WHAT IS THE STATE OF THE DEAD BEFORE THE RESURRECTION?
There are three main theories of what happen to the dead in the interim state, after their lives on this planet and before the resurrection.
1 – THE DEAD DIE
Promoted mainly by marginal groups, especially the Watchtower Society, where they teach that at death, the human being stops existing all together. They take the warning of GOD to Adam about dying (Genesis 2:17) literally and all encompassing. At death they say, human spirit and body, die and are extinguished, passing to non-existence. There is nothing left of a man, and at the resurrection, they will be re-composed again from nothing, as when they were created for the first time, just to be condemned or saved at the Last Judgement Day in body and spirit.
2 – THE DEAD ARE UNCONSCIOUS
Held by a large number of Evangelical Christians, from modern and some older churches, like some Lutherans and Anglicans (1), even though the actual above-named confessions do not hold this view officially.
To the people who hold this view, the body dies, but the spirit and the soul are in a living but unconscious condition, until Judgement Day, when they will be resurrected to stand trial and be sentenced to either Glory or Hell, in body and spirit.
3 – THE DEAD AWAIT THE FINAL JUDGEMENT CONSCIOUS
Held by the majority of Christians, who believe every man suffers a quick personal assessment before Jesus (2Cor 5:10), and is sent to await the Great Judgement, in a conscious state before their final sentence in the Last Judgement Day (2).
To those who hold this belief, the dead are either in a blissful state, or a place of suffering in a spiritual state, until the Day of Judgement, where they will be united with their bodies and sentenced to a final state in full humanity.
WHAT DOES THE BIBLE TEACH?
According to Scripture alone, the dead are sent conscious, to a place of blissful existence or suffering, according to their salvific state, where their conduct, faith in Christ, and repentance are taken into consideration.
A – LAZARUS AND THE RICH MAN
In the gospel of Luke, our Lord Jesus mentioned the parable of Lazarus and the Rich Man, where both persons, one righteous and the other one unrighteous, are immediately taken to a blissful state with the saints, while the unrighteous is taken to a place of suffering (Luke 16:22-23).
This argument is rejected usually by those who believe in the ‘sleep of the soul’ by saying that this is just a parable and it cannot be taken literally.
But what they fail to notice, is that a parable, which is a ‘story’ intended to illustrate a moral lesson, can never be based on ‘invented’ or false premises, because it loses purpose. Jesus could not quote a parable about werewolves, or extra-terrestrials, or mermaids, because they do not exist. Or even mention situations that are not real, like being punished by flying elephants, or rewarded by Butterflies. The moment an irreal character or situation is mentioned, the intention of the parable loses strength and becomes a fable, not a parable.
If judgement was not immediate, then the fear to be in the condition of the Rich Man would automatically vanish. Notice that this situation is immediately after dead and not after (Luke 16:27-28).
2 – PAUL MENTIONS TO BE IN THE PRESENCE OF THE LORD
In two occasions, Paul mentions the blessing of being dead but in the presence of the Lord, than to be alive and away from Him.
In 2CORINTHIANS 5:8, Paul clearly says that while we are alive on this planet, we are physically distant from Jesus; but once dead, we are in his company. He does not presume an intermediate state, but the grammar he uses, implies an immediate fulfilment of this desire to be with our Lord, as soon as we die, reflecting exactly the same message communicated in the parable of Lazarus and the Rich Man, about immediate punishment or reward.
In PHILLIPIANS 1:3, Paul again says that he has the conflict between continuing alive to progress the gospel of our Lord on Earth, or to die and go to be with Jesus.
It must be noticed here, that Paul clearly assumes an immediate encounter and reward as soon as he passes from this life, because if he was speaking about the Day of The Last Judgement, it would not affect anything to continue living on Earth, since death would not bring him to Jesus until the end of time, which would be much later than the life span of Paul as a man.
3 – THE MARTYRS OF REVELATION
REVELATION 6:9-11, presents the martyrs existing in a spiritual state near GOD, requesting to be avenged for their unjust executions.
This is also dismissed as symbolic, portraying God never forgetting his saints but that to Him we are always present, whether we are dead or alive.
However, this is a dangerous assumption, since there is nothing in the text that may suggest symbolism, but the revealing of a mystery hidden until then. And in fact, contradicts other parts of Scripture that sustains immediate punishment or reward.
HEBREWS 12:23; indeed, speaks in favor of a literal meaning of the words of Revelation 6; when speaking about the privilege of the Christians that not even Moses had, by saying that when we pray through Christ, we approach the very Kingdom of God, where the Father and Jesus are, the assembly of angels and the spirit of the earthly saints, alive and before the Great Judgement.
4 – PETER’S TESTIMONY
In 2PETER 1:13-15, apostle Peter uses language that clearly denotes life after physical death. He uses terms like ‘As long as I am in this body’ and the ‘putting off my body will be soon’. This let us assume clearly that he did not consider physical death, the end of his life. Peter does not elaborate on what will happen afterwards, but Paul, Lord Jesus and Revelation do, as we have seen before, and it is safe to assume that here, Peter was awaiting to continue living in Jesus’s presence after physical death.
5 – THE PROMISSE OF JESUS TO THE THIEF ON THE CROSS
When the repentant thief asked Lord Jesus to remember him when he returned in his Kingdom, he was obviously speaking from the Judaic culture he had been raised in. At that moment, the repentant criminal, acknowledged Jesus as the promised Messiah savior of Israel and the world.
To this our Lord said:
“Truly I tell you today you will be with me in paradise.”
In the original Greek there are no commas. The commas were added later in history, and according to the grammar which is uncertain, some scholars proposed that the comma should be after today, and not before it. That way our Lord will be saying:
“Truly I tell you today, you will be with me in paradise.”
“Truly I tell you, today you will be with me in paradise.”
This is possible, the grammatic construction of the verse is not defining. But there are other things to consider before making a quick assumption.
This same Jesus of Nazareth spoke of the parable of Lazarus, where He spoke of an immediate judgement of character. And the apostles of Jesus, later, like Peter, Paul, and John, taught also the conscious existence of the dead immediately after death. Therefore, the most probable assumption is to assume that Jesus meant that later on that day, the repentant thief will be with Jesus on paradise.
The Scripture is abundantly conclusive that every human being suffers a judgement of character, and sits either in Glory or Hades, in bliss or suffering, their resurrection, where they will be officially judged as humans in full, and receive their eternal sentence, either to the Heavenly Jerusalem or to the Lake of Fire in body and spirit.
All other arguments like the ‘dead don’t know anything’ (Ecclesiastes 9:5), or that ‘In death there is not remembrance of God’ (Psalm 6:5), as in other lose passages of the OT; they refer only to the human existence of people, not their spirit after death.
When a person dies physically, all knowledge of what happens on Earth is blocked for him. He stops knowing what happens with his relatives or home, and cannot communicate with them. And also stops worshipping God as he most probably did when he was alive.
Another thing to consider is that these passages are taken from the times when the whole mystery, like the existence of Jesus and the Holy Spirit, alongside Lord GOD YHWH, and the existence of Satan, and the expiation of Christ on the cross, and many others topics, were hidden to the prophets, but revealed for us by the apostles (1Peter 1:12).
(1) “The Bible and the Future” by Anthony A Hoekema (1994).
“Works of Luther”, Vol.6 (1932).
“Christian mortalism from Tyndale to Milton” by Norman T. Burns (1972).
(2) Westminster Confession, 32.