Dear Church Family,
A couple of weeks ago, I wrote about the meaning of the phrase from the Apostles’ Creed, “He descended into hell.” At that time, I mentioned the concept of the intermediate state – the disembodied existence of all people after they die, but before the resurrection of our bodies (at Christ’s return). Summarizing the teaching of Scripture on this doctrine, the Westminster Confession of Faith (WCF 32:1) speaks of how when a person dies, their bodies return to dust and see corruption. Their souls go to one of two places: heaven or hell. This body-less existence of those who have died is what is usually called the intermediate or disembodied state.
Continuing in chapter 32, the Westminster Confession summarizes the teaching of Scripture as to what will happen to the physical bodies and souls of every person at the last day, at Christ’s return:
WCF 32:2 At the last day, such as are found alive shall not die, but be changed: and all the dead shall be raised up, with the self-same bodies, and none other (although with different qualities), which shall be united again to their souls for ever.
WCF 32.3 The bodies of the unjust shall, by the power of Christ, be raised to dishonour: the bodies of the just, by His Spirit, unto honour; and be made conformable to His own glorious body.
Those who are still alive at Christ’s return will be transformed or changed, and the bodies of those who have already died (of both believers and unbelievers) will be raised and reunited with their souls.
Implications and Applications
Here are just some implications and applications that we may draw from this understanding of the intermediate, disembodied state and from what the Bible teaches concerning the resurrection of the body on the last day.
1. Respect for the body, while longing for the resurrection of the body
Sometimes at funerals, I will hear people say, “The body is not the person, the person is now in heaven.” That’s partly wrong and partly right. A human being is created in God’s image in both body and soul. My body is me and my soul is me. We were not created to live a disembodied existence. Death and the intermediate, disembodied state is a result of sin (Romans 5:12). When a Christian dies and his soul goes into heaven, he is most certainly in a better place (Philippians 1:21-24; Revelation 14:13).
But, as we saw in our Sunday school lesson this past week, even the martyrs in heaven who died for the faith are crying out, “How long, O Lord, holy and true, will You refrain from judging and avenging our blood on those who dwell on the earth?” In answer, they are given a white robe and told to rest for a little while longer, until the completion of the martyrdom of their fellow servants and brethren (Revelation 6:9-11). Even Abraham is said to be – presently (now) – desiring a better country (Hebrews 11:16).
Those who have died in the Lord are in a better place – they are in the presence of their Savior with the spirits of the righteous made perfect (Hebrews 12:23). At the same time, God isn’t finished – they have not reached their ultimate destination. They, like we, are longing for the resurrection of the body (1 Corinthians 15:22ff). They, like we, are looking for the new heavens and a new earth, in which righteousness dwells (2 Peter 3:13). And, the resurrection of the body and the coming of the new heavens and new earth will be accomplished on the last day, at the second coming of Christ (Matthew 24:31; 1 Corinthians 15:51-58; 1 Thessalonians 4:13-18; 1 Peter 3:1-18).
What this tells us is that we ought to respect the bodies of those who have died. The body is not simply a shell that holds our souls in place. We are not “ghosts in a machine.” One day, in the resurrection, our bodies will be transformed. And, those who have trusted in Christ in this life will worship and serve him in body and soul, in perfect obedience and glory in the new heavens and new earth. “As for me, I know that my Redeemer lives, And at the last He will take His stand on the earth. Even after my skin is destroyed, Yet from my flesh I shall see God” (Job 19:25-26).
2. Moral and Ethical Issues
This also has implications for how we understand certain moral and ethical issues. One thinks of the meaning of life in the very young (particularly the unborn), the elderly, and the disabled. If the image of God is not merely manifested in our souls, but also in our bodies, then even if an unborn child cannot speak, reason, or care for herself, she is still created in the image of God, human, embodied. Likewise, simply because an elderly person may suffer from dementia or senility (they may seem to be a different person with a different personality – or perhaps no personality), they are still created in the image of God, human, embodied. If a mentally disabled person, or a person in a coma, is incapable of social interaction or caring for themselves, they are still created in the image of God, human, embodied.
There are many other moral and ethical implications that we could speak about. What we do with our bodies matters. One of the main reasons that the Apostle Paul writes to particular churches about the resurrection of the body (1 Corinthians 15; 1 Thessalonians 4:13-18) is because some of these Christians had entered into various sins of sexual immorality, thinking that what they did with their bodies was of no consequence (1 Corinthians 6:13-20; 1 Thessalonians 4:3-6). Their sexual licentiousness was directly related to their lack of understanding that the body is of the essence of a person. Yet, Paul says, “you have been bought with a price: therefore glorify God in your body” (1 Corinthians 6:20).
2. Sexual Orientation and Identity Issues
We hear various news reports, or perhaps know people who say, “I’m a man trapped in a woman’s body” or “I’m a woman trapped in a man’s body.” Ironically, the same way of thinking that leads a person to say, “The body is not the person, the person is now in heaven” is the same line of thought that lies behind those who promote transgenderism. Both ways of thinking deny the body as being of the essence of a person. It’s gnostic dualism. If one believes that the body is not of the essence of a person (we are “ghosts in a machine”), then the sexual orientation or identity of a person has nothing at all to do with biological physicality, but only with how a person feels or thinks.
In a recent article for First Things, Carl Trueman writes,
As psychological sexual identity comes to define who individuals are in the most basic sense, then everything else – from society’s moral norms to our physical bodies – has the potential of becoming simply so much external tyranny to be overthrown or turned into plastic, something to be escaped, ignored, or remade in accordance with individual whims. ‘I felt I was a woman trapped in a man’s body’ is a common – and philosophically eloquent – part of the testimony of many transgender people. The assumption in such a statement is that the body is not of the essence of a person. It is a cage in which the real person is trapped.
Unconsciously, many people – including many Christians – implicitly deny this biblical understanding that the body, along with the soul, is of the essence of a person. All human beings, corrupted by sin though they may be, are created in the image of God – and God’s image is manifested in both the body and the soul. And, for believers, the future resurrection of the body is a precious promise and a hope that will not disappoint.
When we make corporate confession of faith by way of the historic creeds of the faith, we remind ourselves and our fellow believers of this glorious hope. In the Apostles’ Creed we confess, “I believe…in the resurrection of the body.” In the Nicene Creed, we proclaim, “I look for the resurrection of the dead, and the life of the world to come.”
When we stand in the presence of our Savior, in our resurrected bodies, it will be an experience like no other. In our flesh – our resurrected, glorified, sinless bodies – we will see God! What a glorious day that will be!
The Lord be with you!
- Pastor Peter M. Dietsch