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Between Death and Resurrection

In John’s gospel, there is a brief description of what happened to Jesus’ lifeless body between his death and resurrection. Though it is brief, it does have an important place in the gospel testimony, for it declares to us that the grave is a place of rest rather than a prison. Jesus’ body spent a restful Sabbath in that garden grave after Jesus had brought to completion the Scriptures and perfectly fulfilled the obedience which was required of him to bring eternal life to his chosen people.

That said, Christ’s pioneering path through the hazy intermediate state between death and resurrection has relevance to all those who are united to him. If Paul can say that we are united to Christ in his death, burial, and new life (cf. Romans 6), then what happened on Holy Saturday has relevance to us. To be sure, we are not Christ, and so there can’t be any strict one-to-one correlation, but we are not on forbidden ground to consider our own time between death and resurrection.

And when the church has reflected on the time between death and resurrection, it has produced all kinds of visions for it. Most basically, some argued that the souls of believers immediately entered into the full glory of the presence of God. Others wanted to respect the inferior condition of a disembodied soul, and so they argued for a good, but not completely glorious state. Still others went father and argued for a kind of waiting room, a limbo, in the time between death and resurrection. Today, the Roman Catholic Church functionally argues for a two-step process of purgatory then glory for all but the presumptive saints. And many Anabaptists argue for an unconscious state of the soul between death and resurrection that is commonly called soul sleep.[1]

In light of this variety of visions, Herman Bavinck writes, “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.”[2] Thus, Bavinck counsels caution in approaching a vision of the time between death and resurrection. And one very important reason for this caution is the simple fact “that we cannot picture a pure [disembodied] spirit—its existence, life, and activity. … [T]hough human persons are not merely physical beings, all their activities are bound to the body and dependent on it… [W]e cannot form any mental picture of the life and activity of a soul that is separated from the body, and we are therefore readily inclined to conjectures and guessing."[3]

If we are going to say anything positive about the time between death and resurrection, and because we can’t say much about disembodied spiritual life, then we must return to the idea of our union in Christ as a help in this matter. If we are blessed with every spiritual blessing in the heavenly places now (cf. Eph 1:3), but we also recognize that to live is Christ but to die is gain (cf. Phil 1:21), then the most pressing questions are these: “When do believers enter into full possession of the benefits that Christ has granted them? … When do believers cease to be pilgrims and arrive in their homeland?”[4] The most reasonable answer to those questions is “at death” because death is the most significant event that humanity faces, “the biggest leap a person can take, a sudden relocation of the believer into the presence of Christ.”[5]

This is the testimony of Scripture, for

Nowhere does it represent the godly after death as still being tormented by punishment or suffering due to sin. The godly always express as their certain expectation that at death they will have reached the end of their pilgrimage and entrance into the eternal blessed life in heaven (Ps. 73:24-25; Luke 23:43; Acts 7:59; 1 Cor. 5:1; Phil. 1:23; 2 Tim. 4:7). After death there is no longer any sanctification; a state of sanctity begins in which the spirits of the righteous made perfect (Heb. 12:23) are clothed in long, white garments and stand before the throne and before the Lamb (Rev. 7:9, 14).[6]

So, then, what happens between death and resurrection is that the souls of believers will go to be with the Lord forever, for “Blessed are the dead who die in the Lord from now on” (Rev 14:13 ESV). And what is more blessed than being in the presence of God and of the Lamb?

[1] Herman Bavinck, Reformed Dogmatics, ed. John Bolt, trans. John Vriend (Grand Rapids: Baker Academic, 2003), 4:607-13.

[2] Bavinck, 4:614.

[3] Bavinck, 4:616.

[4] Bavinck, 4:635-6.

[5] Bavinck, 4:636.

[6] Bavinck, 4:636.

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