Chapter 4: Those Who Sleep

Immortality of the Soul or Resurrection of the Dead?
by Oscar Cullmann

Chapter 4: Those Who Sleep

The Holy Spirit and the Intermediate State of the Dead

And now we come to the last question. When does this transformation of the body take place? No doubt can remain on this point. The whole New Testament answers, at the End, and this is to be understood literally, that is, in the temporal sense. That raises the question of the ‘interim condition’ of the dead. Death is indeed already conquered according to 2 Timothy 1:10: ‘Christ has conquered death and has already brought life and incorruptibility to light.’ The chronological tension which I constantly stress, concerns precisely this central point death is conquered, but it will not be abolished until the End. I Corinthians 15:26, death will be conquered as the last enemy. It is significant that in the Greek the same verb is used to describe both the decisive victory already accomplished and the not-yet-consummated victory at the end. John’s Apocalypse 20:14 describes the victory at the end, the annihilation of Death: ‘Death will be cast into a pool of fire’ ; and a few verses farther on it is said, Death will be no more’.

That means, however, that the transformation of the body does not occur immediately after each individual death. Here too we must once again guard against any accommodation to Greek philosophy, if we wish to understand the New Testament doctrine. This is the point where I cannot accept Karl Barth’s position as a simple restatement of the original Christian view, not even his position in the Church Dogmatics (K. Barth, Die Kirchliche Dogmatik, II, I [1940], pp. 698ff; III 2 [1948], pp. 524ff, 714ff.) where it is subtly shaded and comes much nearer (It is another question, of course, whether Barth does not have the right to adduce relationships in this whole matter which yet lie outside the New Testament circle of vision. But if so, then this ‘going beyond the New Testament’ should perhaps be done consciously and should always be identified as such with clarity and emphasis, especially where a constant effort is being made to argue from the point of view of the Bible, as is the case with Barth. If this were done, then the inevitable danger which every dogmatician must, confront [and here lies the dignity and greatness of his task] would be more clearly recognized: namely, the danger that he may not remain upon an extension of the biblical line, but rather interpret the biblical texts primarily ex post facto, from the point of view of his ‘going beyond the New Testament. Precisely because of this clear recognition of the danger, discussion with the exegete would be more fruitful.) to New Testament eschatology than in his first writings. (Especially The Resurrection of the Dead [1926]) Karl Barth considers it to be the New Testament interpretation that the transformation of the body occurs for everyone immediately after his individual death -- as if the dead were no longer in time. Nevertheless, according to the New Testament, they are still in time. Otherwise, the problem in 1 Thessalonians 4:13ff. would have no meaning. Here in fact Paul is concerned to show that at the moment of Christ’s return ‘those who are then alive will have no advantage’ over those who have died in Christ. Therefore the dead in Christ are still in time; they, too, are waiting. ‘How long, oh Lord?’ cry the martyrs who are sleeping under the altar in John’s Apocalypse (6:11). Neither the saying on the Cross, ‘Today you will be with me in paradise’ (Luke 23:43), the parable of the rich man, where Lazarus is carried directly to Abraham’s bosom (Luke 16:22), nor Paul’s saying, ‘I desire to die and to be with Christ’ (Philippians 1:23), proves as is often maintained that the resurrection of the body takes place immediately after the individual death. (Also the much-disputed words of Luke 23:45 ‘Today you will be with me in Paradise’, belong here. To be sure it is not impossible, though artificial, to understand. The statement is to be understood in the light of Luke 16:23 and of the late Jewish conception of ‘Paradise’ as the place of the blessed [Strack-Billerbeck, ad. loc.; P. Volz, Die Eschatologie der jüdischen Gemeinde im neutest. Zeitalter {2nd Edn, 1934}, p. 265]. It is certain that Luke 16:23 does not refer to resurrection of the body, and the expectation of the Parousia is in no way supplanted. Such an interpretation is also decisively rejected by W. G. Kümmel, Verheissung und Erfüllung, 2nd Edn (1953), p. 67. A certain disparity here over against Pauline theology does exist in so far as Christ Himself on the day referred to as ‘today’ has not yet risen, and therefore the foundation of the condition wherein the dead are bound up with Christ has not yet been laid. But in the last analysis the emphasis here is on the fact that the thief will be with Christ. Menoud [Le sort des trépassés, P. 45] correctly points out that Jesus’ answer must be understood in relation to the thief’s entreaty. The thief asks Jesus to remember him when He ‘comes into His kingdom’, which according to the Jewish view of the Messiah can only refer to the time when the Messiah wilt come and erect his kingdom. Jesus does not grant the request, but instead gives the thief more than he asked for: he will be united with Jesus even before the coming of the kingdom. So understood, according to their intention, these words do not constitute a difficulty for the position maintained above). In none of these texts is there so much as a word about the resurrection of the body. Instead, these different images picture the condition of those who die in Christ before the End -- the interim state in which they, as well as the living, find themselves. All these images express simply a special proximity to Christ, in which those dying in Christ before the End find themselves. They are ‘with Christ or in paradise’ or ‘in Abraham’s bosom’ or, according to Revelation 6:9, ‘under the altar’. All these are simply various images of special nearness to God. But the most usual image for Paul is: ‘They are asleep.’(The interpretation which K. Barth (Die Kirchliche Dogmatik, III, 2, p. 778) gives of the ‘sleeping’, as if this term conveyed only the ‘impression’ of a peaceful going to sleep which those surviving have, finds no support in the New Testament. The expression in the New Testament signifies more, and like the "repose’ in Apocalypse 14:13 refers to the condition of the dead before the Parousia.) It would be difficult to dispute that the New Testament reckons with such an interim time for the dead, as well as for the living, although any sort of speculation upon the state of the dead in this interim period is lacking here.

The dead in Christ share in the tension of the interim time. (The lack of New Testament speculation on this does not give us the right simply to suppress the ‘interim condition’ as such. I do not understand why Protestant theologians [including Barth] are so afraid of the New Testament position when the New Testament teaches only, this much about the ‘interim condition’: (1) that it exists, (2) that it already signifies union with Christ [this because of the Holy Spirit]). But this means not only that they are waiting. It means that for them, too, something decisive happened with Jesus’ death and Resurrection. For them, too, Easter is the great turning point (Matthew 27:52). This new situation created by Easter leads us to see at least the possibility of a common bond with Socrates, not with his teaching, but with his own behaviour in the face of death. Death has lost its horror, its ‘sting’. Though it remains as the last enemy, Death has no longer any final significance. If the Resurrection of Christ were to designate the great turning-point of the ages only for the living and not for the dead also, then the living would surely have an immense advantage over the dead. For as members of Christ’s community the living are indeed even now in possession of the power of the resurrection, the Holy Spirit. It is unthinkable that, according to the early Christian point of view, nothing should be altered for the dead in the period before the End. It is precisely those images used in the New Testament to describe the condition of the dead in Christ which prove that even now, in this interim state of the dead, the Resurrection of Christ -- the anticipation of the End -- is already effective. They are ‘with Christ’.

Particularly in 2 Corinthians 5: 1-10 we hear why it is that the dead, although they do not yet have a body and are only ‘sleeping’, nevertheless are in special proximity to Christ. Paul speaks here of the natural anxiety which even he feels before death, which still maintains its effectiveness. He fears the condition of ‘nakedness’, as he calls it; that is, the condition of the inner man who has no body. This natural dread of death, therefore, has not disappeared. Paul would like, as he says, to receive a spiritual body in addition, directly while still living, without undergoing death. That is, he would like to be still alive at the time of Christ’s return. Here once again we find confirmation of what we said about Jesus’ fear of death. But now we see also something new: in this same text alongside this natural anxiety about the soul’s nakedness stands the great confidence in Christ’s proximity, even in this interim state. What is there to be afraid of in the fact that such an interim condition still exists? Confidence in Christ’s proximity is grounded in the conviction that our inner man is already grasped by the Holy Spirit. Since the time of Christ, we, the living, do indeed have the Holy Spirit. If He is actually within us, He has already transformed our inner man. But, as we have heard, the Holy Spirit is the power of life. Death can do Him no harm. Therefore something is indeed changed for the dead, for those who really die in Christ, i.e. in possession of the Holy Spirit. The horrible abandonment in death, the separation from God, of which we have spoken, no longer exists, precisely because the Holy Spirit does exist. Therefore the New Testament emphasizes that the dead are indeed with Christ, and so not abandoned. Thus we understand how it is that, just in 2 Corinthians 5:1ff. where he mentions the fear of disembodiment in the interim time, Paul describes the Holy Spirit as the ‘earnest’.

According to verse 8 of the same chapter, it even appears that the dead are nearer Christ. The ‘sleep’ seems to draw them even closer: ‘We are willing rather to be absent from the body, and to be at home with the Lord.’ For this reason, the apostle can write in Phil. 1:23 that he longs to die and be with Christ. So then, a man who lacks the fleshly body is yet nearer Christ than before, if he has the Holy Spirit. It is the flesh, bound to our earthly body, which is throughout our life the hindrance to the Holy Spirit’s full development. Death delivers us from this hindrance even though it is an imperfect state inasmuch as it lacks the resurrection body. Neither in this passage nor elsewhere is found any more detailed information about this intermediate state in which the inner man, stripped indeed of its fleshly body but still deprived of the spiritual body, exists with the Holy Spirit. The apostle limits himself to assuring us that this state, anticipating the destiny which is ours once we have received the Holy Spirit, brings us closer to the final resurrection.

Here we find fear of a bodiless condition associated with firm confidence that even in this intermediate, transient condition no separation from Christ supervenes (among the powers which cannot separate us from the love of God in Christ is death -- Romans 8:38). This fear and this confidence are bound together in 2 Corinthians 5, and this confirms the fact that even the dead share in the present tension. Confidence predominates, however, for the decision has indeed been made. Death is conquered. The inner man, divested of the body, in no longer alone; he does not lead the shadowy existence which the Jews expected and which cannot be described as life. The inner man, divested of the body, has already in his lifetime been transformed by the Holy Spirit, is already grasped by the resurrection (Romans 6:3ff., John 3:3ff.), if he has already as a living person really been renewed by the Holy Spirit. Although he still ‘sleeps’ and still awaits the resurrection of the body, which alone will give him full life, the dead Christian has the Holy Spirit. Thus, even in this state, death has lost its terror, although it still exists. And so the dead who die in the Lord can actually be blessed ‘from now on’, as the author of the Johannine Apocalypse says (14:13). What is said in 1 Corinthians 1554b, 55 pertains also to the dead: ‘Death is swallowed up in victory. O death, where is thy victory? O death, where is thy sting?’ So the Apostle in Romans 14 writes: ‘Whether we live or die, we belong to the Lord’ (verse 8). Christ is ‘Lord of the living and the dead’ (verse 9).

One could ask whether in this fashion we have not been led back again, in the last analysis, to the Greek doctrine of immortality, whether the New Testament does not assume, for the time after Easter, a continuity of the ‘inner Man’ of converted people before and after death, so that here, too, death is presented for all practical purposes only as a natural ‘transition’.(We have already spoken of K. Barth’s attempt [which indeed goes too far] to place a positive valuation in dialectic fashion alongside the negative valuation of death.) There is a sense in which a kind of approximation to the Greek teaching does actually take place, to the extent that the inner man, who has already been transformed by the Spirit (Romans 6:3ff), and consequently made alive, Continues to live with Christ in this transformed state, in the condition of sleep. This continuity is emphasized especially strongly in the Gospel of John (3:36, 4:14, 6:54 and frequently). Here we observe at least a certain analogy to the ‘immortality of the soul’, but the distinction remains none the less radical. Further, the condition of the dead in Christ is still imperfect, a state of ‘nakedness’, as Paul says, of ‘sleep’, of waiting for the resurrection of the whole creation, for the resurrection of the body. On the other hand, death in the New Testament continues to be the enemy, albeit a defeated enemy, who must yet be destroyed. The fact that even in this state the dead are already living with Christ does not correspond to the natural essence of the soul.

Rather it is the result of a divine intervention from outside, through the Holy Spirit, who must already have quickened the inner man in earthly life by His miraculous power.

Thus it is still true that the resurrection of the body is awaited, even in John’s Gospel -- though now, of course, with a certainty of victory because the Holy Spirit already dwells in the inner man. Hence no doubt can arise any more: since He already dwells in the inner man, He will certainly transform the body. For the Holy Spirit, this quickening power, penetrates everything and knows no barrier. If He is really within a man, then He will quicken the whole man. So Paul writes in Romans 8:11; ‘If the Spirit dwells in you, then will He who raised Christ Jesus from the dead call to life your mortal bodies also through the Spirit dwelling in you.’ In Philippians 3:21 : ‘We wait for the Lord Jesus Christ, who will conform our lowly body to the body of His glory.’ Nothing is said in the New Testament about the details of the interim conditions. We hear only this: we are nearer to God.

We wait, and the dead wait. Of course the rhythm of time may be different for them than for the living; and in this way the interim-time may be shortened for them. This does not, indeed, go beyond the New Testament texts and their exegesis, (Here I follow R. Mehl’s suggestion, Der letzte Feind, p. 56.) because this expression to sleep, which is the customary designation in the New Testament of the ‘interim condition’, draws us to the view that for the dead another time-consciousness exists, that of ‘those who sleep’. But that does not mean that the dead are not still in time. Therefore once again we see that the New Testament resurrection hope is different from the Greek belief in immortality.