The intermediate state is the condition of the dead until the resurrection of the body. Christians hold various viewpoints on the nature of the intermediate state based on their interpretation of relevant biblical passages. Some passages suggest a conscious intermediate state, and others an unconscious state. Both views should be respected. (Isaiah 14:9-10; Ezekiel 32:21; Luke 16:19-31; 23:43; 2 Corinthians 5:1-8; Philippians 1:21-24; Revelation 6:9-11; Psalms 6:5; 88:10-12; 115:17; Ecclesiastes 3:19-21; 9:5, 10; Isaiah 38:18; John 11:11-14; 1 Thessalonians 4:13-14)
Throughout Christian history, the majority view has been that after death, people are consciously present with God or consciously experiencing punishment. The minority view is often called “soul sleep”; it says that people are unconscious, awaiting the resurrection and judgment.
The New Testament offers no sustained reflection on the intermediate state. There are a few verses that seem to indicate that humans are unconscious after death as well as a few verses that seem to indicate that humans are conscious after death.
Several verses describe death in terms of sleep, such as those in Ecclesiastes and Psalms. When you look at a dead body, it appears that the body is asleep. In such passages, sleep is a metaphor for death, referring to the appearance of the body. When we read verses such as Matthew 27:52, John 11:11, and Acts 13:36, it appears that death is equated with “sleep” — even though the writers knew that there was a significant difference between death and sleep.
We should also take note of verses that seem to indicate consciousness after death. In 2 Corinthians 5:1-10 Paul seems to refer to the intermediate state as being “unclothed” in verse 4, and as being “at home with the Lord” in verse 8. In Philippians 1:21-23 Paul says that to die is “gain” because believers depart “to be with Christ.” This does not sound like unconsciousness. This is also seen in Luke 23:43 when Jesus tells the thief, “Today you will be with me in Paradise.”
God has not chosen to describe the intermediate state explicitly and dogmatically in the Bible. Perhaps it is beyond human capacity to grasp. This doctrine is not an issue over which Christians should fight and divide.
As the Evangelical Dictionary of Theology states, “Speculation on the intermediate state should never diminish the certainty that flows from the cross or the hope in the new creation.” If we are conscious with God after death, who will complain about this, saying, “I’m supposed to sleep until Jesus returns — why am I conscious?” And if we are unconscious, we won’t be able to complain. Either way, at death, our next conscious moment is with God.
Author: Paul Kroll