To be with Christ: The Intermediate State and Phil. 1:21-24

In many theological circles, the doctrine of the intermediate state is often a key theological locus. For many or most evangelical Christians, the intermediate state is a comfort, drawn upon inferences from key Scriptural texts. It is not my interest to dissuade Christians from affirming this doctrine, or taking solace in it. Rather, my twofold goal is to challenge Christians to stay true to the text, and to show why I think Philippians 1:21-24 is insufficient as support for the doctrine of the intermediate state.

To lay my cards out on the table, I do not presently believe in such an intermediate state. My view of the human person does not require an intermediate state, and my view of the resurrection of the body does not either. There is of course debate about this doctrine, and I will not solve it at all in one blog post. But allow me to address a specific text in Paul that is often utilized to support the idea.

The text reads as follows:

Phil. 1:21-24: ἐμοὶ γὰρ τὸ ζῆν Χριστὸς καὶ τὸ ἀποθανεῖν κέρδος. 22 εἰ δὲ τὸ ζῆν ἐν σαρκί, τοῦτό μοι καρπὸς ἔργου— καὶ τί αἱρήσομαι οὐ γνωρίζω· 23 συνέχομαι δὲ ἐκ τῶν δύο, τὴν ἐπιθυμίαν ἔχων εἰς τὸ ἀναλῦσαι καὶ σὺν Χριστῷ εἶναι, πολλῷ γὰρ μᾶλλον κρεῖσσον, 24 τὸ δὲ ἐπιμένειν ⸀ ἐν τῇ σαρκὶ ἀναγκαιότερον δι᾽ ὑμᾶς.

My translation: “For me, to live—Christ; and to die—profit. But if to live in the body, this to me is fruitful work, and what I choose to take up I do not know. I am confined by the two, having the desire to die and be with Christ, for rather this is nobler. And to stay in the body is more important for you.”

I tried to be a bit wooden with my translation, but that is never entirely doable. But I hope the passage makes sense the way I rendered it.

As representative of the dualist perspective, I will engage with John Piper’s website, as I am too tired to grab Wayne Grudem off the shelf. The article on Desiring God was written by Matt Perman and may be accessed here (http://www.desiringgod.org/articles/what-do-you-believe-about-the-intermediate-state). John Piper is a prominent neo-fundamentalist pastor, and I suspect his website is influential for those interested in this topic. However, since Matt Perman is the actual author of this piece, I will be referring to him in my response.

Perman writes:

First, Paul spoke of having the desire "to depart and be with Christ, for that is very much better" (Philippians 1:23). Notice first of all that Paul speaks of death as a departure (from the body) not into temporary nothingness or unconsciousness but to be with Christ. If we are with Christ once we have died, then we continue existing.

I think Perman makes several leaps in logic here. First of all, the infinitive ἀναλῦσαι (“to depart”) here just means, “to die.” It’s a metaphor meaning ‘death.’ Paul is likely writing from prison here, and the threat of death immanent. He has death on the mind, so to speak. For Perman to assert, “If we are with Christ once we have died, then we continue existing” seems to go beyond the text. There are questions Paul does not answer that Perman seems to presume an answer for. For instance:

  • Does Paul believe in an immortal soul that can survive bodily death? Unlikely.
  • Does Paul believe in the resurrection of the body? Yes. Cf. 1 Cor. 15. Why then the need for an intermediate state?

To be with Christ is a relational term, and Christ is already raised in Paul’s mind. In other texts, Paul talks about the immediacy of the resurrection (cf. 1 Cor. 15:51-52), but this begs a question: perspectivally, did Paul believe he would be literally raised in an instant? Unlikely. More likely, he would remain dead until resurrection (that’s why it is called resurrection), but for him, time is but a “twinkling of an eye.” To die with Christ, then is both relational and soteriological.

The preposition σύν (“with”) occurs in conjunction with Christ elsewhere in Paul (Rom. 6:8 and in Col. 2:20 and 3:3-4). In Rom. 6:8, it refers to the death of the person with Christ (soteriology) and her resurrection. The death of the believer means she has participated in Christ’s life, and her resurrection is secured because of his resurrection. In Col. 2:20, ἀπεθάνετε σὺν Χριστῷ (“dying with Christ”) is also a relational term, as in being bound to Christ in death as opposed to the “elements of the world.” In 3:3-4, the life of the believer is “hidden” (κέκρυπται) with Christ and in God (σὺν τῷ Χριστῷ ἐν τῷ θεῷ). Col. 3:4 sums this up quite powerfully:

Col. 3:4: ὅταν ὁ Χριστὸς φανερωθῇ, ἡ ζωὴ ὑμῶν, τότε καὶ ὑμεῖς σὺν αὐτῷ φανερωθήσεσθε ἐν δόξῃ.

My translation: “whenever Christ [the Messiah] may be manifest in our lives, then also you will be manifested in glory with him.”

Paul’s basic premise is sound: to die with Christ is to participate in his life and example, in imitating the dying Messiah so that we may have eternal life in his name. For Perman to make it about continuing to exist seems to contradict the witness of Paul elsewhere, and here especially.

He writes:

Second, notice that Paul speaks of this state as "very much better" than the present state. It would be hard to say such a thing of a state of complete unconsciousness.”

This seems tenuous. Eternal life, in resurrection, is surely preferable to death. The intimacy of Christ, the fullness of his life, and the vindication of Paul’s witness remain forlorn and forsaken without resurrection. To remain dead in light of his own life and sufferings, Paul undoubtedly thought resurrection with Christ was better! To be raised is vindication (cf. Dan. 12:2-3), not abandonment.

Particularly when we consider that Paul's passion was to know Christ, it would seem that the reason the state beyond death is better than this present life is because we are with Christ and know it. If we were suddenly unconscious at death until the resurrection, wouldn't it be better to remain in this life because at least then we would have conscious fellowship with Christ?

He writes:

…notice again that [Paul] speaks of this state as his preference, which indicates (as in Philippians 1:23) that we not only continue existing between death and the resurrection, but that we are aware of our existence.

Nowhere in Paul do we have any language about “existing” between death and resurrection. As has been shown already, this looks to be a fallacious line of argumentation. Of course, resurrection is Paul’s preference! He lived and suffering and ultimately died for Christ. “Awareness” seems more like a modernistic ideal than a New Testament reality.

In essence, Paul in Philippians 1:21-24 is speaking relationally, with an eye toward future resurrection (c.f. 3:10-11). The language about being “in the body” is likely an idiomatic phrase about being alive. For instance, Rom. 8:3 uses a similar syntactical phrase κατέκρινε τὴν ἁμαρτίαν ἐν τῇ σαρκί (“condemned sin in the body”), that is, Jesus’ living mortal body being crucified and killed, and thus condemning sin. Elsewhere, 2 Cor. 4:11b reads as follows:

2 Cor. 4:11: ἵνα καὶ ἡ ζωὴ τοῦ Ἰησοῦ φανερωθῇ ἐν τῇ θνητῇ σαρκὶ ἡμῶν

My translation: “so that also the life of Jesus should be manifested in our mortal bodies.”

The idea of “in the flesh/body” is not to promote a dualistic and tripartite view of the human person (that we are composed of body, soul and/or spirit). Rather, the relational idiom denotes the idea of being alive (or formerly alive). “In the body” is an idiomatic way of simply stating the obvious: you are alive, in the most basic sense of the phrase.

Paul’s language here is about participation in God’s mission in the world, not about a conscious intermediate state. If one desires to argue for such a concept, one is on far better ground in the realm of philosophy and theology rather than this text. I am mildly open to the concept of an intermediate state on philosophical grounds (although I do find it to be unnecessary and not in harmony with the witness of the New Testament), but I cannot endorse such an idea from this chief proof text.

NQ

Why the Resurrection is better than going to Heaven: Sermon Notes

"Resurrection"  ©  Allison M. Quient

"Resurrection" © Allison M. Quient

Philippians 3:17-4:1. The text (my translation):

Join in being imitators of me, brothers and sisters, and likewise take note of those who already live according to the example you have in us, for I have told you often about the many who live, but now I say this even while weeping, that the enemies of the cross of Christ. Their destiny is utter destruction; their God is the belly; and their “glory” is their shame; these are the people concerned about earthly matters.  For us, however, exists citizenship in the heavens, and from these heavens we anticipate a savior, the Lord Jesus Christ. Christ will transform our subjugated body, for our body will be conformed to his glorious body according to his power, who is being able to subject everything to himself. So, my beloved brothers and sisters whom I long for, my joy and my crown, persevere in this way in the Lord, beloved!

In the ancient world, life sucked. It really did. The majority of people were in extreme poverty, and this directly affected the marginalized groups within urban settings like women, who often died young or in childbirth. In a setting of rival religious viewpoints, how is Paul to communicate to this fledgling church in Philippi? How does he communicate the authority of Christ when Caesar is Lord? How do the various social hierarchies and dynamics affect slaves, women, Gentiles and Jews in such a small and volatile setting?

Because I cannot hope to answer all of these questions directly or fully, I have two main points that I want to stress as we walk through God’s word tonight. The first is the nature of “somatic ethics,” or how we live as bodies, as both a community and as individuals. Ethics of this sort include sex, food, power and the nature of what it means to be a human being in the ancient world.

The second is more controversial and will likely get me in trouble, but I’m already preaching and it is bad manners to take the mic away from an honored guest. The controversial point is that, for Paul, resurrection is better than heaven.

Rival religious groups or people in Philippi were dominant, as were religions in the ancient world. When Paul speaks of these rival groups, perhaps even movements within the church, he is filled with weeping. The “enemies of the cross of Christ” are concerned like most people: they desire money, prestige, sex, power, and social status, all of the things we all kinda want but shouldn’t desire. Paul characterizes them as people entirely devoted to themselves and their own pleasure: their “bellies” are overflowing as the many grow sick in the streets, and they pursue “earthly things,” that is, things that are not of God. We can see this in our own lives, desiring things that are not good for us: pornography, drugs, better clothes, better phones (hopefully the kind that don’t explode if you are a Samsung user like myself), better cars, anything to keep from thinking about the deep things of God.

Don’t worry if you see yourself in there: that just means you are in good company with me and everyone else.

For Paul, the eschaton—the end of all things—was immanent. He was waiting, like we are, for the return of Christ. Instead of participating in Christ and in the church, their pleasure becomes their “god.” Pleasure in the ancient world, much like today, was not about the autonomous freedom of a person to seek pleasure apart from another person. Pleasure was taken, bought, or stolen. It was about power, greed, and avarice: in that sense, the ancient world looked a lot like Game of Thrones. We see this in numerous places throughout the New Testament, where people in power abused those who were not in power.

For Paul, the eschatological end for such people was utter destruction in v.19. The end result of a life lived in sin apart from Christ was annihilation, a shameful eternal death that is hardly glorious. The word for “destruction” appears throughout the New Testament: for instance, Jesus tells us in the Gospel of Matthew to:

”Enter through the narrow gate; for the gate is wide and the road is easy that leads to destruction, and there are many who take it. 14 For the gate is narrow and the road is hard that leads to life, and there are few who find it.”

We see this similar mindset, albeit with an economic focus, in 1 Timothy 6:6-10, where the author says:

“ Of course, there is great gain in godliness combined with contentment; 7 for we brought nothing into the world, so that we can take nothing out of it; 8 but if we have food and clothing, we will be content with these. 9 But those who want to be rich fall into temptation and are trapped by many senseless and harmful desires that plunge people into ruin and destruction. 10 For the love of money is a root of all kinds of evil, and in their eagerness to be rich some have wandered away from the faith and pierced themselves with many pains.”

It seems that the “enemies of the cross” in Philippi are cut from the same cloth as these people in Ephesus, in 1 Timothy 6. In our text tonight, we have people who have embodied the very lifestyle that God hates. So when Paul evokes the “destiny” of those who are leading wicked lives, Paul is being a bit sarcastic by saying, “their glory is their shame.” The shame of a life lived in utter selfishness, apart from the participatory suffering of God’s people. Hardly glorious, hardly worth remembering. As Paul says in Romans 6:23: “the wages of sin is death.” Death is the payout for a life lived in rebellion, in Sin.

We do not let our lives be defined by “our pleasures.” Rather, Christ defines us. Thus, our ethical framework is that we treat our bodies as a temple, as something noble and good. What we do with our lives, our actions, our deeds, matters deeply to God. He gave you life, and he wants you to live a life that does not destroy his image (c.f. Gen. 1:26-27); whether male or female, you image God. That is why what you do and how you live matters.

This leads us nicely into Paul’s second point, where he draws a specific contrast between those whose destiny is destruction. Rather than being citizens of Caesar’s Republic, our citizenship is defined by Christ, by the cosmic realm. We are not citizens of earth, that is, we do not belong to the reign of Death or the reign of Caesar. To be earthly is to be mortal, under subjection. To be a “citizen” affords a person with certain rights: that is, as citizens of heaven, we have a specific claim or right:

That right is resurrection.

Christ’s return signifies that our bodies, our subjected, broken bodies will be “conformed.” The Greek word σύμμορφον is a compound word: the prefix σύν means “with” (among other things) and the word μορφή (“form”): literally, “formed with.” This same word (though it is not a compound word) is used in Philippians 2:6 to describe the preexistent Christ as being “in the form of God.” That σῶμα (“body”) is to be transformed means the totality of the human person is to be formed by Christ: mind, heart, skin, everything. All that you are will be transformed, not left unburied in shame and contempt, or left in the corrosive grasp of Death.

We aren't going to be like Casper the Ghost in New Creation.

Christ is not coming back as Casper the Ghost.

Like it says in Romans 8:29 “being conformed to the image of his son.” As opposed to “glory” being shame, like in v.18, rather glory here describes the body of Christ in his true form, as the eternal Son of God. He came from Heaven, relinquished his authority to life a life marked by slavery and death, but he also comes as savior, as deliverer, to rescue people from suffering and that evil, narcissistic tyrant, Death. His resurrection is liberation.

His resurrection is our liberation, gang.

Liberation from what?

What does resurrection mean?

It means that death is destroyed.

Death is a significant force in Paul. In Romans 5, he speaks of Death having “reigned,” describing it like one would a king, like how one would describe Caesar. If Christ is not risen, what? We’re dead and gone. We’re like those earthly ones, whose destiny is utter destruction. Our gods might as well be our belly. What good is there? Porn, adultery, sexism. What good is there?

But.

But.

Christ is risen.

The resurrection of Jesus is the ultimate triumph of God over the forces of evil that prey upon you, upon me, upon us. Resurrection is not about going to heaven when you die. Resurrection is about God saying “no” to Death and to Evil.

Resurrection is God’s way of saying, “I freaking love you,” and I will not abandon you to Death. This magisterial love of Christ then pushes us to say, like Paul did:

“Persevere!” “Christ is risen!”

This is good news! The best news! God loves you, and wants you to participate in resurrection life: a life lived in service, as brothers and sisters, ministers and pastors and priests. Be holy! Be righteous! Be gracious when people fail, so basically be gracious always. The greatest sign of God’s love is that he raised Jesus from the dead, and you can be like Jesus in his resurrection. Love triumphs over sin, over evil, over Death.

There is hope! There is hope for those of us who suffer now, and will suffer in the future. For the woman who is oppressed by sexism in the church, there is hope. For the man who struggles with his sexuality, there is hope. For the person who is the chief of sinners, there is hope.

Paul believed that Christ’s coming was the end of death, of pain, of suffering. He believed that our resurrection was better than heaven, because the resurrection is the final triumph of God. Death has been utterly and completely destroyed, and we wait in anticipation of the coming Son of God.

Heaven hath no joy like a resurrecting God, and that is why our resurrection is better than going to heaven. There are not ghosts in New Creation.

There be dragons – there be resurrection, brothers and sisters. Now go live it, and go love those who most desperately need it.

NQ

Outline

o   3:17-19: Paul begins this section with an imperative to be like him, and to observe the conduct of those already in the assembly. He has already argued against “adversarial ones” (1:28), and has stressed ethical unity (2:5-11). With tears in his eyes, he says the trajectory of the “enemies of the cross of Christ” is utter destruction.

§  Somatic ethics—ethics of how one lives, eats, etc.—are important to Paul here. For example, somatic ethics are stressed by Paul to treat our bodies like a temple (1 Cor. 3).

§  While it is not entirely obvious that the people of Philippi are suffering, suffering is surely a probable outcome.

o   3:20-21: In drawing a contrast between those concerned with earthly things, Paul asserts that the believers in Philippi are already citizens of the heavens. The word “savior” (σωτῆρα) means “deliverer” or “one who rescues.” Paul tells the readers to “anticipate” the coming Christ

§  Eschatology is the study of the “end” of all things: heaven, hell, new creation.

·      Paul stresses what one does as a human being—as an embodied person—matters to Christ. Because Christ is not going to discard your body like a plastic wrapper from a snicker’s bar.

·      Jesus thinks the body is good. Our bodies will be like Christ’s: glorious, immortal, and empowered by the Holy Spirit.

o   4:1: Paul exhorts his brothers and sisters to be steadfast and persevere despite suffering, for we hope for the resurrection. Death was a tyrant until Christ was raised from the dead: now, death has no sting (1 Cor. 15:55).

o   Conclusion: Paul believed that Christ’s coming was the end of death, of pain, of suffering. He believed that our resurrection was better than heaven, because the resurrection is the final triumph of God.

§  How then should we live in light of the defeat of Death?