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Prof. Engelsma is professor of Dogmatics and Old Testament in the Protestant Reformed Seminary. Previous article in this series: February 15, 2006, p. 225.

In the preceding three installments of this series on eschatology, I have set forth the Reformed doctrine of the intermediate state of the elect believer. At the moment of death and by means of death, which Christ has made the servant of our salvation, God separates the soul and the body. What God has joined together in the creation of man in the beginning and in the conception of each individual human, God can, and does, put asunder. In the body, the believer sleeps in the grave until Christ awakens him in the resurrection of the body. In the soul, the believer is raised by Jesus into conscious, heavenly life and glory immediately upon the believer’s dying.

The intermediate state of the believer in his soul means uninterrupted covenant communion of the believer with Jesus Christ. Indeed, there is closer communion. The communion with Christ is no longer “through a glass, darkly” (I Cor. 13:12), but direct: the soul’s vision of God in the face of Jesus Christ. The communion is no longer hindered by the sinfulness of the believer, a sinfulness of soul, as well as of body. Christ’s resurrection of the soul of the Christian at the moment of death has purged the soul from all defilement of sin. In the soul, the believer is now perfectly holy.

In addition, the communion with Jesus Christ, who in His resurrection has become heavenly, is more intimate because the soul of the believer is no longer earthy, that is, thoroughly adapted to earthly life, so that even its knowledge of Christ, though true, is after an earthly manner of thinking. Christ’s resurrection of the soul of the child of God at the moment of death has transformed the soul. Christ has made it heavenly, that is, has thoroughly adapted it to His own heavenly life. It is still a human soul. But it is a human soul that is now heavenly. In his soul, the believer now can know and embrace Christ after a heavenly manner. This is richer knowledge and closer fellowship than the believer enjoyed in his earthly life. Although the subject is the resurrection of the body, the contrast in I Corinthians 15:47-49 between earthy humans and heavenly humans implies that the soul of the believer in the intermediate state is a heavenly soul and that the life and experience of the heavenly soul are much better than those of the earthy soul.

The intermediate state, therefore, is a grand aspect of the Reformed believer’s hope. It is not the main aspect of his hope. The main aspect of his hope is his expectation of, and longing for, the resurrection of his and all the saints’ bodies. But the intermediate state is an important aspect of the believer’s hope. That otherwise fearful enemy, death, will be for him deliverance from sin, entrance into conscious life and glory with Jesus Christ, and a change into a higher, indeed the highest possible, quality of human life. The world talks about “quality of life.” Eye has not seen, ear has not heard, and it never entered into the heart of man to imagine the quality of life that God has prepared for those who love Him: heavenly life. Why then do we not desire this heavenly life, which we will have at death, more than we do?

The comfort of the intermediate state for the believer is that at death he will be delivered from sin and the sorrows of earthly life and transformed into heavenly life at once. At the instant he closes the eyes of his body in death, the eyes of his soul open on God in Jesus Christ and the realm of heaven. Death does not have even a temporary victory over the elect believer, who falls asleep in Jesus. From the spiritual condition of seeing God dimly in the mirror of the preached Word by faith, the dying believer passes, immediately, to a face-to-face vision of God in the personal Word, Jesus Christ. Why then do we fear death, as so often we find ourselves doing? +In this hope, the Reformed believer lives all his days in the valley of the shadow of death. In this hope, he goes down, deliberately, into the darkest shades of the valley when God makes known to him that his days run out. In this hope, his family gives him up, and buries him. In this hope, the sorrow of the militant church over the loss of a member is tempered.

Naturalism and Modernism

The Reformed church must guard this aspect of her hope. There are attacks upon it. I have already pointed out that sheer, naturalistic unbelief, which expresses itself in the theory of evolution, consigns all humans to utter hopelessness. Man dies like the beast. He has no future. Therefore, all his life, with its achievements and joys, is for nothing. Although thousands of despairing teachers of evolution in the state schools train their students thus to despair, with enthusiasm, with smiles on their faces, and with contempt for the hopeful doctrine of creation, the truth is that both teachers and students “through fear of death [are] all their lifetime subject to bondage” (Heb. 2:15). They are slaves of death, which raises the question, “Why would any Reformed believer send his children to a school in which the children are instructed by slaves of death and in which they form friendships with slaves of death?”

Essentially the same is the unbelief of theological modernism. Denying the bodily resurrection of Jesus Christ, the Lord from heaven, it also denies the resurrection of the Christian. It denies, not only the resurrection of his body, but also the resurrection of his soul at the moment of death. According to theological modernism, death puts an end to humans, believers as well as unbelievers. Death puts an end to believers, not only with regard to their body, but also with regard to their soul. All that lives on after death are the occasional, and increasingly faint, memory and the fading name on the tombstone. The message of theological modernism is, “Death wins!” Of those who have hope in Christ only in this life, the apostle declared that they are of all men most miserable (I Cor. 15:19). This raises the question, “Why do churches deliberately open themselves up to modernism’s proclamation of death, and why do professing Christians remain in churches that fall away into the celebration, Sunday after Sunday, of death and the grave?”

Soul Sleep

Of more urgent concern to us are certain doctrinal errors that rob the believer of his hope of life with Christ in the intermediate state. The first of these is the error of soul sleep. As the name indicates, it is the teaching that the soul is unconscious between the moment of death and the resurrection of the body. Opposing the error in a treatise entitled, “Brief Instruction for Arming All the Good Faithful against the Errors of the Common Sect of the Anabaptists,” Calvin described it as the notion that “the souls of the deceased sleep without any feeling or consciousness, until the day of judgment” (John Calvin, Treatises against the Anabaptists and against the Libertines, Baker, 1982, pp. 119, 120). Caustically, Calvin charged that those who teach this doctrine, “in the place of white robes, give souls pillows to sleep on” (Treatises against the Anabaptists, p. 127).

One form of the error is the denial that the soul of man is a substance, or essence, which can, therefore, exist apart from the body. Man’s soul is merely the animating principle of the body—that life-force that enables the body to breathe and function. Accordingly, one’s death involves the perishing of his life-force, or soul, as well as the death of the body. The death of the believer is total. The entire man slumbers in the grave, until Christ awakens him in the day of His coming. Calvin called attention to this form of the doctrine of soul sleep, in his “Brief Instruction”: “Some do not think that the soul is a substance, or an entity having essence, but solely the power that a man possesses while alive that helps him breathe, move about, and perform the other actions of life” (Treatises against the Anabaptists, p. 119).

As is evident from these quotations of Calvin, soul sleep was an attack on the hope of the child of God in the face of death by the Anabaptists at the time of the sixteenth century reformation of the church. Against this false teaching, Calvin wrote his first theological work,Psychopannychia, about which more later, as well as in the later “Brief Instruction,” quoted above.

No one should suppose that the error is merely of historical interest. In the 1960s, the teaching of soul sleep occasioned a split in the Reformed Churches in the Netherlands (“liberated”). Preaching Q. 57 of the Heidelberg Catechism (“my soul after this life shall be immediately taken up to Christ its head”), Rev. B. Telder denied the plain teaching of the Catechism that man is composed of soul and body and that at the moment of death the soul of the believer is taken up to heaven, consciously to live with Christ.

In a book entitled Sterven … en Dan? Gaan de Kinderen Gods, wanneer Zij Sterven, naar de Hemel? (Kok, 1960; the English translation would be, Dying … and Then? Do the Children of God Go to Heaven when They Die?), Telder defended his attack on the Reformed doctrine of the intermediate state. He criticized the teaching of Q. 57 of the Catechism as philosophical: “the terminology more of the scholastic theologians than the sound words of Scripture” (p. 33; all quotations of Telder are my translation of the Dutch—DJE). The view that man is composed of two substances, a body and a soul, Telder condemned as Greek philosophy, wrongly taken up into Protestant theology through the bad influence of Calvin (pp. 20, 21, 152).

The hope of the intermediate state, according to Telder, is unbiblical: “The entire thought that a part of man, his ‘soul,’ is not subjected to death, that his ‘soul’ escapes death, is foreign to Scripture” (p. 29). Telder explained away all the passages in Scripture that teach the intermediate state. His (mis)handling of Luke 23:43(“today shalt thou be with me in paradise”) is typical. Christ merely told the penitent evildoer that he would be with Christ “today” in the realm of the dead (Dutch: “dodenrijk“) (pp. 36, 76).

Telder contended that the whole man dies. The entire man is in the grave. The only hope of the Christian is the resurrection of the body. There is no conscious life with Christ whatever between the moment of death and the resurrection of the body (pp. 37, 38).

Telder was strongly influenced by the Dutch philosopher Herman Dooyeweerd. It came as no surprise, therefore, that also the “Reformational” (not to be confused with “Reformed”), Christian Reformed theologian Gordon Spykman had serious problems with the confessional Reformed doctrine of the intermediate state. For Spykman too was a disciple of Dooyeweerd and his colleague, D. H. T. Vollenhoven, whose philosophy rejected the view of man as body and soul. Indeed, the philosophy of Dooyeweerd and Vollenhoven was the basis of Spykman’s published dogmatics, Reformational Theology: A New Paradigm for Doing Dogmatics (Eerdmans, 1992).

Spykman claimed to hold the truth of an intermediate state. He denied that our death “consign(s) us to a state of dormancy, soul sleep, or unconscious existence” (Reformational Theology, pp. 550- 552). But having rejected the classic Christian and creedally Reformed doctrine that man’s nature is composed of body and soul (pp. 233-245), Spykman was at a loss to explain the conscious life of the believer between his death and the resurrection of his body. He admitted as much. He spoke of a “breakdown in rational comprehension” (p. 244). “What it means … to be alive spiritually, apart from our present historical existence, baffles our minds” (p. 552).

The explanation Spykman offered of the intermediate state is unintelligible, false, and impossible. His explanation was this: “Bodily the whole man dies. Spiritually the whole man lives” (p. 244). The explanation is unintelligible. What it means that at death the whole man lives spiritually, no one understands, including Spykman, as he himself acknowledged. The explanation is false. On the view of everyone, the man’s body, which is certainly part of the “whole man,” is in the grave. The “whole” man, therefore, does not live after death, whether spiritually or otherwise. An important part of the “whole man”—his body—is dead. The explanation is impossible, impossible, that is, on Spykman’s theology of the nature of man. If man is not body and soul and if, therefore, the whole man dies, there is nothing in which a man can live with Christ after death. Denial of the soul as a real, though immaterial, substance, which, though wonderfully united with the body in life, so that man is a unity, nevertheless can be separated from the body at death is the denial of the intermediate state.

Contemporary evangelical theologians understand that denial of a substantial soul implies the loss of the intermediate state. There is no longer any talk of the “whole man’s somehow living spiritually” upon death and before the resurrection of the body. The whole man dies. The only hope—not the chief hope—of the Christian is the resurrection on the world’s last day. Hans Schwarz writes:

Since we are not endowed with divine qualities that could make us hope for a gradual purification of an immortal soul, our only hope for ultimate fulfillment is beyond death, in the resurrection from the dead (Eschatology, Eerdmans, 2000, p. 280).

For Schwarz, the comforting teaching of the Reformed churches that at death the elect believer is taken up in his now purified and transformed soul to live with Christ is illegitimate and unnecessary speculation. “It is neither necessary nor legitimate to speculate on an intermediate state between death and resurrection” (p. 291).

This rejection of the intermediate state by soul sleep and by the related teaching of the death of the whole man gives death a victory. The victory is temporary, for the believer will be raised one day, but it is a victory. Death cuts the believer off from conscious communion with Christ. Thus, death robs the believer of the spiritual, eternal life that he received in regeneration and that he enjoyed by faith. Death robs him of this life completely. Death wins—for a time.

Such brave souls as Hans Schwarz may not need the comfort that death cannot separate him from Christ, not for one instant, in the face of that last enemy, the “king of terrors,” but for most of us weak and fearful Christians this comfort is necessary. God Himself thinks so. He gives this comfort in His word. It is not enough in the face of death to cling by faith to the promise of the resurrection of the body. I must also have the promise that as one who lives and believes in Jesus I shall never die (John 11:26).

“Today,” says the merciful Savior, to every dying penitent on his deathbed, “you will be with me in paradise” (Luke 23:43).

The truth of the intermediate state is not philosophical speculation. It is the comfort of the gospel.

(to be continued)