Is Our Dying Gain?
Is Our Dying Gain?
Nowadays people often speak of losing and winning situations. For most modern people dying is pre-eminently a losing situation. Your life here ends, everything falls away, and you have to say farewell to the people you love. Ultimately, you are stripped of everything when you die. It is striking that the New Testament presents quite a different picture.
Revelation 14:13 says that the “dead who die in the Lord” are blessed. The apostle Paul calls dying “gain” (Phil. 1:21) and even longs to leave his body and be at home with the Lord (2 Cor. 5:8).
The Heidelberg Catechism speaks of our “only comfort in life and death” (q. 1). For God’s children dying is not at all a loss. On the contrary, it is gain. And that is why we are comforted in our death.
This article is about that comfort. What bliss awaits us when we die? And what are we when we leave our bodies? Is there a conscious continuation of our existence? But how is that possible when our brains are left behind on earth?
Small and Broad Horizon⤒🔗
In Answer 57 of the Catechism we confess that after this life our soul will immediately be taken up to Christ. When God’s children die, they go to heaven and are there with the Lord Jesus as they await the day then he will make all things new. That is what we learnt in Catechism class and heard proclaimed in church.
But this confession has not escaped criticism. Eschatological objections have been raised against it (eschatology is the doctrine of the last things). It is said that Answer 57 wrongly emphasizes the “small horizon” of our dying, while the focus of the New Testament is the “broad horizon” of Christ’s return. Only then does bliss commence and only then are people delivered, together with the entire cosmos. Thus, Answer 57 amounts to a dangerous narrowing of Scripture’s eschatological expectation.1
Anthropological objections have also been raised against this confession (Anthropology is the doctrine of man). Thus, it is said that the language of the Catechism incorporates a dualistic view of human beings, in which the “soul” is taken up to Christ apart from the “body”. But, the argument goes, the Bible does not recognize such a distinction. It clearly teaches us the unity of the person. When a person dies, therefore, the entire person dies.
In the 1960s, the Rev. B. Telder accused the Catechism of an unbiblical image of man. His Biblical understanding of man according to Scripture led him to criticize Answer 57 very strongly.2 He said: our loved ones who have died are not in heaven. The Bible says that those who have died in the Lord “sleep in the dust of the earth, together with all those who have died, and that they shall be raised from that sleep on the day of Christ’s return”.3 They do remain in communion with Christ, but do not consciously experience this communion.4
In effect, their death now and their being raised later, happen at the same time. In their consciousness, the one and the other are directly connected.
It is important to take note of the framework in which the Catechism speaks of the bliss the deceased receive immediately after they die. Lord’s Day 22 explains what the Apostles’ Creed confesses about the resurrection of the body and the life everlasting. The confession does not explain the “small horizon” of our dying at the cost of the “broad horizon” of the last day. On the contrary, the light of comfort shines out of the latter onto the former! The Catechism uses Christ’s return to confess the path of the believer on the way to the future of that return. In communion with Christ, the believer now already experiences “the beginning of eternal joy”. That joy is not interrupted by death. The Catechism unmistakably couples the expectation at our death to the resurrection of our body (see the “not only…but also”). That means that it regards the resurrected life as a continuation of the life that God’s children enjoy with Christ after they die. Thus, the Catechism follows Calvin, who strongly posited the unity of the two concluding articles of the Apostles’ Creed over against the Anabaptist idea of a “soul sleep”. You may not separate the two as the Anabaptists did.
For Christ promises us two things: eternal life and resurrection. The Anabaptists accepted the latter, but rejected the former with their “soul sleep”.
It is time for us to let Scripture speak. I shall first pay attention to the Old Testament.
When we do that, the question arises whether the Israelites had any expectation of life after death. Did they have any perspective in the darkness of death?
There are plenty of utterances suggesting that the question should be answered negatively. For example, in his hymn of praise, Hezekiah says: “For the grave cannot praise you…those who go down to the pit cannot hope for your faithfulness. The living, the living—they praise you…” (Isa. 26:19; 38:18-19). Several psalmists employ the argument that no one praises the Lord when they die (Ps. 6:5; 30:10). Heman reminds the Lord: “Is your love declared in the grave, your faithfulness in Destruction?” (Ps. 88:11). The Teacher calls on us to enjoy what God gives, “for in the grave, where you are going, there is neither working nor planning nor knowledge nor wisdom” (Eccl. 9:10). And Job speaks about his death as a departure, “before I go to the place of no return, to the land of gloom and deep shadow” (Job 10:21).
We cannot escape the conclusion that God’s children in the Old Testament knew very little about the glory that awaited them right after death. They had a limited horizon and ultimately regarded dying as loss.
But did Israel have no perspective beyond death and grave? The Old Testament attests that there certainly was such a prospect. Israel was told about God’s supremacy over death. What Moses was allowed to pass on, became part of Israel’s heritage through the ages: “I put to death and I bring to life, I have wounded and I will heal” (Deut. 32:39). Israel knew God as the God who “brings down to the grave and raises up” (1 Sam. 2:6), and as the God who does not abandon his children to the grave (Ps. 16:10). In Isaiah 25:8 we read the Lord “will swallow up death forever”. And the Song of Praise of Isaiah 26 exclaims: “your dead will live; their bodies will rise. You who dwell in the dust, wake up and shout for joy” (Isa. 26:19)!
We may conclude that God’s children in the Old Testament typically saw dying as loss as regards their relationship with God, but at the same time, they held on to the belief that God would save them from death and grave in the future. For he is the God who puts to death, but also revives. He redeems their life from the grave (Ps. 49:16).5
The New Testament←⤒🔗
It is striking that the New Testament clearly testifies of gain when we die and of life that is not interrupted by death.
The Lord Jesus assures Martha, who looks only at the “broad horizon” (“I know he will rise again in the resurrection at the last day”): “He who believes in me will live, even though he dies” (John 11:25). He also promises the criminal on the cross: “…today you will be with me [not in the realm of the dead! but] in paradise” (Luke 23:43). Paul regards his dying as gain, for then he will “be with Christ” (Phil 1:23) and longs to leave his body and go to be “at home with the Lord” (2 Cor. 5:8).
Thus, in light of the New Testament, the ideas of the Rev. B. Telder cannot be maintained.6 God’s children do not sleep in the grave to be awakened when Christ returns. Bliss follows immediately when we die. Our death is — thanks to Christ’s victory! — an entrance into eternal life, as Answer 42 of the Heidelberg Catechism says. Our death means that we will be “with Christ”, that we will be “at home with the Lord”.
What this actually means still remains largely a mystery. The New Testament is very restrained about ‘the intermediate state’.7 We read that the dead who die in the Lord “from now on…will rest from their labour” (Rev. 14:13). God’s children may rest after all they have undergone on earth for Jesus’ sake. Heavenly comfort follows immediately after (see “from now on”!) their death and the oppression they suffered on earth. We read also about the “souls” of the witnesses who had been slain. They call out for vengeance from under the altar (of incense) (Rev. 6:10). We even read that God’s children who have died are priests of God and will reign with Christ as kings (Rev. 20:6).
All of this points to a life that is conscious and active after we die and attests to a bliss that is to be experienced. Everyone who believes in the Son has eternal life (John 3:15) and has passed from death to life (1 John 3:14). God’s children do not lose that life when they die. On the contrary, they may enjoy a richer experience of it, without exerting themselves (Rev. 14:3), in an as yet unknown opulence (Rev. 20:6) and in communion with Christ (Phil. 1:23). Here on earth we are “in Christ” (2 Cor. 5:17). After death, we are “with Christ” (Phil. 1:23), “with the Lord” (2 Cor. 5:8). Then there is no longer a communion at a distance. That is why Paul can call dying “gain” (Phil. 1:21).
Life After Death←⤒🔗
We saw that the Rev. Telder severely criticized the Catechism’s speaking about a “soul” that will be taken up to Christ. According to him, in this respect the Catechism was influenced by Greek philosophy. But Telder jumped to conclusions. The reference in Answer 57 to “my soul” can easily be defended by Scriptural passages. Perhaps Reformed theologians sometimes contrasted the “soul” too strongly with the “body”, so that, in consequence, they had inadequate regard for how the Bible treats a person as a unity. But that does not mean that we have to reject what the Catechism says.
This way of speaking accords with what the Lord Jesus says in Matthew 10:28 about “body” and “soul”: people can kill the body, but not the soul. The Lord expressly mentions the “soul” in this text as something that survives the death of the body. The words “cannot kill” indicates continued existence, even though the body has died.
What continues to exist is called “the soul” by Christ in this text. We come across this term also when Revelation speaks about “the souls” of the witnesses who had been slain (Rev. 6:10) and “the souls” of those who had been beheaded (Rev. 20:4).
In this respect, the New Testament is linked to the Old Testament word nefesh (soul), which has a broad range of meanings. It can refer to “life” in the sense of the breath of life (1 Kings 17:21), “life” in the sense of life force (Lev. 17:11), “heart and soul” in the sense of a person’s inner self (Deut. 11:18), or also to the whole person (Ezek. 18:4).8
The language of Answer 57 of the Heidelberg Catechism also finds its basis in the term “spirit” as something that is distinguished from the body. The Lord Jesus commits his “spirit” into his Father’s hands (Luke 23:46) and Stephen prays: “Lord Jesus, receive my spirit” (Acts 7:59. Further, Hebrews 12:23 speaks of “the spirits of righteous men”, who belong to the church of God in heaven and on earth.
Therefore, it is not at all strange that the Catechism uses the word “soul” to indicate what is taken up to Christ at death. Answer 57 describes a continued personal existence with Christ; the person’s identity that is preserved in death. This is abundantly clear from Luke 23, when you compare “my spirit” (v. 46) with “me” (v. 43). Our “identity”, our “personality” continues to exist, thanks to Christ’s victory. The Lord’s statement, “He who believes in me will live, even though he dies” (John 11:25) and what Paul says about being at home with the Lord (2 Cor. 5:8) point to this continued personal existence.
The New Testament does not disclose how there can be a personal existence even though our brain dies. That a conscious continuing existence is possible remains a mystery to us, who know that on earth our existence is limited by neurological and physical characteristics. How is it possible to be (Phil. 1:23) without a brain, to call (Rev. 6:10) without a mouth, to reign without a body?
What K. Schilder wrote on this point is particularly apt: ‘Would it be impossible for God to give the son (human being) what the servant (the angel) received?’9
A “Spiritual Body”?←⤒🔗
Dr. T.E. van Spanje makes a remarkable argument about this last point in his commentary on 2 Corinthians, published in 2009. He posits that the believers who have died will not be without a body until Christ returns. Van Spanje writes: “In 2 Corinthians 5:1 Paul describes in short compass what happens to him and also to all believers when they die: then they receive a house in heaven. That is to say: they will already then receive the so-called sooma pneumatikon (i.e., the spiritual body) about which Paul wrote in 1 Corinthians 15. They will never have to leave that sooma pneumatikon. Paul compares it to a building. When Christ returns, this sooma pneumatikon will be raised (1 Cor. 15)’.10 Van Spanje regards this resurrection as the bodily “completion” of this “spiritual body”.
I realize that there has been much dispute about the question whether 2 Corinthians 5:1ff speaks about what we receive when we die, or about what we receive when Christ returns. The exegesis remains difficult. In my opinion, because of the contrast between “the earthly tent we live in” and “a building from God”, it is most likely that the latter phrase refers the glorified existence that we shall enjoy when Christ returns.
But even if that “building from God” was intended to refer to the building we receive when we die, I remain of opinion that Van Spanje unjustifiably identifies it with the “spiritual body” of which Paul writes in 1 Corinthians 15. I do not at all believe that God’s children receive a “spiritual body” when they die.
In 1 Corinthians 15, the apostle speaks about how the dead are raised and what their bodies will look like (v. 35). The discussion is undeniably about what happens when Christ returns (v. 52). It is within that framework that Paul exults about the “spiritual body” that God’s children will then receive and that is why he writes: “it [the body] is sown a natural body, it is raised a spiritual body” (v. 44).
The apostle clearly contrasts the “spiritual body” with the body that was buried in the earth as a seed out of which eventually a glorified body will be raised. It is the same body and yet entirely different (see vv. 52-53). A “spiritual body” is not completed, as Van Spanje supposes, but raised!
In my opinion, God’s children who have died are indeed with Christ, but without a body and, as Paul teaches us (Phil. 3:20-21) they “eagerly await” the day when Christ “will transform our lowly bodies so that they will be like his glorious body”. That we shall exist without a body is also indicated when the Bible speaks of “the souls” under the heavenly altar (Rev. 6:9), “the souls” of those who had been beheaded (Rev. 20:4), and “the spirits” of the righteous (Heb. 12:23).
It is true that the New Testament directs our gaze to the day of Christ’s return and our being gathered to, that is, reunited with him (2 Thess. 2:1). Paul expresses this very powerfully when he says that the Thessalonians turned to God “to wait for his Son from heaven” (1 Thess. 1:9-10). But on our way to that future we also have comfort at our death, the comfort of being “with Christ”, the gain of a more intense fellowship with him. The time after death is truly an “intermediate state” for God’s children, as they await “perfection” (Heb. 11:40), the “consummation” (Matt. 28:20). Only when our mortal body is raised from the dead shall we be saved completely.
We can characterize this intermediate state as “bliss” and “expectation”. But we must admit that then we are using anthropologic expressions. We cannot make “be with Christ” theoretically perspicuous and we cannot make a depiction of it. G.C. Berkouwer was correct when he said: “... here we may and must, without hesitation, speak of God’s mystery”.11
But we may and must believe what exceeds our understanding. Whoever believes in Jesus, will live, even though he dies (John 11:25). Death has become an “entrance” for God’s children, a life with the Lord, a removal to a heavenly existence that is “gain” compared to our existence in the body. What the New Testament says about that existence in restrained language is illuminated by Paul’s jubilant exclamation that nothing (not even death!) can separate us from the love of God that he has given us in Christ Jesus our Lord (Rom. 8:38-39)!
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