The Reformed Faith

An Exposition of the

Westminster Confession of Faith

Robert Shaw

Chapter XXXII. Of the State of Men after Death, and of the Resurrection of the Dead

Section I.—The bodies of men, after death, return to dust, and see corruption; but their souls (which neither die nor sleep), having an immortal subsistence, immediately return to God who gave them. The souls of the righteous, being then made perfect in holiness, are received into the highest heavens, where they behold the face of God in light and glory, waiting for the full redemption of their bodies; and the souls of the wicked are cast into hell, where they remain in torments and utter darkness, reserved to the judgment of the great day. Besides these two places for souls separated from their bodies, the Scripture acknowledgeth none.

Exposition

I. It is here supposed that death is an event common to all men. "It is appointed unto men once to die."—Heb. ix. 27. This is the immutable appointment of Heaven, which cannot be reversed, and which none can frustrate. When meditating upon this subject, the royal Psalmist exclaimed: "What man is he that liveth, and shall not see death? Shall he deliver his soul from the hand of the grave?"—Ps. lxxxix. 48. Job speaks of death as an event which certainly awaited him, and of the grave as the common receptacle of all mankind: "I know that thou wilt bring me to death, and to the house appointed for all living."—Job xxx. 23. Our own observation abundantly confirms the declaration of Scripture. Nor are we at a loss to account for the introduction of death into our world, and its universal prevalence over the human race: "As by one man sin entered into the world, and death by sin; so death passed upon all men, for that all have sinned."—Rom. v. 12.

There is, indeed, a vast difference between the death of the righteous and that of the wicked. To the latter, death is the effect of the law-curse, and the harbinger of everlasting destruction; but to the former, death is not the proper punishment of sin, but the termination of all sin and sorrow, and an entrance into life eternal. To them death is divested of its sting, and rendered powerless to do them any real injury. Not only is it disarmed of its power to hurt them—it is compelled to perform a friendly part to them. It is their release from warfare—their deliverance from woe—their departure to be with Christ. But although death is no real loss, but rather great gain to the righteous; yet, as it consists in the dissolution of the union between the soul and the body, it is an event from which they are not exempted.

God could, no doubt, if he pleased, easily save his saints from natural death. Of this he gave a proof in the case of Enoch and of Elijah. For good reasons, however, he has determined otherwise. 1. That the righteous, as well as others, should be subjected to temporal death, is best adapted to the present plan of the divine government, and seems necessary, if not to the preservation, at least to the comfort of human society. According to the plan of the divine government, rewards and punishments are principally reserved for a future world. But if the righteous were exempted from death, while the wicked fell under its stroke, this would be a manifestation of the final destiny of every man that is removed out of this world. Death, therefore, happens to the righteous in the same outward form, and attended with the same external circumstances, as it happens to the wicked, that there may be no visible distinction between them. 2. Were the righteous to be distinguished from the wicked by being translated to heaven without tasting of death, this would introduce great confusion into society. Without producing any salutary effect upon the wicked, it would render them more regardless of character, and remove one powerful stimulus—the prospect of future fame—which animates them to noble exertions for the benefit of society. It would also greatly affect the character and the happiness of the living. Were the parent singled out as the object of the divine displeasure, by being subjected to death, this would fix a brand of infamy upon his children; or if the child were taken away in a manner so expressive of its future destiny, this would pierce the heart of the parent, especially if serious, with inexpressible anguish. No class, indeed, would be more affected by such a state of things than the righteous themselves. Hence death is the common lot of the godly and of the wicked. 3. This arrangement affords occasion for a richer display of the power and grace of God. As the hour of death is the most trying to men, so the power and grace of God are most gloriously displayed, in supporting his people in that solemn hour; in enabling them, in the exercise of faith and hope, to rise superior to the fear of death, and to triumph over this last enemy as conquerors. And how illustriously will his power be displayed in raising up their bodies at the last day! 4. Another reason, we conceive, why the righteous are subjected to temporal death, is, that they may be conformed to Christ, their glorious head. He tasted of death before he was crowned with glory and honour; and they also must enter into glory through "the valley of the shadow of death."

II. The bodies of men after death return to the dust, and see corruption. So humiliating and deeply affecting is the change which death produces on the human body, that it becomes obnoxious to the view, and necessity compels the living to remove it from their sight. It is committed to the grave, in which it putrefies; and after a certain time is reduced to dust, so that it cannot be distinguished from the vegetable mould with which it is mingled. These things, however, are offensive only to the living; they occasion no uneasiness to the dead. To the wicked, indeed, the grave is a prison, where they are kept in close confinement until the resurrection; but to believers it is a place of rest, where, exempted from all pain and weariness, they shall enjoy profound repose till the resurrection morn, when, awakened as from a long refreshing sleep, they shall rise, with renovated life and vigour, to enjoy everlasting felicity.

III. The souls of men survive the dissolution of their bodies, and have an immortal subsistence. Some have held that death is the utter extinction of man's being, others, that the soul shall sleep between death and the resurrection, alike inactive and unconscious as the body that is then dissolved into dust. In opposition to these notions, equally absurd and uncomfortable, our Confession affirms, and the Scripture clearly teaches, that the souls of men subsist in a disembodied state, after such a manner as to be capable of exercising those powers and faculties which are essential to them. "Fear not them which kill the body, but are not able to kill the soul."—Matt. x. 28. These are the words of Him who made man, and who perfectly knows the constituent parts of his nature; and he affirms, not only that the soul is distinct from the body—not only that it does not, in fact, die with the body, but that it is impossible to kill the soul by any created power. Our Saviour taught the same doctrine in parabolic language: "It came to pass that the beggar died, and was carried by the angels into Abraham's bosom. The rich man also died, and was buried; and in hell he lift up his eyes, being in torments." - Luke xvi. 22, 23. Both the beggar and the man of wealth died; both left their bodies in the dust; but the souls of both retained their existence and their consciousness after their separation from their bodies. No doubt the death of the righteous is frequently described in Scripture as a sleep; but such language is obviously figurative, and gives no countenance to the notion that the soul falls asleep when disunited from the body. When the dead are said to be asleep, a metaphor is used, founded upon the striking resemblance between death and sleep; and, at the same time, by another figure of speech, a part is spoken of as the whole. They are said to sleep, and to be unconscious and inactive, because these things are true of their bodies.

IV. The souls of the righteous, immediately after death, are admitted into the happiness of the heavenly state. Some, who allow that the souls of believers possess consciousness, and experience happiness in their disembodied state, conceive that at death their souls pass into an intermediate state, and that they will enter into heaven only when the final judgment takes place. The Church of Rome maintains that the souls of the saints, on leaving their bodies, must pass for a time into a place called purgatory, that they may be purified by fire from the stains of sin, which had not been washed out during the present life. That Church further teaches, that the pains and sufferings of purgatory may be alleviated and shortened by the prayers of men here on earth; by the intercession of the saints in heaven; and, above all, by the sacrifice of the mass, offered by the priests in the name of sinners; and that, as soon as souls are released from purgatory, they are immediately admitted to eternal happiness. Of this doctrine there is no trace in the Bible; it is a cunningly devised fable, invented by designing men to impose upon the credulous, and to fill their own treasures. The Scripture speaks only of a heaven and a hell, into one of which all departed souls have entered; and, accordingly, our Confession affirms: "Besides these two places for souls separated from their bodies, the Scripture acknowledgeth none."

The immediate admission of the souls of the righteous into heaven is confirmed by numerous passages of Scripture. Our Lord's promise to the penitent thief: "Today shalt thou be with me in paradise" (Luke xxiii. 43), implies that, ere that day was finished, his soul should be in the same place with the soul of Christ, and should enjoy all the felicity which the word "paradise" suggests. When Stephen, with his expiring breath, called upon God, saying, "Lord Jesus, receive my spirit" (Acts vii. 59), he manifestly expected that his soul should immediately pass into the presence of his Saviour. The same thing is implied in the language of Paul: "For me to live is Christ, and to die is gain. I am in a strait betwixt two, having a desire to depart, and to be with Christ, which is far better."—Phil. i. 21, 23. Certainly if he had not expected to be admitted into the presence of Christ until the resurrection, he would not have judged it gain to die; and, instead of desiring, he would have been loath to depart; for while he was in the body he was honourably engaged in the service of Christ, and enjoyed delightful communion with him. But the apostle tells us that the reason of his desire to depart was, that he might be with Christ—in a state of blessedness far superior to anything found in this present world. The same apostle says: "We are confident, I say, and willing rather to be absent from the body, and to be present with the Lord."—2 Cor. v. 8. No words could express in a clearer manner the immediate transition of the soul from its present habitation into the presence of Christ. The believer's absence from the body and his presence with Christ are closely connected; the latter succeeds the former without any interval. Accordingly, the Apostle John heard a voice from heaven, saying to him: "Write, Blessed are the dead which die in the Lord, from henceforth" (Rev. xiv. 13), that is, they are blessed from the time of their death.

If the souls of believers are admitted into heaven immediately after death, it is evident that a wonderful change must then take place upon them, in order to qualify them for the new state into which they are introduced. Unless they were completely freed from every stain of impurity, they would be unfit for the society of the heavenly world! and incapable of enjoying the felicities of that world. Our Confession accordingly asserts, that their souls are then "made perfect in holiness," and in Scripture the souls of departed saints are called "the spirits of just men made perfect."—Heb. xii. 23.

V. The souls of the wicked are at death cast into hell. While some have maintained that the souls of the wicked shall never be tormented in hell, others have held that they shall not be adjudged to that place of torment till after the resurrection; but, according to the representation of our Saviour, as soon as the rich man died, "in hell he lifted up his eyes, being in torments."—Luke xvi. 23. The spirits of those who in the time of Noah were disobedient, were, when the Apostle Peter wrote his epistle, shut up in the prison of hell.—1 Pet. iii. 19.

Section II.—At the last day, such as are found alive shall not die, but be changed: and all the dead shall be raised up with the selfsame bodies, and none other, although with different qualities, which shall be united again to their souls forever.

Section III.—The bodies of the unjust shall, by the power of Christ, be raised to dishonour; the bodies of the just, by his Spirit, unto honor, and be made conformable to his own glorious body.

Exposition

1. Such as remain alive upon the earth at the last day shall not die, but undergo a wonderful change. This truth was first revealed to the Church in Paul's First Epistle to the Corinthians (xv. 51): "Behold I show you a mystery; we shall not all sleep, but we shall all be changed." When Christ shall descend from heaven to judge the world, some will be found alive upon the earth; these shall not die, and sleep for a short time in the dust of the earth; but they will experience a change equivalent to that which shall pass on those who shall then be raised from the grave, and, as we are informed, the dead saints will be raised before the living are changed. "The dead in Christ shall rise first: then we which are alive and remain, shall be caught up together with them in the clouds, to meet the Lord in the air: and so shall we ever be with the Lord." - 1 Thess. iv. 16,17.

II. There shall be a general resurrection of the dead. This is a doctrine which unassisted reason could not discover. The wisest of the heathen philosophers derided it. When Paul preached at Athens, which was called the Eye of Greece, the Epicurean and Stoic philosophers mocked when he spake of the resurrection of the dead. But it cannot be reckoned an incredible thing that God should raise the dead. If he be omnipotent and omniscient, as he certainly is, otherwise he would cease to be God, this cannot be considered impossible. He who formed the human body out of dust, and breathed into it the breath of life, must be able to raise and animate it again after it has been reduced to dust. To the power of God our Saviour referred, as an answer to all the cavils which might be brought forward against the doctrine of the resurrection. To the Sadducees, a sect of the Jews who denied this doctrine, he said: "Ye do err, not knowing the Scriptures, nor the power of God." - Matt. xxii. 29. But it is only by the revelation of the will of God that we are infallibly assured of the certainty of the resurrection. It was revealed in the writings of the Old Testament. Job expressed the strongest confidence of the resurrection of his body.—Job xix. 25. The prediction of the Prophet Daniel is equally explicit.—Dan. xii. 2. This doctrine held a prominent place in the discourses of our Lord and his apostles. Nothing could be more explicit than our Lord's declaration: "The hour is coming in the which all that are in the graves shall hear his voice, and shall come forth," &c.—John v. 28, 29. After our Lord's ascension this was the grand theme of the testimony of his apostles, as upon it the truth of the whole system of Christianity rested. Hence Paul thus argued with the Corinthians: "Now, if Christ be preached that he rose from the dead, how say some among you that there is no resurrection of the dead? But if there be no resurrection of the dead, then is Christ not risen. And if Christ be not risen, then is our preaching vain, and your faith is also vain." - 1 Cor. xv. 12-14. The resurrection of the saints is firmly established by the resurrection of Christ himself. In the chapter to which we have now referred, the apostle shows the infallible evidence which he and his brethren had for the resurrection of Christ, and then argues that the resurrection of believers necessarily follows from the admission that Christ their head is risen. The grave cannot always retain what is so intimately connected with the living Redeemer. "Now is Christ risen from the dead, and become the first-fruits of them that slept."—1 Cor. xv. 20. See also 1 Thess. iv. 14; Rom. viii. 11.

III. The dead shall be raised with the selfsame bodies, although with very different qualities. The very tern resurrection implies that the same bodies shall be raised that fell by death; for if God should form new bodies, and unite them to departed souls, it would not be a resurrection, but a new creation. Our Saviour declares: "All that are in the graves shall come forth." This certainly implies that the same bodies which were committed to the graves shall be raised; for, it new bodies were to be produced, and united to their souls, they could not, with truth, be said to come out of their graves. The Apostle Paul affirms, that the same body shall be raised which is sown in corruption, and declares: "This corruptible must put on incorruption, and this mortal must put on immortality;" pointing, as it were, to that corruptible and mortal body which he then carried about. But, though the bodies of the saints will be the same in all essentials as to substance, they will be vastly changed as to qualities. "Flesh and blood" in their present state of grossness and frailty, "cannot inherit the kingdom of God, neither doth corruption inherit incorruption." The resurrection-body, therefore, shall be wonderfully changed, in respect to qualities, that it may be fitted for the employments and felicities of the heavenly state. "It is sown in corruption, it is raised in incorruption; it is sown in dishonour, it is raised in glory: it is sown in weakness, it is raised in power; it is sown a natural body, it is raised a spiritual body." - 1 Cor. xv. 42-44. With regard to the wicked, the Scriptures give us no specific information with respect to the state and qualities of their bodies. All that we learn is, that they shall rise "to shame and everlasting contempt;" from which it is evident that they shall be raised to dishonour.

How solicitous should we be to obtain the resurrection of the just! This was Paul's great desire, and the object of his earnest pursuit.—Phil. iii. 11. If we would attain to a blessed resurrection, let it be our concern to be "found in Christ". United to him by the inhabitation of his Spirit and by a living faith, we need not be slavishly afraid of death or of the grave; for Christ is "the resurrection and the life, and he that believeth in him, though he were dead, yet shall he live; and whosoever liveth and believeth in him shall never die."

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