Some time ago there appeared in the Netherlands a book which will be discussed for a long time to come.
It is the fruit of the pen of a retired preacher, the Rev, B. Telder, formerly pastor of the Reformed (vrijgemaakt) congregation of Breda. It is entitled Sterven—waarom? and attempts to set forth what the Bible has to say about mortality and immortality.
Sterven...Waarom? (“Dying…Why?”) should be seen as a continuation of an earlier book written by the Rev. Telder. It was entitled Sterven...en dan? (“What…after death?”) . That first book raised much opposition in the Netherlands because of its rather radical positions. Telder deprived his readers of many of their cherished ideas about life after death. They felt that they lost an important part of what they had always accepted as true, In his first book the writer criticized sharply much of the terminology used in death announcements. He cited the following examples: “being taken up in glory”—“the heavenly Father took unto himself into eternal glory”—“the knowledge that our brother now shouts for joy before God’s throne relieves our sorrow”—“the Lord took unto himself in heaven”—“today our beloved brother entered into the joy of his Lord.” Telder judged that these expressions said more than it pleased God to let us know. They created wrong impressions. They taught people to long for the blessedness after death more than for God himself. They cherished the hope that a long period of blessedness would be enjoyed before Christ returns, while the Church on earth should long with ardent desire for the appearance of Jesus Christ.
In that first book Telder presented some biblical terminology. It is really surprising to note the remarkable difference between what we customarily say about the dead and what the Bible says. The biblical terminology is endlessly richer than ours. The Bible speaks about: “dying in the Lord”—“passing away in the Lord”—“being saved in hope” -“not being separated in death from the love of Christ”—“our names registered in the heavens”—“our names written in the Book of Life”—“our life hidden with Christ in God”—“our life being in the hand of the Lord now and forever.” The Bible says that we will be raised from the dead; that we live, even if we are dead; that we will be with the Lord for ever.
Even the clear comparison of these two kinds of expressions did not prevent the impression that Telder’s first book was negative rather than positive, that it took away more than it offered. As a result opposition arose from all sides.
Then the second book was published. Any expectation that this book would enter into discussion with the opposition and remove the several points of offense was disappointed. The same method of reasoning applied in the first book is found here. Occasionally a different explanation of a Bible text is given, but not to the extent that support was given to the traditional ideas about the intermediate state.
Telder still argues that most of us read the Bible in a wrong way in various places. But it should be noted that much more than in “Sterven…en dan?” in this book he tries to give a positive approach of life after death. It seems to me that Telder has made many important remarks which may help us in our thinking about life after death. One of these is that the Bible nowhere teaches us to long for a state of happiness and peace before the Lord Jesus comes again to establish His dominion of peace and blessedness.
We do well to realize that most scholars who have written about the intermediate state have done so with great care and even with a measure of hesitation.
Berkhof devotes several pages to this subject. He fills these with a long list of different theories. He criticizes all of them, indicating time and again what is wrong with them but only seldom offering a positive remark. He admits, for instance, that there are several passages in the Bible which seem to teach that the dead are unconscious. Yet this docs not prevent him from stating on another page that believers immediately after death enjoy a life of conscious communion with God and Jesus. I think that only emotion and affection caused him to write that way, because our hearts seem to reject instinctively any possibility that the intermediate state will be different than what tradition has told us.
Abraham Kuyper in his lectures on dogmatics stated that for a believer his personal death and the return of Jesus Christ coincide. It is evident that from such a standpoint no room is left for all kinds of conjectures about the intermediate state. The same writer complained in E Voto that the vast majority of the Christians do not think much farther than their own death. He called this a very poor view and wanted all believers to see the coming of God’s Kingdom and to expect the appearance of the Lord Jesus Christ in power and glory. He complained that the expectation of a happy life after death has replaced the expectation of God’s glory.
Dr. F. W. Grosheide once remarked that the apostle Paul has not written one word about the intermediate state. Berkouwer admits that nowhere in the Bible can any explanation be found how man will exist in the period between death and resurrection. He calls the intermediate state God’s secret, and according to Telder rightly so.
Telder concludes from these quotations and from the Bible that Scripture does not say anywhere that the soul of a believer who died, was taken up into heaven in order to return from there at some later time to be joined to the body at the resurrection. He insists that the Bible speaks in different terms. The Bible says that the dead will awaken, arise and listen to the voice of the Son of man; they win go out of the graves unto the resurrection to life or unto the resurrection to judgment. The sea and death and Hades will give back their dead and thereafter these will be judged, each according to his works. If we reject these thoughts, we should realize that we do so only on the basis of emotional considerations. The Bible does not lift up the veil which covers the position of mankind after death before the coming of Christ.
In the introduction to the book Job in the Dutch Statenvertaling it is said that we do not need to know with certainty what has not been revealed unto us. Telder wants to apply this statement to the intermediate state.
All this makes clear that Telder’s second book provides highly interesting material to anyone who wants to know his Bible thoroughly. The book contains hvo parts. The first carries as subtitle “Death as the wages of sin” according to Romans 6:23. As his motto for that part Telder chose Romans 5:12, “It was through one man that sin entered the world, and through sin death, and thus death pervaded the whole human race, inasmuch as all men have sinned.” In a clear and healthy argument he contends that death does not belong to the creation-order. Therefore it is not a natural necessity hut must be seen as punishment. Many excellent and beautiful remarks can be found in these pages. Much attention is given to Christ who conquered death and changed its character for the believer. But this does not mean at all in Telder’s opinion that we should long for death. Even Paul’s “having a desire to depart, and to be with Christ” (Philipp. 1:23) cannot change the mind of the writer because this whole pericope, he says, does not deal with Paul and his desires but with Christ. Although I do not admire the manner of reasoning which he follows to reach his goal, I think Telder is right in saying that nowhere in his letters does Paul show a longing for death. Telder says further that we should not expect our aged people to desire the hour of their death. We should rather hear from them that they long for the day of Christ’s coming again. People who live comforted in the Lord will certainly also die comforted in the Lord, not because dying itself is so desirable but because in our death we will be the Lord’s.
The subtitle of the second part of the book is “Death as necessary passageway.” It cannot be said that everything in these chapters is clear. Many questions arise. Telder touches upon many difficult problems as, for instance, time and eternity, the continuity of human life in death, man as “bodily soul,” and the creation of man as a living soul.
It certainly is not correct to say that Telder makes rash assertions. He listens to the Scriptures with reverence and urges his readers to study the Bible with a prayerful heart. Still the question comes up, if it is true that the intermediate state is God’s secret, is not writer too bold in his conclusions and contentions? Those among us who understand Dutch sufficiently should read this book. It is worthwhile to study it carefully. Here the reader will make several unexpected discoveries. This book will produce a greater humility. Do we know so little indeed? Certainly, we do. But why, then, do we speak and write so much?
Two statements of Telder should be kept in mind for which the writer deserves credit. These can be found time and again throughout the whole book. He wants to get these two messages across, for they may be extremely helpful in our consideration of this difficult subject. The one answers the question, “Where are our dead?” and the other stresses our christian hope, “What indeed do we hope for?”
Telder’s answer to the first question is consistently and unchangeably the same. He says, they are in Christ, they are with the Lord. He never tires of emphasizing this expression. We read that the Lord did not explain to us what precisely this means nor how it will be. But as God’s children who cannot understand their God, we may fully trust that this will be wonderfully good. We will not be separated from Him by death. We live in Christ and we die in Christ. We must admit that we are not accustomed to speak this way about our dead. Yet we cannot say that this manner of speaking is wrong. It is completely biblical. At least it deserves our closest consideration.
The strength of this book lies in what it says about the christian hope. Also Bcrkouwer (in his dogmatic essay on Eschatology) and K. J. Popma (in his series entitled Levensbeschouwing) have strongly indicated the impossibility of the existence of two different expectations. But Telder succeeds in making this matter clear for his readers. The expectation of a life in bliss and joy after death should never conflict with our expectation of our Lord. Longing for heaven after death should never compete with our longing for Jesus’ return. The church should expect her Lord. The entire New Testament stresses this responsibility emphatically. Our salvation is in second place. The triumph of God’s plan and work in Christ’s coming again is primary. His coming is the crown. We should look forward to that day. We should wholeheartedly expect Him as servants who wait for their Lord.
Telder has done his utmost to draw our attention to that task of waiting and hoping and longing. Our Lord is coming and in his glorious appearance He will also bring our full salvation with him. This is the main message of this book, a message which we need in our day. Are we not confused in our thinking about the intermediate state? Is this because we do not know and still want to know? Or is it because we have started saying all kinds of things we cannot know? Telder invites us to read Job 38:7. He uses that text as a motto for the second part of his book. The Almighty One asks many questions in chapter 38. He comes to us also and asks, “Have the gates of death been opened unto thee? Or hast thou seen the doors of the shadow of death?”
But the last enemy which will be defeated is death. That will happen when Jesus Christ shall come, he who is our Savior, our King, our All in All.