Doctrine Last Things Part 12

State of the Soul after Death in the New Testament



Some definitions to keep in mind:

Eschatology = Study of Last Things

Eschaton = the final event in the divine plan; the end of the world.

Parousia = the coming or the presence of the Lord

Apokalupsis =  the revelation of the Lord

Epiphaneia = the appearing of the Lord

Gnosticism = a Greek doctrine which depreciated the value of the material and exalted the value of the spiritual. 

Preterism = the return of Christ predicted by Jesus in the Olivet Discourse has already occurred.

Amillennialism =This would be the view that Revelation 20:1-10 isn’t to be interpreted literally as describing some sort of future thousand year reign of Christ with the saints on Earth.

Premillennialism = A view that holds that there will be a return of Christ prior to a literal thousand year reign of Jesus on the Earth.

Postmillennialism = A view that holds that Christ will return after the millennium. The millennium is actually describing the triumph of the church as the Gospel spreads to all nations and this great harvest comes into the Kingdom, and God’s Kingdom is established on Earth through the preaching and the dissemination of the Gospel to all nations; in effect the fulfillment of the Great Commission.

Substance-dualism – A view that says we are not simply material objects. Humans are not just bags of chemicals on bones. Rather, there is a soul, a spiritual substance or self, that is conjoined with this body, and eventually people will lose their body and the soul will persist.

Progressive revelation – A view that means that God has not given to humankind all of his truth that he wants them to know at once, but has revealed it gradually over time in increasing detail and fullness.


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My commentary under the cut and pasted sections from Dr. Craig’s full transcript is in YELLOW, as always


KEY ISSUE: What is the biblical teaching on what happens when a person dies?



Sections from the Transcript:

 State of the Soul after Death in the New Testament

The last several lessons we’ve been talking about what we might call cosmic eschatology – how the end of human history and the world will come about. But as I said last time, most of us (or at least all Christians up until this point) haven’t or won’t experience that cosmic end of the world when Christ returns, but rather Christians have experienced what we might call personal eschatology. They have been ushered into the presence of Christ through their own personal death.

This raises the question: what happens to a person when he dies? If he doesn’t live until the return of Christ, what happens to that person when his body gives out? Does that person go straight to heaven, or to hell, or does his soul somehow sleep until the resurrection day when he rises from the dead and Christ returns? Many people on our contemporary scene have claimed that they have had near-death experiences in which they have gone to heaven and had a glimpse of heaven – what it is like when we die. For example, a best-selling book and now a film is Heaven Is For Real in which a young boy – Colton Burpo – describes his experience of what he calls “going to heaven.” He says that there he saw people whom he recognized. He saw his deceased grandfather. He even saw his little sister whom he did not know he had because she died before he was born. He even claims to have seen Jesus in this state.

What are we to make of these kinds of claims? If a person does go straight to heaven when he dies then how do we understand the final resurrection of the dead and of the Judgment Day? How can there be people who are already in an embodied and recognizable condition if they haven’t yet been raised from the dead, because that won’t happen until Christ returns.

If you say, well, people don’t have to wait until the resurrection from the dead then where are these souls of the departed? Where are the souls of the saved or of the unsaved during that interim period before Christ returns?

Those are the sorts of questions that we want to address in this lesson. 

I’ve read some books on near death experiences over the years but it is very good for me and important for me to think over what the bible says about the afterlife. What can I infer from the scriptures?

I admit I really like the subject of near death experiences. They are very interesting to read about. As fascinating as I find these experiences, I find it wise to keep myself grounded more in what the bible teaches. I’ve asked myself why? And I would say because Jesus lived in anticipation of his death and resurrection and then the apostles witnessed his resurrected body on earth. He fulfilled his promise 100%.

I guess I could picture someone telling me that they are going to die and then resurrect themselves. Maybe I could think of an important Leader or Teacher saying this and then they actually fulfill it. As a result, I’m going to be that much stronger in my faith about all that they taught me before that amazing experience was witnessed.

Immortality in the New Testament

To do that we want to look at what the New Testament has to teach about the state of the soul after death. The New Testament teaches, I think, that the souls of the saved do not perish when the death of the body occurs, but the soul outlives the body and goes to be with the Lord in a conscious blissful state.

Philippians 1:21-24

For to me to live is Christ, and to die is gain. If it is to be life in the flesh, that means fruitful labor for me. Yet which I shall choose I cannot tell. I am hard pressed between the two. My desire is to depart and be with Christ, for that is far better. But to remain in the flesh is more necessary on your account.

What Paul indicates here is that death is actually a better state, a better condition, because it brings a closer conscious fellowship with Christ. He recognizes that he needs to continue in this earthly life because of the ministry that God has given him to discharge. But his heart’s desire is to depart and to be with Christ.

We have the Spirit living within us. We are spiritually born again. But, as Paul says, we have this treasure in earthen vessels. We have this immortal, regenerated spirit within a mortal, fallen body that is destined to destruction. So he says,

So we are always of good courage; we know that while we are at home in the body we are away from the Lord, for we walk by faith, not by sight. We are of good courage, and we would rather be away from the body and at home with the Lord.

This is the same thing that he expresses in Philippians 1:24 – that if you had to choose between this earthly life and the disembodied state, it is better to be in the disembodied, interim state because you are closer with the Lord. While we are in this body we are away from the Lord. But when you are in that disembodied intermediate state, you are with the Lord awaiting the final resurrection. That is not the best state. The best state will be the resurrection state. The luckiest people are those who don’t have to go through that intermediary period of disembodied existence who live until the parousia and receive immediately their resurrection body. But that puts Paul into a catch-22 situation, doesn’t it? Because in order to get the best state you’ve got to keep on living in the worst state! So you are in a kind of catch-22. You have conflicting desires. On the one hand you’d rather die and go and be with the Lord because that is better than the worst state, but nevertheless it is not as good as the best state. So there are sort of three states that could be ranked here: embodied mortal existence, disembodied existence, and embodied immortal existence. The catch-22 is that to get the best state you’ve got to keep living in the worst state. Otherwise, you are going to go through that intermediate state.

He says nevertheless we’d rather be at home with the Lord than here in this earthly body, and

So whether we are at home or away, we make it our aim to please him. For we must all appear before the judgment seat of Christ, so that each one may receive good or evil, according to what he has done in the body.

We will someday stand before Christ and give account of our mortal existence, but Paul says while we are in this mortal existence we seek to live for Christ and honor him, to please him, as long as we are alive on this Earth.

I take it that what Paul is teaching here is that when a Christian dies his soul, stripped of the body, continues to exist in a disembodied state, but in a state of closer, conscious, blissful communion with Christ. He will be with Christ in that condition until Christ comes again, and you will remember what Paul says in 1 and 2 Thessalonians: bringing with him those who have fallen asleep in Christ. They will rise first and be reunited with their resurrection bodies, and then those who are alive at the time of Christ’s return will similarly be transformed without needing to go through the intermediate state.

Jesus himself gave a very interesting parable where he envisioned something very much like this. Let’s look at Luke 16:19ff, the famous parable of The Rich Man and Lazarus. I want to immediately recognize that we must not press parables for doctrinal precision. Parables are simply stories to illustrate usually one or maybe two central truths. It would be a mistake to try to press these stories, these illustrations, for doctrinal exactitude, as though they were systematic theology. Nevertheless, what Jesus says here is very interesting. He says,

There was a rich man, who was clothed in purple and fine linen and who feasted sumptuously every day. And at his gate lay a poor man named Lazarus, full of sores, who desired to be fed with what fell from the rich man’s table; moreover the dogs came and licked his sores. The poor man died and was carried by the angels to Abraham’s bosom. The rich man also died and was buried; and in Hades, being in torment, he lifted up his eyes, and saw Abraham far off and Lazarus in his bosom. And he called out, “Father Abraham, have mercy upon me, and send Lazarus to dip the end of his finger in water and cool my tongue; for I am in anguish in this flame.” But Abraham said, “Son, remember that you in your lifetime received your good things, and Lazarus in like manner evil things; but now he is comforted here, and you are in anguish. And besides all this, between us and you a great chasm has been fixed, in order that those who would pass from here to you may not be able, and none may cross from there to us.” And he said, “Then I beg you, father, to send him to my father’s house, for I have five brothers, so that he may warn them, lest they also come into this place of torment.” But Abraham said, “They have Moses and the prophets; let them hear them.” And he said, “No, father Abraham; but if some one goes to them from the dead, they will repent.” He said to him, “If they do not hear Moses and the prophets, neither will they be convinced if some one should rise from the dead.”

Apart from the other interesting features of this parable, what we do see here is that Jesus envisions that in the afterlife prior to the resurrection of the dead, these persons exist either in Abraham’s bosom (some sort of paradisiacal existence) or else in Hades, a place of torment. So the person during this intermediate state is alive and in a state of paradise or blissful fellowship with God.

Finally, Luke 23:43. This is the story of the repentant thief on the cross – one of the two criminals crucified with Jesus. This man says to him in verse 42, “Jesus, remember me when you come into your kingdom.” And Jesus said to him, “Truly, I say to you, today you will be with me in Paradise.” Whether you call it Abraham’s bosom, as in the parable of Lazarus and the Rich Man, or you call it paradise, this is a state of conscious blissful existence during which people will wait until the resurrection when Christ returns.

We might ask ourselves: what about these people who have died and seen these relatives in “heaven,” like Colton Burpo seeing his grandfather or little sister? Given that the resurrection hasn’t occurred yet, it is impossible that they could actually have their resurrection bodies. Moreover, why would one be seen as a little girl rather than as an adult woman in the resurrection? He is obviously not seeing them as they actually are because Christ hasn’t returned and the resurrection hasn’t occurred. So what is going on here?

Well, we could either say that these are just illusions of a dying brain, perhaps drug-induced hallucinations, or something of that sort. Or we might offer a more sympathetic interpretation of such experiences. It is possible that in this intermediate state, in order for the disembodied souls of the dead to have fellowship with one another and with Christ, they have mental projections of other persons so that they look to them as though they are in an embodied condition and can have relationships and fellowship with them. That would also explain why to one person the other individual might look like a little girl but maybe to another person would look like an adult woman. Why? Because this is a mental projection of the soul in this intermediate state that makes it look like you are having intercourse with other embodied persons when in fact it is a disembodied state. Interestingly enough, when you look at the parable of Lazarus and the Rich Man, you do have descriptions of embodiment that are seen here. The rich man is in flames, in torment, he wants his tongue to be cooled, and he sees Lazarus in Abraham’s bosom and converses with Abraham.

So if you do have a situation in the intermediate state where the disembodied souls project mental pictures of other disembodied souls in the intermediate state then that would explain why you could have this appearance of physicality even though the actual resurrection body won’t be received until Christ comes again. That is just a speculation, but it would make sense of these kinds of experiences.

I like Dr. Craig’s proposal that a person who has died before Christ’s return judgment would go into a disembodied state and they would experience mental projections. It is a speculation, as he pointed out above. I’m sure that other Christian teachers would find some disagreement but I think it is always good to explore areas of doctrine, such as this, as speculative as it may be.

What we’ve said is all about the souls of the righteous dead. What about the souls of the unrighteous dead – the souls of those who do not know Christ? As we’ve already seen in the parable from Luke 16, the unsaved are imprisoned in a condition that the New Testament calls Hades; that is to say, they are in a place of conscious torment until the resurrection at the end of the world. Hades is the Greek word that is used to translate the Hebrew Sheol in the Greek translation of the Old Testament known as the Septuagint – often abbreviated LXX. In the LXX, the Greek Old Testament, Hades is the Greek word for Sheol. In this sense, Sheol in the Old Testament describes more accurately the state of the unrighteous dead.

The remainder of the transcript, records Dr. Craig discussing the specific scriptures that mention Sheol, Hades, the final judgment and the resurrection of the dead. To see Dr. Craig’s commentary, please click on the full transcript link above.



All of the questions (without the answers copied in) asked in the DISCUSSION portions of the transcript. You can go to website (transcript link is above) to read answers, if interested:

Question: I agree with what you are saying about a projection. I guess they call it a different realm. There is another doctor who is a Christian but did not believe in near death experiences called Dr. Alexander. You can look him up on the web. He saw a lot of butterflies, which to me is symbolic of somebody he wouldn’t know who is redeemed, because a chrysalis, butterfly, new life.

Question: I have always been skeptical of claims that people have seen ghosts. Is there any place in Christian belief for believing that you’ve seen a departed person?

Question: This is a tough one here. 1 Peter 3:19-20 talks about – some people say Christ went to hell or not, but anyway – it talks about him proclaiming the Gospel to the spirits who are now in prison. Can you comment on that? I don’t really know what to make of that passage.

Question: Can you explain if man is a soul or has a soul?

Question: What do you make of Matthew 27:52-53 where, at Jesus’ death, some of the Old Testament saints came back to life?

Question: On that passage, it doesn’t say that they have resurrected bodies though. They could be resuscitated bodies like Lazarus. This would really be a sight; this would be like Thriller!