August 26, 2013
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 of 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. Beside these two places, for souls separated from their bodies, the Scripture acknowledgeth none.
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 self-same bodies, and none other (although with different qualities), which shall be united again to their souls for ever.
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 honour; and be made conformable to His own glorious body.
The last two chapters of the Westminster Confession address the doctrine of the last things, or what theologians refer to as eschatology. WCF 32:1 clearly states that our souls are immortal. Our physical bodies "return to dust" and "see corruption," but our souls have an "immortal subsistence." It is very easy in our day to follow the conclusions of secular scientists and philosophers who assume that there is nothing beyond our physical bodies; according to them, once we die we cease to exist.
However, this is not what the Bible teaches. Though our physical bodies die, our souls continue to exist. This teaching should give us both comfort and a sober perspective on life in this world. When experiencing the wasting away of the outer man, as the Apostle Paul puts it in 2 Corinthians 4:16, we have the hope that our inner man is being renewed and ultimately will not perish. Likewise, when looking at the world around us, we can have the proper Biblical perspective, which is neither overwhelmed by the material or physical limitations in the world, nor overly confident in what the world can provide.
WCF 32:1 is also very direct in teaching us that after death our destination depends upon whether or not we have received by faith the righteousness of Christ. In other words, for Christians the blessing of holiness and being ushered into the presence of God is what awaits us after death. For the unbeliever, their soul is consigned to hell and the torments that accompany it. A few implications from this teaching:
1. After death there is no opportunity to receive the gift of salvation in Christ. The unbeliever's soul is in hell awaiting the final Day of Judgment.
2. This should instill urgency in us to preach the Gospel. The opportunity for salvation is now, and it is important for us remember that hell is real and that God's righteous judgment is impending.
3. We must continue to pray. Eternal condemnation is clearly what the Bible and the Confession teaches for those who die without Christ.
Before moving on to the next paragraph, it is worth pointing out two brief statements in paragraph one. First, the Confession is explicit that after death our souls do not "sleep." This statement denies a doctrine taught by some of the early Church Fathers that our souls sleep after death awaiting the return of Christ. Second, the Confession states, "besides these two places [going to Heaven and Hell], for souls separated from the body, the Scripture acknowledgeth none." The Roman Catholic Church teaches that after death all souls are held in purgatory. The Westminster Confession does not believe that the Bible teaches a doctrine of purgatory, where individuals continue their "purging" of sin. As was stated earlier, after death there is no further opportunity for salvation.
While after death our souls are separated from our bodies, according to WCF 32:2, on the last day our souls will be reunited "with the selfsame bodies ... forever." The disembodied state of the soul is only temporary; we were created to exist with a body and soul. Likewise those believers who are alive on the last day will have their bodies changed as well. The body that we receive on the last day will have "different qualities". In other words, that body will be suitable for an eternal existence without corruption or decay. Like Jesus Christ's resurrection body, believers will be given a body that is discernable and glorified.
For the unbeliever, the last day will include a reunion with their bodies as well. The unbeliever will be raised or resurrected to "dishonor" as the Confession states. This dishonor again is the punishment that awaits those whose sins have not been atoned for by the blood of God's eternal Son.
When is the last day? The Bible does not give us a precise date and any speculation is just that - vain speculation. Instead we are to watch and pray. This is the great hope and encouragement for Christians throughout history. There will be a great resurrection at the triumphant and glorious return of our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ.
Dr. Jeffrey K. Jue is Stephen Tong associate professor of Reformed Theology and associate professor of church history at Westminster Theological Seminary.