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 ( 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.


“Not Many of You are of Noble Birth: Wealth, Status and 1 Cor. 1:26”

I find ancient economics and social-science fascinating, especially regarding the potential for Pauline theology. Here is a short post on how God's economy works with Paul's brief statement regarding the status of his church in Corinth. Thanks, and forgive my future indulgences in this topics. I'm sure there will be many of them, provided I can further study this subject on the doctoral level.

God willing, at least.

Now onto the short show!

26 Βλέπετε γὰρ τὴν κλῆσιν ὑμῶν, ἀδελφοί, ὅτι οὐ πολλοὶ σοφοὶ κατὰ σάρκα, οὐ πολλοὶ δυνατοί, οὐ πολλοὶ εὐγενεῖς·

“For you see your situation, brothers and sisters, that not many are wise according to the flesh, not many mighty, not many of high or noble status or birth.” (NRQT).

Other translations of 1 Cor. 1:26—

“Look at your situation when you were called, brothers and sisters! By ordinary human standards not many were wise, not many were powerful, not many were from the upper class.” (CEB)

“Consider your own call, brothers and sisters:[a] not many of you were wise by human standards,[b] not many were powerful, not many were of noble birth.” (NRSV)

“Brothers and sisters, think of what you were when you were called. Not many of you were wise by human standards; not many were influential; not many were of noble birth.” (NIV).

The Common English Bible (CEB) translates the noun κλῆσιν as “situation.” While interpretive in some sense, I think this actually reflects the original intent of the noun, rather than “calling.”

Paul uses the various tense of the verb καλέω later in 1 Cor. 7:20-23 to describe a situation a slave is born into, or partakes in. So, “situation” makes good sense and I changed my translation accordingly. Just a note on that.

The adjective εὐγενεῖς ("noble birth," "high-class") in other tense appears two other times in the New Testament, one in Luke 19:12 and another in Acts 17:11. In Luke 19, the adjective is used to describe someone born and going to take a βασιλείαν (“Kingdom”). This person is of clearly noble birth, of high rank, and of wealth in order to go to χώραν μακρὰν (“a far off place”). In Acts 17:11 the adjective describes Jewish noblemen (and women, in v.12). Thus, the term likely denotes social status of a high caliber. Most of us in the United States would be considered "εὐγενεῖς."

So Paul is likely writing to people who are not like the man in Luke 19 or the Jewish men and women in Acts 17. This is confirmed by Paul’s own comment on their status as seen by others: they are μωρὰ (“foolish”), as seen from people of a higher social-class (v.25). God sets the one’s lacking in social status aside for himself in the following verses in order to be καταισχύνῃ  (“dishonored”), which suggests social shaming, among other things.

The poor being uplifted or shown preference instead of the obvious wealthy is indeed a slander to the ancient mind. That likely makes up most of the people within the small house church in Corinth.

People of ignoble birth, of low status, likely slaves as well (1 Cor. 7:20-23). The letter addresses both sides of an apparent conflict, as some are taking the other’s to court (ch6), engaging in egregious sexual immorality without remorse or recourse (ch5), dividing over the Lord’s Supper (11:17-34), and fighting over who has the gifts of tongues (ch12-14).

The entire letter seems to presuppose this tension or conflict between classes, genders (11:2-16: 14:34-35, though I believe the latter is an interpolation), and even slaves in the aforementioned 7:20-23.

For Paul, the poor are given something in Christ:

ἐξ αὐτοῦ δὲ ὑμεῖς ἐστε ἐν Χριστῷ Ἰησοῦ, ὃς ἐγενήθη σοφία ἡμῖν ⸃ ἀπὸ θεοῦ, δικαιοσύνη τε καὶ ἁγιασμὸς καὶ ἀπολύτρωσις

“But from [God], you are in Messiah Jesus, who became wisdom to us from God, both righteousness and sanctification and liberation.” (NRQT)

The Messiah is spoken of as θεοῦ δύναμιν καὶ θεοῦ σοφίαν (“God’s power and God’s wisdom”).

Christ is the wisdom of God, on behalf of those of ignoble birth, of low social status, and especially for those who are dishonored, marginal, and forgotten. In this Messiah, there is liberation, as this Messiah is not just for the rich and the powerful, but for those without power.

Those are identified as τὸ ἀσθενὲς τοῦ θεοῦ (“the weakness of God”) is seen in the same grammatical pattern as τὸ μωρὸν τοῦ θεοῦ in v.25: article + nominative adjective + article + genitive (divine) noun. The weakness of God is manifest in the community, suggesting identification and participation. God, it seems, is powerful enough to identify with the poor, the destitute, and not of high or noble status or birth.

Just some thoughts on the economy of God.


Glorify God with your Body

I’ve been working on a potential Ph.D dissertation proposal (don’t worry, it isn’t about hell!), and have comes across some interesting language in 1 Cor. 6:20.

ἠγοράσθητε γὰρ τιμῆς· δοξάσατε δὴ τὸν θεὸν ἐν τῷ σώματι ὑμῶν

“For/because you have been purchased at a price; now glorify God with your body" (NRQT).

This concluding statement comes at the finale of chapter 6, which has been concerned with infighting amongst believers. Concerned to emphasize the goodness of the human person (or “body”), Paul assertsin v.19 that the human body is a ναὸς (“temple”), which establishes a high view of the human person. This human person may give worship (that is what happens at the temple or shrine), and she is also a model for how to interact with God, and suggests further that being σῶμα is a good thing. This is why the human person is still called σῶμα in the resurrected state (c.f. 1 Cor. 25:35-57). The physicality of the body is never fully removed, but the physicality is transformed and restored.

Paul does not draw a dualistic distinction between the “matter” and the “non-matter.” Rather, he uses the natural or concrete images of ναὸς and σῶμα to illustrate God’s good creation.

Verse 20, then, stresses the necessity of holiness of bodily integrity. This verb ἠγοράσθητε is used throughout the New Testament (mostly in the Synoptic Gospels), but finds its use in three instances in Paul. The first is obvious here in 6:20. However, there is a curious use in 7:23 and also in 7:30. In 1 Cor. 7:23, Paul uses an imperative middle verb (γίνεσθε) to argue against slaves to no longer return to slavery and are likely to told to take freedom in 7:21). They were bought with the same τιμῆς or price or cost; “therefore do not become slaves of people!” The human person, in all of her physical totality, is not worthy of slavery, especially in God's eyes.

"argue against slaves to no longer return" and "likely to told to take freedom")

The use of ἀγοράζοντες in 7:30 refers to not “buying” possessions because of Paul’s view of the immanent return of Christ (that is a dissertation or ten right there).  

Thus, the human person has been purchased at a great price (likely, the resurrection of Christ that liberates us from bondage), and as a result, we glorify God with our bodies. Of course, we cannot glorify God in a spiritual manner (to utilize that adjective seems almost disconcerting in light of the economic language here), but we can worship and sing and offer thanksgiving.

We have been purchased from the slavery of Death; therefore, we participate in God’s new economy of glorifying him with all that we truly are: now and forever.


Is it by "Grace" You are being Saved? Some Fragmented Thoughts on Ephesians

In John Barclay’s new book Paul and the Gift, he explores the dynamics of “grace” (χάρις) within Romans and Galatians. He argues “against modern notions of ‘altruism,’ we found that benefits were generally intended to foster mutuality, by creating or maintaining social bonds. This expectation of reciprocity, with its (non-legal) obligations, created cyclical patterns of gift-and-return, even where there were large differentials in power between givers and recipients.”[1]

In Ephesians, there are two key texts that are often used to support the argument of “grace.” These are Ephesians 2:5 and 2:8. The Greek word χάρις is usually—if not always—translated as “grace,” and this is often seen as something “freely given” or bestowed with no strings attached. Since the Reformation, Ephesians 2:1-10 has played a large and somewhat helpful role for defining certain doctrines. However, I want to suggest an alternative reading based on my own research and the research done by John Barclay.

So, here are the two texts in question:

2:5 – καὶ ὄντας ἡμᾶς νεκροὺς τοῖς παραπτώμασιν συνεζωοποίησεν τῷ Χριστῷ χάριτί ἐστε σεσῳσμένοι

“And we being dead by the offenses are made alive by means of Christ—by grace you are being liberated” (NRQT).

2:8 – τῇ γὰρ χάριτί ἐστε σεσῳσμένοι διὰ πίστεως. καὶ τοῦτο οὐκ ἐξ ὑμῶν, θεοῦ τὸ δῶρον

“For in grace you are being liberated through faithfulness; and this not from you, [rather it is] God’s offering gift” (NRQT).

Now there is much to say, and I don’t want this to turn into a term paper, so I will limit myself to three observations.

First, the phrases are identical: χάριτί ἐστε σεσῳσμένοι – singular feminine noun in the dative + plural verb + plural middle participle. There is a debate amongst Greek grammarians about middle versus passive tenses. For instance, if a participle is in the middle voice, it has the action of the actor in mind. Ex: humble yourselves. If it is passive, then it referring to an external action being placed upon the actor. Ex: you are being humbled. The problem lies in the fact that σεσῳσμένοι in both verses is technically middle/passive. So which option works best? The arguments most often boil down to context. I suggest that the entire pericope is bracketed by two specific verbs from the περιπατέω word group (they mean “walk” or “live,” in the sense of conducting yourselves ethically). Both are in the aorist tense, suggesting active conduct on the part of the Gentiles being addressed. So the entire framework seems to assume a sort of participation. God exhorts people, elects people, adopts people, and their participation is required. Thus, σεσῳσμένοι likely includes an active component that is contextually necessary.

Second, because of Barclay’s current conclusions regarding χάρις, it seems that it is best to read these two verses as follows.

2:5 – “And we being dead by the offenses are made alive by means of Christ—by the gift you are being liberated” (NRQT).

2:8 – “For in the gift you are being liberated through faithfulness; and this not from you, [rather it is] God’s offering gift” (NRQT).

This works well for two reasons. First it seems to be a better historical fit, especially in light of the mutuality inherent in the concept of “gift-giving.” Second, 2:8 concludes with a verb less clause: θεοῦ τὸ δῶρον, and δῶρον is actually the specific word for “gift” or “offering gift.” So 2:8 begins with χάρις and ends with δῶρον, and while these terms are clearly not synonymous, they do reflect well together the concept of an “offering gift.” Thus, the use of τῆς δωρεᾶς τοῦ Χριστοῦ in 4:7 (“the gift of Christ” or “Christ’s gift”) is coordinate with the idea of “gift giving” and helps us reconsider “grace.” The “gift” of God is the principle point of theological focus for Gentiles in Ephesians.

Third and finally, the genitival phrase διὰ πίστεως in 2:8 includes an active component as well. The preposition διὰ can be variously translated as “through” or “by means of.” So here, since πίστεως is an active noun likely referring to “faithfulness” (as it flows nicely with the bracketed language about περιπατέω: see above), this genitival phrase flows nicely with the rest of the verse: καὶ τοῦτο οὐκ ἐξ ὑμῶν, θεοῦ τὸ δῶρον. God offers the gift of Christ, and Christ actively offers himself in the same reciprocal manner, in order to illustrate what God is doing for the Gentiles. The reciprocal nature of our “faithfulness” and God’s “gift” illustrates the dance humanity is invited to participate within.

In summation, much more could be said about this, but allow me a few concluding thoughts.

First, χάρις is not free. It costs God something, and it is a gift that demands human participation διὰ πίστεως. All things "cost" something, especially if the "gift" is given to those who are not wealthy or are socially maligned. It costs God's "honor," even though God does not appear to care much for his own glory sometimes. God gives χάρις to all people regardless of their social status, their gender, or their ethnicity. However, this χάρις is not without 'strings' or 'demands' or 'obligations.' There is no discrimination, but there is a high demand for participation and reciprocity. 

Second, Christ stands at the center of action, as agent, as Messiah, as Liberator, and as Son of God. Thus, the origination of the gift resides in God and not in us. However, the demand for “imitation” (5:1-2) and mutual responses reveals a God who desires a human response to his offering. The "gift of Christ" did not originate with us, and this illustrates that we are to participate within this "gift." God, as wealthy, can afford to give the "gift" to all.

Third and ultimately, God’s offering gift of Christ to Gentiles reveals a God who can restore people from the dead, even those who were lost and forgotten among us. We respond to God’s gift, and this gift is not “free” – it cost Christ his own honor, it cost him his body, and ultimately it cost him his life. Our life, then, is to yield ourselves and act with Christ.

Is it by "grace" you are being saved? No. It is because of God's in Christ's offering gift that we are being saved, and it is in Christ that we reciprocate God's gift through imitation (4:25-5:2). Christ's faithfulness is our imitation. Thankfully, we may have life in his name if we imitate Christ and participate in God’s plan for the restoration of the world.

We "live" and "walk" by faithfulness, by the Gift, by Christ.


*post script*

I had some twitter friends and colleagues (April and Thomas) offer some helpful push back. Particularly of the phrases οὐκ ἐξ ὑμῶν ("not from you" - 2:8) and οὐκ ἐξ ἔργων ("not from works" - 2:9). I offer some thoughts that the originational aspect of "gift" lies with God, and is not from us. God as 'wealthy' gives Christ to the poor, and these verses do not exclude human participation but rather point to the source of the gift: God and Christ. Just in case this was not clear, and I thank the Revs. April and Thomas for their thoughts again. This reveals, of course, that Ephesians is Theo-centric and there is much mystery to be explored!

[1] John M.G. Barclay, Paul and the Gift (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2015), 562.