The Condition of the Soul Between Death and the Resurrection


(From Christian Dogmatics [Saint Louis: Concordia Publishing House, 1934], pp. 616-19.)

The number of Scripture-passages which describe the condition of the soul after death is comparatively small, since Holy Scripture principally directs the attention of Christian believers to the day of Judgment and the eternal salvation following it rather than to the blessedness which they enjoy immediately after death, 1 Cor. 1,7; Phil. 3,20.21; Col. 3,4; 1 Thess. 4,13ff.; 2 Tim. 4,7.8; Titus 2,13. The Christian believer therefore patiently “waits” for the coming of our Lord Jesus Christ and rejoices in the glorious redemption which this day of salvation promises to him, Matt. 24,44-46; Luke 21,31. As Holy Scripture comforts the believer preeminently with the glory of Christ’s second advent, so also it warns the unbeliever mainly by reminding him of the certainty of the final Judgment, 2 Thess. 1,9.10; Heb. 10,27; 2 Pet. 2,3-6; Jude 6.7, rather than by direct references to his punishment after death, although such passages are not wholly lacking, Heb. 9,27; Luke 16,22.23.

The godly should therefore always rejoice in Christ’s second coming, Matt. 25,34, while the ungodly must constantly dread His righteous judgment as the great and everlasting punishment which he shall not escape, Matt. 25,41.46.

Nevertheless Holy Scripture speaks also of the condition of the soul after death. It tells us that the souls of the ungodly are “spirits in prison,” 1 Pet. 3,19, and that they suffer excruciating aud endless torments, Luke 16,23-31, so that death leads them directly into everlasting agony and anguish, Ps. 106,16-18.

On the other hand, Scripture assures us that the souls of the godly are in God’s hand. Acts 7,59.60; Luke 23,46, that they are with Christ in paradise, Phil. 1,23; Luke 23,43, and that they are supremely happy, Rev. 14,13, in their new heavenly life, Ps. 16,11; John 17,24; Rom. 8,18. In fact, they are so completely removed from all earthly trouble and sorrow that they are altogether ignorant of those who live upon earth, Is. 63,16, and their needs no longer concern them, Is. 57,1.2.

Hence we conclude that the souls of the believers are in a condition of perfect blessedness and of perpetual enjoyment of God, though we cannot picture to ourselves in what manner this wonderful fruition of celestial bliss takes place. We therefore reject every kind of soul sleep (psychopannychism) which excludes the active enjoyment of God on the part of the departed believer, Phil. 1,23; Luke 23,43.

The statements of Scripture that “the dead sleep,” 1 Cor. 15,18, or that “the dead do not praise God,” Ps. 6,5, or that “they enter into rest,” Heb. 4,3, etc., do not prove the insensibility of the soul after death, but are figurative expressions, used in a sense which Scripture clearly explains.

To draw inferences with regard to the condition of the soul after death from the nature of the soul (“The soul is never inactive,” etc.) is not permissible, since the conclusions so reached are most uncertain, and, above all, since Scripture is the only source and standard of faith, and its teaching must not be supplemented by human speculation.

A psychopannychy which includes a real enjoyment of heavenly bliss ([Martin] Luther) must not be rejected as wrong since it does not contradict Scripture. Luther writes (St. L., I, 1758 ff.; II, 215 ff.): “It is divine truth that Abraham [after death] lives with God, serves Him, and rules with Him. But what kind of life that is, whether he sleeps or is awake, is a different question. How the soul rests we cannot know; but it is certain that it lives.”

With respect to the habitation of the souls (paradise, prison, fulakh) [John] Gerhard writes: “Scripture, by a general appellation, speaks of a place, John 14,2; Luke 16,28; Acts 1,25. Not that it is a corporeal and physical place, properly so called, but because it is a ‘where’ (pou) into which souls, separated from their bodies, are brought together. Scripture enumerates only two such receptacles, or habitations, of the souls, one of which, prepared for the souls of the godly, is called by the most ordinary appellation heaven, and the other, intended for the souls of the wicked, is called hell.” (Doctr. Theol., p. 632.)

The so-called purgatory (purgatorium, as also the limbus infantium and the limbus patrum), in which, according to papistic doctrine, the souls of believers must expiate the temporal punishments for their sins, is a figment of reason; for Scripture teaches that all believers through faith in Christ obtain (not purgatory, but) eternal life, John 5,24; 3,36. Moreover, it expressly teaches that not only the souls of saints, such as St. Paul and Stephen (Phil. 1,23; Acts 7,59), but also those of great sinners, converted in the last hour, such as the thief on the cross, entered with Christ into paradise, Luke 23,43. (Cp. Luther on purgatory. St. L., II, 2067 ff.)

Among modern Protestant theologians [K. F. A.] Kahnis advocated the doctrine of purgatory. He writes: “In the idea of a purgatory there undoubtedly is some truth, namely, that many Christians still need a purging. Great is the number of Christians of whom it cannot be said that Christ is their life. But they are drawn to Him and confess that which they have known of Him with a sincerity, disinterestedness, and faithfulness in conduct which ought to put to shame many Christians who are stronger in words than in works.” (Pieper, Christl. Dogmatik, III, 576.)

However, a Protestant purgatory has no more Scriptural foundation than has the papistic purgatory; for Christ promises to all who believe in Him eternal life, John 5,24; 3,36. In addition, Scripture teaches that only the blood of Christ cleanses from sin, 1 John 1,7, and not man’s work or suffering, Gal. 3,10. Not even faith purges from sin inasmuch as it is a human work, Rom. 4,3-5; it saves only because it is the receiving means (medium lhptikon), which lays hold of Christ’s righteousness and thus regenerates the heart and frees the believer from the curse and dominion of sin, Rom. 6,2.14. All Protestant theologians who join Rome in teaching a purgatory eo ipso reject the sola fide and espouse the doctrine of work-righteousness.

From the many Scripture promises which are made to Christian believers it is clear that the soul of the dying Christian is entirely cleansed from all original and actual sin; for it is then in “paradise,” the holy abode of God’s perfected saints, Phil. 1,23; Luke 23,43. (Cp. Luther, St. L., X, 2119 ff.) Luther very aptly calls death the “last purgatory” of the Christians, meaning by this that the soul of the believer, after departing in Christ, is wholly free from sin.

With regard to purgatory, Hafenreffer writes: “Everything that is ascribed to the satisfactions either of purgatory or of the intercession of the saints is detracted from the merit of Christ, which alone cleanses us from sin.” (Doctr. Theol., p. 636.) The Lutheran Church thus rejects the doctrine of purgatory as conflicting with that of justification by faith alone.

Among modern Protestant theologians some ([Friedrich] Schleiermacher) taught that the soul during the status medius (the time between death and the resurrection) must be endowed with a certain temporary body (Zwischenleib), since otherwise it could hardly exist (Macpherson: “The individual wears a body suitable to his condition during that period”). But of such a temporary body Scripture knows nothing at all. The Christian believer may rest assured that God, who so wondrously created the soul for the body, is able to take care of it also while it is outside the body, 2 Cor. 5,1-9.

The appearance of “Samuel” (1 Sam. 28) is best explained as a delusion of Satan (1 Sam. 28,19: “Thou and thy sons shall be with me”). Those who hold that in this instance God really permitted Samuel to appear must regard his appearance as an exception to His fixed rule and must maintain, on the basis of Scripture, that Spiritism is a work and fraud of Satan, Deut. 18,10-12.

With respect to the departed souls we may summarize the teachings of Scripture as follows: a) The departed souls do not return to earth, Luke 16,27-31; the appearance of Moses and Elijah at the transfiguration of Christ, Matt. 17,3, was not an exception to this rule, since these saints may be classified among the risen, Deut. 34,6; 2 Kings 2,11. b) The departed souls are ignorant of those living upon earth and of their affairs. Is. 63,16. c) The adoration of the departed saints is not only unreasonable, but also idolatrous. Matt. 4,10. d) Scripture emphatically denies the erroneous opinion of those rationalistic theologians who claim that even after death conversion is possible, Heb. 9,27.

In 1 Pet. 3,18.19 St. Peter does not speak of the preaching of the Gospel, but rather of the proclamation of the divine judgment to those who during their life despised the saving Word of God. The ekhruxen (“He preached”) denotes Law-preaching, and not Gospel-preaching, as the context shows.


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