related heresies. We can only hope that these endeavors will contribute to recovering the Biblical wholistic view of human nature and destiny, and thus dispel the spiritual darkness perpetrated by centuries of superstitious beliefs.