Death and the Intermediate State

Why do Christians die? How should we think of our own death and the death of others? What happens when people die? In our family’s after-breakfast Bible reading, we’ve just finished reading Wayne Grudem’s discussion of those questions in Chapter 41: Death and the Intermediate State of his Systematic Theology (Grand Rapids, Michigan: Zondervan, 1994). Here I’ll share just a little of what he says about them.

Why Do Christians Die?

According to the following Bible passages, death is a punishment for sin but Christians are free from condemnation for sin:
– “Sin came into the world through one man, and death through sin, and so death spread to all men because all sinned” (Romans 5:12, ESV; all Biblical quotations are from the ESV).
– “There is therefore now no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus. For the law of the Spirit of life has set you free in Christ Jesus from the law of sin and death” (Romans 8:1).

why then do Christians die? Grudem suggests three reasons:
1. Death is the final outcome of their living in a fallen world (1 Corinthians 15:26).
2. Death (and suffering) is a means used by God to complete their sanctification (Hebrews 12:11).
3. Death completes their union with Christ (Philippians 3:10).

Paul told the Ephesian elders, “I do not account my life of any value nor as precious to myself, if only I may finish my course and the ministry that I received from the Lord Jesus, to testify to the gospel of the grace of God” (Acts 20:24). We too should reckon being faithful to God as more important than preserving our lives. According to Revelation 12:11 such faithfulness will contribute to Satan’s ultimately being conquered–“They [our brothers] have conquered him [Satan] by the blood of the Lamb and by the word of their testimony, for they loved not their own lives even unto death.”

How Should We Think of Our Own Death and the Death of Others?

The New Testament encourages us to view our own death with joy because of the prospect of going to be with Jesus. For example, when Paul was a prisoner in Rome, not knowing whether he would be released or executed, he wrote, “For to me to live is Christ, and to die is gain. If I am to live in the flesh, that means fruitful labor for me. Yet which I shall choose I cannot tell. I am hard pressed between the two. My desire is to depart and be with Christ, for that is far better” (Philippians 1:21-23).

However although we may rejoice when Christian relatives and friends die and go to be with the Lord, there is nothing wrong with our expressing sorrow on their death. Thus the ones who buried Stephen “made great lamentation over him” (Acts 8:2). But this mourning should be mixed with worship like Job’s and David’s were on the death of their children (Job 1:20-21 and 2 Samuel 12:20). That this is easier said than done I know from how I reacted to the death of my first wife. See “O God, Why Did You Let Esther Die?”.

Unfortunately the sorrow that we feel when unbelievers die cannot be tempered with joy that they have gone to be with the Lord. All that we can do is to hope that knowing that they were going to die brought them to saving repentance and faith.

What happens when people die?

Although Roman Catholics believe that on death their souls go to Purgatory until they’re ready to enter Heaven and some others believe that between death and Jesus’ return their souls will be in a state of unconscious existence (a belief called “soul sleep”), the Bible seems to teach that the souls of believers go immediately into God’s presence. Some passages indicating this are:
– “Truly, I say to you, today you will be with me in Paradise” (Luke 23:43; Jesus to the criminal crucified with him who expressed faith in him).
– “We would rather be away from the body and at home with the Lord” (2 Corinthians 5:8).
– “My desire is to depart and be with Christ” (Philippians 1:23).

Grudem presents and responds to the arguments made for the doctrines of Purgatory and soul sleep (pages 817-21). He also considers whether Old Testament believers entered immediately into God’s presence and whether we should pray for the dead, concluding “Yes” and “No” respectively (pages 821-22).

The Bible also seems to teach that the souls of unbelievers go immediately to eternal punishment. This is indicated in Jesus’ parable of the rich man and Lazarus (Luke 16:19-30) by the rich man’s being “in torment” and being told by Abraham in response to his plea that Lazarus cool his tongue with water that there was an impassable chasm between them.

For both believers and unbelievers their dead bodies will remain in the grave until some time in the future, Jesus’ return for believers and the final judgment for unbelievers. Then their bodies will be resurrected and united with their souls.


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