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.


Prodigals, Famine and the Point of the Story

We are all familiar with this story.

In Luke 15:11-32, we have the familiar story of the prodigal son, who demanded his inheritance and went off into a different land.

We know this story, where the son demands, takes, and squanders.

I thought I knew this story too.

In my third quarter in seminary, I wrote a paper on this parable, and glossed over an important part, an important part that other writers had noticed. These writers were from Africa, and these commentators put their finger on something I had glossed over.

The word λιμὸς (“famine”) is used in 15:14. This word refers to famine, or hunger, or starvation. It speaks of deprivation, of rumbling stomachs, of a society that is known as barren and lost.

Paul uses the term in that famous “golden chain” in Romans 8, where he speaks about τίς ἡμᾶς χωρίσει ἀπὸ τῆς ἀγάπης τοῦ Χριστοῦ; θλῖψις ἢ στενοχωρία ἢ διωγμὸς ἢ λιμὸς ἢ γυμνότης ἢ κίνδυνος ἢ μάχαιρα – “what will separate us from the love of Christ? Oppression or distress or persecution or famine or nakedness or danger or sword?”

These are not distant realities in the ancient world. If there were a Palestinian Times or a Roman York Post, these realities would be front and center. Reports at 11.

Paul’s intent is to assert the base obviousness of the world of destitution, that is, a world oppressed by Sin and Death, utterly unmoored from God and God’s love.

Of course, Jesus does not tell us where this country is, or what it symbolizes. We can all imagine what kind of country he is using.

In ancient mythology, one could speculate that the famine is because of God’s judgment. Or because of bad luck, or blind determinism or fate. In any sense, λιμὸς signifies those who are destitute, or hungry, or trapped in a situation that signifies the inevitability of death.

Luke tells us that after he had squandered everything, he was the first to be destitute (ἤρξατο ὑστερεῖσθαι). A foreigner, presumably, is the first person amongst the naturalized citizens to be without something.

To put it colloquially, the son “pissed away” his wealth, and then the entire country began to enter a famine.

In other texts in the New Testament, λιμὸς is often connected with the word for “nakedness” (γυμνότης), which drives home the image of being entirely without protection, care, or community (cf. 2 Cor. 11:27; Rev. 3:18). The adjective γυμνὸς occurs more often.

I don’t make much, and Allison does not either. We make enough to eat, sleep and turn on the AC once in a while. But we have never been without something.

So this text is pushing the image of destitution, of communal despondency. As in, they did not give him anything (15:16). They had nothing to spare themselves.

Part of me really hates this prodigal son, particularly because of his wealth and seeming disinterest in his community. He looks like the type of rich kid who has everything he or she has ever wanted, and has never seen pain or sorrow.

Part of me is grateful they never have.

But the point of this story is not the son.

The point is the generosity of the father. The use of the aorist middle verb ἤρξαντο occurs both in vv.14 and 24, first on the lips of Jesus (the narrator) and once on the lips of the father.

This story is not about the prodigal who was first to be destitute in a strange and oppressed land, himself likely a figure of high status and caliber; rather it is about the father who describes his prodigal as ἤρξαντο εὐφραίνεσθαι (“first to be found”). 

This parable displays the character of the father toward the prodigal, who even though he squandered the life’s wealth of the father, is still considered family.

He brings his son in, and clothes him, feeds him, honors him.

On the one hand, it feels simple, even trite.

But to those who have sinned in a catastrophic manner, it may mean the world.

To those who are hungry, a loving father is willing to still give, even after being taken advantage of.

It is not an act of grace; it is an act of Christ.

For those who are prodigals, in the midst of famine, sometimes Christ shows up even in the midst of parables written thousands of years ago.

Sometimes stories about pain, oppression and suffering are what is needed to paint a picture of a reality that is missed or forgotten.

The point of this story is not the son.


Preaching Stuff you Learn in Seminary

Seminary is a place where the more troublesome aspects of Scripture and history lay, waiting for exposition and exploration. Issues such as pseudepigraphy, tensions in the gospels, and the various problems of inheriting tradition come to mind right off the bat.

However, I’ve been thinking about a conversation I had with friends of mine (they know who they are): how do you preach technical issues in Scripture? If a pericope or sentence is disputed, do you preach it like 1 Cor. 14:34-35? If Paul didn’t write the Pastoral Epistles, can you preach on it, based on your view of pseudepigraphy? How does pseudepigraphy relate to inspiration? If Jesus didn’t say anything in the Gospel of John, can you say with sincerity that “Jesus said…”? Its one of the many questions I have, mostly because I’ve not gone through two years of seminary and have preached on most of these issues.

I won’t pretend to solve all of this in a single post, and I invite my preacher friends—gals and guys—to comment on social media with their own perspectives on these issues. For me, I will only offer some insights I have based on my experiences.

Regarding debated portions of Scripture, last year I gave a whirlwind summary of the entirety of 1 Corinthians at my home church. I quite literally went from chapter one to chapter 16. There is a lot of complex and debated material in 1 Corinthians to cover, everything from sexual immorality in ch5-6, gender in ch11 and 14, and so on. I tackled these issues based on my own exegesis of the relevant texts and contexts, and when I came to 14:34-35 I had a bit of a dilemma:

Do I even mention there is a debate about these two verses?

So, without any real hesitation, I delved into the textual issues regarding these two verses and explained to the congregation that these verses were most likely later additions—i.e. an interpolation to the original text, and thus carried no apostolic weight. To my surprise, nobody raised a fuss, and even some people said it made sense to them, based on the rest of the Biblical witness to women in ministry (he specifically cited Junia in Rom. 16:7 as an example).

So, in this one instance, introducing disputed historical debates worked well. It even seemed to encourage the congregation, as it affirmed a basic commitment to Scripture’s integrity. A woman did come up later and ask, but I had my Greek New Testament and was able to show her some critical marks in there, and she was impressed at the veracity of the text.

This is but one situation, and not every situation is comparable. It depends on one’s community, and not every community is open or interested in such debates. To be honest, I’m not entirely certain a pastor should be preaching these issues from her pulpit, unless it is vital to her sermon.

Another instance I recall is when I preached on 1 Cor. 15 and advent. I preached on the nature of destruction, and included my view that human beings are physical creatures that are not souls. In essence, I preached a physicalist or monistic view of anthropology. This seemed to cause some discomfort, but only until I got to the portions of Scripture that talk about SOMA, and I tied this directly to the doctrine of resurrection and the goodness of creation and the body. Then, I could see that the dualistic assumptions on the part of some people washed away and they “got” it. I concluded my teaching sermon on 1 Cor. 15:26 and the destruction of death, which signifies the utter annihilation of the final enemy.

While I did not explicitly teach my view of hell, I was able to use biblical language to describe how Paul viewed the end of evil and wickedness. I then had them verbally read Psalm 110 and when I reread 1 Cor. 15:20-26, their eyes lit up.

I was moved to see their own realization of their own humanness, and some people came up to me later to ask about what “hell” it. It was a teaching moment, and I was challenged, and mentioned that the dominant language in the New Testament signifies destruction. Some of them nodded politely and moved on, and one woman asked me if this meant that nobody would be in hell ever.

I paused, and said, “evil cannot exist in God’s new creation.” That seemed to satisfy her, and the sermon, I’m told, was very well received after that.

So it depends on the context in which you preach. For me, I was able to tackle multiple issues within a very short time, and I fielded questions afterward. Sometimes it wouldn’t help people to know about ancient manuscripts. Sometimes, a Greek word could mean an entire paradigm shift on the part of your community.

Scripture is alive after all, waiting to be taught with the full authority is bears. Be sensitive to the text, and especially be sensitive to your community. When Allison and I taught through the Epistle to the Ephesians, our eyes were opened to the needs of our church, and the critical issues dropped by the side of the proverbial road. We mentioned them, but they did not entirely help our particular conclusions. Sometimes these issues don't help. Sometimes they do.

In any sense, honesty is necessary to good preaching. I was the one kid in church would, upon learning that "hell" existed, pestered my poor youth pastor with questions until he could not longer think straight. While I still harbor some resentment over being ignored and dismissed, I suspect it too was a teaching moment: sometimes the critical issues could save a person's faith. Sometimes, you could be surprised by the complexities of Scripture.


“Eternal Punishment” and the LXX: A Brief Note on Matthew 25:46

Matt. 25:46 – καὶ ἀπελεύσονται οὗτοι εἰς κόλασιν αἰώνιον, οἱ δὲ δίκαιοι εἰς ζωὴν αἰώνιον.

“And these ones shall go away into eternal punishment, but the righteous into eternal life” (NRQT).

A sizeable debate exists within certain sections of the evangelical world, and this concerns the doctrine of eternal punishment. While I am slowly growing weary of this debate, I have been translating large parts of the LXX for a potential article and came across the noun κόλασιν in multiple places, and figured: why not write a small article on it?

Because I have a Sunday off and might as well do some more exegesis: why not.

The noun κόλασιν can simply be translated as “punishment.” Of course what this means is up for interpretation, as ‘punishment’ is a largely broad category, but by and large this is what it means. Paul, John and Jude never use the term, and neither do any of the Synoptic writers except Matthew (25:46) and the author of 1 John in 4:18. Luke uses the verb in Acts 4:21 and so does the author of 2 Peter in 2:9.

Κόλασιν in the Old Testament

In the Greek translation of the Old Testament or Hebrew Bible (called the LXX or Septuagint), it carries the same broad connotation. In Jer. 18:20 κόλασιν is used in terms of punishment in a pretty broad and non-specific category. The most concentrated uses of κόλασιν occurs in Ez. 14 (3, 4, 7). These three uses are also extremely broad and there is a pattern of “punishment of the unjust/unrighteous” (κόλασιν τῆς ἀδικίας in both singular and plural genitive), but the punishment itself is never actually specified as torment, pain, or death.

However, later on in Ez. 14 we have uses of violent battle imagery that may be connected to this punishment, though it is fairly far removed—though the context remains the same (the judgment of the elders of Israel as spoken by Jeremiah, 14:1-2). You also have the use of ἀφανισμὸν (destruction, disappearance) in 14:8 and 14:15, and in the context of God’s wrath, the use of ῥομφαίαν (“sword”) suggests that these various uses of κόλασιν means something like “punishment by death” rather than a conscious, painful existence.

The final three uses of κόλασιν in the LXX appear in Ez. 18:30, 43:11 and 44:12. In 18:30, we have a similar phrase used in previous texts: κόλασιν ἀδικίας (“punishment of the unrighteous”), and this context shows us that God desires Israel to “turn” (ἀποστρέψατε) from their “ungodliness” (ἀσεβειῶν), and not suffer this κόλασιν. This κόλασιν is specified specifically as “death” or “dying,” (v.31, 32) as the term ἀποθνήσκω dictates. This term refers to the death of mortals, and its additional use in 18:28 specifies that there are two outcomes of God’s injunction: turn to life (ζωῇ) or die (ἀποθάνῃ). Thus, Ez. 18:30 and the surrounding verses shows that κόλασιν is indeed compatible with the annihilationist interpretation of Matthew 25:46 as an “eternal punishment” that results in death.”

In Ez. 43:11, Israel is said to “cease from” (κοπάσουσιν) their sins, and they will “receive [in an active manner]” (λήμψονται) their ποιήσωσιν. The punishment is not specified. In Ez. 44:12, the punishment is specified as being unable to “approach” (ἐγγιοῦσι) in terms of Jewish offices and priests. They are to work in the temple, but God is merciful and keeps them in Israel. In the Apocrypha, κόλασιν is explained in terms of “death” in Wisdom 19:4-5 and 2 Maccabees 4:38.

So the LXX uses of κόλασιν are generally specific, but the one instance where it is specific, the context shows that the term refers to “death.” The other instances seem to be too broad to offer any specific conclusions.

Κόλασιν in the New Testament

The two verb uses of κολάζω occur in Acts and 2 Peter. Luke uses the aorist subjunctive (κολάσωνται) to refer to the council being unable to punish Peter and John. The contextual use of the verb suggests imprisonment or death, though it is more likely referring to imprisonment. The second use is in 2 Peter 2:9 suggests that “death” or “annihilation” is in view, as God keeps them unrighteous in punishment until “the day of judgment,” which is clarified in 2:12-14 some of the most vivid and violent imagery we have in the New Testament. The use of ὑπόδειγμα (“sample,” “example”) in 2:6 shows that being “reduced to ash” is a cataclysmic judgment resulting in utter and total extinction. In 2:12-14, we have language of “destruction” and “dissolvement” (φθοράν) being applied to the wicked who are utterly destroyed (φθαρήσονται; v.14).

The contextual use of 2 Peter reveals that κολάζω is compatible with “annihilation,” and the use in Acts is ambiguous and unspecified.

The first noun use of κόλασιν is in 1 John 4:18, and refers to the ambiguous nature of the noun. The near-constant use of ἀγάπῃ (“love”) is meant to show a contrast between “fear” and “punishment” and the goodness of God, for Ὁ θεὸς ἀγάπη ἐστίν (“God is love”). The punishment is not eschatological, but metaphorical, and all but dissipates within the glory of God’s love and light.

That leaves the final use of κόλασιν in the New Testament, and it stands at the center of a phrase most often proof-texted. As we have seen, the ambiguity of the term makes it difficult to determine the exact nature of κόλασιν, but it is fair to say that it never explicitly occurs in a context of torment or pain. As death is the singular and final offense for sin in the Old Testament, Matthew’s use of κόλασιν αἰώνιον most likely refers to the “eternal punishment” which results in a death from which there is no reversal. In short, “eternal death” makes the most sense of the evidence and works quite nicely in terms of biblical theology.

For example, the “two-ways” of life and death is replete throughout the Old Testament, and is a near universal theme in the epistles. Paul certainly believed in this (c.f. Rom. 6:22-23), and the contrastive nature of ζωὴν and κόλασιν reveal that Matthew has in mind the eternal life of the righteous and the eternal death of the wicked.[1] These are also not strict parallels as αἰώνιον is far more complex than I can explain here. Suffice to say, the quality of the results and the duration of the consequences are two sides of the same coin. The “punishment” of the “coming age” reflects the Jewish belief that the “coming age” was an “eternal age,” and thus a death in the next age would result in, essentially, the utter lifelessness of the person, body, soul, spirit, whatever anthropological combination you want to postulate.[2] Either way, a death that is never reversed is indeed eternal.

In short, Matthew 25:46, in my estimation, cannot be proof-texted as support for the traditional doctrine of eternal conscious torment,[3] as the term itself offers us no specific context from which to draw such a conclusion. Rather, as many things are, it is clear: life in Christ, or death apart from Christ. In this I say, “choose Christ” and participate in the life he offers because of his resurrection.


[1] Of course, this question should be unpacked, as the parabolic nature of the one herd makes one wonder about the nature of those who claim Christ and yet fail to feed and cloth “the least of these.” However, this is a question far beyond this post.

[2] For me, “body” is enough.

[3] Or for universalists who interpret the text in support of a ‘corrective’ punishment.


The Image of Dust: A Brief Reflection on 1 Cor. 15

Thinking about death is always an exercise in futility, pondering the inevitable and the unstoppable. It always makes for a good time at the dinner table.


In 1 Corinthians 15:46-49 Paul, after using a seed analogy throughout the first few verses in this pericope, focuses on the contrastive aspect of Christ and Adam. Adam, here, is likely typological in some sense, functioning as an antitype of Christ.

Adam’s origins, however, are under dispute and the debate about the existence of a ‘historical’ Adam are raging—at least in certain parts of the evangelical fold. However, Paul uses εἰκών (“image”) seems to specify a type of ‘material similarity’—which is specifically, in the genitive tense, χοϊκοῦ. An εἰκών represents something unseen (c.f. Col. 1:15-20) and is also a disjunction between the conceptual and the purely material. Christ, in a sense, is the revelation of God. As it says, he is God's fullness (Col. 2:9).

However, human beings are defined as χοϊκοῦ (“dust, earth”), as bearing that specific image in our present state. Human life, presently defined, is marked by pain, dust, and toil. It was then, and any glance on the evening news reveals that this painful aorist aspect is still ongoing.

In short, we are dust.

As a physicalist (or monist, I suppose) this is nothing new. Being in Adam's image means that we lack anything remotely like God: immortality.

Bearing the image of Adam, we share in mortality, in sin, and ultimately are subject to Death. That is what happens to material things, they breathe, bleed, and die. Then there is nothing.

Paul’s own historical context was not immune to this, and any pleasure was fleeting and likely immoral by Paul’s own moral standards. Ancient economics dictated that people were left to fend for themselves, to die in the streets, alone and barren.

Paul’s subsequent language regarding “immortality” (ἀθανασίαν) is a remarkable claim, especially to the poor and destitute. The totality of the populace likely lived in strict poverty, and any sort of religious cult likely included a high entrance fee.

God, it seems, is willing to offer ἀθανασίαν to the poor and the oppressed. The interplay between verbs (ἐφορέσαμεν; φορέσομεν) in v.49 is clear: a present and ongoing reality versus a future hope is something that we bear, and will bear through participation in Christ.

To God, we are not merely dust.

In the eschaton, we will be defined as being “fully human.”

That is Paul’s greatest hope, and one that I deeply share. Resurrection of the body is the direct counter to the totality of the human experience, and means that one is not alone in the universe, and one is not discarded by God.

Sounds good to me.