Alive and Alert! Brief Reflections on the Intermediate State4
This past week I preached on the fifth seal judgment in Revelation 6:9-11. Here is what it says:
“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. 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?” 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. 6:9-11).
Some might immediately object to this passage by suggesting that it would be impossible for John to “see” disembodied “souls” or place a “robe” on a soul. But this betrays an ignorance of the nature of apocalyptic language. The revelatory medium here is symbolic and visionary, not photographic literalism. Nevertheless, they are in a disembodied state (“souls”) and do not sleep. They are keenly aware of what happened to them.
This is one of many NT texts that clearly reminds us that those who have died physically and entered the presence of the risen Christ are conscious. They are very much aware of and alert to the Lord’s presence and are able to articulate their request concerning what they hope God will do.
That they are very much alive, conscious, able both to think about what was done to them, about the character and promises of god and feel, is seen in the fact that they “cried out with a loud voice.” Clearly they are experiencing deep and intensely passionate emotions as they ask God for justice.
This, then, is yet one more NT passage that portrays for us what theologians calls the intermediate state. It is that condition or experience of all Christians who have died and are now in heaven. It is called “intermediate” because it is “in between” our experience now on earth and our experience that is yet to come when Christ returns and gives us our glorified and resurrected bodies (cf. 2 Cor. 5:1,8-10; Phil. 1:20-23). Those in the intermediate state are not “sleeping” or in a state of unconscious repose. They burn with desire for the purposes of God to be fulfilled on the earth and for righteousness and vindication of the truth.
One final observation that reinforces the truth that they are conscious is their knowledge of the passing of time. Some have argued that those in the intermediate state are not aware of chronological progress. And yet, they ask “how long?” until God acts on their behalf. They were sensible of what it means to wait and to hope for something yet to come.
So, any suggestion that those who “fall asleep” in Jesus are devoid of conscious experience while in the intermediate state does not bear up under close scrutiny.