What happens to us when we die? The question demands an answer, even if it has already been answered in reading, in catechism, in sermons. When we stand at the graveside of someone dear to us, or when we lie on our own deathbed, the question persists. The Bible does not answer all our questions about death and dying, especially those asked idly and speculatively, but it answers this question sufficiently to give us comfort for body and soul, in death as well as in life, when that comfort is needed. It is the comfort of the soul’s “communion in glory with Christ”; of the soul’s being “taken up to Christ its head.”
In theology the answer to this question is part of the doctrine of the intermediate state, the state of the soul between death and the resurrection of the body: part of that doctrine because the Bible also speaks of the souls of those who die outside of Christ. There is, though, no comfort for such as die in unbelief. Their soul’s state is no different after death than before death comes. To be apart from Christ is death in its entirety and in all its unconquered horrors, whether in life or in death.
Nor is there any comfort in speculative theories and false doctrines, such as the notions of soul sleep, purgatory, limbo, the annihilation of the soul, or temporary death of both soul and body. The comfort of the intermediate state for believers is that they are in heaven in the presence of God, without suffering, consciously enjoying the blessedness of heavenly glory with Christ. To be unconscious, still suffering, or not yet delivered from death, is comfortless, and the thought of bringing such a message to the dying or receiving it oneself on a deathbed is horrifying.
The first comfort of believers, then, in facing death is that they go to heaven and are delivered from this world and its troubles. In heaven, every tear is wiped away and death is banished forever; but for them it is homecoming as well. Having lived in the world as spiritual strangers on a life-long pilgrimage that began the day of their salvation, they finally come home, and that is “joy unspeakable.” It is home, and even more, it is “Immanuel’s land”:1
I’ve wrestled on toward heaven ’Gainst storm and wind and tide;
Now, like a weary traveler That leaneth on his guide.
Amid the shades of evening,
While sinks life’s lingering sand,
I hail the glory dawning From Immanuel’s land.
That believers are without suffering and without sin after death should go without saying, and the idea that they, after death, must still be delivered from torment in purgatory is a “doctrine of devils.” Christ having died for His own and having risen again is the assurance that only glory awaits and that there can be no more suffering:
Oh, I am my Beloved’s,
And my Beloved is mine!
He brings a poor vile sinner Into His “house of wine.”
I stand upon His merit,
I know no safer stand,
Not e’en where glory dwelleth
In Immanuel’s land.1
They are “perfect in holiness, and received into the highest heavens, where they behold the face of God in light and glory” (WLC, 86).
That believers are conscious of their blessedness is the clear teaching of the Bible. Jesus would not have spoken of “paradise” and “paradise today” to the thief who died with Him, nor would He have promised to receive us unto Himself (John 14:3) if the error of soul sleep were the truth. Calvin says:
One of the most fatal blows to the dogma of these men is the answer which was given to the thief who implored mercy. He prayed, “Lord, remember me when thou comest to thy kingdom”; and he hears the reply, “Today shalt thou be with me in paradise” (Luke 22:42). He who is everywhere, promises that he will be present with the thief. And he promises paradise, because he who thus enjoys God has fulness of delight.2
In Calvin’s tract (“Psychopannychia” means “soul sleep,” which doctrine Calvin rejects) he goes through the teaching of the Bible from Genesis 15:1, “Fear not, Abram: I am thy shield, and thy exceeding great reward,” to I John 3:2, “Beloved, now are we the sons of God, and it doth not yet appear what we shall be: but we know that, when he shall appear, we shall be like him; for we shall see him as he is”; and shows how believers do enjoy conscious glory with Christ immediately after death.
Striking is Calvin’s use of the same passage that Jesus used to prove the resurrection of the body to the Sadducees: “What! are they [those who believe in soul sleep, RH] not overawed by the words of the Lord when, calling himself the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, he says, he is ‘God not of the dead but of the living?’” (Matt. 22:32).
Even Luther, who is often charged with teaching soul sleep, says:
…there is a difference between the sleep or rest of this life and that of the future life. For toward night a person who has become exhausted by his daily labor in this life enters into his chamber in peace, as it were, to sleep there; and during this night he enjoys rest and has no knowledge whatever of any evil caused either by fire or by murder. But the soul does not sleep in the same manner. It is awake. It experiences visions and the discourses of the angels and of God.3
But what about the passages that speak of the death of believers as sleep (II Sam. 7:12; Job 14:12; Ps. 13:3; Dan. 12:2; John 11:11; Acts 13:36; I Cor. 15:51; I Thess. 4:14; 5:10)? Calvin prefers the word “rest” and says:
First, we give the name of “rest” to that which our opponents call “sleep.” We have no aversion, indeed, to the term sleep, were it not corrupted and almost polluted by their falsehoods. Secondly, by “rest” we understand, not sloth, or lethargy, or anything like the drowsiness of ebriety which they attribute to the soul; but tranquility of conscience and security, which always accompanies faith, but is never complete in all its parts till after death.4
The Bible speaks of sleep to assure us that our death as believers is no more to be feared than falling asleep each night.
The heavenly glory of believers after death is part of the resurrection of the dead, as the Heidelberg Catechism reminds us in Q&A 57. Our resurrection from the dead begins with our regeneration (John 5:24, 25) when the heavenly and undying life of Christ is given us. Our resurrection continues when our souls fly away from this world to the next, and is completed with the resurrection of our bodies in the great day of Christ.
As part of the resurrection, the intermediate state is part of a miracle, and there is no surprise that many questions about it remain unanswered, especially the question: How is it possible for the soul without the body to enjoy the blessedness of heaven? To that question there is now no answer, though II Corinthians 5:1-4 show us that God makes some provision for us: we are not found naked but are clothed upon with our house which is from heaven. This happens, verse 1 says, when our earthly house of this tabernacle is dissolved. What God does for us the Bible does not say exactly, but here, too, it suggests glory and blessedness when it compares our present state to a tabernacle and what follows to a building constructed by God.
So we are comforted not only when death comes, but when we grow older and experience what II Corinthians 4:16 describes, the perishing or decaying of the outward man: when strength fails, the mind wanders, desire ceases, and the senses no longer keep us in contact with this world as they once did—when pain and weakness seem to be our lot and when the things that once charmed us no longer satisfy. Then, being absent from the body and being present with the Lord seems wonderful indeed, and death loses its terrors in the hope of something “far better.”
Far better, indeed, and the real glory and comfort of the intermediate state is the glory of being in God’s presence and with Christ, which, Paul means, “is better than anything else.” Being there is not—not first— the comfort of being without, but the comfort of being with: not the comfort of being without suffering or even without sin, but of being with the Son of God. There, too, is the reason why those in unbelief and iniquity have no comfort in dying. Having lived apart from Christ in this life, unbelieving sinners do not find Him in the life to come; but for believers the day of death is the “today” of being with Him in Paradise.
The intermediate state is described as the bosom of Abraham (Luke 16:22, 23) for this reason. In dying we go to be with him, our spiritual father, Abraham, who believed the promises, saw Christ’s day and rejoiced in it, and fell asleep in Jesus:
This, then, is the bosom of Abraham: for it was he himself who, with ready mind, embraced the promises made to his own seed, never doubting that the word of God was efficacious and true: and as if God had actually performed what he had promised, he waited for that blessed seed with no less assurance than if he had had it in his hands, and perceived it with all his senses. Accordingly, our Lord bore this testimony to him, that “he saw his day and was glad” (John 8:56).5
Heaven is not about our freedom from trouble and guilt—not first—but about God’s glory: “the throne of God and of the Lamb shall be in it; and his servants shall serve him: And they shall see his face; and his name shall be in their foreheads” (Rev. 22:3, 4). “Behold, the tabernacle of God is with men, and he will dwell with them, and they shall be his people, and God himself shall be with them, and be their God” (Rev. 21:3). “In thy presence is fulness of joy; at thy right hand there are pleasures for evermore” (Ps. 16:11). “As for me, I will behold thy face in righteousness: I shall be satisfied, when I awake, with thy likeness” (Ps. 17:15).
We, through faith in Christ, catch a glimpse of the comfort of the intermediate state in a beautiful sunrise, in the most glorious of spring days, in an endlessly beautiful summer day, but the Word is at the heart of our comfort, pointing us to Christ and to all that we have in Him. He is and always will be our comfort, our hope, our joy, our peace, our blessedness, our life, our everything.
The King there in His beauty
Without a veil is seen:
It were a well spent journey,
Though seven deaths lay between.
The Lamb, with His fair army,
Doth on Mount Zion stand,
And glory, glory dwelleth
In Immanuel’s land….
The bride eyes not her garment,
But her dear bridegroom’s face:
I will not gaze at glory,
But on the King of Grace;
Not at the crown He giveth,
But on His pierced hand.
The Lamb is all the glory
Of Immanuel’s land.
What happens to me when I die? I go to be with Jesus, who loved me and gave Himself for me and whose face I have long desired to see. That is comfort indeed, and there is no other. So, “For to me to live is Christ, and to die is gain” and “I am in a strait betwixt two.” (Phil. 1:21, 23). Come quickly, Lord Jesus!
1 This verse and the verses that follow are from Samuel Rutherford’s poem, “In Immanuel’s Land.”
2 Calvin, “Psychopannychia,” in Tracts and Treatises in Defense of the Reformed Faith, vol. 3, tr. H. Beveridge, ed. T.F. Torrance, (Grand Rapids: Wm. B. Eerdman, 1958), 446-47.
3 Lectures on Genesis, 25:7-10 in Luther’s Works, vol. 4, ed. J. Pelikan (St. Louis, MO: Concordia, 1964), 313.
4 “Psychopannychia,” 432.
5 Calvin, “Psychopannychia,” 433-34.