As mentioned below, I’m presently rereading The Resurrection of the Son of God
by N. T. Wright. The main subject, of course, is the resurrection of Jesus, but while going through the first 200 pages, I’ve learned a few things about the intermediate state—the state of existence between death and the resurrection.
For quite a while now I’ve had problems with popular Christians notions of the intermediate state. Too many versions of the faith have an unhealthy focus on it—almost like, “Oh boy, I can’t wait to hurry up and die so that I can go to heaven!” Reading the New Testament, I don’t see that as the focus of salvation at all. It’s about being reconciled to God through Jesus Christ in the present life and the transformation it brings, and the future hope of the Christian is the complete transformation of the entire person, body and soul, in the renewal of all things that is yet to come. The Bible itself tells us very little about the intermediate state between the two—the Old Testament says hardly anything at all, and the New reveals little more. Yes, it’s probably there in 2 Cor. 5.8 and Phil. 1.21-23, but Paul doesn’t explain at all what “at home with the Lord” means or is like. Our sermons, books, and tracts of heaven almost invariably grab and (mis)use resurrection passages to fill in the missing details.
In an early part of this book, Wright examines ancient Greek beliefs about life after death. By and large they believed that the soul lives on apart from the body; resurrection was impossible to them. From Plato onwards, many longed for the release of death, which freed the soul from the prison of its body. Wright explains Plato’s belief:
[D]eath is not something to regret, but something to be welcomed. It is the moment when, and the means by which, the immortal soul is set free from the prison-house of the physical body. (48)
For Plato, the soul is the non-material aspect of a human being, and is the aspect that really matters. Bodily life is full of delusion and danger; the soul is to be cultivated in the present both for its own sake and because its future happiness will depend upon such cultivation. The soul, being immortal, existed before the body, and will continue to exist after the body is gone….Because the soul is this sort of thing, it not only survives the death of the body but is delighted to do so. If it had known earlier where its real interests lay it would have been longing for this very moment. It will now flourish in a new way, released from the prison that had hitherto enslaved it. Its new environment will be just what it should have wanted. Popular opinion would attempt to bring the dead back if that were possible, but this would be a mistake. Death is frequently defined precisely in terms of the separation of soul and body, seen as something to be desired.
Hades, in other words, is not a place of gloom, but (in principle at least) of delight. It is not terrifying, as so many ordinary people believe, but offers a range of pleasing activities—of which philosophical discourse may be among the chief, not surprisingly since attention to such matters is the best way, during the present time, of preparing the soul for its future. The reason people do not return from Hades is that life is so good there; they want to stay, rather than to return to the world of space, time and matter. (49)
To my ears, popular Christian focus on the intermediate state (“He’s in a better place now!”; “You are/have a soul; you live in a body”) sounds far more like this description of Plato (excepting, of course, his belief in the pre-existence of the soul) than anything I read in the Bible. Wright’s section here confirms what I had already surmised: so much of the folk piety that has been handed down to us, at least in this area, is far more Greek philosophical than biblical.
Further on, however (and this is the new thing for me), Wright shook away a fair portion of my skepticism about the intermediate state. As I noted above, there’s almost nothing in the Old Testament about it and only shadows in the New. I have difficult reading much of this tradition back into it; I think it has distorted a lot of our understanding of soteriology. Yet, the biblical silence is not the only factor that should be taken into account. As is well known, Jewish belief in the resurrection grew during the intertestamental period. What I was not so aware of was how belief in an intermediate state, of life after death before the resurrection, grew alongside it. After documenting it copiously, Wright summarizes:
Likewise, any Jew who believed in resurrection, from Daniel to the Pharisees and beyond, naturally believed also in an intermediate state in which some kind of personal identity was guaranteed between physical death and the physical re-embodiment of resurrection. This, too, is a form of ‘immortality’. Unless we were to suppose that ‘resurrection’ denoted some kind of newly embodied existence into which one went immediately upon death—and there is no evidence that any Jews of this period believed in such a thing—it is clear that some kind of ongoing existence is assumed. (164)
This widespread belief in the future resurrection naturally generated a belief in an intermediate state. There were different ways of expressing this: it could even sometimes look fleetingly like a hellenistic, perhaps Platonic, theory of a continuing soul, without (as has often been suggested) strain or contradiction. ‘Resurrection’ entails some kind of belief in continuing post-mortem existence; this need not mean a belief that all humans have an immortal soul in the Platonic sense, since the belief in YHWH as creator which is necessary for belief in resurrection is also a sufficient explanation for the dead being held in some kind of continuing existence, by divine power rather than in virtue of something inalienable in their own being. (203)
In this light, the New Testament’s relative silence about this doctrine becomes easier to handle. Some form of intermediate state—whatever exactly that might be; the details aren’t so important—for the righteous was widely believed by the Jews of Jesus and Paul’s time. It went hand in hand with belief in the resurrection, the unique eschatology of the Jewish people. It is therefore relatively safe to assume that it also stands in the background of Jesus and Paul’s preaching even though not explicitly mentioned or explained in any depth; they never denounce the idea, and the veiled hints of texts such as 2 Cor. 5.8 and Phil. 1.21-23 are perfectly congruous with the theological reasoning outlined here by Wright. Although Christian eschatological hope is focused on the future resurrection of the body, I’ve generally inferred that some form of conscious intermediate existence is necessary as part of the promise of eternal life (John 3.16). Wright’s study here demonstrates the appropriateness of that belief while proving that it’s not necessary to import the change of focus and all the additional beliefs of folk piety that feel more philosophical than biblical.