On the ‘intermediate state’

At Spring Harvest I was sharing the ‘Radio 4’ sessions with Ann Holt of Bible Society every morning (they offer the teaching material in several formats, named after radio stations to give a flavour of the style; R4 is thoughtful and academic; ‘Radio 2’ mainstream and popular; ‘Edge FM’ deliberately alternative; and ‘Talk FM’ very interactive; it’s a nice way of dividing people up). I was also doing various lectures and discussion sessions on ‘heaven and hell’ in the afternoons and evenings, sharing with Steve Chalke and Russ Rook amongst others.

The theme was eschatology, ‘One Hope’. The teaching material stressed the ‘this worldly’ nature of Christian hope (looking for the resurrection of the body and the transformation of the Earth, rather than the immortality of the soul and our removal to heaven). Most people bought this quite quickly – the Bible and the Creed are clear enough on the matter, after all. And hearteningly few were of the opinion that anyone not carrying a pledge card from a Billy Graham crusade was immediately and necessarily condemned to everlasting torment.

Oddly, the question that arose, and obviously bothered people, was the ‘intermediate state’: what happens to us between death and final resurrection? In theological terms, it is an abstruse and rather irrelevant question, however, I quickly found some material Mike Higton and I prepared in a paper on ghosts we published a few years back, and gave a bit of input on this, but found myself wondering why it obviously concerned people. (My flippant response, before I spotted how much it was mattering to at least some, was ‘the destination is clear and certain; who cares if the route is slightly obscure in places?’)

Talking to folk, I think the reason for the interest was fundamentally pastoral: people want to know where Grandma is now. And that matters–it speaks to people of God’s love and care. A useful reminder of the need for theology to be responsible to the churches.


  1. Jason
    Apr 13, 2008

    Thanks for the reminder, Steve! And accordingly, theology with no pastoral implications would be totally irresponsible.

  2. Cyberpastor
    Apr 14, 2008

    Well no one wants to be taken as pastorally insensitive but is there more to it than simply making people feel better about what has become of Grandma?
    I can’t help but think that the relatively thin Biblical testimony on the subject is marshaled to cover a basic human fear – that being of death itself. We cannot bear the thought that we might actually “return to the dust” as the Genesis curse implies and cease to exist and have been taught too little of the ontological significance of “our lives being hid with Christ.” Hence we invent other means of assuring ourselves that there is something beyond the grave for us. Could it be that the intermediate state is another thing, along with the Roman purgatory and Protestant predestination, that supplements God’s promise of being for us in the humanity of the risen Christ?

  3. N Hitchcock
    Apr 25, 2008

    I commend you for not capitulating to the easy (and misleading) answer of heaven-bound souls in bliss, yet also being aware of the solemn need Christians have with regard to a comforting word. Part of the pastoral quandary, I’ve found, is figuring out whether a bereaved Christian wants 1) to find consolation in knowing that “in life or in death I belong to my faithful savior” (Heid. Cat. Q1), that not even death can separate us from the goodness of God, or 2) to make sure that the dead person has now entered into perfect consummation with God so as to effectively refute the tragedy of said person’s death. The first need is, I think, entirely worth addressing. The second “need” is not so praiseworthy, as it almost always involves a denial of the horror of death, a rejection of the goodness of the body, and thus facilitates a movement toward pagan hopes.

    How it all fits together – the afterlife and the after-after life (to co-opt a Tom Wright term) – is mysterious, no doubt. For what it’s worth, what I tell my students is that we should not mistake the Christian consolation (the sustained disembodied existence in the presence of God) with the Christian hope (eternal life in the resurrection body in the renewed cosmos).

    I’d be interested in hearing more on the topic, and seeing your paper on ghosts.

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