Intermediate States After Death

By David Pyles

Many Christians are under the erroneous notion that some deceased do not immediately go to heaven or hell but are first transitioned through intermediate states.  This view is especially common with respect to saints who died in the Old Testament era.  It is claimed they were held in an intermediate place until the resurrection and ascension of Christ.  It is thought they could not have been taken to heaven prior to this because redemptive blood had not yet been shed.  Those believing that salvation is partly based on human obedience might also contend that the terms of obedience were not yet available in Old Testament times, so that those who died in that era had to be suspended in an interim state until such time that the terms were in place.

The problem is that the Bible has nothing to say of such places, or at least not without coerced interpretation.  It expressly acknowledges heaven and hell, but other places are mostly the product of conjecture.  Of course, the Bible can be made to support almost any conclusion when sufficient force is applied to the words.  Such is the case here.  Those believing in intermediate states invariably possess preconceived notions that will not stand without being propped by the imagination.  Since intermediate states are accommodative to their preconceived notions, they tend to see them in scripture even upon the flimsiest evidence.

One common twist is applied to the term “paradise,” where it is claimed this word actually refers to an intermediate state rather than the ultimate heavenly bliss.  It is claimed to be part of the Old Testament “Sheol,” which was supposedly divided into two compartments – one for the righteous and the other for the wicked.  Further, it is claimed these two compartments are actually illustrated in the account of Lazarus and the rich man (Lk 16), where “Abraham's bosom” was the intermediate abode of the righteous, or what is elsewhere called “paradise.”

These ideas are shown to be mere superstition upon considering:

1) The New Testament term “paradise” can only refer to heaven, as can be seen from:

a) Paradise is equivalent to the “third heaven” or the place where God dwells (2Cor 12:1-4).
b) One must be caught up to paradise (2Cor 12:4), whereas one typically descends into Sheol (Dt 32:22, Pr 15:24, Is 14:9, Ezek 31:16).
c) Paradise is the location of the tree of life (Rev 2:7).
d) Paradise is the place where Christ and the thief went after their crucifixions (Lk 23:43), yet the scriptures elsewhere make it plain that Christ then ascended to the Father (Jn 13:1, Jn 14:1-4).


2) The account of Lazarus and the rich man (Lk 16:19-31) has one man in heaven and the other man in hell immediately following their deaths.  The idea that “Abraham's bosom” was ever used by the Jews in reference to an intermediate state has no support to my knowledge, and it is highly unlikely they would use such a blessed description of Sheol given the way the latter is described in the Old Testament.  On the other hand, there is ample evidence that the Jews did in fact use this term in reference to heaven (see Gill's commentary).  Besides, it is very plain that the rich man did not go to an intermediate state, but went directly to hell, and since the case of Lazarus was opposite to this, the reasonable inference is that he did not go to an intermediate state either.

3) Wherever the deceased went prior to the New Testament, it is evident they did not all go to the same place.  Lazarus went to a place of comfort whereas the rich man went to a place of torment.  Even advocates of intermediate states acknowledge this, saying the two men were placed in separate compartments.  But this explanation provokes the question:  Upon what legal basis was Lazarus distinguished from the rich man?  Indeed, upon what legal basis was any man of the Old Testament era put in the place of comfort instead of the place of torment?  It cannot be claimed that the basis was the prospect of redemptive blood because this would be resorting to very argument that the position seeks to avert.  The position is predicated on the idea that redemptive blood could not serve as a basis for blessing men before that blood was actually shed.  The parable of Lazarus and the rich man makes it clear that men were being punished or blessed before Christ died on the cross, but advocates of intermediate states are at a loss to explain the grounds upon which such discriminations were made.


4) Col 3:20 asserts that Christ by the blood of His cross reconciled all things unto Himself, “whether they be things in earth, or things in heaven,” but what would there have been to reconcile in heaven if saints were prohibited from going there prior to the shedding of blood? The meaning of this scripture is that Christ reconciled those who had formerly died and gone to heaven on the promise of redemption, and that He also reconciled those who were yet on earth.


5) If intermediate states truly existed, then we should have expected the Bible to clearly reveal this fact.  The state of man after death is the ultimate interest of religion.  The subject is too important to have been left to conjecture.


While several scriptures are adduced in support of intermediate states, the arguments derived from them are mostly too weak to merit attention.  However, I will consider two scriptures that are thought to be the strongest evidence in support of the theory.  The first of these is:

For it is better, if the will of God be so, that ye suffer for well doing, than for evil doing.  For Christ also hath once suffered for sins, the just for the unjust, that he might bring us to God, being put to death in the flesh, but quickened by the Spirit: By which also he went and preached unto the spirits in prison; Which sometime were disobedient, when once the longsuffering of God waited in the days of Noah, while the ark was a preparing, wherein few, that is, eight souls were saved by water. – 1Peter 3:17-21

This text is commonly interpreted as teaching that Christ descended into an intermediate state in the period between His death and resurrection, and that He preached to Old Testament characters who were being held there.  Problems with this interpretation include not only the points already raised but also:

1) While the text indeed teaches that the spirits of certain deceased, wicked men were in a place of incarceration, there is no reason to suppose this place to have been anything other than hell.  There is nothing to suggest it was merely transitional or intermediate.


2) There is nothing to suggest that these wicked men were under any possibility of freedom from incarceration; hence, there is no reason why their final punishment should have been suspended by some stay in an interim state.


3) The text does not say this preaching to the wicked was done in the days of the death, burial and resurrection as is claimed; rather, the suggestion is that it was done “in the days of Noah, while the ark was a preparing.

4) This preaching was likely done by Noah himself, as inspired by Christ, and it was directed against the wicked men of Noah’s generation.  The spirits of these men were in prison (i.e. hell) as of the time Peter wrote, but obviously not when Noah preached to them.  Note a similar chronological arrangement in the next chapter where the Apostle says , “For, for this cause was the gospel preached also to them that are dead, that they might be judged according to men in the flesh, but live according to God in the spirit,” (1Peter 4:6-7).  Hence, the gospel was preached to the dead, but they were not dead when it was preached to them; rather, they were dead as of the time Peter wrote.  The conclusion that Noah did this preaching is also supported by the fact that Peter elsewhere referred to Noah as a “preacher” (2Pet 2:5), and Peter also claimed that the Spirit of Christ spoke through Old Testament preachers (1Pet 1:11).

5) As His death approached, Christ repeatedly spoke of ascending to His Father, being glorified, going to paradise, etc. (Lk 23:43, Jn 12:23, 13:31, 14:12 & 28, 16:8-28, 17:5-24), but never did He speak of descending into an intermediate place.


6) The text mentions none in prison apart from the disobedient, so it does nothing to support the idea that prospective blood fails to justify entrance to heaven.  Even if the text proved an intermediate state for the wicked, it does nothing of the kind for the righteous.


The second scripture I will consider is:

Wherefore he saith, When he ascended up on high, he led captivity captive, and gave gifts unto men.  (Now that he ascended, what is it but that he also descended first into the lower parts of the earth?  He that descended is the same also that ascended up far above all heavens, that he might fill all things.) – Eph 4:8-10

Here it is claimed that Christ descended into an intermediate place before His ascent to heaven, and that he delivered Old Testament saints who were being held captive there.  In addition to the points already made, this interpretation must also contend with:


1) Paul was obviously quoting Psalm 68:18, but elsewhere in the Psalms (139:15), the expression “lowest parts of the earth” was clearly used with reference to the womb.  The point likely being made by Paul was that the former psalm had God ascending up on high, but this could only be possible if He had descended first.  This descent occurred when He took on human form.  He condescended so far as to become a fetus within the womb.  Hence, the psalm was adduced by the Apostle in defense of the doctrine of incarnation – a doctrine denied by many of the Jews.


2) The expression “led captivity captive” does not refer to an action favoring the redeemed but to an action against the foes of Christ and His people.  The meaning is that wicked powers that had formerly produced captivity were themselves led captive (Col 2:15).  This expression derives from Judges 5:12 where it obviously refers to triumph over enemies , not to the rescue of friends.


3) Moses and Elijah appeared in glory with Christ on the Mount of Transfiguration and the natural assumption is that they were heavenly beings at that point.  Now if Old Testament saints were being held in an interim state, then we have no basis for explaining why an exception was made for these two.


4) Eccl 12:7-8 was written in the Old Testament era, but it describes death with: “Then shall the dust return to the earth as it was: and the spirit shall return unto God who gave it.


These theories concerning intermediate states would have never been conceived had it not been for other errant notions that preceded them.  For example, purgatory and its conceptual equivalents are based on the false premise that personal sins can be eternally purged by enduring a period of punishment.  The Bible never teaches any such doctrine, and none should be surprised at this given that such ideas dishonor Christ by making His blood insufficient to the task.  Accordingly, the idea that prospective blood cannot serve for purposes of redemption has no basis in scripture and is actually contradicted by scripture (Rom 3:23-26).  Nor is there any logical basis for it.  There is no reason why a sovereign, omnipotent and omniscient God must treat His own future intents as having less certainty than what He has already done.  Rom 8:28-30 speaks of our glorification as finished business.  This is because it is as good as done in the purposes of God even though our resurrection has not yet occurred.  There is no reason why Old Testament saints could not have been saved to heaven on similar terms.  There is an uninspired saying that “necessity is the mother of invention.”  Intermediate states are a human invention necessitated by other false notions.  It would be far better that these preconceived notions be dismissed than to fabricate myths to accommodate them.


February 4, 2015