If I die before I wake…

The children’s bedtime prayer from the 18th Century is very familiar even if not many children pray it today:

Now I lay me down to sleep,
I pray the Lord my soul to keep,
If I die before I wake
I pray the Lord my soul to take,

This prayer expresses something that has touched a nerve in our culture. Versions of it our found in songs from artists as diverse as Metallica ( Enter Sandman ) to Kanye West ( Only One ). I doubt Metallica and Kanye necessarily intended their songs to be theological reflections but the theology behind the prayer is one that views the continuing existence of the soul after death. That is, when we die our souls and our bodies separate and our soul goes to be with the Lord until it is reunited with our bodies at the resurrection. The theological term for this view is the intermediate state . That is, our souls exist in an intermediate state – away from our bodies but with the Lord.

However, not only is the bedtime prayer no longer popular (contemporary music aside), the theology it expresses has also been called into question. The idea of the intermediate state has been rejected for a number of reasons.

Firstly, it is objected that to focus our hope on our soul going to heaven when we die is to miss the great, cosmic implications of the gospel. Too often Christians have focussed on the hope that they will go to heaven when they die when the New Testament is more concerned with the resurrection of the dead and the renewal of the entire creation. To be overly concerned about my own personal destiny, it is argued, is to reflect our western culture’s obsession with the individual.

Secondly, and perhaps more fundamentally, the intermediate state assumes what is called a dualistic view of a person i.e. that we can make a distinction between body and soul. The problem with this, it is argued, is that this idea has more to do with Plato than with the Bible. So, Plato argued that the body was a prison house for the soul. The soul resides in the purer, heavenly realm of ideas but finds itself trapped in a series of bodies. In contrast, it is contended, the Bible teaches not that a person has a body and soul (two separate entities) but that a person is a body and a soul. That is, body and soul aren t parts of a person like an arm and a leg but they are perspectives on the whole person. Just like I am male and Irish, two perspectives on me as a person, I am also a body and a soul. These are two ways of looking at me as a human being. That’s why Paul can say that your bodies are members of Christ (1 Cor 6:15) as a short-hand way of saying that you are members of Christ. And when he says present your bodies as living sacrifices (Rom 12:1) he means more than simply your arms and legs etc. No, it is argued, the body is one way of considering the whole person. So, an idea (like the intermediate state) which posits a fundamental distinction between body and soul cannot be correct. So, what happens when we die? Under this understanding to cut a long story short – when we die we die! We have no consciousness until Jesus returns and we are raised. There is no intermediate state. The Bible certainly talks about the soul but it doesn t see the soul as a different part of me and it certainly doesn t see the soul as the immortal part of me that continues when my body dies. No, when I die, I effectively cease to exist until the Lord Jesus raises me on the last day.

There is strength to this position and godly men and women have held and do hold to it. However, I don t think it is correct and I think the Bible teaches the idea of the intermediate state for a number of reasons.

On the issue of the ultimate hope, those who object to the intermediate state are absolutely correct to point out that the focus of hope in the NT is on the return of Jesus and the subsequent resurrection of the dead (e.g. 1 Thess 4:16-18; Phil 3:20 etc.) and renewal of creation (Rom 8:21). Nevertheless, the NT also speaks to the situation of those who die before the resurrection. True, it doesn t spend as much time on this, but there are a number of texts which clearly assume an intermediate state.

Most famously in Luke 23 when Jesus is being crucified he reassures the criminal crucified next to him who puts his faith in him that today you will be with me in paradise (Luke 23:43). The assumption is that upon his death, this criminal will be with Jesus in some sense. In Philippians 1:23-24, as he is in prison, Paul wrestles with the question of whether it would be better if he remained on earth to encourage the Philippians or went to be with Christ which is far better . In the end he concludes that it is better if he remains alive for the Philippians sake (1:24). However, the very fact that he can have this internal dialogue shows that his death would entail the experience of going to be with Christ.

But what about the idea that to posit this kind of body and soul distinction is a form of dualism? One of the New Testament commentators who most stridently rejected the idea that the NT taught any kind of dualism was Rudolf Bultmann. Yet, even for Bultmann there was one passage that he was forced to admit seemed to distinguish body and soul.[1] In 2 Corinthians 5, Paul teaches that while we are at home in the body we are away from the Lord and that we would rather be away from the body and at home with the Lord (5:6-8). The fact that Paul can talk about us apart from the body shows that he can make a distinction between us and our bodies. For Bultmann, this was an inconsistency on Paul’s part. But there is no need to see it that way. Ultimately, it is true that a human being apart from a body does not make sense. A human is more than just a collection of parts including a body. But humans were never meant to die. Death disrupts the fabric of the universe and corrupts our personhood even to the level of creating a disjunction between a person and their body. But the intermediate state is only an intermediate state. The NT does not teach an ultimate dualism like Plato. It cannot conceive of a person ultimately separated from their body. That is why the future of both believer (1 Cor 15:38) and unbeliever (John 5:29) is resurrection. The eternal future of both will be a bodily future. But this does not rule out the temporary situation of the intermediate state.

So, the idea of an intermediate state has both Biblical and theological warrant. That is, it has a textual basis, and it affirms the ultimate understanding of human beings as bodily entities.

The Implications

The implications of this are crucial for the Christian life. It is right that we stress that the gospel has an impact beyond the individual. And yet it is also right that we echo the statements of Scripture in which we are reassured that when we die we go to be with the Lord. Death is terrible. The Bible never sugar coats it. Even though he knew he was about to raise Lazarus, Jesus wept at the death of his friend (John 11:35). And yet the Christian can take tremendous comfort that upon death, just like the thief crucified next to Jesus, they will be with Jesus.

Pilgrim’s progress is a book that has been popular with Christians since it was written. However, as Christians, in the West at least, have become more affluent and comfortable, the book has waned in popularity. And yet perhaps it is a book more than ever that we need to read – to break the grip that worldiness has on us. It forces us to confront death and, at the same time, gives wonderful comfort to the believer. Bunyan very much reflects the desire of the thief on the cross and the apostle Paul to be with Christ. Yes, the death of the believer and the intermediate state is not the ultimate hope – but it is something that a Christian can face with confidence, with joy even because of who they are going to be with. Here is Bunyan’s account of Mr. Stand-fast crossing the Jordan, i.e. facing death:

Mr. Stand-fast, when he was about half-way in, stood for a while, and talked with his companions. And he said, “This river has been a terror to many; yes, the thoughts of it have also frightened me; but now I stand easy. The waters, indeed, are bitter to the palate, and cold to the stomach; yet the thought of what I am going to, and of the experience that waits for me on the other side, lies like a glowing coal in my heart. I see myself now at the end of my journey; my toilsome days are ended. I am going to see that head which was crowned with thorns, and that face which was spit upon for me. I have formerly lived by hearsay and faith; but now I go where I shall live by sight, and shall be with Him in whose company I delight. I have loved to hear my Lord spoken of; and wherever I have seen the print of His shoe in the earth, there I have coveted to set my foot too. His name has been to me as a perfume box; yes, sweeter than all sweet smells. His voice to me has been most sweet, and His countenance I have more desired than they that have most desired the light of the sun. I gathered His Word for my food, and used it for medicine against my anxieties. He has held me, and has kept me from my sins; yes, my steps He has strengthened in His way.” Now, while he was speaking, his countenance changed, his strong man bowed under him; and, after he had said, “Take me, for I come unto Thee!” he ceased to be seen by them.[2]

The intermediate state may not be the ultimate hope, but nor is the resurrection of the body or even the renewal of the cosmos. It is not an expression of an overly individualistic concern. No, it is an expression of longing to be with Christ. The ultimate, deepest hope of any believer – whether at death (Phil 1:23) or at the return of the Lord – is to be with the Lord for ever (1 Thess 4:17).

Dr Peter Orr

[1] Rudolf Bultmann, Theology of the New Testament (Translated by Kendrick Grobel; Waco: Baylor University Press, 2007), 1:201-202

[2] I have slightly edited and modernized the English of this quote.


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