What Happens When A Believer in Jesus Dies?

Medieval depiction of purgatory, Très Riches Heures du Duc de Berry (credit: Wikipedia).

What happens when you die? That is a good question.

In the history of the church, the concept of purgatory looms large. But purgatory has had a bad rap with (most) Protestant Evangelical Christians, ever since Martin Luther made his famous protest in the 16th century, against indulgences. Purgatory is a doctrine that tries to explain what happens during the so-called intermediate state, and it captivated the mind of the Western medieval church, and still remains official Roman Catholic church teaching today. Like (most) Protestants, the Eastern Orthodox also reject the Roman Catholic legalistic framework of purgatory, but they agree with the ancient practice of prayers for the dead, admitting to some ambiguity on the question, more than what most Protestants will tolerate.

I include the caveat of “most” Protestants rejecting purgatory, as there have been notable exceptions in the minority. The influential 20th century apologist C.S. Lewis was known to be drawn to the doctrine. In the early 21st century, Protestant theologian Jerry Walls has written extensively defending what he believes to be a “biblical” view of purgatory. Then there are the views of Charles Augustus Briggs, a late 19th century American Presbyterian theologian, whom we will focus on in this blog article, who raises some interesting questions, suggesting some form of purgatory, though not exactly like what Roman Catholicism teaches.

So, what is purgatory, generally speaking? Purgatory is not hell, but neither is it exactly heaven.  It is more like a preparatory stage before a believer can enter heaven. The lingering effects of sin, after death, must be “purged” before a believer fully and finally enters the presence of God.

The Protestant Reformation rejected the medieval, Western Christian view of purgatory, largely because the Scriptural support for it was found to be lacking. Purgatory owed more to the accumulation of Western tradition than it did to solid exposition of the Bible. Just ask any informed Protestant Christian.

But does the Bible specifically rule out purgatory, as a possibility? That turns out to be a very interesting question, too. It stems from the fact that not all Protestants agree on what is the best, most Scriptural alternative to purgatory. The reality is, the question of what happens when we die, for believers, remains somewhat of a mystery.

Protestants Criticisms of Purgatory: Soul Sleep vs. Conscious Union with the Lord

Why have Protestants largely rejected purgatory? Well, the rallying cry of the Protestant Reformation, ever since Martin Luther’s day, has been justification by faith alone. Good works can not save a person. Instead, Christ’s work to justify sinners happens externally to the believer. But what about inward transformation?

The standard Protestant view contends that in gratitude to the justifying work of Christ, the process of sanctification continues throughout the earthly life of believers, who earnestly seek after Him. God is transforming Christians, step-by-step, day-by-day, to conform more and more into the likeness of Christ. While we exist in this world, sin will constantly nag at us, causing us to fall short of God’s holiness, where we must continually come before God in humility, confess our sin and receive His forgiveness, and move on in spiritual growth.

But what then happens when we die, with respect to our sanctification? For the standard Reformation view, the sanctification process is suddenly over. Instantaneously, Christians are set free from the bodily passions that were pulling them down. Believers are essentially put into a type of “holding pattern,” during this so-called intermediate state, between death and facing God’s ultimate and final judgment. That being the case, what does this intermediate state look like?

Some early Reformation-era thinkers, such as the English Bible translator, William Tyndale, and the early Martin Luther, both denied the Roman Catholic doctrine of purgatory, as an explanation for what takes place during this intermediate state. They came to believe that the human soul, during this intermediate state, is asleep, a doctrine commonly known as “soul sleep.”

Supporters of this view have appealed to passages like Mark 5:39.  The daughter of Jarius had just died, and Jesus had arrived, and will shortly raise her to life.  At that moment, Jesus describes the young girl’s condition as “not dead,” but rather as “sleeping.” 1 Corinthians 15:6 and Acts 7:60 also uses the same language of “sleep” to refer to the intermediate state. In 1 Thessalonians 4:13-17, the apostle Paul refers to those Christian believers, who have died, as having “fallen asleep.

Advocates of the “soul sleep” view would argue that believers are not conscious during the intermediate state. The dead are awakened when they rejoin with their bodies at the future and final Resurrection, following the second coming of Jesus. Therefore, the very next conscious thought a believer would have, after they die, is when their soul is once again reunited with their body, at the Resurrection.

But most Protestant Christians today follow the thinking of later Reformers, such as John Calvin, who vigorously rejected soul sleep. Calvin taught that the idea of the soul “sleeping” is simply a metaphor, and it should not be taken literally.1 Based on such passages as the story of the Rich Man and Lazarus (Matthew 16:19-31), the believer’s soul during this “holding pattern” period, the intermediate state, is actually active and aware, where the believer experiences a foretaste of what lies before them. Another passage from the apostle Paul lends support to this understanding:

Yes, we are of good courage, and we would rather be away from the body and at home with the Lord (2 Cor. 5:8 ESV).

This is what many Christians mean, when they say that a recently died fellow believer has “gone on to be with the Lord.” For example, when the famous evangelist, Billy Graham, died in February, 2018, most admirers of Graham commented something along the lines of, “Billy Graham is with Jesus now.” The intermediate state is like getting a “preview” of life with God in God’s heaven, before God’s final judgment.

Unlike medieval purgatory, this view of the intermediate state is one of bliss, being united with Jesus, as opposed to experiencing the punishing, though temporary, torments of purgatory. Specifically, in contrast to soul sleep, the believer’s soul is conscious, as the believer’s soul is now in God’s immediate presence. Therefore, those who are united with Christ, in the intermediate state, are able to see and understand heavenly things, that those of us who remain in this earthly existence are unable to comprehend.

Having trusted in the forgiveness of Jesus, through the work of Christ, and not by their own works, Christians will ultimately pass God’s final judgment. This is when they “officially” enter the promised eternal state, and the blessings of eternal life. By this point, the soul has been reunited with the earthly, yet transformed, body, to live out the Resurrection. In this final glory, the believer has then passed beyond the “preview” period of the intermediate state.

Theologians refer to the initial “preview,” intermediate state of being in God’s presence, immediately after death, as receiving a believer’s particular judgment. This is different from the general judgment, to be experienced at the final judgment, at the end of time, though the ultimate verdict, of being forever with the Lord, is the same.2

Charles Augustus Briggs’ Alternative to the Standard Protestant View

Theologian Charles Augustus Briggs (1841-1913), in Presbyterian circles, was judged a heretic, due to his denial of the doctrine of biblical inerrancy. This negative association with Briggs’ legacy often obscures the fact that he held some rather provocative views on purgatory, that are worth thinking about, even if you do not agree.

Are there difficulties with this standard Protestant approach to the intermediate state? Charles Augustus Briggs thought that this idea, of the sanctification process as suddenly being over, somehow upon the event of death, was rather muddled, and theologically naïve. Briggs believed that the rapid, instantaneous end of sanctification, around the point of death, failed to take into account the damaging effects of sin on the human soul, that were still engaged, even up to the point of death. To think that Christians are all immediately made whole and complete, once passing the threshold of this earthly life, seemed like Protestants were injecting some kind of “magic” into the Christian journey, with a lot of hand-waving going on.

This is not merely an issue of idle, theological speculation. There are real world questions involved.

Rethinking “Purgatory”: As Applied to Suicide

I had an uncle who committed suicide a number of years ago. Though he suffered from depression, it has baffled me for years, as to why he would leave behind his wife, a son, and a daughter. I was young at the time, and I did not know him very well, and I do not wish to speculate on his eternal state.

I know that there are some who think that suicide automatically disqualifies you from entering God’s heaven, but there is no definitive evidence in Scripture, to support this hypothesis. This view is a carry-over from the medieval perspective, that concludes that suicide is inherently a mortal sin, a sin that permanently separates the person from God’s salvation, because there is no opportunity to confess and be forgiven from it, in this earthly life. Unlike lesser, so called venial sins, not even medieval purgatory can rectify an unconfessed mortal sin. However, there is nothing in the Bible that identifies suicide with being a mortal sin. The Bible does speak of “unforgivable sin” (Matthew 12:31-32), but there is nothing in God’s Word that equates that specifically with suicide.

That being said, I still wonder why my uncle decided to give up, and take his own life. If I assume he had put his trust in Christ, his Protestant theology against purgatory might have contributed to his contemplation of suicide. All agree that at the point of death, temptation to sin ends, so there is now no further opportunity to sin. But what about the temporal consequences of sin committed in this life? Does death completely erase those consequences instantaneously?

For if at death, the soul is suddenly completely sanctified, then this would pose as quite a temptation for someone who finds the trials of this life unbearable. Death as a “magic” solution, as Briggs derisively put it, to the long, extended process of sanctification, would be difficult for a deeply depressed person to resist. It looks like a relatively “easy way out,” to life’s problems.

Briggs rejected the Roman Catholic view of purgatory, with its corollary theology of indulgences and prayers for the dead, and particularly the medieval emphasis of purgatory as punishment. But Briggs still believed that God uses some form of purification, to eliminate any objectionable effect or consequence of sin that remained in the believer, after they experienced death. In other words, death is not a short cut to the blessings of eternal life. Whether we deal with it in this life, or in the next, there is no quick and easy escape from the harmful effects of sin on the human soul. It is indeed painful, but we all need sin, along with its temporal consequences, purged from our human hearts, before we can assuredly enter our eternal rest with God.

Looking at it from this perspective, purgatory has more of a healing, rather than a punitive, context. C. S. Lewis put it like this: “Our souls demand purgatory, don’t they?

I wonder: If my uncle had considered these things, might it have deterred him from taking that gun with him to his car, outside of his office, and ending his life, leaving behind my cousins, without a father? I will never know this side of Glory. However, my guess is that this type of theological reflection never crossed his mind.

The Roman Catholic vs. Classic Protestant Debate on Purgatory: The Scriptural Case

This purging process, as in all forms of purgatory, has its primary basis, though not explicitly, in 1 Corinthians 3:11-15. As with Charles Augustus Briggs’ unconventional view of progressive sanctification after death, this line of reasoning, supported by Paul’s metaphor of “fire” in this passage, is largely why purgatory still has its advocates among some Protestant Christians:

11 For no one can lay a foundation other than that which is laid, which is Jesus Christ. 12 Now if anyone builds on the foundation with gold, silver, precious stones, wood, hay, straw— 13 each one’s work will become manifest, for the Day will disclose it, because it will be revealed by fire, and the fire will test what sort of work each one has done. 14 If the work that anyone has built on the foundation survives, he will receive a reward. 15 If anyone’s work is burned up, he will suffer loss, though he himself will be saved, but only as through fire. (1 Cor. 3:11-15 ESV)

Supporters of purgatory, Roman Catholics and those few Protestants, identify this “fire” as the purging mechanism, to be applied to the believer, during the intermediate state. However, the majority of Protestant critics strongly object to this interpretation, mainly by insisting that the apostle Paul had expressed no intent of applying this to the intermediate state, before the Final (or General) Judgment. Instead, this “fire” has something to do with the Final Judgment itself. However,  Bible commentators still debate the details about what this really means, as you can discover for yourself in comparing different modern translations.3

Roman Catholics today embrace purgatory, as well as did the bulk of Western, medieval Christians, up until the eve of the 16th century Protestant Reformation. Roman Catholics also appeal to a passage in the “Apocrypha,” 2 Maccabees 12:43-46, for further Scriptural support. But when Protestants eliminated the Old Testament Apocrypha from the church canon, they were no more under any obligation to accept the teachings of Rome on this point.

A more visceral motive for rejecting purgatory, still stems from the flagrant abuses in the medieval church, to use the doctrine of purgatory, as a means of pressuring the faithful to give more money, to an already, super-wealthy religious institution. The corruptive practice of “selling indulgences,” in order to reduce time in purgatory, that enraged Martin Luther, is still very much etched in people’s minds, five hundred years later.

Contemporary Roman Catholicism now emphasizes the purification aspect of purgatory more, as opposed to the language of temporal punishment, that terrified people so much in Martin Luther’s day. Here is where an analogy might be helpful: Instead of the common, medieval way of imagining purgatory as a type of prison, where you need to “work off your time,” more contemporary Roman Catholic thought imagines purgatory as like the recovery period you experience in the hospital, following surgery. You have been healed of your “sin sickness,” but you still need the spiritual equivalent of physical therapy, to get you up and walking again.

Are such reformulations of purgatory enough to reconcile Roman Catholic and Protestant disagreements over the intermediate state? Old theological habits can be hard to break, on both the Protestant and Roman Catholic sides.

My Take on  the Intermediate State, and Purgatory, in Particular

So, where do we go with all of this? What does happen when a believer in Jesus dies?

When it comes to the “soul sleep” vs. “conscious fellowship with the Lord” debate, the latter view, advocated by John Calvin, is pretty much the “default” for most Protestant Evangelicals today. I tend to lean in this direction myself. But this issue falls well within the apostle Paul’s category of “disputable matters,” according to Romans 14-15. Ultimately, the doctrine of the intermediate state is not an essential issue, so it is important for Christians to be able to “agree to disagree” on this teaching, and move past it fairly quickly, when the topic comes up for debate. Christians have a lot more, other pressing issues to consider, in our day and age.

What about purgatory? I am still pondering Charles Augustus Briggs’ view of progressive sanctification after death, as a possible reworking of purgatory, but I am not totally persuaded.4 As a Protestant evangelical, I am even less drawn to the Roman Catholic doctrine of purgatory, because of the lingering medieval baggage. The lack of direct Scriptural support for purgatory, at most, puts it in the “speculation” category; that is, something that should not be dogmatically taught. Again, Christians have a lot more important work to do, than to get too bogged down in the debate.5

Jesus did assure the thief on the cross, that “today you will be with me in paradise” (Luke 23:39-43 ESV).  Some interpret this to mean that purgatory should be ruled as being Scripturally out-of-bounds. I am not convinced Jesus necessarily had a refutation of purgatory in mind, when he was suffering on the Cross. But it does suggest that purgatory, if indeed there is such a thing, is not something that should be feared. If the intermediate state is a time of healing for the believer, as opposed to punishment, then this should rid the believer of anxiety about what happens after death. The point is that the intermediate state, which anticipates our final destiny, is something to be welcomed by the believer.

At the same time, we should think about death with a measure of sobriety, as death should never be viewed as an “easy way out” of life’s difficulties. Christians are not immune to the temptation of suicide, which is becoming an epidemic in contemporary society. It is from this angle that I do find purgatory, at least in the sense that Charles Augustus Briggs puts it, worth thinking about.

There is simply a lot we do not know about the so-called intermediate state, between death and the final judgment. But here is something that all believers in Jesus can bank on, when it comes to the intermediate state:

There is no fear in love, but perfect love casts out fear. For fear has to do with punishment, and whoever fears has not been perfected in love. (1 John 4:18 ESV).

What we do know is that for those who trust in Christ, He does promise to cleanse and purify us, and make us whole. We can have complete confidence in Jesus, that we need not fear death, nor fear what might come afterwards. So, for those who put their faith in Jesus, this really is good news!

Notes:

1. Martin Luther was not dogmatic, in his belief in soul sleep. John Calvin nevertheless felt compelled to refute the doctrine, though he did not mention Luther by name. Some of Calvin’s reformer colleagues, such as Martin Bucer, cautioned Calvin not to write his treatise, the Psychopannychia, believing that by doing so it would put an unnecessary rift into the Reformation movement. However, Calvin’s view has remained persuasive, partly because, as Bernard Cottret put it in Calvin: A Biography, Calvin sought to refute the Anabaptists, who were seen as fanatics in the 16th century, many of whom embraced the soul sleep doctrine (Kindle location 1016ff). Calvin’s primary concern is that a literal view of the soul “sleeping” conveys the idea that the soul is unconscious during the intermediate state, such that when the soul awakens on the day of judgment, the soul will be “without memory, without any intelligence or feeling whatever” (Kindle location 1060). Were Calvin’s opponents merely suggesting that the soul sleeps during the intermediate state, or were they saying that at death the soul actually dies, and all previous memories and consciousness of the earthly life are lost (a rather odd position, that is pure conjecture)? I am not sure what Calvin was describing, whether his antagonists really held the exact view he was opposing, or why he was so dogmatic in making his case. Perhaps Calvin had Ecclesiastes 9:5 in mind, but most modern translations indicate not that the awakened soul has no memory, but that the soul in the next life will be forgotten by those currently living. Calvin’s more metaphorical view of the soul “sleeping,” presumably implies that the metaphor is simply a figure of speech. Yet it is not entirely clear why this particular metaphor was chosen in Scripture, as opposed to simply stating explicitly that the soul in the intermediate state is conscious. Cottret contends that Calvin’s treatise on soul sleep was mainly for himself, forcing him to work out the details of a theological anthropology, as well considering the nature of time, which both can be treacherous endeavors. It would appear that the solution is a matter of speculation, without enough information in Scripture to make a definitive, dogmatic judgment. But Calvin persisted in vigorously denying soul sleep, and his arguments have served to persuade most Protestant Christians ever since, though not everyone. For example, the original Forty-Two Articles of the Church of England (1553), specifically followed Calvin’s example and declared soul sleep to be false teaching. However, just a few years later, the Thirty-Nine Articles (1571) removed that particular article. In recent years, the doctrine of “soul sleep” has been associated with marginal groups like the Jehovah’s Witnesses, but more mainstream evangelical Christians have been giving “soul sleep” a second look. The debate for Christians today, concerning soul sleep vs. conscious experience with the Lord, in the intermediate state, centers around the relationship between the body and the soul, as well as how time passes for those in the intermediate state, topics that go beyond the scope of this blog post.  

2. The topic of God’s future and final judgment(s) gets rather involved, as some Christian believe there is but one final judgment, with different aspects associated with that single judgment. Other Christians believe that there will be multiple judgments, hence “judgments” in the plural. We can save this topic for a future blog post.  

3. There are actually two main Protestant views for interpreting 1 Corinthians 3:11-15: (VIEW A) The “fire” (v. 13, 15) represents God’s judgment, on the “day” of judgment (v. 13), that will destroy the deficient works of the believer; i.e. the “hay” and “straw”, and preserve the good works; i.e. “gold” and “silver.” Christians are saved by the finished work of Christ, but their works are still to be judged, with appropriate rewards given to different believers, a view implied by the English Standard Version, quoted above. (VIEW B) Paul has in mind, not all believers, but rather teachers of the Gospel, who will stand under judgment, in light of what type of ministry are they building. The “works” (v. 13) could be those persons, who are discipled in that ministry. If a minister of the Gospel builds upon the right foundation; i.e. the finished work of Christ, those persons influenced by the ministry will be considered good “works”; i.e. “gold” and “silver.” If the Christian leader takes some shortcut, and fails to build the ministry on Christ, and Christ alone, the disciples will be like “hay” and “straw,” for they will not be properly grounded in their faith. This view focuses more on the immediate context of the crisis of the church in Corinth, laid out in the previous chapters of Paul’s letter, regarding disputes between those who follow Apollos, Paul, or other “celebrity” Christian leaders. This second view is implied more by the NIV 2011 translation, where the “builder” (v. 14, 15) is the Christian leader, not the believer, in general. In response the Protestants, Rome’s answer to the difficulty of landing on the correct interpretation is resolved, from their perspective, by looking at this text through the lens of tradition; namely, the Roman teaching on purgatory .

4. A more nuanced critique of a progressive sanctification view of purgatory, by someone like Charles Augustus Briggs, C.S. Lewis, or recently by Jerry Walls, in his essay in Four Views on Hell, can be found in Why the Reformation Still Matters?, by Tim Chester and Michael Reeves, iBooks p. 385ff , reviewed here on Veracity. Chester and Reeves reject such a reimagined approach to purgatory as suggesting that the process of sanctification is not really about the healing of the soul, that tends to reduce the grace of God to a substance, as though God’s work in sanctification gives the believer a type of balm for the soul, detached from God’s presence. Rather, sanctification is about God giving us His very self. Therefore, when we die, the believer is immediately brought into God’s presence, making any form of purgatory, punishing or healing, completely unnecessary…. Mmmm. This is worth chewing on…. Briggs’ view is set forth in his The Defence of Professor Briggs Before the Presbytery of New York, December 13, 14, 15, 19, and 22, 1892, p.151ff, where he is brought to trial for heresy, and where Briggs maintains this view of the intermediate state is the older, more traditional view taught for centuries in the church.  

5. Martin Luther utterly rejected the sale of indulgences, but in his early years as a reformer, rejecting the doctrine of purgatory was more difficult for him. In his debate with Johann Eck at Leipzig, Luther conceded that purgatory was a speculative doctrine, that could be neither fully supported by Scripture, nor easily dismissed, stating  that he had “no certain knowledge of the state of purgatory.” However, as he got older, Luther finally rejected purgatory altogether .  

About Clarke Morledge

Clarke Morledge -- Computer Network Engineer, College of William and Mary... I hiked the Mount of the Holy Cross, one of the famous Colorado Fourteeners, with some friends in July, 2012. My buddy, Mike Scott, snapped this photo of me on the summit. View all posts by Clarke Morledge

2 responses to “What Happens When A Believer in Jesus Dies?

  • Jerry Dearmon

    Another thought provoking article. Thanks Clarke.
    For what it’s worth, my view on the hereafter may be a bit arcane but I think that as humans we tend to measure all things according to time. In this case it constrains us to try to understand the “timing” of occurrences between when our soul goes to God’s Kingdom (I think immediately) and when our resurrected body unites with our soul to join with Him in the Kingdom. As most would agree, God is not constrained by time. That is how he can be omnipresent. Therefore, when we die, we begin to experience His domain of no time. Therefore, I think there is no realization of a “waiting period” between the events of “soul sleep” and resurrection of the body”

    Like

    • Clarke Morledge

      Jerry: I appreciate what you saying, and it is very thoughtful. The question of the passage of time, if any, in the intermediate state is a good one.

      John Calvin definitely wrestled with it, in his dispute with the Anabaptists’ soul sleep doctrine. But another way of looking at it is to say that “soul sleep” is actually a metaphor for saying that there is no passage of time in the intermediate state, which is consistent with your view.

      In other words, from our earthly perspective, the dead are “sleeping” over a period of time. Time passes for us. But in the intermediate state realm, time is not passingl.

      In this sense, the advocates of “conscious union with Christ” and “soul sleep” may not be that far apart after all.

      Thank you for carefully reading and commenting!!

      Like

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