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Juan Ponce de León is mythically famed for his search for the fountain of youth. Many such dreamers, who have walked this earth both before and since Ponce de León, fancied not merely being young forever, but living forever. Why is this desire—as well as fear of death—something so ubiquitous throughout human history? Why is Ecclesiastes 3:11 so universally manifest—that mankind’s Creator “has put eternity into man’s heart”? Divine revelation has much to say about the state of humanity after death and the resurrection of the dead. For God so loved the creature created in his own image and likeness that he afforded him a path to fulfilment of his near universal desire. Following the Westminster Confession of Faith (1646) and the Savoy Declaration of Faith and Order (1658), as noted in preceding essays, the 1689 Baptist Confession of Faith affirms this hope of eternal life for our comfort in life and in death.

 

Chapter 31 is one of the shortest articles of the Confession (as well as its predecessors). The brevity of its address of death may derive from a few considerations: the brevity of the Old Testament’s address of death and the afterlife (since OT Israelites minded life as the blessing and death as the curse); the New Testament’s concision in addressing death and the afterlife—after all, the whole of the New Testament is about Christ’s appearing to “destroy the one who has the power of death” (Heb 2:14; cf. 1 John 3:8) and to “[abolish] death and [bring] life and immortality to light through the gospel” (2 Tim 1:10); and finally, the grave nature (pardon the pun) of discussions about death in any era.

 

Because Old Testament Israelites were more mindful of life under the sun than death, where “forever they have no more share in all that is done under the sun” (Eccl 9:6), they often referred to God as “the living God” (Deut 5:26; 1 Sam 17:26, 36; Dan 6:20, 26; cf. Matt 16:16; Heb 10:31; Rev 7:2). Inherent in this title’s meaning is not merely that their God is the living God in contrast with the non-living gods of the nations (Ps 115:4–8; Isa 44:6–20; 46:5–7; Jer 10:5–16), but that he is both “God . . . of the living” (Mark 12:26–27; cf. Exod 3:6) and the God who alone possesses life intrinsically—that is, he possesses life in himself (John 5:21, 26). It is important to consider, then, that life for any creature in the cosmos can come only from this Supreme living Being who identifies himself as “the God who made the world and everything in it” and “gives to all mankind life and breath and everything” (Acts 17:24–27). The gift of life, then, whether at birth or resurrection, is the sole prerogative of this divine, self-living Being. In the face of the universal reality of death, the Confession acknowledges this verity throughout this chapter.

 

The opening lines of the chapter acknowledge the biblical body-soul unicity of human constitution or “subsistence.” That is, mankind constituted in God’s image consists of both material and immaterial realities—body and soul/spirit. While the Fall renders the material body no longer immortal, the immaterial nephesh—“life,” “self,” or “soul”—remains immortal, eternal (cf. Gen 2:7). Because Adam—“man”—was made from the adamah—“ground”—to that common substance shall he (i.e., his body) return, decaying along with the rest of a justly cursed cosmos, while his spirit returns to the living God who gave it (Eccl 12:7).

 

The opening line also directly opposes as unbiblical any notion of either psychopannychia—soul sleep—or purgatory, contra Roman Catholic dogma (promulgated at the councils of Florence [1439] and Trent [1563]). The immortal souls of deceased humans “neither die nor sleep” but rather “immediately return to God” for disposition to their respective righteously determined intermediate states—“paradise” for the righteous, or the “torment and utter darkness” of “hell” for the wicked (cf. Luke 16:23–24). Notably, the Confession articulates that this intermediate state is not the final state for either. The righteous are said to be “with Christ,” consciously “waiting for the full redemption of their bodies” (Rom 8:23) while the wicked remain consciously in hell, being “reserved to the judgment of the great day” when “Death and Hades [Hell] were thrown into the lake of fire. This is the second death, the lake of fire” (Rev 20:14). Because human constitution is definitively body-soul, this separation of body and soul is necessarily temporary, intermediate. The chapter remedies this concern in paragraphs two and three; but before it does, it also opposes any doctrine of limbo or a medius locus—“middle place”—between heaven and hell for any deceased human. Assuming the ground of sola Scriptura presented in the very first chapter of the Confession, the framers contend unambiguously, “besides these two places [paradise or hell], for souls separated from their bodies, the Scripture acknowledges none” (para. 1).

 

This rejection of a doctrine or dogma of limbo (in distinction from the dogma of purgatory) is the consistent and historical assertion of both Protestants and Roman Catholics. Prior to the sixteenth century Reformation, the councils of Carthage (418), Lyon II (1274), Florence (1439), and then also Trent (1563) would all deny a dogma of limbo. Augustine, too, had already unambiguously rejected any “middle place” in his On the Nature and Origin of the Soul (ca. 390). Continuing its historical conciliar position, despite a popular-level postulation of a doctrine of limbo during the Middle Ages and beyond, Rome’s International Theological Commission produced a report in 2007 from a study commissioned by the late Pope John Paul II reaffirming that the “ordinary teaching” of this “possible theological hypothesis” [of limbo] “never entered into the dogmatic definitions of the Magisterium.” The Confession stands not in novelty but in continuity with both Scripture and the historical and universal church of Jesus Christ.

 

Intending to be theologically robust while also maintaining sufficient and charitable latitude where Scripture is not dogmatic, the second paragraph of this chapter 31 (as also the second paragraph of chapter 32) avoids the particulars of differing eschatological views. Rather, it addresses revealed certainties regarding the states of those who must give an account—both the living and the dead—“at the last day.” First, because human history will continue right up until the moment of Christ’s second advent “just as it was in the days of Noah” and “just as it was in the days of Lot” (Luke 17:22–37), the Confession echoes Scripture’s teaching regarding those who will be alive on that day. These living will not yet have experienced the “sleep” of death (Dan 12:2; Mark 5:39–41; John 11:11–15; 1 Cor 15:51–52; 1 Thess 4:13–15); so, no Lazarus-like resurrection from the dead will be necessary for them, only a constitutional transformation equally as powerful as a resurrection from the dead (cf. Phil 3:20–21; 1 John 3:2). Second, those of our fellow human beings who have preceded us in death will experience a Lazarus-like resurrection with the praiseworthy distinction that it will be eternally permanent this time.

 

In articulating humanity’s mysterious transition from “the present evil age” into “the age to come” (Gal 1:4; Mark 10:29–30; Heb 6:5), the Confession does not neglect the important matter of continuity of personal identity for both the righteous and the wicked (paras. 2–3). The “saints,” whether living or dead on “the last day,” shall have their “selfsame bodies, and none other . . . united again to their souls forever” (para. 2). The point of the Confession is not to present a scientific (and/or theologically miraculous) discussion—though they have been offered—of the divine logistics of reconstituting the physical bodies of the countless deceased human beings whose mere biological matter has already been reabsorbed into the earth’s “dust” (even to the degree that subsequent generations have now been constituted from that very same indivisible matter—whether proteins and water, or nitrogen, oxygen, and other elements that sustained the physical natures of previous generations). Rather, the point is that the identities of each and every nephesh—“life,” “self,” or “soul”—that the Father has given to the Son (John 17:6–26) will continue for eternity to the glory of their Creator.

 

This continuity of personal identity will be true not only of the “saints” but of “all the dead” (para. 2; emphasis added). That is, both the righteous and the unrighteous will be resurrected with “the selfsame bodies, and none other; although with different qualities.” This qualitative transformation is important and necessary. Because “flesh and blood cannot inherit the kingdom of God, nor does the perishable inherit the imperishable” (1 Cor 15:50; emphasis added), and just as “a great chasm has been fixed, in order that those who would pass from [Abraham’s Bosom] to [Hades] may not be able, and none may cross [vice versa]” (Luke 16:26; emphasis added), so also must a constitutional transformation occur before any human from the present evil age can transition to the constitutionally distinct and eternal age to come (cf. John 20:17; Acts 1:9; 1 John 3:2). Presently, neither the faithful nor the faithless are constituted for eternal existence, either for beatific vision of the blazingly holy Almighty God, for the former (cf. Isa 6:2; Exod 33:20; 34:29–35; 2 Cor 3:7–11), or, for the latter, “the punishment of eternal destruction away from the presence of the Lord and from the glory of his might” (1 Thess 1:9; cf. chp. 32 para. 2)—that is, a destruction that, because of the absence of any semblance of grace, can never finally reach consummation.

 

Perhaps so as not to end the article on such a literally infinitely sobering note, the third and final paragraph of the chapter articulates first this eternal “dishonour” for “the unjust” and then concludes for “the just” with the more favorable eternal “honour” of being made “conformable to [Christ’s] own glorious body” (Rom 8:23; Phil 3:20–21). So much more may be said of this eternal “honour.”

 

Wrestling to find language to describe this literally indescribable splendor with which this penultimate chapter of the Confession concludes, Augustine understood the biblical concept of “life everlasting” to mean infinitely more than simply “life forever.” In his City of God, he writes, “The end [that is, the perpetual fulfilling] of this City, whereby [the soul/self] will possess its Supreme Good [which Augustine understands as “felicity”] may be called either ‘peace in life everlasting’ or ‘life in everlasting peace’ . . . in fact, nothing better can be found.” Uncertain of which phrase best articulates this final state—because it is an infinite concept—Augustine prefers and intentionally uses the latter term “life in everlasting peace” to indicate the perfect yet ever-increasing quality of that felicity, not merely its eternal endurance. This bliss is not only blessed (that is, merely a state of personal consummate “happiness”); it is indeed beatific; that is, it is literally transforming; it is “participation in [God’s] own divine nature” (City of God, chp. 9, para. 16; 2 Peter 1:4; Heb 12:10). The Confession rightly concludes this chapter 31, then, by exulting in the Christian’s eternal hope in humanity’s summum bonum—supreme good—which can be found solely in fullest and ever-increasing extent in the “honour” of resurrection from the dead, glorification, and beatification—being made like Christ (Phil 3:9–10; 20–21; 1 John 3:2).

Dr Toby Jennings

Saturday 16th April 2022