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The Intermediate State in the New Testament: Paul and Deutero-Paul

Paul

Paul’s letters are the earliest Christian documents we have; he wrote during the church’s most formative years, when it still expected the Parousia to come at any moment, and we see in his letters that his thought about the afterlife progressed and matured as, contrary to his expectation, the first generation of Christians began to die. This watershed realization, that the Parousia would likely not happen before the first Christians—especially Paul himself—died, drove Paul to think more deeply about what exactly would transpire after someone dies.

Early in Paul’s career, his pareschatology is quite general: the dead in Christ are simply “asleep” until the Parousia, at which point they are “raised” or “awakened”—that is, resurrected—and God brings them with him down to the earth.[1] In fact, Paul makes no direct mention of the intermediate state during this period; instead, we are left to infer an intermediate state through the gap in time between the believers’ deaths and the Parousia, which Paul, at this point, still expected to see in his lifetime.[2]

Later in his career, Paul has a change of thought. He has realized that he will likely die before the eschaton, so he thinks through the nature of the intermediate state more fully. In discussing his own fate after death, he teaches that, after death, the person appears before Christ to be judged, “so that each may receive recompense for what has been done in the body, whether good or evil” (2 Cor 5:10). He expresses anxiety that he will be “found naked” and hopes instead that he will be “further clothed” with immortality (2 Cor 5:3-4).[3] Ultimately, though, Paul is assured that he will be “with Christ” after death, because God has guaranteed it through the Holy Spirit and Christ has made Paul his own (2 Cor 5:5; Phil 1:21-23; 3:12). At this point in his career, Paul also clearly believes in an underworld where the dead await the Parousia; he cites a hymn or confession that teaches a three-story universe (heaven, earth, and underworld) and modifies a passage from Deuteronomy to discuss Jesus descending to the underworld (Phil 2:5-11; Rom 10:6-7).[4]

Several themes are not specific to either his earlier or later periods. One such theme is that death is God’s enemy, which Jesus defeated through his resurrection (1 Cor 15:26, 54-55).[5] Even when Paul talks about death as God’s punishment for sin, he always counters that notion with the good news that Jesus has conquered death.[6] Throughout his career, Paul maintained that death does not separate the believer from Christ—that Christ, because he has conquered death, gives believers the power not to avoid death, but to go through death and survive it (Rom 7:24; 8:10, 13, 33-39; 1 Thess 5:9-10).[7] Moreover, Christ, as the “the first fruits of those who have died” (1 Cor 15:20), is a signal that the rest of the dead would soon “ripen,” so to speak, and rise from the dead, as well. [8]

Deutero-Paul

The value of the deutero-Pauline letters for this topic is that they provide clear evidence of Paul’s doctrine, as received by early Pauline Christianity. In these letters—specifically, Ephesians—the Pauline community believed that Jesus descended into the underworld after his death, which, along with Philippians 2:5-11 and Romans 10:6-7, is evidence that Paul taught the existence of an underworld where souls spend the intermediate state (Eph 4:9). This community also believed that the resurrection had already begun, in a spiritual sense, picking up on Paul’s discussion of the “spiritual body” in 1 Corinthians 15 (Eph 2:4-7).[9] Thus, the deutero-Pauline letters serve as further proof that Paul taught an intermediate state.

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The Intermediate State in the New Testament: Jewish Setting

Before exploring the NT itself, it is fitting to situate the writings within their Second-Temple Jewish context. While the Hebrew Bible is largely silent on the topic of a future resurrection (and, thus, an intermediate state), during the Second-Temple period, the resurrection became, more or less, the standard Jewish teaching, and along with it came speculation on the nature of the intermediate state.[1]

For example, 1 Enoch clearly teaches that the souls of the righteous are kept in peace and the souls of the wicked are kept in torment until the eschatological judgment (1 En. 1:8; 22:1-4; 102:4-5; 104:1-4; 108:11-15.). Likewise, in 2 Maccabees, the dead face a two-stage afterlife (an intermediate state, then the eschaton). In Wisdom of Solomon, the righteous (that is, the martyrs) are safe in God’s hands after they die, as they await their vindication at the eschaton (Wis. 3:1-10). In Ps.-Philo, like in 2 Maccabees, the dead face a two-stage post-mortem process; first, they enjoy a temporary, blissful rest, asleep in heaven with the fathers, then they are resurrected to live in the new heaven and new earth (LAB 3:10; 19:12-13; 23:13; 25:7; 28:10; 51:5). For Josephus, the righteous dead are currently in a blissful state, awaiting the resurrection (War 3.374). Thus, it is clear that the mainstream Jewish teaching was that, after death, the soul is kept in an intermediate state until the resurrection at the end of time; moreover, in light of the prevalence of this teaching, we should assume, unless proven otherwise, that the NT authors followed the general contours of this teaching.

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1. N. T. Wright, The Resurrection of the Son of God (Minneapolis: Fortress, 2003), 129.

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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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The Intermediate State in the New Testament: Introduction

Note: This post is the introduction to a series that will unfold here over the next week or two, taken from a paper I wrote last semester (Fall 2011).

Since the earliest days of the Church, Christians have tried to gather information from the New Testament (NT) about the intermediate state between death and the eschaton. What, however, does the NT teach about this subject? To provide an answer to this question, I will first place the NT pareschatologies* within their broader Jewish context, then I will survey each NT author’s writings in chronological order, in order to discover what exactly they teach about an intermediate state. I conclude with the argument that the NT does not, in fact, provide a uniform picture of the intermediate state; instead, each author speculated about the intermediate state based on his sources, background, and situation, writing as he saw fit.

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* I am indebted to John Hick, Death and Eternal Life (New York: Harper & Row, 1976), 22 for this term. We should distinguish between eschatology (the last things) and pareschatology (the next-to-last things—the state between death and the eschaton).

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