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Westminster Shorter Catechism Project

The Presbyterian Standards

by
Francis R. Beattie


CHAPTER XXXII.

DEATH AND THE MIDDLE STATE.

SHORTER CATECHISM, 37---; LARGER CATECHISM, 84-86; CONFESSION OF FAITH, XXXIII., 1

From the difficult questions of church government, and the perplexing problem of the relations between the church and the state, this chapter carries the exposition forward to the momentous things which pertain to the church and the world in the future, as revealed in the sacred Scriptures and stated in various ways in the Standards. Upon these questions the Shorter Catechism has comparatively little to say. It speaks only of the death and resurrection of the righteous, and makes no definite statement in regard to the wicked. The statement of the Larger Catechism is more complete, and it speaks concerning both the righteous and the wicked. The Confession, although quite brief in what it has to say, is at the same time quite comprehensive in its teaching upon the great matters involved.

It is proper to remark at the outset, that at the time the Standards were drawn up the great questions in eschatology were not clearly raised and fully discussed except as between Romanism and Protestantism. This, in part, accounts for the somewhat inadequate treatment which the whole subject receives in the Standards. Since that time new and important phases of these questions have emerged, especially in regard to the nature and duration of future punishment, and the second advent of Christ; and even at the present day this department of Christian doctrine has not yet attained to that definite and complete form which has been reached in most of the other departments of it. There is room and need for special attention being given to questions in eschatology.

In this exposition two chapters will be devoted to what the Standards teach concerning the final things of the church and the world. At some points the exposition may enlarge a little upon what the Standards say, by making such inferences as may render the whole explanation more complete and adequate for the present day. This chapter will deal with the two closely-related topics of death and the middle state. The former need not detain us long, but the latter needs more extended discussion.

I. Death.
The Larger Catechism says that death being threatened as the wages of sin, it is appointed unto men once to die, for that all have sinned. It also adds that the righteous shall be delivered from death itself at the last day, and even though they suffer temporal or physical death, they are delivered from the sting and curse of it. The Confession, in the brief statement which it gives of the nature of death, exhibits three things. These are now noted in order, with some brief comments.

1. Death, physical, implies separation of the connection between the soul and body, which subsists during the present earthly state of existence. Man, as already explained, consists of two distinct factors. The body is material and the soul is spiritual. During this life these two factors are bound together in such a way as to make up man's complete personality. At death the bond which holds them together is severed. But there is mystery here, for just as it is impossible to say precisely how they are joined in life, or how the body and soul are actually related to each other, so it is not possible to state definitely what death implies as an actual experience. But we can be sure of the fact that for a time soul and body are separated by means of death.

2. Death implies the departure of the soul or spiritual element in man's person, not only from the body, but also its going to the abode of disembodied spirits. It becomes a disembodied spirit by reason of death, and it seems that such a spirit cannot tarry in this sublunary sphere. Hence, it wings its way, guided, it may be, by the angels, to the domain of spirits, where in a disembodied condition it maintains a purely spiritual career during the intermediate state, which is to be spoken of later on in this chapter. In this way the second factor involved in death is made plain.

3. The last factor in death relates to the body and its destiny. The body after death sees corruption and returns to dust. As the soul returns to God who gave it, so the body returns to the dust whence it came. Hence, death implies, not only the disembodied existence of the spirit of man to which God has given an immortal existence, but also the dissolution of the body to its simple elements. In this connection the Shorter Catechism, speaking of the righteous, says that the bodies of believers are in some way united to Christ, as they rest in their graves awaiting the resurrection. This union, of course, is not a material or mechanical one, but is an important result of the mystical union which the believer sustains to Christ. Indeed, it is a factor in that union which relates to both natures of the person of the believer. Just as the bond between soul and body is not so absolutely broken by the article of death that the resurrection of the body cannot take place, so the union which the body of the believer has with Christ is never so broken even by death as to be incapable of restoration. The germ of resurrection remains, and bond of union abides. In the case of the wicked it is to be observed that no such relation to Christ is asserted in regard to their bodies, and consequently they abide under spiritual and eternal death, while their bodies are raised by the power of Christ, and not by virtue of their union with him. It need only be added here that death fixes destiny in the case of both the righteous and the wicked.

In these three particulars physical death only has been described. Before leaving this dark and painful subject, it may be well to repeat what was virtually said when discussing the results of the sin and fall of the race in Adam. Death in its deepest sense is the loss of spiritual life by the soul, as well as the physical death of the body, as above described. Death thus viewed is the penalty of sin, and in its most general view it denotes Separation. Physical death is separation of soul and body. Spiritual death is the separation of the soul from God, and the effect of this upon the moral and spiritual nature of man. Then, when this spiritual death becomes a fixed state, it is eternal death or permanent separation of the soul from God. Physical death happens to all men, but is different in the case of the righteous and of the wicked. In the case of the latter its sting and horror remains, but in the case of the former it is removed. The wicked die twice, and remain under the power of the second death. The righteous die but once, and are made alive forevermore. The wicked remain forever under the penalty of death, while the righteous are freed forever from that penalty. Other aspects of this topic will emerge in the next chapter, where the resurrection is explained at length.

II. The Middle State.
This is a subject about which in recent times there has been a great deal of discussion, and not a little idle speculation. The question as to the location and condition of the righteous and wicked, respectively, has been much debated in recent times, and the inquiry as to whether there is or shall be any opportunity to hear the gospel, and so to be saved, during the interval between death and the resurrection, has been distinctly raised and learnedly discussed. Into these discussions it is not necessary to enter in a formal way, but it will be well to keep them in mind in the exposition of what the Standards say upon this point. The period of time which now comes before us is that which elapses between death and the resurrection, and the real debate has reference to the abode and experiences of the righteous and wicked, respectively, in that abode.

1. The souls of both the righteous and the wicked are neither dead nor sleeping during that period. They are conscious and active. The Confession says that the souls of men, both righteous and wicked, do after death return immediately to God who gave them. Hence, the doctrine of the sleep of the soul, or of its semi-conscious state during the period in question, has no favor whatever in the Standards. As the body may not be necessary to consciousness and mental activity, so the soul may be both conscious and active in its disembodied middle state.

2. The condition of the righteous and of the wicked differs in certain important respects during that period. There are several things in the teaching of the Standards which should be noted with some care.

First, In the case of the righteous, their souls are, at death, made perfect in holiness and do immediately pass into glory. The Larger Catechism says that God, out of his love, frees them perfectly from sin and misery, and makes them capable of further communion with Christ in glory, upon which they enter. This communion with Christ in glory is further defined as something which they enjoy immediately after death, and it consists in their souls being made perfect in holiness, being received into the highest heavens, and there beholding the face of God in light and glory. The Confession uses almost the same language when it says that the souls of the righteous, being at death made perfect in holiness, are received into the highest heavens, where they behold the face of God in light and glory. Both the Larger Catechism and the Confession make the significant remark that the disembodied spirits of the redeemed are in the highest heavens, waiting for the full redemption of their bodies. The reference in this remark is no doubt to the resurrection of their bodies and the reunion of their souls and bodies so as to fit them for still higher degrees of felicity and glory. In this careful way the Standards state the case of the righteous.

Secondly, In regard to the wicked, the teaching is that the souls of the wicked after death and their return to God who gave them are cast into hell, where they remain in torment and utter darkness, reserved to the judgment of the great day. The Larger Catechism adds a very important remark regarding the bodies of the wicked during this period. It says, that just as the bodies of the righteous continue even in death to be in union with Christ, as they rest in their graves till at the last day they shall be again united to their souls, so the bodies of the wicked are kept in their graves, as in their prisons, until the resurrection and judgment of the great day. This statement is noteworthy, because it is the only remark which the Standards directly make in regard to the bodies of the wicked during that mysterious interval between death and the resurrection. In the case of the righteous and wicked, therefore, the teaching of the Standards is clear and definite in regard to both their souls and bodies. Both classes, in respect to their souls, are in their final state and abode, but they are not fully fitted for final felicity on the one hand, or prepared for the deepest experience of their final doom on the other. The state in which both are is properly called a middle state, and it is also an incomplete condition, so far as capacity for final felicity and future punishment is concerned. Before completeness is reached, body and soul must be reunited in the person. Hence, the resurrection must intervene to secure this, so that by the reunion of soul and body the endowment of the person may be completed, so far as capacity for joy or pain is concerned.

Thirdly, The Confession suggests a very interesting inquiry when it adds, that besides these two places above described, for the abode of the souls of men separated from their bodies, the Scriptures acknowledge none. This statement is opposed to the Romish doctrine at this point, and it also effectually meets some modern theories upon this subject. The doctrine of the Standards clearly is, that the souls of men after death do not go to a temporary abode for disembodied spirits, but they go to the place, heaven or hell, where they are forever to have their dwelling-place. The difference in their condition prior to and after the resurrection and judgment is not that they inhabit different places in these two periods of their career, but it consists in their capacity, and especially in regard to the relations of the soul and body. Prior to the resurrection, the disembodied souls are in heaven and hell respectively. Then at the resurrection these souls come forth from their respective places, are reunited with their bodies, and then after judgment they return to their respective abodes, to remain there forever.

This doctrine is opposed to that of Rome in several respects. It denies entirely that there are more than two localities. The Standards do not tell us precisely where heaven and hell are, but their teaching does not admit that there are so many places in the middle state as the Romish theologians assert. There is no limbus infantum, which is the supposed place where unbaptized infants who die in infancy go, and where they continue in a quiescent state, neither of happiness nor of suffering. Nor was there ever such a place as the limbus patrum, which was the supposed abode of the Old Testament saints in a disembodied state, who lived and died before Christ came, and to whom Christ went and declared the gospel during the period when his body lay in the grave and his spirit was free. They say that in this sense Christ went and preached to the spirits in prison. He went then to the saints of all the ages prior to Christ's advent, and set them free by declaring to them his triumph over Satan. Still less can there be any such place as purgatory pertaining to the middle state, wherein certain souls, who when they died were not quite ready for heaven, are purified for their habitation by purgatorial fires of some sort. The Scriptures know of no such place; nor do the Standards. Hence, the Romish perversions are to be set aside entirely. There are no such classes of persons in the middle state, and no such places. Heaven and hell are the only places.

Nor do the Standards favor the view held by some modern theologians, that the disembodied spirits of both the righteous and the wicked go to a common abode, which is temporary, and in which they abide only till the resurrection. Here both classes are supposed to be together in the region of departed spirits during the middle state. After the resurrection and judgment these completed persons, with soul and body reunited, enter heaven and hell for the first time, according as their award at the day of judgment determines. This general theory has no favor at all in the Standards. The souls of the righteous do immediately pass into glory, and are received into the highest heavens. The souls of the wicked are cast into hell, where they remain for the judgment day. The former are in heaven and the latter are in hell in a disembodied state. The resurrection reunites these souls and bodies, the judgment publicly announces their destiny respectively, and they re-enter the abodes whence they came for judgment, and remain forever therein. In closing this chapter it may be added that in the middle state there is no sanctification of the soul in the disembodied state, in the sense that some remnants of sin which have been carried forward by the redeemed into the middle state are purged away. There may be advance in knowledge of divine realities and growth in the positive experiences of the divine life in their souls, but there shall be no experience of sanctification in the sense of dying unto sin, for that was all removed at death. Death thus fixes destiny, and, to a certain extent, the general moral state of every person. Such is the teaching of the Standards.

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