WHAT HAPPENS AFTER DEATH? How Many Selves Are There? (Part Two)

Cemetary tombstone

This is part two of a study of the human “self”: the identity, character, essential qualities, and total “being” of a person. The self is who one “is” at their core, first of all materially (bodily) but also, as time passes, who one is as a developed human being: body, mind, will, emotions, relatability, likes and dislikes, spirituality, and personality.
In Part One of this study we considered the first two “selves” in which everyone begins to exist and passes through in life: The Initial Self, begun at conception, and The Independent Self, begun at birth. We also discussed a third self, The In-Christ Self, begun at regeneration (new birth through the Holy Spirit).
In contrast to the first two selves, into which we entered through no decision of our own, this third self can only be begun in us by an act of our will – a choice to receive Jesus Christ as Lord and Savior for our earthly life and all eternity. Jesus spoke of this radical change as a “crossing over” in John 5:24: “Very truly I tell you, whoever hears my word and believes him who sent me has eternal life and will not be judged but has crossed over from death to life.”
With regard to these first two or three selves, we are now who we are, having been and continuing to be in each previous phase of our one (unified) ongoing self (oneself). You will always be “you” and I will always be “me,” as products of our previous selves, since we in a sense “recapitulate” (swallow up and retain) all that we have been previously, from our conception in our mother’s womb and over the years to the present.
The person who has not been born again by the Spirit of God is The Independent Self “in Adam,” while the re-generated person — still “in Adam” in some respects (e.g., we will all die) — is now a new self, The In-Christ Self (Jn. 3:1-21; I Cor. 1:30; 15:21-22; 2 Cor. 5:17; Eph. 4:22-24; Col. 3:9-10; Tit. 3:5). The “old self” in Adam is said by Jesus to be living right now in “death,” as seen in John 5:24, quoted above.

The Intermediate Self

It is now necessary to consider the fourth self: The Intermediate Self, begun at death. Whether a person has lived through all three of the previous selves or only the first two, that individual will enter this intermediate realm at the moment of his or her death. This is the mysterious land of the dead, which popular authors and filmmakers never cease to present graphically to a public that craves knowledge of what lies on “the other side,” and whether those who go there communicate with or even return to those on “this side.” If we are Bible-believing Christians, when we attend a funeral or memorial service we know that the one being remembered is alive spiritually in a state of either comfort or agony (Lk. 16:25), as determined by their previous choices. For this reason, some funerals we attend are very difficult for us.
While we live on earth, except when God sovereignly intervenes, we exercise our will – our power of choosing – freely and continually. We decide to shop at this store rather than that one, we choose to associate with this person rather than that one, and we decide to live with God or without him. When we die, however (and from God’s perspective, even before), our ability to choose for or against God comes to an end. This is clearly (to me, at least) the idea behind the solemn words of the angel to John, in the last chapter of the Bible:
“Do not seal up the words of the prophecy of this scroll, because the time is near. Let the one who does wrong continue to do wrong; let the vile person continue to be vile; let the one who does right continue to do right; and let the holy person continue to be holy” (Rev. 22:10-11).
The angel, speaking for God, is referring to the fact that both the redeemed and the lost in view here, still living their lives on earth, have made their choice for or against God, and God knows they are confirmed in that choice. They will not change, so let them be, following the desires of their hearts. Their eternal destiny has been determined by their decisions and actions throughout their lives. These words of the angel are shocking indeed!
Deathbed conversions do take place, thank God, but at least one study of those who made such a last-minute decision for God and then recovered, showed that few such individuals turned their lives toward God after their recovery. We do best to be cautious, but hopeful and prayerful, when we are involved with someone on their deathbed who has lived in indifference or opposition toward God, knowing that “the Judge of all the earth [will] do right” (Gen. 18:25; see also Deut. 32:4; Lk. 16:31).

Life After Death: What Is It?

But what precisely is “The Intermediate Self,” and what is “the intermediate state”? If everyone, believer or nonbeliever, enters this new realm of conscious self-hood at death, as I believe the Bible teaches, what is that life like? One interesting question, among others, concerns whether everyone receives some kind of “intermediate body” at that time? That there will someday be a resurrection of both the saved and the lost is taught clearly in Daniel 12:2-3 and John 5:24-29. But what is the present material state, if there is one, of those who have passed on and who are now awaiting the ultimate resurrection spoken of in Daniel and John?
The answer to this question has been debated for centuries, and it necessarily involves considerable speculation, since the Bible does not answer the question directly. Some even debate whether there is an “intermediate state” at all, at least one in which individuals are conscious. Many have argued that when a person dies they either (1) go immediately into their eternal state with their new “resurrection body” received at the time of death; or (2) continue to exist in a state of “soul sleep,” without a body or consciousness, until the resurrection; or (3) become extinct (body and soul) at death – both believers and nonbelievers – and then are re-created by God at the end of time, during the events associated with the return of Christ; or (4) are annihilated by God, after judgment, if they are nonbelievers; or (5) enter a place for believers only, called “purgatory,” where their souls are punished in proportion to their earthly sins until God takes them to heaven.

Because each of the above theories is without serious biblical support, we will not consider them here, except to note that the first view above is more of a possibility than the others, and some conservative theologians (including yours truly) express some openness to it. These say (accurately I believe) that if the redeemed who die now enter the final (eternal) state at the moment of death — perhaps just after appearing before the judgment seat of Christ spoken of in 2 Corinthians 5: 8-10 – with their resurrection bodies given to them at that time, such a transaction must be viewed from a non-earthly perspective of time, one of which we can have no present knowledge. Stanley Grenz, in Theology for the Community of God, contributes some intriguing insights in the following quotations.

Time and Eternity

“Crucial to any helpful conception of the intermediate state is our understanding of time and eternity. We cannot grasp fully how time is present to eternity…. [Death] marks the boundary not only of earthly life, but consequently between the earthly and the eternal experiences of time…. [The dead person] senses no gap between death and the eschatological resurrection .

“This does not mean that the dead immediately experience the resurrection, however. Being uninvolved in earthly events does not mean that they are completely disconnected from these occurrences. On the contrary, while not active agents in earthly events, in a special sense the dead are aware of what is happening on earth. Yet we must understand this cognition by appeal to their changed perspective toward time.

“We experience events as travelers through time from the present and into the future and therefore as disconnected units en route to the end. In eternity, however, we will know earthly time as the unified whole which from God’s perspective it actually is. Seen from the perspective beyond earthly time, the dead share God’s composite perspective. They are not conscious of earthly events as isolated occurrences but as integrated into a whole.

“A specific situation may serve to illustrate this concept. We often inquire as to whether a deceased loved one might be aware of our grieving in the face of his or her death. This person is aware, we assert. But he or she is not cognizant of our grief in the manner that characterizes earthly awareness, namely, as an isolated event in the process of time. Rather, our loved one knows our grief in the context of the whole of time, specifically as it is eschatologically overcome in the joy of our reunion in the resurrection.” (For those interested in thinking further on these fascinating issues, Grenz – now in the intermediate state of which he wrote – has additional insights and speculations, as does Millard Erickson, former dean and professor of theology at Bethel Seminary, in his excellent Christian Theology.)

The best view of these matters thus far, according to my (imperfect) understanding, is that at death everyone enters a phase that I refer to as “The Intermediate Self.” This person is a conscious self, either comforted or suffering, awaiting their resurrection. The question lingers, however: does such a temporary self exist in an embodied or disembodied state? Some Bible-believing theologians prefer the view that such selves are disembodied: they exist as fully-aware “souls,” personal communicative entities yet without corporeal substance. Others see them as somehow embodied.

Concerning bodily selfhood after death for those in this state, especially unbelievers, the central scripture passage is Luke 16: 19-31. This is a truly terrifying account from Jesus about a rich man and a beggar named Lazarus living in the afterlife. There is a debate about whether the words of Jesus here are a parable or a factual situation of which he knows, but in either case the account is clearly intended to teach some startling truths about this life and the afterlife, for both believers and unbelievers, and the words of Jesus suggest that the individuals involved have material bodies (e.g., vss. 23-24). Beyond the question of embodiment, however, we do well to keep in mind that in no other parable (if this is one) does Jesus mention specific names. It seems best – because most natural – to read the story in Luke 16 as an actual historical account. Jesus presents this narrative in relation to earthly time, but the realities disclosed carry over into eternity.

Bible Verses about Deceased Believers

It will be helpful and edifying at this point to present some pertinent scriptures relating to believers in the intermediate state. While the following texts do not tell us about our bodily condition after death, they bring us some direct word from God’s word to guide our thoughts and hearts to what matters most about the intermediate state. (It is important to note that “sleep” in the Bible, when referring to the deceased, does not indicate a lack of consciousness, but refers to the way we on earth contemplate their dead bodies and think of them as “resting” from the affairs of this life.)

“Therefore my heart is glad and my tongue rejoices; my body also will rest secure, because you will not abandon me to the realm of the dead, nor will you let your faithful one see decay. You make known to me the path of life; you will fill me with joy in your presence, with eternal pleasures at your right hand” (Ps. 16:9-11).

“But God will redeem me from the realm of the dead; he will surely take me to himself” (Ps. 49:15).

“Yet I am always with you; you hold me by my right hand. You guide me with your counsel, and afterward you will take me into glory” (Ps. 73:23-24).

“Truly I tell you, some who are standing here will not taste death before they see the kingdom of God. About eight days after Jesus said this, he took Peter, John and James with him and went up onto a mountain to pray. As he was praying, the appearance of his face changed, and his clothes became as bright as a flash of lightning. Two men, Moses and Elijah, appeared in glorious splendor, talking with Jesus. They spoke about his departure, which he was about to bring to fulfillment at Jerusalem” (Lk. 9:27-31).

“But Abraham replied, ‘Son, remember that in your lifetime you received your good things, while Lazarus received bad things, but now he is comforted here and you are in agony. And besides all this, between us and you a great chasm has been set in place, so that those who want to go from here to you cannot, nor can anyone cross over from there to us’ “ (Lk. 16:25-26).

“Then he [the repentant criminal at Calvary] said, ‘Jesus, remember me when you come into your kingdom.’ Jesus answered him, ‘Truly I tell you, today you will be with me in paradise’ “ (Lk. 23:42-43).

“While they were stoning him, Stephen prayed, ‘Lord Jesus, receive my spirit.’ Then he fell on his knees and cried out, ‘Lord, do not hold this sin against them.’ When he had said this, he fell asleep” (Acts 7: 59-60).

“For we know that 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. Meanwhile we groan, longing to be clothed instead with our heavenly dwelling, because when we are clothed, we will not be found naked. …Therefore, we are always confident and know that as long as we are at home in the body we are away from the Lord. For we live by faith, not by sight. We are confident, I say, and would prefer to be away from the body and at home with the Lord” (2 Cor. 5:1-3, 6-8).

“For to me, to live is Christ and to die is gain. … I desire to depart and be with Christ, which is better by far …” (Phil. 1: 21, 23).

“Brothers and sisters, we do not want you to be uninformed about those who sleep in death, so that you do not grieve like the rest of mankind, who have no hope. For … the dead in Christ will rise first. After that, we who are still alive and are left will be caught up together with them in the clouds to meet the Lord in the air. And so we will be with the Lord forever. Therefore encourage one another with these words” (1 Thess. 4: 13, 16-18).

These scriptures are so uplifting (even though perplexing) to all of God’s people that it seems rather unimportant – even trivial and unwise, according to some – to ask whether believers between death and resurrection (described so remarkably by Paul in 1 Corinthians 15: 35-54) exist as embodied or disembodied spirits. The fact is that we simply cannot know, although it does seem strange (yet not impossible — see Erickson) to exist personally without some kind of body.

We know for sure, thanks be to God, that deceased believers, including our friends and loved ones, are personal selves in God’s actual presence, who communicate with him and are very much alive, comforted, and blessed abundantly. I even believe that they are dancing (and bouncing?) around together with levels of energy and delight beyond anything that we can possibly imagine!

Will We Know Our Loved Ones in Heaven?

As to whether believers communicate with one another, and “will we know our loved ones in heaven?” I believe that they do, and that we will know one another. I must admit, though, that there is little in the Bible to support this assumption directly, even though for me it is enough. Several lines of thought lead me to this conclusion.

The biblical texts just quoted emphasize, above all, the comfort and joy we will experience in the presence and company of God. This is as it should be, since our greatest delight will be in seeing and speaking with God himself. However, since this is so, we may legitimately ask if we will exist as isolated individuals with our own direct access to God, but without the ability to recognize or speak with one another, including friends and family we knew well on earth, when there is so much emphasis in the Bible on fellowship and strong relationships with other believers in this life (Mal. 3:16-18; Jn. 19:26-27; Acts 2:46-47; Rom. 16:1-16; 1 Thess. 2:17-20; Heb. 10: 23-25)?

Also, since our Lord is working – seemingly now — on the greatest construction project of all time, our heavenly dwellings (Jn. 14:1-3; Heb. 11:13-16, 39-40; see also Jn. 17:24), is he building “mansions” or apartment units where the saved live only in isolation or in relationships with totally new acquaintances, but not long-time friends and relatives from earth? To me the answers to these questions are obvious.

Furthermore, the above passage in Luke 9 records the occasion when Peter, John, and James were with Jesus on the mountain. Jesus’ appearance changed dramatically, and the disciples saw and heard Moses and Elijah, “in glorious splendor,” speaking with Jesus about the events soon to happen, evidently concerning his death and resurrection. Here we have the amazing revelation that Moses and Elijah, still in their intermediate state, return to earth to talk theology with Jesus, undoubtedly as a learning experience for the disciples and for us as we get a peek into the world beyond this one. The two Old Testament servants of God appear to be alive and well, obviously knowing each other and interacting with each other and Jesus as they all spoke together. While this was a very special occurrence, it gives us real insight into the realm awaiting us. This is recorded in God’s word for our benefit, probably in more than one way.

There are other scriptures that can stimulate our thinking on our personal interaction in the intermediate state, even though they may pertain as much or more to our final state (1 Thess. 4:13-18; Rev. 7:9-17). One text, however, in Revelation 6:9-11, speaks of a robing ceremony in the intermediate state, where under the altar “the souls of those who had been slain because of the word of God and the testimony they had maintained” pray together in a loud voice, after which each receives a white robe and listens to some instructions to “wait a little longer.” From reading this passage I get the impression that these martyrs had some communication with one another as intermediate selves, and previously knew one another on earth – at least some of them. They also seemed to know what was happening on earth.

While we ought not to construct, from the texts just mentioned, a fully-developed theology of interpersonal knowledge and communication in the intermediate state, we likewise ought not to ignore these scriptures in thinking about matters that concern us deeply here on earth regarding our friends and loved ones — and ourselves one day — in the intermediate state.

Final Words

It is unfortunate that, as we conclude our thoughts on the intermediate state, we must again consider, if only briefly, the experience of unbelievers between their death and the resurrection presently awaiting them (Dan. 12:2-3; Jn. 5:24-29). Just as we cannot be sure regarding the material condition of believers as intermediate selves, so we cannot be certain about that of unbelievers. We do know, however, that the spiritual state of the lost after death is one of consciousness and agony, with no hope of release (Lk. 16: 19-31). This is horrifying indeed! I struggle even to write this! These thoughts should motivate all believers in Christ to engage regularly, compassionately, prayerfully, and biblically about these matters with nonbelievers, especially those we know best, as instructed by the brother of Jesus in Jude 17-23.

(This document, as well as Part One of this series on our many selves, may be obtained without cost on the website www.gracequestministries.org, where you may read and copy other biblically-grounded materials for your personal life and ministries. Anyone who does the simple sign-up will receive all future postings automatically in their inbox. My email is bob@gracequestministries.org. Next time, as God gives me strength, I will consider the fifth self: The Resurrected Self. Rich blessings to you and yours now and forever!)