Doctrine of the Last Things (Part 12)

September 24, 2014     Time: 00:41:58

State of the Soul after Death in the New Testament

The last several lessons we’ve been talking about what we might call cosmic eschatology – how the end of human history and the world will come about. But as I said last time, most of us (or at least all Christians up until this point) haven’t or won’t experience that cosmic end of the world when Christ returns, but rather Christians have experienced what we might call personal eschatology. They have been ushered into the presence of Christ through their own personal death.

This raises the question: what happens to a person when he dies? If he doesn’t live until the return of Christ, what happens to that person when his body gives out? Does that person go straight to heaven, or to hell, or does his soul somehow sleep until the resurrection day when he rises from the dead and Christ returns? Many people on our contemporary scene have claimed that they have had near-death experiences in which they have gone to heaven and had a glimpse of heaven – what it is like when we die. For example, a best-selling book and now a film is Heaven Is For Real in which a young boy – Colton Burpo – describes his experience of what he calls “going to heaven.” He says that there he saw people whom he recognized. He saw his deceased grandfather. He even saw his little sister whom he did not know he had because she died before he was born. He even claims to have seen Jesus in this state.

What are we to make of these kinds of claims? If a person does go straight to heaven when he dies then how do we understand the final resurrection of the dead and of the Judgment Day? How can there be people who are already in an embodied and recognizable condition if they haven’t yet been raised from the dead, because that won’t happen until Christ returns.

If you say, well, people don’t have to wait until the resurrection from the dead then where are these souls of the departed? Where are the souls of the saved or of the unsaved during that interim period before Christ returns?

Those are the sorts of questions that we want to address in this lesson.

Immortality in the New Testament

To do that we want to look at what the New Testament has to teach about the state of the soul after death. The New Testament teaches, I think, that the souls of the saved do not perish when the death of the body occurs, but the soul outlives the body and goes to be with the Lord in a conscious blissful state. The soul is not extinguished upon the death of the body, nor does the soul go into a state of unconsciousness. Rather, the soul is in a conscious, blissful communion with Christ during this intermediate state between the death and the resurrection of the body.

In Philippians 1:23, the apostle Paul reflects upon the possibility of his martyrdom. On trial and in prison for Christ, he faced an impending execution. Look what he says in Philippians 1:21-24. Talking about whether to die or to continue on in the flesh, he says,

For to me to live is Christ, and to die is gain. If it is to be life in the flesh, that means fruitful labor for me. Yet which I shall choose I cannot tell. I am hard pressed between the two. 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.

What Paul indicates here is that death is actually a better state, a better condition, because it brings a closer conscious fellowship with Christ.[1] He recognizes that he needs to continue in this earthly life because of the ministry that God has given him to discharge. But his heart’s desire is to depart and to be with Christ.

Paul discusses this intermediate state of the soul somewhat more fully in 2 Corinthians 5:1-10. Here Paul says,

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 he uses the image of an earthly tent to describe the present body in which we live. The contrast between the earthly tent and the resurrection body which is described as a building from God eternal in the heavens – this immortal structure – is that the earthly tent is flimsy and easily struck down. But the building is stalwart. It stands and will remain forever. So the contrast here that he draws is between this fragile, perishable, mortal body that we presently inhabit, and then the resurrection body eternal that we shall have some day. He says,

Here indeed we groan, and long to put on our heavenly dwelling, so that by putting it on we may not be found naked.

The state of the soul disembodied – the soul apart from the body – is often characterized in ancient Greek literature as a state of nakedness. Here Paul says that we would rather put on our resurrection body without the need of going through this state of nakedness, the state of disembodied existence. We long to put on that heavenly dwelling so that by putting it on we may not be found naked – a soul without a body. He says,

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.

The verb here for being further clothed is an interesting one. It has the idea of pulling on top clothing over the clothing that you already have on, like pulling on a sweater over a shirt that you are already wearing. Paul is saying we don’t want to go through this state of nakedness – this intermediate condition – we would rather put on our immortal body by being further clothed. In other words, he is describing the best scenario is to live until Christ’s return. When Christ returns, remember we saw that those who are alive at that time will be transformed and receive their immortal resurrection bodies without the need of going through the state of disembodied existence first. This would be the best scenario – that we would not be unclothed, stripped of the mortal body, but that we would be further clothed so that what is mortal would be swallowed up by life, by the resurrection body.

He who has prepared us for this very thing is God, who has given us the Spirit as a guarantee.

We have the Spirit living within us. We are spiritually born again. But, as Paul says, we have this treasure in earthen vessels. We have this immortal, regenerated spirit within a mortal, fallen body that is destined to destruction.[2] So he says,

So we are always of good courage; we know that while we are at home in the body we are away from the Lord, for we walk by faith, not by sight. We are of good courage, and we would rather be away from the body and at home with the Lord.

This is the same thing that he expresses in Philippians 1:24 – that if you had to choose between this earthly life and the disembodied state, it is better to be in the disembodied, interim state because you are closer with the Lord. While we are in this body we are away from the Lord. But when you are in that disembodied intermediate state, you are with the Lord awaiting the final resurrection. That is not the best state. The best state will be the resurrection state. The luckiest people are those who don’t have to go through that intermediary period of disembodied existence who live until the parousia and receive immediately their resurrection body. But that puts Paul into a catch-22 situation, doesn’t it? Because in order to get the best state you’ve got to keep on living in the worst state! So you are in a kind of catch-22. You have conflicting desires. On the one hand you’d rather die and go and be with the Lord because that is better than the worst state, but nevertheless it is not as good as the best state. So there are sort of three states that could be ranked here: embodied mortal existence, disembodied existence, and embodied immortal existence. The catch-22 is that to get the best state you’ve got to keep living in the worst state. Otherwise, you are going to go through that intermediate state.

He says nevertheless we’d rather be at home with the Lord than here in this earthly body, and

So whether we are at home or away, we make it our aim to please him. For we must all appear before the judgment seat of Christ, so that each one may receive good or evil, according to what he has done in the body.

We will someday stand before Christ and give account of our mortal existence, but Paul says while we are in this mortal existence we seek to live for Christ and honor him, to please him, as long as we are alive on this Earth.

I take it that what Paul is teaching here is that when a Christian dies his soul, stripped of the body, continues to exist in a disembodied state, but in a state of closer, conscious, blissful communion with Christ. He will be with Christ in that condition until Christ comes again, and you will remember what Paul says in 1 and 2 Thessalonians: bringing with him those who have fallen asleep in Christ. They will rise first and be reunited with their resurrection bodies, and then those who are alive at the time of Christ’s return will similarly be transformed without needing to go through the intermediate state.

Jesus himself gave a very interesting parable where he envisioned something very much like this. Let’s look at Luke 16:19ff, the famous parable of The Rich Man and Lazarus. I want to immediately recognize that we must not press parables for doctrinal precision. Parables are simply stories to illustrate usually one or maybe two central truths. It would be a mistake to try to press these stories, these illustrations, for doctrinal exactitude, as though they were systematic theology. Nevertheless, what Jesus says here is very interesting.[3] He says,

There was a rich man, who was clothed in purple and fine linen and who feasted sumptuously every day. And at his gate lay a poor man named Lazarus, full of sores, who desired to be fed with what fell from the rich man’s table; moreover the dogs came and licked his sores. The poor man died and was carried by the angels to Abraham’s bosom. The rich man also died and was buried; and in Hades, being in torment, he lifted up his eyes, and saw Abraham far off and Lazarus in his bosom. And he called out, “Father Abraham, have mercy upon me, and send Lazarus to dip the end of his finger in water and cool my tongue; for I am in anguish in this flame.” But Abraham said, “Son, remember that you in your lifetime received your good things, and Lazarus in like manner evil things; but now he is comforted here, and you are in anguish. And besides all this, between us and you a great chasm has been fixed, in order that those who would pass from here to you may not be able, and none may cross from there to us.” And he said, “Then I beg you, father, to send him to my father’s house, for I have five brothers, so that he may warn them, lest they also come into this place of torment.” But Abraham said, “They have Moses and the prophets; let them hear them.” And he said, “No, father Abraham; but if some one goes to them from the dead, they will repent.” He said to him, “If they do not hear Moses and the prophets, neither will they be convinced if some one should rise from the dead.”

Apart from the other interesting features of this parable, what we do see here is that Jesus envisions that in the afterlife prior to the resurrection of the dead, these persons exist either in Abraham’s bosom (some sort of paradisiacal existence) or else in Hades, a place of torment. So the person during this intermediate state is alive and in a state of paradise or blissful fellowship with God.

Finally, Luke 23:43. This is the story of the repentant thief on the cross – one of the two criminals crucified with Jesus. This man says to him in verse 42, “Jesus, remember me when you come into your kingdom.” And Jesus said to him, “Truly, I say to you, today you will be with me in Paradise.” Whether you call it Abraham’s bosom, as in the parable of Lazarus and the Rich Man, or you call it paradise, this is a state of conscious blissful existence during which people will wait until the resurrection when Christ returns.

We might ask ourselves: what about these people who have died and seen these relatives in “heaven,” like Colton Burpo seeing his grandfather or little sister? Given that the resurrection hasn’t occurred yet, it is impossible that they could actually have their resurrection bodies. Moreover, why would one be seen as a little girl rather than as an adult woman in the resurrection? He is obviously not seeing them as they actually are because Christ hasn’t returned and the resurrection hasn’t occurred. So what is going on here?

Well, we could either say that these are just illusions of a dying brain, perhaps drug-induced hallucinations, or something of that sort. Or we might offer a more sympathetic interpretation of such experiences. It is possible that in this intermediate state, in order for the disembodied souls of the dead to have fellowship with one another and with Christ, they have mental projections of other persons so that they look to them as though they are in an embodied condition and can have relationships and fellowship with them. That would also explain why to one person the other individual might look like a little girl but maybe to another person would look like an adult woman. Why? Because this is a mental projection of the soul in this intermediate state that makes it look like you are having intercourse with other embodied persons when in fact it is a disembodied state. Interestingly enough, when you look at the parable of Lazarus and the Rich Man, you do have descriptions of embodiment that are seen here.[4] The rich man is in flames, in torment, he wants his tongue to be cooled, and he sees Lazarus in Abraham’s bosom and converses with Abraham.

So if you do have a situation in the intermediate state where the disembodied souls project mental pictures of other disembodied souls in the intermediate state then that would explain why you could have this appearance of physicality even though the actual resurrection body won’t be received until Christ comes again. That is just a speculation, but it would make sense of these kinds of experiences.


Question: I agree with what you are saying about a projection. I guess they call it a different realm. There is another doctor who is a Christian but did not believe in near death experiences called Dr. Alexander. You can look him up on the web. He saw a lot of butterflies, which to me is symbolic of somebody he wouldn’t know who is redeemed, because a chrysalis, butterfly, new life.

Answer: Yes, that would kind of go along with this as well, I think.

Question: I have always been skeptical of claims that people have seen ghosts. Is there any place in Christian belief for believing that you’ve seen a departed person?

Answer: The only possibility that I could think of that would be supportive of that sort of idea would be the story of the Witch of Endor in the Old Testament, where Saul goes to a conjurer and she conjures up Samuel.[5] Could it be that in this case Samuel somehow came out of this intermediate state and appeared to her? She seemed rather rattled about it herself; she didn’t expect to have such success in this way. I think there would be no grounds in the Bible for thinking that the souls of the dead are not separated in this realm and are able to haunt buildings and be around people, or even that the bereaved actually see, for example, visions of their recently departed loved ones. Apart from that Witch of Endor story which involves necromancy – magical bringing up of dead spirits – I just don’t see any grounds for placing any credibility in these ghost stories.

When you look at what Paul and Jesus say it would seem that these people are confined to these states, and therefore these souls are not free to have intercourse with human beings that are embodied.

Question: This is a tough one here. 1 Peter 3:19-20 talks about – some people say Christ went to hell or not, but anyway – it talks about him proclaiming the Gospel to the spirits who are now in prison. Can you comment on that? I don’t really know what to make of that passage.

Answer: Let’s turn to it. 1 Peter 3:18-20,

For Christ also died for sins once for all, the righteous for the unrighteous, that he might bring us to God, being put to death in the flesh but made alive in the spirit; in which he went and preached to the spirits in prison, who formerly did not obey, when God’s patience waited in the days of Noah, during the building of the ark, . . .

What this seems to indicate is that, during the interim period between Jesus’ own death and resurrection, he made this visit to what we will call Hades where the unrighteous dead are imprisoned and proclaimed, I don’t think a Gospel of salvation to them, but rather his victory over sin and death and hell. There are parallels to this verse in Jewish literature from the time that suggests that by “the spirits in prison” what are meant here are these demonic spirits that are imprisoned in Tartarus, the sort of underworld of the dead where God has put the worst of these demonic spirits, rather than allowing them to roam freely about on the Earth.[6] If that is right, what he really is doing is proclaiming his victory over the demonic spirits, particularly these who are imprisoned in Tartarus, in this place where these spirits are confined until their destruction.

Question: Can you explain if man is a soul or has a soul?

Answer: OK, that is a real good question. I hold to substance-dualism – that human beings are composed of body and soul. I would say that you are a soul which has a body. The soul is you. That is your self – your “I” – and you have a body. It is very easy to imagine that you might have had a different body. If your soul had been conjoined with Kevin’s body, say, instead of your body, you would look very different, but it would still be you. So it seems to me that you are a soul that has a body.

That has some interesting implications. J. P. Moreland, who holds to this view, was once talking to his daughter, Ashley, when she was young, and she said, “How can God exist when you can’t see him?” J. P. said to her, “Well, Ashley, you’ve actually never seen me, either.” She said, “What are you talking about?” He said, “You’ve just seen my body, but you’ve never seen me.” That is what he was trying to express. J. P. is a soul who has this body, and what the daughter has seen and known is the current body that he is conjoined with. But that is not actually him.

Question: What do you make of Matthew 27:52-53 where, at Jesus’ death, some of the Old Testament saints came back to life?

Answer: Alright. Let’s turn to Matthew 27:51-53. This is at the death of Christ.

And behold, the curtain of the temple was torn in two, from top to bottom; and the earth shook, and the rocks were split; the tombs also were opened, and many bodies of the saints who had fallen asleep were raised, and coming out of the tombs after his resurrection they went into the holy city and appeared to many.

What is troubling about this passage to every interpreter (regardless of how you regard it) is that it seems to suggest that there were people that were raised from the dead prior to Christ. That is theologically very problematic because Paul says in 1 Corinthians 15 that Christ is the first fruits of those who have fallen asleep, and that it is on his model and pattern that people are raised from the dead. So it would seem really odd here that there would be people raised from the dead prior to Christ’s own resurrection. Even Matthew seems to feel a little bit of discomfort about this because he says the tombs were opened and the bodies of the saints were raised, but then he says, “coming out of the tombs after his resurrection.” Well, what were they doing in between? Were they sort of sitting around in these tombs waiting for Christ to be raised, and then they came out? That doesn’t seem right. So even Matthew feels, I think, a little uncomfortable about having these resurrected saints prior to the resurrection of Christ. Yet, he does seem to want to connect the resurrection of these Old Testament saints with the crucifixion of Christ.

Notice this is not appended to a resurrection narrative. This story about the raised saints is appended to the crucifixion of Christ as a way of showing the cosmic significance of the death of Christ. This has led some interpreters to suggest that maybe this shouldn’t be taken literally. Maybe this is just part of Matthew’s apocalyptic imagery of saying how earth-shattering the death of Christ was. It underlines its cosmic significance, but it isn’t meant to be literally interpreted. I don’t know what the right answer is, frankly. This is one of those passages that makes you just scratch your head. It is not found in any other Gospel. Matthew doesn’t say anything more about it. So I don’t really know exactly what to make of it.[7]

Question: On that passage, it doesn’t say that they have resurrected bodies though. They could be resuscitated bodies like Lazarus. This would really be a sight; this would be like Thriller!

Answer: I think your point is a very good one. It could well be that what Matthew is thinking of here is not a resurrection in the proper sense of the word; that is to say, to immortality and glory. But what it could be would be something more like Lazarus being raised from the dead or Jairus’s daughter. I find that a very attractive solution – to say that these people came back to mortal life but it isn’t a resurrection to glory and immortality. I like that solution very much. I think that is certainly possible with the vocabulary that is used here.

What we’ve said is all about the souls of the righteous dead. What about the souls of the unrighteous dead – the souls of those who do not know Christ? As we’ve already seen in the parable from Luke 16, the unsaved are imprisoned in a condition that the New Testament calls Hades; that is to say, they are in a place of conscious torment until the resurrection at the end of the world. Hades is the Greek word that is used to translate the Hebrew Sheol in the Greek translation of the Old Testament known as the Septuagint – often abbreviated LXX. In the LXX, the Greek Old Testament, Hades is the Greek word for Sheol. In this sense, Sheol in the Old Testament describes more accurately the state of the unrighteous dead.

Look, again, at Psalms 6:5 read in this light. There the psalmist says, “For in death there is no remembrance of thee; in Sheol who can give thee praise?” That is certainly true of Hades, isn’t it? In this condition, people are not praising and worshiping God. Similarly Isaiah 38:18, “For Sheol cannot thank thee, death cannot praise thee; those who go down to the pit cannot hope for thy faithfulness.” That, again, certainly would be an accurate description of those in Hades.

In Jesus’ parable of the Rich Man and Lazarus, we have Hades referred to along with Abraham’s bosom. Look again at Luke 16:22b-23. It says, “The rich man also died and was buried; and in Hades, being in torment, he lifted up his eyes, and saw Abraham far off and Lazarus in his bosom.” This is not hell. That is the final state after the resurrection of the dead. Hades is this intermediate state of the disembodied, unrighteous souls as they await the resurrection from the dead.

So the unsaved are also in an intermediate state, but far from being in a state of blissful communion with Christ, they are in a state of torment and separation from Christ as they await their final resurrection.

Finally, what will happen is that when Christ returns the dead – both saved and unsaved – will be raised from the dead. John 5:25-29, a verse that we’ve read before. Jesus says,

Truly, truly, I say to you, the hour is coming, and now is, when the dead will hear the voice of the Son of God, and those who hear will live. For as the Father has life in himself, so he has granted the Son also to have life in himself, and has given him authority to execute judgment, because he is the Son of man. Do not marvel at this; for the hour is coming when all who are in the tombs will hear his voice and come forth, those who have done good, to the resurrection of life, and those who have done evil, to the resurrection of judgment.

So when Christ comes again to execute judgment, the dead (whether in Hades or in paradise) will be raised from the dead, their souls will be reunited with a body, and they will then be judged before the judgment seat of Christ, and then ushered into the eternal state.[8]

For God’s judgment, see 2 Corinthians 5:10, a verse we read just a moment ago: “For we must all appear before the judgment seat of Christ, so that each one may receive good or evil, according to what he has done in the body.” This is not just the judgment of Christians for rewards because he says that we will receive either good or evil (punishment or reward) based upon what we’ve done in the body.

1 Corinthians 4:5 Paul says,

Therefore do not pronounce judgment before the time, before the Lord comes, who will bring to light the things now hidden in darkness and will disclose the purposes of the heart. Then every man will receive his commendation from God.

So it is at the time of Christ’s return that judgment will take place. Not when you die! It will be at the time of Christ’s return when we are raised from the dead.

Also 1 Corinthians 3:12ff Paul says,

Now if any one builds on the foundation [He is talking here about Christians who are building on the foundation of Christ] with gold, silver, precious stones, wood, hay, straw— each man’s work will become manifest; for the Day will disclose it, because it will be revealed with fire, and the fire will test what sort of work each one has done. If the work which any man has built on the foundation [on Christ] survives, he will receive a reward. If any man’s work is burned up, he will suffer loss, though he himself will be saved, but only as through fire.

Here Paul contemplates Christians who have built upon the foundation of Christ with solid lasting materials as those who receive a blessing from the Lord and a reward, but other Christians who have squandered their lives and built on the foundation with just refuse, their work is going to be burned up. They will be saved; they will get in, but only with the smell of smoke on their garments, so to speak.

Finally, in 2 Timothy 4:8 Paul says, “Henceforth there is laid up for me the crown of righteousness, which the Lord, the righteous judge, will award to me on that Day, and not only to me but also to all who have loved his appearing.” Here Paul is speaking of the reward or the commendation that Christ will give to his followers on the day of his return.

By contrast, the unsaved will be judged and sentenced to eternal punishment and death. Matthew 25:31-32, 46:

When the Son of man comes in his glory, and all the angels with him, then he will sit on his glorious throne. Before him will be gathered all the nations, and he will separate them one from another as a shepherd separates the sheep from the goats . . . And they [that is, the goats] will go away into eternal punishment, but the righteous [the sheep] into eternal life.”

Here, just as the saved when they are raised from the dead will have eternal life, so the unrighteous dead will have eternal punishment.[9]

The last verse that I wanted to read is Romans 2:6-11. Paul says,

For [God] will render to every man according to his works: to those who by patience in well-doing seek for glory and honor and immortality, he will give eternal life; but for those who are factious and do not obey the truth, but obey wickedness, there will be wrath and fury. There will be tribulation and distress for every human being who does evil, the Jew first and also the Greek, but glory and honor and peace for every one who does good, the Jew first and also the Greek. For God shows no partiality.

So both the saved and the unsaved will stand before Christ for judgment, be judged upon the basis of what they’ve done with their lives, and those who have built upon the foundation of Christ and built well will receive a commendation from God, but the unsaved will be condemned and sent into everlasting punishment and separation from God.

In a sense, they go from the frying pan into the fire. They go from Hades into Gehenna, or the final state which is called hell.[10]


[1] 5:28

[2] 9:58

[3] 14:20

[4] 20:02

[5] cf. 1 Samuel 28:3-25

[6] 25:04

[7] 30:02

[8] 35:48

[9] 40:01

[10] Total Running Time: 41:57 (Copyright © 2014 William Lane Craig)