John Calvin published a tract in 1534. He was twenty-five years old. With the exception of his Commentary on Stoic philosopher Seneca’s exhortation to Emperor Nero known as On Mercy, published in 1532, this was the earliest of Calvin’s writings, and two years earlier than the Institutes, the first known edition of which appeared in 1536. Called Psychopannychia, derived from Greek words which signify “the sleep of the soul,” the tract disproved the contention of the Anabaptists that the soul of man sleeps between physical death and the Judgment. Calvin wrote,
…Our controversy, then, relapses to The Human Soul. Some, while admitting it to have a real existence, imagine that it sleeps in a state of insensibility from Death to The Judgment-day, when it will awake from its sleep; while others will sooner admit anything than its real existence, maintaining that it is merely a vital power which is derived from arterial spirit on the action of the lungs, and being unable to exist without body, perishes along with the body, and vanishes away and becomes evanescent till the period when the whole man shall be raised again.
We, on the other hand, maintain both that [human soul] is a substance, and after the death of the body truly lives, being endowed both with sense and understanding.
Though the tract is a tour-de-force rebuttal of this doctrinal error, that is not what attracted my attention. It was the detailed exposition of our state between death and the Judgment. I had never read such a clear, complete, and consoling description. What is amusing is that Calvin, in accommodation to his adversaries, references apocryphal texts, the Book of Revelation, and quotations from trusted New Testament theologians.
The following are excerpts from Calvin’s arguments which present the condition of the human soul after death. We’ve reordered portions to clarify the soul’s condition since Calvin intended a different goal, rebutting Anabaptist error. Even though Calvin assiduously supports all his claims with scripture, were we to quote all but his summary statements, we would present not a summary but the arguments in full. Please refer to the text for these arguments.
Those who place their trust in Christ’s finished work are at peace, Calvin says, quoting the scriptures,
“My people will walk in the beauty of peace, and in the tents of trust, and in rich rest.” (Isaiah 32:18,) “O Lord, you will give us peace: for you have performed all our works for us.” (Isaiah 26:12,)
Believers have this PEACE on receiving the gospel, when they see that God, whom they dreaded as their Judge, has become their Father; themselves, instead of children of wrath, children of grace; and the bowels of the divine mercy poured out toward them, so that now they expect from God nothing but goodness and mildness.
But since human life on earth is a warfare, (Job 7:1,) those who feel both the stings of sin and the remains of the flesh, must feel depression in the world, though with consolation in God – such consolation, however, as does not leave the mind perfectly calm and undisturbed. But when they shall be divested of flesh and the desires of the flesh, (which, like domestic enemies, break their peace,) then at length will they rest and recline with God: For thus speaks the Prophet,
“The just perish, and no man lay it to heart; and men of mercy are gathered: for the just is gathered from the face of wickedness. Let peace come, let him who has walked under his direction rest in his bed.” (Isaiah 57:1-2)
Does he not call those to peace who had been the sons of peace? Still, as their peace was with God, and they had war in the world, he calls them to a higher degree of peace.
Now, here on earth, we war with our corrupt “mass of sin,”
…Our confession, which is sufficiently established, is this,
“In Adam all die, but in Christ are made alive.” (1 Corinthians 15:22.)
These things are splendidly and magnificently handled by Paul. “If the Spirit of Christ dwell in us, the body is dead because of sin, but the Spirit is life because of righteousness” (Romans 8:10.) He no doubt calls the body the mass of sin, which resides in man from the native property of the flesh, and the spirit the part of man spiritually regenerated. Wherefore, when a little before he deplored his wretchedness because of the remains of sin adhering to him, (Romans 7:24) he did not desire to be taken away altogether, or to be nothing, in order that he might escape from that misery, but to be freed from the body of death, i.e., that the mass of sin in him might die, that the spirit, being purged, and, as it were, freed from dregs, he might have peace with God through this very circumstance; declaring, that his better part was held captive by bodily chains and would be freed by death.
I wish we could with true faith perceive of what nature the kingdom of God is which exists in believers, even while they are in this life. For it would at the same time be easy to understand that eternal life is begun. He who cannot deceive promised thus,
“Whoso hears my words has eternal life, and does not come into condemnation, but has passed from death unto life.” (John 5:24.)
Speaking of Noah’s, Abraham’s, Jacob’s, Job’s, and Moses’s reaction to death, Calvin says,
…All, as far as we can see, embrace death with a ready mind. The words in which the saints answer the call of the Lord uniformly are, “Here I am, Lord!”
There must, therefore, be something which compels Christ and his followers to [shun and deplore death as something horrid and detestable.] There is no doubt that Christ, when he offered himself to suffer in our stead, had to contend with the power of the devil, with the torments of hell, and the pains of death. All these things were to be done in our nature, that they might lose the right which they had in us.
In this contest, therefore, when He was satisfying the rigor and severity of the Divine justice, when he was engaged with hell, death, and the devil, he entreated the Father not to abandon him in such straits, not to give him over to the power of death, asking nothing more of the Father than that our weakness, which he bore in his own body, might be freed from the power of the devil and of death.
The faith on which we now lean is that the penalty of sin committed in our nature, and which was to be paid in the same nature in order to satisfy the Divine justice, was paid and discharged in the flesh of Christ, which was ours. Christ, therefore, does not [deplore] death, but that grievous sense of the severity of God with which, on our account, he was to be seized by death.
Would you know from what feeling his utterance proceeded? I cannot express it better than he himself did, in another form, when he exclaimed, “Father, Father, why have you forsaken me?”
Then, discoursing on death’s sting blunted, Calvin says,
…Again, when he elsewhere says, that “the sting of death was sin,” (1 Corinthians 15:56,) how can death longer sting us, when its sting has been blunted, nay, destroyed? The whole scope of several chapters in the Epistle to the Romans is to make it manifest that sin is completely abolished so as no longer to have dominion over believers.
…The Apostle confidently declares, (Romans 8:1,) that “there is now no condemnation to those who are in Christ Jesus, who walk not after the flesh, but after the Spirit.” …Where is grace, if death still reigns among the elect of God? Sin, as the Apostle says, indeed reigned unto death, but grace reigns unto eternal life, and, overcoming sin, leaves no place for death. Therefore, as death reigned on entering by Adam, so now life reigns by Jesus Christ. And we know that:
“Christ, being raised from the dead, dies no more: death shall no longer have dominion over him: For in that he died, he died unto sin once; but in that he lives, he lives unto God.” (Romans 6:9.)
…Man, if he had not fallen, would have been immortal. What he began to be, he once was not; and what he is by punishment, he is not by nature. Then the Apostle exclaims that sin is absorbed by grace, so that it can no longer have any power over the elect of God; and hence we conclude that the elect now are such as Adam was before his sin; and as he was created inexterminable, so now have those become who have been renewed by Christ to a better nature. There is nothing at variance with this in the Apostle’s declaration,
When the perishable puts on the imperishable, and the mortal puts on immortality, then shall come to pass the saying that is written: “Death is swallowed up in victory.” (1 Corinthians 15:54.)
…That shall be fulfilled in the body which has now been begun in the soul; or rather, that which has only been begun in the soul will be fulfilled both in the soul and the body: for this common death which we all undergo, as it were by a common necessity of nature, is rather to the elect a kind of passage to the highest degree of immortality, than either an evil or a punishment, and, as Augustine says, (De Discrimine Vitae Human. et Brut., c. 43,) is nothing else than the falling off of the flesh [(Col. 2:9-14)], which does not consume the things connected with it, but divides them, seeing it restores each to its original.
Speaking of our soul’s assurance in death, Calvin says,
…He promises us two things – Eternal life, and the Resurrection…Another expression of Christ is still more decisive. He says,
“I am the resurrection and the life. He who believes on me shall live though he were dead. And whoso lives and believes in me shall not die forever.” (John 11:25, 26.)
It will not do to say, that those who are raised do not die for ever. Our Lord meant not only this, but that it is impossible they can ever die. This meaning is better expressed by the Greek words equivalent in Latin to in seculum: for when we say that a thing will not be in seculum, we affirm that it will never be at all. Thus, in another passage, “Whoso will keep my word shall not see death forever.” (John 8:51.) This invincibly proves, that he who will keep the word of the Lord shall not see death… This is our belief, this our expectation.
And from an earthly viewpoint, Calvin quotes Paul,
…“We know that if the earthly house of this tabernacle were dissolved, we have a building of God, a house not made with hands, eternal in the heavens. For in this we groan, desiring to be clothed upon with our house which is from heaven; if [indeed] being clothed we shall not be found naked. For we who are in this tabernacle do groan being burdened, not because we wish to be unclothed, but clothed upon, that mortality may be swallowed up of life.” (2 Corinthians 5:1-4.)
A little afterwards he says,
“Therefore we are always of good courage, and know that while we are at home in the body we are absent from the Lord; (for we walk by faith, not by sight;) we are confident, and would rather be absent from the body and present with the Lord.” (2 Corinthians 5:6-8)
…The simple and obvious meaning of the Apostle is, We desire indeed to depart from this prison of the body, but not to wander uncertain without a home: There is a better home which the Lord has prepared for us; clothed with it, we shall not be found naked. Christ is our clothing, and our armor is that which the Apostle puts upon us. (Ephesians 6:11.) And it is written, (Psalm 45:13,) “The king will admire the beauty of his spouse, who will be richly provided with gifts, and all glorious within.” In [short], the Lord has put a seal upon his own people, whom he will acknowledge both at death and at the resurrection. (Revelation 7)
…It is, that both in the body and out of the body we labor to please the Lord; and that we shall perceive the presence of God when we shall be separated from this body – that we will no longer walk by faith but by sight, since the load of clay by which we are pressed down, acts as a kind of wall of partition, keeping us far away from God.
…In regard even to the present life, it is said of the righteous, “They shall walk, O Lord, in the light of thy countenance,” (Psalm 88) and again, “The Spirit himself bears witness with our spirit that we are the children of God,” (Romans 8:16.)
Reflecting on our soul’s state after death, Calvin says,
…We are better taught by the Sacred Writings. The body, which decays, weighs down the soul, and confining it within an earthly habitation, greatly limits its perceptions. If the body is the prison of the soul, if the earthly habitation is a kind of fetters, what is the state of the soul when set free from this prison, when loosed from these fetters? Is it not restored to itself, and as it were made complete, so that we may truly say, that all which it gains is so much lost to the body?
…When we put off the load of the body, the war between the spirit and the flesh ceases. In short, the mortification of the flesh is the quickening of the spirit. Then the soul, set free from impurities, is truly spiritual, so as to be in accordance with the will of God, and not subject to the tyranny of the flesh, rebelling against it.
In short, the mortification of the flesh will be the quickening of the spirit: For then the soul, having shaken off all kinds of pollution, is truly spiritual, so that it consents to the will of God, and is no longer subjected to the tyranny of the flesh; thus dwelling in tranquility, with all its thoughts fixed on God.
Then, elaborating on what it will be like in heaven prior to Judgment Day,
…The souls of the martyrs under the altar, who with loud voice cry,
“How long, O Lord, do you not avenge our blood on those who dwell on the earth? And there were given unto them white robes, and it was told them still to rest for a season, until the number of their fellow-servants and their brethren who were to be slain like them should be completed.” (Revelation 6:10-11.)
The souls of the dead cry aloud, and white robes are given unto them!
…These white robes undoubtedly designate the commencement of glory, which the Divine liberality bestows upon martyrs while waiting for the day of judgment.
Having described our rest, Calvin turns to the resurrection of the body sown in corruption and raised better than it died,
…”The first Adam was a living soul, the last Adam a quickening spirit.” (1 Corinthians 15:45.)
His answer here corresponds to the question of those who could not be persuaded of the Resurrection. They objected, How will the dead rise again? With what body will they come? The Apostle, to meet this objection, thus addresses them: If we learn by experience that the seed, which lives, grows, and yields fruit, has previously died, why may not the body after it has died rise again like a seed? And if dry and bare grain, after it has died, produces more abundant increase, by a wondrous virtue which God has implanted in it, why may not the body, by the same divine power, be raised better than it died?
And that you may not wonder at this: How is it that man lives, but just because he was formed a living soul? This soul, however, though for a time it actuates and sustains the bodily mass, does not impart to it immortality or incorruption, and as long even as it exerts its own energy; it is not sufficient by itself, without the auxiliaries of food, drink, sleep, which are the signs of corruption; nor does it maintain it in a constant and uniform state without being subject to various kinds of inclinations.
But when Christ shall have received us into his own glory, not only will the animal body be quickened by the soul but made spiritual in a manner which our mind can neither comprehend nor our tongue express. (See Tertullian and August., Ep. 3, ad Fortunat.)
You see, then, that in the Resurrection we shall be not a different thing, but a different person, (pardon the expression.) These things have been said of the body, to which the soul ministers life under the elements of this world; but when the fashion of this world shall have passed away, participation in the glory of God will exalt it above nature.
Next, Calvin explains the culmination of our journey in the revealed Kingdom of God,
…Our blessedness is always in progress up to that day which shall conclude and terminate all progress, and that thus the glory of the elect, and complete consummation of hope, look forward to that day for their fulfillment. For it is admitted by all, that perfection of blessedness or glory nowhere exists except in perfect union with God.
Here we all tend, here we hasten, here all the Scriptures and the divine promises send us. For that which was once said to Abraham applies to us also, (Genesis 15:1,) “Abraham, I am thy exceeding great reward.” Seeing, then, that the reward appointed for all who have part with Abraham is to possess God and enjoy him, and that, besides and beyond it, it is not lawful to long for any other, there must our eyes be turned when the subject of our expectation is considered.
…That kingdom, to the possession of which we are called, and which is elsewhere denominated “salvation,” and “reward,” and “glory,” is nothing else than that union with God by which they are fully in God, are filled by God, in their turn cleave to God, completely possess God – in short, are “one with God.” For thus, while they are in the fountain of all fullness, they reach the ultimate goal of righteousness, wisdom, and glory, these being the blessings in which the kingdom of glory consists.
For Paul intimates that the kingdom of God is in its highest perfection when “God is all in all.” (1 Corinthians 15:28.) Since on that day, only God will be all in all, and completely fill his believers, it is called, not without reason, “the day of our salvation,” before which our salvation is not perfected in all its parts. For those whom God fills are filled with riches which neither ear can hear, nor eye see, nor tongue tell, nor imagination conceive.
…That day is called “the kingdom of God,” because he will then make adverse powers truly subject, slay Satan by the breath of his mouth, and destroy him by the brightness of his coming, while he himself will wholly dwell and reign in his elect. (1 Corinthians 15:24; 2 Thessalonians 2:8.) God in himself cannot reign otherwise than he reigned from the beginning. Of his majesty there cannot be increase or diminution. But it is called “His kingdom,” because it will be manifested to all.
When we pray that his kingdom may come, do we imagine that previously it [did not] exist? And when will it be? “The kingdom of God is within you.” (Luke 17:21) God, therefore, now reigns in his elect whom he guides by his Spirit. He reigns also in opposition to the devil, sin, and death, when he bids the light, by which error and falsehood are confounded, to shine out of darkness, and when he prohibits the powers of darkness from hurting those who have the mark of the Lamb in their foreheads.
He reigns, I say, even now when we pray that his kingdom may come. He reigns, indeed, while he performs miracles in his servants, and gives the law to Satan. But his kingdom will properly come when it will be completed. And it will be completed when he will plainly manifest the glory of his majesty to his elect for salvation, and to the reprobate for confusion.
And what else is to be said or believed of the elect, whose kingdom and glory it is to be in the glorious kingdom of God, and, as it were, reign with God and glory in him – in short, to be partakers of the Divine glory? This kingdom, though it is said not yet to have come, may yet be in some measure beheld. For those who in a manner have the kingdom of God within them, and reign with God, begin to be in the kingdom of God; the gates of hell cannot prevail against them. They are justified in God, it being said of them,
“In the Lord will all the seed of Israel be justified and praised.” (Isaiah 45:25.)
Drawing upon the Old Testament, Calvin shows how the exodus from Egypt to the establishment of the Jerusalem Temple pictures our journey from salvation to resurrection,
…As Paul, in speaking of the passage of the Israelites across the Red Sea, allegorically represents the drowning of Pharaoh as the mode of deliverance by water, (1 Corinthians 10:1,) so we may be permitted to say that in baptism our Pharaoh is drowned, our old man is crucified, our members are mortified, we are buried with Christ, and removed from the captivity of the devil and the power of death, but removed only into the desert, a land arid and poor, unless the Lord rain manna from heaven, and cause water to gush forth from the rock. For our soul, like that land without water, is in want of all things, till he, by the grace of his Spirit, rain upon it.
We afterwards pass into the land of promise, under the guidance of Joshua the son of Nun, into a land flowing with milk and honey; that is, the grace of God frees us from the body of death, by our Lord Jesus Christ, not without sweat and blood, since the flesh is then most repugnant, and exerts its utmost force in warring against the Spirit. After we take up our residence in the land, we feed abundantly. White robes and rest are given us. But Jerusalem, the capital and seat of the kingdom, has not yet been erected; nor yet does Solomon, the Prince of Peace, hold the scepter and rule overall.
The souls of the saints, therefore, which have escaped the hands of the enemy, are, after death, in peace. They are amply supplied with all things, for it is said of them, “They shall go from abundance to abundance.” But when the heavenly Jerusalem shall have risen up in its glory, and Christ, the true Solomon, the Prince of Peace, shall be seated aloft on his tribunal, the true Israelites will reign with their King.
Or – if you choose to borrow a [similarity] from the affairs of men – we are fighting with the enemy, so long as we have our contest with flesh and blood; we conquer the enemy when we put off the body of sin, and become wholly God’s; we will celebrate our triumph, and enjoy the fruits of victory, when our head shall be raised above death in [glory,] that is, when death shall be swallowed up in victory. This is our aim, this our goal; and of this it has been written,
“I shall be satisfied when I awake with beholding thy glory.” (Psalm 17:15.)
Lastly, Calvin exhorts those who cleave to Christ,
…Brethren, let no man rob you of this faith though all the gates of hell should resist, since you have the assurance of God, who cannot deny his truth! There is not the least obscurity in his language to the Church, while still a pilgrim on the earth:
“You shall no more have the sun to shine by day, nor shall the moon illumine you by her brightness, for the Lord shall be your everlasting light.” (Isaiah 60:19.)
…Let us ever call to mind what the Spirit has taught by the mouth of David, (Psalm 92:12-14) “The just shall flourish like the palm-tree, he shall be multiplied like the cedar on Lebanon. Those who have been planted in the house of the Lord will flourish in the courts of our God, they will still bud forth in their old age, they will be fat and flourishing.”
Be not alarmed because all the powers of nature are thought to fail at the very time when you hear of a budding and flourishing old age. Reflecting within yourselves on these things, let your souls, in unison with David’s, exclaim, (Psalm 103:5,) “O my soul, bless the Lord, who satisfies your mouth with good: your youth shall be renewed like the eagle’s.”
Leave the rest to the Lord, who guards our entrance and our exit from this time forth even for evermore. It is he who sends the early and the latter rain upon his elect. Of him we have been told, “Our God is the God of salvation,” and “to the Lord our God belong the [deliverances from] death.” Christ expounded this goodness of the Father to us when he said, “Father, with regard to those whom you have given me, I will that where I am they also may be with me, that they may behold my glory which you have given me.” (Psalm 121:8; Joel 2:23; Psalm 68:20; John 17:24.)
In summary, then, consider,
The faith thus sustained by all prophecies, evangelical truth, and Christ himself, let us hold fast – the faith that our spirit is the image of God, like whom, it lives, understands, and is eternal. As long as it is in the body it exerts its own powers; but when it quits this prison-house it returns to God, whose presence, it meanwhile enjoys while it rests in the hope of a blessed Resurrection. This rest is its paradise.
On the other hand, the spirit of the reprobate, while it waits for the dreadful judgment, is tortured by that anticipation, which the Apostle for that reason calls fearful. To inquire beyond this is to plunge into the abyss of the Divine mysteries. It is enough to have learned what the Spirit, our best Teacher, deemed it sufficient to have taught. His words are,
“Hear me, and your soul shall live.” (Isaiah 55:3.)
And to sum up our position in Christ from the scriptures,
“…They shall not die, but live, and show forth the works of the Lord.” “Those who dwell in His house will praise him for ever and ever.” (Psalms 118:17; 84:5.)