Immediately after Death, What Happens?

Following a sermon one day a person waited around until everyone had left and he asked me this: “My father was a Christian; he died last week; we buried him Monday. Where is he now?” And pastor after pastor has told me this is a very common — monthly — question they get from the grieving. Matthew Levering, in Jesus and the Demise of Death, explores how three representative scholars — N.T. Wright, Hans Urs von Balthasar, Aquinas (and the Catechism all over the footnotes) — explain the so-called intermediate state.

Big one: What do you think?

N.T. Wright is first up: relying on Surprised by Hope, Levering finds four themes in Tom’s conclusions: the Christian dead are conscious, happy, equal (no rewards, no differentiations, all is forgiven, all is purged), and inactive. But Levering observes N.T. Wright says nothing about Jesus and the intermediate state: where did he go between his death and his resurrection?

von Balthasar: all of the dead prior Jesus’ cross experienced the punishment of the damned, Jesus identified with them in solidarity and experienced both infinite distance and unity with God at the same time (a form of penal substitution atonement), in this experience sin is burned up as by fire. Levering moves to the Fathers through von Balthasar. Clement of Alexandria: Jesus entered into the realm of the dead to preach the gospel to those who died before Christ. Athanasius and John of Damascus say much the same. He then appeals to Alfayev, whose book Christ the Conqueror of Hell I reviewed on this blog. Alfeyev thinks Jesus entered into death and hell to destroy the power of death and Satan, and he destroyed hell (not sure what this means) and all that remains is a prison, which houses Satan and those who want to be with him. But Alfeyev believes in a second chance, and Levering does not believe in the second chance. Levering believes in “implicit faith” in this life, making second chance unnecessary. The fathers see a Jesus who is active and humans who can be active, and who are in a state of potential joy.

Aquinas: like Augustine, he thinks 1 Peter 3’s emphasis is baptism, not what Jesus was doing. Like others, Jesus’ soul went into the intermediate state to wait for resurrection. In this state, Jesus freed Israelites who, because they died before the death of Christ, were incompletely redeemed. He cites Hurtado agreeing with Aquinas. Theirs then was a joy mixed with some suffering, awaiting the fullness of joy in the redemption of Christ. Not all, however, are in the same condition. Those who welcomed Christ were led into full joy, awaiting the fullest joy in the resurrection (necessity of the body for complete redemption). Christ is not active in the intermediate state and the saints are Israelites who need full redemption.

Levering thinks Aquinas’ view avoids the unhistorical and otherworldly and inactive condition of the saints between death and resurrection. And he thinks Aquinas avoids the overactive work of Christ in evangelizing that one finds in some of the Fathers. His work after his death is the work of his death and resurrection, not something more than that.

"This is an excellent critique of Trump's Administration misuse of the Bible.I wonder if the ..."

Romans 13, Pence, Session …
"We can hope and work for a world where no child is ever unwanted... thy ..."

Our God Of Justice
"I perceive that Jesus influenced our culture toward defining love as a commitment to pursuing ..."

Universalism and “The Devil’s Redemption” and ..."
"Scot, thanks for sharing this. I’ll be offering a pretty heavy critique of Litfin’s latest ..."

Interview: Duane Litfin

Browse Our Archives

Follow Us!

What Are Your Thoughts?leave a comment
  • Mike M

    Like we will do and all the saints before us, Jesus rested lifeless in the bosom of Abraham from about 3 pm Wednesday to about 3 pm Saturday. Between His resurrection on Saturday about 3 pm (72 hours or 3 FULL days in the belly of the whale) and the discovery of His empty tomb by the women who loved Him on Sunday morning, He physically preached His victory over death to the fallen spirits who were condemned by God the Father to this prison we call “earth.” In His lifetime, these demons acknowledged His authority and power. How much more was their anguish when he appeared physically to them for at least 16 hours?

  • One big question for me is, ‘Can we know?’ Can we? Really?

    There seem to be some hints in the Bible, some hints in the words of Jesus himself. ‘Today you will be with me in paradise’ (What is paradise? A study in itself, no doubt.) ‘I am going to the Father.’ (Right away? Or three days later? Does time itself even apply in heaven, hell, paradise, eternity?)

    It is easy to think of more questions of this kind. Indeed, it’s easy to think of questions, but hard to find answers. We can speculate and theorise but there seems to be little evidence.

    Everyone can agree that people die, this active thing we call life must cease at some point for each of us. But what happens after that is not clear – is it even subject to investigation at all? When someone asks that difficult question – Where is my father/daughter/brother/wife/friend now? – What CAN we say? We want to speak comfort and hope with certainty.

    Perhaps the best answer is the honest one. ‘I don’t know, we can’t know.’ For someone who had faith and followed Jesus we can add, ‘But he/she is in a safe place like the criminal on the cross next to Jesus – today you will be with me in paradise.’

    Can we say more that that? Is there a basis for more knowledge about our state immediately after death? I’d love to know. If you think you have an answer, please leave a comment.

  • “Absent from the body, present with the Lord.”

    “To depart and be with Christ, which is far better.”

    Good enough for me.

  • phil_style

    I don’t see why the dead have to be conscious prior to any kind of resurrection.
    Unconscious is pretty normal stet for us humans.

    Mind you, I’m a physicalist. For me, there is no human without the brain.

  • DRT

    Chris Jefferies and phil_style have my answers. I will only add that they are no longer experiencing pain and suffering while they await the final Resurrection.

  • scotmcknight

    Chris, the best response to your query, though it seems you have settled on an answer here, is that we can “know” to the degree that Scripture says something. So, the theological discussion on this issue leads to two questions: What does Scripture say? What does the Church teach?

  • Larry

    Last October, my 89 year old father died. My 85 year old mother asks me where he is now. I tell her that Dad is with Jesus. I talk about him being at peace without the physical pain he suffered all his life. I talk about the resurrection. She nods but we keep having the same conversation.

  • James Rednour

    I’m reading Surprised By Hope right now and I’m amazed at the misconceptions most Christians have about what the Bible teaches about life after death. It’s pretty clear from the Bible that the dead are “laying low” right now and not flying as spirits to heaven or hell. I think people believe these things because the idea that they would lay lifeless for millennia in some cases is too disturbing, but that is what the Bible teaches.

  • phil_style

    @James think people believe these things because the idea that they would lay lifeless for millennia in some cases is too disturbing, but that is what the Bible teaches.

    I think the reasons are a little more historically based than that.
    We have, most of us, inherited this idea of the immaterial human soul. This assumes that there is an “inner” part of us that is unaffected, or at least not 100% defendant on, the life within our bodies. This is an ancient Greek concept that was overlaid over or woven into Jewish/Christian traditions prior to, and during the Christian era. As a result, when we read of the “spirit” or the “soul” in the bible, we cannot help but assume that the word means what the Greeks had in mind.

    This belief in an immaterial (platonic) soul necessitates something for that soul to do when the body is dead. That is, if the soul is not dependent on the body, something of the soul must be able to outlast the body right?

    Now, for many non-believers, when they also make the mistake(?) of reading the Greek/platonic notion of the immaterial soul into the scriptures, then the biblical anthropology just seems fundamentally wrong to them. If, on the other hand, “soul” and “spirit” are shorthand for parts of our being that a natural, and that the biblical concept of the human is more holistic, then this anthropological objection melts away and so does the need for the soul to be “doing” something in the absence of a living body.

  • DRT

    Isn’t it as simple as they are asleep, as Paul says, and one day we will awaken with them in the new heavens and new earth?

  • phil_style

    @DRT, yeah good summary.

    The counter is always Jesus’ statement to the thief on the cross. Jesus implies that they both will be present in paradise on that very day…but with the odd punctuation tweak, that statement by Jesus can be made to mean almost anything 😉

  • Couldn’t Jesus also be describing what it would feel like to the criminal? That is, if the criminal dies, is buried and basically sleeps for millennia until the final resurrection, it wouldn’t be any different than when any of us goes to sleep and wakes up again – as far as our consciousness is concerned, the time elapsed is just the few seconds it took to drift off to sleep and come awake. So to the thief, it would be as if no time had passed at all. For all he knows or cares, it would still be the same day.

    Maybe not, but it seems like Jesus did a lot of speaking to people on their level, and his response perhaps was the simplest answer that conveyed his intended meaning without getting into the metaphysics of unconsciousness.

  • DRT

    For those who have not seen it and are interested, I did an analysis of all the occurrances of “heaven” in the NT and presented the results here.

  • DRT

    Paul A., your link to your blog is misspelled, you forgot the ‘n’

  • Andrew

    @Paul A. – I’ve held similar views. Except I would clarify my position by saying that while we (the still lively) perceive the dead as ‘sleeping’ until the resurrection, the dead actually ‘step out of time’ and are immediately present with God at the renewal of all things. That is to say, the dead are not aware of a sleeping period – as we often are as we sleep – because for them there is none, only from our vantage point does there appear to be.

    As you said, it would be nice if we can avoid metaphysic gymnastitics and speak as simply as Jesus and Paul did about that matter.

  • MatthewS

    I take the “absent from the body, present with the Lord” position as well. The dearly departed lived in their tent for however many years but it was always a temporary dwelling and now the tent has been taken down. Their soul lives in the Lord’s presence.

    We attended a Jehovah’s Witness memorial service. Built upon a number of individual verses without context, it was presented that the person was now unconscious in soul-sleep and perhaps Jesus would awaken her in a future resurrection. Theoretically, that could seem peaceful but… here is a lifeless body or its ashes, but where is the soul? It did not feel peaceful at all to me – it left me feeling cold, dark, and hungry for hope.

  • D. Foster

    I’ve thought a lot about this a lot lately.

    The more immersed I become in Judeo-Christian writings, the more I believe that these passages we latch onto from Jesus and Paul about “Abraham’s bosom,” “being in paradise” or “absent from the body, present with the Lord,” are common idioms they used to express general hopes, not a fleshed out diagram of what happens when you die.

    I’ve come to a tentative position that there is some sort of intermediary state in which we are still working through our sin with the help of Christ.

    My thinking is that, if the process of becoming a new creature happens gradually, so that we become (hopefully) more and more like Christ as our life progresses, how does death suddenly escalate that process so we become sinless? I think we continue to grow in some participatory fashion until we are made sinless through Jesus.


  • Randy W

    I found the book “Journey of Time” by Arthur C Custance (full text available online) to be an interesting exploration of this topic in relation to the nature of time. This brings science into the discussion.

  • Mark Edward

    Just to throw my voice in, for at least survey purposes, I hold to the ‘absent from the body, present with the Lord’ idea.

    The body of dust plus the spirit/breath of life makes a living soul. The departure of the spirit/breath to the God who gave it, and the return of the body to dust, means the soul is dead. Before Jesus, death (call it ‘oblivion’ or ‘annihilation’ or whatever you want) was the fate of all humanity. No activity, no thoughts, no memories, no speech, no praise, etc. That’s how the Bible looks at this death.

    Following the liberation brought through ‘Christ crucified’, the righteous partake in Jesus’ resurrection, being raised to life with him, seated with him in the heavenly places (Ephesians 1-2). I won’t pretend to know the ‘mechanics’ of any of this, but only that through Jesus’ (bodily, physical) resurrection, the righteous dead were taken from their lack of real existence in the grave, on to rest in the presence of the throne of God in heaven, awaiting their own (bodily, physical) resurrection on the Last Day, and that the righteous living are in communion with the righteous dead (Hebrews 12.22-24).

    In short: Before Jesus the intermediate state of all humanity was nothingness, while after Jesus the intermediate state of the righteous is heavenly rest, awaiting the resurrection of their bodies in the earth-meets-heaven Age to Come.

  • DRT

    Mark Edwards, I don’t mean to be argumentative, but as I read Ephesians 1-2 and Hebrews 12:22-24 (though you actually need to read all the way back 14 at least and continue on reading to 29) I read both of those as them receiving the kingdom of god and the perfection here on earth. I don’t read that as some place they will be after they die and before the resurrection.

    Can you give me a bit more of where you see it specifically talking about what happens in the intermediate stage?

  • gingoro

    In the age of Einstein I don’t even understand what “now” means across the galaxy, let alone between galaxies, let alone between life as we know it and whatever lies beyond which is in God’s gracious tender care. I too think that our minds need to be instantiated in some mechanism corresponding to our brains, in order to function.

  • Randy W

    Sorry that should have been “Journey Out Of Time”

  • Cal

    I agree with so many posting here. Glad the resurrection is so focused upon!

    I do think though that a lot of people, as said before, have been so inculcated with latching onto an immortal soul that to say otherwise is scary. Maybe anything other than the veil between life and after-life is a blink is too terrifying. Why? Maybe it has to do with the faithlessness and individualism of Western society. If we’re not the ones passing through (because we’re really immortal essences), then who’s going to rescue us?

    I’m a leaning physicalist too and whether or not I’m conscience, in a dream state or it just fades to black: the hope is that the Lord Jesus will raise us from the dead. In death, He’s there to comfort and give rest. Like many others said: Good enough for me.

  • Matt Scott

    @ D. Foster – Isn’t that essentially a belief in purgatory? I’ve come to similar conclusions lately.

    Insofar as I have conclusions on this topic anyway. Most days I struggle to believe in an afterlife…it’s something which we have zero direct evidence for! Of course there is Christ’s resurrection, in which I believe. I guess if I’m honest I’d have to say that I aspire to believe in the resurrection, but functionally, I don’t.

  • Oops, thanks for the catch, DRT!

  • David Dollins

    Scot –

    I really like N.T. Wright writings, but I honestly cannot square ‘soul-sleep’ with Luke 16:19-31, where instantly the dead are in two places at once with all 5 of their senses working. That is the one passage that I think shoots down ‘soul-sleep’. Likewise, when the rebel was on the Cross next to Jesus, Jesus said “This day you will be with me in Paradise”. Having peered into a few grave holes in my time, well, if that’s paradise….

  • David Dollins

    I admit I have not read N.T. Wright’s book so I could be off base a little. So I am answering the general question you are posing.

  • Norman

    When Christ rose from death he brought Captives from the lower regions of the earth with Him. He was bringing them from out of Sheol or Hades and this appears to mean that those under the old mosaic covenant were being freed to be where Christ attained to which is the highest Heavens.

    Eph 4: 8 Therefore it says, “When he ascended on high he led a host of captives, and he gave gifts to men.” ( In saying, “He ascended,” what does it mean but that he had also descended into the lower regions, the earth? He who descended is the one who also ascended far above all the heavens, that he might fill all things.)

    In my opinion one of the major problems that the church has historically embraced is the idea that Christ had not finished His freeing the captives from Sheol and Hades. The good news of the gospel is that Grace has released the captives from the “pit” and so the faithful in Christ attain to the highest Heavens post mortem to reside where Christ is now. I doubt that Christ is in an intermediate state now and I doubt that the faithful dead are either.

    I realize we can rationalize that sleeping in Abraham’s bosom might be a nice idea but second Temple literature paints an entirely different picture of that bondage to death and it wasn’t what the faithful expected with the coming of messiah. No they expected to attain to eternal life just as demonstrated by Christ. Most of the 2T and first century Christians expected to be freed from Hades at messiah’s coming. They would be sorely disappointed knowing that they are still bound to Sheol and hades after he came and if He didn’t immediately take the Dead in Christ with Him forever after. The end of the old covenant meant to them the end of Sheol, the pit and Hades. That was not good news otherwise, that would have been the old bad news still lingering.

  • David Dollins

    @28 Norman – I totally agree with what you said. That is how I understand it also, as it shows the Power of what the Cross accomplished.

  • DRT

    Norman, while I basically agree, I think that time loses its meaning and our conceptions are strictly analogies. It can be argued that our experience of time is not genuine. I believe that is the central problem in this since any concept of where we go in the intermediate state assumes that time has meaning.

  • Dana Ames

    David @ 26/27, Wright doesn’t really believe in “soul-sleep”; he does argue for awareness. But because he is an Anglican who is not Anglo-Catholic (not really very “high church”, in spite of having been a bishop), he doesn’t want to go to the place where we are relying on designated “saints” to pray for us.

    DRT and others, the ancient church has never held to “soul-sleep”. The contrast Jesus and Paul make by using the word sleep to mean “death” is not one of consciousness vs unconsciousness, but rather more like existent-alive vs non-existent-dead. It’s not about “the immortality of the soul,” but more of a reference to the resurrection, when we will all “get up” as opposed to remaining lying down. Anastasis does duty as the word used for both.

    Derek @17, I pretty much landed in the same place as you, on my way to EO.


  • Norman


    I know where you are coming from and that is why I don’t fret too much about my post mortem existence. However the point I’m attempting to make is that theologically we have Christ Kingdom incomplete when we say the dead are not raised to where Christ attained. An incomplete Kingdom was not the expectation of messiah’s coming as ressurected life from the dead is and was the ultimate goal. The idea of leaving it unatained would be unimaginable IMO from a 2T or first century Christian perspective.

    We really have to be careful in working with ancient literture about this subject as often it is highly imaginative and visually oriented as an attempt to put forth concepts that simply are beyound the human imagination when we get right down to it. What we can do though is attempt to understand the theological ramifications of what it infers as best we can.

  • Andrew

    I haven’t read any commentaries on 1 Thessalonians, so this may be a naive question, but what do we do with 1 Thess. 4:16, if believers who have passed are truly residing with the Lord in heaven right now?

    “For the Lord himself will come down from heaven, with a loud command, with the voice of the archangel and with the trumpet call of God, and the dead in Christ will rise first.”

    So where were they? With him in heaven, or in the ground?

    DRT, great blog post, by the way. I’m generally with you, phil_style, and the rest… unsurprisingly, the people that comment the most on RJS’s posts….

  • DRT

    I was reading 1 Tim and came across this and just thought I would throw it out there.

    6:13 I charge you 19 before God who gives life to all things and Christ Jesus who made his good confession before Pontius Pilate, 6:14 to obey this command without fault or failure until the appearing of our Lord Jesus Christ 6:15 – whose appearing the blessed and only Sovereign, the King of kings and Lord of lords, will reveal at the right time. 6:16 He alone possesses immortality and lives in unapproachable light, whom no human has ever seen or is able to see. To him be honor and eternal power! Amen.

    Is the Jesus posses immortality compared to others, Caesar, offering salvation, or him alone period.

  • I think we step out of time at death – time is no more for us. So, “this day you shall be with me …” could be taken literally, or could be the final resurrection/judgement. For the dead, there is no time. I think the later is more probable.

    Christ said those who believe would be given the gift of eternal life not that everyone already has an eternal life. The idea of an eternal soul is Grecian, not Jewish, and I think a case can be made that the “eternal” part is connected to the “life” part (again, looking at Judaism as opposed to Grecian philosophy). Eternal life is given to those who are “in” Christ not to everyone.

    The trouble with the “in heaven” thought (#33) is where is that? what is that? Eternity won’t be spent in the clouds eating cream cheese light – “heaven” – it will be here, on earth (Rev), in a new body of which Christ’s is our example. So if heaven isn’t a place, and not an eternal place, why the holding tank?

    We create a “holding tank” because we need one, and we only need one because we disconnect from death = outside of time. For the living, our loved one has been dead for xx years; for them upon death they are immediately with the Lord (as far as their experience is concerned). Our “thousands of years in the grave” doesn’t exist for them.

  • Tony

    “And he thinks Aquinas avoids the overactive work of Christ in evangelizing that one finds in some of the Fathers. His work after his death is the work of his death and resurrection, not something more than that.”

    “Overactive”? Who says so? “Not something more than ‘death and resurrection'” is true but who can say what ‘death and resurrection’ entails and involves so that the ‘death and resurrection’ of Jesus Christ is more than what we can say of it?

  • Mike M

    What happens to us between death and our body’s resurection happens in “a twinkling of an eye” so we don’t need to worry about a “soul sleep” or whatever. When our bodies die, our souls die. When our bodies are resurrected on that glorious day, our souls are resurrected, too.
    We don’t flit off to heaven and fly around like angels, looking “down” on the earth and helping our loved ones in trouble. That’s a Chinese belief that reached Greece about 500 BC and changed Western thought from there.

  • Alan K

    “For I am convinced that neither death not life…can separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord.” It is a mistake to assume the continuity of earthly and heavenly time.

  • Norman


    You said … “The trouble with the “in heaven” thought (#33) is where is that? what is that? Eternity won’t be spent in the clouds eating cream cheese light – “heaven” – it will be here, on earth (Rev), in a new body of which Christ’s is our example. So if heaven isn’t a place, and not an eternal place, why the holding tank?”

    It looks like you defined Heaven to suit your argument as you also defined it as here on earth in Rev. I think we all should know that this literature is often more than not using vivid symbolic imagery to describe cosmic understandings that should not be taken literally. To speculate upon symbolic literature as literal in one direction or the other is probably not a good idea except in the broad context of its implication.

    I’m not sure where you get “eternity” spent here on earth from Rev if you are inferring that after we all die we eventually end up back here on a reconstituted planet earth someday. I don’t know if Rev 21 &22 really supports that concept when it gets down to a literary analysis. It appears to be more concerned with the faithful back then and also now having Christ and God living with us coming down and our communing together through Christ established Kingdom. It appears more concerned with a discussion of the old Temple covenant and its end and the reality of Christ Kingdom now being in place.

    Rev 21:3 And I heard a loud voice from the throne saying, “BEHOLD, THE DWELLING PLACE OF GOD IS WITH MAN. HE WILL DWELL WITH THEM, and they will be his people, and God himself will be with them as their God.

    It seems to be a incredible idea that in a new reconstituted planet earth that the Nations are still going to be in vogue somehow. However in Christ established Kingdom that took the place of the Old Mosaic Temple worshiping approach then this language makes perfect sense.

    Rev 21:22-24 And I SAW NO TEMPLE IN THE CITY, FOR ITS TEMPLE IS THE LORD GOD THE ALMIGHTY AND THE LAMB. … BY ITS LIGHT WILL THE NATIONS WALK, and the kings of the earth will bring their glory into it,

    Also if eternal life regarding the soul is something of a Greek construct then what exactly was lost at the fall in Genesis 3? Was there no concept of the soul by the Hebrews at the writing of Genesis? Isn’t the idea of the breath of life (the spirit) much the same as the idea of an eternal soul? The breath of life/spirit appears to often carry the same connotation of the idea of an eternal soul. However I am open to ideas on this subject.

    Eze 36:26 And I will give you a new heart, and I WILL PUT A NEW SPIRIT WITHIN YOU. And I will take away the stony heart out of your flesh, and I will give you a heart of flesh.
    Eze 37:5 Thus said the Lord Jehovah to these bones: Lo, I am bringing into you a spirit, and ye have lived,

  • I am wondering where the testimony of tens of thousands of people who have had near-death experiences fit into people’s thinking on this? Do we ignore them because they don’t fit with what we already believe? Do we tell people that we know what they did or did not experience better than they do? Do we allow stories of these experiences illuminate and inform our thinking and perhaps even our understanding of the scripture verses involved? Interestingly, while there is variety among people’s reports of near-death experiences, the one thing which is nearly universal is that those who have them lose all fear of dying. And no one remains an atheist or strict materialist after having one. I don’t think we ought to take reports of near-death experiences at face value, but it seems absurd to completely ignore what is a surprisingly common experience.

  • Where Alfeyev says “hell”, read “Hades”. It’s a common translation error.

  • “We don’t flit off to heaven and fly around like angels, looking “down” on the earth and helping our loved ones in trouble. That’s a Chinese belief that reached Greece about 500 BC and changed Western thought from there.”

    Lol. Stretch any further and you may break the record for world’s longest taffy.

  • Mike M

    NicholasMyra: scoff all you want but first do some research on the exchange of ideas between the Far East and the West along the Silk Roads before making public announcements. I usually do my research first.