I want to continue the analysis of eschatological evangelism and the intermediate state by publishing the next portion of my endeavor into this rabbit hole. I hope that you find it somewhat challenging, as I myself found an investigation into this foreign and mystical biblical topic of the ‘intermediate state’ to be confusing and perplexing.
I actually looked up ‘rabbit hole’ in the dictionary and I feel it encapsulates the feelings I have towards such convoluted theological ideas as this to be quite apt as it is “used to refer to a bizarre, confusing, or nonsensical situation or environment, typically one from which it is difficult to extricate oneself.”
But I think it is vitally important for maintaining a healthy and robust faith to be consistently tested with strange and alien perspectives that help focus one’s reliance on Christ, Scripture, and prayer as one searches for a greater and more intense knowledge of our Creator and Redeemer, and in turn, how we are to emulate that in the world.
With my first section of inquiry, the focus was on the theologically viable nature of eschatological evangelism (if you haven’t read it yet, you can find it here). And now, in the second installment of my senior seminar pursuit, I bring Scriptural insight to the discussion. After all, my educational experiences in developing responsible hermeneutics and interpretation has opened my eyes to the understanding that Scripture is the vehicle that moves us towards knowing who God is, our role in the world, and God’s interaction with us.
What makes the possibility of eschatological evangelism tangible as a theory?
IV. The Intermediate State
The concept of an intermediate state after death leading to Judgment Day is a doctrine that seems rather strange and mystical since it is not often discussed outside of scholarly inquiry. The more popular view that one’s eternal destiny materializes in either being sent straight to heaven or hell immediately after death is actually misguided. Whether they know it or not, an intermediate state is supposed to be the mainstream orthodox view of both Protestants and Catholics. This doctrine is critical to the teachings of Jesus, the Apostle Paul, and the Apostle John, as well as an integral part of the magnitude of Christ’s death and resurrection. By investigating the key New Testament passages that describe this mysterious and intriguing notion, more elements towards the credibility of the events after death according to eschatological evangelism and the intermediate state will come into place.
A. Key New Testament Passages
To begin, Jesus Himself makes an offhand comment that no one has made it to heaven yet in His dialogue with Nicodemus: “No one has ascended into heaven except He who descended from heaven, the Son of Man.” Jesus thus confirms that there is ‘something else’ first before eternal destiny. This remark is implicit evidence for an intermediate state for the fact that no person has ascended into heaven except for Christ.
However, this might appear inconsistent with another mention of life after death from Christ. In Luke’s stirring description of the Passion, Jesus proclaims to the criminal beside Him while on the cross that the man’s faith has assured his placement in “Paradise,” in the infamous words: “Truly, I say to you, today you will be with me in Paradise.” Understandably, this appears to be an objection to the fact that we go to an intermediate state immediately after death, or at least that there are perhaps exceptions.
Now, there are a couple ways of approaching this passage. One option is to go the route of insisting that Christ’s use of “today” did not mean today in temporal terms. That is, “today” could be interpreted to imply that the criminal’s perception of the arrival of Judgment Day and heaven will seem like is was just one day, when in reality it could have been centuries. Yet there are problems with this. To just take God outside of time actually puts perspectives in a problematic fashion. More precisely, if God is atemporal and subsequently we will also experience time atemporally after death, it puts us somewhat in the same dimension of time as God, and thus in a sense allows humans to experience time as God. Honestly, this places God and humans too close together in terms of knowledge for this paper. Additionally, as we will later see to be the case, souls that are waiting in the intermediate state are ‘waiting’ in some conception of the term, and aware of it. While it is not unreasonable to argue a position that insists a different experience of time in relation to this passage, to effectively maintain any ground on this stance would require a much longer discussion.
Therefore, a better alternative for elucidation of this passage for our purposes is to examine the term “in Paradise,” or παραδείσῳ in Greek. What is this term intended to denote? Is it heaven or something else? The intriguing point about this usage is that there is a much more common word for heaven in the Greek New Testament, οὐρανῷ, and Luke’s Gospel uses it much more frequently to denote the place of final salvation. In addition, the term for “Paradise” is only used a handful of times in the Greek New Testament, and the most significant passage is utilized by Paul to describe his visions of a man who was “caught up into Paradise – whether in the body or out of the body I do not know…” This spiritual place after death, “Paradise,” appears to be a realm in which God and Christ are present, but that does not necessarily imply that it is heaven itself.
As already hinted above, Paul is one of the best sources for information regarding the intermediate state since he was teaching new Christians, and they often asked him questions concerning the afterlife. There are three primary passages of importance: 1) 1 Thessalonians 4:13-17, 2) 2 Corinthians 5:6-8, and 3) 2 Corinthians 5:10. In the first excerpt Paul speaks of those who are alive during the Second Coming of Christ, which then necessitates the existence of an intermediate state:
But we do not want you to be uninformed, brothers, about those who are asleep, that you may not grieve as others do who have no hope. For since we believe that Jesus died and rose again, even so, through Jesus, God will bring with Him those who have fallen asleep. For this we declare to you by a word from the Lord, that we who are alive, who are left until the coming of the Lord, will not precede those who have fallen asleep. For the Lord Himself will descend from heaven with a cry of command, with the voice of an archangel, and with the sound of the trumpet of God. And the dead in Christ will rise first. Then we who are alive, who are left, will be caught up together with them in the clouds to meet the Lord in the air, and so we will always be with the Lord.
This passage clearly states that the dead are “asleep,” and that they will rise to be with God at the Second Coming of Jesus. It is plain then that the dead do not go to their eternal destiny immediately following death, but remain somewhere waiting for the Day of Glory.
The second crucial piece from Paul is from 2 Corinthians 5:6-8:
So 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. Yes, we are of good courage, and we would rather be away from the body and at home with the Lord.
The second portion of this passage describes an existence in which we have no body, which can be no other than the realm that comes after death. We will receive new bodies at the Resurrection, thus this bodiless state must be before that time.
The third text from Paul, 2 Corinthians 5:10, is actually a couple verses subsequent to the last one examined, and does more to describe Judgment Day in light of the idea of the intermediate state that Paul just described:
For we must all appear before the Judgment Seat of Christ, so that each one may receive what is due for what he has done in the body, whether good or evil.”
After Paul mentions a time when we will have no body in verse 6-8, he then follows up with this passage in verse 10 that gives a picture of Judgment – a possible linking of the intermediate state and eschatological evangelism. Heaven or hell is not the immediate location of one after death, but there is place of anticipation prior, which leads to the Judgment of all people who will stand before Jesus Christ. Thus, after the intermediate state, all will encounter Christ and account for their actions. And for those who do not know Christ, what else could be a clearer presentation of the Gospel than being in the presence of Jesus Himself?
Finally, the Apostle John also reports the existence of an intermediate state in Revelation 6:9-11:
When He opened the fifth seal, I saw under the altar the souls of those who had been slain for the word of God and for the witness they had borne. 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.
The spiritual realm is faintly revealed to John when he sees the souls of martyrs waiting for the Consummation “under the altar,” who are quite obviously not in heaven but are being told to “rest a little longer” in another place. It is evident from this passage that eternal destinies are not sealed immediately after death, but instead there is a realm of anticipation leading to Second Coming of Christ and Judgment Day.
B. Christ’s Descent into Hades
Thus, it is clear that numerous passages in the New Testament confirm the existence of a middle realm after death, yet the passages in Scripture that most clearly present evidence to the biblical testimony of an intermediate state are Christ descending into hades. But first, it must be relayed that there is a common misunderstanding of the term ‘hades,’ as many consider it to either denote or include hell in its definition. In reality, it is a word that is much more narrow in meaning, that has been mistakenly used to umbrella the spiritual territories of both hell and the intermediate state. When in fact they are separate terms; ghenna used most often to convey hell, and hades to designate a more middle realm, like the intermediate state. Accordingly, Christ’s descent into hades should be understood to be a visitation of the realm of the dead, not the realm of the damned.
- 1 Peter 3:18-20 and 4:6
While the nature of this intermediate state is debated, the consensus since the Reformation period is that through Christ’s descent into the realm of dead, He experienced the middle state or at least some aspect of it at the time between His death and resurrection. The excerpts that recount this mystifying event are 1 Peter 3:18-20 and 4:6, which describe Jesus proclaiming to the spirits in “prison”:
For Christ also suffered once for sins, the righteous for the unrighteous, that He might bring us to God, being put to death in the flesh but made alive in the spirit, in which He went and proclaimed to the spirits in prison, because they formerly did not obey, when God’s patience waited in the days of Noah, while the ark was being prepared, in which a few, that is, eight persons, were brought safely through water… For this is why the Gospel was preached even to those who are dead, that though judged in the flesh the way people are, they might live in the spirit the way God does.
These peculiar passages prove that the dead are not at their final resting place, but are in fact waiting in an intermediate period. And quite apparently, some are able to respond to Christ in this intermediate period, showing that one’s autonomy and decisions are not necessarily finished after death. This fact gives great support to the possibility of people being able to respond positively to the Gospel after death, as well as providing endorsement to the viability of eschatological evangelism.
- “Those Who Seek Find”
As to the persons that are mentioned in these verses, there is still debate. Why single out Noah’s generation? There are multiple ways of elucidating this question, but the most consistent with the significance of eschatological evangelism in relation to the intermediate state is that this generation was considered to be the most abandoned of sinners, individuals that had been excluded from any hope whatsoever. What is then being emphasized here is that those who respond positively to Christ might be some of the most unlikely candidates that will receive salvation from our perspectives. But Christ sought them out and He will continue to reach out to those who desire Him, even after death.
C.S. Lewis alludes to this possibility often in many of his works; it is obvious that even though Christ will accept all who want to know Him, it will be at the price of everything. Lewis encapsulates the heart of these paradoxical themes:
All that are in Hell, choose it. Without self-choice there could be no Hell. No soul that seriously and constantly desires joy will ever miss it. Those who seek find. To those who knock it is opened.
- Christ’s Victory Over Death
There is still more 1 Peter 3:18-20 and 4:6 says concerning the intermediate state. Next, it demonstrates the vast magnitude of authority inherent in the conquering of death by Jesus Christ. Not only is the power of His death and resurrection to be applied to the living, but also for those who have already died and remain in the intermediate state. The love of God and the jurisdiction of Jesus cannot be contained by death, rather this proves that this divine love is timeless; Christ is alive and He truly “holds the keys to death and hades.”
This reality of Christ’s victory over death and having authority in every spiritual realm, a type of “harrowing of hell,” strongly supports the possibility of at least some being able to accept the Gospel after death. Investigating the intermediate state and eschatological evangelism simply scratches the surface of what God is capable of after death, our finite minds cannot grasp the incredible scope of how God’s love and power reaches across life and death.
The final important issue initiated by 1 Peter 3:18-20 and 4:6 pertains to its terminology. What does the term “prison” exactly mean? Is it an intermediate state or hell? While the term for “prison” in Greek, φυλακῇ, can denote a place of penal punishment, it can also mean something more neutral, such as a location providing security or custody. Thus, this term can be applied to all who are in the waiting period, whether they are good or bad. Even if this term designates some kind of penal import, it does not necessitate that this “prison” is meant to designate hell, nor does it damage the neutrality of an intermediate state, but instead it adds to the possibility of a more purgatorial function to this realm, which will be discussed later on.
The other term of importance is the use of “was preached;” εὐηγγελίσθη in Greek. Does this in fact refer to preaching the Gospel? As strange as it might seem, it does indeed; εὐηγγελίσθη is the usual Greek New Testament word for teaching and proclaiming the good news of Jesus Christ. What this implies is that it was a declaration of Christ’s atoning salvific work that was being proclaimed and offered to those waiting in the intermediate state, allowing them too to participate in Christ’s victory over death. This fact has substantial significance, for if Christ proclaimed the Gospel when He descended to hades, what is to stop Him from presenting the Gospel when the dead rise at Judgment Day?
V. Objections to Eschatological Evangelism & the Intermediate State
Now that we have accomplished an analysis of both eschatological evangelism and the intermediate state, the task still remains to coalesce these two concepts in a way that supports and compliments one another for a vision of life after death. It has already been seen that the two doctrines overlap implicitly in many ways, but one of the clearest ways to assist in seeing how they hearten each other is to encounter and address the various possible objections against these topics. By engaging these disagreements it will be shown how eschatological evangelism and the intermediate state preserve a tenable argument both theologically and Scripturally.
A. Immediate Judgment At Death
- Hebrews 9:27
The first objection to be dealt with, and the most frequently debated, is the assumption that our destinies are determined immediately after death and no decisions can be made following death. The typical reasoning for this is that Hebrews 9:27 asserts this as fact:
And just as it is appointed for man to die once, and after that comes Judgment…
While it is understandable that many might read this verse as indicating that ultimate Judgment occurs immediately after death, it in no way implies that this is the only interpretation. But rather, this kind of statement is ambiguous in regards to when exactly after death this Judgment transpires. From what is written, Judgment happening after death could be in a few seconds or it could be in a few centuries. What the author of Hebrews is trying to convey is that Judgment will happen for all people after death, but says nothing about excluding what happens in between; namely, an intermediate state. In fact, the following verse 28 says that Christ will appear a second time, “for those who eagerly await Him.” In light of the many passages reviewed concerning the intermediate state, Christ often includes those in the intermediate state among those who are waiting for Him to return.
In regards to the portion of the objection that claims decisions cannot be made after death, it can be found that the driving force behind this argument stems from an unquestioned dogma since Augustine; one that insists that God owes us nothing and it is a gracious gift if one has an opportunity to accept the Gospel in this life. What these objectors neglect is what this paper started with – recognizing the imperative “two theological axioms” of God’s universal salvific will and Christ’s finality. If one rejects either of those two realities, the conversation is moot. God’s universal salvific will is not wishful hyperbole, but sincere longing to be in loving relationship with His creation. Thus, God’s salvific will must be universal, and with the evidence of an intermediate state, decisions after death cannot be ruled out in the absence of specific Scriptural precedence.
- Neglect of Eschatology
Proof texting verses, such as Hebrews 9:27, contributes to creating false assumptions that reinforce the misguided idea of being judged immediately following death. This susceptibility shows a clear transition away from the reality of the prominence of eschatology in Scripture. John Sanders shows this to be the case in his quoting of Thomas Field’s ‘Andover Theory of Future Probation’: “We have neglected the eschatology of Scripture and made death the Judgment, and death the coming of Christ.” Hebrews 9:27 does not intend to shift Judgment Day to be a subjective event that occurs at every person’s death, but instead confirms that this glorious and terrifying Day will come to pass. Additionally, this displays part of the reason why specifying this view as eschatological evangelism is necessary, as it plainly bears the import that this event focuses on Redemption Day.
B. Condemnation by Nature, Not Explicit Rejection of Christ
- The Problem of Original Sin
The next contention is by far the most difficult for eschatological evangelism and a middle state to answer. The argument is that the depravity of human nature is warrant enough to condemn one to separation from God, and by waiting until Judgment Day for everyone to have knowledge of and to explicitly reject Christ as the final decision is inconsistent with what Scripture contends concerning the gravity of original corporate sin in Adam. This assertion has some validity because some passages could show that explicit rejection alone is not the only path to reprobation.
- The ‘New Adam’
A possible response to this objection is that while it is true we are corporately implicated in Adam’s original sin, it is also true that the ‘new Adam’ liberates us. In other words, the cross has conquered the condemnation spoke of in Romans 3; therefore no one is under that condemnation since Christ has removed it. Consequently, what remains to be dealt with is the Day of Judgment, at which our destinies are determined by our response and relationship to Christ.
While the theme of the depravity of human nature is strong throughout Scripture, the reality that Christ has succeeded in conquering the curse of sin is just as intense. Besides, even if it is fair for God to condemn, that does not mean that in His love He would not seek another salvation. But since He has made salvation realized, the choice is now ours to make. Christ’s death for our depraved sinful natures was the ultimate ‘yes’ to humanity, thus we have the option when we meet Him in the air to either rule in our selfish desires, or to give our entire selves as servants. Choosing Christ over oneself is the most difficult and imperative choice there is.
C. Christ Does Not Preach to Spirits
- Different Interpretation of 1 Peter 2:18-20 and 4:6
Another common confrontation to specifically an intermediate state, and then in turn eschatological evangelism, is advocacy for a different interpretation of the key passage to Christ’s descent into hades, 1 Peter 3:18-20 and 4:6. Rather than Christ actually preaching to spirits, some insist that the purpose of the text was exhorting believers to preserve in their witness, for if unbelievers were given an opportunity at death for salvation there would be no point to endure suffering now. This argument also reaches over into a broader challenge to eschatological evangelism and the intermediate state in that if it is feasible for decisions to be made after death, what is the purpose of Christian life now?
- Critique of “Control Belief”
The specific interpretation of 1 Peter 3:18-20 and 4:6 is entirely dependent on the reader; if one wants to skip past the obvious intentions of Paul in these verses, ignore the clear terminology of Christ actually preaching the Gospel, as well as go against significant biblical scholarship, it is up to him or her. But this inquiry stems from a more serious “control belief.” More specifically, this objection arises from a typically restrictivst view that maintains a rather shallow perception concerning the actual purpose of salvation. For them, gaining salvation appears to be about following a correct prescription that is set out for them, and the goal is all that is important: live this way, believe this, and you will get the reward of heaven.
Contrary to this, as has already been discussed, a more complete picture of salvation is that it is about relationship – including now and after death. Jesus is alive now, and we can participate in the actualization of His salvation here in our present lives. In addition, it shows a much more mature perception of the Christian life that despite suffering there are plenty of other wonderful reasons to endure in faith. Without a doubt Christian living is not easy, yet Scripture insists that it is truly worth the trials, and a significant portion of its purpose is to live the most enriching and refining life possible, both presently and after death.
D. Removes Motivation for Missions
Somewhat connected to the last objection, this one also deals with the purpose and justification of actions in the light of eschatological evangelism and the intermediate state. If people will have the chance to respond to the Gospel at Judgment Day, why attempt sharing it now?
- The Kingdom of God Now
First, seeing the purpose of missions as getting more people into heaven derives itself from a rather skewed perspective, one quite homogenous to the objection concerning the purpose of Christian living. This is shown by the fact that this argument ignores an aspect to spreading the Gospel is also about spreading the Kingdom of God now, not just having more people in heaven. More so, God commanded us to do it. We were charged with this task and it could have to do with God’s actions with humanity often centered on His desire to cultivate relationship and cooperation with His creation.
- Relationship Now
Second, as was shown in the previous objection, having Christ in your life is rewarding. Why not share that with people now? If salvation can be best described as being relational, there should be a strong motivation for this actualizing of salvation to begin sooner rather than later. The capability for all people to be in relationship with the Creator of the universe should be motivation enough for missions.
- Assistance of Explicit Faith
Third, eschatological evangelism’s opening for a chance to respond at Judgment Day will not be an easy decision to make. As demonstrated, implicit faith could have a significant role in assisting someone to accept Christ when he or she meets Him in the air, but why not do missions to share explicit faith and increase the likelihood that someone would respond positively? Obviously, whether someone will accept Christ at the Judgment Seat is entirely up to each individual, yet we as Christians are urged to help and encourage one another in each other’s faith.
E. What is the Intermediate State?
- Sleeping or Purging?
The final objection operates more as a transition to the next portion of this paper, which deliberates the question, quite simply, what is the intermediate state? We have seen Scriptural evidence for its existence, but what is it and what is its function? The reason that often causes people to reject or ignore the concept of a middle state is that it bears too much resemblance to purgatory, or on the other hand, not enough. And in turn, one’s construction of an intermediate state is often modeled in opposition to purgatory, or conversely, against a sleep state. Can there be a middle ground?
 N. T. Wright, For All the Saints?: Remembering the Christian Departed (Harrisburg, PA: Morehouse Pub, 2003), 20.
 John 3:13 (ESV)
 Herbert Mortimer Luckock, The Intermediate State between Death and Judgment: Being a Sequel to After Death (London: Longmans, Green, 1904), 19.
 Luke 23:43 (ESV)
 Luke 23:43 (SBL Greek New Testament)
 Luke 6:23, “Your reward is great in οὐρανῷ,” Luke 10:20, “Rejoice that your names are written in οὐρανῷ,” Luke 18:22, “Give all you have to the poor, and you will have treasure in οὐρανῷ; and come, follow me.” (Paraphrased) (ESV)
 2 Corinthians 12:3 (ESV)
 Luckock, The Intermediate State, 39-40.
 1 Thess. 4:13-17 (ESV)
 Luckock, The Intermediate State, 20-21.
 Luckock, The Intermediate State, 21.
 2 Cor. 5:10 (ESV)
 Joseph H Leckie, The World to Come and Final Destiny (Edinburgh: T. & T. Clark, 1922), 93.
 Rev. 6:9-11 (ESV)
 Luckock, The Intermediate State, 22.
 Luckock, The Intermediate State, 35.
 Catherine Ella Laufer, Hell’s Destruction: an Exploration of Christ’s Descent to the Dead (Surrey, England: Ashgate Publishing Limited, 2013), 130.
 1 Peter 3:18-20, 4:6 (ESV)
 Luckock, The Intermediate State, 140.
 Sanders, No Other Name, 187-188.
 Lewis, The Great Divorce, 75.
 Luckock, The Intermediate State, 140.
 Revelation 1:18 (ESV)
 Laufer, Hell’s Destruction, 131.
 Luckock, The Intermediate State, 140.
 1 Peter 4:6 (SBLGNT)
 Sanders, No Other Name, 187.
 Luckock, The Intermediate State, 145.
 Hebrews 9:27 (ESV)
 Luckock, The Intermediate State, 22.
 Hebrews 9:28 (ESV)
 Sanders, No Other Name, 209.
 Sanders, No Other Name, 190.
 John 3:18, “Whoever does not believe is condemned already” (Paraphrased, emphasis added), Romans 3:19, “The whole world may be held accountable to God.” (ESV)
 1 Corinthians 15:22 (ESV)
 Sanders, No Other Name, 208.
 Sanders, No Other Name, 207.
 Sanders, No Other Name, 31. “Control belief” of course refers to one’s stances and opinions on crucial issues such as faith, salvation, Christology, epistemology, predestination, etc. These can vary within one denomination, or even between individual Calvinists and Arminians, but they influence much of one’s hermeneutic and interpretation processes of Scripture and theology.
 Sanders, No Other Name, 207-208.
 2 Corinthians 9:9, “Whoever sows bountifully will also reap bountifully,” 2 Timothy 2:11-13, “If we have died with Him, we will also live with Him; if we endure, we will also reign with Him; if we deny Him, He will deny us; if we are faithless, He remains faithful” (ESV) – This passage has some intriguing insights for what has been discussed already. It clearly shows that if we are willing to give our life to Christ, He will reward us with eternal life, but it will cost us our lives. More so, it gives emphasis on the importance of explicit acceptance of Christ, while also highlighting the fact that God does not give up on us, rather we give up on God.
 Matthew 28:19, “The Great Commission” (ESV)
 Beilby, “Nature of Salvation.”
 1 Thessalonians 5:11 “Encourage and build each other up.” ESV)