In theological terms this time or period between physical death and physical resurrection is often referred to as “the intermediate state” – though as a term that is not found in the Bible. According to Dictionary.com, intermediate means being situated between two points, stages, things, persons, etc. State means the condition of a person or thing, as with respect to circumstances or attributes. For purposes of biblical discussion, the “intermediate state” is the time and nature of existence of a believer between his or her death on earth and the bodily resurrection. The intermediate state refers to a person's existence between his physical death and his future resurrection.
The intermediate state encompasses the following biblical truths:
- Believers will experience a resurrection of the body.
- Believers die physically before the time of the future resurrection.
- Believers will exist “in between” these two points in time.
Most Bible-believers agree on the general concept of an intermediate state, but may have many questions of how born again believers exist during that time, that is, this intermediate state. Where will they be? What will they look like? What will they do? God’s word is not explicit on the matter, leaving the focus of the believer elsewhere. Yet his word does give us basic information that satisfies our curiosity and assures us that the deceased ones in Christ have an existence that is pure and secure.
Where are the saints?
They are with God. When the body returns back to the earth, the spirit returns to God (Ecclesiastes 12:7). Death, for the Christian, is a departure from the body and ushering in to the presence of our Lord (Philippians 1:23). Jesus promised the repentant thief on the cross “To day shalt thou be with me in paradise” (Luke 23:42-43). When he was stoned to death, Stephen expected the Lord Jesus to “receive my spirit” (Acts 7:59). To be absent from the mortal body is to be present with the Lord (2 Corinthians 5:8).
What is the nature of the saints existence?
The saints in this intermediate state do not yet have their resurrected bodies, and are not in their mortal bodies. They are “disembodied” – absent from the body, the spirit removed from the mortal dress as the person might be in a state of undress – Paul says “naked” that is, without the mortal body (2 Corinthians 5:3-4).[i] The saints in the intermediate state are not asleep or unconscious,[ii] but remain conscious. The conscious state of the disembodied saints suggests a “body” of some kind – probably a figure of speech necessary for human compression. In Luke 16:19-30 Abraham, Lazarus, and the rich man are all identifiable in their own persons.[iii] They are described as sentient beings, seeing (v. 23), hearing (vv. 24-30), speaking (v. 24), and feeling (vv. 24-25), with eyes (v. 23) and fingers (v. 24). The description of the martyrs in Revelation 6:9-11 is of “souls.” These souls were conscious, had memory of past events on earth, and cried to the Lord “with a loud voice.”
What do the saints know, and what are they doing?
Do those who are already in heaven know what is happening on earth? Saints in heaven are not sitting around watching the goings-on of earth as if it were some popular television show. Hebrews 12:1 says we are “compassed about with so great a cloud of witnesses.” This has been interpreted as if deceased saints were “leaning over a cloud” watching everything we do. However, that takes the verse out of context. This statement refers, rather, back to the witnesses’ testimony left to us on earth by the saints highlighted in Hebrews 11.
Nevertheless, the Bible reveals the saints presently in heaven have some knowledge of things on earth. Those in the intermediate state see and/or know about things that are happening on the earth – at least those things that God wants them to know. In fact, how could God exert sovereign rule over all the earth and his saints who are with him in heaven not have some knowledge of it? Saints in heaven rejoice over repenting sinners, according to Jesus in Luke 15:7, 10: I say unto you, there is joy in the presence of the angels of God over one sinner that repenteth. In heaven they are advised of the fall of Babylon the great, and rejoice (Revelation 18:20). Those in the intermediate state praise and extol the mighty works of God, as in Revelation 19:1-4: “I heard a great voice of much people in heaven, saying, Alleluia; Salvation, and glory, and honour, and power, unto the Lord our God: for true and righteous are his judgments: for he hath judged the great whore, which did corrupt the earth with her fornication, and hath avenged the blood of his servants at her hand...Alleluia.” Those in the intermediate state seek God’s just resolution of sin and evil (Revelation 6:9-10). They eagerly await the resurrection and gathering of all saints (2 Corinthians 5:1-3; 1 Thessalonians 4:14-16). Death is a “gain” and “far better” – they are happy and at rest (Philippians 1:21-23; Revelation 14:13).
Revelation 14:13 And I heard a voice from heaven saying unto me, Write, Blessed are the dead which die in the Lord from henceforth: Yea, saith the Spirit, that they may rest from their labours; and their works do follow them.
[i] Hymn III of Charles Wesley’s Funeral Hymns, of 1759 uses the term “disembodied saints.” “And let this feeble body fail, And let it droop, or die, My soul shall quit the mournful vale, And soar to worlds on high: Shall join the disembodied saints, And find its long sought rest, (That only bliss for which it pants) In my Redeemer’s breast.”
[iii] That is, they knew each other.