Today we are observing All Saints Sunday. All Saints is a day when we take time to remember all those who have died in the faith, our ancestors in the church from long ago, and those who have passed away a little more recently.
I realized something this week when I started thinking about us doing this together, and that’s that we don’t all have the same beliefs about what happens after we die. In large part because none of us has done it yet. But also because of popular culture.
Whether it's cartoons in the newspaper with St. Peter manning a desk in front of pearly gates, or movies about ghosts, or my personal favorite, "The Good Place". Our beliefs and expectations about the after life come from the media more than they do from the Bible.
But none of that is what the Bible teaches.
Everything that we believe about life after death centers on the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ. The whole of scripture points to this as the primary event of history.
But some people tell the story like this, they say there’s heaven, and then there’s earth. Our real home is heaven, and we got exiled from heaven and we’re serving out our time here on Earth until we can return. Have you ever heard that story? Me too. I think it was a Pixar movie?
But it’s not the story that the Bible tells.
Lucky for us, the church has been around a long time, and has navigated a whole lot of bad teachings. In fact, that’s where progress comes from! Whenever the church faces a controversy ab out theology or practice, we have big meetings that produce concrete answers that are much better than whatever happens to sound good to any one person in a given moment. So today, we’re going to look at one paragraph from one of our church’s confessions, and all the verses that it cites to arrive at an answer to the question, “What happens when we die?”
This is going to be more of a Bible Study today than a sermon, so let’s start out by reading the whole quote. It’s from 1647, so it’s a little wooden, and then we’ll go back through and look at the scriptures it cites. But first, a quick word about confessions.
You probably remember from when we did Confirmation of Everyone, but just in case, I’ll remind you, our church has a book of Confessions, which are statements of faith from church history in which our ancestors in the faith struggled together with the scriptures to wring out propositional truth from the many and varied revealed and historical truths of the entire Biblical witness. Scripture comes first, and is the only thing truly necessary for us to know the good news about God in Jesus Christ, but we’re also not even close to the first people to wrestle with hard questions. These confessions are officially authoritative for us as Presbyterians, but we’re still completely free to point out where they might suffer from some biases and such.
Here’s what it says in its entirety. Then we'll go through it bit by bit, looking at the scriptures cited.
Westminster Confession of 1647: Of the State of Men after Death, and of the Resurrection of the Dead
I. The bodies of men, after death, return to dust, and see corruption, (Gen 3:19; Act 13:36): but their souls, which neither die nor sleep, having an immortal subsistence, immediately return to God who gave them, (Luk 23:43; Ecc 12:7): the souls of the righteous, being then made perfect in 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, (Hbr 12:23; 2Co 5:1, 6, 8; Phl 1:23; Act 3:21; Eph 4:10). 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, (Luk 16:23-24; Act 1:25; Jud 6-7; 1Pe 3:19). 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, (1Th 4:17; 1Co 15:51-52): and all the dead shall be raised up, with the selfsame bodies, and none other (although with different qualities), which shall be united again to their souls for ever, (Job 19:26-27; 1Co 15:42-44). 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, (Act 24:15; Jhn 5:28-29; 1Co 15:43; Phl 3:21).
The bodies of men, after death, return to dust, and see corruption;
Ashes to ashes, dust to dust…where does that come from? The Bible!
In Genesis, God says to the first people after they’re cast out of the garden of Eden that they would have to work hard to survive, and after they were done surviving, they would die "...you are dust, and to dust you shall return."
This is the way things are meant to be. Our bodies are supposed to decay after death. In Acts 13:36 , the Apostle Paul points out in a sermon that King David, ... died, was laid beside his ancestors, and experienced corruption"
So everyone, even the greats and even the saints, except for Jesus, loses their body to decay.
but their souls (which neither die nor sleep), having an immortal subsistence, immediately return to God who gave them.
Ecclesiastes 12:7 when talking about death says "and the dust returns to the earth as it was, and the breath returns to God who gave it." In the Bible, the word for breath is the same word as the word for Spirit, in both the Old and the New Testament. So here, the Scripture says that it’s not just that the body has died, but that the breath, the spirit, which God breathed into us to make us his little image bearers, returns to God immediately.
Remember how Jesus, according to Luke 23:43 said to one of the men being crucified with him, "He replied, ‘Truly I tell you, today you will be with me in Paradise.’" This is what is promised.
(We should come back to this whole “immortal subsistence” thing some day though. Because the scriptures cited don’t get that specific.)
But the picture they do paint is that upon death of those who are in Christ, things are better, amazing even. Jesus calls it Paradise.
The souls of the righteous, being then made perfect in holiness, are received into the highest heavens, where they behold the face of God in light and glory,
2 Corinthians 5:1, 6, 8; "For we know that if the earthly tent we live in is destroyed, we have a building from God, a house not made with hands, eternal in the heavens. 6 So we are always confident; even though we know that while we are at home in the body we are away from the Lord— 8 Yes, we do have confidence, and we would rather be away from the body and at home with the Lord.
So far, so good. So far, not a whole lot of difference between this image, and the popular notion of heaven that we see in the movies. But here’s where it gets different, and here’s why we're studying this today.
waiting for the full redemption of their bodies:
This is where our faith diverges from the popular image of the afterlife, and this is where our theology gets REAL GOOD. This is rubber meets the road stuff.
You see, if you stop reading, or stop paying attention before you get to this part, then you can easily fall into the false belief that matter doesn’t matter, that this world is meaningless, that it’s right to want to escape it.
Listen to how Paul puts it in Romans 8:22-23 "We know that the whole creation has been groaning in labour pains until now; and not only the creation, but we ourselves, who have the first fruits of the Spirit, groan inwardly while we wait for adoption, the redemption of our bodies."
Not our souls, or spirits. The redemption of our bodies. This has universal implications!
Peter says in his sermon in Acts 3:20-21 "Jesus, who must remain in heaven until the time of universal restoration that God announced long ago through his holy prophets"
We’re not the only ones promised perfection. It’s the whole cosmos! This is what the book of Revelation means in those passages about the new heaven and the new earth.
Everything wrong will be put right. Everything awful will be undone. Heaven isn’t a consolation prize, it’s a staging room. A place to abide while awaiting the final consummation.
It’s not all good news though.
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. (Luke 16:23-24; Acts 1:25; 1 Pet 3:19; Jude 1:6-7)
That’s a real bummer, so let’s not get into it too much. This next sentence is one some of you need to hear though.
Besides these two places for souls separated from their bodies, the Scripture acknowledgeth none.
You hear that? No ghosts. None. Cut it out.
Now, one issue I have with this statement from the Westminster Confession is that it gets a lot more specific about what a soul really is than it has any right to. The Bible doesn’t get that specific. Especially that bit about how souls which neither die nor sleep but have an immortal subsistence…there’s no warrant for that description in the Bible. That’s Plato creeping in.
Bible scholar NT Wright says that we out to leave vague what the Bible leaves vague. He gives an alternative image of how to do this regarding the idea of life after death.
“I remember hearing the great Cambridge physicist and theologian John Polkinghorne offering a contemporary way of saying what needs to be said: God will download our software on to his hardware, until the day comes when he gives us new hardware on which to run our own software once more.”
The New Testament says that we will be with Christ when we die. That’s it. That’s all we really need to know about the in-between time after we die and before we are resurrected. We will be with Christ. And all who died in Christ, are with him now.
And I hope you know that it’s okay to pray for people who have died. We don’t pray TO those who have died, but it’s perfectly okay, lovely even, to talk to God about those who are with him even now.
Wright again, “True prayer is an outflowing of love; if I love someone, I will want to pray for them, not necessarily because they are in difficulties, not necessarily because there is a particular need of which I'm aware, but simply because holding them up in God's presence is the most natural and appropriate thing to do, and because I believe that God chooses to work through our pravers for other people's benefit, whatever sort of benefit that may be. Now love doesn't stop at death-or, if it does, it's a pretty poor sort of love! In fact, grief could almost be defined as the form love takes when the object of love has been removed; it is love embracing an empty space, love kissing thin air and feeling the pain of that nothingness. But there is no reason at all why love should discontinue the practice of holding the beloved in prayer before God.” (NT Wright, "For All the Saints?: Remembering the Christian Departed" Morehouse Publishing. 2004)
I just think that’s a beautiful way to put it. Now, where were we? Ah, here it is…
At the last day, such as are found alive shall not die, but be changed;
This is in part a quote from 1 Cor 15:51-52 "...We will not all die, but we will all be changed,...For the trumpet will sound, and the dead will be raised imperishable, and we will be changed."
The first generation of the church expected this to happen any and every day. As the years have gone on, we’ve learned that what matters much more than the when, is the what. It’s not so much about the any-day-now of it, as it is that God’s plan for us is to live forever in bodies just like the ones we’re in now, but perfected. God’s Kingdom is not the sweet by and by but the here and now, or at least, the here.
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 forever.
The bodies of the unjust shall, by the power of Christ, be raised to dishonor; the bodies of the just, by his Spirit, unto honor, and be made conformable to his own glorious body.
Phil 3:21 "He will transform the body of our humiliation so that it may be conformed to the body of his glory, by the power that also enables him to make all things subject to himself."
So why take a Sunday morning to talk about this? Why does it matter?
First, because our beliefs come from the whole witness of scripture.
Our default position is to just believe what ever feels right to us, whatever suits our emotional needs. But that’s not Christianity. Christianity is founded on the whole Bible’s witness to Jesus Christ.
Both the Old and the New Testaments point to resurrection far more than they point to a permanent spiritual existence. We only looked at the scriptures they cited in this section of the Westminster Confession today. We could look at many many many more.
All those words are important, but they came true in Jesus. His resurrection wasn’t just confirmation that he is the Son of God. It’s the groundbreaking of the resurrection for the whole universe, with us at the forefront of it all.
Jesus’ call to us to work for justice, with and for the poor, teaching and healing, and sharing the good news isn’t a test we have to pass to gain eternal life. It IS the work of eternal life. It is the great work that needs to be accomplished to renew the earth. It is work that will last.
When we don’t understand that, sometimes we just shrug our shoulders and think, “What does it matter in the end? The story ends the same way anyway.” But that’s just not true. That’s not what we believe. The work of those who went before us didn’t evaporate when they died. We are building on it now, and those who come after us will build on what we’ve made after we die. And on and on throughout the millennia.
We will all be resurrected to live in the world God is building through us.
All the faithful departed whom we remember today, no matter how long they have been gone, are a part of what we are building, and not just us, but the whole church around the world, in all time and place. Their work isn’t lost. And neither will ours be. Their work isn’t a selfless gift to future generations either. And neither will ours be. What we are a part of, if we’re a part of something eternal and not just in it for a quick buck, we will get to see what it becomes. So will those who have gone before us. So will those who come after us.
It’s not about legacy. It’s not about being remembered after you die.
We are building our forever home right now. And we will get to live in it.