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Reformed Dogmatics, Vol. 4 > Chapter 13: After Death, Then What?

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In this chapter, we continue our study of eschatology (the study of last things), particularly the intermediate state. Bavinck again provides warning against vain speculation. "The history of the doctrine of the intermediate state shows that it is hard for theologians and people in general to stay within the limits of Scripture and not attempt to be wiser than they can be. The scriptural data about the intermediate state are sufficient for our needs in this life but leave unanswered many questions that may arise in the inquisitive mind. If one nevertheless insists on solving them, one can only take the course of conjecture and run the risk of negating the divine witness by the inventions of human wisdom" (p. 614). So, let us be careful in staying within the boundaries given to us by Scripture! Here are the main topics summarized:

1. Doctrine of the Intermediate State by the Early Church, Part 1: Interestingly, in the early church, there was no explicit teaching of the intermediate state initially. It was generally "believed that at death the devout immediately experience the blessedness of heaven and the wicked the punishment of hell" (p. 607). However, the doctrine of the intermediate state developed when eschatology did not unfold as expected. "Only when the parousia of Christ [i.e., second coming of Christ] did not come as soon as almost all believers initially expected, and various heretical thinkers distorted or opposed the doctrine of the last things, did the church’s thinkers begin to reflect more intentionally on the intermediate state… Christian theology was compelled to seek a clearer understanding of the character of the intermediate state and of its connections both with this life and with the final state following the last judgment" (p. 608). It was acknowledged that there was a distinction between the righteous and unrighteous. The early church father "Justin already stated that after death the souls of the devout were in a better place and the souls of the unrighteous in a worse one as they awaited the time of judgment… According to Irenaeus, the souls of the devout at death do not immediately enter heaven… but an invisible place determined by God, where they await the resurrection" (p. 608). "There, in the shadow of death, in hades, every human receives a fitting habitation even before the judgment, the pious probably in Abraham’s bosom, which is, accordingly, a division of hades" (p. 608).

2. Doctrine of the Intermediate State by the Early Church, Part 2: As time went on, and the second coming of Christ became seemingly distant, it became harder for people to accept the idea that hades served as a brief, provisional dwelling. For instance, it was taught by Irenaeus and Tertullian that martyrs "entered heaven immediately after their death and were immediately admitted to the vision of God" (p. 608). Alongside this, "the teaching of the necessity and meritoriousness of good works, which made increasing inroads in the church, automatically led to the idea that those who had in a special way devoted their entire lives to God were now also, immediately at the time of their death, worthy of heavenly bliss… [As such] hades was increasingly viewed as a place of punishment and equated with Tartarus or Gehenna. Only those Christians who up until then had not made enough progress in sanctification to be able, immediately at death, to enter the glory of heaven would have to spend time in hades" (pp. 608-609). This unfortunate idea then paved the way for the development of the false doctrine of purgatory.

3. Doctrine of Purgatory Introduced: One of the early church fathers, Origen, spoke of the idea of "purification by fire." "According to him, all punishments were medicines… and all of hades… was a place of purification. Sins were specifically consumed and people cleansed by purifying fire" (p. 609). The Western church took the idea of "purification by fire" and applied it to the intermediate state. Accordingly, "Gregory the Great, working this out, developed the idea that specifically venial sins could be expiated here or in the hereafter. And when this teaching was combined with the church practice… of making intercessions and sacrifices for the dead, the dogma of purgatory was complete" (p. 609). It was at the Council of Trent (1545–63) that purgatory was formalized as a church doctrine.

4. The Afterlife According to Rome: "According to Catholic doctrine, the souls of the damned immediately enter hell (Gehenna, the abyss, the inferno), where they, along with the unclean spirits, are tormented in everlasting and inextinguishable fire. The souls of those who after receiving baptism are not again tainted by sin or are purified from it here or hereafter are immediately taken up into heaven. There they behold the face of God, be it in various degrees of perfection, depending on their merits. By Christ’s descent into hell also the souls of the saints who died before that time are transferred from the limbo of the fathers (Abraham’s bosom) to heaven. Infants who die before being baptized… were consigned to the lower regions… According to the most common view, they go to a special division [where they] suffer an 'eternal punishment of condemnation'… But those who, after having received sanctifying grace in baptism or the sacrament of penance, commit venial sins and have not been able to 'pay' the appropriate temporal punishments in this life, are not pure enough to be immediately admitted to the beatific vision of God in heaven. They go to a place between heaven and hell, not to acquire new virtues and merits, but to clear up the hindrances that stand in the way of their entry into heaven" (p. 610). This later category is purgatory.

5. Purgatory Explained: Purgatory is intended to be the place where people bear the temporal punishments of their sins, even those sins which have been forgiven. "Purgatory… is not a place of repentance, of trial, or of sanctification, but of punishment, where fire—usually thought of as a material agent—serves… to have a purifying impact on 'poor souls.' In addition, by virtue of the communion of saints, the church can come to the aid of these suffering souls for the purpose of softening and shortening their punishment by intercessions, sacrifices of the Mass, good works, and indulgences. It is true that nobody knows for certain which souls have to go to purgatory, how long they must stay there, and under what conditions on their part the prayers and sacrifices of the living are to their benefit" (p. 610). Consistent with the rest of Roman Catholic teaching, there is great uncertainty concerning the fate of a person's soul!

6. Reformation Against Purgatory: The doctrine of purgatory was thoroughly rejected by the Reformation. "The Reformation saw in this notion of purgatory a limitation on the merits of Christ" (p. 611). The Reformers again re-examined the doctrine of the intermediate state. "Luther himself frequently pictured the intermediate state of the pious as a sleep in which they quietly and calmly awaited the future of the Lord. Later Lutheran theologians, however, almost completely wiped out the distinction between the intermediate state and the final state: they said that immediately after death the souls of the faithful enjoyed a full and essential beatitude, and the ungodly immediately received a full and consummate condemnation. In the main, we have to say, that was also the opinion of the Reformed. But they usually showed more clearly than the Lutherans the difference that existed in the state of the dead before and after the last day… [For instance] Calvin states that… after death the souls of the faithful will enjoy full peace, but that up until the day of resurrection something will still be lacking, namely, the full and perfect glory of God to which they always aspire, and that therefore our salvation always remains in progress until the day that concludes and terminates all progress" (p. 611)… [Others elaborated] that after death the souls of the pious enter a state that, though it can be called blessed by comparison with what exists on earth, is very different from the blessedness that begins after the resurrection… And in the same way the souls of the wicked arrived after death in a state in which they awaited in dread and fear the future punishment determined for them but did not yet suffer that punishment itself" (p. 612).

7. Biblical Idea of "Death" and "Life": To understand the intermediate state properly, we need to examine what Scripture teaches us about death and life. "Philosophy deals with this subject in a way that is very different from Scripture. Philosophy views death as something natural and thinks that the idea of immortality [as only] the continued existence of the soul… But the judgment of Scripture is vastly different. Death is not natural but arises from the violation of the divine commandment (Gen. 2:17)… from sin itself inasmuch as it has a disintegrating impact on the whole of human life… and from the judgment of God… (Rom. 6:23). And in Scripture this death is never identical with annihilation, with nonbeing, but always consists in the destruction of harmony, in being cut off from the various life settings in which a creature has been placed in keeping with one’s nature, in returning to the elementary chaotic existence" (p. 614).

Life, on the other hand, is characterized by healthy and rich relationships with those around us. "[L]ife is all the richer to the degree that the relations in which [a person] stands to its surroundings are greater in number and healthier in nature… By virtue of their creation, humans are linked with nature and the human world, visible and invisible things, heaven and earth, God and angels. And [humans] live if, and to the degree that, they stand in the right, that is, in the God-willed relation to the whole of their surroundings. Accordingly, in its essence and entire scope, death is disturbance, the breakup of all these relations in which humans stood originally and still ought to stand now. Death’s cause, therefore, is and can be none other than the sin that disturbs the right relation to God and breaks up life-embracing fellowship with God. In this sense sin not only results in death but also coincides with it; sin is death, death in a spiritual sense. Those who sin… put themselves in an adversarial relationship toward God, are dead to God and the things of God, have no pleasure in the knowledge of his ways, and in hostility and hatred turn away from him. And since this relation to God… belongs to the essence of being human and bears a central character, the disturbance of this relationship will inevitably have a devastating impact on all the other relationships in which human beings stand—to themselves, to their fellow humans, to nature, to the angels, to the whole creation" (p. 615). We see this testimony in Scripture. After Adam and Eve fell, they immediately hid themselves from God's presence and laid blame on each other. All relationships were instantly fractured, and in that sense, they immediately experienced death.

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8. Restoration of Life: "But God intervened: he broke the power of sin and death… He intervened first with his common grace to curb the power of sin and death, then with his special grace to break down and conquer that power. Not only is physical death postponed, and not only did God by various measures make human existence and development possible; but also Christ by his cross fundamentally achieved a victory over sin and death and brought life and immortality to light (Rom. 5:12ff.; 1 Cor. 15:45; 2 Tim. 1:10; Heb. 2:14; Rev. 1:18; 20:14), so that everyone who believes in him has eternal life and will never die (John 3:36; 5:24; 8:51–52; 11:25). Now it is this life and this immortality that in Holy Scripture stands in the foreground" (p. 615). In contrast to philosophy, Scripture teaches that life is not merely existence. To exist without a right relationship with God is death, and life is fellowship with Him. "Christ did not gain or disclose immortality in the philosophical sense, the sense of the continued existence of souls after death. On the contrary, both here and hereafter he again filled the life of humans, exhausted and emptied by sin, with the positive content of God’s fellowship, with peace and joy and blessedness. For those who are in Christ Jesus, death is no longer death but a passage into eternal life, and the grave is a place of sanctified rest until the day of resurrection" (p. 616).

9. What Happens in the Intermediate State?—Theory of "Soul Sleep": "Many pagan thinkers… have believed that souls, after being separated from the body, are capable only of leading a dormant life" (p. 616). The premise is this: without a physical body to receive external input, the soul sleeps. According to those who hold to this theory, "[t]he entire content of our psychic life is after all derived from the external world… If then, as Scripture teaches, death is a sudden, violent, total, and absolute break with the present world, there is ostensibly no other possibility than that the soul is completely closed to the external world, loses all its content, and sinks back as it were into itself" (p. 616). Using physical sleep as an analogy, there is no more interaction with the outside world. "[T]he consciousness stands still; all perception and observation stop" (p. 617). Some have tried to appeal to Scripture to support their case. "After all, not only the Old but also the New Testament repeatedly refers to death as a sleep (Deut. 31:16 KJV; Jer. 51:39, 57; Dan. 12:2; Matt. 9:24; John 11:11; 1 Cor. 7:39, Greek; in KJV: 1 Cor. 11:30; 15:6, 18, 20, 51; 1 Thess. 4:13–15; 2 Pet. 3:4; etc.). Sheol is a land of silence, rest, and forgetfulness, where nothing ever shares in anything that happens under the sun. Jesus speaks of the night of death in which no one can work (John 9:4), and Scripture nowhere makes mention of anything that those who, like Lazarus and others, returned to life from the dead reported concerning what they saw or heard in the intermediate state" (p. 617).

10. What Happens in the Intermediate State?—Refuting "Soul Sleep": There are many arguments against soul sleep. "For in the first place, it is clear that the soul’s dependence on the body does not necessarily exclude its independence" (p. 617). Though the body is integral to the essence of being human, "there is nothing preposterous in thinking that if necessary the soul can continue its activities without the body. Also, those who would deny conscious life to spirit as such would logically have to assume that consciousness and will are also impossible in the case of God and the angels. For though we speak of God in human fashion and often picture angels as corporeal, they are in themselves spirit and nevertheless possess consciousness and will" (p. 617). Second, the soul remains conscious after death according to Scripture. "Scripture always represents the person after death as being more or less conscious. As revelation progresses, it becomes increasingly clear that, whereas in death all the soul’s relationships with this world are cut off, they are immediately replaced by other relations with another world… And all believers… after death enjoy [life] all the more intensely and blessedly in fellowship with Christ (Luke 23:43; Acts 7:59; 2 Cor. 5:8; Phil. 1:23; Rev. 6:9; 7:9–10). Being at home in the body is being away from the Lord; therefore, to die is the way to a closer, more intimate fellowship with Christ" (pp. 617-618). Finally,
"it need not surprise us that those who rose again and returned to this life tell us nothing about what they saw and heard on the other side… [I]t is most likely that they have not been permitted, or are unable, to convey their experiences on the other side of the grave" (p. 618). It does not mean that they were literally asleep. "After being caught up into the third heaven, Paul could say only that he had heard things that are not to be told and that no mortal is permitted to repeat (2 Cor. 12:4)" (p. 618).

11. What Happens in the Intermediate State?—Theory of "Intermediate Corporeality": "Others believe that after death, souls receive a new corporeality [i.e., new body] and are on that account able again to enter into contact with the external world. They base this opinion on the fact that… the dead are described precisely as they appeared on earth. Samuel is pictured as an old man clothed with a mantle (1 Sam. 28:14); the kings of the nations sit on thrones and go out to meet the king of Babylon (Isa. 14:9)… In speaking of the dead, Jesus still refers to their eyes, fingers, and tongues (Luke 16:23–24)… And John saw a great multitude, standing before the throne and the Lamb, robed in white, with palm branches in their hands (Rev. 6:11; 7:9)" (p. 618). As such, there is an apparent corporality (body) in the intermediate state which resembles our earthly body.

12. What Happens in the Intermediate State?—Refuting "Intermediate Corporeality": There are numerous reasons why we reject intermediate corporeality. First, we cannot infer too much from Scriptural descriptions of the dead that describe them as having bodies. After all, "Scripture can speak of God and angels, of the souls in Sheol, of joy in heaven and torment in hell only by using human language, with imagery derived from earthly conditions and relations. But alongside of this it states clearly and decisively that God is spirit and that the angels are spirits, and by saying this it gives us a standard by which all these anthropomorphic expressions need to be understood. And it does the same with respect to the dead. It can only speak of them as people of flesh and blood but states additionally that while their bodies rest in the grave, they are souls or spirits (Eccles. 12:7; Ezek. 37:5; Luke 23:46; Acts 7:59; Heb. 12:23; 1 Pet. 3:19; Rev. 6:9; 20:4). We have to hold to these clear pronouncements. Those who nevertheless attribute to souls a kind of body must, to be consistent, follow through and… represent God and the angels as in some sense physical as well" (p. 619). Importantly, "[w]e know only of spirit and matter. An 'immaterial corporeality' is a contradiction that was inauspiciously taken from theosophy into Christian theology and seeks in vain to reconcile the false dualism of spirit and matter" (p. 620).

13. What Happens in the Intermediate State?—Theory of "Contact with the Living": In general, most Christians easily reject the first two theories above (i.e., soul sleep and intermediate corporeality). But, there is a third theory that the dead maintain contact with the living. Bavinck spends a lot of time explaining and refuting this theory because it has influenced a large part of Christendom, even today. "[T]here are many who believe that souls after death still maintain some kind of relationship with life on earth. Prevalent among many peoples is the idea that souls after death remain near the gravesite. The Jews, too, believed that for a time following death the soul hovered about the corpse… There was the widespread practice of providing the deceased in their grave with food, weapons, possessions, and sometimes even wives and slaves. Usually this veneration of the dead was not restricted to the day of the burial or the time of mourning but continued afterward as well… The purpose of this veneration by the people was in part to come to the aid of the dead but especially to avert the evil the dead could do and to ensure themselves, whether in ordinary or extraordinary ways, by oracles and miracles, of their blessing and assistance" (pp. 620-621). This superstitious practice was to ward off evil hauntings and to invoke the favour of the dead!

14. The Theory of "Contact with the Living" Incorporated into Christian Theology—Early Church: Unfortunately, the unbiblical idea that the dead can make some sort of contact with the living even entered into Christian circles. "From as early as the second century… martyrs in the Christian church soon became the objects of religious veneration… And after the fourth century this veneration of the virgin Mary, angels, patriarchs, prophets, and martyrs was extended to include bishops, monks, hermits, confessors, and virgins, as well as a variety of saints, their relics, and their images. Despite resistance to this cult of the dead both inside and outside the Catholic Church, it is still, in an alarming way, consistently and increasingly forcing the worship of the one true God and of Jesus Christ into the background" (p. 621).

15. The Theory of "Contact with the Living" Incorporated into Christian Theology—Doctrine of the Church: Furthermore, the idea that the dead maintains some form of contact with the living has shaped Rome's doctrine of the church. In contrast to Protestant theology where we speak of the church triumphant in heaven and the church militant on earth, according to Rome, the "church has three divisions: the triumphant church (ecclesia triumphans) in heaven, the suffering church (ecclesia patiens) in purgatory, and the militant church (ecclesia militans) on earth" (p. 621). Using this framework, Rome explains the communion of the saints as follows: "(1) The blessed souls in heaven by their intercessions come to the aid of the poor souls in purgatory. (2) The church on earth, by its prayers, alms, good works, indulgences, and especially the offering of the Mass, seeks to soften and shorten the punishment of the souls in purgatory. (3) Finally, the souls in purgatory, who in any case are far ahead of the majority of the members of the militant church and may for that reason be invoked, by their intercessions help and strengthen believers on earth" (p. 621).

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16. The Theory of "Contact with the Living" Incorporated into Christian Theology—Veneration of the Saints: Importantly, communion with "the suffering church… forms the main constituent of the communion of the militant church with the triumphant church. The blessed in heaven… share in perfect supernatural holiness and are for that reason the objects of adoration and veneration… And in the measure by which a thing is closer to God and has a greater share in his holiness, to that extent it is the object of religious veneration" (pp. 621-622). Rome tries to defends its practice by stating that it distinguishes between a twofold veneration, one that is lower and another that is higher (call volume 2, chapter 9, point #14). Rome states that the highest form is "[a]doration (latria) [which] is due only to God… [whereas] the saints [receive] dulia… In general, the veneration of saints consists in prayers, fastings, vigils, feast days, gifts, pilgrimages, processions, and the like" (p. 622). Over time, a system developed where veneration and intercession occurred to a large number of saints. This was not only limited to Rome, but also affected Protestants to a certain extent as well (see pp. 622-623)!

17. What Happens in the Intermediate State?—Refuting "Contact with the Living": It is clear that the Bible prohibits any attempt to contact the dead. We are only permitted to consult God. Indeed, the "Law and the Prophets were firmly opposed to the practice [of soothsaying] and called the people back to the Lord, his revelation, and his testimony (Exod. 22:18; Lev. 19:26, 31; 20:6, 27; Deut. 18:11; 1 Sam. 28:9; Isa. 8:19; 47:9–15; Jer. 27:9; 29:8; Mic. 3:7; 5:12; Nah. 3:4; Mal. 3:5); the New Testament puts its seal on this witness (Luke 16:29; Acts 8:9ff.; 19:13–20; Gal. 5:20; Eph. 5:11; Rev. 9:21; 21:8; 22:15)" (p. 623). There is no biblical mandate to call upon the dead. In fact, it is prohibited!

Side note: "[N]owhere does [the Bible] teach the possibility or reality of the dead appearing. The only passage that can be cited for this view is 1 Sam. 28, where Saul seeks out the medium at Endor" (p. 624). Bavinck lists several reasons why Samuel did not truly appear to Saul and that it was a false apparition (see p. 624). Pastor Gangar preached on 1 Samuel 28 back in November 2013 in a sermon entitled Can We Contact the Dead? In the sermon, he carefully explains why it is impossible for us to make contact with those who have died. Pastor Gangar goes into much more detail than Bavinck in his sermon as to why it is impossible that Samuel appeared. Please listen to it if you haven't already!

18. Death is a Total Break from This World—Though the Dead Remember This Life: "Death, then, is an exit from this life, the breaking of all bonds with this world… in a word, it is being completely dead to the entire range of the rich and joyful experience of life on earth" (p. 615). "[T]he whole of Scripture proceeds from the idea that death is a total break with life on this side of the grave. True, the dead continue to remember the things that happened to them on earth. Both the rich man and Lazarus know who and what they were on earth and under what conditions they lived (Luke 16). In the final judgment, people know what they have done on earth (Matt. 7:22). Their deeds follow those who died in the Lord (Rev. 14:13). The things we have done on earth become our moral possession and accompany us in death. There is no doubt either that the dead recognize those whom they have known on earth. The denizens of the underworld mockingly salute the king of Babylon (Isa. 14). Out of the midst of Sheol the mighty chiefs address Egypt’s king and people (Ezek. 32:21). The rich man knows Lazarus (Luke 16). The friends we make on earth by the good we do will one day receive us with joy in the eternal homes (Luke 16:9)" (p. 625). After death, there remains a recognition and memory of things that occurred during our earthly life.

19. Death is a Total Break from This World and Further Contact is Not Possible: "Scripture consistently tells us that at death all fellowship with this earth ends. The dead no longer have a share in anything that happens under the sun (Eccles. 9:5–6, 10). Whether their children come to honor or are brought low, the dead do not know of it (Job 14:21). Abraham does not know of the children of Israel, and Jacob does not recognize them either; therefore they call to the Lord since he is their Father (Isa. 63:16). Nowhere is there any sign that the dead are in contact with the living: they belong to another realm, one that is totally separate from the earth. Nor does Heb. 12:1 teach us that the great cloud of witnesses see and watch us in our struggles. For the [martyrs] are not eyewitnesses of our struggle but witnesses of faith who serve to encourage us" (p. 625). After death, there is no knowledge of present, ongoing earthly events.

20. Intercession From Others: There is no Scriptural support whatsoever for intercession from angels or saints in heaven. "Scripture… often mentions the intercession of people on earth and specifically recommends and prescribes it (Matt. 6:9ff.; Rom. 15:30; Eph. 6:18–19; Col. 1:2–3; 1 Tim. 2:1–2) and further teaches that God frequently spares others for the sake of the elect and upon their intercession (Gen. 18:23ff.; Exod. 32:11ff.; Num. 14:13ff.; Ezek. 14:14, 20; Matt. 24:22; etc.), [but] it never breathes a word about intercession by angels and the blessed in heaven for those who live on earth" (p. 625). So, the Bible only gives warrant for the militant church (on earth) to intercede on the behalf of others. "Holy Scripture does say that believers on earth may appeal to each other for intercession (Num. 21:7; Jer. 42:2; 1 Thess. 5:25), but never mentions asking the dead for their intercession; and both angels and human beings expressly refuse to accept the religious veneration that is due only to God (Deut. 6:13; 10:20; Matt. 4:10; Acts 14:10ff.; Col. 2:18–19; Rev. 19:10; 22:9)" (p. 626).

21. Absurdity of Rome's Doctrine of Contacting the Dead: Bavinck concludes the chapter by pointing out how ridiculous Rome's teaching is. First, it is unclear how the dead even receive our prayers. Second, "Roman Catholics absolutely do not know with certainty which of the dead are in heaven" (p. 626), meaning it is not even possible to know with certainty if the person being prayed to is even saved! "By far the majority of saints are invoked and venerated without it being known precisely whether they are in heaven or are still in purgatory" (p. 627). Third, according to Rome's practice, "the invocation of saints is certainly no longer merely a request for their intercession… [but has become] a kind of adoration and veneration. The saints are the objects of religious veneration… even if it is not called worship… On the road on which Rome is going with this veneration of creatures, there is simply no stopping" (p. 627). Bavinck then (by taking Rome's teaching to its logical conclusion) states, "I see no reason why the saints who are on earth should not already be invoked and venerated by Catholic Christians, among them especially the pope, the saint par excellence… [T]he veneration of living saints, specifically of the pope, is merely a matter of time in the Roman Catholic Church" (p. 627). The worship of God is exchanged for the worship of the creature! Let us be on guard not to fall into this trap by being careful with our eschatology.

Side note: Last Sunday afternoon, Pastor Overduin preached a wonderful sermon entitled Two Incredible Present Day "Hereafter" Comforts For All True Christians where he explained in detail the intermediate state and covered many of the major points of this chapter. It was very edifying. Please listen to it if you haven't already!

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