The Baptist Confession on Life After Death and the Resurrection
There’s no topic so universally relevant and yet so commonly avoided as death—especially in modern America. Americans are willing to talk about morality, politics, religion, and a host of other hot topics. When it comes to serious reflection upon the significance of death, however, they’re quick to change the subject. In fact, most of us spend the majority of our lives in a kind of subconscious denial of the reality of death. But then, as Lorraine Boettner notes,
Suddenly the bottom drops out of our world. Perhaps a mother or father, or some other relative or friend, is taken, leaving an aching void. Many of us have already had that experience. We have watched the changing face and have listened helplessly to the shortening breath. We have spoken or looked the last good-bye, and then, in an instant, the departing one has passed out of sight and out of hearing, into the world of the unknown. The body which, perhaps only yesterday, was so full of life and animation now lies before us an insensate piece of clay. A short time ago the one we loved was here, going about his world or speaking to us; and now, perhaps in one moment, he is gone—gone so very, very far away. What baffling thoughts rush in upon the mind in those moments pressing for an answer! But there is no answer in either reason or experience. The Bible alone has the answer for the thoughts that come with such perplexity and insistence.1
Sooner or later we must face the inevitable reality of death. And as Mr. Boettner notes, neither human reason nor experience alone can prepare us for life beyond the grave. The Bible alone can provide us the answers we need. Chapter 31 the Baptist Confession of Faith gives us a helpful summary of the Bible’s teaching.2 Paragraph 1 addresses the intermediate state, and paragraph two the bodily resurrection.
The Intermediate State (31.1)
The term “intermediate” underscores two facts about the condition described in this paragraph: (1) this state immediately follows death, and (2) this state is intermediate not final.
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 in holiness, are received into paradise [‘the highest heavens,’ WCF], where they are with Christ, and 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 torment and utter darkness, reserved to the judgment of the great day; besides these two places, for souls separated from their bodies, the Scripture acknowledges none.
 Gen. 2:17; 3:19; Acts 13:36; Rom. 5:12-21; 1 Cor. 15:22  Gen. 2:7; James 2:26; Matt. 10:28; Eccles. 12:7  Ps. 23:6; 1 Kings 8:27-49; Isa. 63:15; 66:1; Luke 23:43; Acts 1:9-11; 3:21; 2 Cor. 5:6-8; 12:2-4; Eph. 4:10; Phil. 1:21-23; Heb. 1:3; 4:14, 15; 6:20; 8:1; 9:24; 12:23; Rev. 6:9-11; 14:13; 20:4-6  Luke 16:22-26; Acts 1:25; 1 Pet. 3:19; 2 Pet. 2:9.
The separation of body and soul at death
According to the first sentence, the immediate destiny of the human body and soul are distinct. As a result of Adam’s sin and God’s curse, the “bodies of men after death return to dust” (Gen. 2:17; 3:19). That is, the human body is subject to decay and decomposition (Acts 13:36; 1 Cor. 15:22). This tragic and unnatural reality has been confirmed by several millennia of human experience. Scripture teaches, however, that human beings are not merely physical but are also spiritual creatures. They consist of body and soul or spirit.3 Human “souls, which neither die nor sleep, having an immortal subsistence, immediately return to God who gave them” (Eccl. 12:1-7).
Following Scripture, the Confession flatly rejects materialism. Man is much more than just a mass of atoms and electrochemical impulses. He has an immortal soul. Consequently, human life and death have abiding meaning and value. How we live now has ramifications that last for eternity!
Furthermore, human death itself is not a natural process but a penal consequence of sin and judgment of God. Not surprisingly, all men, even unbelievers, fear death (Heb. 2:14) and grieve the loss of loved ones. It is this theological perspective on death that makes Christ’s resurrection and the believer’s future resurrection such good news!
The separation of the righteous and the wicked at death
After death the human soul is immediately translated into God’s presence in order to receive preliminary reward or punishment. This results in a separation between the souls of the righteous and those of the wicked. The Confession describes several facets of the reward awaiting righteous souls. To begin with, they are “made perfect in holiness” (1 Pet. 5:9-10; Heb. 12:22-23).4 For the first time in their experience, they will be able to “love [God] with unsinning heart.”5 Secondly, they “are received into paradise” (Luke 23:43; Rev. 2:7), which the Apostle Paul identifies as the third heaven (2Cor. 12:2-4).6 Thirdly, as the Confession reminds us, the souls of the righteous “are with Christ” (Luke 23:43; John 14:1-3; 17:24; 2 Cor. 5:6-8; Phil. 1:21-23; 1 Thes. 4:17; Rev. 20:4-6).7 And fourthly, they “behold the face of God in light and glory” (Matt. 5:8; 1Cor. 13:12; Heb. 12:14; 1Jn. 3:2, 6; Rev. 22:4), which theologians have commonly called “the beatific vision.”8 But though this reward is glorious beyond comprehension, the Confession reminds us that it is only preliminary, since we will be “waiting for the full redemption of [our] bodies.”9
In contrast with the righteous, the souls of the wicked are punished. The Confession identifies the place of their punishment as “hell,” which is used in Scripture for the intermediate state as well as the eternal state of unbelievers (Ps. 9:17; Prov. 15:24; Isa. 14:9; Matt. 5:22, 29, 30; 10:28; 11:23; Luke 16:23-31; 2Pet. 2:4). Here they will “remain in torment and utter darkness” (Matt. 8:12; 22:13; 25:30; Luke 6:23-31; 2Pet. 2:4; Jude 6, 13).10 Yet, as with the righteous, the state of the wicked is only provisional, since they are “reserved to the judgment of the great day” (2 Pet. 2:4-9; Jude 6, 13).
Paragraph one ends by emphasizing the absence of alternatives: “besides these two places, for souls separated from their bodies, the Scripture acknowledges none.” The Puritans were, no doubt, aiming this statement primarily at the Roman Catholic dogma of purgatory. According to this doctrine,
The great mass of partially sanctified Christians dying in fellowship with the church but nevertheless encumbered with some degree of sin go to purgatory where, for a longer or shorter time, they suffer until all sin is purged away, after which they are translated to heaven.11
This teaching is related to the Roman Catholic view of sin and atonement. Since satisfaction for sin must come in part from the believer’s own merit and since most believers fail to achieve sufficient merit in this life, the Church has accommodated this deficiency by providing its members with further opportunity beyond the grave. But this doctrine not only lacks Scriptural support, it also denies the sufficiency of Christ’s atonement and has provided countless thousands of people with a false security. The Confession, in consonance with Scripture, reminds us that there is no second chance to repent and get right with God after death.12 Just as Esau’s tears failed to change Isaac’s mind,13 so too the tears of those who lived godless, impenitent lives on earth will not prevail in changing Jesus’ mind at the Day of Judgment. “Behold, now is the accepted time. Behold, now is the day of salvation” (2 Cor. 6:2).
The Bodily Resurrection (31.2, 3)
Paragraph two describes the timing, recipients, and nature of the resurrection; paragraph three addresses the final outcome.
At the last day, such of the saints as are found alive, shall not sleep, but be changed; 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 forever.
 1 Cor. 15:50-53; 2 Cor. 5:1-4; 1 Thess. 4:17  Dan. 12:2; John 5:28, 29; Acts 24:15  Job 19:26, 27; John 5:28, 29; 1 Cor 15:35-38, 42-44  1 Cor. 15;42-44, 52-54  Dan. 12:2; Matt. 25:46.
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.
 Dan. 12:2; John 5:28, 29  Rom. 8:1, 11; 1 Cor. 15:45; Gal. 6:8  1 Cor. 15:42-49  Rom. 8:17, 29, 30; 1 Cor. 15:20-23, 48, 49; Phil. 3:21; Col. 1:18; 3:4; 1 John 3:2; Rev. 1:5.
The timing of the resurrection
The second paragraph begins by locating the bodily resurrection “at the last day” (John 6:35-40; 11:24). This phrase refers to that period in the history of this present age when God’s redemptive purposes will be consummated. Thus, the resurrection will mark God’s final victory over Satan, sin, and death (1 Cor. 15:51-54). Note carefully both the futurity and the singularity of the resurrection. Because Scripture describes the resurrection as a future event, we must oppose attempts by modern Preterists14 to spiritualize all NT references to the resurrection and thereby reject its futurity and bodily nature (cf. 2 Tim. 2:18). Because Scripture seems to present the resurrection as a singular event (Dan. 12:2; John 5:28-29; Acts 24:14-15; 1 Cor. 15:20-26, 51-54), we need not feel constrained to postulate several distinct stages of the resurrection.15
The recipients of the resurrection
“All the dead shall be raised up” (Dan. 12:2; John 5:28-29; Acts 24:14-15) except “such of the saints as are found alive” who, like Enoch and Elijah, “shall not sleep, but be changed” (Gen. 5:24; 2Kgs. 2:11; 1 Cor. 15:50-53; 1 Thes. 4:17). Those who deny the bodily resurrection are in for a big surprise! Sadducees, skeptics, and atheists will all someday be raised from the dead. Unbelief will not exempt them. Cremation will not save them. The mountains and rocks will not hide them (Rev. 6:15-17). Every person who ever lived will some day physically stand before God at the Great White Throne Judgment (Rev. 20:11-15).
The nature of the resurrection
Exactly what shall be raised at the last day? In other words, what shall be the precise nature of the resurrection body? The Confession answers this question in terms of continuity and discontinuity.
There is continuity with our present body
All men shall be raised “with the selfsame bodies and none other.” God will not start over from scratch! The body He raises at the last day will be the same body laid to rest in the grave. The evidence for such continuity includes the following: First, the biblical terminology for resurrection refers to the raising of something previously prostrate and implies continuity.16 Secondly, the biblical descriptions of the resurrection clearly identify the objects of God’s resurrecting activity as those bodies which were laid in the grave (cf. Job 19:23-27; John 5:28-29; Rom. 8:11). Thirdly, the New Testament writers compare our resurrection to Christ’s resurrection, which undeniably involved His “selfsame” body (Luke 24:36-43; John 20:24-27; 1 Cor. 15:49; Phil. 3:21).
At this point, some have objected to a future resurrection on empirical grounds. They point out the fact that many bodies have been digested by animals, cremated by fire, or vaporized by bombs. Empirically speaking, some bodies no longer exist as such to be raised. However, this objection underestimates the power of God. If human scientists now have the ability to clone an entire human body from the DNA of one human cell, why should we find it difficult to believe the God who spoke this present world into existence is able to retrieve our DNA and reconstitute the same body that was destroyed?
Finally, God’s purpose of redemption—to redeem His original creation—demands the resurrection of those same bodies which were laid in the grave (Rom. 8:18-23). “Thus,” as Anthony Hoekema notes, “the universe will not be destroyed but renewed, and God will win the victory.”17 The fact that God will redeem our same bodies then ought to affect the way we treat our bodies now (1 Cor. 6:12-20; 1 Thes. 4:1-8).
There is discontinuity with our present body
After affirming the continuity of the resurrection body, the Confession makes a qualification: “although with different qualities, which shall be united again to their souls for ever” (emphasis mine). The primary passage teaching a discontinuity between our present bodies and our resurrection bodies is 1 Corinthians 15:35-44. The question is raised, “How are the dead raised up and with what body do they come?” (v. 35).
Paul begins his answer by using the analogy of a seed sown in the earth (vv. 36-38). Not only is there continuity between the sown seed and sprouted plant, but there is discontinuity as well: “you do not sow that body that shall be” (v. 37). Next, Paul compares the difference between the present body and resurrection body to distinctions among the animal kingdom and celestial bodies (vv. 39-41). Finally, in verses 42 through 49, Paul identifies the contrasting qualities of our mortal and immortal body. Our mortal body is subject to disease, decay, and death; our immortal is imperishable (v. 42). Our mortal body, when dead, is buried in dishonor, but our future body, when raised, will shine with brilliant splendor (v. 43). Our mortal body is characterized by impotence; our future body will be characterized by indefatigable vitality (v. 43b). Our mortal body is suited for the first creation, but the resurrection body will be suited for the new creation (vv. 44-49).18
Maintaining both the continuity as well as the discontinuity of the resurrection is crucial for the believer’s hope. On the one hand, the continuity of the resurrection (and of the new creation) reminds us that we ourselves—not some new person who will replace us—will enjoy the very same creation that we presently enjoy. On the other hand, the discontinuity of the resurrection (and of the world to come) reminds us the future will be far better! Present sorrows, weaknesses, blemishes, ugliness, defects, handicaps, pains, decay, and death will be gone. We will enjoy a far more glorious world with far greater mental, emotional, and physical capacities.
The outcome of the resurrection
The third paragraph reminds us that though all the dead shall be raised, the final outcome for the believer and the unbeliever will be vastly different: “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” (Dan. 12:2, 3). Whereas the believer has much to anticipate; the unbeliever has much to dread. Let us, therefore, like Paul, count all things loss for Christ in order than we might attain to the Christian resurrection from the dead (Phil. 3:7-11).
Boettner, Lorraine. Immortality. Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1956.
Donnelly, Edward. The Biblical Doctrine of Heaven and Hell. Edinburgh: Banner of Truth, 2002.
Hodge, A. A. Commentary on the Confession of Faith, pp. 515-26. Philadelphia: Presbyterian Board of Publication, 1901.
Hoekema, Anthony. The Bible and the Future, pp. 86-108; 239-52. Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1979.
Milne, Bruce. The Message of Heaven and Hell: Grace and Destiny. Downers Grove: Inter-Varsity Press, 2002.
Piper, John. Future Grace, pp. 353-82. Sisters, OR.: Multnomah Press, 1995.
Salmond, S. D. F. The Biblical Doctrine of Immortality. Edinburgh: T & T Clark, 1895; reprint, Klock & Klock, 1984.
Shaw, Robert. Exposition of the Westminster Confession of Faith, pp. 314-21. 1845; reprint, Ross-shire, U.K.: Christian Focus, 1992.
Venema, Cornelius. The Promise of the Future, pp. 35-75; 363-91. Edinburgh: Banner of Truth, 2000.
Waldron, Samuel. A Modern Exposition of the 1689 Baptist Confession of Faith, 2nd edition, pp. 375-412. Durham: Evangelical Press, 1995.
Williamson, G. I. The Westminster Confession of Faith for Study Classes, pp. 252-58. Philadelphia: Presbyterian and Reformed, 1964.
- Immortality (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1956), p. 10. [↩]
- The Baptist Confession does not significantly alter the Westminster or Savoy. I have underlined the few Baptist changes or additions. [↩]
- For a biblical defense of dichotomy—that the human person consists of two basic elements not three—see John Murray, Collected Writings (Edinburgh: Banner of Truth, 1977), 2:23-33; and Robert Gonzales Jr., “Man’s Constitution as a Physical-Spiritual Unity,” Reformed Baptist Theological Review VI:1 (Spring 2009): 29-43. [↩]
- There is a sense in which we may refer to this perfection in holiness as “complete sanctification.” However, there is another sense in which, from a biblical standpoint, complete sanctification includes the body (see Rom. 8:18-23; 1 Thess. 5:23; 1 Jn. 3:2-3). [↩]
- I borrow this language from Robert Murray McCheyne’s hymn, “When This Passing World Is Done.” (no. 545 in the Trinity Hymnal, rev. ed.). [↩]
- The word for paradise (παραδεισος) is a Persian loan word. In light of this, some modern scholars have argued that the Jews and Christians derived their concept of heaven from the Persian religion of Zoroastrianism. But such a conclusion does not follow. The Jews, and later the Christians, merely appropriated a term from another culture and language to depict a reality that had been previously revealed to them via Moses before any contact with the Persians. [↩]
- I would agree with Edward Donnelly when he refers to this as the Bible’s favorite way of describing heaven. The Biblical Doctrine of Heaven and Hell (Edinburgh: Banner of Truth, 2002), p. . This description also serves to emphasize the essential connection between one’s future hope and a personal relationship with Jesus Christ. No wonder that the closeness of a man’s walk with Christ in this life usually determines his degree of hope with which he faces death: “Yea, though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I will fear no evil; for You are with me; Your rod and staff, they comfort me” (emphasis mine; Psa. 23:4). [↩]
- Theologians have debated the exact nature of this vision for at least two reasons: (1) During the intermediate state, the souls of the righteous will not have physical eyes with which to see. For this reason, some theologians view this “vision” as consisting in direct, intuitive knowledge. However, anyone who has experienced the dream state will realize that physical eyes are not absolutely necessary to “see” (e.g., Gen. 28:12-16). (2) The Scriptures teach that God is a Spirit, and therefore, invisible. This is true. However, the Bible is replete with examples of theophanic displays, that is, instances when God manifested His presence through some physical display of light and splendor (e.g., Exo. 33:17-34:8). But more importantly, there is good reason to believe that we will behold God’s face in the face of our Lord Jesus Christ, who is the greatest of all theophanies (cf. John 14:8-11; 1 Jn. 3:2, 6; Rev. 22:4). [↩]
- In addition to the full redemption of our bodies, we will also await our public vindication, the judgment of our enemies, the final allotment of our inheritance and that of our brethren. [↩]
- Jesus’ account of the rich man in Hades, which is a key text for the intermediate state, seems to describe the man’s agony in physical language. But how can a bodiless soul experience physical torment? In response, it may be argued out that Jesus used physical language because the intermediate state of the wicked, like that of the righteous, is a foretaste of the eternal state, which will be physical I nature. Therefore, there must be some point of correspondence. Both states involve a torment that is both conscious and painful. Furthermore, as noted above, we all have experienced vivid dreams in which the pleasure, pain, danger, etc., seemed quite real and even physical, though our bodies were uninvolved. Thus, it is not impossible to conceive of a bodiless torment that is nevertheless quite real. [↩]
- “Purgatory” in the Evangelical Dictionary of Theology, ed. Walter Elwel (Grand Rapids: Baker Books, 1984), p. 897. [↩]
- In addition to the Roman Catholic view of purgatory, the language of the Confession also rejects the doctrine of soul sleep as held by Seventh-Day Adventists and Jehovah’s Witnesses today. [↩]
- Some have wrongly interpreted Hebrews 12:17 to teach that Esau prayed for the gift of repentance, but God denied it to him, since he was not one of the elect. In my opinion, this view represents a perverted form of Calvinism and contradicts other passages, which emphasize God’s desire that all men repent and believe (Ezek. 33:10-11; John 5:28; 2 Tim. 2:4; 2 Pet. 3:9). A casual comparison of the Hebrews text with the incident recorded in Genesis reveals it may have been Jacob’s mind and not his own that Esau was seeking to change (see Gen. 27:34-38). Or, Esau found no place for repentance though he sought “the blessing” with tears. [↩]
- A Preterists interprets nearly all the eschatological events of the NT (especially those highlighted in Book of the Revelation) as already having taken place at the time of the book’s writing. [↩]
- Premillennialists have traditionally divided the resurrection into at least two distinct stages—the first stage occurring at Christ’s return just prior to a 1,000 year millennial reign, and the second occurring at the end of the millennial reign. This view depends largely on the reference to “the first resurrection” in Revelation 20. Dispensational Premillennialists have further divided the resurrection into three or four stages, the first occurring before a pre-tribulation rapture. I question much of the exegesis associated with such views. Nevertheless, when it comes to certain aspects of eschatological events, we presently “see in a mirror dimly” (1Cor. 13:12). And just as the Old Testament saints who lived during the time of Christ’s first advent were wrong about certain particulars of His coming, so it is very possible the church may be wrong about some of the particulars related to Christ’s second coming. In my opinion, we should avoid too much dogmatism where good, orthodox men have disagreed. [↩]
- The Greek term for resurrection is αναστασις, which, like the English, refers to a raising up of that which was prostrate. As Anthony Hoekema notes, “There must be continuity, for otherwise there would be little point in speaking about a resurrection at all. The calling into existence of a completely new set of people totally different from the present inhabitants of the earth would not be a resurrection.” The Bible and the Future (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1979), p. 251. [↩]
- The Bible and the Future, p. 250. [↩]
- To be precise, Paul uses the contrasting terms “natural” and “spiritual.” A superficial reading of Paul’s language might give the impression that Paul views our future resurrected body as immaterial or non-physical. But such an interpretation would contradict all the other biblical teaching of the resurrection. It is better to see “spiritual,” in this context, as that which is suited for existence in the Age to Come (cf. 2Cor. 5:1; Heb. 9:11). [↩]