The State of Humanity After Death and the Resurrection of the Dead

31:1. The bodies of those who have died return to dust and undergo destruction. But their souls neither die nor sleep, because they have an immortal character, and immediately return to God who gave them. The souls of the righteous are then made perfect in holiness and are received into paradise. There they are with Christ and behold the face of God in light and glory while they wait for the full redemption of their bodies. The souls of the wicked are thrown into hell, where they remain in torment and utter darkness, reserved for the judgment of the great day. The Scripture recognizes no place other than these two for souls separated from their bodies.

(Genesis 3:19; Acts 13:36. Ecclesiastes 12:7. Luke 23:43; 2 Corinthians 5:1, 6,8; Philippians 1:23; Hebrews 12:23. Jude 6, 7; 1 Peter 3:19; Luke 16:23, 24)

Second London Confession, 31:1

A Common Experience of Disembodied and heightened Consciousness.

“The bodies of men after death return to dust and see corruption.” What happens to the relationship between body and soul at death. This in its immediate effects is the same for all persons. At death the bodies of all persons complete their state of corruption by a rapid deterioration to dust. “From dust thou art to dust thou shalt return” (Genesis 3:19). The curse that fell upon all person as a result of the sin of Adam was the certainty of physical death. The special provision made by God for the immediate reception of Enoch and Elijah do not render the general curse doubtful or erratic (Genesis 5:21-24; 2 Kings 2:10, 11). The preacher of Ecclesiastes pointed to this universal certainty in saying, “Remember your Creator before the silver cord is loosed, . . . Then the dust will return to the earth as it was, and spirit will return to God who gave it” (Ecclesiastes 12:6, 7). 

Paul expected that death would mean that the consciousness of the spirit would be unclothed for the earthly house would be destroyed. He desired to move immediately from residence in this earthly, corruptible body to the “habitation which is from heaven.” Being unclothed, having a heightened consciousness outside the body, was not the ultimately desirable state. He knew, nevertheless, that to be in this corruptible body was to be absent from the Lord and to be absent from the body was to be present with the Lord. Before we go into the presence of the Lord, these bodies will die and then will undergo corruption unless our mortality is immediately swallowed up by life (2 Corinthians 5:1-8). The vagueness of mind that finds death so impenetrable, the immediate presence of God so mysterious, or the deluded assumption of some that consciousness simply ceases immediately gives way to a presence of the bright personal holiness of the triune God. Both the believer and the unbeliever will be consciously present—conscience, affections, memory, thoughts, unfiltered by devices of self-protection—before the all-knowing, all-seeing Creator and Judge.

The soul neither dies nor sleeps. “But their souls (which neither die nor sleep) having an immortal subsistence, immediately return to God who gave them.”  The soul is a created thing and does not have self-existence and thus its immortal subsistence is due to something given by God when God breathed into Adam’s nostrils the “breath of life” (Genesis 2:7). “Let us make man in our image,” the triune God said (Genesis 1:26). Out of all the created beings, only man was given responsible moral character, the ability to discern right and wrong, to reflect the character of God in the choice of the good, right, and holy. Man ‘s moral nature made necessary his unceasing life in the light of the eternal relevance of his moral responsibility. Because eternal consequences are at stake in each moral choice, humans can never simply pass out of existence but will bear the consequences, in body and soul, in the way they have responded to God’s righteousness as revealed in his Law. Though man is finite, his interaction with an infinitely holy God gives each of his actions infinite and eternal relevance. Nothing arising from the moral nature of image-bearers will go unanswered and none can perish or sleep for there is never a moment when moral responsibility is absent or the moral judgment of God rests.

Particular blessings of death for the Righteous

The world recedes; it disappears!

Heaven opens on my eyes! My ears

With sounds seraphic ring:

Lend, lend your wings! I mount! I fly! 

O Grave where is they victory?

O death, where is thy sting?

– Alexander Pope –

The event for the righteous, that is, those accounted righteous for the sake of Christ, is an event of unparalleled joy, bliss, and glory. “The souls of the Righteous being then made perfect in holiness, are received into paradise where they are with Christ, and behold the face of God, in light and glory.” In his great sermon, “A Believer’s Last Day His Best Day,” Thomas Brooks (1608-1680) pointed to six changes on the day of death that constitute the reality of the believer’s hope.  One, there is a “change of place. . . . He changes earth for heaven.” The confession says that the souls of the righteous are “received into paradise.” “Today,” Jesus told the repenting, believing, adoring thief, “you will be with me in paradise” (Luke 23:40-43). Presently we are not in our place, therefore, we groan. On the day of death, groaning ceases, for believers have departed that environment and “they are with Christ” who has loved us with an everlasting love. 

Second, death brings for the righteous a “change of company.” No longer do the profane, the vile, the wicked, the scoffer poison the society, no longer is the soul vexed with the oppressive jocularity of the skeptic, but the reality of the living God, Jesus the Mediator, the presence of holy angels, the spirits of just men made perfect, the perfect harmony of a redeemed assembly immediately provide a company of true fellowship and undiluted joy. 

A third change becomes obvious when the employment of our energies in a constant fight and warfare against the world, the flesh, and the devil cease. What an unimaginable release from conflict and constant watchfulness is accomplished on the day of death. This fight is exchanged for praise and the consciousness of perfect triumph with no insurrection of enemies even contemplated. 

Fourth, there is a change of “enjoyments.” These enjoyments move from being obscure to being sweet, from imperfect to perfect, and from transient to permanent—“the Souls of the Righteous being made perfect in holiness.” This perfect holiness gives an unchangeable and optimal quality to the enjoyments of the Christian. “Pure are the joys above the sky, and the region peace; No wanton lip, nor envious eye, can see or taste the bliss”  (Isaac Watts). They are not fleeting, partial, fluctuating, and quickly exchanged for distress but reach the goal Paul set before the Philippians, “Make my joy complete” (Philippians 2:2). Isaac Watts wrote:

This life’s a dream, an empty show;

But the bright world to which I go

Hath joys substantial and sincere:

When shall I wake and find me there?

Fifth, death moves the believer to a “change of transience.” He is now free of external changes in location, health, wealth, strength, reputation. He is free of internal changes such as clarity of perception of the truth, strength in times of temptation, and the constant contest between the flesh and the Spirit. 

Sixth, death brings the believer to a change of rest; now the saints “rest from their labors” (Revelation 14:13). He is taken away from the evil yet to come and enters into peace (Isaiah 57:1, 2).

They now await the resurrection and the redemption of their bodies. They see Christ in his glorious body and live with a sense of increased joy in the anticipation of joining him in the glorified state with a new union of body and soul as yet unexperienced. This will be a gift given in eternity by Christ himself “who will transform the body of our humble state into conformity with the body of his glory, by the exertion of the power that he has even to subject all things to himself” (Philippians 3:31). We have borne the image of Adam in his corrupted state but then we will bear the image of Christ in his glorified heavenly state. That which is perishable does not intrude into the sphere of imperishability, but the corruptible will put on incorruptibility and the mortal will be exchanged for a state of immortality (1 Corinthians 15:48-54). God has designed us so that the life of the soul finds its most mature expression through the exertions of the body. Paul did not want to “unclothed but further clothed, that mortality may be swallowed up by life.” The clothing of the spirit with an incorruptible body is the epitome of “life.” Then Paul makes the gripping statement of God’s ultimate purpose for his image bearers, “He who prepared us for this very thing is God, who also has given us the Spirit as a guarantee” (2 Corinthians 5:5). The eternal state of living body and soul before God confirmed in holiness and active righteousness was the end for which we were created. To worship and love God with heart, mind, soul, and strength in the condition of having bodies that also were bought with a price brings to maturity God’s original design. The condition of innocence and the possibility of confirmed righteousness and eternal life were forfeited in Adam’s disobedience but restored in a more glorious and God honoring manner by the obedience of Jesus, Son of God and Son of man.

“The souls of the wicked are cast into hell”

The event for the wicked is one of infinite gloom, torment, and eternal fear. As the righteous find heaven and the eternal presence of a gracious God through no merit of their own, so the ungodly are consigned justly to a place of endless darkness and wrath—“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.” About this day Scripture speaks with firmness. “According to their deeds, accordingly he will repay, fury tohis adversaries, recompense to his enemies” (Isaiah 59: 18). Having been consigned in accord with God’s wisdom and justice to the place of torment, these souls will await that time of final judgment when all the works of all men will be set before every perceiving being. The absolute justice of God, both in punishment and in salvation, will be on display so that every mouth will be stopped and none will be able to give any challenge. “Fear God and keep his commandments,” says the preacher, “for this is man’s all.” This will be seen without uncertainty, “for God will bring every work into judgment, including every secret thing, whether good or evil” (Ecclesiastes 12:13, 14). The wicked while in the state of suffering of soul also await a resurrection. Then the body of each will join the soul in a unified sense of personal suffering exactly in accord with strict justice.

There are no other options.

Though both heaven and hell have this two-fold experience for those who died before the coming of the Lord—out of the body and then with the body—no other destinations beyond death are given in Scripture. The confession says simply, “besides these two places for souls separated from their bodies, the Scripture acknowledgeth none.” This amounts to a specific and unequivocal denial of purgatory and limbo in Roman Catholic theology.

In short, purgatory is the destination of virtually all those who have faithfully embraced the doctrines of the Catholic church, have received the sacraments regularly, and thus eventually will enter heaven. Though all their desert of eternal punishment was taken by Christ, the temporal dimension of chastening is proportioned to the degree of purity and perfection in their acts of penance while in this life. Hardly any, except those denominated “saints” have had such purity of penitential duties. All others, therefore, must go through degrees of temporal punishment and purification for the inadequacies that permeated their penance as regulated by the priest. The Council of Trent solidified the doctrinal position: “Therefore the priests of the Lord ought, as far as the Spirit and prudence shall suggest, to enjoin salutary and suitable satisfaction, according to the quality of the crimes and the ability of the penitent; lest, if haply they connive at sins, and deal too indulgently with penitents, by enjoining certain very light works for very grievous crimes, they be made partakers of other men’s sin. But let them have in view, that the satisfaction, which they impose, be not only for the preservation of a new life and a medicine of infirmity, but also for the avenging and punishing of past sins.” 

This concept of satisfaction involving “avenging and punishing” as an element of the sacrament of penance arises from a doctrine of justification in which sanctification constitutes an integral part, in that the sinner is not declared just but made just—“seeing that in the new birth, there is bestowed upon them, through the merit of his passion, the grace whereby they are made just.” This “cannot be effected without the laver of regeneration, or the desire thereof [baptism].” In this way “justification . . . is not remission of sins merely, but also the sanctification and renewal of the inward man . . . whereby man of unjust becomes just. . . . we are not only reputed, but are truly called, and are just, receiving justice within us . . . according to each one’s proper disposition and cooperation. . . . Having, therefore, been thus justified, . . . they through the observance of the commandments of God and of the church [italics mine] faith co-operating with good works, increase in that justice which they have received through the grace of Christ, and are still further justified.” This, however will not serve finally and absolutely to justify a person, for “If any one saith, that, after the grace of justification has been received, to every penitent sinner the guilt is remitted, and the debt of eternal punishment is blotted out in such wise that there remains not any debt of temporal punishment to be discharged either in this world, or in the next in Purgatory, before the entrance to the kingdom of heaven can be opened to him: let him be anathema” [Canons and Decrees of the Council of Trent, “On the necessity and on the Fruit of Satisfaction; “Decree On Justification,” chapters  3-10 and Canon XXX].

The doctrine of “limbo teaches that two spheres short of both heaven and hell and not identified with purgatory are limbus infantum and limbus patrum. Unbaptized infants and the mentally incompetent who have not been cleansed of original sin by baptism but have no guilt from personal knowledgeable transgression are kept in a state of general natural joy but never experience the “beatific vision” of the immediate presence of the glory of the triune God. The fathers prior to their liberation by the work of Christ were kept in a similar state until their ascension to heaven was made possible by Christ.

The framers of the Second London Confession found no scriptural propositions for either of these concepts of the post-mortem position of people. They were in fact, not of neutral quality but antagonistic to the perfection of the finished work of Christ—the consummated obedience of Christ to every demand of the Law (Romans 5:18, 19; Philippians 2:8; Hebrews 5:7-10) and the propitiatory death of Christ (Romans 3:25, 26; 1 John 1:7-10; 2:1, 2; 4:9, 10)—that brought forgiveness of sins and a reckoning of righteousness for those who manifest a trusting submission to acceptance before God only in that redemptive transaction. As the article on justification states [Chapter 11.3]: “Christ by his obedience, and death, did fully discharge the debt of all those that are justified; and did by the sacrifice of himself in the blood of his cross, undergoing in their stead, the penalty due unto them: make a proper, real, and full satisfaction to God’s justice in their behalf: yet in asmuch as he was given by the father for them, and his obedience and satisfaction accepted in their stead, and both freely, not for anything in them; their justification is only of free grace, that both the exact justice and rich grace of God might be glorified in the justification of sinners.”


[1]  Thomas Brooks, A Believer’s Last Day His Best Day. Chapel Library, Pensacola: 2019.

Tom has most recently served as the Professor of Historical Theology at The Southern Baptist Theological Seminary. He previously taught at Trinity Evangelical Divinity School where he was Professor of Church History and Chair of the Department of Church History. Prior to that, he taught at Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary and Mid-America Baptist Theological Seminary. Along with numerous journal articles and scholarly papers, Dr. Nettles is the author and editor of fifteen books. Among his books are By His Grace and For His Glory; Baptists and the Bible, James Petigru Boyce: A Southern Baptist Statesman, and Living by Revealed Truth: The Life and Pastoral Theology of Charles H. Spurgeon.
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