Dear Church Family,
In the history of the church, there have been many false teachings regarding what happens when someone dies. Even from the days of the early church, the Apostles who wrote holy Scripture had to address points of confusion concerning this issue. Since that time, various views concerning “soul sleep” and purgatory have plagued the people of God.
In the penultimate chapter of the Westminster Confession of Faith, chapter 32 (“Of the State of Men After Death and of the Resurrection of the Dead”) we receive great clarification and succinct teaching on the state of men after death. And, this was the subject of our most recent adult Sunday school class.
WCF 32.1 – The Intermediate State
Simply stated, the “intermediate state” refers to the disembodied existence of all people after they die, but before Christ’s return – or, what the Paul calls “absent from the body” and for the believer, “at home with the Lord” (2 Corinthians 5:8). So, what happens to one’s body and to one’s soul upon death, upon one’s entrance into this intermediate state?
With regard to our bodies, the Word of God tells us that the bodies of all men, upon death, return to dust (Genesis 3:19; Acts 13:36). This is also self-evident to our experience.
With regard to our souls, Scripture acknowledges only two places for souls separated from their bodies. For believers, the souls of the righteous are made perfect in holiness and received into heaven to await the redemption of their bodies (Ecclesiastes 12:5-7; Luke 23:42-43). Those who die in the Lord are called “the spirits of the righteous made perfect” (Hebrews 12:22-24).
For unbelievers, the souls of the wicked are cast into hell where they are tormented and reserved until the judgment of the last day (Luke 16:22-24; Jude 1:5-7). Those who die apart from the Lord are called “the spirits now in prison” (1 Peter 3:18-20).
Unfortunately, as I mentioned above, there have arisen various unbiblical theories about the intermediate state:
The unbiblical theory of purgatory
According to the Roman Catholic Church, purgatory is not a place of punishment, but a place for final sanctification – a place where the faithful bear the temporal punishments for their sins: “All who die in God’s grace and friendship, but still imperfectly purified, are indeed assured of their eternal salvation; but after death they undergo purification, so as to achieve the holiness necessary to enter the joy of heaven” (Catechism of the Catholic Church, Part 1, Section 2, Chapter 3, Article 12.III, 1030). Drawing on the inter-Testamental writings of the Apocrypha (2 Maccabees 12:42-45), the idea of purgatory is what gave rise to the selling of ‘indulgences’ which Martin Luther famously inveighed against: by giving money to the church, a person could reduce or eliminate the time that their loved ones would spend in purgatory.
The unbiblical theories of Limbus Patrum and Limbus Infantum
Again, according to the Roman Catholic Church, the Limbus Patrum, is the supposed place where “the souls of the Old Testament saints were detained in a state or expectation until the Lord’s resurrection from the dead. After His death on the cross Christ is supposed to have descended into the abode of the fathers, to release them from their temporary confinement and to carry them in triumph to heaven. This is the Roman Catholic interpretation of Christ’s descent into hades.” (Louis Berkhof, Systematic Theology, 687).
The Limbus Infantum is the supposed place where all unbaptized children go after death to spend eternity. The idea is that unbaptized children cannot be admitted to heaven, so they are consigned to a place on the outskirts of hell. This is what limbus refers to. According to Roman Catholic doctrine, the Limbus Patrum and Limbus Infantum are two places that are on the fringe or outskirts of hell; it is neither heaven nor hell.
The unbiblical theory of soul-sleep
In addition to purgatory, another distortion concerning the doctrine of the “intermediate state” is the idea of soul-sleep. Soul-sleep is the notion that when a person dies, they go to a place of unconscious existence until Jesu’ second coming. This is an erroneous and unbiblical teaching which is usually based upon a misunderstanding of the euphemisms which the Scriptures use to speak about death. Sometimes, the Scriptures speak of death in terms of sleeping; however, the Scriptures clearly teach (see above) that believers are fully conscious and at home with the Lord (though not reunited with our resurrected bodies yet), and that unbelievers are fully conscious while undergoing the torments of hell.
WCF 32.2 – The Last Day
On the last day, the day of Christ’s return and the final judgment, those who are still alive will be changed (1 Corinthians 15:51-52; 1 Thessalonians 4:17). For those who have already died, their bodies will be raised, changed, and reunited with their souls (Job 19:26-27; 1 Corinthians 42-44). This applies to both believers and unbelievers.
WCF 32.3 – The Final State
In the final state (that is, at Christ’s return), the bodies of the unjust will be raised to dishonor (Acts 24:14-15). As Chad Van Dixhoorn notes, “The Scriptures say nothing about the resurrected bodies of the wicked. Suffice it to say that they will ‘be raised to dishonour.’” (Confessing the Faith, 432)
Much more is said in Scripture, however, about the bodies of believers; the bodies of the just will be raised to honor, and conformed to Christ’s glorious body (John 5:28; 1 Corinthians 15:42-44; Philippians 3:20-21).
In our Sunday school class, I sought to simplify the teaching of this chapter of the confession by way of thinking in three phases of the Christians present and future existence:
(1) Good: presently, God has given us the Spirit as a pledge and our citizenship is in heaven (2 Corinthians 5:5; Philippians 3:20).
(2) Better: in the disembodied, intermediate state, we will be absent from the body but at home with the Lord (2 Corinthians 5:8).
(3) Best: in the final state after Christ’s return, we will be reunited with our resurrected spiritual bodies, perfected in holiness in both body and soul (1 Corinthians 15:42-44).
Indeed, for those who are in Christ, we have this apostolic blessing: “Now may the God of peace Himself sanctify you entirely; and may your spirit and soul and body be preserved complete, without blame at the coming of our Lord Jesus Christ. Faithful is He who calls you, and He also will bring it to pass.” (1 Thessalonians 5:23-24)
The Lord be with you!
- Pastor Peter M. Dietsch