When we come to the "question" of life after death, it is necessary for us to begin by dropping all the pagan ideas which prevail on this subject, most of them being summed up in the doctrines of ancient Greece. The Greeks saw man as made up of two substances or two kinds of being, mind or soul on the one hand, and matter or body on the other. Some Greeks held to a tripartite view which is shared today by many churchmen, man as body, mind, and spirit. For the Greeks, the body perished forever at death, whereas the soul continued a pallid existence as a shade.
The Bible emphatically gives us a different doctrine. Man is created as a unity by God; man is one being, [a] created being. There are different aspects of that being, but it is a unity, a created unity. The Bible does not teach the Greek doctrine of the immortality of the soul, i.e., that man's spiritual being is imperishable and thus survives the death of matter. On the contrary, we are told that God "only hath immortality, dwelling in the light which no man can approach unto" (I Tim. 6:16). Strictly speaking, immortality means life before birth and after death, and paganism often so understood it. We receive a different kind of immortality as a part of God's grace and plan, so that we who are corruptible put on incorruption by God's decree, and we who are mortal put on immortality (I Cor. 15:53). God, by His sovereign grace, has created us to put on immortality, but it is not of the pagan variety, and Paul speaks of immortality in I Corinthians 15 in terms of the resurrection of the body.
Our Lord gives us a very telling vision into the subject in Matthew 22:31-32:
- But as touching the resurrection of the dead, have ye not read that which was spoken unto you by God, saying,
- I am the God of Abraham, and the God of Isaac, and the God of Jacob? God is not the God of the dead, but of the living.
God is emphatically separated by our Lord from the realm of death or extinction. God is life, not death, and separation from God is death. Because sin separated man from God, sin brought death into the world. The essence of death is thus separation from God, who is the essence and the principle of life. When God created man, He created man "very good" (Gen. 1:31). Man was not created a transitional being who was to outgrow his body and realize himself as a spirit. When we are told that God created man "a living soul" (Gen. 2:7), the meaning of soul in the Hebrew is "a breathing creature;" it has clear reference to man as a living bodily being. A Greek meaning is commonly read into the word "soul."
Warfield, in commenting on Matthew 22:32, said:
From the standpoint of the Bible the souls separated from their bodies, though living, are dead: they are under the power of death. They are, because dead, still enduring the penalty threatened against sin. The Living God is the God of the living, not of the dead: he cannot have proclaimed himself the God of those hopelessly under the power of death, suffering the penalty of sin. If he proclaims himself, therefore, the God of Abraham and Isaac and Jacob, this is proof beyond cavil, that Abraham, Isaac and Jacob, whatever temporarily may be their state, belong fundamentally to the realm of the living, not to the realm of the dead; and cannot therefore be permanently held by the bonds of death. And the realm of the living is the realm where not dead souls are, but where living souls are, souls not suffering disabilities through death. Death cannot have permanent dominion over those whose God is the Living God: in the very nature of the case they belong to the Kingdom of Life. They must therefore emerge from Sheol and return to the light of life?soul and body alike partaking of the undivided life that belongs to human nature. If we believe this, and so far as we believe it, we shall cease to wonder at the effect of our Lord's argument on the people: "And when the multitudes heard it, they were astonished at his teaching." It is the strength of the Old Testament religion...that the Living God has nothing in common with the shades of Sheol: that "God is not the God of the dead, but of the living;" that in him is the fountain of life, which to quaff is to abide forever in fullness of life.1
Warfield's point is very important, and it gives us a clear understanding of Scripture. Creation was not an intermediate stage in God's eternity, nor are matter and the physical body created and ordained for a short span of years. To view the material creation as merely a way-station between eternity and eternity is to import Greek philosophy into the Bible. The whole of creation was in God's sight "very good" (Gen. 1:31). Evil is not metaphysical but moral; it is not a matter of time and matter but of moral choice. Satan was never a material being, but by his moral choice fell into sin and reprobation. The birth and resurrection of Jesus Christ is the vindication of matter and its reclamation together with all other aspects of creation. This vindication and restoration is completed with the resurrection of the dead and the regeneration of all creation (Mt. 19:28).
Life in heaven is thus an intermediate state; man's normative condition is a physical existence without sin or death. The Bible speaks of life in heaven as a "sleep" (I Cor. 15:51), but this is not the heretical doctrine of soul sleep. It is the body that sleeps, not the man, who lives on in heaven. To cite Warfield again,
These all, dying in Christ, die not but live?for Christ is not Lord, any more than God is God, of the dead but the living. We must catch here the idea that pervades the whole of Jewish thought?inculcated as it is with the most constant iteration by the whole Old Testament revelation?that death is the penalty of sin and that restoration from death, that is resurrection, is involved, therefore, in reception into the favor of God.2
Thus, it is clear that sin, sickness and death are not natural to the body but are malformations and perversions thereof. God made the body for life; man by his sin has made it the locale of moral and physical death.
The eschatology of the body thus has a key place in Scripture in both the end-point and end-time aspects. First, to treat the body with disrespect is to despise God's handiwork and to sin. It is not an accident that dietary laws are a part of scripture. The commandment, "Thou shalt not kill," tells us that all life can be dealt with only in terms of God's permission. Life can only be taken in terms of God's law. One of the horrors of abortion is its contempt for physical life.
Second, the practice of medicine is a priestly calling. The word salvation comes from a Latin word meaning health. When Jacob, in Genesis 49:18, says, "I have waited for thy salvation, O LORD," the word he uses, common to the Old Testament, means victory, deliverance, and health. This should not surprise us. Since sin means death, and sickness is a step towards death, salvation means in part deliverance from death and therefore health. This tells us too that the quest for health apart from Christ is ultimately self-frustrating, because to reject Him is to deny life and affirm death. A concern for health is thus a valid and necessary Christian concern.
Third, as Paul tells us in I Corinthians 15:35-44, the bodies we are born with are only a pale shadow of the resurrection body. The Fall and sin have warped our physical existence, and our total being, dramatically. With our regeneration, the restoration of our total being begins. Basic to this restoration is the moral factor, and this means a faithfulness to God's law-word. We are sanctified by God's law, and this has an effect on our total being. Isaiah 65:20 tells us that, as the whole world comes under the lordship of Christ our King, our life expectancy is dramatically increased. Because holiness and righteousness or justice are life, life in Christ brings about changes in man's health and life expectancy, and in the weather (Dt. 28:12).
Fourth, the full restoration of our physical life awaits the end of the world. Our physical existence is a part of God's creation of the universe, and the restoration of our perfect bodily life awaits the restoration of the whole creation at the end of history. The present order shall be melted, burned, and recast into its perfect and final form (II Peter 3:10-14), at which time the resurrection of our bodies will also take place. In the beginning, God created a world which was entirely good as man's habitat (Gen. 1:1-3). In the new creation, a like act occurs. The world and all creation are remade to be eternally good, to be the habitation of life, and man is given the resurrection body to be a citizen of the new creation.
To depreciate the body is to misunderstand the faith. The body has a key place in eschatology, because God works for the redemption and regeneration of all creation. Our end-point eschatology thus calls for the care of the body as God's handiwork, and as a temple of the Holy Spirit, and as God's property (I Cor. 6:13-20). Biblical law does not treat physical sins, such as adultery, lightly, because it does not regard our bodies lightly.
In end-time eschatology, our bodies are ordained for the general resurrection. We thus prepare a body for eternal life or for eternal reprobation and death. Paul says, "Know ye not that your bodies are the members of Christ? shall I then take the members of Christ, and make them members of an harlot? God forbid" (I Cor. 6:15). We cannot in this life plumb the full meaning of these words, but they do tell us that every act of our body is an act of membership, an affirmation of faith. God is the God of the living, and our every act is an affirmation of life or death.
1. B. B. Warfield: Selected Short Writings, Vol. I. (Nutley, N.J.: Presbyterian and Reformed Publishing Company, 1970). p. 346f.
2. B. B. Warfield, "The Millennium and the Apocalypse," in Biblical Doctrines. (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Book House (1929) 1981). p. 652.