Jesus used God’s relationship to Abraham to argue for the resurrection, not for a conscious intermediate state.
In the New Testament in Mark chapter twelve (paralleled in Matthew chapter twenty-two), we read about an encounter between Jesus and some Sadducees. Sadducees, as you may know, were a group of Jews who denied the resurrection of the dead, as well as the existence of spirits (in the sense of departed spirits), angels and demons. This life is all there is, they believed, and when you die, that is the end of you forever.
In this passage the Sadducees were trying to reduce the doctrine of the resurrection of the dead to absurdity by showing that it led to bizarre consequences. What if a woman’s husband died, so she remarried a number of times, with each subsequent husband dying (!!!). At the resurrection of the dead, who would she be married to? Their implied answer was: “Surely not all of them. So the resurrection leads to unacceptable consequences, and you should really just give it up.”
Jesus gave two answers, and I’m going to focus on the second. His first answer was to say that actually at the resurrection of the dead there won’t be any marriage, so the issue won’t even arise. His second answer, however, is an unexpected foray into the Hebrew Scripture in verses twenty-six and twenty-seven:
And as for the dead being raised, have you not read in the book of Moses, in the passage about the bush, how God spoke to him, saying, ‘I am the God of Abraham, and the God of Isaac, and the God of Jacob’? He is not God of the dead, but of the living. You are quite wrong.
For Jesus to draw support for the resurrection from the book of Exodus, then, shows an approach that is happy to meet with opponents on common ground where possible.
What is particularly significant about this quote from Scripture is that Jesus is referring to an account in the book of Exodus. The Sadducees only accepted the authority of the Torah, the first five books of the Bible (often called the five books of Moses). They didn’t accept the other books of the Hebrew Scripture and they didn’t accept the oral traditions and other writings. As far as they could see, the Torah contained no references to the resurrection of the dead (unlike, for example, the book of Daniel), so they didn’t accept it. For Jesus to draw support for the resurrection from the book of Exodus, then, shows an approach that is happy to meet with opponents on common ground where possible.
While the question of the Sadducees, along with Jesus’ answer (“And as for the dead being raised…”) make it clear that the intention of the author was to capture a dispute concerning the resurrection, some have sought to find more here, arguing that actually this passage shows that Jesus believed in a conscious intermediate state of the spirits of the departed. Since God is said to be the God “of the living,” and since Abraham, Isaac and Jacob were physically dead when those words were spoken, Jesus must surely have meant that the dead are really alive, conscious in the intermediate state.
If this saying in Exodus indicates that the dead are really alive in the intermediate state, then it offers no support at all for the doctrine of the resurrection of the dead.
However, in addition to being quite absent from this context, since the question of the current state of the dead is not even raised in this passage, and in spite of the clear focus on resurrection, there is a further problem with this attempt to find someone’s doctrine of the intermediate state in this text. The problem is this: If this saying in Exodus indicates that the dead are really alive in the intermediate state, then it offers no support at all for the doctrine of the resurrection of the dead.
If the dead were alive in the intermediate state, then the fact that God is their God and the God of the living could be explained wholly apart from the resurrection of the dead. Imagine the following conversation:
Dualist: Jesus, can you find any support at all for the resurrection of the dead from the Torah? I don’t think there is any, and in fact I doubt the resurrection of the dead altogether!
Jesus: Well, as for the dead being raised, have you not read in the book of Moses, in the passage about the bush, how God spoke to him, saying, ‘I am the God of Abraham, and the God of Isaac, and the God of Jacob’? He is not God of the dead, but of the living. You are quite wrong.
Dualist: But Jesus, of course God is the God of the living – they’re alive right now in heaven! This is a perfectly adequate explanation, so why should I find any support for the further idea of resurrection here?
Now, you might think that you can still salvage an argument for dualism here. After all, the fellow in this conversation is a dualist who believes in a conscious intermediate state, so he would use this comeback and thwart Jesus’ argument. He and Jesus (you might think, as a dualist) agree on dualism, so the argument wouldn’t work here. But even though Jesus knew that dualism is true (again, you might think if you’re a dualist), the Sadducees didn’t know that it was true. Jesus could take advantage of their error about the intermediate state, act as though he did grant it, and still win the argument about resurrection. But this manoeuvre comes at a very heavy price. Jesus is now the politician or used car salesman figure, who intentionally lets people believe that he thinks things that he plainly doesn’t, just if it means he can get them onside and win the argument. I maintain that this attempt to salvage a dualistic argument from this text comes at the cost of undermining the character of the one who made the argument, namely Jesus.
And so when we use this as a proof text for a conscious intermediate state, we steal away Jesus’ argument for the resurrection and make it unsound. This point was not lost on Bible translator and martyr William Tyndale. He got into a dispute with Thomas More, which only served to make him more unpopular, ushering him along to an untimely death. One of the issues they clashed over was the immortality of the soul and the intermediate state. More’s Catholic view was the familiar one; the souls of the dead leave the body after death and move on to their next port of call: Heaven, hell or purgatory. One of the texts that More used to bolster this claim was this saying in Mark’s Gospel: God is not the God of the dead, but the living! Tyndale’s response was a refreshing blend of logic and exegesis:
And when he [More] proveth that the saints be in heaven in glory with Christ already, saying, “If God be their God, they be in heaven, for he is not the God of the dead;” there he stealeth away Christ’s argument, wherewith he proveth the resurrection: that Abraham and all saints should rise again, and not that their souls were in heaven; which doctrine was not yet in the world. And with that doctrine he taketh away the resurrection quite, and maketh Christ’s argument of none effect.1
The reason Tyndale’s rebuff is so successful is that it not only fits with the context of the biblical text, but it does so with succinct logical force – something that can never be substituted with passion. It’s my view that we need more Christian thinkers like William Tyndale.
- William Tyndale, An Answer to Sir Thomas More’s Dialogue (Parker’s 1850 reprint), bk. 4, ch. 4, 118.