I belong to my faithful Saviour, Jesus Christ. That is my only hope in life—and in death. We often try not to think about death, but with all our modern accomplishments we cannot escape it. Sooner or later, we will die; and then what?
One of the greatest benefits of the Christian faith is hope and comfort for when we die. The Apostles’ Creed summarises it as follows: I believe the resurrection of the body. The word “resurrection” means: to rise up again. The same word we used of Jesus—”he rose again from the dead”—applies to Christian believers! This wonderful fact is the basis of our Christian hope for the future.
In the catechism, the first part of Lord’s Day 22 takes up this topic. What will happen to us, Christians, when we die?
The body, too
1. Painful separation
2. Comforted waiting
3. Glorious reunion
1. Painful separation
Before we talk about the resurrection, we consider what happens when we die. You get a clear glimpse of that when you are at the visitation of someone who passed away. Often, the casket is left open, and you can see the deceased person. At least, you can see the body. But it doesn’t look quite right. Its life, its spark is gone. Morticians work hard to make the body look good, but they cannot make it look alive.
When someone dies, his or her “self” leaves the body. Already in ancient times, people pictured this as a shade or ghost, something with the personality of the deceased, but without body. Sometimes this was associated with the last breath of a person; our word “spirit” originally means “breath”.
In this context, we typically talk about the soul of a person. When we die, our non-physical soul is separated from our physical body. Our soul leaves; our body stays behind. We know what happens to the body: without the processes of life to keep it going, it decays slowly but surely. “Dust you are and to dust you will return,” said God to Adam in Gen. 3:19. And Psalm 104:29 confesses about all living things: “When you take away their breath, they die and return to the dust.”
The body decays and after a few decades, there is little left but bones. But what happens to our soul when we die? Most people in the world believe that the human soul is immortal: it does not fade away like the body, but somehow continues on. Some think that the soul will find a new body, and so gets recycled from one life to the next, a never-ending process of reincarnation; others think that the soul will end up in an eternal state of rest.
As Christians, we also believe that the soul lives on forever. But that does not mean that human beings are essential souls who temporarily live in a body, in an “earthly shell”, as it is sometimes called. We are not merely animated bodies, but we certainly aren’t just embodied souls. Our body and soul are equally important parts of who we are. A body without a soul is obviously incomplete. But so is a soul without a body.
This is often misunderstood. I often hear Christians talk as if their soul is their most important part. They imagine that after death, they will be disembodied spirits in heaven. It doesn’t help that English Bible translations often use the word “soul”, while in most cases it simply means “life”, “person”, or “self”. It is precisely because of this common misunderstanding that the Apostles’ Creed emphasises the resurrection of the body, of the flesh, of our physical self, along with our soul.
The very early church had to emphasise this, because of the false teaching of Gnosticism. The Gnostic religion thinks of people’s souls as a part of God—a “divine spark”, if you will. Somehow, this eternally existing soul got trapped in a physical body, which distracts it from its divine purpose. In order to get free, a person should acquire a special knowledge to focus on spiritual matters and bring the soul back to its godlike state. In Gnosticism, the human body is ultimately a cage from which the soul must escape. It has therefore very little respect for the body. Already in the New Testament you can see traces of this thinking threaten the church, and it became worse in the centuries that followed.
But the Bible has nothing to do with Gnosticism. When God created the physical world, it was good. When he created Adam and Eve from the dust, it was very good indeed. So when we talk about our Christian hope, about what happens to us after we leave this life, we should think about the body, too.
2. Comforted waiting
In fact, we should think about two important events after our life on this earth. First, what happens when we die; second, what happens when the Lord Jesus returns.
The time between our death and the ultimate return of Jesus is often called the intermediate state—the word “intermediate” simply means “in between”. There have been theologians who thought that very little happens during this time. They suggested that the soul is inactive during this time, as if it is sleeping or hibernating until Jesus returns. But the church has consistently denied this idea of “soul sleep”. Instead, we believe that Christians who have passed away are in a very good and happy state.
The catechism says: my soul shall after this life immediately be taken up to Christ, my Head. There is no waiting room, no soul sleep, and no purgatory. My soul—the part of me that is not physical, not my body—will go straight to heaven, where Jesus Christ sits on the throne as the King.
The Bible promises that “we will see God as he is” (1 John 3:2). Psalm 17:15 sings: “I shall behold your face in righteousness; when I awake, I shall be satisfied with your likeness.” This up-close, direct future fellowship with God is sometimes called the beatific vision. Believers who die don’t have to wait for this, but immediately enjoy this blessing. As souls without body, they are not yet complete, not yet perfect; but they have the greatest comfort and blessing already in the intimate presence of their Lord Jesus.
The Bible does not give many details about the intermediate state. I have many questions about it for which there doesn’t seem to be a clear answer. There are especially three Bible texts worth remembering.
First, when one of the criminals crucified next to Jesus asked: “Jesus, remember me when you come into your kingdom,” the Lord answered: “Truly, I say to you, today you will be with me in Paradise.” (Luke 23:42,43) This text may raise some further questions, but the word “today” is clear: there is no waiting period.
Second, in Phil. 1:23, Paul says: “My desire is to depart and be with Christ, for that is far better.” He does not expect a long time span or journey between his death and being with Jesus.
Third, in Rev. 6:9, John writes: “I saw under the altar the souls of those who had been slain for the word of God and for the witness they had born. They cried out with a loud voice, ‘O Sovereign Lord, holy and true, how long before you will judge and avenge our blood on those who dwell on the earth?’ They were each given a white robe and told to rest a little longer, until the number of their fellow servants and their brothers should be complete.” The visions in Revelation are quite symbolic, but there is no reason to doubt this description of the heavenly sanctuary before the return of Jesus Christ. Here we find the souls of faithful Christians who have died, actively waiting for the end of time, and they are given “rest” at the heart of the sanctuary, right where the altar is.
All in all, there is much to look forward to, even when we die, even when our soul and body are torn apart for some time. If we have faithfully served our Lord Jesus in our life, we can be sure that he will faithfully take us to him in our death.
3. Glorious reunion
But there is more—and that is what the resurrection of the body is ultimately about. The intermediate state is only temporary. One major event will take place in the history of heaven and earth, that will make everything complete. That event is the return of our Lord Jesus Christ. In LD 19 q&a 52 we already discussed the final judgement that will take place; now we focus on the fact that our bodies will be raised by the power of Christ.
The catechism doesn’t just say: “my body”, but: “this my flesh”. It uses the word “flesh” to emphasise that we are really talking about our physical body, made of the stuff of the earth. Contrary to what the Gnostics thought, the matter and fluids and cells are a good creation by God himself, and they will have an honourable place in the new world. And it is not just “my flesh”, but this my flesh, because we don’t get a brand new replacement body, but the same body that we have now. Our current body is very much part of who we are, and it will be very much part of who we will be. So when Jesus returns, my very own body shall be reunited with my soul, says the catechism; I will be complete again, fully human in every way on the new earth.
Maybe you think that is bad news. Our bodies aren’t perfect. Our bodies have scars and wounds, moles and warts. If you are older, your hair may be grey, your bones creaky, your eyesight poor, your teeth missing. Some of us live with long-time illnesses, cancers that grow worse, or even missing limbs. Don’t you want a brand new, replacement body? Don’t you long for more agility, more strength, more beauty in the perfect new world where we will live when Christ returns?
Our very own bodies will be raised again, but they will be changed. Not brand new, but renewed. In 1 Cor. 15:42-44, Paul contrasts how our bodies are now and how they will be. Now our bodies are perishable, dishonoured, weak, and earthly. Then our bodies will be imperishable, glorious, strong, and spiritual. Not “spiritual” in the sense of non-material ghosts, but “spiritual” in the sense of fit for the renewed world, where sin and death no longer have a place, and where heaven is united with the earth.
The catechism summarises it by saying: my body will be made like Christ’s glorious body. When Jesus rose from the dead, he still had a real human body, but it was also more glorious; yet he could still eat and the disciples could still touch him. That very same human body Jesus took with him to heaven, and it will be a real part of him forever. The catechism teaches that we will be just like Jesus in that regard. And it does not make that up; Paul says it clearly in 1 Cor. 15:48-49: “As was the man of dust, so also are those who are of the dust, and as is the man of heaven, so also are those who are of heaven. Just as we have borne the image of the man of dust, we shall also bear the image of the man of heaven.”
What a glorious expectation for anyone who believes in Jesus! But you may have many questions. For instance: How can I receive a perfect renewed body after my body decays in the grave? Or: what about people whose bodies are mangled when they die, or when they burn up in a fire? It is clear that there is a deep mystery and miracle here. Only the God who created the universe out of nothing can do such a thing.
The Bible gives us a helpful picture to understand what we need to know about this mystery; a picture that explains both the continuity and the radical change between our bodies now and then. When we die, our decaying body will be like a seed. When you plant a seed, it disappears in the soil; the seed may seem to disappear completely and become one with the earth. And yet, a few weeks or months later a new plant sprouts, and grows bigger, and contains many new seeds. A beautiful new life comes forth from the dying seed. In the same way, even though our bodies decay and become one with the earth after our death, yet it comes back to life, renewed and with more glory, at the resurrection.
We were created with body and soul, and both parts are equally good. Jesus is Lord of your soul and well as your body; the Lord honours them both. Because of this, you must honour your body, too. Take good care of it; it is not just for now, but will have a place in the perfect life in God’s Kingdom. At the same time, we need not worry about weaknesses of our body, because it will be renewed by God’s recreating power.
A very simple application of this principle is that Christians have always preferred to bury the bodies of believers, rather than cremate them. The Lord is perfectly able to resurrect a body from an urn of ashes. But we rather put the body in the ground as it is, as a sign that it is still important and meaningful, as a seed that will disappear in the ground yet one day spring up again with new glory. Because however weak or ill or damaged I may be, this my flesh, raised by the power of Christ, shall be reunited with my soul and made like Christ’s glorious body.
- What separation takes place when we die?
- What did the Gnostics believe about body and soul?
- What is the intermediate state? What is true for believers in this state?
- What Bible text(s) suggest(s) clearly that a believe who dies will immediately be with Christ?
- What will happen to believers when Jesus returns?
- How does Paul describe our resurrection body in 1 Cor. 15?
Suggested Bible reading schedule
|Monday||Psalm 16. What do v. 9-10 teach about the resurrection of the body?|
|Tuesday||Philippians 1:18b-26. What does v. 23 say about what happens when believers die?|
|Wednesday||Revelation 6. What are the “souls” John sees underneath the altar? What are they waiting for?|
|Thursday||John 11. What does it mean for Jesus to say: “I am the resurrection and the life”? (v. 25)|
|Friday||Philippians 3. What does v. 21 say about what happens to us when Jesus Christ returns?|
|Saturday||1 John 3:1-3. What does v. 2 tell us about our resurrection body?|