September 21, 2020

NT Wright on the Intermediate State


This morning, as a side note, I mentioned that Andrew Perriman does not find support in the New Testament for the “intermediate state” — a place of conscious existence between death and resurrection. As you might suppose, this is an ongoing topic of discussion for me in my work as a hospice chaplain. I find Wright’s explanation more compelling than Perriman’s and think of this more traditional understanding every week when in worship I confess my belief in “the communion of saints” and when I pray for my patients and their families.

N.T. Wright on the “Intermediate State,” from Rethinking the Tradition:

We should remember especially that the use of the word ‘heaven’ to denote the ultimate goal of the redeemed, though hugely emphasized by medieval piety, mystery plays, and the like, and still almost universal at a popular level, is severely misleading and does not begin to do justice to the Christian hope. I am repeatedly frustrated by how hard it is to get this point through the thick wall of traditional thought and language that most Christians put up. ‘Going to heaven when you die’ is not held out in the New Testament as the main goal. The main goal is to be bodily raised into the transformed, glorious likeness of Jesus Christ. If we want to speak of ‘going to heaven when we die’, we should be clear that this represents the first, and far less important, stage of a two-stage process. That is why it is also appropriate to use the ancient word ‘paradise’ to describe the same thing….

…In the New Testament every single Christian is referred to as a ‘saint’, including the muddled and sinful ones to whom Paul writes his letters. The background to early Christian thought about the church includes the Dead Sea Scrolls; and there we find the members of theQumran sect referred to as ‘the holy ones’. They are designated thus, not simply because they are living a holy life in the present, though it is hoped that they will do that as well, but because by joining the sect — in the Christian’s case, by getting baptized and confessing Jesus as the risen Lord — they have left the realm of darkness and entered the kingdom of light (Colossians 1.12-14).

This means that the New Testament language about the bodily death of Christians, and what happens to them thereafter, makes no distinction whatever in this respect between those who have attained significant holiness or Christlikeness in the present and those who haven’t. ‘My desire’, says Paul in Philippians 1.22, ‘is to depart and be with Christ, for that is far better.’ He doesn’t for a moment imply that this ‘being with Christ’ is something which he will experience but which the Philippians, like Newman’s Gerontius, will find terrifying and want to postpone. His state (being with Christ) will indeed be exalted, but it will be no different, no more exalted, than that of every single Christian after death. He will not be, in that sense, a ‘saint’, differentiated from mere ‘souls’ who wait in another place or state.

…Nor does Paul imply that this ‘departing and being with Christ’ is the same thing as the eventual resurrection of the body, which he describes vividly later in the same letter (3.20-21). No: all the Christian dead have ‘departed’ and are ‘with Christ’. The only other idea Paul offers to explain where the Christian dead are now and what they are doing is that of ‘sleeping in Christ’. He uses this idea frequently (1 Corinthians 7.39; 11.30; 15.6, 18,20,51; 1 Thessalonians 4.13-15), and some have thought that by it he must mean an unconscious state, from which one would be brought back to consciousness at the resurrection — so much so, perhaps, that it will seem as though we have passed straight from the one to the other. The probability is, though, that this is a strong metaphor, a way of reminding us about the ‘waking up’ which will be the resurrection. Had the post-mortem state been unconscious, would Paul have thought of it as ‘far better’ than what he had in the present?

This picture is further confirmed by the language of Revelation. There we find the souls of the martyrs waiting, under the altar, for the final redemption to take place. They are at rest; they are conscious; they are able to ask how long it will be before justice is done (6.9-11); but they are not yet enjoying the final bliss which is to come in the New Jerusalem. This is in line with the classic Eastern Orthodox doctrine, which, though it speaks of the saints, and invokes them in all sorts of ways, does not see them as having finally experienced the completeness of redemption. Until all God’s people are safely home, none of them is yet fulfilled. That is why the Orthodox pray for the saints as well as with them, that they — with us when we join them — may come to the fulfilment of God’s complete purposes.


  1. I was just telling a friend the other day that people who take Wright to task over the firecracker of the meaning of justification are missing the atom bomb of his investigation into Christian Origins: that the expectation of the first Christians was not that of “going to heaven when you die”, but rather that, like a swath of 1st Century Jews believed, out of which Christianity arose and of which Christ was the fulfillment, we await the judgment of God when Jesus will return and make everything right, including the fullness of the renewed creation, which those faithful to Christ will experience as bodily resurrected humans on this very Earth, and when “the earth will be filled with the knowledge (of the glory) of God as the waters cover the sea”.


    • Headless Unicorn Guy says

      As someone else put it about the ending of the Book of Revelation, “We don’t ‘go to Heaven’, Heaven comes down to Earth.”

      Or in the question of one Samwise Gamgee, “Will all that is wrong become untrue?”

  2. Thanks for this, Mike. I agree with you that Wright’s understanding seems to make good sense of these scriptures. I have started to read Perriman’s book, but have not yet come across an answer to this question: what does Perriman do with Philippians 1:22?

  3. just wondering about something . . .

    that ‘intermediate state’ between ‘death’ and the ‘resurrection’ . . .
    isn’t that really a period of TIME of which those of us who are left alive are ‘conscious’ ?

    Once a person has died, they enter into eternity in a way that takes them beyond the strictures of ‘time’ as we know it.
    We are ones in the ‘interim’ time, grieving, visiting the grave-sites of our loved ones, waiting for the moment when, in eternity, we will have our tears wiped away

    there is a prayer by St. Francis of Assisi with this line:
    ” and in dying, we are born to eternal life’

    In acknowledging the Presence of the Eternal One at our death,there is a beautiful Anglican hymn: which includes the lyrics
    ‘God be at my end and at my departing’

    our passing at death into eternity, where in all the doctrines among our great theologians can we even begin to know the wonder of it?

    • The Convert
      By G. K. Chesterton

      “After one moment when I bowed my head
      And the whole world turned over and came upright,
      And I came out where the old road shone white.
      I walked the ways and heard what all men said,
      Forests of tongues, like autumn leaves unshed,
      Being not unlovable but strange and light;
      Old riddles and new creeds, not in despite
      But softly, as men smile about the dead

      The sages have a hundred maps to give
      That trace their crawling cosmos like a tree,
      They rattle reason out through many a sieve
      That stores the sand and lets the gold go free:
      And all these things are less than dust to me
      Because my name is Lazarus and I live.”

  4. I, too, find the more traditional idea that Wright expresses more compelling than Perriman’s, and I find more comfort in it. I pray not only with the communion of all saints, but also for those deceased loved ones of mine who never evinced Christian faith in this life.

    I take comfort that there is mystery in the relationship of time to eternity, and that my prayers for the redemption of the deceased may yet be a means which God uses to fructify faith in those who never seemed to embrace it before death. Sometimes my thoughts are bold enough to believe that God may change even the past from his eternal perspective, and that my prayers might be one of the means he uses to do this.

    • Yes. I refuse to tell God who, how and when He should save. I also refuse to listen to people who tell me who, how and when God saves. Salvation is God’s business, and the amazing grace aspect of it turns it into mystery that I’m sure no one fully understands.