ÒThe continued existence of the soul after death is a matter of divine revelationÓ (Charles Hodge). This quote is a good reminder that all the information we have on this subject can be only by revelation. We may be able to draw certain conclusions and inferences from revelation, but if it cannot be backed up by the Bible it must be considered speculation. Speculation is not necessarily sinful nor is it always factually incorrect; however, the product of speculation may never be used to function as a doctrinal or dogmatic statement.
What is the difference between doctrine and dogma? Perhaps we can agree on the following distinction, although the terms are often used loosely and interchangeably.
Doctrine: a teaching drawn from Scripture - for example - Òthe doctrine of the Lord's Supper.Ó
Dogma: a doctrine drawn from Scripture, defined and officially established by the church - Òthe dogmas of the Protestant church.Ó
Dogma is never binding; its authority is never final but always subject to the authority of Scripture itself. Going by this distinction, we are dealing with the doctrine, not the dogma of the ÒLast Things."
As said before, we can divide this area into two broad sections: individual eschatology and general eschatology. We start with the individual aspect. When dealing with individual eschatology we must deal with the following topics: A. Physical Death; B. The Intermediate Sate. This time we will deal only with the first part.
A. Physical Death
1. The Nature of Physical Death
The Bible is quite instructive on this topic and speaks of it in various ways. Matthew 10:28 and Luke 12:4 speak of the death of the body as distinguished from the soul. In the Greek, the soul is sometimes referred to as psuche from which we have the term ÒpsycheÓ (as in psychology, etc.). The same term is also used for Òlife.Ó It is often impossible to draw hard and fast lines between the various meanings of this one word. The body is considered to be a living organism while the psuche is the spiritual element in man. Some passages speak of the destruction of the psuche, being the principle of life or even animal life (Matt.2:20; Mk.3:4; Lk.6:9; Jn.12;25, etc.).
Death is also presented as the separation of body and soul (Eccl.12: 7; Jas.2: 26; etc.). In view of these passages, physical death may be scripturally defined as the termination of physical life by the separation of body and soul. It is not annihilation--the utter destruction of the wicked and turning into 'nothingness' as taught by some, such as Jehovah's Witnesses. God does not annihilate anything in His creation. Death does not mean the end of existence but a breaking of the natural relations of life. Life and death are not opposites in the sense of existence and non-existence, but are opposites only as different modes of existence.
What is death, exactly? It is impossible for us to say. We are not speaking of death in its absolute sense as Òbeing separation from God, the fountain and source of life.Ó We say death is the end of physical life. This brings up another question: What is life? We have no easy answer or definition. Life cannot be defined in its essence, for we know it only in its relations and actions. Experience shows that when these relations and actions are severed, death results. Physical death is a break in the natural relations of life.
It may be said that sin, as such, is death, for sin makes a break in the vital relation in which man stands to God, his Maker. It means the loss of the image of God and that disturbs all the relations of life. This break is then carried through in that separation of body and soul, which we call Òphysical death.Ó It is the dismantling of our Òearthly house of this tabernacleÓ (2 Cor.5: 1).
Some have taught that this death is merely the operation of a natural law, according to which all organic matter is subject to decay and dissolution. Even some of the early Church Fathers taught some form of this. They reasoned that since plants and leaves must die and even animals must perish to keep the chain working, therefore also man, as a creature, would have been subject to the powers of decay, regardless of the Fall. The objection may be raised: assuming that before the Fall such decay was present in the plant or, even in the animal world, would the Creator, Who gave life to man, not be able to sustain that life without it being subject to these natural laws?
In any event, these things are not recorded in Scripture and bring us to the area of speculation. Physical death is not a normal process but it is the violent action of God's hand to take away our life in this world. Death is punishment. This is the clear teaching of the Bible and we cannot get around this. We do not die as the result of some natural process, but we die as the result of sin. If sin had not come into the world, death would not have either. ÒThe day that thou eatest thereof thou shalt surely dieÓ (Gen.2: 17); Òwherefore, as by one man sin entered into the world, and death by sin" (Rom.5: 12; Òthe wages of sin is deathÉÓ (Rom.6: 23). But although death is the end of our existence in this world, it is not the end of our existence in the absolute sense of the word. This death, spoken of as a result of sin, is the entrance into a dark and horrible pit where there is nothing but the experience of God's wrath amidst weeping and gnashing of teeth.
The believer also dies. The event with all its circumstances is the same as it is for the unbeliever. The pain of the body and the pain of separation is all the same. But, for those in Christ, death is the beginning of a glorious new existence. The question may be asked, however, if such is death, if it is part of the punishment of our sin, why must believers who are justified in Christ and, therefore, free of punishment, also die? Why must they also pass through this physical suffering?
2. The Reasons Believers Must Die
It is quite clear that for those in Christ the penal element has been removed from death. Christ bore the penalty. Can believers then not be transferred to heaven at once? The argument that the body must be destroyed in order to gain perfect sanctification is negated by the examples of Enoch and Elijah: they went to heaven bodily. Neither can it be said that by death the soul is set free from the coarser element of the body: this is a throw-back to the wrong view of soul and body held to by some of the Greek thinkers against whom the apostle Paul wrote so vigorously (1 Cor.15; 1 Thess.4, etc.). God is able to change those bodies, as He will do for those living in the day of Christ's coming. Why then must there be death for believers? We should consider the following:
a. Death is the culmination of chastisements, which God has ordained for the sanctification of His people. This dreaded natural enemy is made to serve them in the application of salvation and to advance their interests in the kingdom of God. The thought of death and all that goes with it has a beneficial effect on God's people: it humbles the proud, it mortifies their carnal element, it helps to check worldliness and it fosters spiritual mindedness. Through all this they become more unified to Christ their Head Who also suffered all these trials.
b. From this, it follows that the actual process of death completes the sanctification of the souls of believers so that they become at once Òthe spirits of just men made perfectÓ (Heb.12: 23 and Rev.21: 27).
c. Death is often the supreme test of faith. Here we often see great displays of the consciousness of the victory of faith over sin and even over death itself (see 1 Pet.4: 12, 13).
d. If God were to spare His people all these trials, He would have to take them up into glory the moment they became regenerated. How absurd this would be! Where and how would the church ever develop? How would people ever be able to fulfil their calling in showing forth the grace of God in the midst of a wicked world?
e. Death is not the end for believers, but the beginning of a perfect life. Its sting has been removed (1 Cor.15: 55) and it is for them the gateway to heaven. There is no hint of payment for sin at all, but it is the abolishing of sin and the gateway to glory (Heidelberg Catechism, L.D. 16, Q & A 42). They fall asleep in Jesus (2 Thess.1: 7) and know that even their bodies will be snatched out of death's power to be forever with the Lord (Rom.8: 11; 1 Thess.4: 16,17). Jesus said, ÒHe that believes on me, though he were dead, yet shall he liveÓ (Jn.11: 25). And Paul, assured of the blessed confidence that for him to live was Christ and to die was gain, could speak in jubilant tones at the end of his career, ÒI have fought the good fight, I have finished my course, I have kept the faith: henceforth there is laid up for me a crown of righteousness, which the Lord, the righteous judge, shall give me at that day: and not to me only, but unto all them also that love his appearingÓ (2 Tim.4: 7 & 8).
Such is the meaning of death for the believer.
QUESTIONS FOR DISCUSSION
1. What is the fundamental idea of the Biblical view of death? Is death merely the natural result of sin or is it the punishment for sin? (Can you prove this from Scripture?)
2. We speak of ÒmortalÓ in the sense that man, by nature, is physically limited and will not live forever. We often speak of his Òimmortal soul.Ó By ÒimmortalÓ we mean it will exist forever. Is existence the same as life, in the deepest sense? In what sense was man, as created by God, mortal and in what sense was he immortal? Is it, strictly speaking, correct to say that every man has an immortal soul?
3. When is the power of death completely terminated for believers? Is this termination to be experienced only at the moment of death or before--and if so, how?
4. Modern medicine has enabled us to prolong life beyond what was possible some years ago. Mention some of the problems that this development has brought about. Should Christians use Òliving willsÓ?
5. In view of the developments of modern medicine, how should we deal with terminally ill people or those fatally injured? Should their lives be prolonged as much as possible? Can euthanasia (the word means, literally Ògood deathÓ) ever be practised? If so, how and under what circumstances? Do you know the difference between ÒactiveÓ and ÒpassiveÓ euthanasia?