The Resurrection of the Body and the Life Everlasting
Therefore, being always of good courage, and knowing that while we are at home in the body we are absent from the Lord — for we walk by faith, not by sight — we are of good courage, I say, and prefer rather to be absent from the body and to be at home with the Lord.2 Corinthians 5:6-8
For our citizenship is in heaven, from which also we eagerly wait for a Savior, the Lord Jesus Christ; who will transform the body of our humble state into conformity with the body of His glory, by the exertion of the power that He has even to subject all things to Himself.Philippians 3:20-21
Comparing the old covenant believer with the new covenant believer, John Calvin remarks somewhere that both are called to live in hope. Even the believer who looks back in faith to the great redemptive events of Christ's birth, death, resurrection and ascension, must continue to look forward in hope to the consummation and completion of Christ's work in the future. As Calvin put it, the Christian always embraces Christ "clothed in his promises." Christian believers, by virtue of their union with Christ, await the day of their full and complete participation in the saving benefits of His death and resurrection. The whole course of the Christian's pilgrimage has then, a forward look; it is dominated by the fact that we have been "born again to a living hope through the resurrection of Jesus Christ from the dead" (1 Peter 1:3).
I am reminded in this connection of a popular Christian song which includes the line, "I do not know what the future holds, but I know who holds the future." Though the intended meaning of this line may be clear and true enough — no one of us knows precisely what the future holds in the way of prosperity or adversity — it is not exactly accurate. We do know the main lines of the future as it is in Christ. Indeed, we have seen our future as believers in the past events of Christ's resurrection from the dead and ascension to the Father's right hand!
For this reason the Apostles' Creed concludes with a twofold affirmation about the glorious future anticipated by the believer. We know what the future holds in at least two most important respects! The future which captivates and draws the believer forward is full of promise and rich with blessing, the promise and blessing of "the resurrection of the body and the life everlasting."
An Entrance through Death into Christ's Presence
It is important to notice that the Apostles' Creed, when it speaks of the Christian's future, does not specifically mention the future of the believer who "falls asleep" in Jesus before His coming again and the resurrection of the dead. Because of the importance of this aspect of the believer's future hope and the confusion which often abounds today concerning it, we need to digress for a moment to consider this aspect of the believer's hope for the future, what is often termed the "intermediate state."
Interestingly, when the Heidelberg Catechism treats the Creed's affirmation of "the resurrection of the body," it begins by speaking of this intermediate state. In answer to the question, "What comfort does the resurrection of the body afford you?" the Catechism answers: "That not only my soul, after this life, shall be immediately taken up to Christ, its Head; but also that this my body, raised by the power of Christ, shall again be united with my soul, and made like unto the glorious body of Christ." What is interesting about this confession is that it almost "intrudes" into the answer the subject of what becomes of the believer immediately upon death and the separation of body and soul which death brings.
I place the word "intrudes" in quotation marks because it is really not an intrusion at all. It is a necessary confession of faith and the expression of an important biblical teaching which is the source of great comfort to believers.
This biblical teaching is that the believer's communion with Christ is not broken by death. Believers who have been joined through faith with Christ and who are indwelt by the Spirit of God are, when they die, immediately taken into the presence of the Lord. The communion with Christ which they enjoy now is not interrupted, but rather intensified, upon the event of their death.
In 2 Corinthians 5 the apostle Paul describes this reality by comparing our being "at home in the body" to being "absent from the Lord" (vs. 6). Conversely, he speaks of our "being absent from the body" as being "at home with the Lord." When our present bodies are dissolved (vs. 1), we will not be deprived of that communion with the Lord which we already enjoy in this life. Rather, we will enter into a new and more intimate communion in the Lord's presence.
Similarly, in Philippians 1 the apostle is able to speak of his death as "gain," precisely because it will bring him (and any believer) an even greater communion with Christ, his heavenly Head! Writing from prison, Paul recognizes that he may well be put to death for the sake of the gospel. But he is not afraid because death would be better than life: "for me to live is Christ, and to die is gain" (Philippians 1:21). Nonetheless, recognizing that the Lord may well have work for him to do yet on behalf of the Philippians and others, he adds, "having the desire to depart and be with Christ, for this is very much better; yet to remain on in the flesh is more necessary for your sake" (vss. 23-24).
These passages and others (compare Luke 16:22; 23:43; Matthew 10:28; Revelation 22:4) clearly describe an unbroken communion of life between the believer and the Lord Jesus Christ, a communion which is not interrupted or suspended for a time upon the believer's death. Though we must guard ourselves here against any undisciplined speculation about the exact nature of this intermediate state of communion with the Lord, no one has the right to deprive the believing child of God of this comfort.
Consequently, we must reject several common ways in which this biblical truth and comfort have been and continue to be assailed. Some Christians, including some who claim to be Reformed, prefer to speak of a "soul sleep" or an unconscious state which characterizes the period between the believer's death and resurrection. Due to an unwarranted fear of a so-called body-soul "dualism" or dichotomy, they deny any conscious fellowship between the believer and the Lord before the resurrection of the body.1
In a somewhat similar vein, others suggest that believers are "annihilated" completely at death, in both body and soul, only to be resurrected subsequently at the last day. This view is largely founded upon the unbiblical assumption that man, who has been created a "living soul," cannot experience any continued existence apart from the body.2 Finally, it is evident that the comfort of the biblical teaching concerning the intermediate state is lost in the traditional Roman Catholic teaching of "purgatory." There is simply no biblical warrant for the doctrine of purgatory, that believers will undergo after death a period (of greater or lesser duration) of suffering to finish their "satisfaction" of the temporal punishment of sin.