TheoThought 300

David W. Hegg

 

The Eternal State

 

 

Introduction: While the issues concerning the return of Jesus Christ can be quite controversial, those dealing with the intermediate and eternal state of individual humans are largely unknown to most Christ-followers. What happens when we die? Are we asleep, or alive in the presence of God? And what are we expecting in terms of our eternal abiding place? Will we sit on clouds with halos and harps like the angels? And what are we to make of the “new heavens and new earth?” These and other questions pertain to our final area of discussion.

 

1. The Intermediate State

 

Theologians use the term “intermediate state” to describe the sphere of existence we enter into when we die. It is “intermediate” simply because it is a stage between our temporal, earthly existence, and our eternal, immortal existence either with God or in the place of eternal punishment.

 

A. How should we understand Death?

 

1) Death is the cessation of temporal, bodily life:

 

From a purely human perspective, death ends life. It is this sense of finality that forms the foundation of our grief. What we have known is now over with no possibility of temporal renewal.

 

2) Death is a separation of the soul from the body:

 

From a spiritual point of view, while the body dies, the spirit of the person remains alive although now no longer attached to the body. In this way we understand the immortality of the person pertains to their soul.

 

3) Death is the normal the regenerate soul escapes the bonds of this sin-drenched world.

 

While we grieve when death comes and robs us of a loved one, we also must realize the necessity of death as the normal means by which the bonds of this sin-drenched world are finally broken enabling us to enter into God’s eternal kingdom. Of course, those who are alive when Jesus Christ returns will be “changed” without dying. And those who have rejected the free offer of eternal life in Christ will find that their immortality is confined to the place of eternal judgment.

 

1Cor. 15.50   I tell you this, brothers:  flesh and blood  cannot inherit the kingdom of God, nor does the perishable inherit the imperishable. 51 Behold! I tell you a mystery.  We shall not all sleep,  but we shall all be changed,  52 in a moment, in the twinkling of an eye, at the last trumpet. For  the trumpet will sound, and  the dead will be raised imperishable, and we shall be changed.  53 For this perishable body must put on the imperishable, and  this mortal body must put on immortality.  54 When the perishable puts on the imperishable, and the mortal puts on immortality, then shall come to pass the saying that is written:    “Death is swallowed up in victory.” 55   “O death, where is your victory?   O death, where is your sting?” 56   The sting of death is sin, and  the power of sin is the law.  57 But thanks be to God,  who gives us the victory through our Lord Jesus Christ.

 

B. Question: What happens when you die?

 

This simple question launches the discussion concerning the intermediate state. The great majority of theologians down through history have been agreed on the answer. Yet, along the way there have been some tangential suggestions that bear mentioning.

 

1) Answer: Those who die “in Christ” go immediately into the presence of God.

 

When death overtakes the body, the body begins to decay, returning to dust as declared by God in Genesis 3:19:

 

Genesis 3:19  By the sweat of your face   you shall eat bread,   till you return to the ground,   for out of it you were taken;    for you are dust,   and  to dust you shall return.”

 

But, the soul is now freed from the body and, in the case of believers, enters immediately into the presence of God with great joy.

 

2Cor. 5.8 Yes, we are of good courage, and we  would rather be away from the body and at home with the Lord.

 

Phil. 1.23  I am hard pressed between the two. My desire is  to depart and  be with Christ, for that is far better.

 

Luke 23.43 And he said to him, “Truly, I say to you, today you will be with me in  Paradise.”

 

Heb. 12.22 But you have come to  Mount Zion and to the city of the living God,  the heavenly Jerusalem, and to  innumerable angels in festal gathering,  23 and to  the assembly  of the firstborn who are  enrolled in heaven, and to  God, the judge of all, and to the spirits of the righteous made perfect,

 

a) Scripture does not support the idea of “soul sleep”:

 

While there are several texts in the Bible that speak of “sleep” in the context of death, these are best understood as a euphemism for death that speaks to the reality that the seeming unconscious state of the deceased is really a temporary illusion given that the soul remains conscious and alive. And, for the believer, death – like sleep – is temporary as they immediately enter into eternal life.

 

The unbibilical doctrine of “soul sleep” teaches that believers enter into a state of unconscious existence in which they remain until the return of Christ. While some throughout history have taught this, it has never gained wide-spread acceptance simply because of the preponderance of biblical evidence showing that there are already souls of departed believers who are enjoying the presence of God.

 

Rev. 6.9   When he opened the fifth seal, I saw under  the altar  the souls of those who had been slain  for the word of God and for  the witness they had borne.  10 They cried out with a loud voice, “O Sovereign Lord,  holy and true,  how long  before you will judge and  avenge our blood on  those who dwell on the earth?”  11 Then they were each given  a white robe and  told to rest a little longer,  until the number of their fellow servants  and their brothers   should be complete, who were to be killed as they themselves had been.

 

Rev. 7.9   After this I looked, and behold,  a great multitude that no one could number,  from every nation, from all tribes and peoples and languages, standing before the throne and before the Lamb,  clothed in white robes, with  palm branches in their hands,  10 and crying out with a loud voice,  “Salvation belongs to our God who sits on the throne, and to the Lamb!”

 

b) Scripture does not support the idea of purgatory:

 

The fact that believers who die enter immediately into the presence of God means that the doctrine of Purgatory is not true. 

 

The Roman Catholic church teaches that all who die enter a place of “purging” (purgatory) where they can be fully purified of remaining sin and fit for heaven. Their purification is also helped along by the living who pay money to have masses and prayers said on their behalf.

 

In one of the great travesties of church history, Cardinal Tetzel sold indulgences to raise funds for the building of St. Peter’s Basilica in Rome. Indulgences, according to Rome, were certificates of merit that, when purchased, were applied by the church to the accounts of those in purgatory thus lessening their time there. Tetzel even had a little marketing slogan: “As soon as a coin in the coffer rings, a soul from purgatory springs!”

 

The Scripture has no mention of, or support for, such teaching or any place known as Purgatory. The Roman Catholic church finds support for this teaching only in the apocryphal book of 2 Maccabees, which is one of the reasons they decided to recognize the Apocrypha as canonical at the Council of Trent (the council that met to respond to the truths put forth by the Reformers). 

 

c) Old Testament believers did not go into “limbo” but also entered immediately into the presence of God:

 

Some Roman Catholic and Lutheran theologians have, from time to time, taught the idea of “limbus partum” or simply “limbo.” This concept teaches that believers before the time of Christ entered into a place of waiting for the completed work of Jesus Christ.

 

This view is grounded completely on the erroneous idea that, during his 3 days in the grave, Jesus “descended into hell” as mentioned in the Apostles Creed. Studies have shown that this phrase did not come into the Creed until the 7th century, and then was understood as meaning that Christ withstood the wrath of God in its fullest measure.

 

While few Old Testament texts speak to the state of departed OT believers, the following underscore the truth that, like believers today, they entered immediately into the presence of God upon dying.

 

Gen. 5.24 Enoch  walked with God, and he was not,   for God took him.

and

Heb. 11.5 By faith  Enoch was taken up so that he should not see death, and he was not found, because God had taken him. Now before he was taken he was commended as having pleased God.

 

2Kings 2.11 And as they still went on and talked, behold,  chariots of fire and horses of fire separated the two of them. And Elijah went up by a whirlwind into heaven.

and

Matt. 17.3 And behold, there appeared to them Moses and Elijah, talking with him.

 

Psa. 23.6  Surely  goodness and mercy  shall follow me   all the days of my life,   and I shall  dwell  in the house of the LORD    forever.

 

Psa. 16.10  For you will not abandon my soul to  Sheol,    or let your  holy one see  corruption.

 

Psa. 16.11    You make known to me  the path of life;   in your presence there is  fullness of joy;   at your right hand are  pleasures forevermore.

 

Psa. 17.15    As for me, I shall  behold your face in righteousness;   when I  awake, I shall be  satisfied with your likeness.

 

Psa. 115.18  But  we will bless the LORD   from this time forth and forevermore.    Praise the LORD!

 

Matt. 22.32  ‘I am the God of Abraham, and the God of Isaac, and the God of Jacob’? He is not God of the dead, but of the living.”

 

Luke 16.25 But Abraham said, ‘Child, remember that  you in your lifetime received your good things, and Lazarus in like manner bad things; but now he is comforted here, and you are in anguish.

 

2) Answer: The souls of unbelievers who die go immediately into a place of eternal judgment:

 

The story Jesus told concerning the Rich man and Lazarus (Luke 16:24-26) illustrates his understanding of the plight of the unbelieving. Between Lazarus, who is in a place of rest and peace, and the rich man who is in a place of fiery judgment, there is an impassable chasm. This is a sobering reminder that those who depart this life without Jesus enter into a place of judgment. There is no such thing as a second chance.

 

Heb. 9.27 And just as  it is appointed for man to die once, and  after that comes judgment,

 

Further, Scripture always declares that our place of eternal existence is predicated on what we have done in this life:

 

Matt. 25.31    “When the Son of Man comes in his glory, and all the angels with him,  then he will sit on his glorious throne. 32 Before him  will be gathered  all the nations, and  he will separate people one from another as a shepherd separates  the sheep from the goats. 33 And he will place the sheep on his right, but the goats on the left. 34 Then  the King will say to  those on his right, ‘Come, you  who are blessed by my Father,  inherit  the kingdom  prepared for you  from the foundation of the world. 35 For  I was hungry and you gave me food, I was thirsty and you  gave me drink,  I was a stranger and you welcomed me, 36  I was naked and you clothed me,  I was sick and you  visited me,  I was in prison and you came to me.’ 37 Then the righteous will answer him, saying, ‘Lord, when did we see you hungry and feed you, or thirsty and give you drink? 38 And when did we see you a stranger and welcome you, or naked and clothe you? 39 And when did we see you sick or in prison and visit you?’ 40 And  the King will answer them,  ‘Truly, I say to you, as you did it to one of the least of these  my brothers,  you did it to me.’ 41   “Then he will say to those on his left,  ‘Depart from me, you  cursed, into  the eternal fire prepared for  the devil and his angels. 42 For  I was hungry and you gave me no food, I was thirsty and you gave me no drink, 43 I was a stranger and you did not welcome me, naked and you did not clothe me, sick and in prison and you did not visit me.’ 44 Then they also will answer, saying, ‘Lord, when did we see you hungry or thirsty or a stranger or naked or sick or in prison, and did not minister to you?’ 45 Then he will answer them, saying, ‘Truly, I say to you, as you did not do it to one of the least of these,  you did not do it to me.’ 46 And these will go away  into eternal punishment, but the righteous  into  eternal life.”

 

Rom. 2.5 But because of your hard and impenitent heart you are  storing up  wrath for yourself on the day of wrath when God’s righteous judgment will be revealed. 6    He will render to each one according to his works:  7 to those who  by patience in well-doing seek for glory and honor and immortality, he will give eternal life;  8 but for those who are self-seeking  and  do not obey the truth, but obey unrighteousness, there will be wrath and fury.  9 There will be tribulation and distress  for every human being who does evil, the Jew  first and also the Greek,  10 but glory and honor and  peace for everyone who does good,  the Jew first and also the Greek.

 

2Cor. 5.10 For  we must all appear before the judgment seat of Christ,  so that each one may receive what is due for what he has done in the body, whether good or evil. 

 

2. The Eternal State

 

Theologians use this term to describe the final state in which the soul will exist throughout eternity.

 

A. Hell, the place of eternal judgment

 

Wayne Grudem: “Hell is a place of eternal conscious punishment for the wicked.”

 

The Scripture is clear. Those who die apart from faith in Jesus Christ will enter eternity guilty before the court of heaven. The penalty for their life-long rebellion against God, and chosen life of sin, will be eternal conscious punishment.

 

Mark 9.42    “Whoever causes one of  these little ones who believe in me to sin,   it would be better for him if a great millstone were hung around his neck and he were thrown into the sea. 43  And if your hand causes you to sin, cut it off. It is better for you to enter life crippled than with two hands to go to  hell,  to  the unquenchable fire.  45  And if your foot causes you to sin, cut it off. It is better for you to enter life lame than with two feet to be thrown into  hell. 47  And if your eye causes you to sin, tear it out. It is better for you to enter the kingdom of God with one eye than with two eyes to be thrown into  hell, 48 ‘where  their worm does not die and the fire is not quenched.’

 

Rev. 20.11   Then I saw a great white throne and him who was seated on it. From his presence  earth and sky fled away, and  no place was found for them.  12 And I saw the dead, great and small, standing before the throne, and  books were opened. Then another book was opened, which is  the book of life. And  the dead were judged by what was written in the books,  according to what they had done.  13 And the sea gave up the dead who were in it,  Death and Hades gave up the dead who were in them, and they were judged, each one of them,  according to what they had done.  14 Then  Death and Hades  were thrown into the lake of fire. This is  the second death, the lake of fire.  15 And if anyone’s name was not found written in the book of life,  he was thrown into the lake of fire. 

 

B. Understanding Hell

 

1) Hell is a an eternal experience

 

Matt. 25.30 And  cast  the worthless servant into the outer darkness. In that place  there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth.’

 

Matt. 25.31    “When the Son of Man comes in his glory, and all the angels with him,  then he will sit on his glorious throne. 32 Before him  will be gathered  all the nations, and  he will separate people one from another as a shepherd separates  the sheep from the goats. 33 And he will place the sheep on his right, but the goats on the left. 34 Then  the King will say to  those on his right, ‘Come, you  who are blessed by my Father,  inherit  the kingdom  prepared for you  from the foundation of the world. 35 For  I was hungry and you gave me food, I was thirsty and you  gave me drink,  I was a stranger and you welcomed me, 36  I was naked and you clothed me,  I was sick and you  visited me,  I was in prison and you came to me.’ 37 Then the righteous will answer him, saying, ‘Lord, when did we see you hungry and feed you, or thirsty and give you drink? 38 And when did we see you a stranger and welcome you, or naked and clothe you? 39 And when did we see you sick or in prison and visit you?’ 40 And  the King will answer them,  ‘Truly, I say to you, as you did it to one of the least of these  my brothers,  you did it to me.’ 41   “Then he will say to those on his left,  ‘Depart from me, you  cursed, into  the eternal fire prepared for  the devil and his angels. 42 For  I was hungry and you gave me no food, I was thirsty and you gave me no drink, 43 I was a stranger and you did not welcome me, naked and you did not clothe me, sick and in prison and you did not visit me.’ 44 Then they also will answer, saying, ‘Lord, when did we see you hungry or thirsty or a stranger or naked or sick or in prison, and did not minister to you?’ 45 Then he will answer them, saying, ‘Truly, I say to you, as you did not do it to one of the least of these,  you did not do it to me.’ 46 And these will go away  into eternal punishment, but the righteous  into  eternal life.”

 

Rev. 19.3   Once more they cried out,   “Hallelujah!    The smoke from her goes up forever and ever.”

 

Rev. 20.10 and the devil  who had deceived them was  thrown into the lake of fire and sulfur where  the beast and the false prophet were, and they will be tormented day and night forever and ever.

 

2) Hell does not refer to annihilation

 

In recent years some have argued that the concept of Hell goes against the nature of God. Instead, they have suggested that eternal punishment refers to the fact that, after having suffered the extend of God’s wrath the sinner is simply annihilated. Against this view stand the verses cited above that speak to eternal fire.

 

Especially important in this regard is Matthew 25:46 where the duration of eternal life is parallel to the duration of eternal punishment:

 

Matt. 25:46: 46 And these will go away  into eternal punishment, but the righteous  into  eternal life.”

 

C. Heaven

 

1) Biblical uses of the word “heaven”

 

In Scripture “heaven” can refer to several different things:

 

a) the cosmological world above and beyond the earth:

 

Gen. 1.1  In the  beginning, God created the heavens and the earth.

 

Matt. 5.18 For truly, I say to you,  until heaven and earth pass away, not an iota, not a dot, will pass from the Law until all is accomplished.

 

b) it can be term used as a representation of God himself:

 

Matt. 21.25 The baptism of John,  from where did it come?  From heaven or from man?” And they discussed it among themselves, saying, “If we say, ‘From heaven,’ he will say to us,  ‘Why then did you not believe him?’

 

John 3.27 John answered,  “A person cannot receive even one thing  unless it is given him  from heaven.

 

c) the word can be a term used to signify the dwelling place of God:

 

Deut. 4.39 know therefore today, and lay it to your heart, that  the LORD is God in heaven above and on the earth beneath;  there is no other.

 

Matt. 6.9  Pray then like this:    “Our Father in heaven,    hallowed be  your name.

 

d) it is the place to which Jesus ascended, and from which he will one day return:

 

Acts 1.11 and said,  “Men of Galilee, why do you stand looking into heaven? This Jesus, who was taken up from you into heaven,  will  come in the same way as you saw him go into heaven.”

 

1Th. 1.10 and  to wait for his Son  from heaven,  whom he raised from the dead, Jesus  who delivers us from  the wrath to come.

 

1Th. 4.16 For  the Lord himself will descend  from heaven  with a cry of command, with the voice of  an archangel, and  with the sound of the trumpet of God. And  the dead in Christ will rise first.

 

e) Heaven is also the place of our treasure, our inheritance, our citizenship, and the focus of our hope:

 

Matt. 6.19    “Do not lay up for yourselves treasures on earth, where  moth and rust  destroy and where thieves  break in and steal, 20  but lay up for yourselves treasures in heaven, where neither moth nor rust destroys and where thieves do not break in and steal. 21 For where your treasure is, there your heart will be also.

 

Matt. 19.21 Jesus said to him, “If you would be  perfect, go,  sell what you possess and give to the poor, and you will have  treasure in heaven; and come, follow me.”

 

1Pet. 1.4 to  an inheritance that is imperishable, undefiled, and  unfading,  kept in heaven for you,  5 who by God’s power are being guarded  through faith for a salvation  ready to be revealed in the last time.

 

Phil. 3.20 But  our citizenship is in heaven, and  from it we  await a Savior, the Lord Jesus Christ,

 

Col. 1.5 because of  the hope  laid up for you in heaven. Of this you have heard before in  the word of the truth, the gospel,

 

2) Yet, though heaven is wonderful, it is actually only the intermediate place for the believer between the temporal, sinful creation, and the new creation where righteousness will dwell.

 

Russell D. Moore: “For believers, the intermediate state is blessedness, to be sure. But in heaven there is yet eschatology. The ultimate purpose of God is not just the ongoing life of believers but that his kingdom wuold come, his will would be done ‘on earth as it is in heaven’ (Matt. 6:10). That awaits the end of all ends, the return of Jesus and the final overthrow of death.” (Personal and Cosmic Eschatology, in Theology for the Church, Daniel Akin, ed.)

 

D. New Heavens and New Earth (New Creation)

 

The whole point of the Gospel has never been so that we could enjoy heaven, as though salvation means escape from the created realm. Rather, the true hope of the Gospel is understood in the promise that, one day, God will come down – heaven will come to earth – renewing and transforming and “redeeming” all creation.

 

Is. 65.17    “For behold,  I create new heavens   and a new earth,   and the former things shall not be remembered   or come into mind.

18  But be glad and rejoice forever   in that which I create;   for behold,  I create Jerusalem to be a joy,   and her people to be a gladness.

19   I will rejoice in Jerusalem   and be glad in my people;    no more shall be heard in it the sound of weeping   and the cry of distress.

In Revelation 21, John sees a New Jerusalem (symbolic of God’s dwelling) coming down from heaven to earth:

 

Rev. 21.1   Then I saw  a new heaven and a new earth, for  the first heaven and the first earth had passed away, and the sea was no more.  2 And I saw  the holy city,  new Jerusalem,  coming down out of heaven from God,  prepared  as a bride adorned for her husband.  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.  4  He will wipe away every tear from their eyes, and  death shall be no more,  neither shall there be mourning, nor crying, nor pain anymore, for the former things have passed away.” 5   And  he who was seated on the throne said, “Behold, I  am making all things new.” Also he said, “Write this down, for  these words are trustworthy and true. … 22   And  I saw no temple in the city, for its temple is the Lord God the Almighty and the Lamb.  23 And the city  has no need of sun or moon to shine on it, for  the glory of God gives it light, and its lamp is the Lamb.  24 By its light  will the nations walk, and the kings of the earth  will bring their glory into it,  25 and  its gates will never be shut by day—and  there will be no night there.  26 They will bring into it the glory and the honor of the nations.  27 But  nothing unclean will ever enter it, nor anyone who does what is detestable or false, but only those who are written in the Lamb’s  book of life.

 

The “new heaven(s) and new earth” identify the whole of creation now redeemed and re-created by God. In a sense, all the world is now “Eden”, and personal, face-to-face unobstructed fellowship with God has been regained, and it will be so for eternity.

 

Peter describes this paradise as the place where righteousness will dwell, in stark contrast to the sin-infested creation in which we now dwell:

 

2Pet. 3.11   Since all these things are thus to be dissolved,  what sort of people ought you to be in lives of holiness and godliness,  12  waiting for and hastening the coming of the day of God, because of which the heavens will be set on fire and dissolved, and  the heavenly bodies will melt as they burn!  13 But according to his promise we are waiting for  new heavens and a new earth  in which righteousness dwells.

 

E. Ramifications of our eternal dwelling on the New Earth:

 

1) The physical creation will be renewed and we will continue to exist and enjoy it fully.

 

This brings God’s creation back to it’s intended state. All creation will once again testify to his glory. In the case of those who chose to live out their earthly lives for sin and self, the glory of God will be seen in his justice, demonstrated in righteous condemnation and punishment.

 

In the case of the physical creation, and those in Christ, God’s glory will be demonstrated in their perfection, and eternal enjoyment of him.

 

2) Our spiritually renewed and resurrected bodies will be perfectly suited to a full enjoyment of God’s new creation, and his unobstructed presence.

 

If you take away the ravages of sin in all its many forms, what remains is perfect harmony between all facets of God’s creation. In addition, all creation will be fully aligned with God whose presence will be fully understood and enjoyed.

 

3) This new creation will be timeless and exist quite apart from even the possibility of sin.

 

Unlike Adam and Eve, those in Christ will exist above and beyond sin, and the possibility of sin, and as a result, beyond all the possible effects of sin.

 

4) The new creation will be a place of eternal peace, satisfaction, joy, beauty, and happiness in the enjoyment and worship of God and his greatest gifts.

 

This is the great hope that we have now, and it is the perfection we look forward to.

 

Rev. 21:3,4: 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.  4  He will wipe away every tear from their eyes, and  death shall be no more,  neither shall there be mourning, nor crying, nor pain anymore, for the former things have passed away.”

 

Resources

 

Articles

 

John Piper on New Heaven and Earth

http://www.desiringgod.org/conference-messages/the-triumph-of-the-gospel-in-the-new-heavens-and-the-new-earth

 

 

Books

System Theology, Wayne Grudem

 

Evangelical Theology, Michael Bird

 

A Theology for the Church, Daniel Akin, ed.

 

Probing Heaven: Key Questions on the Hereafter, John Gilmore

 

Heaven, Randy Alcorn