Sunday, 29 November -0001 18:42

The Doctrine of the Last Things (3)

Written by Rev. C.A Schouls
Last time, under the heading, "Individual Eschatology," we looked at the first aspect, "Physical Death." This time we turn to the second aspect of this topic, "The Intermediate State."
B. The Intermediate State
By Òintermediate stateÓ we mean the condition of the soul after death and before the general resurrection, whether that be the soul of the elect or of the damned, of the saved or of the unsaved.

1. The Meaning of Immortality
We have dealt with the idea of death. At this time, we should take brief note of the meaning of the word ÒimmortalityÓ--it means Òlife never ending.Ó We should realize that, in the strict sense of the word, we can apply the idea of ÒimmortalityÓ only to those who have received the gift of eternal life through faith in the Lord Jesus Christ. Life means communion with God, living out of God; death means to be cut off from God. They who do not believe are not ÒimmortalÓ--this does not mean they are destroyed, annihilated or sent into "nothing" after death, but it means that, although they continue to exist forever, they will never have life (for that means communion with God). They will always suffer the agonies of death (that is, being cut off from God and experiencing only His wrath).

Now the question arises: What is this intermediate state, the state of the soul after death and before the resurrection?

2. The Reformed Confessions
First, we let the Confessions speak (not because they are the ultimate source of knowledge but because we have agreed that they reflect the teachings of Scripture):

Heidelberg Catechism, L.D. 22 - Q. ÒWhat comfort does the resurrection of the body afford you?Ó A. ÒThat not only my soul, after this life shall be immediately taken up to Christ its head (cursive mine, CAS); but also that this my body, being raised by the power of Christ, shall be reunited with my soul, and be made like unto the glorious body of Christ.Ó

Westminster Confession of Faith (Ch.32,1) ÒThe souls of the righteous, being then made perfect in holiness, are received into the highest heavens, where they behold the face of God in light and glory, waiting for the full redemption of their bodies.Ó

These two confessional statements make it clear that the view of the Reformed churches has been that the souls of saints go immediately into glory, at the moment when death separates them from their bodies. Similar statements can be found in other Reformation time confessional statements.

3. Scripture
We also turn to Scripture and discover some of the terms used to describe this condition.

The Old Testament:
Generally, the Old Testament uses the term ÒsheolÓ and the New Testament uses ÒhadesÓ to describe this state. The King James Version has frequently, though not consistently, translated both these terms with ÒhellÓ which has given rise to some misunderstanding in this whole area. Sometimes they are translated as ÒgraveÓ and Òpit.Ó Other English versions speak of Òdeath.Ó In some cases, the NIV has simply not translated the word at all (Matt. 6:18) leaving it as Òhades,Ó in others it is Òdeath,Ó Òthe depths,Ó and Òthe grave.Ó

Another New Testament term is ÒgehennaÓ--probably a form of the Hebrew word for ÒValley of HinnomÓ where, at one time, sacrifices had been offered to the fire god Moloch, and which had later been defiled by King Josiah, (2 Ki.23:10) and turned into a garbage dump where fires burned constantly. (This valley is still a current Jerusalem landmark.) It thus took on the meaning of defilement and everlasting punishment. However, sometimes the term ÒgehennaÓ can simply mean ÒhadesÓ--the place of the dead.

As far as the Old Testament term (Sheol) is concerned, Reformed scholars agree that it is very difficult to determine what is meant in every specific case. Sometimes the reference is to the state of being dead, as seen from the earthly perspective: i.e. no longer able to participate in the activities of this life; sometimes it refers to the place of eternal punishment. They do dismiss the notion that Old Testament writers mistakenly thought all the dead went into this ÒunderworldÓ and that some would escape or have a happier version of it while others would stay there forever. The inspiration by the Holy Spirit makes it impossible for this wrong belief to have been taught by inspired men.

Where it refers to the abode of the dead as seen from the earthly perspective, we may think along these lines: earthly relationships are broken, the earthly existence is no more. It is the grave, the darkness of death. Yet, from the viewpoint of the righteous and the wicked, there is a sharp distinction between glory and desolation, even in Sheol or Hades. This is taught throughout Scripture, although we note that the hope of the Old Testament saint with a view to Sheol was not as bright as the hope of the New Testament believer. It is true that in Sheol, where earthly light and life is no more, no one praises the Lord. This is a dark picture (Ps.6:6: 30:10; 88:11). Nevertheless, David rejoices that the Lord will not leave his soul in Sheol (ÒhellÓ), nor allow His holy one to see corruption, but will show him the pathway of life, even through death and lead him into his presence where there is joy and pleasures evermore (Ps.16:9, 10). The same refrain is found in various other Psalms. Still, it is true that there is often a sombre note when this issue is dealt with in the Old Testament. Why is this?

To come to the answer we must understand that the Old Testament believers clung to Canaan as being the rest promised by God. It was, indeed, the picture of the heavenly rest, the shadow of better things to come, but they clung to this shadow and were reluctant to leave it. Also, for the Old Testament saint, heaven did not open the prospect of joy and glory in the same measure it does for us. The promise had not yet been fulfilled; Christ had not yet come; the kingdom of heaven was not yet realized in Him; they lived in the shadows. They could not yet rejoice with Paul who longed to be with Christ. This all had to wait for the fulness of time.

In view of this, we can somewhat understand that the believer of the Old Testament, even though he knew that God would receive him up into glory, did not share with the saints of the new dispensation the brighter outlook upon this intermediate state. As a result, they prized highly and clung tenaciously to a long life in the land of promise.

New Testament
The New Testament is much more clear, although it never defines the term Òhades.Ó In the KJV it is translated as ÒhellÓ with one exception, 1 Corinthians 15:55, ÒO grave, where is thy victory?Ó

Some of the passages which clearly teach that the intermediate state means glory for the soul while the body is in the grave are II Corinthians 5:1-5; Philippians 1:21-24; Luke 23:43; Luke 16:22-24 (although a parable, this would not teach something which is not true in its main lines). This last passage teaches clearly that poor Lazarus was carried into Abraham's bosom and that the rich man opened his eyes in hell, the place of torment.

All these passages plainly teach a state of conscious glory with Christ immediately after death. Yet, it must be remembered that even this state of glory is partial and still in anticipation of the full glory.

Other passages, which indirectly refer to the state immediately after death are: John 11:25,26 where Jesus at the grave of Lazarus, speaks of the resurrection; Matthew 22:31,32, ÒGod of the living, not of the dead.Ó Psalm 73:24-26; Revelation 20:4,5b, Òthe first resurrectionÓ refers not to the physical resurrection of the beheaded saints, but to the life of their souls after their physical deaths.

4. Divergent Views
We hope to deal with these the next time, D.V. Can you think of some wrong views on this subject? It would be interesting to know with how many of these divergent views you have come into contact.

1. Why can we not believe that Sheol is meant as an ÒunderworldÓ place where all the dead go? (Scriptural proof?)

2. What is wrong with the notion that the views expressed in Scripture on this topic simply reflect the popular notions of the day?

3. Where is the Christian human being immediately after death?

4. The glory of the intermediate (transitional) stage is not yet complete. How does this strike you--is it disappointing or encouraging?

5. What really does it matter whether we go to the Lord immediately or not? When we die, we enter eternity--time is no more so even if we should be totally ÒgoneÓ for 1000's of years, when we Òwake upÓ we'll never even notice. What is your response to this line of thinking?

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