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Aren’t the spirits of just men made perfect after death?

Aren’t the spirits of just men made perfect after death?
Text in question: Hebrews 12:23

“… to the general assembly and church of the firstborn who are registered in heaven, to God the Judge of all, to the spirits of just men made perfect.”

Proof texts: Hebrews 12:18–24

Here again we are given a sentence fragment (most likely by the apostle Paul) and told that it constitutes a theological basis for a doctrine. In reality, the book of Hebrews must be examined in its entirety to reach conclusions about the theology presented therein.

The theme of Hebrews is keeping Christians of Jewish descent from returning to Jewish traditions by explaining how they were all fulfilled in the life and death of Jesus Christ. For example, the author describes the position of the High Priest of the sanctuary system as an office that must continually fall to other men since the existing High Priest eventually dies, but that the heavenly sanctuary has an eternal High Priest, Jesus, who is not subject to death. This comparison between the old system and the new sets up the context for the verse in question regarding “the spirits of just men made perfect.”

Hebrews 12:18 begins this comparison during which we find the text in question. The author describes the experience of Moses and the Israelites in the desert at Mt. Sinai when they received the Ten Commandments from God. The Bible states:

“For you have not come to the mountain that may be touched and that burned with fire, and to blackness and darkness and tempest, and the sound of a trumpet and the voice of words, so that those who heard it begged that the word should not be spoken to them anymore. (For they could not endure what was commanded: ‘And if so much as a beast touches the mountain, it shall be stoned or shot with an arrow.’ And so terrifying was the sight that Moses said, ‘I am exceedingly afraid and trembling’)” (Hebrews 12:18–21).

To the people at Mt. Sinai, the presence of God was foreboding and terrifying. Even the righteous Moses is said to have been “exceedingly afraid.” By contrast, the Christian people need not be afraid of God because their sins have been forgiven by the blood of Jesus Christ. To illustrate this, the author continues the contrast in verse 22:

“But you have come to Mount Zion and to the city of the living God, the heavenly Jerusalem, to an innumerable company of angels, to the general assembly and church of the firstborn who are registered in heaven, to God the Judge of all, to the spirits of just men made perfect, to Jesus the Mediator of the new covenant, and to the blood of sprinkling that speaks better things than that of Abel” (Hebrews 12:22–24).

The comparison is striking. Mt. Sinai brought fear and trembling. Mt. Zion brings heaven itself and joy in the presence of the angels, the saved, and Jesus Christ.

Understanding this context, we know that the groups listed in the passage are those that will be present in heaven when the day comes, but they are not necessarily in heaven already. Indeed, the author writes that “you have come” to Mount Zion and the heavenly Jerusalem; yet the readers were still alive when they read this book, so they clearly had not literally come to heaven. Rather, they accept by faith that, even though they remain on earth, they have already come to be part of heaven and will be there physically someday. This is important, because the author describes each group in terms of their current status, rather than their eventual status (“are registered in heaven,” rather than “are present in heaven”).

According to this passage, we can expect to see the following in heaven:

• Innumerable angels
• God the Judge of all
• Jesus the Mediator

The passage also lists two distinct groups that refer to human beings. They are:

• The church of the firstborn
• Spirits of just men made perfect

Why would the author list two groups of people here? Let’s identify who they are.

The “firstborn” is Jesus Christ (see Revelation 1:5). Therefore, the “church of the firstborn” consists of faithful members of the Christian church. But God also had people before the time of Christ. They would not be included in this group. Will they still be in heaven? Of course. Many people from the Old Testament days will be numbered among the saved, even though they lived before Christ’s time.

This is why the author lists the second group of people. Christ died on the cross bearing the sins of the whole world, including those of the men and women who had lived before His time. Those people were thereby justified by His sacrifice. Through knowledge of the sanctuary sacrifice system or a belief in God from some other source, these people died looking forward to the coming Christ and are therefore cleansed from sin. They are justified. The Bible refers to them, then, as “just men made perfect.” Though sinners, they are justified by God and made perfect through Christ’s sacrifice.

Christians in the New Testament era are also justified by faith, but the author of Hebrews has already accounted for them by listing the “church of the firstborn.”

Why, then, are these deceased saints listed as spirits? Some argue that it is because they live on in heaven in spiritual form. However, the verse equally supports the idea of sleeping in death while awaiting the resurrection. Once the body dies, the breath (or spirit) of God that animated the body returns to God who gave it. Therefore, since those saints had died, the only part left of them is the spirit until God creates for them new bodies when Christ returns; we know from a study of the nature of death that God’s spirit is not the same as an immortal human soul.

While the text remains ambiguous, we must recognize that the apostle Peter also used the term “spirits” to refer to people living in the past who were deceased when he wrote his book. (See 1 Peter 3:18–20 and the article “Didn’t Jesus preach to the spirits in prison?”) This, combined with the abundance of biblical evidence regarding the nature of death, allows us to draw a conclusion against using this text to support an immortal human soul.

*All scripture quotations, unless otherwise indicated, are taken from the New King James Version®. Copyright © 1982 by Thomas Nelson, Inc. Used by permission. All rights reserved.
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