The Intermediate State in the New Testament: History of Interpretation

The traditional doctrine of the Church, starting with the Fathers and running down through contemporary times, is that the souls of the dead do spend their time in an intermediate state. In the Apostolic Fathers, martyrs enter into a blissful state at death, to be consummated at the eschaton.[1] Of the Church Fathers, Athenagoras, Irenaeus, Tertullian, and Gregory of Nyssa all taught the existence of an intermediate state, mainly because the soul, which is immortal, needs a place to go between death and the resurrection.[2]

The official doctrine of the Roman Catholic Church is that an intermediate state exists. Specifically, Catholic doctrine is that, at death, the soul is judged and sent to heaven, limbo, purgatory, or hell to await the final resurrection.[3] The doctrines of purgatory and limbo are, of course, peculiar to the Catholic Church, but the Reformers also held to the idea of an intermediate state, and some Protestants, along with the Catholics, declare it doctrine.[4] Thus, from the beginnings of the Church through contemporary times, an intermediate state has been traditional doctrine.

However, scholars are divided on whether the NT teaches an intermediate state. Some, such as Osei Bonsu, Oscar Cullman, and N. T. Wright, follow traditional doctrine and argue that the NT does, in fact, teach specific things about an intermediate state.[5] Others, such as Murray J. Harris and F. F. Bruce, claim, on the basis of 2 Corinthians 5:1-10, that the soul faces no intermediate state after death.[6] Finally, Karel Hanhart claims that the NT authors regarded the intermediate state as terra incognita and thus, by and large, were not very concerned with providing specifics about what happens after death.[7]

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1. See, for example, 1 Clem. 5:4, 7; 6:2; Mart. Pol. 2:7; Herm. Vis. iii.1.9-2.1. I owe these citations to F. F. Bruce, “Paul on Immortality,” Scottish Journal of Theology 24 (1971): 79, 88.

2. Athenagoras, Res. 12-15; Irenaeus, Haer. 2.34-35; Tertullian, Res. 14-17; Gregory of Nyssa, On the Resurrection of the Dead; Ambrose, On Belief in the Resurrection 21, 88. See also Ps.-Justin, Res. 8. I owe these citations to Osei Bonsu, “The Intermediate State in the New Testament,” Scottish Journal of Theology 44 (1991): 169.

3. See, for example, the New Catholic Encyclopedia, 13.463 and its many citations of Denzinger’s Sources of Catholic Dogma.

4. On the Reformers, see Luther, Letter to Amsdorf, Jan. 13, 1552; Calvin, Institutes 3.25.7. On Protestants, see, e.g., Westminster Confession of Faith, ch. 32.

5. Bonsu, “Intermediate State”; Oscar Cullmann Immortality of the Soul or Resurrection of the Dead? The Witness of the New Testament (London: Epworth, 1958); N. T. Wright, The Resurrection of the Son of God (Minneapolis: Fortress, 2003).

6. Murray J. Harris, “The Interpretation of 2 Cor 5:1-10 and Its Place in Pauline Eschatology” (Ph.D. diss., University of Manchester, 1970), “2 Cor 5:1-10, Watershed in Paul’s Eschatology?” Tyndale Bulletin 22 (1971): 32-57, “Paul’s View of Death in 2 Cor 5:1-10.” (Pages 317-328 in New Dimensions in New Testament Study, ed. R. N. Longenecker and M. C. Tenney; Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1974), Raised Immortal: Resurrection & Immortality in the New Testament (London: M & S Marshall, 1983); Bruce, “Paul on Immortality.”

7. Karel Hanhart, The Intermediate State in the New Testament (Franeker, Holland: T. Wever, 1966), 45-46, 104-105.

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