The state of the soul after physical death and with respect to judgement

This subject belongs to the branch of study known as individual eschatology, i.e. the 'last things' [1] for individuals, whether believers or unbelievers. We explore what the Bible teaches about i) physical death, ii) the immortality of the soul and iii) the intermediate condition. But because "man is destined to die once and after that to face judgement," [2] we continue this exploration with iv) resurrection, v) judgement and vi) the final state.

1. Physical death

Physical death may, according to Scripture, be defined as the "termination of physical life by the separation of body and soul." [3] Death is therefore not a state of non-existence or annihilation, but rather a different form of being. Just as physical death is a separation between two entities, so also is spiritual death: it is separation from God, [4] and therefore is experienced by unbelievers even in this life.

Both physical and spiritual death is the result of sin. [5] Although sin and death were completely dealt with at the cross, [6] believers still have to go through physical death as the climax of the discipline which God has ordained for the sanctification of His people. Physical death will be the "last enemy to be destroyed." [7]

2. Immortality

2.1 For believers. Eternal life is a quality of life bestowed upon believers by Christ in the present, [8] and is unaffected by the physical death of the body. Immortality, however, is a future hope for believers; the glorification of our mortal bodies at the resurrection, [9] when we will enter into the perfect life in fellowship with God.

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God alone "has immortality (in the sense of exemption from every kind of death)," [10] but the survival of the soul is clearly taught in Scripture. [11] Jesus said, "He who believes in Me will live, even though he dies." [12]

2.2 For unbelievers.The souls of unbelievers will also continue to exist after physical death, [13] and their bodies will also be resurrected. [14] However, they will not have immortality, as their entire condition is one of death: separation from God. They will exist, but they will not have the communion with God and the glorification of the body which constitute real immortality.

3. The intermediate state

This refers to the period between physical death and the resurrection. The three main questions concerning this period are i) whether the soul is conscious or unconscious, ii) whether the soul undergoes further discipline or probation, and iii) the locality of these souls.

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3.1 Consciouness.

Although many scriptures refer to 'death' as 'sleep,' [15] this does not mean that the soul is unconscious. In the parable of the rich man and Lazarus, [16] we notice the conscious and comforted soul of the beggar while the soul of the rich man was conscious and suffering. The Old Testament also depicts the souls of the wicked as conscious and wretched. [17]

The souls of believers are said to be "at home with the Lord," [18] which is "better by far" than to remain alive in the body. [19] The book of Revelation pictures the souls of the righteous as conscious, [20] active, [21] "blessed" [22] and victorious. [23]

3.2 Discipline and probation.

The Roman Catholic doctrine of the further discipline of souls in purgatory is based on wrong interpretations of passages of Scripture [24] and finds no support in the Bible. The idea of further testing and evaluation of the soul after death, and a further chance to accept the salvation offered in Christ is also based on wrong interpretations. The verse, "He went and preached to the spirits in prison, who formerly were disobedient" [25] cannot be used as biblical proof, because the Greek experts are agreed that the word "spirits" does not refer to human beings. [26] "For this is the reason the gospel was preached, even to those who are now dead," [27] is a modern translation of a verse that could have been misunderstood.

But whichever way these two verses are interpreted, they cannot change the fact of the Bible's many stern warnings to those who neglect or despise the offer of the gospel in this life:
" ... how shall we escape of we neglect so great a salvation ..." [28]
" ... it is appointed for men to die once, but after this the judgement ..." [29]
" ... that each one may receive the things done in the body ..." [30]

3.3 Locality.

There is no biblical evidence for the Roman Catholic doctrine of purgatory as the abode of departed souls.

In the Old Testament the dead are pictured as existing in 'Sheol' which is a place of darkness [31] and silence, [32] where God is not remembered. [33] The dead in 'Sheol' are cut off from the hand of God, [34] who is the source of life. Sometimes the OT gives a glimpse of life beyond death, restored to the presence of God, [35] but only Isaiah and Daniel clearly teach resurrection. [36]

The New Testament equivalent of 'Sheol' is 'Hades,' [37] which mostly refers to 'death' or 'the power of death.' The NT hope for the dead is concentrated on their participation in the resurrection of the righteous, [38] and therefore there is no teaching on 'the intermediate state.' Instead, when believers die they go to be "with Christ," [39] but unbelievers go to a "temporary place of torment." [40] ( Rev 7? souls at the throne in heaven)

4. Resurrection

Since all men will be judged for how they lived their lives, all men will be resurrected before this judgement.

4.1 For believers the resurrection of their bodies is part of the redemption purchased by Christ for them on the cross. [41] The fact of Christ's resurrection is both the "pledge" [42] and the "pattern" [43] for their resurrection. Therefore, although the resurrection body will be like the original body, it will also be very different to be like Christ's glorified body. The resurrection of believers will take place at the second advent of Christ [44] and before the millennium. [45]

4.2 For unbelievers. Although they will be resurrected, [46] this cannot be regarded as a blessing but as an act of sovereign justice on the part of God, as their resurrection will result in condemnation. [47] The resurrection of the wicked will take place after the millennium. [48]

5. Judgement.

"Man is destined to die once and after that to face judgement." [49] Many Scriptures teach us to look towards a final judgement as the decisive answer of God to all the apparent discrepancies of the present. [50]

5.1 For believers the resurrection will be followed by a judgement of works. [51] They will not be judged with respect to the guilt of sin, as Christ as already borne their guilt. [52] However, Christians dare not be careless about sin, as Christ will judge "men's secrets," [53] "the motives of (their) hearts," [54] and "every careless word they have spoken." [55] However, believers will not suffer condemnation, [56] even if they do not receive a reward. [57]

5.2 For unbelievers the principles of judgement will be the righteousness of God, [58] their knowledge of God's will, [59] their rejection of Christ [60] and, for those who have not heard the gospel, according to the light they have. [61]

6. The final state

6.1 For believers this will be a state of bliss, [62] as they will have eternal life and fellowship with Christ. [63] The final state of believers will be preceded by the appearance of "a new heaven and a new earth." [64] Then "the Holy City, the new Jerusalem" will come "down out of heaven" and the "dwelling of God" will be "with men." [65]

6.2 For unbelievers this will be a state of eternal punishment and banishment from the presence of God. [66] They will be thrown outside into the darkness where there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth, [67] they will burn with unquenchable fire, [68] and their place will be the fiery lake of burning sulphur which is the second death. [69] God takes no pleasure in the death of the wicked, [70] but He has promised to separate them from the eternal society and He is obliged to finally rid the earth of all rebellion. [71]

Conclusion

Therefore, let us "continue to work out (our) salvation with fear and trembling," [72] for "how shall we escape if we ignore such a great salvation?" [73]

References:

1. From the Gr. 'eschatos' meaning 'last'
2. Hebrews 9:27
3. Berkhof, p.668
4. Isaiah 59:2
5. Romans 5:15; 1 Corinthians 15:53-54
6. 2 Timothy 1:10
7. 1 Corinthians 15:26
8. 1 John 5:13; John 17:3
9. Romans 2:7; 1 Corinthians 15:53-54
10. 1 Timothy 6:16
11. Matthew 10:28; Luke 23:43; John 14:3; 2 Corinthians 5:1
12. John 11:25
13. Matthew 11:21-24; Romans 2:5-11; 2 Corinthians 5:10
14. Acts 24:15; Revelation 20:12-15
15. eg. 1 Corinthians 15:6
16. Luke 16:19ff
17. Isaiah 14:9-11
18. 2 Corinthians 5:8
19. Philippians 1:23
20. 6:9
21. 7:14-15
22. 14:13
23. 20:4
24. eg. 1 Corinthians 3:13-15
25. 1 Peter 3:19-20
26. Wuest, p.98
27. 1 Peter 4:6 (N.I.V.)
28. Hebrews 2:1-3
29. Hebrews 9:27
30. 2 Corinthians 5:10
31. Job 10:21f
32. Psalm 115:17
33. Psalms 6:9; 30:9; 88:11; Isaiah 38:18
34. Psalm 88:5
35. Psalms 16:10f; 49:15; 73:24
36. Isaiah 26:19; Daniel 12:2
37. Matthew 11:23; Luke 10:15; Acts 2:27; Revelation 1:18
38. 1 Thessalonians 4:13-18
39. Luke 23:43; Romans 8:38f; 2 Corinthians 5:8; Philippians 1:23
40. 2 Peter 2:9
41. Romans 8:23; 1 Corinthians 6:13-20
42. 1 Corinthians 15:20; 2 Corinthians 4:14
43. Philippians 3:21
44. 1 Thessalonians 4:6
45. Revelation 20:4
46. Daniel 12:2; Acts 2:24
47. John 5:28-29
48. Revelation 20:5,13
49. Hebrews 9:27
50. Matthew 25:31f; Romans 2:5f; Revelation 20:11f; etc.
51. 2 Corinthians 5:10; 1 Corinthians 3:10-15
52. Psalm 32:5; Romans 3:24
53. Romans 2:19
54. 1 Corinthians 4:5
55. Matthew 12:36
56. Romans 8:1
57. 1 Corinthians 3:15
58. Genesis 18:25
59. Luke 12:47-48; Romans 1:20
60. John 3:18; Hebrews 10:29
61. Romans 1:19-23; 2:14-15
62. Revelation 21:4
63. Matthew 25:46; John 14:3
64. 2 Peter 3:13
65. Revelation 21:2-3
66. Matthew 7:23; 2 Thessalonians 1:9
67. Matthew 22:13
68. Matthew 3:12
69. Revelation 21:8
70. Ezekiel 33:11
71. 1 Corinthians 15:24-28
72. Philippians 2:12
73. Hebrews 2:3

BIBLIOGRAPHY

1. Berkhof, L. Systematic Theology, Michigan, U.S.A.: Banner of Truth Trust, 1941.

2. Dake, F.J. God's Plan for Man, Georgia, U.S.A.: Dake Bible Sales, 1949.

3. Douglas, J.D. (ed.) New Bible Dictionary, Leicester, England: Inter-Varsity Press, 1982.

4. Hammond, T.C. In Understanding be Men, Leicester, England: Inter-Varsity Press, 1968

5. Pearlman, M. Knowing the Doctrines of the Bible, Roodepoort, R.S.A.:Gospel Publishing House, 1937.

6. Wuest, K.S. First Peter in the Greek Testament, Michigan, U.S.A.: Eerdmans Publishing Company, 1970.

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