The Intermediate State
Calvin devoted a lot of time to thinking about the soul and its properties. His first major piece of writing was Psycopannychia
- on the immortality of the soul. But when he gave his attention to eschatology in the Institutes
, (Book III, Chapter XXV), he kept his interest in the soul within bounds, devoting greater attention to the resurrection of the body. This is not to say that he failed to reflect on what will happen to the soul of the believer between death and the resurrection. (All quotes from III:XXV:6)
1. The Intermediate State
Calvin was concerned to address the idea that on death, the whole man perishes. In that case, the soul as well as the body would only rise again at the resurrection. The Reformer was not exactly keen on this proposal, which he described as, "a wicked curiosity". For Calvin, this was to "convert a spirit formed after the image of God, into an evanescent breath, which animates the body only during this fading life, and to reduce the temple of the Holy Spirit to nothing". In Calvin's construction, the soul is no mere life force. It is, "that part of ourselves in which the divinity is most Refulgent and the marks of immortality conspicuous." Its is the soul that distinguishes human beings from the lower animals.
Calvin quotes a number of Scriptures to show that the soul lives on after the death of the body,
"Thus Peter, in reference to his approaching death, says, “Knowing that shortly I must put off this my tabernacle,” (2 Pet. 1:14
). Paul, again, speaking of believers, after saying, “If our earthly house of this tabernacle were dissolved, we have a building of God,” adds, “Whilst we are at home in the body, we are absent from the Lord,” (2 Cor. 5:1
). Did not the soul survive the body, how could it be present with the Lord on being separated from the body?"
He also appeals to the communion of the saints and the promise of Christ to the dying thief,
But an Apostle removes all doubt when he says that we go “to the spirits of just men made perfect,” (Heb. 12:23
); by these words meaning, that we are associated with the holy patriarchs, who, even when dead, cultivate the same piety, so that we cannot be the members of Christ unless we unite with them. And did not the soul, when unclothed from the body, retain its essence, and be capable of beatific glory, our Savior would not have said to the thief, “Today shalt thou be with me in paradise,” (Luke 23:43
But Calvin does not wish to speculate about the intermediate state,
"Moreover, to pry curiously into their intermediate state is neither lawful nor expedient. Many greatly torment themselves with discussing what place they occupy, and whether or not they already enjoy celestial glory. It is foolish and rash to inquire into hidden things, farther than God permits us to know. Scripture, after telling that Christ is present with them, and receives them into paradise (John 12:32
), and that they are comforted, while the souls of the reprobate suffer the torments which they have merited goes no farther. What teacher or doctor will reveal to us what God has concealed?"
It is "futile and inept" to inqure concerning the abode of the departed spirits of the godly as the dimension of the soul is not the same as the body. Calvin is admirably restrained in his account of the final state. He does not attempt to pry into that which is not revealed in Scripture. What we do know is that after death, the soul of the believer will live in the presence of Christ. Where the Reformer may be criticized is in his insistence that the human soul as distinct from the body is God's image bearer. Scripture simply does not recognise such a dichotomy. The image does not belong to one component of man's makeup. We are told that man as a complete psychosomatic unity was made in the image of God (Genesis 1:26-28). The soul and body are separable at death. But it is sin that caused this tragic anomaly. Also, as pointed out in a previous post
in this series, in biblical terminology, the word "immortal" is never attributed to the human soul alone. When used of human beings, it always
refers to the final, resurrected state (1 Corinthians 15:53&54). But we can agree with Calvin, that what Scripture says about the intermediate state is not given to foster unhealthy speculation. These things have been revealed to sustain believers in the face of death,
"Trusting to these clear proofs, let us doubt not, after the example of our Savior, to commend our spirits to God when we come to die, or after the example of Stephen, to commit ourselves to the protection of Christ, who, with good reason, is called “The Shepherd and Bishop” of our souls (Acts 7:59
; 1 Pet. 2:25
2. The Final State
Despite his strong, almost Platonic emphasis on the "immortality of the soul", Calvin realised that the final state of the elect will not be disembodied bliss. He points us beyond death to the final resurrection hope that will be ushered in when Christ returns,
"Still, since Scripture uniformly enjoins us to look with expectation to the advent of Christ, and delays the crown of glory till that period, let us be contented with the limits divinely prescribed to us—viz. that the souls of the righteous, after their warfare is ended, obtain blessed rest where in joy they wait for the fruition of promised glory, and that thus the final result is suspended till Christ the Redeemer appear".
In popular evangelical eschatology, it is often the case that the intermediate state is given greater attention than the final resurrection state. Just look at a standard hymn book and you will probably find many more hymns on going to heaven after death than on resurrection glory. But the intermediate state is just that; intermediate. It is not final or ultimate. Calvin's eschatology, as it unfolds in the Institutes helps us to redress the balance. He rightly focused almost all his attention on the resurrection of the body. In doing so, Calvin captured the overwhelming emphasis of Scripture. Yes, Christians will go to heaven when they die, but after death, we shall be raised immortal and made like our glorious, risen Lord Jesus.
The Westminster Larger Catechism gives a helpful summary of the biblical teaching,
Question 86: What is the communion in glory with Christ, which the members of the invisible church enjoy immediately after death?
Answer: The communion in glory with Christ, which the members of the invisible church enjoy immediately after death, is, in that their souls are then made perfect in holiness, and received into the highest heavens, where they behold the face of God in light and glory, waiting for the full redemption of their bodies, which even in death continue united to Christ, and rest in their graves as in their beds, till at the last day they be again united to their souls. Whereas the souls of the wicked are at their death cast into hell, where they remain in torments and utter darkness, and their bodies kept in their graves, as in their prisons, till the resurrection and judgment of the great day.
In the next post in this series, we will look at what Calvin has to say on the resurrection of the wicked.