Prof. Engelsma is professor of Dogmatics and Old Testament in the Protestant Reformed Seminary. Previous article in this series: February 1, 2004, p. 210.
The believer’s death in the body is not the whole story about the intermediate state. Indeed, it is not the main part of the story. The main part of the story is life, joy, and glory. According to this other aspect of the intermediate state, the believer is not subject to the power of death, but enjoys deliverance from death. His place is not the grave, but heaven. He does not sleep, but is conscious and active.
The second aspect of the state of the believer upon death is that he lives with Christ in heaven in his soul, or spirit. In his soul, he consciously enjoys the bliss of this heavenly communion with Christ. He even shares in the glory of reigning with Christ.
Man is not only a material body. He is also an immaterial soul, or spirit. In his soul, the believer is taken up to Christ immediately at death.
The truth of the intermediate state demands that we take careful note of what physical death is for the Christian. Death is the violent tearing apart of a man as regards the two substances, or elements, of his human nature: body and soul (Gen. 2:7; Ecclesiastes 12:7). This is the aspect of death that the believer heartily dislikes and shrinks from. Even though he is not terrified by death, he fears dying. Although death is compelled to do him great good, dying inflicts upon him great and painful evil. Inasmuch as death rips apart what belong together—the body and soul of the believer—death remains the last enemy of the Christian—and thus of Christ—even though by His death Christ has pulled the stinger out of death for His own (I Cor. 15:26, 55). The Christian has a desire, a strong desire, to depart this life and to be with Christ; he has no desire to die (Phil. 1:23). Referring to the intermediate state of his soul, Paul declares that he groans with eagerness to be “clothed upon” with heavenly life. But being stripped in dying holds no attraction for him: “not for that we would be unclothed” (II Cor. 5:4).
This passage teaches that, with the unnatural separating of body and soul, there is the dissolving of the “earthly house of this tabernacle” of the believer, in order that he may be “clothed upon with [his] house which is from heaven” (II Cor. 5:1ff.). This dissolution of the “earthly house of this tabernacle” is not the same as the separation of soul and body, although it occurs at the moment of the separation of soul and body at death. The dissolving of the earthly house is not merely that the body dies and is buried, while the soul goes to heaven, to enjoy life there. Rather, with the wrenching apart of a man as to soul and body, death does away with his entire earthly life. All earthly relationships, interests, attachments, and even ways of thinking are destroyed. The dissolving of the earthly house of this tabernacle involves not only the death of the body, but also a change upon the soul.
Prior to death, our soul, although it relates also to God and heavenly things, is intimately related to the earth. Indeed, even the way the soul relates to God is after an earthly manner. The soul thinks of God’s eternity as endless time. It conceives His Fatherhood along the lines of earthly fatherhood. It pictures, and even enjoys, the covenant in terms of the intimacy of earthly marriage. This is not wrong. God’s own revelation of Himself in Scripture instructs the soul of the Christian to know God in this way. It is impossible for the soul of the Christian to relate to God differently in this life, for the Christian is of the earth earthy.
Death dissolves the earthly. Everything earthly is forever discarded, not only as regards the body, but also as regards the soul. In his soul the child of God moves out of his little, frail, earthly tent into a large, solid, enduring, heavenly building of God. Death strips him of the earthly in order that he may be clothed with the heavenly.
As regards the believer’s soul, therefore, the intermediate state is twofold. The soul is taken up to Christ in heaven. The soul also undergoes a change, a radical change: it is made heavenly. Because the believer is his soul, we should say that the believer undergoes radical change at death. The earthly is dissolved for him, and he is made heavenly in the soul.
The intermediate state of the believer as regards the soul is a wonderful work of salvation by Jesus Christ upon the believer at the moment of his death. It is a resurrection of the believer in his soul. We must not have the idea that it naturally happens that the soul flies off to heaven, perhaps by some inherent property of “immortal souls.” Rather, Christ purges the soul from all sin. The soul is as defiled with original sin as is the body. The soul is full of lusts. The soul is stained with innumerable iniquities of pride, envy, self-seeking, anger, desire of revenge, covetousness, sloth, adultery, and much more. Up to the moment of death, the soul of the regenerated child of God is sinful. There is a new beginning of obedience that rules the soul, as it rules the body, but it is only a beginning and a very small one at that (Heidelberg Cat., Q. and A. 114). At the moment of the death of a believer, Christ perfects the sanctification of the soul by His Holy Spirit. Insofar as the Roman Catholic purgatory is supposed to serve the purpose of cleansing the souls of the faithful, its fires are unnecessary. Christ cleanses the soul of every one of His at death by the water and fire of the Holy Spirit.
Christ also translates the soul so that it is perfectly heavenly in nature, adapted to live the new life of the risen Christ in heaven. No longer is it an earthly soul. Sharing fully in the heavenly nature of the exalted Christ, it has become a heavenly soul. It is still a human soul, but it is now a heavenly human soul. Its relations are heavenly; its attachments are heavenly; its pleasures are heavenly; its desires are heavenly. Even its thoughts of God, spiritual in nature (as was also the case with the regenerated soul’s thoughts of God during the man’s earthly life), are after a heavenly manner.
Thus, by a wonderful, direct act of salvation upon the soul, Christ takes the believer to Himself at death.
Those who are yet alive when Christ returns will experience this same purgation and transformation of their soul without dying. By the same saving act, Christ will cleanse and transform also their body. “We shall not all sleep, but we shall all be changed” (I Cor. 15:51).
The intermediate state of the Christian is a preliminary stage in the resurrection of the dead. The Christian has one hope. This one hope is resurrection with Christ. The Christian’s future resurrection is realized in stage one at death in the intermediate state. According to Philippians 1:23, his departing in death will be a “being with Christ.” That is, at the death of the Christian there will be a presence of Christ to the Christian. There will be a first stage of theparousia, the coming and presence of Christ, that constitutes the Christian hope.
Revelation 20:5 calls the intermediate state “the first resurrection.” About the living and reigning with Christ a thousand years of “the souls of them that were beheaded for the witness of Jesus” (v. 4), verse five says, “This is the first resurrection.” The second resurrection will be the raising of their bodies.
In Question and Answer 57, the Heidelberg Catechism describes the intermediate state of the believer as resurrection. It teaches that “my soul, after this life, shall be immediately taken up to Christ its Head.” There is an act of Christ upon the soul. The soul does not fly off; it is “taken up.” And this truth of the intermediate state appears as part of the comfort of the resurrection. The question to which the taking up of the soul of the believer is part of the answer is: “What comfort does the resurrection of the body afford thee?”
Now we are ready to describe fully the glorification of the believer in the intermediate state. The intermediate state is perfect communion with Christ in the soul. This involves perfect conscious enjoyment of eternal life. For every one who believes the gospel of grace from the heart, to depart in death is “to be with Christ” (Phil. 1:23). But the intermediate state is also the glory of reigning with Christ. In his soul, the believer who has died a martyr (and every believer loses his life for Christ’s sake in one way or another, as Christ teaches in Matt. 10:39) sits on a throne, exercises judgment, and reigns with Christ a thousand years (Rev. 20:4-6). The intermediate state is bliss: “Blessed and holy is he that hath part in the first resurrection” (Rev. 20:6). It is also rest from the toil and hardship of earthly life (Rev. 14:13).
This is why the prospect of death is not dreadful to the believer, much as he shrinks from dying. He can desire to depart in death, and when he is living in his faith and according to his confession he does desire to depart, preferring this to abiding in the flesh. The intermediate state is better, “far better” (Phil. 1:20-24).
Required for this communion with Christ is the cleansing of the soul from sin. Because Christ sanctifies the soul at the moment of death, the Heidelberg Catechism calls the death of the believer “a dying to sins” (Q. and A. 42). The German original has “eine Absterbung der Sunden,” “a dying off of sins.” Only in the way of this purification of the soul is it the case that the death of the believer is also, as the Catechism goes on to say, an “entering into eternal life.” Necessarily involved in Christ’s work upon the soul is also His transformation of the soul into a heavenly mode of life. “As is the earthy, such are they also that are earthy: and as is the heavenly, such are they also that are heavenly. And as we have borne the image of the earthy, we shall also bear the image of the heavenly. Now this I say, brethren, that flesh and blood cannot inherit the kingdom of God; neither doth corruption inherit incorruption” (I Cor. 15:48-50).
Since there may not be such blessedness as the intermediate state apart from judgment, for Zion is always redeemed by judgment, the intermediate state is based on a preliminary but decisive judgment. In his soul, the believer is judged by Jesus Christ on behalf of the righteous God. This preliminary judgment is suggested by Hebrews 9:27: “And as it is appointed unto men once to die, but after this the judgment.” II Corinthians 5:10, which is commonly applied exclusively to the final judgment at Christ’s coming, stands in the context of the teaching of the intermediate state. With specific reference to our having a house not made with hands as soon as the earthly house of this tabernacle is dissolved and to the state of being absent from the body and being present to the Lord, the apostle says, “For we must all appear before the judgment seat of Christ; that every one may receive the things done in his body, according to that he hath done, whether it be good or bad.”
This judgment, like every other phase of divine judgment, is for God’s sake. He must be just, and appear to be just, in His salvation of sinners. The preliminary judgment in the soul is also for the benefit of the elect saint himself. How could he ever enjoy himself in heaven, how could he ever rid himself of nagging doubt about his right to be with Christ, unless God justified him in a definite, official judgment before calling him, in a preliminary way, to inherit the kingdom prepared for him from eternity (Matt. 24:34). And this is what the preliminary judgment is: gracious acquittal on the basis of the cross of Christ, in accordance with the believer’s life of good works by the Spirit of Christ.
Fearless of the King of Terrors The truth of the intermediate state of the children of God implies something concerning our death. At the moment death rears up against us in its most frightening mien, it is impotent. It is a defeated foe. Christ has smitten it for us in His cross. By the power of His resurrection, He compels death to be our servant. As the Reformed believer confesses in Q. and A. 42 of the Heidelberg Catechism, by the crucifixion of Christ the death of believers is not “a satisfaction for our sin,” as it otherwise would be. It is not against us. On the contrary, it is for us. It is an “entering into eternal life.”
The “king of terrors” does not terrify the Christian. Athanasius powerfully expressed the fearlessness of all of Christ’s disciples with regard to death.
For that death is destroyed, and that the Cross is become the victory over it, and that it has no more power but is verily dead, this is no small proof, or rather an evident warrant, that it is despised by all Christ’s disciples, and that they all take the aggressive against it and no longer fear it; but by the sign of the Cross and by faith in Christ tread it down as dead. For of old, before the divine sojourn of the Savior took place, even to the saints death was terrible, and all wept for the dead as though they perished. But now that the Savior has raised His body, death is no longer terrible; for all who believe in Christ tread him under as nought, and choose rather to die than to deny their faith in Christ. For they verily know that when they die they are not destroyed, but actually [begin to] live, and become incorruptible through the Resurrection. And that devil that once maliciously exulted in death, now that its pains were loosed, remained the only one truly dead. And a proof of this is, that before men believe Christ, they see in death an object of terror, and play the coward before him. But when they are gone over to Christ’s faith and teaching, their contempt for death is so great that they even eagerly rush upon it, and become witnesses for the Resurrection the Savior has accomplished against it. For while still tender in years they make haste to die, and not men only, but women also, exercise themselves by bodily discipline against it. So weak has he become, that even women who were formerly deceived by him, now mock at him as dead and paralyzed. For as when a tyrant has been defeated by a real king, and bound hand and foot, then all that pass by laugh him to scorn, buffeting and reviling him, no longer fearing his fury and barbarity, because of the king who has conquered him; so also, death having been conquered and exposed by the Savior on the Cross, and bound hand and foot, all they who are in Christ, as they pass by, trample on him, and witnessing to Christ scoff at death, jesting at him, and saying what has been written against him of old: “O death, where is thy victory? O grave, where is thy sting” (“On the Incarnation of the Word,” par. 27, in Nicene and Post-Nicene Fathers, vol. 4, Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, repr. 1987).
Death simply cannot kill the one who lives and believes in Jesus Christ. In his soul, he continues consciously to live the immortal life of Christ that he began already to live in earthly life when he was born again from above. This is the comforting truth that Jesus taught in John 11:25, 26: “He that believeth in me, though he were dead, yet shall he live: And whosoever liveth and believeth in me shall never die.”
The great principle that underlies and accounts for the intermediate state of the elect believer in his soul is covenantal. Salvation is union and fellowship with Christ. This fellowship of the covenant cannot be cut off, not even by death. “Who shall separate us from the love of Christ?” (Rom. 8:35) As we shall see, the truth that the believer cannot be separated from Christ was the ground of Calvin’s rejection of soul-sleep in his first theological treatise, Psychopannychia.
The exceptions to the truth of the intermediate state of the God-fearing in their soul are those saints who died only to be raised again into earthly life: the son of the widow at Zarephath, the son of the Shunammite woman, the Israelite whose corpse touched the bones of Elisha, Jairus’ daughter, the son of the widow of Nain, Lazarus, Dorcas, and Eutychus (I Kings 17:17-24; II Kings 4:17-37; II Kings 13:20, 21; Mark 5:22-24, 35-43; Luke 7:11-17;John 11; Acts 9:36-42; Acts 20:7-12). What became of their souls in the interim between their death and their resurrection, Scripture does not say, and we, therefore, do not know. According to the rule, “Where Scripture is silent, we must be silent also,” it is improper to speculate. One thing is sure: the souls of those who returned to this life were not in the meantime taken up to enjoy the bliss of heaven. For them to resume the earthly life of sin and death, having known the perfection of heaven, would have been for them an unbearable burden and an exquisite torture. This would have been unworthy of God.