The Intermediate State for believers and unbelievers: Where do they go at death?

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(image courtesy onemillionfreepictures)

 By Spencer D Gear

Christian forums on the Internet are places for provocative interaction and also promotion of false doctrine. I’ve interacted on a number of sites and found this to be so.

On one forum I met a fellow who stated:

“Where is the scripture that states Paradise as being a literal place for spirits upon death? Aside from the Rich Man and Lazarus…I believe that to be a parable…”[1]

My response was:[2] This is not the place for a detailed exposition. For that I recommend, Robert A. Morey (1984).

Before Christ’s resurrection, both believers and unbelievers went to Sheol/Hades – two separate places in that location (see Isa 14:9-20; 44:23; Ezek 32:21; Lk 16:22-23). After the resurrection, believers go to be with Christ (Phil. 1:23) which is better than Hades. According to 2 Cor. 5:6-9, believers are present with the Lord and are worshipping with the angelic hosts in heaven (Heb. 12:22-23).

We understand that Christ went to Hades at death (see Acts 2:31). When Jesus was in Hades, Peter explains that Christ was proclaiming to “the spirits now in prison” (1 Peter 3:18-22).

However, in the Gospel records (e.g. Luke 23:43), Paradise refers to the section of Hades reserved for the righteous. By the time of Paul’s writing in 2 Cor. 12:2-4, Paradise seems to have been taken out of Hades and is now the third heaven.

So, with progressive revelation, we understand that after the resurrection of Jesus, the believer who dies goes to heaven at death and there awaits the future resurrection to the eternal state.

What about unbelievers now? The Scriptures seem to teach that they go into torment in the intermediate state in Hades, awaiting the final judgment. Peter described it this way:

“Then the Lord knows how to rescue godly men from trials and to hold the unrighteous for the day of judgment, while continuing their punishment” (2 Peter 2:9 NIV)

“To hold” in the Greek of this verse is a present, active infinitive, meaning that the wicked are being kept where they are, captive continuously. This verse clearly refutes annihilation of the wicked after death as there would be nothing “to hold” until the judgment day if they had no existence. Peter says the unrighteous are “continuing their punishment”, this phrase is interpreting a present, passive participle that indicates the unbelievers are being continuously tormented/punished. The Greek grammar of this text clearly states that the wicked dead are experiencing torment as they await the final judgment.

We read about the final judgment in Rev. 20:13-15 when Hades (the place for the wicked who died after Christ’s resurrection) will be emptied of the wicked dead and will face God for judgment. At that point, the wicked will be cast into hell.

That’s a very brief overview of how I understand the intermediate state for believers and unbelievers and the final judgment of unbelievers.

Works consulted

Morey, R A 1984. Death and the Afterlife. Minneapolis, Minnesota: Bethany House Publishers.


[1] Big Drew #60, Christian Forums–>Theology–>Christian Apologetics, “Heaven?” #62, available at: (Accessed 23 September 2010).

[2] Ibid., OzSpen #62.
Copyright © 2014 Spencer D. Gear. This document last updated at Date: 11 June 2016.