The After-life

Another subject that has wide latitude of opinion today is the state of being of an individual after death. In our contemporary culture, we have had an explosion of interest in issues regarding the after-life. Some espouse reincarnation. Others, a form of "Universalism" where at our passing we simply "walk towards the light" which is representative of whatever deity we worship. The early church fathers had an explicit theology that included not only an answer to such ambiguous ideas, but also answered many questions that have eluded many Bible-believing Christians of today. For example:.

  1. Is there consciousness between the grave and the resurrection?
  2. What happened to the Old Testament believers at their death, since they did not have the benefit of Christ's sacrifice at Calvary?
  3. Did Christ have to spiritually "die" and suffer in Hell for three days to ransom us?
  4. Are their degrees of punishment for the wicked, and grades of reward for believers?

Some of these questions are reason for controversy in many churches. Although this is a subject that does not enjoy unanimous opinion among the fathers, there was degree of consensus with regard to the major points mentioned. It must be stated, however, that the early church fathers did indulge in some speculation. The most commonly referred to text by the early church fathers that addresses some of these issues is the story of the rich man and the beggar Lazarus, which is found in Luke. 16:19-28.

Now there was a certain rich man, and he habitually dressed in purple and fine linen, gaily living in splendor every day. And a certain poor man Lazarus was laid at his gate, covered with sores and longing to be fed with the crumbs that were falling from the rich man's table; besides, even the dogs were coming and licking his sores. Now it came to pass that the poor man died and was carried to the bosom of Abraham, and the rich man died and was also buried. And in Hades he lifted up his eyes, being in torment, and saw Abraham far away, and Lazarus in his bosom. And he cried out "Father Abraham, have mercy on me and send Lazarus, that he may dip the tip of his finger in water and cool off my tongue; for I am in agony in this flame." But Abraham said, "Child, remember that during your life you received good things, and likewise Lazarus received bad things; but now he is being comforted here, and you are in agony. And besides this, between you and us there is a great chasm fixed, so that those who wish to come over from here to you may not be able, and none may cross over from there to us."

This story is referred to at least 20 times by the early church fathers. The thing which makes it most interesting is that this was not understood as parable or an allegory. It was understood by several of the fathers to be an actual event that happened. Tertullian says in his Treatise of the Soul that :

In hell the soul of a certain man is in torment, punished in flames, suffering excruciating thirst, and imploring from the finger of the happier soul, for his solace, for his tongue, a drop of water. Do we suppose that the end of this blessed poor man and rich man is only imaginary? Then why is the name Lazarus in this narrative, if this circumstance is not in the category of a real occurrence?

Along the same line of reasoning, we also find in the writings of Irenaeus that he even knew of the name of the "certain rich man". Tradition, apparently from the Apostle John, told them that the man's name was "Dives". ( Against Heresies ). When we re-examine the story with these facts in mind, there are several truths which become evident.

1) Up to that point in time (before the first advent of Christ) when a person died, whether they were righteous or wicked, their soul was transported to the underworld known by the Old Testament saints as Sheol. (See Gen. 37:35, 42:38, 44:29; Num 16:30,33; 1 Sam 2:6; 2 Sam. 22:6, 1 Kings 2:6; Job 7:9, 11:8, 14;13, 17:13, 21:13, 34:19: Psalm 6:5, 9:17, 16:10, 18:5, 30:3, 31:17, 49:14, 55:15, 86:13, 88:3, 89:48, 11:13, 138:8, 141:7; Proverbs 1:12, 5:5, 7:27, 9:18, 15:24, 30:16; Eccl 9:10; Songs 8:6; Isaiah 5:14, 14:9, 28:15, 38:18, 57:9; Ezekiel 31:15, 32:21, Hosea 13:14, Amos 9:2, Jonah 2:2, Habbakuk 2:5)

This place is referred to as Hades in the New Testament.

2) At that time, the wicked are assigned a temporary place of judgment and darkness in Hades, while the righteous are in Paradise, in the bosom of Abraham, which is geographically in Sheol/Hades, yet completely separated from the area of punishment by a "great chasm". As mentioned in the previous chapter, since all men have fallen short of God's standard of righteousness, it is impossible for those who were without true forgiveness and the imputed righteousness of Christ to have entered heaven itself and come into God's presence. Therefore all saints of the Old Testament were confined to this "blissful" region in Hades. (See Hebrews 10:1-14)

We can also deduce some minor points from this story of the two men. Dives recognized Lazarus. He also was cognizant of his past. We could expect, therefore, that we will have full knowledge of our life on earth. For the wicked, I might add, that very fact might be the most tormenting element of them all. The first thing that Abraham said to Dives was "Remember..." I shudder to think of the feeling of shame, embarrassment and regret of those who will have to reckon that their foolishness, selfishness, vice, or even apathy has merited them an eternity separated from God. We all know the feeling of remorse when we realize that we have squandered a small part of our lives or resources on something foolish, or made a bad judgment call; how much more for those who must remember a lifetime of vanity, that resulted in them making the ultimate bad judgment call?

Elaborating on the early church's view on Hades, there is an important point which I must editorialize my disagreement with several writers of the post-apostolic church. First, however, in fairness to the authors, are the detailed descriptions of Hades from Tertullian, Hippolytus, and Victorinius.

Tertullian (On Idolatry, 195 A.D)

Thus, too, we have Lazarus in Hades, attaining refreshment in the Bosom of Abraham, and the rich man, on the other hand, in torment.

Tertullian (Against Marcion, 203 A.D.)

Scripture expressedly distinguishes between Abraham's Bosom, where the poor man dwells, and the infernal place of torment . "Hell" I take it, means one thing, and Abraham's Bosom another. A great gulf separates the two...This region, Abraham's Bosom, although it is not heaven, it is yet higher than hell (since Dives had to "lift his eyes" to see Lazarus), and it is appointed to afford an interval of rest for the righteous, until the consummation of all things.

Tertullian (Treatise on the Soul, ca. 204 A.D.)

I must compel you to determine what you mean by Hades, of it's two regions, the region of the good, or of the bad...All souls, therefore are shut up in Hades...and there you have a poor man and a rich man.

Hippolytus (Against Plato, On the Cause of the Universe; ca. 230 A.D.)

But now we must speak of Hades, in which both the souls of both the righteous and the unrighteous are detained. Hades is a place in the created system, a locality beneath the earth...the unrighteous, and those who have not believed in God...shall be sentenced to endless punishment. But the righteous shall obtain the incorruptible and unfading Kingdom, who indeed are at present detained in Hades, but not in the same place. For this locality...we call Abraham's bosom


Victorinius (Commentary on the Apocalypse, 300 A.D.)

The earth, under which is the Hades,- a region withdrawn from punishments and fires, and a place of repose for the saints, wherein the righteous can be seen and heard by the wicked, but they cannot be carried across to them.

As is evident, the early church understood that the Old Testament saints were assembled in Paradise, Abraham's Bosom, which was a section of what they referred to as "Hades". The saints are described as being in a blissful or peaceful state, although they are essentially captive until the resurrection. That point is without dissent in the post-apostolic period. The inference that many of the writers draw from this, however, we might take exception to. Most early writers state authoritatively that even we, as believer's in Christ, at the point of our own death, must too occupy Paradise or the "Bosom of Abraham" until the actual resurrection. The above passages will show that they were consistent in this opinion. Tertullian states in The Resurrection of the Flesh that all deceased righteous individuals must go to Paradise, unless they were martyred, in which case they may go into the presence of God. Although I place much weight in the observations of these writers, I diverge from this view on the following reasons:

1. Paul clearly taught that to be absent from the body, is to be present with the Lord ( II Cor. 5:8) This can only refer to our intermediate state after death but before the resurrection, since it is specifically stated as being "absent from the body."

2. Both Biblical tradition and apostolic tradition records Jesus' descent into Hades before his own resurrection. Jesus told the thief on the cross beside him that before the sun set that day, they would be in "Paradise" ie. Abraham's Bosom. Apocryphal writings like the Gospel of Nicodemus records how Jesus appeared in Hades and triumphed over Satan, Death, and Hades, whence we get the phrase from the apostle's creed "He descended into Hell". (See also Col. 2:5). Having procured salvation for the Old Testament saints, they were free to "boldly enter the throne of grace". Christ subsequently could be said to have extricated those held in captivity in that compartment of Hades. Paul writes in the Book of Ephesians 4:8-9:

This is why it says "when he ascended on high, he led captives in his train, and gave gifts to men. What does "he ascended mean except that he also descended to the lower earthly regions?

This would indicate that those who received him in Hades did indeed ascend into God's presence. This scenario of freeing the captives in "Abraham's Bosom" would also lend special meaning to Jesus' words in John 8:56, where he states that "Abraham rejoiced at the thought of seeing my day."

3. The concept of believers and Old Testament saints alike still occupying Abraham's Bosom is inconsistent with other New Testament verses, such as Hebrews 12:23, which says that:

we have come to the church of the firstborn, whose names are written in heaven. You have come to God, the judge of all men, the spirits of righteous men made perfect.

This specifically states that the now-perfected spirits of the righteous are with God. Likewise when Stephen was stoned to death, he looked up, and saw God, and stated "Lord Jesus , receive my spirit.". It might be a little disconcerting to us to imagine that Jesus essentially answered "No, just go into Hades for a couple thousand years!"

4. The Bible says that even now, those "in Christ" have been "raised up" and made to sit in "heavenly places". (Eph 2:5,6) Our spiritual position before God, therefore, could not be below in captivity in Hades until the resurrection. We currently have access to our heavenly Father. How much more when we have put off this flesh!

In summary of this issue, we may be able to affirm that there is a conscious existence between the grave and the resurrection. The Old Testament saints waited in "paradise" until the coming of Christ, when paradise was carried up and is now synonymous with "the third heaven" ( II Corinthian 12:2-5). This also addresses the whole issue as to whether Jesus spiritually "died" or not. Jesus spent his time between the tomb and his resurrection preaching in the region of Hades (1 Peter 3:18-20). He did not descend into the underworld to suffer, as some mistakenly think, but to extend his dominion over even the gates of Hades, take the keys of death from Satan, and free those in captivity. The idea that is found in many evangelical churches that Christ spent three day in torment to procure our salvation is completely novel and unknown to the apostolic churches. The Bible consistently says that Christ’s blood, shed on Calvary, is the expiatory sacrifice that procures our salvation. The spiritual "death" of Jesus, therefore, must be rejected as non-apostolic, non-biblical teaching.

The Question of Purgatory

Closely related to the issue of Hades is the idea of Purgatory. According to Roman Catholic theology, Purgatory is an intermediate state that is purposed for the purgation and cleansing of the faithful, as well as the "temporal punishment for (venial) sins committed". It is said that, although Christ paid the "eternal" penalty for our sins on Calvary, there is still a "temporal" debt which still needs to be expiated. The doctrine was formally defined in the Councils of Florence and Trent in the 15th and 16th centuries. Major problems with the doctrine abound, namely because there is no scriptural or historical support for such a place. All of the texts cited above deny the possibility of a place of "temporal" punishment. Likewise, scripture makes no distinction of Christ paying the penalty for "eternal" sins. and not paying for "temporal" sins, or Calvary expiating "venial" versus "mortal" sins.

If we look very closely, however, we can find what might be the source of the doctrine in the post-apostolic church. In the text quoted above from Hippolytus, right after the first ellipsis, we read these words:

This locality (Hades/Sheol) has been destined to be as it were a guard-house for the souls, at which the angels are stationed as guards, distributing the temporary punishments for different characters.

It may very well be that theologians over the early centuries looked back on these words of Hippolytus and imagined that he was saying that the righteous in Abraham's Bosom were receiving "temporary punishments" until the day of the resurrection. Consequently, the idea arose that all but the spotless (or martyrs) were expected to spend time in this place, paying the "temporal" penalty for sins. In context, however, Hippolytus suggests no such thing. He explicitly states that, since the wicked would at a future date, be thrown into the Lake of Fire, and they clearly are in torment on their designated side, then they are currently receiving a "temporary" punishment. Regarding the side for the righteous (a.k.a. Abraham's Bosom) he says that

But the righteous, being conducted in the light towards the right, and being hymned by the angels stationed in the place, are brought to a locality full of light. And there the righteous from the beginning dwell, not ruled by necessity, but enjoying always the contemplation of the blessings which are in their view, and delighting themselves with the expectation of others ever new...and this place brings no toil to them, neither fierce heat, nor cold, nor thorn; but the face of the fathers and the righteous is seen to be always smiling. (Hippolytus, Against Plato)

It is abundantly clear, particularly by his choice of words "from the beginning" that Hippolytus never left any room for an intermediate state of temporal punishment for those in Christ. It wasn't until many centuries afterwards, that theologians, not understanding the Patristic view of Sheol/Hades, built the hypothesis of Purgatory by misinterpreting Hippolytus' words regarding "temporary punishments".

The only other early reference that has been cited in attempt to support the idea of purgatory is found in Tertullian’s account of the martyrdom of Perpetua, In this account, Perpetua, a new convert to the faith, receives a vision where she sees her deceased brother in a place of torment. She is moved to pray for him, then, receiving another vision on the subsequent evening, she sees him "translated from the place of punishment". This is used by Catholic apologists like Dr. Scott Hahn of Franciscan University to justify the historicity of purgatory, but it betrays him in many places.

Firstly, the story itself is merely presented as a vision by a recent convert, and has no bearing on the theological treatise by the scholars, or apologists of the day. There is no indication that any Patristic writers gave any doctrinal credence to her vision at all.

Secondly, the content of the vision itself denies any congruence with the doctrine of purgatory. Perpetua’s brother Dinocrates, was not a Christian himself, but a pagan. Perpetua’s vison does not put him in a place of purgation, but a place of punishment; in short hell. Professor Hahn misrepresents this fact when he describes this vision, saying that Perpetua’s second vision saw her brother "cleansed" insinuating that he was sanctified of his sins. Perpetua makes no such statement, but only relates that she saw him no longer in filthy clothes, but now properly arraigned. If we were to take Perpetua’s vision at face value for a statement on doctrine, then we would have to conclude that the church taught that we could pray any heathen out of hell, if we were so inclined. Professor Hahn digs himself even deeper into a hole when he suggests that the early church taught that the rich man Dives, was in purgatory, and Lazarus in heaven. This is flatly contradicted by the above quotes where both Hippolytus and Tertullian affirm that the unrighteous are in the "infernal" side of Hades, synonymous with "Hell", and are subject to "endless" punishments. Fortunately for us (and unfortunately for Dr. Hahn) the Patristic church’s resistance to novel doctrine repelled any such advance of lunacy.

The Question of Reincarnation

Although it has only been in the last few decades that American Christianity has seen a wide acceptance in the belief in reincarnation, it is not actually a new controversy. The concept more correctly understood as the "transmigration of the soul" was an underlying theme in eastern thought for centuries before Christ, and it even had it's own proponents during the days of Jesus and the apostles. In the Hellenistic culture, the concept was championed by the Greek philosopher Pythagoreas, who suggested that the gods "reinvest the souls" of men into other bodies. Plato had also implied the concept, suggesting that the soul was immortal, and was made to forget all of it's experiences from it's previous existence. The Bible answers the issue in the simple text of Hebrews 9:27. which states "It is appointed unto man to die once, and after that, the judgment." The post-apostolic approach to the issue reached the same conclusion, using a number of different lines of reasoning. Tertullian ridicules one contemporary of his who, thinking that he was being modest, claimed

"I was once Thamnus, and a fish". Why not rather a melon, seeing that he is such a fool; or a chameleon, for his inflated brag? It was no doubt as a fish (and a queer one too!). (Treatise on the Soul)

In the same treatise, Tertullian relates how Simon Magus, the magician whom the Apostle Peter had rebuked (Acts 8:9-26 ) began a heretical movement that taught the doctrine of reincarnation. Simon Magus is said to have taken the money that he originally offered Peter, and used it to buy a prostitute named Helen from a local brothel. We are told that Simon began teaching that he was an incarnation of Jesus, and that Helen was none other than a reincarnation of Helen of Troy! Virtually all of the early church fathers relate the story of Simon's apostasy and concur in their condemnation of his doctrine.

Interestingly enough, it is the controversial church father Origen who decisively addresses whether there was room for the doctrine of transmigration of souls in the teaching of the apostles. Although Origen himself had some unorthodox views regarding the human soul (he speculated that souls were pre-existent before conception), yet he says in his Commentary on Matthew , Book XIII that he avoids any interpretation that might suggest a soul is reinvested in another body

Lest I fall into the doctrine of transmigration, which is foreign to the church of God, and not handed down by the apostles, nor anywhere set forth in scripture.

Consequently, the concept of reincarnation must be unequivocally rejected as having any home in the apostolic preaching.

The Inheritance of the Just

The last issue considered regarding the after-life revolves around the apostolic teaching of rewards. Most of us do not consider or care about the magnitude of the rewards we receive in heaven. I would think that most believers consider the prospect of eternity in God's presence, free from sickness, want, sorrow or pain, as so superlative that any idea of additional reward is beyond comprehension. Many of us tend to view our salvation as equally benefiting all, with no distinction. Although this may be the case, there are allusions in scripture that the degrees of reward and glory may be quite substantial. Paul writes in 1 Corinthians 3:12-15 that the Day of the Lord will test each man's work, and the reward is corresponding to how he has built upon the gospel of Christ. Following are some citations of the early church regarding the concept of rewards.

Papias (Disciple of John, Fragments, ca. 140 A.D.)

As the presbyters say, then (in the future state) those who are deemed worthy of an abode in heaven shall go there, others shall enjoy the delights of Paradise, still others shall possess the splendour of the city (New Jerusalem), for everywhere the Saviour shall be seen, according as they shall be worthy to see him. But that there is a distinction between the habitation of those who produce an hundred-fold, and those who produce sixty-fold, and those thirty-fold.

Clement of Alexandria (The Stromata , ca. 195 A.D.)

Conformably, there are various abodes, according to the worth of those who have believed...For the comparative shows that there are lower parts in the temple of God, which is the whole church. And in the superlative remains to be conceived, where the Lord is. These are the chosen abodes, which are three, and are indicated by the numbers in the Gospel-the thirty, the sixty, and the hundred.

Origen (First Principles, ca. 240 A.D.)

According to that gradation, then, which exists among heavenly bodies, let them show that there are the differences in the glory of those who rise again..."one is the glory of the sun, one is the glory of the moon, one is the glory of the stars" ( I Cor. 15:39-42)

Just to reiterate what was previously said, that to such issues there is always a degree of speculation. For example, it is unclear as to whether all of the scriptural and traditional support for the various reward levels in the after-life pertain only to the millennium. A case could be made that after the thousand year Kingdom, a New Heavens and New Earth, with New Jerusalem descending and the Lord dwelling in it, eradicate any distinction between positions of salvation.

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