What is the Intermediate State?

In 1562 Zacharias Ursinus, born on July 18, 1534, was asked to draft a new catechism for Frederick III. Ursinus, then a professor at the University of Heidelberg, began work immediately and one year later the Heidelberg Catechism was published. It was received so well it was soon translated into Latin, Dutch, French, and English. Since it’s publishing it has become the most loved and devotional catechism of the Reformation as well as the fourth bestselling book in history (after the Bible, Bunyan’s Pilgrim’s Progress, and Thomas a Kempis’ Imitation of Christ).

The 57th question of the catechism introduces us to our topic today.

Q: How does “the resurrection of the body” comfort you?

A: That not only my soul, after this life, shall be immediately taken up to Christ its head, but also that this my body, raised by the power of Christ, shall again be united with my soul, and made like the glorious body of Christ.

Question 57 of the Heidelberg Catechism speaks of the great biblical reality that one day our souls will be reunited with our bodies in the great resurrection. My aim in this post isn’t to discuss what our glorified bodies will be like or even to discuss the great and final resurrection. My aim is to talk about the in between time, when our souls are still separate from our bodies.

This time is called the intermediate state.

In the early Church the doctrine of the intermediate state wasn’t taught or written on because the return of Jesus was believed to be imminent. As the years progressed and a realization settled in that Jesus was tarrying, theologians began to discuss the intermediate state. These early accounts viewed this state as a temporary foretaste of the greater joy or greater terror to come. Among those who held this view were Justin Martyr, Irenaeus, Tertullian, Novation, Origen, Gregory of Nyssa, Ambrose, and Augustine.

As time continued on into the Middle Ages this widely held belief was taken up by the Roman Catholic Church and it is here that we see the birth of purgatory. Which teaches that after physical death the souls of imperfect believers must go to a waiting place (or a limbo) where they will be purified to the point where they can enter into glory. In this sense purgatory is seen as the last step in a believer’s sanctification. How did they come to create such a doctrine? The Roman Catholics do defend and seek to prove the existence of purgatory from other passages, but they mainly go to 2 Maccabees 12. You may recognize that 1st or 2nd Maccabees isn’t in any of our Bibles. That’s because it’s found in what’s called the Apocrypha, or the Pseudepigrapha, as some Protestants call it. These books are historical books that show the details of what took place between the Testaments. The reason they’re not in our Bibles today is because the early Church fathers, Jesus and the apostles, as well as 1st century Jews didn’t believe them to be part of Scripture, so we don’t as well. They are helpful to read to get a historical perspective of what took place during that time, but in no way are these inspired texts of Scripture. In fact, the Roman Catholic Church didn’t officially believe the Apocrypha to be Scripture until 1547.

The context of 2 Maccabees 12, is that there has just been a large war where 25,000 Jews had been killed. The reason 25,000 men were killed was for secret idolatry. But afterward a leader named Judas leads the people to pray for these dead men “…that the sinful deed might be fully blotted out.” Then Judas took up an “offering for the dead, and had a special atoning sacrifice made them so that atonement would be made and they would be absolved from their sins.” Now you can see where the Roman Catholic Church gets their doctrine of purgatory as well as the doctrine of indulgences, which function as a kind of special offering for yourself or the dead taken up to shorten time spent in purgatory.

This view of purgatory was held as common belief until it’s rejection during the Protestant Reformation, though some reformers like Philip Melanchthon, believed it to be a matter of secondary importance and not worth arguing over. To this John Calvin said, “Since…purgatory is built on so very many blasphemies and is everyday reinforced by even bigger ones, creating untold scandals, it should never be ignored.” In our present time Roman Catholics and some Universalists still hold that purgatory exists (along with varying opinions of limbo), while the almost all the entire Protestant world rejects this concept due to lack of Scriptural evidence.

So what does the Bible say about the time between our physical death and the time when we’re reunited with our bodies at the resurrection? We could summarize it like this:

Upon death our bodies go into the grave while our souls will go immediately to heaven to be with Christ. In this state we will continue as conscious bodiless souls until the second advent of Christ where He will usher in His Kingdom in full measure, judge the world in righteousness, reunite the soul and body, send the wicked into hell forever, and bring the Church into the New Heavens and the New Earth for all eternity.

I do not believe the intermediate state to be a place of purification where we’re perfected until we’re holy enough to go to enter God’s presence, or even a place of soul sleep where we’re unconsciously waiting for Jesus’ second advent. No. I believe the intermediate state we get in the pages of Scripture is the time our bodiless and conscious souls spend in the direct presence of Christ in heaven, before the Second Coming of Christ.

We see this clearly in Revelation 6:9-11 where John the apostle says, “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 killed as they themselves has been.”

Here we see the martyrs. Those who have borne witness boldly and bravely to the truth of the gospel in a place that didn’t welcome such things. For this they lost their lives. Upon their martyrdom their souls immediately go to the throne of God where they cry out for God to judge the world and avenge their blood. Here they will be until the full number of martyrs come in. This place where they are right now is the place where all believers go upon death – heaven, in the direct presence of the Lord. God hears their cries, knows their pain, and comforts them with robes of white until Jesus descends on the earth in a cloud of glory with His heavenly host to right all wrongs and make all sad things untrue.

The hope of heaven is that we will once again be united with our bodies and will reign upon the earth in the New Heavens and New Earth forever all because of Christ.

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