Just before I prepared this commentary I received news of the sudden death of a longtime friend, a brother in Christ whose testimony was clear and vibrant and whose Christian character was an example to all of us who knew him. I spoke to his shocked widow whose grief is made bearable by the grace of her Saviour's presence with her and by the assurance of His word that her husband, though absent from the body, is present with the Lord. She knows that though his body is in the grave his soul is with Christ, "which is far better" (Philippians 1:23).
Coincidentally, just before receiving the news of my friend's death I read some statements by a leading bishop of the Church of England, N.T. Wright, to the effect that Christians do not go to heaven when they die. According to Wright, in what theologians call the intermediate state-that is, the state of the soul between death and the resurrection-Christians do not go to heaven to live in blessedness as disembodied spirits awaiting the resurrection. Until Christ returns, he insists, Christians "sleep." As he explained it, "We know that we will be with God and with Christ, resting and being refreshed. Paul writes that it will be conscious, but compared with being bodily alive, it will be like being asleep. The Wisdom of Solomon, a Jewish text from about the same time as Jesus, says ‘the souls of the righteous are in the hand of God,' and that seems like a poetic way to put the Christian understanding, as well."
The dogma of soul sleep is not new. It is the belief of Seventh Day Adventism. Now it is being promoted by a well known theologian. This is not Tom Wright's first foray into the realm of the controversial. He is the man who launched what has become known in theology as "The New Perspective on Paul," his redefinition of the doctrine of justification. Far from being new, it is in most of its salient characteristics a return to the old dogma of the Council of Trent. It is in essence a repudiation of the central doctrine of all Protestant soteriology. So it is not surprising that having gone off the rails in such a vital area Wright should also go astray on the subject of the intermediate state.
When the Bible speaks of the dead "sleeping" it uses the term metaphorically and applies it solely to the body, not of the soul. When Paul considered death he said it would be "gain" to him. It would be "better" than his present experience. In his lifetime Paul had amazing experiences of Christ's presence and fellowship. He looked forward to death as giving an entrance into a better state-which could hardly be the case if his high level of consciousness of God was to be replaced by some dreamy sleep or unconsciousness. Again, he spoke of "the spirits of just men made perfect." This is hardly the description of unconsciousness. Perfect sanctification of the soul by definition cannot be enjoyed by unconscious souls. Indeed, there is nothing in Scripture to suggest that unconsciousness is anything but a physical state. Released from the body the souls of believers are perfected and enter into a far better enjoyment of Christ than ever before. It is not their final state. Their bodies will be raised and body and soul they will be forever with the Lord, perfectly conformed to their glorified Saviour. That is their final hope. But it should not dim the immediate realization of a happy entrance into glory when they die, no matter what Bishop Wright says. In plain English, Wright is wrong. My friend is more alive than ever he was!