EschatologyDeath, Immortality & The Intermediate State by Loraine Boettner
[1.] The Certainty and Reality of [Physical] Death
Death and the future state are by their very nature mysteries incapable of solution apart from the revelation that has been given in Scripture. There is a tendency on the part of many people to avoid any serious discussion or even thought on the subject of death. Yet every person knows that in the normal course of events sooner or later that experience will happen to him. Every community has its cemetery. Nothing is more certain about life than the fact of death. It may be long delayed, but it will surely come.
All human history and experience point to that conclusion. It has been demonstrated a thousand times in the lives of those about us who have been called from among the living. Heart attacks and other diseases, accidents, wars, fires, etc., have taken their toll. Death is no respecter of persons. It may come to any one, young or old, rich or poor, saint or sinner, at any time or any place. And when God calls none can escape, nor excuse, nor alibi that appointment.
Divine revelation solemnly states that, ìIt is appointed unto men once to die, and after this cometh judgment,î Heb. 9:27. Truly life is short, death is sure, and eternity is long.
[2.] The Penalty for Sin
The essential truth that we should keep in mind about death is that it is the penalty for sin. Repeatedly the Bible drives home that teaching. It is not just the natural end of life. It holds its awful sway over us and we are doomed to die because we are sinners. When man was first created he was placed on a test of pure obedience. He was commanded not to eat of the tree of knowledge of good and evil, and the penalty for disobedience was announced in these words: ìIn the day that thou eatest thereof thou shalt surely die,î Gen. 2:17.
Adam deliberately and wilfully disobeyed Godís command, and in so doing he in effect transferred his allegiance from God to the Devil. Having thereby shown that he was not a loyal and obedient citizen, but a rebel, in the kingdom, there was no alternative but that the threatened penalty should be executed. The Bible thus makes it clear that death is a penal evil, that is, an evil inflicted in accordance with law and as a penalty. This teaching is repeated in the prophets: ìThe soul that sinneth, it shall die,î Ezek. 18:4; and in the New Testament it is connected with the fall in Adam: ìAs through one man sin entered into the world, and death through sin; and so death passed unto all men, for that all sinned,î Rom. 5:12; ìIn Adam all die,î I Cor. 15:22; and again, ìThe wages of sin is death,î Rom. 6:23. Death therefore does not come merely as a result of natural law, as the Unitarians and Modernists would have us believe. Rather, had there been no sin, there would have been no death.
[3.] Three Kinds of Death: Spiritual – Physical – Eternal
1. Spiritual death means the separation or alienation of the soul from God. It is in principle the condition in which the Devil and the demons are, but since in this world manís descent into evil is restrained to some extent by common grace, it has not yet proceeded to such a degree of depravity as is found in them. This was the primary penalty threatened against Adam in the Garden of Eden. Since man can only truly live when in communion with God, spiritual death means his complete undoing and the continual worsening of his condition. It means that while man may still perform many acts which are good in themselves, his works never merit salvation because they are not done with right motives toward God. Spiritual death, like a poisoned fountain, pollutes the whole stream of life, and were it not for the restraining influence of common grace ordinary human life would become a hell on earth.
The opposite of spiritual death is spiritual life. It was this to which Jesus referred when He said to Martha: ìI am the resurrection, and the life: he that believeth on me, though he die, yet shall he live; and whosoever liveth and believeth on me shall never die,î John 11:25, 26. And again, ìHe that heareth my word, and believeth him that sent me, hath eternal life, and cometh not into judgment, but bath passed out of death into life,î John 5:24.
2. Physical death means the separation of the soul from the body. This, too, is a part of the penalty for sin, although, as indicated in the preceding section, it is not the most important part. In contrast with the angels, man was created with a dual nature, a spirit united with a body. He receives information through the avenues of sense. His body is the organ through which he makes contact with other human beings and with the world about him. When he dies he loses that contact, and, so far as we know, the spirits of the departed have no further contact with the living nor with the world about us. We do not know what the process is by which angels, who are pure spirits, communicate with each other, but presumably it is direct communication without intervening means, similar to what we refer to as thought transference or intuitive knowledge. At any rate the Bible gives no reason to believe that the dead can communicate with the living, but quite the contrary. (The alleged communications through spiritualistic mediums will be discussed in a later section.)
At death manís body, which is composed of some thirty different chemical elements, returns to the earth from which it was taken. This phase of death, too, was conquered by Christ when He made atonement for the sins of His people, for they eventually receive a gloriously restored resurrection body.
3. Eternal death is spiritual death made permanent. ìThis,î says Dr. Berkhof, ìmay be regarded as the culmination and completion of spiritual death. The restraints of the present fall away, and the corruption of sin has its perfect work. The full weight of the wrath of God descends on the condemned. Their separation from God, the source of life and joy, is complete, and this means death in the most awful sense of the word. Their outward condition is made to correspond with the inward state of their evil souls. There are pangs of conscience and physical pain. ëAnd the smoke of their torment goeth up for ever and ever.í Rev. 14 :11î4
[4.] What Happens at Death
The Scriptures represent death as primarily a separation of soul and body. “The dust returneth to the earth as it was, and the spirit returneth unto God who gave it,” Eccl. 12:7. “For as the body apart from the spirit is dead, even so faith apart from works is dead,” James 2:36. Death is a transition from one realm to another, and from one kind of life to another. For the Christian it means the cleansing of the soul from the last vestiges of sin and an entrance into the mansions of light. This is well expressed in the Westminster Shorter Catechism, where, in response to the question, “What benefits do believers receive from Christ at death?” (Q.37), the answer is given: “The souls of believers are at their death made perfect in holiness, and do immediately pass into glory; and their bodies, being still united to Christ, do rest in their graves, till the resurrection.”
[5.] Nature and Purpose of the Intermediate State
By the intermediate state is meant that realm or condition in which souls exist between death and the resurrection. That there is such a state is acknowledged by practically all who believe in a resurrection and final judgment. The differences of opinion that exist have to do primarily with the nature of the state, – chiefly in controversy with the Roman Catholics, as to whether or not it is purgatorial in character; and with those who, as Jehovahís Witnesses and the Seventh-day Adventists, believe in soul sleep between death and the resurrection; also to some extent with those who believe in a second chance or the possibility of repentance after death.
The doctrine commonly held by the Jews and by the early medieval Church was that believers after death were in a dreamy, semiconscious state, neither happy nor miserable, awaiting the resurrection of the body. It was in fact not until the Council of Florence, in the year 1439, that the Latin Church expressed outright opposition to this view, and even then it continued to be the prevailing view in the Greek Church.
The Bible has comparatively little to say about the intermediate state, evidently because it is not the ultimate state. It focuses attention not on that which is passing and temporary, but rather on the return of Christ and the new era that shall then begin. We therefore find it difficult to form any adequate idea of the activities that characterize those in the intermediate state.
There are, however, several Scripture passages which teach that it is a state of conscious existence for both the righteous and the wicked, – for the righteous, a state of joy; for the wicked, a state of suffering. This comes out with special clearness in the parable of the rich man and Lazarus, where Lazarus is received into Abrahamís bosom, and the rich man is tormented in the flames of hell. Paulís statements already cited (II Cor. 5:8 and Phil. 1 :23) make it clear that the state of the believer immediately after death is much to be preferred to the present world. While on the cross Christ said to the dying thief, ìToday shalt thou be with me in Paradise,î Luke 23:43. For the believer to be in the intermediate state is to be with Christ in Paradise. And Paulís reference to the vision given him early in his ministry, in which in one instance he says that he was ìcaught up even to the third heaven,î and in another that he was ìcaught up into Paradise,î II Cor. 12:2-4, shows that Paradise is to be identified with heaven. And in Rev. 14:13 is found one of the clearest of all references to those in the intermediate state: ìBlessed are the dead who die in the Lord from henceforth: yea, saith the Spirit, that they may rest from their labors; for their works follow with them.