Eschatology—The First Period

(80-250 A.D.)

Intermediate State

Continuing with our discussion of the history of the doctrine of the Intermediate State as confessed by the church during these early years of the New Dispensation, we now wish to quote from Philip Schaff. In his History of the Christian Church, pages 590 f.f. of Vol. II, he writes, and we quote:

Christianity — and human life itself, with its countless problems and mysteries — has no meaning without the certainty of a future world of rewards and punishments, for which the present life serves as a preparatory school. Christ represents Himself as “the Resurrection and the Life,” and promises “eternal life” to all who believe in Him. On His resurrection the church is built, and without it the church could never have come into existence. The resurrection of the body and the life everlasting are among the fundamental articles of the early baptismal creeds. The doctrine of the future life, though last in the logical order of systematic theology, was among the first in the consciousness of the Christians, and an unfailing source of comfort and strength in times of trial and persecution. It stood in close connection with the expectation of the Lord’s glorious reappearance. It is the subject of Paul’s first Epistles, those to the Thessalonians, and is prominently Corinthians. He declares the Christians “the most pitiable,” because the most. deluded and uselessly self-sacrificing, “of all men,” were confined to this life. 

The ante-Nicene church was a stranger in the midst of a hostile world, and longed for the unfading crown which awaited the faithful confessor and martyr beyond the grave. Such a mighty revolution as the conversion of the heathen emperor was not dreamed of even as a remote possibility, except perhaps by the far-sighted Origen. Among the five causes to which Gibbon traces the rapid progress of the Christian religion, he assigns the second place to the doctrine of the immortality of the soul. We know nothing whatever of a future world which lies beyond the boundaries of our observation and experience, except what God has chosen to reveal to us. Left to the instincts and aspirations of nature, which strongly crave after immortality and glory we can reach at best only probabilities; while the gospel gives us absolute certainty, sealed by the resurrection of Christ.

Then follows a section by Philip Schaff which I consider very interesting. He writes about the heathen notions of the future life as vague and confused. We quote:

The HEATHEN notions of the future life were vague and confused. The Hindoos, Babylonians, and Egyptians had a lively sense of immortality but mixed with the idea of endless migrations and transformations. The Buddhists, starting from the idea that existence is want, and want is suffering, make it the chief end of man to escape such migrations, and by various mortifications to prepare for final absorption in Nirwana. The popular belief among the ancient Greeks and Romans was that man passes after death into the Underworld, the Greek Hades, the Roman Orcus. According to Homer, Hades is a dark abode in the interior of the earth, with an entrance at the Western extremity of the Ocean, where the rays of the sun do not penetrate. Charon carries the dead over the stream Acheron, and the three-headed dog Cerberus watches the entrance and allows none to pass out. There the spirits exist in a disembodied state and lead a shadowy dream-life. A vague distinction was made between two regions in Hades, an Elysium (also “the Islands of the Blessed”) for the good, and Tartarus for the bad. “Poets and painters,” says Gibbon, “peopled the infernal regions with so many phantoms and monsters, who dispensed their rewards and punishments with no little equity, that a solemn truth, the most congenial to the human heart, was oppressed and disgraced by the absurd mixture of the wildest fictions. The eleventh book of the Odyssey gives a very dreary and incoherent account of the infernal shades. Pindar and Virgil have embellished the picture; but even those poets, though more correct than their great model, are guilty of very strange inconsistencies.

What a difference between these heathen notions concerning a future life and the presentation of the Word of God! How utterly devoid of the living God! How completely earthly! No wonder that they were so vague and confused! Of Socrates, Plato, Cicero and Plutarch who, according to Schaff, rose highest among the ancient philosophers in their views of the future life, they reached only to belief in its probability and not in its certainty. However, Socrates must have written that death is either eternal sleep, or the transition to a new life, but in neither case is it an evil, and he drank with playful irony the fatal hemlock. Plato, viewing the human soul as a portion of the eternal, infinite, all-pervading deity, believed in its pre-existence before this present life, and thus had a strong ground of hope for its continuance after death. All souls, according to this philosopher, pass into the spirit-world, the righteous into the abodes of bliss, where they live forever in a disembodied state, the wicked into Tartarus for punishment and purification (which notion, writes Schaff, prepared the way for purgatory.) Of course, Plato’s definition of a good and a righteous man would certainly differ from the presentation of the Word of God. Plutarch, we are informed, the purest and noblest among the Platonists, thought that immortality was inseparably connected with belief in an all-ruling Providence (whatever that may be), and looked with Plato to the life beyond as promising a higher knowledge of, and closer conformity to God, but only for those few who are here purified by virtue and piety. In such rare cases, departure might be called an ascent to the stars, to heaven, to the gods, rather than a descent to Hades. And he also, at the death of his daughter, expresses his faith in the blissful state of infants who die in infancy. The Stoics, we are told, believed only in a limited immortality, or denied it altogether, and justified suicide when life became unendurable. And the great men of Greece and Rome were not influenced by the idea of a future world as a motive of action. During the debate on the punishment of Catiline and his fellow-conspirators, Julius Caesar openly declared in the Roman Senate that death dissolves all the ills of mortality, and is the boundary of existence beyond which there is no more care nor joy, no more punishment for sin, nor any reward for virtue. 

Of a resurrection of the body, according to Schaff, the Greeks and Romans had no conception, except in the form of shades and spectral outlines, which were supposed to surround the disembodied spirits, and to make them to some degree recognizable. Heathen philosophers, like Celsus, ridiculed the resurrection of the body as useless, absurd, and impossible. 

Later, when calling attention to the fact that the Jewish doctrines are far in advance of heathen notions and conjectures, but present different phases of development, Schaff writes in the same volume, 594f.f., and we quote:

The Jewish doctrine is far in advance of heathen notions and conjectures, but presents different phases of development. 

(a) The Mosaic writings are remarkably silent about the future life, and emphasize the present rather than future consequences of the observance or non-observance of the law (because it had a civil or political as well as spiritual import); and hence the Sadducees accepted them, although they denied the resurrection (perhaps also the immortality of, the soul). The Pentateuch contains, however, some remote and significant hints of immortality, as in the tree of life with its symbolic import; in the mysterious translation of Enoch as a reward for his piety; in the prohibition of necromancy; in the patriarchal phrase for dying: “to be gathered to his fathers,” or “to his people,” and last, though not least, in the self-designation of Jehovah as “the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob,” which implies their immortality, since “God is not the God of the dead, but of the living.” What has an eternal meaning for God must itself be eternal. 

(b) In the later writings of the Old Testament, especially during and after the exile, the doctrine of immortality and resurrection comes out plainly. Daniel’s vision reaches out even to the final resurrection of “many of them that sleep in the dust of the earth to everlasting life,” and of “some to shame and everlasting contempt,” and prophesies that “they that are wise shall shine as the brightness of the firmament, and they that turn many to righteousness as the stars forever and ever.” — see

Job 19:25-27 Eccls. 12:7 Daniel 12:2-3

Isaiah 65:17,66:22-24

But before Christ, who first revealed true life, the Hebrew Sheol, the general receptacle of departing souls, remained, like the Greek Hades, a dark and dreary abode, and is so described in the Old Testament. Cases like Enoch’s translation and Elijah’s ascent are altogether unique and exceptional, and imply the meaning that death is contrary to man’s original destination, and may be overcome by the power of holiness. 

(c) The Jewish Apocrypha (the Book of Wisdom, and the Second Book of Maccabees), and later Jewish writings (the Book of Enoch, the Apocalypse of Ezra) show some progress: they distinguish between two regions in Sheol — Paradise or Abraham’s Bosom for the righteous, and Gehinnom or Gehemra for the wicked; they emphasize the resurrection of the body, and the future rewards and punishments.

In addition to the foregoing Schaff also calls attention to the Talmud as it adds various fanciful embellishments. Incidentally, the Talmud is a collection of Jewish writings of the early Christian centuries. There is a Palestinian Talmud, and a later, more authoritative, much longer Babylonian Talmud. Each consists of Mishnah and Gemara. Mishnah grew out of oral tradition, whose origin is obscure. When, to preserve these, they came to be written down, a further need was felt for a commentary on them. This function the Gemara fulfils. The scope of the Talmud may be seen in the titles of the six parts of the Mishnah: Seeds, relating to Agriculture; Feasts: Women and Marriage; Civil and Criminal Law; Sacrifices; Clean and Unclean Things and their Purification. This definition of the Talmud I gathered from the Pictorial Bible Dictionary of Merrill C. Tenney. This Talmud, writes Schaff, adds various fanciful embellishments. I believe it of interest to call attention to this. But this will have to wait until our following article.