Interim state

Intermediate state

This article is about the Christian doctrine of this name. For the Buddhist doctrine of the same name see Bardo.

In Christian eschatology, the intermediate state or interim state refers to a person's existence between one's death and resurrection. This period is "intermediate" between death and the last judgment.

As long as Christians looked for an imminent end of the world, they had little interest in an interim state between death and resurrection. Later, the Eastern Church came to admit of such an intermediate state, but refrained from defining it, so as not to blur the distinction between the alternative definitive fates of heaven and hell. In the West there was much more curiosity about the intermediate state, with evidence from as far back as the Passion of Saints Perpetua and Felicity (203) of the belief that sins can be purged by suffering in an afterlife, and that the purgation can be speeded up by the prayers of the living. Eastern Christians too believed that the dead can be assisted by prayer.

East and West, those in the intermediate state have traditionally been the beneficiaries of prayers, such as requiem masses. In the East, the saved are said to rest in light while the wicked are confined in darkness. In the East, prayers are said to benefit even pagans. In the West, Augustine described prayer as useful for those in communion with the church, and implied that every soul's ultimate fate is determined at death. In the West, prayer came to be restricted to souls in purgatory. In the Middle Ages, the Western church offered indulgences for those in purgatory. Protestants largely ceased praying for the dead.

Protestants denied the Catholic purgatory. Luther posited "soul sleep", in which the soul is asleep, yet "lives before God" and "experiences visions and the discourses of the angels and of God". Calvin depicted the righteous dead as resting in bliss.

Jewish background

The ancient Hebrews had no resurrection and thus no intermediate state. As with neighboring groups, they understood death to be the end. Their afterlife, sheol (the pit), was a dark place from which none return. By Jesus' time, however, the book of Daniel and a prophecy in Isaiah (26:19) had made popular the idea that the dead in sheol would be raised for judgment. The intertestamental literature describes in more detail what the dead experience in sheol. According to the book of Enoch, the righteous and wicked await the resurrection in separate divisions of sheol, a teaching which may have influenced Jesus' parable of Lazarus and Dives.


The New Testament was written in Greek, and the authors used the Greek term hades for the Hebrew sheol.

The gospel of Luke describes hades along the lines of Jewish sheol, divided between the happy righteous and the miserable wicked. Early Christians described hades as the underworld where all the souls of the dead were kept until the resurrection. Hippolytus described hades with a two-way division, with the lake of fire from Revelation used to torment the wicked who are doomed to be cast into it. Prayer for the dead, especially as a mass, dates back to the early Church. Two martyr stories describe the martyrs as praying for the dead to improve the conditions of the dead in an intermediate state.

In the East, the intermediate state was described as light, freedom, and rest for the righteous and the opposite for the wicked. The intermediate state is sometimes described as the presence of God, which delights the believer and torments the unrepentant.

In the West, Augustine wrote that only those in communion with the church are aided by prayer. To the standard two-way division, he recognized separate states for the "not so good" and "not so bad" souls. He insisted that unbaptized babies were excluded from heaven. Gregory the Great confirmed Augustine's understanding that only the saved benefit from prayer, and he connected suffering after death with penance left unpaid in life.

The Venerable Bede and Saint Boniface both report visions of an afterlife with a four-way division, including pleasant and punishing abodes near heaven and hell to hold souls until judgment day.

In the 12th century, the medieval Catholic church defined purgatory, the intermediate state for the saved who have just punishment yet to suffer. The righteous were said to go direct to heaven, and the wicked direct to hell. All Souls' Day commemorates the souls in purgatory. The church sold indulgences to release the donors' departed loved ones from suffering in purgatory, or the donors themselves.

In the 16th century, the Protestant Reformation challenged purgatory. Martin Luther wrote that the soul slept unconsciously until the resurrection. John Calvin, in an ascerbic response to Luther, described the soul as resting in light. Protestants largely rejected a distinction in fates other than the difference between heaven and hell. They rejected distinctions of fate within heaven or hell and rejected purgatory almost entirely.

Christian teaching

Foretaste of final state

Some theological traditions, including most Protestants and Eastern Orthodox, teach that the intermediate state is a disembodied foretaste of the final state. Therefore, those who die in Christ go into the presence of God (or the bosom of Abraham) where they experience joy and rest while they await their resurrection (cf. ). Those who die unrepentant will experience torment (perhaps in hell) while they await final condemnation on the day of judgment ().

"Soul sleep"

A minority of Christians, including Martin Luther and smaller denominations such as Seventh-day Adventists, deny the conscious existence of the soul after death, believing the intermediate state to be unconscious "sleep". In this case, the person is not conscious of any time or activity and would not be aware even if centuries elapsed between their death and their resurrection. They would, upon their death, cease consciousness, and gain it again at the time of the resurrection having experienced no time lapse. For them, time would thus suspended, as if thy moved immediately from death to resurrection and the General Judgment.


The intermediate state is sometimes referred to by the Greek term hades, even in other languages. The term is equivalent to Hebrew sheol and Latin infernum (meaning "underworld").


The Roman Catholic Church teaches that all who die in God's grace and friendship, but still imperfectly purified, undergo purification so as to achieve the holiness necessary to enter the joy of heaven, a final purification to which it gives the name "purgatory


Roman Catholic theologians have given the name "limbo" to a possible fate of infants who die without baptism. The just who died before Jesus Christ are also spoken of as having been in limbo until he had won salvation for them.


See also

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