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.
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.
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?
…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.