November 9, 2015

The Secret Life of Dead Saints: exploring the intermediate state

by Clint Archer

han soloWhat body do we occupy between the time our lifeless bodies decompose into worm-fodder and when they are resurrected in glory?

The short answer is that we don’t know. The Bible doesn’t say. Biblically speaking, it’s a secret. But it’s no secret that the absence of knowledge can’t deter bloggers from opining for 800 words.

So, let’s start with what the Bible does say:

  1. Disembodied spirits seem to require a material, animated host, i.e. a person or animal (remember the pigs) in which to operate in the material world. In Scripture we see spirit beings such as angels and demons disengaged from the material dimension until they manifest in a bodily form.
  • Matt 12:43 When the unclean spirit has gone out of a person, it passes through waterless places seeking rest, but finds none.
  • 2 Kings 6:17 Then Elisha prayed and said, “O Lord, please open his eyes that he may see.” So the Lord opened the eyes of the young man, and he saw, and behold, the mountain was full of horses and chariots of fire all around Elisha.
  1. Bodies are mortal but spirits are immortal. A human being’s spirit separates from his/her mortal body when that body stops functioning—dies—and translocates to where Jesus is, a realm called Paradise (Luke 23:43; 2 Cor 12:3).

  1. Our resurrected, immortal bodies will be united with our spirits on a particular day, the day of resurrection, when the Millennial Kingdom is established. To be more specific, believers are raised at the first resurrection and unbelievers at the second resurrection (Rev 20:5-6). The resurrected body is immortal, imperishable, and “heavenly” vis-à-vis the mortal, perishable body which is “earthly”  (1 Cor 15:35-53).
  1. If a mortal body is still available for resuscitation, the spirit can be reunited. Lazarus, though his corpse was four days past its expiry date, is brought out of the tomb, still embalmed in preservatives. We also see this occur with Jairus’ deceased daughter, the Shunamite’s recently departed son, and of course the dozens of revenant saints who popped out of their sepulchres after being (presumably freshly) inhumed (Matt 27:52).
  1. There are times when invisible disembodied spirits manifest in other ways. Rev 6:9 …I saw under the altar the souls of those who had been slain for the word of God and for the witness they had borne. …  20:4 … I saw the souls of those who had been beheaded for the testimony of Jesus and for the word of God, …They came to life and reigned with Christ for a thousand years.

Another example of a spirit manifesting visibly is when the Holy Spirit descended (visible spatial movement) “like a dove” (Matt 3:16). Unlike the many depictions of the Holy Spirit appearing in the form of a feathery white animal, “like a dove” refers rather to the method of descent; as in He alighted the way a dove would, as opposed to the thud of a dropped anvil, or the pounce of a startled cat.

You also see Jesus referencing the dead rich man and Lazarus in their respective afterlives, both in recognizable bodies. (See Visitor’s Guide to Hell for more on that fascinating account.)

Spook iconNow for a fun one…  Moses and Elijah appear to three bemused disciples on the Mount of Transfiguration in an apparent bodily form (Matt 17:3). Are these earth-suits early renditions of glorified bodies, or merely old editions neatly preserved for this particular use? Consider this: Elijah’s body uniquely escaped mortality and its concomitant decomposition. He never died, and was assumed body and spirit into Paradise. So, we know why he could visit with Jesus on the Mount, but what about Moses? Although Moses went the ineluctable way of all mankind when he died at a ripe old age, the final destination of his lifeless body is far less certain. The biblical writer, Jude, recounts with irksome brevity that Moses’ corpse became a matter of supernatural significance:

Jude 9 But when the archangel Michael, contending with the devil, was disputing about the body of Moses, he did not presume to pronounce a blasphemous judgment, but said, “The Lord rebuke you.”

Wait, what?

Sometimes I wish biblical revelation came with footnotes (no, the MacArthur Study Bible notes don’t count!) Here Jude leaves us with a titillating glimpse into what must be the most noteworthy unsolved mystery in history: what on earth was it about this human cadaver that could bring the archangel and the devil to fisticuffs?

We are told in Deuteronomy 34:6 that God buried Moses in a spot no one knows. So we know his body was entombed on earth. But perhaps it was kept in a way that was meant to preserve it somehow so that Moses could make use of it again when he and Elijah entered the material world a second time, to minister to Jesus on the Mount of Transfiguration.  When Satan tried to interfere Michael was deployed to defend it.

Ok, I think we’ve burrowed deep enough in the rabbit hole. Let’s come up for air and remind ourselves of where we began. What type of body, if any, do saints occupy in the intermediate state? We don’t know. The Bible doesn’t say. It’s a secret.

Clint Archer

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Clint has been the pastor of Hillcrest Baptist Church since 2005. He lives in Durban, South Africa with his wife and four kids.
  • Geo

    This article about where the dead saints are is kind of silly. Paul says “absent from the body, at home with the Lord.” In Luke 16, the rich man was immediately in hell Lazarus was in Abraham’ s bosom. Jesus also told the repentant man on the cross that he would be with him tomorrow in paradise. What more do we need to know where saved lost sinner would go when they die.

    • Hey Geo. So, I think I quoted all the verses you did, so I have to ask if you read the post? The point is that 1 Cor 15 and Rev 20 say that we only get our resurrected bodies at our resurrection, just before the Millennial kingdom. So, does the Bible have contradictions?

  • Jane Hildebrand

    I am personally intrigued by the abilities Christ had in His resurrected body. He was able to be touched, have a meal, change His appearance, appear, disappear and ascend at will. Kind of like Captain Marvel, Superman and Casper all rolled into one.

    • And he still had the wounds of his crucifixion. That’s always baffled me.

      • Jane Hildebrand

        I think that was just to prove to Thomas who he was, and to show him that he overhears every conversation! If you notice, Jesus didn’t have the wounds later on the road to Emmaus or they would have recognized Him. 🙂

        • Jason

          That is certainly a practical value of it. I think the reason is that his body didn’t see corruption (Acts 2:31) whereas ours are corruptible.

          However, I’m not certain how much of people’s lack of recognition was because he changed appearance and how much was because they were made unable to recognize him, similar to all the cases where he vanished into crowds and slipped away.

  • Jason

    #1: I think your first proof text is strong evidence that (at least evil) spirits attempt to find a body. Though I tend to agree, given the text, I’m not sure we can know for certain that they do so because they wish to interact with the world. Perhaps they have some other reason for seeking “a place to rest”, even if that means a pig!

    The second verse mentioned shows that God gave Elisha vision revealing spiritual truths, but if it is assumed that what he saw was spiritual beings interacting with the world while remaining disembodied than it argues against the point being made here. I’ll have to look into this more, because I’ve always thought the same as you.

    #2: The text provided shows that a *believer* is found in the presents of Christ at the moment of their death. We know that man’s spirit returns to God at death because of Ecclesiastes 12:7, but I don’t believe that information is the same as every man existing with Christ at death, only that their Spirit returns to God.

    #3: I’m not sure the assumption that the first resurrection *immediately* proceeds the thousand year reign accounts for chapter 19, where we see the church at the marriage supper in “fine linen, bright and pure” (verse 8) and then the armies of God following Christ in his return to the earth to set up the thousand year rule identified the same way(verse 14).

    I don’t think this contradicts with chapter 20, which simply states that the first resurrection is those who were brought to life and will reign with Christ during the thousand years and contrasts that resurrection with the resurrection for judgement that occurs after the thousand years.

    In #5: “Manifest” may be a strong word for the provided text.

    Revelation 6:9 reminds me of Genesis 4:10. Most people (myself included) tend to see that verse is indicating the desire for God to provide justice for the death of Abel and doesn’t actually say anything to the oratory skills of blood. Similarly, the saints crying out for justice definitely represents the need for wrath on behalf of their murders, but it doesn’t necessarily mean they are disembodied souls crying out in a sub-altar Ecto-Containment System.

    Also, and I’m not going to be dogmatic about it, but it seems likely that the “white robes” given here represent their heavenly bodies (in which these souls will be waiting for the full number of believers to be brought up out of the world). The very next chapter shows the full number all gathered together, in these same robes (perhaps the fifth seal is a vision of those who were dead in Christ being raised before those who were alive when Christ returns in the clouds to gather the church in heaven, as we’re told would be the sequence in 1 Thessalonians 4:16?).

    Revelation 20:4 similarly speaks of souls, but there is no mention of the state of those souls between their deaths and their new life reigning with Christ. In fact, the souls are only mentioned in reference to both their past death and their (now present) life during the thousand years.

    I think it’s true that those souls exist in the heavens with Christ before returning with him to reign for a thousand years, but the text here isn’t what leads to that conclusion.

    • Jason

      Upon additional thought, I could see 1 Samuel 28 playing a larger part in making the point you are stating in #5, with the account at Endor (the one without the ewoks).

      • I think so too. Some would see the appearance of Samuel to be an apparition or vision or some sinister interference from Satan (since it is a witch who summons the spirit).

    • Thanks for the comprehensive peer review. I take it you are a blogger!

      • Jason

        Nope. A software designer. I have been looking around for a more kingdom focused career though. If God can suddenly take Philip from the desert to a coast town who knows where I’ll end up!

  • tovlogos

    Always an interesting (illusive) subject, Clint.
    As you indicated, it’s a secret. I am content with the hints God gives us. It does appear that our spirits make the journey prior to the resurrection; and since our souls depict our personalities, it is a function of our spirits.
    The spirit is all important, especially because God is spirit and “must be worshiped in spirit…spiritually (John 4:24).
    I see the present temporal reality as atomic, constantly movable, holographic, such that spirits come and go freely; yet we are most often clueless to their activity.
    Clearly the spiritual world is unchangeable reality. The temporal world, as is, is not. So, when a human has the privilege of seeing an opening in the veil, the thrill is, he sees reality as Paul did (2 Corinthians 12) and it is amazing.
    Being connected to the word of God is a constant look through the veil; and the more we sink into its revelation, the less we are intimidated by the unknown; and ready to go when He hits the time clock.

  • KPM

    I think the only thing we can say with certainty is, as you made clear, our soul will live after our body dies, and one day our soul will be reunited with our body. In the interim, our soul will be with Christ (probably without a body, but scripture doesn’t say that explicitly). Anything beyond that is left to the realm of mystery. God knows.

    • You might even call it a secret 😉

  • RickA99

    On earth, we exist in time and space. Since dead saints exist as disembodied spirits in the intermediate state, they occupy no space. On what basis do we understand that they exist in time?

    • There seems to be time in Heaven, because the tree of life gives a different fruit each month; and the souls under the altar have a sense of “impatience” or “urgency” and longing for things to be brought to a close “soon.”

      • Jason

        I agree. Also, the heavens were created with the earth and will be rolled up with it’s destruction, so they don’t exist in an eternal way the way that God does.

        • RickA99

          The heavens and Heaven are not the same thing.

          • Jason

            True. Because the heavens also includes the sky and space, where the “3rd Heaven”, “Highest Heaven”, etc… is exclusively the domain of God.

            However, wouldn’t the “heavens” include the highest heaven?

          • RickA99

            I would say “No!”

          • Jason

            I work better with scripture than exclamations. Do you have any suggestions on reading for this?

  • Jim Korth

    I wrote a paper in seminary wherein I proposed there is no such thing as an intermediate state. I stated that perhaps our relationship to time changes after we die. In our earthly life, we live out time in linear fashion. When we die, our relationship to time changes and, like God, we are equidistant from every point in history. As a result, experientially, our deceased loved ones are already living in the eternal state and we are there with them. We still have to live it out on this earth, but upon death everything is accelerated. My professor found this intriguing and referred me to some time theories for further research. This is all conjecture, but it makes for interesting thinking!

    • I have thought of this myself. When I’ve spoken of it the reply I get is “What about the rich man in Luke 16 who knows his brothers have time to hear the gospel?” And “what about the souls of the martyrs under the throne who cry out waiting for the time on earth to arrive that their blood is avenged?”

      • Jason

        The first objection may be used as proof of this possibility. If the rich man is already in the lake of fire that comes after judgement (which seems to be the case, given the description, though the name used is Hades which is not described as fire elsewhere) than he may be *depending* on the subjective nature of time.

        However, I don’t feel comfortable with much speculation of end times based on this parable personally, because the nature of parables is always to speak in terms your audience can relate to, and his audience were people who believed in an afterlife but rejected the Kingdom message he proclaimed…

  • 4Commencefiring4

    I can only think of three people who, in a physical body, went up from the earth toward heaven: Jesus, Elijah, and (perhaps) Enoch (“…and he was not, for God took him.” What does that really mean?)

    In any case, I have to think their bodies did not remain physical (i.e., having weight and taking up space) upon arriving in heaven; otherwise there is an actual location in real space where three men have been holed up for centuries. And I don’t think anyone believes that. There’s no physical throne existing somewhere in outer space where a physical Jesus Christ could be seen (if we could but find it) sitting and intervening for us. It’s a spiritual reality…whatever form that takes.

    Similarly, our existence between death and the eventual reuniting with our bodies on “the last day” (I’m not sure how that term is reconciled with it being 1,000 years before the last one, but that’s another subject) must also be a spiritual one with no “body.”