By Reverend Mark Hunnemann
Intellectual honesty. One sign of it is the humility to look ‘back’ to the past, when in God’s providence, the Lord raised up godly and brilliant men who literally re-discovered the gospel, which had been largely lost for 1,000 years.
The time of the Reformation ( 1500’s) through Luther, Zwingli, and Calvin, and their successors, was a time of unprecedented theological clarity. In the crucible of intense debate, controversy and persecution, unprecedented theological precision was attained. The Reformed (teaching of the Reformation) Creeds, Confessions, and catechisms that came from the 16th and 17th centuries, yielded the finest summaries of the Christian Faith that exist up til this day.
Some folks dislike creeds but EVERYONE has a pre-supposed set of beliefs regarding the bible that act as a de facto creed. “Only Jesus” is my creed is a reply. Okay, which Jesus? There is a New Age Jesus…a ‘Jesus’ for every heretical group.
The question I asked was this: was there a consensus amongst these theologians—spanning 100 years or so-- regarding what happens to our souls when we die? You will note the unyielding certainty and agreement amongst ALL of these various documents.
It would be arrogant to overlook these documents as if we were the first generation of Christians on the planet…we stand on these giants shoulders.
Creativity is a great thing, EXCEPT in theology. Creativity in the realm of theology, which seems to drive many today, invariably leads to heresy. The bible sets the contours from which our beliefs must adhere. And the Confessions that come from this period are passionately committed to the principle of Sola scriptura…and yield precise and uncompromising summaries of bible doctrine.
I have noticed that some will look high and low to find those few exceptions who agree with their unbiblical views regarding ghosts—that is NOT intellectual honesty. It is eisogesis of historical theology. Intellectual honesty requires that we not neglect the consensus beliefs from brothers, both past and present. The burden of proof lies on the shoulders of those who would deviate from the historical Reformed Confessions regarding the state of the dead.
Below is a brief defense of the importance of Creeds. Please take the time to read this brief article, as it has fresh insights that I’m sure many of you will find refreshing and exhilarating.
Why Creeds and Confessions?
by David Hall
Peter confessed Jesus as the Christ. Jesus responded that His church in all ages would be built upon that realization. The paramount thing confessed was Christ, who is the unique Son of the living God (Matt. 16:16), the cornerstone of the church. However, the means to that end—confessing—is also a very important activity confessing is:
The way to forgiveness of our sins (James 5:16);
How the saved are identified (Rom. 10:10);
The signature that the Spirit is already working in a person (1 Cor. 12:3);
The advertisement of our hope (Heb. 10:23);
Accompanied by obedience (2 Cor. 9:13); and
What Christ Himself did (1 Tim. 6:13).
As Christians, we must embrace a mature biblical norm of confessing our faith. Let me offer briefly five reasons why a written confession is helpful:
First, written confessions represent maturity. A confessional communion is more than fly-by-night. It is relatively easy to produce a personal statement of faith or a position paper on a narrow subject. However, only those confessions that are tested by many generations endure. Just as yesterday’s pop music hardly inspires anymore, so a transient confession is slightly embarrassing. But classic creeds, produced by seasoned Christians, stand the test of time. a confession is a mature, proven set of beliefs. Wouldn’t you rather be guided by such a statement than by an ill-defined set of beliefs or an immature statement of faith?
Second, written confessions keep believers from having to reinvent the wheel. Creeds and confessions can put the student at the head of the class in a hurry. If one need not formulate every bit of doctrine himself, that is, if he is humble enough to listen quickly to other saints (James 1:19), he can spare himself considerable time and countless dead ends. He will avoid paths that are “useless to further reconnoiter,” as theologian Abraham Kuyper recognized.
Third, written confessions are a non-prejudicial way of telling outsiders what we believe. In an age that craves authenticity and transparency, many people get fed up with vague “trust me” statements or calls to give money blindly. A confession is an unashamedly public act; it means that what we believe is neither secret nor windblown for individual taste. It enables any visitors to find out what we believe.
Fourth, it protects against idiosyncrasy and “movementism.” Sadly, there are more christians who follow celebrity leaders than ever before, and those movements based on unbiblical, idiosyncratic leaders seldom end well. Pining for “movementism” or following a hero often yields chaos, will-worship, self-promoting cults, confusion, or continual flux. A confession is ready-made for all those who want to participate in Christian discipleship that is bigger than their own time.
Fifth, it requires us to repent and give up some of our own wrong notions. One of the reasons that confessions are distasteful to some is their unbending quality. Yet a faith that is twisted to each of my preferences is vacuous. The nonnegotiable ethos of a confession may actually force a slacker generation to return to Scripture and steer through some difficult issues. Such may actually help us mature.
As long as a confession is thoroughly biblical (thus timeless) and not provincial, it can aid; a confession in the hands of pastoral and spiritual leaders can vitally serve unity and clarity.
A confession, if a faithful echo of what God already says, can guide us and shelter us from the disabilities of an age or locale. Confessions that parrot and lightly amplify the soundings of scripture endure, while also equipping God’s family with strength and perspective to avoid the ditches of every fad or heresy. Confessions that stand on the shoulders of previous saintly exegetes are the advanced courses that settle certain matters and yield a head start.
A confession is also simultaneously shorthand and proven wisdom; it is orthodoxy and orthopraxy at once. unless one’s life span is infinite, when we pray for God to “teach us to number our days that we may get a heart of wisdom” (Ps. 90:12), confessions will often help us in the stewardship of time as well as protect us from crippling idiosyncratism.
The purpose of a confession is to bolster both unity and clarity. Many of us learn the hard way that the most damning standards are the unwritten ones. Pharisees, ancient and modern, are masters of using unwritten standards to club the uninitiated into a coma. A biblical confession, however, frees the believing community from these secret laws. It liberates us from self-imposed standards and also makes the church open to all under the same standards.
Kuyper was right to counsel against diverging from fixed confessions until compelled to do so by the Bible. Far from being forbidden, holding to sound confessions is little more than following the New Testament pattern. Rather than contradicting sola Scriptura, a confession is actually a sound guide to it.
Now we come to six creedal statements, from roughly 1,550-1,650 AD. They come from various countries, and as you shall see, they are simply marvelous in their content. And they ALL agree regarding the state of the dead—both righteous and unrighteous.
Westminster Confession 1646 (this confession is still held in high regard by many churches, and I personally think it is the best ever written…i.e. most biblical) We use it regularly in my church to publicly confess what we believe during worship. I will not comment…just enjoy reading these marvelous summaries…..regarding one key issue.
Of the State of Men after Death, and of the Resurrection of the Dead
I. The bodies of men, after death, return to dust, and see corruption: but their souls, which neither die nor sleep, having an immortal subsistence, immediately return to God who gave them:  the souls of the righteous, being then made perfect in holiness, are received into the highest heavens, where they behold the face of God, in light and glory, waiting for the full redemption of their bodies. And the souls of the wicked are cast into hell, where they remain in torments and utter darkness, reserved to the judgment of the great day. Beside these two places, for souls separated from their bodies, the Scripture acknowledges none.
II. At the last day, such as are found alive shall not die, but be changed: and all the dead shall be raised up, with the selfsame bodies, and none other (although with different qualities), which shall be united again to their souls forever.
III. The bodies of the unjust shall, by the power of Christ, be raised to dishonor: the bodies of the just, by His Spirit, unto honor; and be made conformable to His own glorious body
Second Helvetic Confession-1566
THE STATE OF THE SOUL DEPARTED FROM THE BODY. For we believe that the faithful, after bodily death, go directly to Christ, and, therefore, do not need the eulogies and prayers of the living for the dead and their services. Likewise we believe that unbelievers are immediately cast into hell from which no exit is opened for the wicked by any services of the living.
PURGATORY. But what some teach concerning the fire of purgatory is opposed to the Christian faith, namely, "I believe in the forgiveness of sins, and the life everlasting," and to the perfect purgation through Christ, and to these words of Christ our Lord: "Truly, truly, I say to you, he who hears my word and believes him who sent me, has eternal life; he shall not come into judgment, but has passed from death to life" (John 5:24). Again: "He who has bathed does not need to wash, except for his feet, but he is clean all over, and you are clean" (John 13:10).
APPARITION OF SPIRITS. Now what is related of the spirits or souls of the dead sometimes appearing to those who are alive, and begging certain duties of them whereby they may be set free, we count those apparitions among the laughingstocks, crafts, and deceptions of the devil, who, as he can transform himself into an angel of light, so he strives either to overthrow the true faith or to call it into doubt. In the Old Testament the Lord forbade the seeking of the truth from the dead, and any sort of commerce with spirits Deut. 18:11). Indeed, as evangelical truth declares, the glutton, being in torment, is denied a return to his brethren, as the divine oracle declared in the words: "They have Moses and the prophets; let them hear them. If they hear not Moses and the prophets, neither will they be convinced if some one should rise from the dead" (Luke 16:29 ff.).
Irish Articles of Religion-1615
OF THE STATE OF THE SOULS OF MEN AFTER THEY BE DEPARTED OUT OF THIS LIFE, TOGETHER WITH THE GENERAL RESURRECTION AND THE LAST JUDGMENT.
101. After this life is ended the souls of God's children be presently received into heaven, there to enjoy unspeakable comforts; the souls of the wicked are cast into hell, there to endure endless torments.
102. The doctrine o£ the Church of Rome concerning Limbus Patrum, Limbus Puerorum, Purgatory, Prayer for the Dead, Pardons, Adoration of Images and Relics, and also Invocation of Saints, is vainly invented without all warrant of holy Scripture, yea, and is contrary unto the same.
103. At the end of this world the Lord Jesus shall come in the clouds with the glory of his Father; at which time, by the almighty power of God, the living shall be changed and the dead shall be raised; and all shall appear both in body and soul before his judgment-seat, to receive according to that which they have done in their bodies, whether good or evil.
104. When the last judgment is finished, Christ shall deliver up the kingdom to his Father, and God shall be all in all.
Baptist Confession of Faith-1689
OF THE STATE OF MAN AFTER DEATH, AND OF THE RESURRECTION OF THE DEAD
Paragraph 1. The bodies of men after death return to dust, and see corruption;1 but their souls, which neither die nor sleep, having an immortal subsistence, immediately return to God who gave them.2 The souls of the righteous being then made perfect in holiness, are received into paradise, where they are with Christ, and behold the face of God in light and glory, waiting for the full redemption of their bodies;3 and the souls of the wicked are cast into hell; where they remain in torment and utter darkness, reserved to the judgment of the great day;4 besides these two places, for souls separated from their bodies, the Scripture acknowledgeth none.
1 Gen. 3:19; Acts 13:36
2 Eccles. 12:7
3 Luke 23:43; 2 Cor. 5:1,6,8; Phil. 1:23; Heb. 12:23
4 Jude 6, 7; 1 Peter 3:19; Luke 16:23,24
Paragraph 2. At the last day, such of the saints as are found alive, shall not sleep, but be changed;5 and all the dead shall be raised up with the selfsame bodies, and none other;6 although with different qualities, which shall be united again to their souls forever.7
5 1 Cor. 15:51,52; 1 Thess. 4:17
6 Job 19:26,27
7 1 Cor. 15:42,43
Paragraph 3. The bodies of the unjust shall, by the power of Christ, be raised to dishonour; the bodies of the just, by his Spirit, unto honour, and be made conformable to his own glorious body.8
8 Acts 24:15; John 5:28,29; Phil. 3:21
Scottish Confession of Faith—1560 (John Knox)
The Immortality of the Souls
The elect departed are in peace and rest from their labours: not that they sleep and come to a certain oblivion (as some fantastics do affirm), but that they are delivered from all fear, all torment, and all temptation, to which we and all God's elect are subject in this life, and therefore do bear the name of the kirk militant: as contrariwise, the reprobate and unfaithful departed, have anguish, torment, and pain, that cannot be expressed. So that neither are the one nor the other in such sleep that they feel not joy or torment, as the parable of Christ Jesus in the sixteenth [chapter] of Luke, his words to the thief, and these words of the souls crying under the altar, O Lord, thou that art righteous and just, how long shalt thou not revenge our blood upon them that dwell upon the earth! doth plainly testify.
1. Rev. 14:13.
2. Isa. 25:8; Rev. 7:14-17; 21:4.
3. Rev. 16:10-11; Isa. 66:24; Mark 9:44, 46, 48.
4. Luke 16:23-26.
5. Luke 23:43.
6. Rev. 6:9-10.
Question 1. What is thy only comfort in life and death?
Answer: That I with body and soul, both in life and death, (a) am not my own, (b) but belong unto my faithful Saviour Jesus Christ; (c) who, with his precious blood, has fully satisfied for all my sins, (d) and delivered me from all the power of the devil; (e) and so preserves me (f) that without the will of my heavenly Father, not a hair can fall from my head; (g) yea, that all things must be subservient to my salvation, (h) and therefore, by his Holy Spirit, He also assures me of eternal life, (i) and makes me sincerely willing and ready, henceforth, to live unto him.
Question 57. What comfort does the "resurrection of the body" afford thee?
Answer: That not only my soul after this life shall be immediately taken up to Christ its head; (a) but also, that this my body, being raised by the power of Christ, shall be reunited with my soul, and made like unto the glorious body of Christ. (b)
(a) Luke 16:22 And it came to pass, that the beggar died, and was carried by the angels into Abraham's bosom: the rich man also died, and was buried; Luke 23:43 And Jesus said unto him, Verily I say unto thee, To day shalt thou be with me in paradise. Philip.1:21 For to me to live is Christ, and to die is gain. Philip.1:23 For I am in a strait betwixt two, having a desire to depart, and to be with Christ; which is far better: (b) 1 Cor.15:53 For this corruptible must put on incorruption, and this mortal must put on immortality. 1 Cor.15:54 So when this corruptible shall have put on incorruption, and this mortal shall have put on immortality, then shall be brought to pass the saying that is written, Death is swallowed up in victory. Job 19:25 For I know that my redeemer liveth, and that he shall stand at the latter day upon the earth: Job 19:26 And though after my skin worms destroy this body, yet in my flesh shall I see God: 1 John 3:2 Beloved, now are we the sons of God, and it doth not yet appear what we shall be: but we know that, when he shall appear, we shall be like him; for we shall see him as he is. Philip.3:21 Who shall change our vile body, that it may be fashioned like unto his glorious body, according to the working whereby he is able even to subdue all things unto himself.
There are numerous avenues to pursue which lead to a proper understanding of what happens to ALL souls upon death. One such avenue is to ask what the leading theologians of the past and their confessions taught. Ours is a day in which historical theology is frowned upon, but surely such hubris is fraught with peril.
Is it not instructive that all of the Reformed Confessions quoted above come to the same conclusion regarding the status of the souls of the deceased? Did you note that the Second Helvetic Confession even mentions the demonic nature of apparitions? This is the teaching of historic Christianity from the 16th and 17th centuries regarding the notion of ghosts, and they present a united mind. Before you deviate from this consensus, it is incumbent upon you to provide the burden of proof that they were wrong. Thus far, nobody has come close to showing that the classical view of life after death is mistaken…though some have tried…and failed miserably.
Of course these confessions are not the bible. However, their purpose was/is to summarize accurately and systematically the teaching of the bible. These confessions in particular are the most consistent summaries of biblical teaching, in my opinion….especially the Westminster Confession…Larger and Shorter Catechisms.
It saddens me how many adopt a dismissive attitude toward the herculean efforts of the saints from centuries past. Church history is an extension of the book of Acts, and there are so many lessons we can learn. One lesson is that our Reformation heroes (and successors) are united in their view of life after death. Surely that should have some impact on you if you are a Christian.
Mark Hunnemann is the author of Seeing Ghosts Through God's Eyes: A Worldview Analysis of Earthbound Spirits. It's also available in eBook format.