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§ 3. Patristic Doctrine of the Intermediate State.

Although the true doctrine concerning the state of the dead was, as has been shown, revealed in the Old Testament, it was more or less perverted in the minds of the people. The prevalent idea was that all souls after death descended into Sheol, and there remained in expectation of the coming of the Messiah. When He came it was expected that the Jews, or at least, the faithful, 734would be raised from the dead, and made partakers of all the glories and blessedness of the Messiah’s reign. The views presented in the writings of the Rabbins of the condition of the souls in Sheol are not only diverse but inconsistent. The common representation was that Sheol itself was a gloomy, subterraneous abode, whose inhabitants were shades, weak and powerless, existing in a dreamy state; the best of them not in a state of suffering, and yet with no other enjoyment than the anticipation of deliverance when the Messiah should come. At other times, however, more life was attributed to the souls of the departed; and Sheol was represented as divided into two departments, Paradise and Gehenna. In the former were, according to some, all Jews, according to others only those who had faithfully observed the law; and in the other, the Gentiles. The common opinion was that all the Jews would be raised from the dead, when the Messiah came, and all the Gentiles left forever in the abode of darkness. Paradise, according to this view, was a place of positive enjoyment, and Gehenna a place of positive suffering. It is evident that there is no great difference between this Jewish doctrine in its essential features, and the true doctrine as presented by our Lord in the parable of the rich man and Lazarus. Both are represented as going into Sheol or Hades. The one was comforted, the other tormented. There was an inseparable barrier between the two. So far both doctrines agree. When the Rabbi Jochanan was dying, he said, “Two paths open before me, the one leading to bliss, the other to torments; and I know not which of them will be my doom.”760760Talmud, Tract. Barachoth; quoted by Alger, p. 167. “Paradise is separated from hell by a distance no greater than the width of a thread.”761761Eisenmenger, Entdecktes Judenthum, Königsberg, 1711; II. cap. v. p. 315.

According to many modern interpreters the New Testament writers adopted this Jewish doctrine not only in substance but in its details. (1.) They are represented as teaching that all the people of God who died before the advent of Christ, were confined in Sheol, or the under-world. Sheol or Hades, as stated above, is constantly spoken of “as the gloomy realm of shades, wherein are gathered and detained the souls of all the dead generations.” The soul at death is said to be dismissed “naked into the silent, dark, and dreary region of the under-world.” (2.) That when Christ died upon the cross, He descended “ad inferos,” into Hades, or Hell, for the purpose of delivering the 735pious dead from their prison; and that they were the redeemed captives of whom the Apostle speaks in Ephesians iv. 8-l0, as led by Christ into heaven. (3.) That those who die in the Lord since his advent, instead of being admitted into heaven, pass into the same place and the same state into which the patriarch passed at death before his coming. (4.) And as the Old Testament saints remained in Sheol until the first coming of the Messiah, so those who die under the New Testament, are to remain in Hades, until his second coming. Then they are not only to be delivered from Sheol, but their bodies are to be raised from the dead, and soul and body, reunited and glorified, are to be admitted into heaven.

Such is the scheme of doctrine said to be taught in the New Testament. Our Lord is regarded as giving it his sanction in the parable concerning Lazarus. Paul is made to teach it when he speaks of Christ as descending to “the lower parts of the earth,” which is said to mean “the parts lower than the earth,” that is, the under-world. His object in thus descending was, according to the theory, to deliver the souls confined in the gloomy prison of Sheol. Christ’s triumph over principalities and powers is referred to the same event, his descent into Hades. Mr. Alger, representing a large class of writers, says that according to Paul’s doctrine, “Christ was the first person clothed with humanity and experiencing death, admitted into heaven. Of all the hosts who had lived and died, every one had gone down into the dusky under-world. They were all held in durance waiting for the Great Deliverer.”762762Alger, ut supra, p. 284. The fate of those who die since the advent is no better, for they, as Paul is made to teach, are “all to remain in the under-world” until the second coming of Christ, “when they and the transformed living shall ascend together with the Lord.”763763Ibid. p. 288.

St. Peter is made to teach the same doctrine in still more explicit terms. In his discourse delivered on the day of Pentecost, he argued that Jesus is the Christ from the fact that God raised Him from the dead. That He was thus raised he argued from the sixteenth Psalm, where it is written, “Thou wilt not leave my soul in hell, neither wilt thou suffer thine Holy One to see corruption.” That these words cannot refer to David, Peter argued, because he did see corruption, and his sepulchre remained until that day. The words of the Psalmist, therefore, must be understood of Christ, whose soul was not left in hell (Sheol), 736neither did his flesh see corruption. As for David, he “is not ascended into heaven.” (Acts ii. 34.) Something, therefore, happened to Christ that did not happen to David or to any other man. Christ was not left in hell; David and all other men were thus left. Christ did ascend to heaven; David did not; and if David did not, then other saints of his time did not. Thus it is that Peter is made to teach that the souls of the pious dead do not ascend to heaven, but descend to the gloomy abode of Sheol, Hades, or Hell, all these terms being equivalent. This exposition of the Apostle’s teaching is plausible, and if consistent with other parts of Scripture, might be accepted. But as it contradicts what the Bible clearly teaches in many other places, it must be rejected. Peter’s object was to prove the Messiahship of Christ from the fact of the resurrection of his body. The essential idea of “rising from the dead” was the restoration of the body to life. The soul does not die, and is not raised. The Apostle proved that Christ’s body did not see corruption, but was restored to life; first, because it was a historical fact of which he and his brethren were witnesses; and secondly, from the prediction of the Psalmist that the Messiah was not to remain in the grave. That the sixteenth Psalm does not refer to David, he argued, because David died and was buried; his body did see corruption; his sepulchre remained among them; he, his body, he, as a man composed of soul and body, had not ascended to heaven. The whole argument concerns the body; because it is true only of the body, that it dies, is buried, sees corruption, and does not ascend to heaven. The simple meaning of Psalm xvi. 10, is that the person there spoken of was not to remain under the power of death. He was to rise from the dead before his body had time to see corruption. This is all that the passage teaches. This is true of Christ; it was not true of David or of any of the saints who died before the advent; and it is not true of those who have died since the advent. In this respect, as in so many others, Christ stands gloriously alone.

The difficult passage 1 Peter iii. 18, 19, however it may be interpreted, proves nothing against the Protestant doctrine that the souls of believers do at death immediately pass into glory. What happens to ordinary men happened to Christ when He died. His cold and lifeless body was laid in the tomb. His human soul passed into the invisible world. This is all that the creed, commonly called the Apostles’, means, when it says Christ was buried, and descended into Hell, or Hades, the unseen world. This is 737all that the passage in question clearly teaches. Men may doubt and differ as to what Christ did during the three days of his sojourn in the invisible world. They may differ as to who the spirits in prison were to whom he preached, or, rather, made proclamation (ἐκήρυξεν); whether they were the antediluvians; or, the souls of the people of God detained in Sheol; or, the mass of the dead of all antecedent generations and of all nations, which is the favorite hypothesis of modern interpreters. They may differ also as to what the proclamation was which Christ made to those imprisoned spirits; whether it was the gospel; or his own triumph; or deliverance from Sheol; or the coming judgment. However these subordinate questions may be decided, all that remains certain is that Christ, after his death upon the cross, entered the invisible world, and there, in some way, made proclamation of what He had done on earth. All this is very far from teaching the doctrine of a “Limbus Patrum,” as taught by the Jews, the Fathers, or the Romanists.

It is a great mistake in interpretation of the New Testament, to bring down its teachings to the level of Jewish or Pagan ideas. Because the Jews expected the Messiah to establish an earthly kingdom, it is inferred that the kingdom of God, as proclaimed by Christ and his Apostles, was to be realized in this life. Because they expected that the Messiah was to deliver the souls of their fathers from Sheol, it is assumed that this was the work actually effected by Christ. Because the Jews regarded imprisonment in the under-world as the special penalty of sin, it is inferred that deliverance from that imprisonment was the redemption our Lord actually effected. This is to interpret the Scriptures by the Talmud and Cabala, and not Scripture by Scripture. This is historical interpretation “en oûtre.” It is true that Christ proclaimed that the kingdom of God was at hand; but his kingdom was not of this world. It is true that He came to open the prison doors and proclaim liberty to the captives; but his prison was not Sheol, and the captives were not the souls of departed patriarchs. It is true that He came to redeem his people; but the redemption which He effected was from the curse of God’s violated law, and not deliverance from the gloomy land of Shades.

We all know that the great evil with which the Apostles had to contend in the early Church, and the great source of corruption in the Church in after ages, was a Judaizing spirit. Most of the early Christians were Jews, and most of the converts from the Gentiles were proselytes imbued with Jewish doctrines. These 738doctrines, moreover, were congenial with what the Apostle calls “the carnal mind.” It is not wonderful, therefore, that they were transferred to the Christian Church, and proved in it a permanently corrupting leaven. Modern critics are going back to the beginning, and doing in our day what the Judaizers did in the age of the Apostles. They are eliminating Christianity from the Gospel, and substituting Judaism, somewhat spiritualized, but still essentially Judaic.

It is notorious that the Jewish doctrines of the merit of works; of the necessity and saving efficacy of external rites; of a visible kingdom of Christ of splendour and worldly grandeur; of an external church out of whose pale there is no salvation; of the priestly character of the ministry; and of a church hierarchy, soon began to spread among Christians, and at last became ascendant. This being the case it would be strange if the Jewish doctrine of Sheol, or of an intermediate state, had not been adopted by many of the fathers, together with the other elements of the corrupt Judaism of the apostolic age. We accordingly find that as the Jews, contrary to the teaching of their own Scripture, held that the souls of those who died before the coming of the Messiah descended into Sheol, and there awaited the advent of the Redeemer, so the Christians began to believe, contrary to the teaching of their Scriptures, that the souls of believers at death, instead of passing into glory, are shut up in Hades, awaiting the second coming of Christ. It is true there were varying and inconsistent notions entertained of the nature of this intermediate state; and the same is true also with regard to the views on this subject which long prevailed in the Church. There are two facts which stand out so plainly in the New Testament Scriptures that they could not be always overlooked or denied. The one is that Christ, forty days after his resurrection, ascended into heaven, and is now seated at the right hand of the Majesty on high. The other is that the souls of believers when absent from the body are present with the Lord. As many of the Jews, therefore, assumed that in Sheol there were two departments, Paradise and Gehenna, the one the abode of the righteous, the other of the wicked; so the Christians, in many cases, made the same distinction with regard to the intermediate state; the souls of believers went to paradise; the souls of the wicked into hell. And they often so exalted the blessedness of the former as to make it a mere dispute about words whether they went to heaven or into an intermediate state. The real controversy. so far as any exists, is not as to whether 739there is a state intermediate between death and the resurrection in which believers are less glorious and exalted than they are to be after the second advent of Christ, but what is the nature of that state. Are believers after death with Christ? Do their souls immediately pass into glory? or, are they in a dreamy, semi-conscious state, neither happy nor miserable, awaiting the resurrection of the body. That this latter view was for a long time prevalent in the Church may be inferred, (1.) From the fact that this was the view of the intermediate state commonly adopted by the Jews. (2.) It is the view attributed to the writers of the New Testament. (3.) It is the doctrine avowed by many of the patristic and mediæval writers. (4.) There would otherwise be no ground for the opposition manifested to the doctrine of Protestants on this subject. Daillé says, “The doctrine that heaven shall not be opened till the second coming of Christ, — that during that time the souls of all men, with few exceptions, are shut up in the under-world, — was held by Justin Martyr, Irenæus, Tertullian, Augustine, Origen, Lactantius Victorinus, Ambrose, Chrysostom, Theodoret, Œcomenius, Aretas, Prudentius, Theophylact, Bernard, and many others, as is confessed by all. . . . . This doctrine is literally held by the whole Greek Church at the present day; nor did any of the Latins expressly deny any part of it until the Council of Florence, in the year of our Lord 1439.”764764De Usu Patrum, II. iv.; edit. Geneva, 1656, pp. 290, 291.

Flügge765765Geschichte des Glaubens an Unsterblichkeit, Auferstehung, Gericht und Vergeltung, von W. Flügge, Universitätsprediger in Göttingen, III. i. 3; Leipzig, 1799, vol. iii. part 1, p. 87. says in reference to the early fathers, that they “were not in doubt as to the fate of the soul when separated from the body until the resurrection, because they rested on the Jewish doctrine on that subject.” Justin Martyr speaks in this way:766766Dialogus cum Tryphone Judæo, 5; edit. Commelinus, Heidelberg, 1593, p. 172, 16-19. [Φημὶ:] Τὰς μὲν [ψυχὰς] τῶν εὐσεβῶν ἐν κρειττονί ποι χώρῳ μένειν, τὰς δὲ ἀδίκους καὶ πονερὰς ἐν χείρονι, τὸν τῆς κρίσεως ἐκδεχομένας χρόνον τοτε, that is, “I say, that the souls of the pious dwell in some better place, and ungodly and wicked souls in a worse place, thus awaitng the time of judgment.”

The fathers say but little about Hades. Hippolytus, however, gives an account of it which is in substance as follows:767767Against Plato on the Cause of the Universe, (fragment): Ante-Nicene Christian Library, Edinburgh, 1869, vol. ix. Hippolytus, vol. ii. p. 46 ff. Hades, in which the souls of the righteous and unrighteous are detained, was left at the creation in a state of chaos, to which the light of 740the sun never penetrates, but where perpetual darkness reigns. This place is the prison of souls, over which the angels keep watch. In Hades there is a furnace of unquenchable fire into which no one has yet been cast. It is reserved for the banishment of the wicked at the end of the world, when the righteous will be made citizens of an eternal kingdom. The good and the bad, although both in Hades, are not in the same part of it. They enter the under-world by the same gate. When this gate is passed, the guardian angels guide the souls of the departed different ways; the righteous are guided to the right to a region full of light; the wicked are constrained to take the left hand path, leading to a region near the unquenchable fire. The good are free from all discomfort, and rejoice in expectation of their admission into heaven. The wicked are miserable in constant anticipation of their coming doom. An impassable gulf separates the abode of the righteous from that of the wicked. Here they remain until the resurrection, which he goes on to explain and defend.

Flügge admits that there was no uniformity of representation on this subject in the early Church. The same general idea, however, is constantly reproduced; the Latins agreeing substantially with the Greeks. Tertullian represents the under-world as the general receptacle of departed spirits who retain their consciousness and activity. In this unseen world there are two divisions, both called “Inferi.” “Nobis inferi non nuda cavositas, nec subdivalis aliqua mundi sentina creduntur: sed in fossa terræ et in alto vastitas, et in ipsis visceribus ejus abstrusa profunditas.768768Tertullian, De Anima, 55; Works, edit. Basle, 1562, p. 685.In this region there are two divisions; the one called “infernum,” by way of eminence, or Gehenna, “quæ est ignis arcani subterraneus ad pœnam thesaurus;” the other is the bosom of Abraham or paradise, “divinæ amœnitatis recipiendis sanctorum spiritibus destinatum, materia [maceria] quadam igneæ illius zonæ a notitia orbis communis segregatum.769769Tertullian, Apologeticus, 47; ut supra, p. 892. According to this mode of representation, the intermediate state was itself a state of reward and punishment; at other times, however, this was denied; all retribution being reserved to the day of judgment. In the early Greek Church, this latter view was the more prevalent;770770Flügge, III. i. 4; ut supra, pp. 215, 216. but later both the Greeks and Latins agreed in regarding the state of the righteous after death as far more favourable than that of the wicked.


The common views on this subject are perhaps fairly represented in the elaborate work of the Honourable Archibald Campbell, on “the doctrine of a middle state between death and the resurrection.”771771The Doctrines of a Middle State between Death and Resurrection, of Prayers for the Dead, etc., etc., by Honourable Archibald Campbell, London, 1721, folio, p. 44. He thus sums up the points which he considers himself to have proved to be the doctrine of the Bible, of the Fathers, and of the Church of England.

“First. That the souls of the dead do remain in an intermediate, or middle state between death and the resurrection.”

“That the proper place appointed for the abode of the righteous during the interim between death and the resurrection, called paradise, or Abram’s bosom, is not the highest heavens where alone God is at present, fully to be enjoyed, but it is, however, a very happy place, one of the lower apartments or mansions of heaven, a place of purification and improvement, of rest and refreshment, and of divine contemplation. A place whence our Blessed Lord’s humanity is sometimes to be seen, though clouded or veiled if compared with the glory He is to appear with, and be seen in, at, and after his second coming. Into which middle state and blessed place, as they are carried by the holy angels, whose happy fellowship they there enjoy; so afterward at the resurrection, after judgment, they are led into the beatific vision by the captain of our salvation, Jesus Christ Himself, where they shall see Him fully as He is, and there they shall enjoy God forever and ever, or sempiternally.”

The souls of the wicked at death do not go into hell, but into a middle state, “which state is dark, dismal, and uncomfortable, without light, rest, or any manner of refreshment, without any company but that of devils and such impure souls as themselves to converse with, and where these miserable souls are in dismal apprehensions of the deserved wrath of God.”

“Secondly, That there is no immediate judgment after death, no trial on which sentence is pronounced, of neither the righteous nor the wicked, until Christ’s second coming. And that, therefore, none of any age or class from the beginning of the world to the glorious appearing of our blessed Saviour at his second coming, are excepted from continuing in their proper middle state, from their death until their resurrection, whether they be patriarchs, prophets, Apostles, or martyrs.”

“Thirdly, That the righteous in their happy middle state, do improve in holiness, and make advances in perfection, and yet 742they are not for all that carried out of that middle state into glory, or into the beatific vision, until after their resurrection.”

“Fourthly, That prayers for those who are baptized according to Christ’s appointment, and who die in the pale and peace of his Church, which the ancients called dying with the sign of faith, I say that prayers for such are acceptable to God as being fruits of our ardent charity, and are useful both to them and to us, and are too ancient to be popish.”

“Lastly, That this doctrine for an intermediate state between death and the resurrection, as I have proved it, does effectually destroy the popish purgatory, invocation of the saints departed, popish penances, commutations of those penances, their indulgences, and treasures of merits purchased by supererogation.”

As an example of the prayers for the dead he gives the following extract from the Office to be used at the Burial of the Dead in the first Liturgy of King Edward the Sixth:772772Published at London in the year 1549, folio, cxlix. p. 2. “O Lord, with whom do live the spirits of them that be dead, and in whom the souls of them that be elected, after they be delivered from the burden of the flesh be in joy and felicity; grant unto this thy servant that the sins which he committed in this world be not imputed unto him, but that he, escaping the gates of hell and pains of eternal darkness, may ever dwell in the region of light, with Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, in the place where is no weeping, sorrow, nor heaviness; and when that dreadful day of the general resurrection shall come, make him to rise also with the just and righteous, and receive this body again to glory, then made pure and incorruptible.”

Jeremy Taylor, bishop of Down and Connor, says:773773Life and Death of Jesus Christ, III. xvi. ad. 1; 3d edit. London, 1657, p. 533. Paradise is distinguished from the heaven of the blessed; being itself a receptacle of holy souls, made illustrous with visitation of angels, and happy by being a repository for such spirits, who, at the day of judgment, shall go forth into eternal glory.”

Again, he says:774774Sermon at Funeral of Sir George Dalston; Works, edit. London, 1828, vol. vi. pp. 553, 557. “I have now made it as evident as questions of this nature will bear, that in the state of separation, the spirits of good men shall be blessed and happy souls, — they have an antepast or taste of their reward; but their great reward itself, their crown of righteousness, shall not be yet; that shall not be until the day of judgment. . . . . This is the doctrine of 743the Greek Church unto this day, and was the opinion of the greatest part of the ancient Church both Latin and Greek; and by degrees was, in the west, eaten out by the doctrine of purgatory and invocation of saints; and rejected a little above two hundred years ago, in the Council of Florence.”

It appears, therefore, that there is little difference between the advocates of an intermediate state and those who are regarded as rejecting that doctrine. Both admit, (1.) That the souls of believers do at death pass into a state of blessedness. (2.) That they remain in that state until the resurrection. (3.) That at the second coming of Christ, when the souls of the righteous are to be clothed with their glorified bodies, they will be greatly exalted and raised to a higher state of being. Bishop Hickes in his highly commendatory review of the work of the Honourable Archibald Campbell just referred to, which is appended to that volume, although he lays great stress on the doctrine in question, says that those who call the state into which the righteous enter, heaven; and that into which the wicked are introduced when they die, hell, may continue to do so, provided they mean by heaven a state which is less perfect than that which awaits them after the coming of Christ; and by hell, a condition less miserable than that which will be assigned to the wicked.

The Church of England agrees with other Protestant churches in its teachings on this subject. In the Liturgy of Edward VI. just quoted, it is said, (1.) That the spirits of all the dead live after the dissolution of the body. (2.) That the righteous are with God in a state of joy and felicity. (3.) That they have escaped the gates of hell and the pains of eternal darkness into which, as is necessarily implied, the souls of those who die unreconciled to God immediately enter. All the members of that Church are taught to say daily: “The glorious company of the Apostles praise thee. The goodly fellowship of the Prophets praise thee. The noble army of Martyrs praise thee.” These, therefore, are all with God, and engaged in his service. In one of the prayers appointed to be used in the visitation of the sick, these words occur: “O Almighty God, with whom do live the souls of just men made perfect, after they are delivered from their earthly prisons.” The souls of the just, therefore, are made per fect when they are delivered from the body.

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