Sunday, December 11, 2022

The Intermediate State

The following excerpt is from John MacArthur and Richard Mayhue, eds., Biblical Doctrine: A Systematic Summary of Bible Truth (Wheaton, IL: Crossway, 2017), 839–842.

The intermediate state refers to the conscious existence of people between physical death and the resurrection of the body. It applies to both believers and unbelievers, although the destinies of these two groups are different. Since the focus of the New Testament is on the imminent return of Jesus and the kingdom of God on earth (Isaiah 11; 65:17–25; Revelation 20–22), scriptural data concerning the intermediate state is brief. Yet enough information exists for one to have real knowledge on this topic.


The intermediate state of unbelievers involves conscious torment in a place called hades, from had─ôs, the Greek term for the abode of the dead.6 In the Septuagint, it was used to translate the Hebrew word sheol, which referred to the realm of the dead in general, without necessarily distinguishing between righteous and unrighteous souls. But in the New Testament, hades refers to the place of the wicked prior to the final judgment in the lake of fire (Rev. 20:13). Hades, therefore, serves to describe a temporary place of conscious torment for the wicked.

The most explicit discussion of hades is found in Luke 16:19–31, the account of the rich man and Lazarus. The rich man, who was clothed in luxury, had little concern for the poor beggar Lazarus. When the rich man died, his body was buried (16:22); yet his immaterial part was relocated to hades, where he was “in torment” (16:23). He called out to Abraham for mercy, saying, “I am in anguish in this flame” (16:24). The rich man was in agony. He also had memory, not only recalling Abraham and Lazarus but also desiring to help his five living brothers. He was aware that his presence in hades was deserved. Abraham also appealed to the rich man’s memory: “Child, remember that you in your lifetime received your good things, and Lazarus … bad things” (16:25). All these details reveal a place of torment with self-consciousness and memory.

How literally should this account be understood, and what truths about the intermediate state can be gleaned from it? Is this parable describing a real or fictional account? The mention of names (Lazarus and Abraham) cannot be made to indicate an actual account of real people. Although it is a parable, the Lord designed it to explain actual postdeath circumstances.


The intermediate destiny of the believer differs drastically from that of the unbeliever. It involves a conscious, peaceful existence in heaven with Jesus between physical death and the resurrection of the body. The believer’s soul is translated immediately to the presence of Jesus in heaven upon physical death (2 Cor. 5:8; Phil. 1:22–24). As Stephen was being stoned, he cried out to Jesus, whom he saw in heaven, “Lord Jesus, receive my spirit” (Acts 7:59). To the repentant thief on the cross, Jesus promised, “Truly, I say to you, today you will be with me in Paradise” (Luke 23:43).

When death occurs, the body is buried while the soul is taken immediately to heaven. Paul said that being with the Lord Jesus in this state is “far better” (Phil. 1:23) than physical life in a fallen world (2 Cor. 5:8). Yet he also stated that the intermediate condition is comparable to being “naked” (2 Cor. 5:3), since humans were not created to be disembodied. Humans are most whole when clothed with a physical body. It is the glorification of the resurrected body for which Paul longs most (2 Cor. 5:1–2). For the Christian, resurrection is better than the intermediate state, which is better than life in this fallen world.

The intermediate state also means rest from the toils of this life. In Revelation 14:13, John states, “And I heard a voice from heaven saying, ‘Write this: Blessed are the dead who die in the Lord from now on.’ ‘Blessed indeed,’ says the Spirit, ‘that they may rest from their labors, for their deeds follow them!’ ” Revelation 6:9–11 offers the most detailed information concerning the intermediate state. The apostle John witnesses a scene where souls appear in heaven under an altar. These are those “who had been slain for the word of God and for the witness they had borne” (6:9). They are Christian martyrs whose souls now appear in heaven. Verses 10–11 state,

They cried out with a loud voice, “O Sovereign Lord, holy and true, how long before you will judge and avenge our blood on those who dwell on the earth?” Then they were each given a white robe and told to rest a little longer, until the number of their fellow servants and their brothers should be complete, who were to be killed as they themselves had been.

Several truths about the intermediate state of believers can be gleaned here. First, while in heaven, these saints have keen self-awareness and knowledge of others and of world circumstances. They know they were killed for their testimony for Jesus, and they want judgment on earth for their murderers. These saints remember past experiences and have hope for the future. Second, they are mindful of the distinction between heaven and earth. Even after arriving in heaven, they do not forget about earth altogether or act as if heaven is all that matters. Third, heaven is not their final destiny. Even in heaven, the saints long for justice on the earth, a justice that will come with the return of Jesus and the saints in Revelation 19:11–21. The intermediate heaven is not their final home. The truth of Revelation 5:10 applies to these saints: “They shall reign on the earth.”

Fourth, the martyred saints in heaven appear to have some body-like form. They can be seen by John (“I saw … the souls,” Rev. 6:9). They have an audible element in that they can speak and be heard (“They cried out with a loud voice,” 6:10). Also, they can wear clothing (“They were each given a white robe,” 6:11). And they operate within the confines of time (“They were … told to rest a little longer,” 6:11). It is plain, then, that intermediate-state saints in heaven have a real existence. However, this is not bodily existence; physical death has occurred, and their bodies remain in the ground awaiting resurrection. Plus, the resurrection of the body is still future. Yet a real and localized presence of believers in heaven appears to be the reality.


What role does the intermediate state play in God’s broader cosmic plans? The souls of unbelievers are in hades. The souls of departed saints and the resurrected Jesus are in heaven. So the intermediate state is vitally important in God’s plans. Yet one should avoid extremes concerning the intermediate state’s significance.

One extreme downplays the significance or even existence of the intermediate state. Some teach that there is no intermediate-state existence for believers or unbelievers, opting for what is called soul sleep. In this view, when a person dies, he or she ceases to exist until Jesus returns and his or her body is resurrected. Then the person is brought to life. But multiple passages, including those discussed above, describe conscious existence for people between physical death and the resurrection of the body.

On the other extreme, the intermediate state can be overemphasized in two ways. The first occurs when the intermediate heaven is viewed as the final state of believers. When Christians think that their eternal destiny is the present heaven, not the new heaven and new earth (Rev. 21:1), they are overemphasizing the present heaven. Some popular hymns such as “I’ll Fly Away”—with lyrics like “to a land where joy will never end, I’ll fly away”—might give the impression that the destiny of the Christian is “out there” forever, and that the “land” God promises is heaven. But the intermediate heaven is not the ultimate destiny of believers—the new earth is. So Peter declared, “But according to his promise we are waiting for new heavens and a new earth in which righteousness dwells” (2 Pet. 3:13).

A second erroneous perspective is viewing the intermediate state as the millennial reign of Jesus and the saints in heaven in this era. This is held by some amillennialists. But the Bible does not present the millennial reign of Jesus and the saints as occurring in heaven. Instead, it will be fulfilled on earth, from and over the realm where God originally tasked man to rule (Gen. 1:26–28). The reign of Jesus and the saints is needed on earth, not in heaven, which already possesses the universal kingdom reign of God. The martyred saints who appear in heaven in Revelation 6:9–11 are pictured as longing for justice on the earth. They are not reigning yet but are waiting to reign, a waiting that will be satisfied with the resurrection and reign of the saints after the return of Jesus (Rev. 20:4). In sum, the millennial reign of Jesus and the saints is not a hidden reign from heaven but a visible, tangible reign in the realm where God created mankind to rule—the earth.

The intermediate state is for deceased believers in heaven or unbelievers in hades during this age before the second coming of Jesus and the resurrection of the body. But it is not the final state or destiny for human beings.