Paul continues clarifying misunderstandings within the Corinthian church as he focuses on their death and resurrection and what that means for the Christian. In these verses Paul offers further information about the intermediate time following death before the coming final judgment. These verses bring the intermediate state and resurrection into sharper focus.
1 For we know that if the earthly tent we live in is destroyed, we have a building from God, a house not made with hands, eternal in the heavens.
Paul here calls our present body an earthly tent. [Peter does as well as we read in 1 Pe 1 13 I think it is right to refresh your memory as long as I live in the tent of this body,] The apostles make this connection to a tent because just as a tent is a temporary, flimsy abode, so also our bodies are frail, vulnerable and wasting away. Paul himself has just addressed this very truth in 2 Cor 4 10-12, 16 as he does in other places as well.
Next, Paul juxtaposes his tent language over against language of an eternal house in heaven. His idea here is that our eternal house is not a temporary but a permanent, solid structure. In fact, Paul was getting us ready for this discussion back in chapter 4. That is, this eternal house is one of those eternal realities that are as yet unseen that Paul just mentioned above in 2 Cor 4 18.
Then, just to make sure we understand his point Paul adds not built by human hands which, by implication, means that the eternal house is and was built by God. Therefore, in that everything God creates is good, the eternal house is not only permanent but perfect. [See also He 9 11.]
Paul is describing something – resurrection – for which there was no exact previous Hebrew scriptures example. Before Jesus, no one had been resurrected from the dead. Christ was, in fact, the first fruits of the resurrection as Paul succinctly puts it in 1 Cor 15 – that most wonderful of resurrection chapters in our NT.
23 But each in his own turn: Christ, the firstfruits; then, when he comes, those who belong to him.
So Paul is explaining to the Corinthians what had happened with Jesus and what was going to happen to them as well.
As we discussed last Sunday resurrection means physical, bodily resurrection. Paul is aware … just as are the other NT authors when talking about resurrection … Paul is aware that he’s at the edges of language at this point. Paul is looking for words, for ways, to describe this miraculous event of Christ’s resurrection, something all Jews by the time of Jesus knew would somehow happen one day – and which had now come in Christ’s resurrection – but which was still somewhat difficult to describe. After all, how do you find words to describe the miraculous, the mysterious? How do you find words to describe what only God fully knows and understands? That’s what Paul is doing here.
In other words, Christ had died and been resurrected. Jesus had gone through death, had been resurrected and was now fully glorified and reigning as king in his kingdom. In other words, Christ’s new life was physical in every sense of the word, but now glorified. [ glorified is how theologians describe the resurrection body belonging to those who share eternal life in the consummated kingdom of God.] Further, his new life had a new dimension to it as well, a transphysicality – a new humanity with added dimensions. Glorified. Fully transcendent. Ineffably sublime. We mere humans cannot, in the end, fully describe what is and will always be miraculous and mysterious. But, we can still believe it!
2 For in this tent we groan, longing to be clothed with our heavenly dwelling
As we live in this tent we await the Lord’s second coming. We groan because we long for living in the full time presence of God in the consummated kingdom of God. We long for the perfection of our eternal house that will be ours when we put on the glorious spiritual body that Paul describes in 1 Cor 15 42-49. Again, with the words longing to be clothed with our heavenly dwelling, Paul uses language which tells us that our eternal dwelling provided by God is something like we Christians putting on a heavenly garment.
3 if indeed, when we have taken it off we will not be found naked.
Here Paul is saying that when we are clothed with our heavenly dwelling (v 2), we will not be found naked (v 3). In other words, in death our earthly tent dwelling decays, and without the clothing of the body, we are naked. Once clothed with our heavenly dwelling, however, we are no longer naked.
4 For while we are still in this tent, we groan under our burden, because we wish not to be unclothed but to be further clothed, so that what is mortal may be swallowed up by life.
Again, tent here refers to our mortal bodies. What Paul says here in v 4b is the opposite of the philosophies and religions which say the body is bad and so we want to escape the body. Some mistakenly believe that’s what the Bible teaches but they are most wrong. So some expect Paul to say we are burdened because we want to put off this physical body but that’s NOT what Paul says. Paul actually uses a word that doesn’t just mean clothed ( as in clothed with a body) but the Greek verb he uses here means more fully clothed.
evpendu,sasqai verb infinitive aorist middle from evpendu,omai put on; be fully clothed
The theology and the reality lying behind words are that our resurrected bodies will not be less physical than our bodies we have now. If anything, by using this particular Greek verb Paul is saying our physicality will be somehow incomprehensibly more pronounced. For instance, we sometimes hear about someone who has been ill for a long time that they are a shadow of their former self. You might therefore say in a theological biblical connection that our present, current bodies and ourselves are but shadows of what our future selves will be! In other words, we will be fully full as persons with complete physicality in the consummated kingdom of God.
When Paul says we don’t want to be unclothed he means that we don’t want an everlasting life like some people envision in which we are apart from our bodies. So he says, We want to be more fully clothed. And that – being more fully clothed – will occur in our resurrection when we are clothed with our renewed, glorified bodies – just as it was with Christ in his resurrection, ascension and glorification.
in order that that which is mortal might be swallowed up by life is a reference that our mortality – our present mortal body – might be swallowed up by God’s life. Of course, here Paul is beautifully echoing Is 25 – the great messianic banquet in the kingdom of God passage – which says (in part) 7 And he will destroy on this mountain the shroud that is cast over all peoples, the sheet that is spread over all nations; 8 he will swallow up death forever … When God defeats death, God will swallow up death. God will swallow up our mortality, our death, by his life – by God’s life.
So we see that by our participation in the resurrection life of Jesus which Paul discussed in 2 Cor 4 our mortal being is swallowed up by life, God’s life, not by death. Paul is, as he did previously with the Corinthians in 1 Cor 15 54 … Paul is therefore reversing the age-old imagery of death and the grave being the great swallower that we know from our Hebrew scriptures such as at Ps 69 15; Pr 1 12 and Is 25 8 (above).
5 He who has prepared us for this very thing is God, who has given us the Spirit as a guarantee.
When one looks back through the sweep of our OT scriptures, it is clear that God created humanity as the pinnacle of his creation – and for many reasons. Even in the creation accounts of Ge 1-2 it is patently clear that God did not create creation, including human beings, so that they would one day die. You do not create something in love and then just let it die! But free will being what it is, well, we all know what happened then. Ge 3 and “the fall.”
In other words, God did not make us for death. It makes no sense that God would do that. Instead, God made us to live everlastingly with him. Think about it. What sense would it make to say that God created man and woman in love and then just let them die because of their stupidity, because of their fallenness. It doesn’t make sense! Therefore, that’s why Jesus – incarnate YHWH – came in the first place. Then, jumping ahead to Holy Week and beyond, in Christ’s resurrection, ascension and glorification, Christ sent his Spirit – the Holy Spirit – on the believers at Pentecost and to each of us in our baptisms. That Holy Spirit now indwells each of us 24/7. Always! Forever! Wherever we go, God’s Holy Spirit is always with us.
This down payment of the Spirit is the down payment looking towards the resurrection – the general resurrection of all the dead (Dn 12 1-2). The first fruits of the Spirit (1 Cor 15 20) is the first fruits looking toward the harvest of the resurrection (1 Cor 15 21). The Holy Spirit that’s been given to us in baptism and chrismation is given to us in this looking forward to this hope of the resurrection of the dead. [Chrismation in the Eastern (Orthodox) Church is the practice of anointing a newly baptized person with oil and the sign of the cross as the priest says, “The seal of the gift of the Holy Spirit.” More generally it is anointing with the holy oil of chrism.]
The Holy Spirit – who has been poured out by the risen and exalted Christ – by Word and Sacrament applies the benefits of Christ’s redemptive work on the cross – God’s grace – to the believer’s heart, thereby making the resurrection power of Jesus a reality of the believer’s daily experience as Paul has just told us in 2 Cor 4 14, 16.
14 because we know that the one who raised the Lord Jesus from the dead will also raise us with Jesus and present us with you in his presence.
16 Therefore we do not lose heart. Though outwardly we are wasting away, yet inwardly we are being renewed day by day.
This, in turn, guarantees the believer’s total transformation into the likeness of Christ’s glorified body that Paul speaks of in Pp 3 21 who, by the power that enables him to bring everything under his control, will transform our lowly bodies so that they will be like his glorious body.
Paul uses the Greek word here avrrabw/na which means a deposit, a down payment, a guarantee. Paul uses this very specific Greek noun to signify that a part is given as a guarantee that the whole will be forthcoming. In other words, the “part given” is the same kind as the “whole” to come later. That is, the Holy Spirit is the same kind as the Son who will come again. This first installment assures the recipient that the whole will be received. This understanding justifies expanding this single Greek word into several words in the English: “a deposit (installment) guaranteeing what is to come.”
The “part given” – the deposit – is the Holy Spirit. We receive that Holy Spirit and come to faith. The Holy Spirit work in our lives, begins to change our lives. That deposit is the guarantee of even greater things to come, the fulfillment of all of God’s promises because God’s promises are true.
6 So we are always confident; even though we know that while we are at home in the body we are away from the Lord
Now in vv 6-9 Paul discusses the intermediate state of those believers who have died but, of course, have yet to be raised in the second coming – the general resurrection, the final judgment. God, of course, created us and he created us both body and soul. In death the souls of believers are immediately with Christ in heaven, in what theologians call the intermediate state. The Bible does not say much about the intermediate state because that’s not the focus of the NT. The focus of the NT is how Jesus brings about the consummation of the kingdom of God, the resurrection of the dead, the renewal/restoration of all creation and life everlasting. Still, talk of the intermediate state is found in several texts such as: Pp 1 23; Ac 7 59; Re 6 9-10; 8 24; Ju 1-25. See notes there.
Paul begins here in v 6 with the words at home in the body we are away (absent) from the Lord in which he is describing those who are still living here in their in their earthly tent that Paul described in v 1 above. Paul is talking about our present, earthly bodies, in our earthly tent as he puts it. However, this does not mean that while we are still living that we are deprived of the Lord’s spiritual presence with us in our daily pilgrimage. That’s certainly not the case! That is, v 6 stresses the fact that there is a sense in which the Lord, of course, is present with us in many ways but we are not totally “with the Lord” yet while we still at home in the body.
Still, that is what our great hope is, to be with the Lord fully at his second coming – both soul and body. In other words, we are – presently while at home in the body – absent from the Lord. That is Paul’s point here. Then, in death our body, of course, decays; but if we are found in faith at death, our soul is immediately with the Lord in heaven, in what theologians call the intermediate state. Theologians address this as a “first judgment.” That is,
* having been found in the faith at death our body decays but the soul is immediately in the intermediate state of blessedness (heaven) with Christ. This intermediate state of blessedness will only be populated with believers.
* Those, however, who are not found in faith but who are instead found in unbelief do not enter this intermediate state of blessedness. Their intermediate state is one of trepidation as they await their final judgment which will include being forever separated from God.
So theologians call this the first judgment, if you will, because had you not been found in the faith at death, your soul would not have immediately entered heaven to be with Christ in this intermediate state of blessedness. Again, for those found in faith at death, their souls are immediately in the intermediate state of blessedness as they await Christ’s second coming.
Regarding scriptures which address those souls found in faith at death and those found in unbelief, scripture doesn’t say much about either situation because that’s not the point of it all anyway. It’s just this intermediate state that exists between this first judgment and the final judgment – this intermediate state that exists between earthly death and everlasting heavenly life. Further, scripture has far less to say about the souls of those who in death are found in unbelief than it does for those found in the faith. The book of Jude addresses the wicked found in unbelief as well as, if not better, any book of the NT. The wicked are kept under judgment awaiting the final judgment. However, scripture is clear that their intermediate state is one of trepidation – not blessedness – as they await their final judgment. On the other hand, the intermediate state of believers at death is one of blessedness as they await the final resurrection and judgment.
7 for we walk by faith, not by sight.
8 Yes, we do have confidence, and we would rather be away from the body and at home with the Lord.
the intermediate state
When Paul says we are glad to be absent (away) from the body and present with the Lord 2 Cor 5 8, he is not talking about those who reject the Lord and who are therefore under judgment and who await Christ’s second coming in the intermediate state of trepidation discussed in v 6 above. Rather, Paul is talking about believers who have died (their bodies are now dead) but whose souls are with the Lord in heaven, in God’s realm, also known as the intermediate state.
In other words, Paul’s words away from the body and at home with the Lord describe the situation of the Christian found in faith at death, when the Christian is no longer living in their earthly tent (that he speaks of in v 1), that is, when the Christian is no longer in their body, but now the believer’s soul is in the immediate presence of the Lord.
This is where you have the soul dwelling with God, with Christ, in heaven. This is the intermediate state which is somewhat like a halfway house. This intermediate state is not the ultimate goal; it’s the intermediate time between death and the final (general) resurrection. Importantly, the Christian goal is that when Christ returns and believers are raised from the dead like Christ was raised from the dead, the whole created order will be renewed, restored and transformed, as promised in scripture, and there will be no more evil, sin, suffering and death, also as promised in scripture. That’s our hope because that is what God has promised. And if there is one thing scripture teaches us: God keeps God’s promises.
Further, Paul is saying that as Christians we do not and should not fear death. [Think here of the countless, unnamed Christian martyrs who cheerfully went to their deaths with this understanding in mind!] So Paul is saying we are glad to be apart from the body because we know we will be at home with the Lord. Paul is here describing the intermediate state as being apart from our bodies; we have only our souls or spirits or whatever you want to call them. Further, in this intermediate state we are with the Lord in our soul / spirit. Paul describes the intermediate state as being with the Lord.
That does not fit with the idea of “soul-sleep” discussed in 1 Th 4 13 where our souls are unconscious. (See notes there.) Instead, in this intermediate state the understanding is that our souls are conscious and they are blessed because they are with the Lord.
Excursus: Some people talk about “soul-sleep.” They believe that because the Bible talks about those in this intermediate state awaiting the resurrection as “sleeping” that they are without any sort of thought or consciousness at all, that they are without consciousness just as someone is when they are sleeping, or even more.
Because the Lord is in heaven and we are on earth, there is now, presently, Paul is acknowledging, an absence of the Lord as noted in v 6 and my comments. Therefore, if found in the faith at death, our souls will immediately be with Christ in the intermediate state so that will be a wonderful thing. In the intermediate state there is a wonderful connection that’s made, and that connection is that in our souls we are with the Lord.
Remember Jesus said to the thief on the cross in Lk 23, 43 He replied, “Truly I tell you, today you will be with me in Paradise.” So this is not a soul-sleep. This is an intermediate state in which in our souls we are with the Lord. Hence, and importantly, even in our death, even though we are dead, through Jesus’ resurrection, death has been entirely routed of its power. In other words, even while we are still awaiting the full results of Christ’s resurrection and the resurrection of our bodies, our souls are not in some place of darkness away from God. They are with the Lord in this intermediate state of blessedness. Our souls are with the Lord. That is, Christ has opened heaven to us. Our souls in our deaths go to be with Christ in heaven. So the “soul-sleep” approach is a bunch of baloney.
Why then does Paul say people who have died are asleep in 1 Th 4 13? What is it that is sleeping and needs to be awakened? It’s not the soul that is sleeping in this intermediate state but it’s the body. That’s where these “soul-sleep” people miss the metaphor with this “soul-sleep” idea. When the Bible talks about believers being asleep, it’s talking about their body! Their bodies need to be raised up and awakened at the second coming. The biblical understanding is that although the body has long since decayed at death, it is sleeping – it’s awaiting its awakening when Jesus comes to judge.
Unfortunately, beginning in the seventeenth century the intermediate state (heaven) was taught as if it was everything – as if heaven were the ultimate goal. Then, over the centuries heaven was increasingly taught as the ultimate goal of living a Christian life. However, heaven is not the ultimate goal because it’s only the intermediate goal. People in the Christian church have heard tons about the intermediate state (using heaven language) but heaven has not been taught as being just intermediate. Instead, heaven is taught as if it were the final goal – but it’s not. The final goal as we see throughout scripture, for example, in Re 21-22, is the consummated kingdom of God here on earth which begins with Christ’s second coming, his resurrecting all of the dead for final judgment, his renewal/restoration of all creation and his reigning forever after as the King of his kingdom. That’s what we all await.
In all of this intermediate state talk it’s important to remember that the (general) resurrection is coming at Christ’s second coming. It’s at that time that all the dead will be raised from the dead for the final judgment (Dn 12 1-2). In other words, the intermediate state is telling us that the resurrection is coming which is why the intermediate state is just intermediate. The intermediate state is not the final goal because we are all waiting for the resurrection. That’s where the language of a first judgment and a second and final judgment comes in. It’s not as though the Bible ever uses the language of judgment about the intermediate state. The Bible uses the language of judgment always for Christ’s second coming and the resurrection. Still, it’s clear that when scriptures talk about the intermediate state, that at death, if you die before the Lord comes, the judgment in a sense has already been passed because at death you are either in a state of blessedness or in a state of trepidation. And, if you die in the faith, you are awaiting, in the intermediate state, the ultimate justifying which comes with the resurrection when Christ returns for the final judgment. In order to understand the “two stage” character of judgment the analogy of “first comes the verdict and then comes the sentencing” is applicable. This is further discussed in v 10 below.
9 So whether we are at home or away, we make it our aim to please him.
whether at home [in the body] or away [from the body] = whether we will be alive [in the body] or will have already died [away from the body] at Christ’s second coming
to please / well-pleasing implies that even as soul (away from the body), there is function; the soul does something. For instance, the saints in the intermediate state are active in praying on behalf of the church.
10 For all of us must appear before the judgment seat of Christ, so that each may receive recompense for what has been done in the body, whether good or evil.
appear before the judgment seat of Christ has nothing to do with justification which is credited to the Christian fully and forever through faith in Christ. Instead, the phrase refers to what we have done with our lives as Christians. Cf with 1 Cor 3 11-15.
Here with the phrase things done while in the body Paul has believers in mind. Although the body is wasting away, we are responsible for our actions done while in the body. In other words, all people, Christians and non-Christians alike, are morally responsible and liable to God’s judgment. All will be judged for what they have done in the body – both at death and in the general resurrection at Christ’s second coming. See Dn 12 1-2 and cf with Ro 2 5, 16.
5 But because of your stubbornness and your unrepentant heart, you are storing up wrath against yourself for the day of God’s wrath, when his righteous judgment will be revealed.
16 This will take place on the day when God will judge men’s secrets through Jesus Christ, as my gospel declares.
based on question which basically asked the following question: “Why is there a final, second judgment if we’ve already been judged at death based on where we were found in faith?”
First, scripture is clear.
Since we’ve sinned in the body, the very explicit biblical understanding is that we have to be judged in the body as we see in 2 Cor 5 10 For we must all appear before the judgment seat of Christ, that each one may receive what is due him for the things done while in the body, whether good or bad. We see this talk about a second or last judgment also in Ro 14 10 and Jn 5 29 and other places.
10 You, then, why do you judge your brother? Or why do you look down on your brother? For we will all stand before God’s judgment seat.
29 and come out– those who have done good will rise to live, and those who have done evil will rise to be condemned.
It’s helpful here to simply think of human judicial procedure in which first comes the verdict and second comes the sentencing. That’s how it’s worked for time immemorial, both in our Hebrew scriptures as well as in the secular world. First comes the verdict and second comes the sentencing. There are two steps and in that sense, two judgments. We see in this that there are two judgments in that as well: one in the verdict and the other in the sentencing.
The only problem using this analogy of “verdict and sentencing” is that they are both negative terms while God’s coming judgment is very positive in that God will set all things right with this final judgment. God will then reward the righteous and judges the wicked, which is what God must do and it’s what every human being longs for.
It’s clear from scripture that at death in the time before the second coming of Christ that your destiny is sealed dependent on your status regarding faith. If found in faith, you will be judged in mercy. If not, you won’t. The double judgment. You have, for example, the thief on the cross in Lk 23 43 Jesus answered him, “I tell you the truth, today you will be with me in paradise.” His destiny was sealed because he was found in faith.
Whenever the Bible talks about judgment, it’s talking about the last judgment at Christ’s second coming with the general resurrection. Still, theologians talk about two judgments because it’s clear that once the soul is in the intermediate state, the judgment has already been passed. The soul in the intermediate state is just awaiting the final judgment at Christ’s second coming.
Those in the intermediate state of being with the Lord are awaiting the final judgment to salvation. On the other hand, those in the intermediate state of being away from the presence of the Lord, that is, those found in unbelief at the time of dying, are awaiting this ultimate separation from God in a state of trepidation.
The biblical understanding is that your judgment is sealed at death. The idea in scripture is that one’s will at death is fixed. There are no opportunities remaining because the will is fixed. If you have not already turned to God, you are not going to turn to God.
The judgment is based on whether one at their death is found in faith (and the works that follow faith) or in unbelief. In the event one is among the living at Christ’s second coming, judgment is based on the same thing, one’s status in faith. It’s not as if there is a change that takes place. The Bible is clear on judgment. Theologians talk about it clearly being a judgment because you have the clear biblical evidence of the intermediate state – the intermediate state of blessedness for God’s people and an intermediate state of torment for God’s enemies.
Note: The intermediate state is clearly there in scripture. The intermediate state enriches us when we understand it as a time of hope and waiting while we await the (general) resurrection.
Although the Bible doesn’t say much about these intermediate states, it clearly has much more to tell us about the intermediate state of the blessed than of the tormented. Much of this is very shadowy because there is so little information about the intermediate state in scripture. However, theologians agree that scripture tells us enough about them for one to realize that one should strive to attain the intermediate state of blessedness with Jesus as one awaits the final judgment – rather than the other – and scripture clearly tells us how we are to go about that.
Still, the judgment at death is not the final judgment because the final judgment comes at Christ’s second coming as 2 Cor 5 10 clearly shows. So this final judgment is more analogous to the “verdict and sentencing motif” offered above. In the intermediate state those found in faith at their death are awaiting Christ’s second coming in a state of blessedness. Those, however, who are outside Christ – those not found in the faith at the time of their death – are awaiting the second coming and the general resurrection in a state of trepidation, because the fullness of their judgment does not come until the second coming – even though their judgment has already been passed. That is, in death you were either found in a state of blessedness or non-blessedness. You were either found in faith or in unbelief.
As for those who died in faith, such as Abraham, before the time of Jesus:
What appears to be the teaching in scripture and what is the obvious, clear teaching of the whole historic church on the basis of that scripture, especially the ancient fathers, is that as the result of Christ’s resurrection, we receive part of the whole hope of resurrection and everlasting life in the intermediate state, this dwelling in heaven with Christ.
See notes on this understanding in v 5 above where it discusses avrrabw/na which means a deposit, a down payment, a guarantee .
In other words, in his resurrection Christ both opened the way of resurrection for all and also through his resurrection opened heaven – for those found in the faith. That’s why it’s so significant when he says to the thief on the cross, today you will be with me in paradise. In this case with the thief, Christ has both opened the way for the resurrection of the body of the thief at Christ’s second coming (the general resurrection that awaits all of us) and he has opened the way for the immediate entry of the thief – when he, too, will die later that day – into heaven to be with Christ in that intermediate state that awaits all who die in the faith, that intermediate state in which we are in the presence of Christ as we await Christ’s second coming, whenever that will be.
That’s also appears to be what is going on in He when it talks about the OT saints being saved and made righteous and accepted before God by faith – as He 11 emphasizes. But apart from us (the Hebrews to whom the author is writing), says the author of He, the OT saints could not be perfected. 40 God had planned something better for us so that only together with us would they be made perfect. That is, the OT saints could not be made perfect (that is, enter the intermediate state while awaiting Christ’s second coming) … the OT saints could not be made perfect until Christ’s resurrection and glorification. All of the OT saints who had departed their earthly lives in faith – all of these OT saints who had gone faithfully before – focused their faith on God and his promises. Now that Jesus Christ had come, now that the fulfillment of God’s promises to them had come to fulfillment in Jesus Christ, their redemption also was now complete in Christ’s resurrection.
Then, later in He 12 we will see that the OT saints are in heaven with the Lord along with all of the other saints of God. The OT saints have now been perfected; they’ve entered into the presence of God. In other words, something that no one could do prior to Christ has now come to be. That is, with Christ’s resurrection and glorification, Abraham, as well as all of the OT saints who in faith had gone before, entered into the presence of God. That’s what we see in the He text.
In that we put too much stress on heaven, as noted above, and have failed to stress the coming of YHWH to Zion and the resurrection, many Christians don’t understand that a big part of the resurrection picture is that Christ has opened up heaven. [This was just one of the things the Corinthian Christians had failed to understand – hence, Paul’s letters to them .] Christ had opened up the intermediate state and was dwelling in the presence of God. That’s what’s going on in Jn 11 25 Jesus said to her, “I am the resurrection and the life. He who believes in me will live, even though he dies; 26 and whoever lives and believes in me will never die. Do you believe this?” This is because in the intermediate state we don’t die; we’re simply “asleep in the Lord;” our bodies are “sleeping” – decaying but “sleeping”; and our souls are with the Lord. In that intermediate state we are awaiting the (general) resurrection which is the fullness. So the saints of old were saved through Christ just as we are – only they could not be perfected until the coming of Christ along with his resurrection, ascension and glorification. With Christ’s first coming they were now perfected in the sense that they were now in the presence of God. This now means that they enter into worship together with us and so on (the communion of saints of the Apostles’ Creed). They now, like us, are still awaiting the (general) resurrection which is the fullness at Christ’s second coming.
Regarding the saints who had died before Jesus’ first coming, when you piece together all of the various hints within scripture, behind them seems to stand an apostolic teaching that the earliest Christians knew and understood. For instance, it’s very clear in the teachings of the fathers of the Church that Adam, David, Abraham and all the saints in death were in Sheol (Hades). The understanding is that their souls were not in heaven with God – YET – but that through Christ and his resurrection and ascension, Christ had opened up heaven. Theologians call this “the harrowing of Hades” or “the harrowing of hell.” [The harrowing of hell is “the defeat of Satan and evil by Christ as he descended to hell (Hades) between his crucifixion and resurrection.”] In this harrowing, at Christ’s resurrection all the saints of old are brought now into fullness of the presence of Christ and of God, something which we know immediately at death when we die in christ (because we come after the time of Christ’s resurrection). In other words, the saints of old could only know (experience) the intermediate state of blessedness after the death and resurrection of Christ.
As for those who never knew Jesus nor heard his gospel message of salvation:
There is no clear teaching in scripture on this, nor is there any absolutely clear teaching within the historic teaching of the Church on the basis of scripture. Here it would be correct to say that this is one of the many things that we are to leave in the hands of God.
Still, there are scriptures that are very relevant such as we read in Jn 14 6 Jesus answered, “I am the way and the truth and the life. No one comes to the Father except through me. At the same time we have scriptures which say he who believes will be saved (Jn 6 35) but always with the underlying thought that he who does not believe will be condemned.
Theologically, through Christ’s death and resurrection Christ has brought life, forgiveness and resurrection for all. The biblical understanding is that the only way you can miss out on life, forgiveness and resurrection is by rejecting it, by really determining to reject it. So hypothetically one would be on good theological grounds to say that we could expect God would have some way to make it possible, in some way that we may not understand or know, for all to have an opportunity to accept or reject the message.
Taking this one step further, one would be on good grounds theologically in saying that there are good reasons in scripture to say that one could not simply say that just because someone has not heard the message that they are condemned. Instead, scripture seems to always say that one is condemned through unbelief, that they have to have some sort of opportunity to hear the message.
Again, and while there are some differences between the teachings of the fathers of the Church (the patristic teachings), these teachings generally agree that, in some mysterious way known only to God, God is able to provide the offer of salvation for those generations prior to Christ who were outside the people of Israel, who were separated from the people of God. Christ has come for all people, not just those following the time of Christ. So the general teaching of the ancient church was that Christ’s resurrection had opened up the way of salvation for all. How God made that available to all was the question, the answer to which was not clear.
Still, there are scriptures that definitely have that implication – that all have the opportunity to accept or reject the message. In fact, many of the early fathers take that as the implication of Christ’s proclamation to the dead in 1 Pe 3 where we read 18 For Christ also suffered for sins once for all, the righteous for the unrighteous, in order to bring you to God. He was put to death in the flesh, but made alive in the spirit, 19 in which also he went and made a proclamation to the spirits in prison, … In other words, between the time of his death and resurrection when Christ’s body is in the grave and his soul in Hades, there was a proclamation of Christ’s victory and the gospel was preached to the dead. If one understands that Christ literally preached to the dead, which most of the fathers do, this implies that in some way the gospel was made available to those prior generations who had died, thereby giving them an opportunity to enter into salvation.
Another reason it seems to be implied in the Church’s teaching that all will have the opportunity to accept or reject the message is that the teaching in the very early church that Christ is the judge of the living and the dead. This teaching is at the core of the church’s earliest proclamation and it’s found in all the creeds. That Christ is the judge of the living and the dead is there from the very earliest days of the first generation of Christians. Christ is the judge of the living and the dead. We might think this applies to all the generations after Christ, but surely when that proclamation was first made, it must have meant to every hearer that this salvation and the judgment is somehow relevant not only for those who have heard of Christ after his coming but also for those generations prior to Christ – because the gospel when first preached in that first generation was that Christ was judge of the living and the dead.