Everyone eventually dies. But the gospel says that everyone will be resurrected — brought back to life. When will this happen? The resurrection will occur when Christ returns (John 6:40; 1 Corinthians 15:21-23, 52; 1 Thessalonians 4:14-17). We will be given new and dramatically different bodies—imperishable, glorious, powerful, spiritual, and immortal (1 Corinthians 15:35-51).
But what happens between death and the resurrection? What is happening right now to believers who have died? And what will happen to us when we die, and are still awaiting the return of Christ and the renewal and transformation of our bodies?
Far better to be with the Lord
The apostle Paul deals with this question in two of his letters. When he wrote to the church at Philippi, he was in prison, thinking about the possibility of death. I’ll paraphrase what he wrote:
“If it’s just for my own convenience, I’d rather die and get it over with. I’d like to escape the problems of this world and be with Christ. But I don’t want to just think about myself. I’ve got work to do, and it is better for you if I stick around a little longer.”1 Paul thought that being with Christ was a lot better than living on earth.
Paul lived for a while longer, but eventually he died. Since Christ has not yet returned and the resurrection has not yet happened, Paul is still not in his final state. He is in what theologians call “the intermediate state” — somewhere between death and resurrection.
Clothed with life
Paul tells us more about it in a letter to Corinth. He is again talking about the difficulties of life in this age. We are persecuted, he says, given over to death for Jesus’ sake (2 Corinthians 4:4-11). He is motivated to continue “because we know that the one who raised the Lord Jesus from the dead will also raise us with Jesus” (verse 14). He knew that there would be life after death. “Outwardly we are wasting away, yet inwardly we are being renewed day by day” (verse 16).
Then Paul describes what will happen to his body: “If the earthly tent we live in is destroyed, we have a building from God, an eternal house in heaven, not built by human hands” (5:1). Ancient Greeks described the body as a tent, meaning a temporary dwelling. They thought that at death, the soul escaped the tent and existed without any need for a body.2
Paul uses this metaphor, too, but he says that our temporary dwelling will be replaced by a permanent one. The new body will be heavenly, not earthly, and eternal rather than wasting away. He doesn’t tell us exactly what this home will be like, nor exactly when we get it. We might wish he had given those details, but that is not his purpose. He is simply saying that we’ve got something a lot better waiting for us.
He gives a few more hints in subsequent verses: “Meanwhile [in this life, in this body] we groan, longing to be clothed instead with our heavenly dwelling, because when we are clothed, we will not be found naked” (verses 2-3). As we struggle with the pains and infirmities of our present mortal bodies, we would really like a better body.
Some people go to fitness centers in search of a better body; others try special diets. Some go to plastic surgeons. But no matter how good the fitness center and how diligently we diet, we are going to die. That’s not such a bad deal, Paul says, because we’ll get something a lot better.
At home with the Lord
“For while we are in this tent, we groan and are burdened, because we do not wish to be unclothed but to be clothed instead with our heavenly dwelling, so that what is mortal may be swallowed up by life” (verse 4). Ancient Greeks expected to be a disembodied soul. Paul did not — that would be like being naked, he says. Our home and clothes might be a bit shabby right now, but the solution to the problem is not to go naked and homeless, but to get a better home and better clothes.
The body we have now is wasting away. It has aches and pains, wrinkles, memory lapses and tooth decay. It is temporary, mortal. So we want something better: to be clothed with life, to have life as a permanent possession, as a permanent home. We were created for eternal life, heavenly life, not the aches and pains of mortal life. “The one who has fashioned us for this very purpose is God, who has given us the Spirit as a deposit, guaranteeing what is to come” (verse 5). God has plans for us, and he will make sure they work out.
“Therefore we are always confident and know that as long as we are at home in the body we are away from the Lord…. We are confident, I say, and would prefer to be away from the body and at home with the Lord” (verses 6, 8). Paul is contrasting life before and after death: We are now in the mortal body, but not with Christ.3 After death, we will be with Christ, but not in the old body. That’s what he prefers.
What difference does it make?
There are a few pieces missing in this jigsaw puzzle, so we need to make some guesses. Paul talks about a heavenly dwelling — apparently a body we will be given after we die. But in other passages, he says that our bodies will be resurrected when Christ returns. He does not tell us how these two ideas fit together.
Do we get a new body when we die, and a third one when Christ returns? Or are we disembodied for a while, despite Paul’s desire to avoid it? Or is the concept of time irrelevant in the intermediate state? If our eternal home is in heaven, how will we remain with the Lord when he comes to earth?4
The Bible does not answer all these questions, presumably because we do not need to know the answers. Those details have nothing to do with the way we live right now. Whether we are awake or asleep, with a body or not, does not change our need to trust in Christ, nor our duty to love one another.
Life between death and resurrection is a temporary state, and it is not our focus. Rather, we focus on what is eternal—life after the resurrection. The most important fact about our future is that our life will be with the Lord. He wants to share life with us — he created us for that very purpose (verse 5). It is not just a never-ending life — it is a life filled with never-ending love and joy. Eternal life is not just a change in quantity, but also a change in quality. This can make a difference in the way we live right now, because Christ wants us to share in his life even in this age.
Notice Paul’s next thought: “So we make it our goal to please him, whether we are at home in the body or away from it” (verse 9). Since he is giving us a good future, we try to give him a good present.
1 This paraphrase is based on Philippians 1:21-24. It reads in the New International Version: “To me, to live is Christ and to die is gain. If I am to go on living in the body, this will mean fruitful labor for me. Yet what shall I choose? I do not know. I am torn between the two: I desire to depart and be with Christ, which is better by far; but it is more necessary for you that I remain in the body.”
2 N.T. Wright responds to this idea: “If the promised final future is simply that immortal souls leave behind their mortal bodies, then death still rules — since that is a description not of the defeat of death but simply of death itself” (Surprised by Hope: Rethinking Heaven, the Resurrection, and the Mission of the Church, p. 15).
3 Spiritually, we are in Christ and he is in us; not even unbelievers are ever completely away from Christ. Although he is omnipresent, he is also more “present” in some places and some ways than in others. Paul’s point is that we will be with him in a far greater way after we die than we are right now.
4 Wright offers an explanation: “Heaven and earth in biblical cosmology are not two different locations within the same continuum of space or matter. They are two different dimensions of God’s good creation…. Heaven relates to earth tangentially so that the one who is in heaven [Christ] can be present simultaneously anywhere and everywhere on earth…. Though in one sense it will seem to us that he [Christ] is ‘coming,’ he will in fact be ‘appearing’ right where he presently is” (111, 135).
Author: Michael Morrison