Hitherto, the facts which we have gleaned from Scripture concerning the destiny of departed spirits all deal with events that transpired prior to the death and resurrection of Jesus. We shall now go on to see what the Bible reveals about the experience of Jesus Himself during the period between His death and resurrection.
Between Death and Resurrection
The first passage we shall consider is a prophetic anticipation of the death, burial and resurrection of Jesus.
I have set the Lord always before me;
Because He is at my right hand I shall not be moved.
Therefore my heart is glad, and my glory rejoices;
My flesh also will rest in hope.
For You will not leave my soul in Sheol,
Nor will You allow Your Holy One to see corruption.
You will show me the path of life;
In Your presence is fullness of joy;
At Your right hand are pleasures forevermore (Ps. 16:8-11).
In Acts 2:25-28 Peter quotes these verses in full. In Acts 13:35 Paul quotes one of these verses. Both Peter and Paul alike interpret these words as a direct prophecy of the burial and resurrection of Jesus. Peter points out that, though these words were spoken by David, they do not apply to David because David’s soul was left for many centuries in Sheol and his body suffered the process of corruption. Therefore this is one of many messianic prophecies in the Old Testament, spoken by David, yet referring not to David himself but to David’s promised seed, the Messiah, Jesus Jesus.
Applied in this way to Jesus, these words of David in Psalm 16 reveal two things that transpired at the death of Jesus. First, His body was laid in the tomb but did not suffer any process of corruption. Second, His Spirit descended into Sheol (the place of departed spirits) but did not remain there for longer than the period between His death and His resurrection.
This Old Testament revelation is confirmed by the more detailed revelation of the New Testament. Jesus said to the penitent thief beside Him on the cross:
Assuredly, I say to you, today you will be with Me in Paradise (Luke 23:43).
The word paradise means literally “a garden” and is one of the names given to that place in the next world which is reserved for the departed spirits of the righteous.
And when Jesus had cried out with a loud voice, He said, “Father, ‘into Your hands I commend My spirit.’ ” And having said this, He breathed His last (Luke 23:46).
By the words “Father, into Your hands I commend my spirit,” we understand that Jesus here committed the destiny of His spirit at death into the hands of His heavenly Father. His body, He knew, was to be laid aside in the tomb; but the destiny of His spirit was to be decided by God, His Father.
In all this we see that Jesus, having taken upon Himself, in addition to His divine nature, the nature of humanity, passed through the same experiences that await each human soul at death. His body was committed to the tomb in burial, by the hands of men; but His spirit was committed into the hands of God, and its destiny was settled by the sentence of God.
What happened to the spirit of Jesus after it was thus released at death from the earthen vessel of His body? Paul says, concerning Jesus:
(Now this, “He ascended” – what does it mean but that He also first descended into the lower parts of the earth? He who descended is also the One who ascended far above all the heavens, that He might fill all things.) (Eph. 4:9-10).
Again, in 1 Peter 3:18-20 we read:
For Jesus also suffered once for sins, the just for the unjust, that He might bring us to God, being put to death in the flesh but made alive by the Spirit, by whom also He went and preached to the spirits in prison, who formerly were disobedient, when once the long-suffering of God waited in the days of Noah.
If we combine the various revelations contained in these passages, we may form the following outline of the experiences through which the spirit of Jesus passed.
His spirit descended into Sheol, the place of departed spirits. On the day of His death upon the cross, He went first to the place of the spirits of the righteous, called “Paradise” or “Abraham’s bosom.” Since the Gospel record indicates that the death of Jesus on the cross preceded the death of the two thieves, it seems natural to suppose that Jesus was in Paradise to welcome the departed spirit of the penitent thief who followed Him there.
From Paradise Jesus then went further down into that area of Sheol reserved for the spirits of the wicked. It would appear that His descent into this place of torment was necessary for Him to complete the work of atonement for man’s sin, since He had to endure in full not merely the physical but also the spiritual consequences of sin.
At some stage while in this lower realm of Sheol, Jesus preached to the spirits of those who had lived wickedly in the days of Noah – that is, the antediluvian age – and who had consequently been consigned to a special place of imprisonment in Sheol. (The Greek verb here translated “preached” is directly connected with the Greek noun herald. It does not therefore necessarily indicate that Jesus “preached the gospel” to the spirits in prison, but merely that He made to them some proclamation such as a herald would make.)
Then, at God’s appointed moment, when all the divine purposes of the atonement had been accomplished, the spirit of Jesus ascended up again from the realm of Sheol to this present temporal world. At the same time His body, which had been lying lifeless in the tomb, was raised up from death, and spirit and body were once again reunited to form a complete personality.
But now Jesus is risen from the dead, and has become the firstfruits of those who have fallen asleep . . . For as in Adam all die, even so in Jesus all shall be made alive (1 Cor. 15:20,22).
Paul indicates that the resurrection of Jesus from the dead set a pattern which is to be followed by all men. In this pattern we may distinguish two main threads: 1) Man’s immaterial part – his spirit – is to come forth once again from the realm of departed spirits; 2) his material part – his body – is to be raised up again from death.
In this way spirit and body are once again to be reunited, thus reconstituting the complete personality of man, with its material and immaterial parts – its three elements of spirit, soul and body.
Destiny of the Christians at Death
In order to complete our brief outline of this subject, it is necessary to carry our study beyond the time of Jesus’s own death and resurrection and to consider what the New Testament reveals concerning the destiny at death of true professing Christians in this present dispensation. We shall see that the New Testament indicates one important difference between the period that preceded Jesus’s resurrection and that which followed it.
As we have already seen, prior to Jesus’s resurrection the departed spirits of the righteous were consigned to a certain area of Sheol, the netherworld, which was called “Paradise” or “Abraham’s bosom.” Once full atonement for sin had been accomplished, however, by the death and resurrection of Jesus, thereafter the way was open for the spirits of the righteous to ascend immediately and directly into heaven and into the presence of God Himself.
This is made plain by a number of passages in the New Testament, including the account of the stoning of Stephen, the first Christians martyr (see Acts).
But he [Stephen], being full of the Holy Spirit, gazed into heaven and saw the glory of God, and Jesus standing at the right hand of God, and said, “Look! I see the heavens opened and the Son of Man standing at the right hand of God!” (Acts 7:55-56).
Then the account closes as follows.
And they stoned Stephen as he was calling on God and saying, “Lord Jesus, receive my spirit.” Then he knelt down and cried out with a loud voice, “Lord, do not charge them with this sin.” And when he had said this, he fell asleep (Acts 7:59-60).
In the moments just before death, Stephen was granted a vision of Jesus in glory at the right hand of God. His prayer, “Lord Jesus, receive my spirit,” expressed his assurance that immediately upon the death of his body, his spirit would ascend into heaven into the presence of God.
This is confirmed by the way in which Paul also speaks about death.
Therefore we are always confident, knowing that while we are at home in the body we are absent from the Lord . . . We are confident, yes, well pleased rather to be absent from the body and to be present with the Lord (2 Cor. 5:6,8).
These words of Paul imply two things: 1) While the spirit of the believer remains within his body, it cannot be in the immediate presence of God.
2) As soon as the spirit of the believer is released by death from the body, it has direct access to the presence of God.
Paul returns to the same thought again in Philippians, where he weighs the relative merits of being released by death from his physical body or of remaining longer in his body in order to complete his earthly ministry.
For to me, to live is Jesus, and to die is gain. But if I live on in the flesh, this will mean fruit from my labour; yet what I shall choose I cannot tell. For I am hard pressed between the two, having a desire to depart and be with Jesus, which is far better. Nevertheless to remain in the flesh is more needful for you (Phil. 1:21-24).
Here Paul considers two alternatives before him: 1) to remain in the flesh – that is, to continue longer in his present life here on earth in his physical body, or 2) to depart and be with Jesus – that is, for his spirit to be released from his body by death and thus to enter directly into the presence of Jesus in heaven.
These examples of Stephen and Paul make it plain that, when a true Christians in this present dispensation dies, his spirit is released from his body and goes immediately and directly into the presence of Jesus in heaven. This direct access for the Christians believer into the presence of God in heaven has been made possible only through the death and resurrection of Jesus, by which full and final atonement has been made for sin.
Prior to Jesus’s atonement, the departed spirits of the righteous were consigned to a special area in Sheol, the netherworld. This special area was a place of rest and comfort, not of torment or punishment. Nevertheless, it was far removed from the immediate presence of God.
We may now apply the conclusions we have reached to the doctrine of the resurrection. The pattern for the resurrection of all men is set by the resurrection of Jesus Himself. That is to say, the departed spirit is called forth from the place to which it has been consigned by the sentence of God – whether in the realm of heaven or of the netherworld. At the same time, the body is raised up by resurrection from death. Spirit and body are thus reunited, and the complete personality of man is reconstituted.
Resurrection Reassembles the Original Body
At this point there is a difficulty that often troubles the carnal mind concerning the resurrection of man’s physical body.
Suppose that a man has been dead two or three thousand years and that his body has been totally resolved into its original material elements. Or suppose that a man has been killed in war by the explosion of a bomb or a shell, and his body has been totally disintegrated by the force of the explosion so that no humanly recoverable traces of the body remain. Is it reasonable, in such circumstances, to expect that, at the moment of resurrection, the material elements of bodies such as these shall be regathered, reconstituted and resurrected complete once again?
The answer must be that, for those who acknowledge the unlimited wisdom, knowledge and power of God, there is nothing incredible or impossible in this doctrine. Furthermore, when we take time to consider what the Bible reveals concerning the wisdom and knowledge of God displayed in the original creation of man’s body, the doctrine of the resurrection of the body appears both natural and logical.
In Psalm 139 David speaks of the original process by which God formed man’s physical body. Nearly the whole of this psalm is devoted to extolling the fathomless wisdom, knowledge and power of God. In several verses David deals in particular with these attributes of God as displayed in the formation of his human, physical body.
For You have formed my inward parts;
You have covered me in my mother’s womb.
I will praise You, for I am fearfully and wonderfully made;
Marvelous are Your works,
And that my soul knows very well.
My frame [that is, my physical body] was not hidden from You,
When I was made in secret,
And skillfully wrought in the lowest parts of the earth.
Your eyes saw my substance [my physical body], being yet unformed.
And in Your book they all were written,
The days fashioned for me,
When as yet there were none of them (Ps. 139:13-16).
Here David is speaking not about the immaterial part of his nature – his spirit and soul – but about the material part of his nature – his physical body – which he denotes by the phrases “my substance” and “my frame.”
Concerning the process by which God brought his physical body into being, David reveals two facts of great interest and importance:
1) The material, earthly elements out of which David’s body was to be formed were specially appointed and prepared a great while beforehand by God, while these material elements were still in the lowest part of the earth.
2) God had appointed the precise number, dimensions and material of all the constituent members of David’s body long before his body ever actually came into being.
David’s account of the process that produced the materials for his body is remarkably confirmed by the conclusions of Dr. Fujita, a prominent Japanese pharmacologist who spent many years seeking an answer to the question, What is life? His research was confined to the material realm. Within this realm he analysed many different forms of life, both animal and vegetable. Eventually he concluded that minerals are the basic, common constituent in all these forms.
However, the revelation of Scripture goes beyond these bare scientific facts. It discloses that God keeps a complete and detailed record of all the elements that make up our bodies. There is no part too small or too unimportant to be included in God’s record. Jesus tells us:
But the very hairs of your head are all numbered (Matt. 10:30).
In the light of this revelation, we find that there is a close and illuminating parallel between the original process by which God formed man’s physical body and the process by which He will once again resurrect that body from death.
In the original process of forming man’s body, God first appointed and prepared its various material elements while they were still in the earth. Then, as these appointed elements were assembled together to constitute man’s body, God kept a precise and careful record of each part and each member.
After death the body decomposes once again into its material elements. But God, who foreordained the special elements of each individual body, still keeps a record of each element. At the moment of resurrection, by His same creative power, He will once again reassemble every one of the original elements and thus reconstitute the same body.
The only major difference is that the original process of forming the body was apparently gradual, while the process of reconstituting the body at the resurrection will be instantaneous. However, in relation to God’s supreme and sovereign control of both time and space, the actual length of time required is of no significance whatever.
If we do not accept this biblical account of the destiny of man’s body, then we have no right to speak of a resurrection – that is, of a process of raising again the second time. If the elements which make up man’s body at resurrection are not the same as those which originally made up his body, then there is no logical or causal connection between the first and the second body. The two bodies are in no way related to each other, either in time or in space. In that case we should not be able to say that God resurrected (or raised up) man’s body. We should have to say instead that God equipped man’s spirit with a totally new body, unconnected in any way with the previous body.
This is not what the Bible teaches. The Bible teaches that there is direct continuity between man’s original body and the body with which he will be provided at the resurrection. The continuity consists in this: that the same material elements which formed the original body will once again be reassembled to form the resurrection body.
Confirmation of this wonderful truth is found first and foremost in the resurrection of Jesus Himself. When Jesus first appeared to His disciples in a group after His resurrection, they were frightened, supposing that what they saw was a ghost, a disembodied spirit. However, Jesus immediately reassured them and gave them positive proof of His identity and of the reality of His body.
“Behold My hands and My feet, that it is I Myself. Handle Me and see, for a spirit does not have flesh and bones as you see I have.” When He had said this, He showed them His hands and His feet (Luke 24:39-40).
One of the disciples, Thomas, was not present on this occasion, and he would not accept the account of the incident which the other disciples gave him. However, a week later Jesus appeared to the disciples again when Thomas was also present, and this time He addressed Himself directly to Thomas.
Then He said to Thomas, “Reach your finger here, and look at My hands; and reach your hand here, and put it into My side. Do not be unbelieving, but believing” (John 20:27).
From these passages we see that Jesus was careful to give His disciples the plainest evidence that after His resurrection He had a real body, and that His body was the same that had been crucified. The evidence was in His hands and feet and in His side, which still bore the marks of the nails and of the spear.
In other respects His body had undergone important changes. It was no longer subject to the limitations of a mortal body in this present world order. Jesus could now appear or disappear at will; He could enter a closed room; He could pass between earth and heaven. However, with due allowance made for these changes, it was still in other respects the same body that had been crucified.
Furthermore, Jesus also promised His disciples that their bodies would be resurrected no less complete than His own. In Luke 21 Jesus first warned His disciples of great opposition and persecution awaiting them. In particular He warned them that some of them would actually be put to death. Nevertheless, He went on to give them a clear promise of the resurrection of their bodies.
You will be betrayed even by parents and brothers, relatives and friends; and they will send some of you to your death. And you will be hated by all for My name’s sake. But not a hair of your head shall be lost (Luke 21:16-18).
Notice carefully what Jesus says here. The disciples will be hated, persecuted, killed. Yet, at the end of it all, “not a hair of your head shall be lost.” This does not refer to the preservation of their physical bodies intact in this life. We know that many of the early professing Christians – as also those of later ages – suffered violent death, mutilation, burning and other processes that marred and destroyed their physical bodies. Therefore the promise of every hair being perfectly preserved does not refer to this present life but to the resurrection of their bodies from the dead.
At the resurrection every element and member of their original physical bodies, foreordained, numbered and recorded by God, will by God’s omnipotence once again be regathered and reconstituted – a perfect body, a glorified body, but still the same body that had previously suffered death and decomposition.
Such is the picture that the Bible gives of the resurrection of man’s body – wonderful in its revelation of God’s unlimited wisdom, knowledge and power, yet perfectly consistent with logic and with the principles of Scripture.