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Ask the Pastor

† Theological musings and answers to selected questions by a confessional Lutheran pastor.






12 September 2008

The Soul Between Bodily Death and Resurrection


Q: I know that believers in Jesus will go to Heaven but what happens to my soul (spirit) directly after I die? Some pastors say that the body of the one who died is buried but the soul is somewhere (nowhere) until Jesus comes for His people. They’ve quoted these Scriptures: “We do not want you to be uninformed, brothers, about those who are asleep (1 Thessalonians 4:13)” and “if Christ has not been raised ... those also who have fallen asleep in Christ have perished (1 Corinthians 15:17-18)” as well as passages like 1 Thessalonians 4:15 and Daniel 12:3, 13. If the these are true, what is the meaning of 2 Corinthians 5:8, where Paul wrote, “We would rather be away from the body and at home with the Lord”?

Holy SpiritA: “Spirit” is difficult to define fully. Most Bibles use at least three different words for the Hebrew ruach and the Greek pneuma. Depending on context, each might be translated “breath,” “wind,” or “spirit.” Spirit can mean life itself, especially since breath is essential to life. Thus, Matthew 27:50 says, “Jesus ... yielded up his spirit” while Mark 15:37 reads that He “uttered a loud cry and breathed his last.” Scripture sometimes uses “spirit” when speaking of the redeemed Christian whose mean human desires are in tune with the divine will. It may also denote beings without set forms, including God, angels, and demons.

“Soul” relates to life or being alive but, like “spirit,” defies simple definition. God made Adam, breathed into him, and Adam became a “living soul. (Genesis 2:7 KJV)” Some translations render “soul” as “creature” or “being.” An important thing to note: Adam didn’t receive a soul; he became one. Scripture tells us that to be fully human is to be an enfleshed soul possessed of the Holy Spirit. What we lost in Adam’s fall, we received back in Christ’s death and resurrection but do not attain fully until our own resurrection.

The Penitent on the CrossYou pointed out passages, including different ones from Saint Paul, showing how just how vague is Scripture’s definition of the soul and how sketchy the details about the interim between death and resurrection. Perhaps the transition seems instantaneous, since eternity is not bound by time. Perhaps, even as our dead bodies “sleep” in the earth, we “sleep” in the presence of the Lord. It’s not clear just how aware we will be of our circumstances. We know that Jesus promised the penitent criminal, “Today you will be with me in Paradise. (Luke 23:43)” However, nothing clearly tells us what this state of being might entail. Whatever the case, we know that the souls of departed believers are kept safe until the resurrection of all flesh, when “through Jesus, God will bring with him those who have fallen asleep. (1 Thessalonians 4:14)”

Even though the question can fascinate you, I urge you not to dwell on discovering the ultimate answer: It comes when we die, not a moment sooner. Instead, consider what Matthew Henry penned back in the 1700s. Connecting the “sleep” of death with being “away from the body and at home with the Lord,” he wrote, “Death does not annihilate them. It is but a sleep.... It is their ... undisturbed rest. They have retired out of this troublesome world, to rest from all their labours and sorrows, and they sleep in Jesus ... under his special care and protection. Their souls are in his presence, and their dust is under his care and power; so that they are not lost, nor are they losers, but great gainers by death, and their removal out of this world is into a better.”

God grant you patient faith as you “wait for the revealing of our Lord Jesus Christ, who will sustain you to the end, guiltless in the day of our Lord Jesus Christ. (1 Corinthians 1:7-8)”

For previous responses to related questions, please see That’s the Spirit (and the Soul)! and A New Spirit.

Quote from Matthew Henry’s Commentary is in the public domain.

Scripture quoted from The Holy Bible, English Standard Version™, © 2001 by Crossway Bibles.

Send email to Ask the Pastor.

Walter Snyder is the pastor of Holy Cross Lutheran Church, Emma, Missouri and coauthor of the book What Do Lutherans Believe.

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Newspaper column #550:2

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