As we indicated in the last essay, eschatology literally is “the study of last things.” This area of theology includes both individual and general, or world, eschatology. Individual eschatology includes the subjects of physical death, immortality of the soul, and the intermediate state (the state of existence between physical death and resurrection). General eschatology, on the other hand, includes such subjects as the second coming of Christ, the kingdom of God and its consummation, the eternal state, and the existence of Satan.
Turning first to individual eschatology, the first element I want to discuss is physical death. Barring the second coming of the Lord, death is the one certain fact. Death also is a universal fact. It happens to everyone sooner or later (again baring the second coming). Technically speaking, physical death is a separation of the soul from the body. Eccl. 12:7 reads, “the dust returns to the earth as it was, and the spirit returns to God who gave it.” Moreover, Jesus distinguished between the death of the body and death of the soul, when he said, “do not fear those who kill the body but cannot kill the soul; rather fear him who can destroy both soul and body in hell” (Mt. 10:28). Thus physical death is the termination of the “animal” or organic life of the living.
However, it is not physical death that is the major problem. The major problem is spiritual death. When Hebrews 2:9 says that Christ tasted death for every man, and provisionally abolished death for all, it means of course spiritual death. Apart from those believers who are alive at the second coming (those who will be “raptured”) all Christians must die a physical death. But death has lost its sting for them, because of Jesus’ victory over death.
Rev. 20:14 tells us that Death and Hades were thrown into the lake of fire; and the lake of fire is identified as “the second death.” This is the Revelation’s vivid symbol of eternal, spiritual death. Because Jesus died for the world, all of us who are willing to believe will be delivered from that eternal death. But spiritual death awaits those who will not repent and believe.
Now when we talk about spiritual life and death, we must talk about immortality of the soul. If physical death marks the separation of body and soul and the decomposition of the body, we must ask, what becomes of the soul?
Historic Christianity traditionally has said that humanity has a continuous or endless existence. After physical death, the body passes into dissolution; but human beings still retain their soul-identity as an individual being (Rev. 6:9-11). This is an important part of what we mean by immortality of the soul. But we orthodox Christians believe something more. We believe that we will receive spiritual bodies when we are resurrected. Therefore it would be better to speak of ourselves as immortal persons rather than as immortal souls.
We have been speaking about the doctrine of immortality from the perspective of orthodox Christianity. But the orthodox Christian view is not the only view of immortality that has been advanced. Indeed there are at least four views, counting the orthodox view.
The first theory we will call biological immortality. In this view human beings live on in their children, and that is the only immortality there is. In other words, there is no life after death, but our lives continue through the lives of our children. .
A second theory is sociological immortality. Again there is no life after death. This kind of immortality depends entirely on the impact an individual has on society. For example, Hitler is sociologically immortal, because of the tremendous impact he had on the world, even though it was a very negative impact.
The third theory is spiritual immortality. This is the kind of immortality that is seen in the Eastern religions. Both Hinduism and Buddhism believe in reincarnation, and their ultimate hope is for eventual absorption into the Absolute. It is a very pessimistic kind of religion, because even if they attain their goal of absorption into the divine, they have continued personal existence.
The fourth view is the kind of view with which we began. It is individual immortality, which is characteristic of orthodox Christianity. Individual immortality is not, however, the exclusive property of Christianity. Plato believed in immortality of the soul. He believed that the soul existed in the realm of ideas before physical birth, and that it went back to the realm of ideas after death. Thus to the Greeks, there was no great tragedy in death, because the physical body was a prison for the soul. And death released the soul from that material prison. It enabled the soul to return to its original home.
Those are the four types of immortality: the biological, sociological, spiritual, and individual. Now we are ready to move to the subject of the intermediate state. As I mentioned earlier, the intermediate state is the state of existence between physical death and resurrection. You may be surprised at how little information there is in the New Testament about the intermediate state. But we will look at what there is.
We will begin with the intermediate state of believers. First, the soul immediately enters Christ’s presence in heaven. You will remember that Paul said, “we are always of good courage; we know that while we are at home in the body we are away from the Lord, for we walk by faith, not by sight. We are of good courage, and we would rather be away from the body and at home with the Lord” (2 Cor. 5:6-8). Thus Paul definitely believed that to leave the body in death was to go into the presence of the Lord. And he indicates no time delay in the process.
You also will remember that Jesus said to the thief who was dying on the cross beside Jesus’ own, “today you will be with me in paradise” (Lk. 23:43). Once again, it is clear that the Christian enters immediately into the presence of Christ at death.
Second, the believer’s existence in the intermediate state is greatly preferable to the present one. 2 Cor. 5:8 is once again an appropriate Scripture. Paul declared that he would rather be with the Lord. In other words it was a preferable existence.
Third, the soul of the believer is in a state of consciousness while in the intermediate state. The primary Scripture for this point is the story in Luke 16:19-31. It is the story of the rich man and the beggar Lazarus. Lazarus lay at the gate of the rich man, eating the rich man’s garbage. And the rich man did nothing to help him. Both men died. The poor man went, after death, to “the bosom of Abraham,” which is an expression for the heavenly intermediate state. The rich man, on the other hand, went to Hades, where he was in torment. The rich man cried out for mercy, because he was suffering. But he was told that he was reaping what he sowed while alive, and Lazarus was doing the same. And he was told further that there was no way to pass from Hades to Abraham’s bosom, or vice versa. Now scholars differ on whether or not this is a parable, and on whether or not it should be understood as providing teaching on the intermediate state. But it certainly seems legitimate to understand from it that the sate of existence there is a conscience one.
Fourth, the intermediate state is a state of rest and happiness. Rev. 14:13 says this clearly. It reads, “’Write this: blessed are the dead who die in the Lord henceforth’ ‘Blessed indeed,’ says the Spirit, ‘that they may rest from their labors, for their deeds follow them.’” Such is the New Testament evidence in respect to the intermediate state of believers.
Now we turn to the evidence regarding the state of unbelievers between death and resurrection. Here the evidence is even less full. According to the story in Lk. 16, the unbelieving soul immediately enters a place of torment (Lk. 16:23-24). Since there is no evidence to the contrary, we can agree with one systematic theologian who put it this way: “If the righteous enter upon their eternal state at once, the presumption is that this is true of the wicked as well” (Berkhof, ST, 680)
Thus we conclude that persons apparently can be assigned to their eternal place (heaven or hell) without yet being in their final, eternal state (with a resurrection body). The intermediate state is a state of existence in heaven or hell, but because it is a bodiless existence, it is not the final state of existence for either believers or unbelievers.
Now I want to look at the intermediate state as it has been presented in Church history. The majority of the early Church Fathers assumed a distinct state of existence between death and the resurrection. And they seemed to believe that the righteous enjoy a measure of reward not equal to their future heavenly reward, and the wicked suffer a degree of punishment not equal to their future hell while there. The intermediate state was thus a slightly reduced version of the ultimate state of things.
In the Middle Ages the idea of an intermediate state was retained, but the Roman Catholics developed and added their doctrine of purgatory. Thus the prevailing view in the Western Church was that wicked souls, the unbelievers, go at once to hell. Fully righteous souls, the saints (especially the martyrs), go at once to heavenly blessedness; while all others are retained in purgatory for a longer or shorter period, where they suffer the purging effects of the purgatorial “fire.”
The Reformers (e.g., Calvin and Luther) accepted the idea of an intermediate state; but they rejected the idea of purgatory and an intermediate place. They insisted that the righteous go immediately to heaven and the wicked to hell.
Among Socinians and Anabaptist groups the doctrine of soul sleep was revived. This is the view that there is no conscious state of existence between physical death and resurrection. Instead souls literally sleep from the time of death until the resurrection. Some held this in the Ancient Church, and it is held now by some Adventist sects and Jehovah’s Witnesses. The doctrine of soul sleep even has some evangelical adherents. In the New Testament, the metaphor of sleep definitely is used to represent death. Sleeping implies being unaware of the passing of time. So one can see the reasons why this doctrine keeps popping up. But in light of the scriptures that tell us that the intermediate state is one of being in Christ’s presence, one of consciousness, and one of happiness, the sleep metaphor is not normally interpreted in a literal sense.
Now that we have dealt with the intermediate state, we are ready to turn to the eternal state. Jesus himself referred to a final judgment (Mt. 24:31-45). And John in the Revelation gives a detailed account (Rev. 20:11-15). Now this idea of a coming judgment has implications about the future of humanity after the intermediate state. The book of Revelation expresses the state of things after the judgment by suggesting a coming together of heaven and earth. John accomplishes this by using the imagery of a heavenly city coming down out of heaven, and by the renewal, or creation, of a new heaven and earth (Rev. 21).
Now then, there are several views of life and death. First is the orthodox Christian view. We believe that there is both a heaven and a hell. In this view everyone survives physical death; and following the judgment, everyone lives eternally either in heaven or hell. Those who accept God’s forgiveness through faith in Christ dwell eternally in heaven. And those who do not believe dwell eternally in hell.
A second view is Materialism. Materialists teach that no one survives death. That is; there is no life after death. Therefore there is no salvation.
Third is Universalism. . In universalism everyone is saved in the end. Universalists believe that God is so loving that he could never allow any human being to be punished forever. Therefore universalists believe that God will save everyone.
Finally fourth is Annihilationism. In annihilationism the righteous are saved, but not the wicked. That part is not controversial. The controversy comes from their view of how God handles the wicked. Annihilationism says that the wicked are annihilated at physical death rather than sent to hell. Indeed there is no hell to send them to. The righteous go to heaven; and the wicked are annihilated. This view protects God from doing something that those who hold the view perceive is an unfair thing for God to do. They cannot understand how a loving God could punish people eternally for their sins. It just isn’t fair. The answer to that objection is that God punishes only those who insist on it. That is those, who like the devil, absolutely will not repent and accept God’s forgiveness are punished accordingly.