By Gary Ray Branscome
Although the Bible focuses the attention of believers on Christ, while looking forward to the Day of Judgment and the promise of eternal life, it says comparatively little about the state of blessedness that believers enjoy immediately after death. The Bible speaks of believers waiting “eagerly for the coming of our Lord Jesus Christ” (1Corinthians 1:7). It also reminds us that Christ “will transform our vile bodies, and make them like His glorified body” (Philippians ). And, for that reason, we should always look forward to Christ’s second coming. At the same time, the Bible warns the unbeliever of the coming judgment and the need to repent. [See 1Corinthians 1:7; Philippians 3:20-21; Colossians 3:4; 1Thessalonians ; 2Timothy 4:7-8; Titus // 2Thessalonians 1:9-10; Hebrews ; 2Peter 2:3-6; Jude 6-7; Matthew 25:31-46.]
Nevertheless, the Bible does speak of the condition of soul after death. The words, “He [Christ] also proclaimed His victory to the spirits in prison,” describe the souls of the wicked and unbelieving as being in “prison” (1Peter ). The words, “I am tormented in this flame,” tell us that they suffer torment (Luke ). And, the words, “Into hell, into the fire that shall never be put out,” tell us that there will be no end to their torment (Mark ).
On the other hand, the Bible assures us that the souls of the godly are in God’s hand. At death, Stephen cried out, “Lord Jesus, receive my spirit,” (Acts ). At death Jesus cried out, “Father, into your hands I commend my spirit,” (Luke ). Paul said, “I desire to depart, and to be with Christ; which is far better” (Philippians ). And, Christ said to the thief on the cross, “Today you will be with me in paradise” (Luke ). In the Book of Revelation we read, “Blessed are the dead who die in the Lord” (Rev. 14:13). The psalmist writes, “At your right hand there are pleasures for evermore” (Psalm ). Jesus prayed, “Father, I also want those, whom you have given me, to be with me where I am; and to see my glory” (John ). And, Paul writes, “I reckon that the sufferings of this present time are not worthy to be compared with the glory that will be revealed in us” (Romans ). Therefore, because the souls of those who have died in faith are with God, the words, “The dead do not praise the LORD,” are speaking of unbelievers, or bodies in the grave, not the souls of believers (Psalm 6:5 and 115:17). As it is written, “I heard the voice of a great multitude in heaven, shouting, Hallelujah” (Revelation 19:1).
The Bible tells us that “The righteous” are “taken away from the evil to come” (Isaiah 57:1). And, the words, “You are our Father, even though Abraham does not know us,” make it clear that those who have passed on are not even aware of us, or of all of the wickedness and misery going on in this world (Isaiah 63:16). Those who deny this truth in order to justify prayer to the saints are not only engaging in an idolatrous practice, but such behavior borders on an attempt to contact the dead which Scripture clearly forbids. As it is written, “There shall not be found among you any one who… talks with those who are dead, for all that do such things are abomination unto the LORD” (Deuteronomy 18:10-12).
Some see the appearance of Moses and Elijah at the transfiguration of Christ, or the appearance of "Samuel" at Endor as an exception to this rule (Matthew 17:3; 1Samuel 28:11-16). However, that is not necessarily the case. There is much we do not understand, and it would be wrong to just let our imaginations run wild. There is nothing in the account of Christ’s transfiguration to indicate that Moses and Elijah were aware of the apostles, much less of anything else going on in the world at that time. And, what the witch saw at Endor may have been a vision of Samuel, rather than Samuel himself. That is indicated by the fact that Saul could not see Samuel. Furthermore, the message Saul received was clearly one of condemnation. Therefore, because Scripture is the source and standard of our faith, we should never interpret unclear passages to contradict its clear condemnation of those who attempt to contact the dead (Isaiah ); nor should we ever attempt to supplement what the Bible says with human speculation or other revelations (Proverbs 30:6; 2Peter ).
Between death and resurrection, all souls exist in one of two states; the state of being forgiven, or the state of being unforgiven. The words, “Today you will be with me in paradise,” tell us that those who die forgiven experience the joy and light of God’s presence (Luke ). While the words, “Throw him into outer darkness; where there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth,” tell us that those who die without forgiveness will experience the horror and torment of hell (Matthew ). Since these souls are no longer in the physical realm, the idea of them residing in physical places is unrealistic. Christ said that He was going to “prepare a place for” us, and we will be with Him “in paradise,” but idle speculation about the nature of such a place will not give us any facts beyond what is plainly stated in Scripture. Furthermore, the words, “Where their worm does not die, and the fire is never put out,” make it clear that there is no forgiveness after death (Mark ). Therefore, when Christ, “preached to the spirits in prison,” He was not offering them forgiveness, but proclaiming His victory as the Greek word kerusso indicates, and as the context shows (1Peter 3:19).
The claim that Old Testament saints could not get into heaven because Christ had not yet obtained forgiveness, flies in the face of all that the Old Testament says about forgiveness. As it is written, “The Lord our God is merciful and forgives,” (Daniel 9:9). “The sin which he has done shall be forgiven him” (Leviticus ). “You have forgiven the iniquity of your people,” (Psalm 85:2). Just as God is not limited by time, the forgiveness that He has provided for us is not limited by time. In fact, because it is forgiveness and forgiveness alone that makes us righteous in the sight of God, without forgiveness Abraham’s faith could never have been counted to Him for righteousness (Galatians 3:6).
Likewise, the claim that infants that die without baptism are kept in “limbo” unable to enter either heaven or hell is not taught anywhere in Scripture, but is just a figment of someone’s imagination. The words, “The wicked are estranged from the womb,” apply to all who die without forgiveness. While the words, “As the sound of your greeting reached my ears, the babe leapt in my womb for joy,” tell us that God is able to impart faith [and thus joy in the presence of the Lord] to the smallest of infants (Luke 1:42-44). “The LORD’S hand is not shortened, that it cannot save;” (Isaiah 59:1). Therefore, instead of professing ourselves to be wise, we need to admit our ignorance while trusting infants to God and His justice.
The words, “Christ is the end of the law for righteousness to every one who believes,” tell us that it is the forgiveness that is ours in Christ, not the law, that makes us righteous in the sight of God (Romans 10:4). And, the words, “The blood of Jesus Christ His Son cleanses us of all sin,” tell us that all of our sin is completely removed by Christ’s sacrifice and atoning death on our behalf (1John 1:7). For that reason the claim that Christ’s death is not sufficient to pay for some sins, or that those who are guilty must atone for those sins by suffering in purgatory is not only unscriptural, it is anti-Christian. Worse yet, because it offers the guilty a false hope it is a false gospel. And, the words, “If anyone preaches any gospel to you other than the one you received, let him be accursed,” tell us that all who teach it are under God’s curse.