WHAT HAPPENS TO US AT DEATH? We know what happens to the body, but what happens to the soul? The materialist’s answer is simple: There is no such thing as a soul, so there is no hope of eternal life and no need to fear anything worse than extinction. By contrast, the Hindu or his New Age imitator deems the soul to be real, independent of the body, and says that after death the soul will migrate to a new body and be reincarnated for another revolution of the wheel of existence. But this view also is not a hope, at least not for the one who understands and accepts Hindu thought, for the soul is reborn into samsara, an endless cycle of birth, misery, and death. The only hope is to escape into the ultimate, impersonal Oneness where all desire ceases along with personal existence
The materialist, the Hindu, and the New Ager all make the mortal mistake of failing to believe the reality taught by Scripture that “it is appointed for men to die once, but after this the judgment” (Heb. 9:27).
But what actually does happen? If death is not the end, as the Christian knows, what happens after it? What is the sequence of events that the believer will experience?
Jesus gave a radically different answer from the materialist or the Hindu and his modern imitators: “ ‘Do not marvel at this; for the hour is coming in which all who are in the graves will hear His [the Son of Man’s] voice and come forth—those who have done good, to the resurrection of life, and those who have done evil, to the resurrection of condemnation’ ” (John 5:28–29). At this point, Jesus said nothing about the soul. Consider the words of the late Georges Florovsky: “It is possible to be a Christian and not believe in the immortality of the soul, but it is not possible to be a Christian and not believe in the resurrection of the body.” This paradoxical-sounding affirmation reminds us that the Scriptures repeatedly proclaim the resurrection of the body and only inferentially treat the immortality of the soul. Likewise, the early creeds are precise. The Apostles’ Creed confesses, “I believe … in the resurrection of the body,” and the Nicene Creed affirms “the resurrection of the dead and the life of the world to come.”
Do Jesus’ words imply that after death we sleep until His return and the general resurrection? Martin Luther seems to have thought this way, for he wrote, “We shall sleep, until He comes and knocks on the grave and says, ‘Dr. Martinus, arise!’ Then I will arise in a moment and will be happy with Him forever.” Paul also speaks of sleep: “Behold, I tell you a mystery: We shall not all sleep, but we shall all be changed” (1 Cor. 15:51). The idea that the soul will sleep until the Second Coming has the technical name psychopannychia. Some theologians, among them Pope John XXII (1316–1334), explicitly taught it: a dreamless sleep until Christ returns. Luther’s Catholic opponents charged him with this heresy, condemned when John XXII taught it, and Calvin wrote a tract against it.
But what is wrong with soul sleep? The New Testament has more to say. Did not Jesus say to the dying thief, “ ‘Assuredly, I say to you, today you will be with Me in Paradise’ ” (Luke 23:43)? Paul also appears to reflect the conviction that at death the believer enters immediately into the presence of God; he writes, “For to me, to live is Christ, and to die is gain” (Phil. 1:21). There is no mention of sleep here.
How are we to harmonize these apparently divergent teachings about what happens to the believer’s soul after death? At a funeral, Luther said, “We know that he is blessed and possesses eternal life and joy in communion with Christ and the heavenly church”—all present tense. Luther’s apparent ambivalence was rejected by Charles Hodge, who explicitly renounced the concept of soul sleep: “The Protestant doctrine on the state of the soul after death includes, first of all, the continued conscious existence of the soul after the dissolution of the body. This is opposed not only to the doctrine that the soul is merely a function of the body and perishes with it (materialism), but also to the doctrine of the sleep of the soul during the interval between death and the resurrection.”
Hodge dismisses the materialistic view that says that matter is all, and that what we call soul or spirit is merely a function of a physical organ, the brain, and ceases to exist when the brain ceases to function. He does this by simply reaffirming his presupposition: “If the soul and the body are two distinct substances, then the dissolution of the latter does not necessarily involve the end of the conscious existence of the former.” In other words, the soul is independent of the body and lives on after the body dies. In this, Hodge follows John Calvin, who writes in his Institutes. “I understand by the term soul an immortal yet created essence.”
We affirm this, but it is not the foundation of our hope. There is a danger implicit in emphasizing the soul over against the body, a danger into which it is easy to fall if one is not taught by Scripture. One may look more to the soul than to God, and then, forgetting God, succumb to a fundamental soul-body dualism, or to New Age spirituality, to what Francis Schaeffer called “contentless mysticism.” Two pages later in the Institutes, Calvin repeats his emphasis on the duality of body and soul, acknowledging his agreement with Plato: “Of them hardly one, except Plato, has rightly affirmed its immortal substance.… Indeed, from Scripture, we have already taught that the soul is an incorporeal substance; now we must add that, although properly it is not spatially limited, still, set in the body, it dwells there as in a house.…”
Calvin is therefore charged by some critics with succumbing to a Platonic view of soul-body dualism, but he never let this view obscure his conviction of the fundamental importance of the resurrection or minimize the once-for-all significance of physical death. Both the body and the soul are created by God, both are fallen, and both need redemption.
The concept of soul sleep intends to do justice to the doctrine of the resurrection of the body, but it undermines the spiritual reality of the soul. The nineteenth century Presbyterian Robert L. Dabney also emphasized the substantiality of the soul: “It is the glory of the Gospel that it gives a victory over death.… While the worms destroy the unconscious flesh, the conscious spirit has soared away to the light and rest of its Saviour’s bosom.” Roman Catholic doctrine is in full agreement, rejecting what Luther’s words as quoted might suggest, namely that the soul simply sleeps until the voice of Jesus awakens it at the general resurrection.
Perhaps this emphasis on the soul was necessary in the context of a virulent materialism that denied its reality, but today, when reincarnation is in the air, we must affirm it with discretion. We look forward to the resurrection of the dead and the life of the world to come.