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Don Stewart :: What Is the Intermediate State for the Unbeliever?

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Don Stewart
As is true with the believer, the unbeliever also goes to an intermediate place upon death. The final judgment of the wicked is not immediate. Before that future time, there is an "in between" state where the unbeliever is waiting to be judged.

Old Testament

When an unbelieving person died during Old Testament times, their soul, or spirit, went to Sheol to wait for the resurrection of their body. Sheol is used in this sense as the unseen realm of the dead. Their body is also said to be in Sheol, or the grave. Death, or the grave, claimed their body, while Sheol, or the unseen realm of the dead, claimed their soul.

New Testament

As was the case during the Old Testament times, the body of the unbeliever went to the grave while their spirit, or soul, went to the unseen realm of the dead. This place is called Hades in the New Testament. The New Testament says the following about the intermediate state of the unbeliever.

In Prison

The spirits of the unbelieving dead are in prison and are under guard. The Bible says.

in which also He [Christ] went and made a proclamation to the spirits in prison (1 Peter 3:19).

Under Judgment

Those who have died outside of the Lord are under His judgment.
And just as it is appointed for mortals to die once, and after that the judgment (Hebrews 9:27).

Suffering Punishment

In the Gospel of Luke, Jesus told the story of the rich man and Lazarus. This account gives us insight into the intermediate state of the wicked dead.

There was a rich man who was dressed in purple and fine linen and who feasted sumptuously every day. And at his gate lay a poor man named Lazarus, covered with sores, who desired to satisfy his hunger with what fell from the rich man's table; even the dogs would come and lick his sores. The poor man died and was carried away by the angels to be at Abraham's side. The rich man also died and was buried. In Hades, where he was being tormented, he looked up and saw Abraham far away with Lazarus by his side. He called out, 'Father Abraham, have mercy on me, and send Lazarus to dip the tip of his finger in water and cool my tongue; for I am in agony in these flames.' But Abraham said, 'Child, remember that during your lifetime you received your good things, and Lazarus in like manner evil things; but now he is comforted here, and you are in agony. Besides all this, between you and us a great chasm has been fixed, so that those who might want to pass from here to you cannot do so, and no one can cross from there to us.' He said, 'Then, father, I beg you to send him to my father's house - for I have five brothers - that he may warn them, so that they will not also come into this place of torment.' Abraham replied, 'They have Moses and the prophets; they should listen to them.' He said, 'No, father Abraham; but if someone goes to them from the dead, they will repent.' He said to him, 'If they do not listen to Moses and the prophets, neither will they be convinced even if someone rises from the dead'" (Luke 16:19-31).

More Than A Parable?

There has been much debate as to whether this is merely a parable of Jesus, or an actual event that happened in the afterlife. The following facts are in favor of it being more than a parable.

A Person Is Named

If this is a parable, it is the only one where a person is named - Lazarus. The fact that Lazarus is named seems to teach that it is more than a parable.

Not Introduced As A Parable

The account is not introduced as a parable. Often, though not always, Jesus made it clear that He was giving a parable.

Five Brothers Mentioned

In addition, the rich man told Abraham that he had five brothers still living on the earth. Why mention this specific number if it is only a parable?

About The Afterlife

All the other parables Jesus taught were about this life, not the afterlife. This would be the one exception.

What Can We Learn From This Account?

From this story we can learn the following things about the afterlife.

1. Dead Do Not Go Out Of Existence

This account teaches us that both the godly and the ungodly survive after death. They do not become non-existent.

2. He Went To An Actual Place

There was an actual place where the immaterial part, or the soul, of the rich man went - Hades.

3. He Was Conscious

There is no idea of annihilation, or extinction, of the individual. This rich man was completely conscious.

4. He Had All His Senses

We find that the rich man had all his senses in Hades. He could see, recognize, hear, talk, and feel. He could also experience suffering.

5. Retained His Memory

The rich man was in complete possession of his memory - thinking about his five brothers that were still upon the earth. He also recognized Lazarus, the beggar at his gate.

6. There Was No Escape

Destinies are not reversible. There is no returning from the dead. There is no second chance, no crossing over from the next world unto ours. He could not even warn his family.

7. There Was No Rest

The rich man was continually in torment in this place. He had not rest whatsoever.
8. He Was Thirsty

The place of torment is a place of thirst. This speaks of unfulfilled desire.

9. This Life Does Not Satisfy

Living a life without God does not ultimately satisfy. The riches the man had in this life did not make any difference in the next. Likewise the poverty that Lazarus had in this life was not carried over to the next.

10. False Idea

He had the false idea that Lazarus could be a messenger to his five brothers. No messengers can come from the next world to visit this world.

11. False Belief

The rich man had the false belief that the miracle of Lazarus' returning would cause his brothers to repent. Jesus emphasized the Word of God is sufficient to cause people to believe.

12. He Was In Anguish And Crying Out

The intermediate state of the unbeliever is also a place of pain. The word torment is used five times in this account.

13. He Was Separated

The rich man was separated from everything, both good and evil. He was by himself in total isolation.

14. He Was Without Hope

The man realized that he was not ever going to leave the place of judgment. He was completely without hope.

15. Abraham's Awareness

Abraham was aware of Moses and the prophets who came after him in history. This shows that the dead have an idea of time and history.

Questionable Conclusions

There are a couple of conclusions that people have from this account that are somewhat questionable.

Actual Bodies?

The story may tell us something of the bodies of both the righteous and unrighteous dead. The rich man wanted Lazarus to use his finger to give him water. This may indicate that they both were in some type of body. In addition, the fact that he is experiencing thirst gives us the impression that he is suffering in a body. However, this is not the only possible interpretation.

Lazarus Was Above The Rich Man?

It is usually thought that Lazarus was positioned geographically above the rich man. This is not necessarily the case. The idea of "lifting up his eyes and seeing him afar off" does not have to mean "to look up." The direction is not what is emphasized as much as the fact that they are separated from one another.

Evidence Of Consciousness

If people lapse into unconsciousness after death, then there is no purpose for the story. The account only makes sense if it actually occurred. What it does provide is a contrast of believers and unbelievers after death. It also gives us a look into the unseen world of the wicked dead.


There is an intermediate or "in between" state for the unbeliever. Between their death and resurrection, their body remains in the grave while their spirit or soul is in the unseen realm of the dead awaiting final judgment.

The story of Jesus, about the rich man and Lazarus, gives us the clearest picture in Scripture of the intermediate state. We discover that the rich man in Hades was in a place of conscious torment. He was well-aware of what he had done. We find that he went to an actual place, was conscious, had all his senses, was at a place of no escape, was at a place of no rest, experienced thirst, and was in anguish. Whether or not he had an actual body remains an open question. What we do know is that he was fully conscious of his surroundings, he was not in a state of sleep.
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