A poet, writing about the death of a fellow man, observed this: “His soul is gone, whither? Who saw it come in, or who saw it go out? Nobody; yet everybody is sure he had one, and hath none.”1
When a person dies, it is clear to everyone that a vital aspect of the deceased’s life has ended. But is it possible for a life to truly be over at death? Can one’s spirit simply terminate? Or, does it live on? In the words of Job, “If a man dies, shall he live again?” (Job 14:14). On many other themes natural theology can be tested against experience. But when it comes to life after death, without revelation we could only answer our questions with unsatisfying, inconsistent wishes.2
But the Bible gives us answers. Not the kind of answers meant to indulge all our curiosities. But answers sufficient to warn us against living aimlessly, adopting the shortsighted worldview of the materialist: “Let us eat and drink, for tomorrow we die!” (1 Cor. 15:32). In the words of the Bible, at death “the dust” of our bodies “will return to the earth” from which they came, “and the spirit[s] will return to God who gave” them (Eccl. 12:7). Beyond, this, what can we say about life after death, but before the return of Christ?
Death Cannot Destroy Souls
Not surprisingly, most people, even those without a biblical worldview, expect life after death. Almost no one can look at a dead body and conclude that the person’s life has been completely extinguished. All of us have a sense that life so real, so precious, so interconnected cannot simply cease when our body stops.
Even those who reject the literal notion of life after death still insist on the never-dying remembrance of the deceased; a hollow comfort given the brevity of our individual and corporate memories. This very expectation of life after death seems to be a testimony to the continued existence of the soul. Herman Bavinck wrote that “in the case of the belief of the immortality of the soul . . . we are dealing . . . with a conviction that was not gained by reflection and reasoning but precedes all reflection and springs spontaneously from human nature as such. It is self-evident and natural, and is found wherever no philosophical doubts have undermined it.”3 In Solomon’s words, God “has put eternity in [our] hearts” (Eccl. 3:11). We sense eternity. We yearn for it. We are incomplete and our lives are terribly abridged without it. Again, Bavinck: “The so-called arguments for immortality . . . are witnesses of, not grounds for, the belief in immortality.”4 “The rational, moral consciousness of humans points to a psychic existence that reaches beyond the visible world. That which by virtue of its nature seeks the eternal must be destined for eternity.”5
The Bible confirms that the soul will outlive the body of those who die, as Jesus’ parable of the rich man and Lazarus illustrates (Luke 16:19–31). Jesus says that the death of the body does not kill the soul (Matt. 10:28). The value of a human is not spent simply because the body decays (cf. v. 31). A person’s soul does not depend on this body; it was Adam’s soul, his spirit, that made him a living being (cf. 1 Cor. 15:45).
You have a never-dying soul. A person might mistreat his body saying, “After all, in a hundred years it won’t make any difference.” But we cannot say this about our souls. Death cannot destroy souls. But death does critically affect the eternal well-being of one’s body and soul.
Death Ends a Time of Decision
Dying is like casting a completed ballot into a locked box. Even before the vote is counted the choice is irretrievable. Death seals the eternal destiny of everyone. Paul writes, “For we must all appear before the judgment seat of Christ, that each one may receive the things done in the body, according to what he has done, whether good or bad” (2 Cor. 5:10). This life in the body is a probation for the life to come. Here and now we decide whether we desire to spend eternity in God’s restored kingdom or if we would rather cast our lot with the kingdoms of this earth which will one day be put under the feet of King Jesus. Jesus’ parable of the talents ends with this dreadful judgment against the one who failed the test to invest in eternity: “Cast the unprofitable servant into the outer darkness. There will be weeping and gnashing of teeth” (Matt. 25:30). The fact that we have undying souls confirms our accountability to the one who has given given them to us. We should “fear Him who is able to destroy both soul and body in hell” (Matt. 10:28).
The Bible knows of no postmortem opportunity for an unconverted person to be made right with God. The medieval Catholic Church developed a theory of purgatory suggesting that those who were not sufficiently prepared to go straight to God after death could be further refined by fire. But Jesus could not have been more clear: After death, the souls of the deceased are in a place either of torment or of blessedness, and between the two a great gulf is fixed to prevent passage from one place to another (Luke 16:26). Further, “Purgatory is but an extension of the doctrine of penance, which denies the sufficiency of Christ’s active and passive obedience.”6
Outside the church an even less clear notion exists that God’s punishment, even the punishment of death, is always restorative. The nearly ubiquitous belief in our culture is that those who die must go on to a better place. Sinclair Ferguson has said that “the greatest heresy of the western world is the heresy that we are acceptable to God simply because we have died.” The dominant cultural assumption is, “We are justified by dying.”7 The Bible insists that immortality is brought to light only through the gospel of Christ (2 Tim. 1:10), not by the act of dying.
The writer to the Hebrews warns against wasting opportunities to believe the gospel and enter into God’s rest. He forcefully identifies the “certain day” on which you shall believe as “Today.” “Today, if you will hear His voice, do not harden your hearts” (Heb. 4:7). The psalm from which the writer draws this phrase is riddled with the word “come” and other similar exhortations to meet with God and give him the honor due him while life persists (Ps. 95:1, 2, 6). When the day of grace is over, those who come to God will know only his wrath (v. 11). If you have not yet come to God, seeking and finding the gift of eternal life through Christ, do so today. Life sometimes offers second chances. But at death second chances expire without warning.
Death Unites and Distinguishes Believers and Unbelievers
The modern church might be surprised—even unsettled—at the historic church’s position that until the second coming the dead are all united in a common state of disembodied waiting. The Bible uses the words Sheol (in the Old Testament) and Hades (in the New Testament) to describe the situation of the dead in which “not only the wicked but also believers find themselves . . . after death.”8 In Acts 2:27, for example, Peter quotes from Psalm 16:10 in which David prophesied of the Christ that God would not leave his soul in Sheol/Hades. Both righteous David and Christ, along with unrighteous Shimei (1 Kings 2:6, 9) and Korah (Num. 16:33) entered Sheol at death.
In a very general sense, Sheol (and Hades) captures the negative aspects of losing one’s life. Sheol is not so much a place as the state of death, the experience of the separation of body and soul.9 Sheol is like a city that exists outside of the land of the living (Ps. 52:5; Prov. 15:24) which is barred by massive gates (Matt. 16:18; Rev. 1:18) through which no one can escape by their own power.10 All the dead in Sheol—both the righteous and the wicked—have lost the gift of life and received the wages of sin (Rom. 6:23). The dead experience a certain “diminution of life, a deprivation of everything in this life that makes for its enjoyment.”11 In this sense, while for believers death is “not a satisfaction for our sins”12 it is “the culmination of the chastisements which God has ordained for the sanctification of his people.”13
Still, in this intermediate state, the believing and unbelieving dead are greatly distinguished. Those who die enter a common state from which they can leave only when death and hades deliver up their dead at the day of resurrection (Rev. 20:13). But those within that state do not share an identical lot.
Unbelievers in the Intermediate State
Even before they died, because of their persistent unbelief, unbelievers are condemned already (John 3:18, 36). At death condemned, unbelieving spirits are locked in prison (1 Pet. 3:19) from which they await the final judgment. While not yet cast into the lake of fire (Rev. 20:15) those who have died apart from Christ begin at death a time of torment. So, the rich man in Jesus’ parable was not tormented because he was in the place of the dead, but because for him, the place of the dead was the narthex of hell (Luke 16:23). To die as an unbeliever is to lose the best of this life and to enter a worse state while awaiting even worse things to come.
Believers in the Intermediate State
For those who die in the Lord (Rev. 14:13), the intermediate state is a loss of that which is precious in the present life. But this loss is so outweighed by the glory of the life to come that death can be called great gain (Phil. 1:21). The apostle Paul— persecuted in flesh (2 Cor. 11:22–29), frustrated by his sin (Rom. 7:13–25), having already tasted paradise (2 Cor. 12:1–6)—had no doubt: To depart from this life and be with Christ is far better (Phil. 1:23).14 All believers can be “confident, yes, well pleased rather to be absent from the body and to be present with the Lord” (2 Cor. 5:8). All who trust in Christ can take his promise as their last earthly thought: “Assuredly, I say to you, today you will be with Me in Paradise” (Luke 23:43). At this very moment, there is a “church of the firstborn who are registered in heaven” made up of “the spirits of just men made perfect” (Heb. 12:23). The dead in Christ begin to rest from their labors and enjoy the fruit of their works (Rev. 14:13; 6:11; Heb. 4:9–10).
Because of these texts a believer can say, “My soul after this life shall be immediately taken up to Christ its head.”15 “For we believe that the faithful, after bodily death, go directly unto Christ.”16 Their souls are then “made perfect in holiness” and are “received into the highest heavens.”17
Death Begins a Time of Anticipation
Every grain in the hourglass of time is eagerly making way for the coming of Christ, the resurrection of the body, the final judgment, and the breaking in of the age to come. Even those in the intermediate state have not arrived; they do not know the full coming of the future age.
The wicked dead anticipate the judgment with unrelenting dread. Those who live in unbelief can often chase off thoughts of judgment. But those who have died in unbelief cannot escape “a certain fearful expectation of judgment, and fiery indignation which will devour the adversaries” (Heb. 10:27). When the deceased unbeliever realizes he has lost his opportunity for repentance and awaits dreadful judgment he can only cry “to the mountains and the rocks, ‘Fall on us and hide us from the face of Him who sits on the throne and from the wrath of the Lamb!’” (Rev. 6:16). For those who die without Christ as their mediator the prospect of torment is no longer an uncertain “if,” but a frightful “when” (Matt. 8:29).
The righteous dead anticipate the judgment with inexhaustible delight. Prior to the resurrection, the dead, even those who have died in Christ, are not satisfied. Their souls are perfected, but they eagerly wait for the resurrection of their bodies and the realization of their full deliverance.18 Those who are in heaven now await the Day of Judgment, crying with a loud voice, “How long, O Lord, holy and true, until You judge and avenge our blood on those who dwell on earth?” (Rev. 6:10). They await the in-gathering of all the saints. They await full bodily communion with their Savior. But even the anticipation of the saints in glory does not issue from a dominating lack but a wholesome desire to be more fully clothed (2 Cor. 5:1–5), a joyful desire to experience God more deeply. The yearning of the blessed in paradise is a good yearning, as a group of friends eagerly await the arrival of other guests to a party.
What is so powerful about Jesus’ parable of the rich man and Lazarus is that both men, after death, could experientially affirm the contents of this article. Death doesn’t kill souls, but it does seal their destinies. Out of their experience both men speak to us. The rich man warns the living not to undervalue their souls. Lazarus encourages God’s people not to overvalue their temporary suffering.
1. Why does Paul warn against the philosophy, “Let us eat and drink, for tomorrow we die” (1 Cor. 15:32)?
2. In what ways do we feel pressure to live for today, forgetting about the age to come?
3. How can the human sense of eternity (Eccl. 3:11) be used as a way to communicate the gospel to our unbelieving friends?
4. Why might “the greatest heresy of the western world” be “the heresy that we are acceptable to God simply because we have died”?
5. Read Hebrews 4:1-10. Why is the word “today” so powerful in the passage?
6. How is it that believers and unbelievers can be both united and distinguished at death?
7. How might Christians so overly focus on the “gain” of dying that we eclipse the idea of anticipation in the intermediate state?
8. It is painful to reflect on the panicked state of unbelievers in Sheol. Why might it be beneficial to do so?
Rev. William Boekestein happily serves Immanuel Fellowship Church in Kalamazoo, MI. He has written several books, including Why Christ Came: 31 Meditations on the Incarnation (with Joel Beeke). 1.
1. John Donne, Devotions upon Emergent Occasions and Death’s Duel (New York: Random House, 1999), 108.
2. Therefore, as I observed recently while on vacation, the same front page of a newspaper can contain quotes about how the recently deceased Mary Tyler Moore will live forever through her film legacy, and the chart numbers for Taylor Swift’s “I Don’t Wanna Live Forever.”
3. Herman Bavinck, The Last Things: Hope for This World and the Next (Grand Rapids: Baker Books, 1996), 25.
4. Ibid., 25.
5. Ibid., 27.
6. Michael Horton, The Christian Faith (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2011), 913.
7. Sinclair Ferguson, Judgment: The Final Verdict, unpublished sermon. Accessed from http://tapesfromscotland.org/Audio6/6714.mp3.
8. Bavinck, Last Things, 36. Both words have diverse meanings and are not exactly synonyms. They are often, though improperly, translated as “hell” in English translations (cf. Acts 2:27 KJV). Cf. Louis Berkhof, Systematic Theology (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1939), 686.
9. Ibid., 685.
10. On the possibility of one returning from Sheol to the land of the living, the Second Helvetic Confession (article 26) is instructive: “Now that which is recorded of the spirits or souls of the dead sometimes appearing to them that are alive, and craving certain duties of them whereby they may be set free: we count those apparitions among the delusions, crafts, and deceits of the devil, who, as he can transform himself into an angel of light so he labors tooth and nail either to overthrow the true faith or else to call it into doubt. The Lord, in the Old Testament, forbade to enquire the truth of the dead and to have anything to do with spirits (Deut. 18:10–11). And to the glutton, being bound in torments, as the truth of the gospel declares, is denied any return to his brethren; the oracles of God pronouncing and saying, ‘They have Moses and the prophets, let them hear them. If they hear not Moses and the prophets, neither will they believe, if one shall arise from the dead’ (Luke 16:29, 31).” The Reformed Confessions of the 16th and 17th Centuries in English Translation: Volume 2, 1552–1566, ed. James T. Dennison Jr. (Grand Rapids: Reformation Heritage Books, 2010), 876.
11. Bavinck, Last Things, 31.
12. Heidelberg Catechism, answer 42 in The Reformed Confessions of the 16th and 17th Centuries in English Translation: Volume 2, 1552–1566, ed. James T. Dennison Jr. (Grand Rapids: Reformation Heritage Books, 2010), 779.
13. Berkhof, Systematic Theology, 670.
14. With Paul’s desire to depart the flesh and be with the Lord, “Any idea of an unconscious state following death or of a purgatorial discipline in the next world is denied by the sheer simplicity of Paul’s expectation.” Ralph Martin, The Epistle of Paul to the Philippians: An Introduction and Commentary, Tyndale New Testament Commentaries (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1999), 81–82.
15. Heidelberg Catechism, answer 57 in Reformed Confessions, 782.
16. Second Helvetic Confession, article 26 in Reformed Confessions, 876.
17. Westminster Larger Catechism, answer 86 in The Reformed Confessions of the 16th and 17th Centuries in English Translation: Volume 4, 1552–1566, ed. James T. Dennison Jr. (Grand Rapids: Reformation Heritage Books, 2014), 317.
18. Cf. Belgic Confession, article 37 in The Reformed Confessions of the 16th and 17th Centuries in English Translation: Volume 4, 1552–1566, ed. James T. Dennison Jr. (Grand Rapids: Reformation Heritage Books, 2014), 449.
Order of the United Reformed Churches in North America, 7th ed., http://www.urcna. org/1651/file_retrieve/23868.
19. Kuyper, In the Shadow of Death, 299.
20. From Ordo Exsequiarum, no. 41, cited in John Allyn Melloh, “Homily or Eulogy? The Dilemma of Funeral Preaching,” Worship 67 (November 1993), 502.
21. Timothy George, “Cremation Confusion: Is It Unscriptural for a Christian to Be Cremated?,” Christianity Today 21 (May 2002), 66.
22. John Bloom, “Lord, Prepare Me to End Well,” February 28, 2017, http://www.desiringgod.org/ articles/lord-prepare-me-to-end-well.