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(80-250 A.D.)

THE INTERMEDIATE STATEDiscussing the history of the doctrine of the Intermediate State as confessed by the church during the early years of the New Dispensation, we were calling attention in our preceding article to the Jewish doctrine as being far in advance of heathen notions and conjectures, as set forth by Philip Schaff in his History of the Christian Church, Vol. II. And we concluded our article with the remark that in this article we would call attention to the Talmud as it adds various fanciful embellishments, Vol. II, page 596. We now quote: 

The Talmud adds various fanciful embellishments. It puts Paradise and Gehenna in close proximity, measures their extent, and distinguishes different departments in both corresponding to the degrees of merit and guilt. Paradise is sixty times as large as the world, and Hell sixty times as large as Paradise, for the bad preponderate here and hereafter. According to other rabbinical testimonies, both are well nigh boundless. The Talmudic descriptions of Paradise (as those of the Koran) mix sensual and spiritual delights. The righteous enjoy the vision of the Shechina and feast with the patriarchs, and with Moses and David of the flesh of leviathan, and drink wine from the cup of salvation. Each inhabitant has a house according to his merit. Among the punishments of hell the chief place is assigned to fire, which is renewed every week after the Sabbath. The wicked are boiled like the flesh in the pot, but the bad Israelites are not touched by fire, and are otherwise tormented. The severest punishment is reserved for idolaters, hypocrites, traitors, and apostates. As to the duration of future punishment the school of Shammai held that it was everlasting; while the school of Hillel inclined to the milder view of a possible redemption after repentance and purification. Some Rabbis taught that hell will cease, and that the sun will burn up and annihilate the wicked.

How different is the Christian and Scriptural doctrine of the future life from all these presentations, to which we now need not call attention. Much of the above presentation of the Talmud is pure speculation and imagination. We can understand that the severest punishment in hell is reserved for hypocrites and apostates. But we also may note in the above presentation of the Talmud that the school of Hillel inclined to the milder view of a possible redemption after repentance and purification, and that some Rabbis taught that hell will cease. This denial of the everlasting character of hell is, we know, held today among universalists and others. 

Writing on the doctrine of the Intermediate State as held during these early years of the church in the New Dispensation, Rev. H. Hoeksema, in his History of Dogma, writes as follows:

Since the end of all things and the perfection of salvation were waiting for that final judgment the question arose even in this period concerning the condition of the souls before the resurrection. The answer which the Apostolic Fathers gave to this question was rather vague. About the place of the souls between death and resurrection they speak very little. Justin Martyr speaks of a better place for believers and a worse place for the ungodly. As to their condition, they do not teach definitely that the souls of believers immediately after death go to Heaven. They do have indeed a certain presentiment of their eternal destination and wait for the resurrection of the body. Only the martyrs are received up into Paradise immediately after death but even this Paradise must be distinguished from Heaven. This was the conception of Irenaeus, and Tertullian approximately agrees with him. The place of the dead he conceives as being in the heart of the earth. It was divided into two apartments separated from each other by a deep ravine. On the one side of this ravine was the place for the believing souls. On the other side was the fire which cannot be quenched. Far above both these two parts of the Sheol is Paradise. Thither went Christ after His death. There are Enoch and Elijah and there also the martyrs find their place until the resurrection. 

The Gnostics taught that the souls of the perfect elite who are even now risen with Christ and attained to the perfect knowledge (gnosis), after death enter immediately into the fulness of glory. Others who did not reach that height of perfection in this life must pass through various stages after death until they reach that same fulness of glory. This might seem to be the beginning of the Romish doctrine of Purgatory. In fact Clement of Alexandria and Origen do speak of a certain purifying fire through which the souls of believers enter into glory. However it would be an error to find with them the beginning of the doctrine of Purgatory. It is evident from their writings that, by this purifying fire, they mean something quite different, a mystical process whereby the souls are cleansed from the defilement of sin. Origen even refers to this fire in connection with the fmal destruction of the world. Of the doctrine of Purgatory, however, there is no trace in this period.

These observations of the late Rev. H. Hoeksema are verified by what Philip Schaff writes in his History of the Christian Church, Vol. II, 599 f.f., and I believe that this quotation will be of interest to our readers:

Among the darkest points in eschatology is the middle state, or the condition of the soul between death and resurrection. It is difficult to conceive of a disembodied state of happiness or woe without physical organs for enjoyment and suffering. Justin Martyr held that the souls retain their sensibility after death, otherwise the bad would have the advantage over the good. Origen seems to have assumed some refined, spiritual corporeity which accompanies the soul on its lonely journey, and is the germ of the resurrection body; but the speculative opinions of that profound thinker were looked upon with suspicion, and some of them were ultimately condemned. The idea of the sleep of the soul (psychopannychia) had some advocates, but was expressly rejected by Tertullian. Others held that the soul died with the body, and was created anew at the resurrection. The prevailing view was that the soul continued in a conscious, though disembodied state, by virtue either of inherent or of communicated immortality. The nature of that state depends upon the moral character formed in this life either for weal or woe, without the possibility of a change except in the same direction. 

The catholic doctrine of the status intermedius was chiefly derived from the Jewish tradition of the Sheol, from the parable of Dives and Lazarus (

Luke 16:19

sqq.), and from the passages of Christ’s descent into Hades. The utterances of the ante-Nicene fathers are somewhat vague and confused, but receive light from the more mature statements of the Nicene and post-Nicene fathers, and may be reduced to the following points: 

1. The pious who died before Christ from Abel or Adam down to John the Baptist (with rare exceptions, as Enoch, Moses, and Elijah) were detained in a part of Sheol, waiting for the first Advent, and were released by Christ after the crucifixion and transferred to Paradise. This was the chief aim and result of the descensus ad inferos, as understood in the church long before it became an article of the Apostles’ Creed, first in Aquileja (where, however, Rufmus explained it wrongly, as being equivalent to burial), and then in Rome. Hermas of Rome and Clement of Alexandria supposed that the patriarchs and Old Testament saints, before their translation, were baptized by Christ and the apostles. Irenaeus repeatedly refers to the descent of Christ to the spirit-world as the only means by which the benefits of the redemption could be made known and applied to the pious dead of former ages. 

2. Christian martyrs and confessors, to whom were afterwards added other eminent saints, pass immediately after death into heaven to the blessed vision of God. 

3. The majority of Christian believers, being imperfect, enter for an indefinite period into a preparatory state of rest and happiness, usually called Paradise (compare

Luke 23:41

or Abraham’s Bosom

Luke 16:23

There they are gradually purged of remaining infirmities until they are ripe for heaven, into which nothing is admitted but absolute purity. Origen assumed a constant progression to higher and higher regions of knowledge and bliss. (After the fifth or sixth century, certainly since Pope Gregory I, Purgatory was substituted for Paradise.) 

4. The locality of Paradise is uncertain: some imagined it to be a higher region of Hades beneath the earth, yet “afar off’ from Gehenna, and separated from it by a “great gulf’ (camp.

Luke 16:23-26

others transferred it to the lower regions of heaven above the earth, yet clearly distinct from the final home of the blessed. 

5. Impenitent Christians and unbelievers go down to the lower regions of Hades (Gehenna, Tartarus, Hell) into a preparatory state of misery and dreadful expectation of the final judgment. From the fourth century Hades came to be identified with Hell, and this confusion passed into many versions of the Bible, including that of King James. 

6. The future fate of the heathen and of unbaptized children was left in hopeless darkness, except by Justin and the Alexandrian fathers, who extended the operations of divine grace beyond the limits of the visible church. Justin Martyr must have believed, from his premises, in the salvation of all those heathen who had in this life followed the light of the Divine Logos and died in a state of unconscious Christianity, or preparedness for Christianity. For, he says, “those who lived with the Logos were Christians, although they were esteemed atheists, as Socrates and Heraclitus, and others like them. 

7. There are, in the other world, different degrees of happiness and misery according to the degrees of merit and guilt. This is reasonable in itself, and supported by scripture. 

8. With the idea of the imperfection of the middle state and the possibility of progressive amelioration, is connected the commemoration of the departed, and prayer in their behalf. No trace of the custom is found in the New Testament nor in the canonical books of the Old, but an isolated example, which seems to imply habit, occurs in the age of the Maccabees, when Judas Maccabaeus and his company offered prayer and sacrifice for those slain in battle, “that they might be delivered from sin.” In old Jewish service-books there are prayers for the blessedness of the dead. The strong sense of the communion of saints unbroken by death easily accounts for the rise of a similar custom among the early Christians. Tertullian bears clear testimony to its existence at his time. “We offer,” he says, “oblations for the dead on the anniversary of their birth,” i.e. their celestial birth-day. He gives it as a mark of a Christian widow, that she prays for the soul of her husband, and requests for him refreshment and fellowship in the first resurrection; and that she offers sacrifice on the anniversaries of his falling asleep. Eusebius narrates that at the tomb of Constantine a vast crowd of people, in company with the priests of God, with tears and great lamentation offered their prayers to God for the emperor’s soul. Augustine calls prayer for the pious dead in the eucharistic sacrifice an observance of the universal church, handed down from the fathers. He himself remebered in prayer his godly mother at her dying request.

This is confirmed by the ancient liturgies, which express in substance the devotions of the ante-Nicene age, although they were not committed to writing before the fourth century. The commemoration of the pious dead is an important part in the eucharistic prayers. Take the following from the Liturgy of St. James: “Remember, o Lord God, the spirits of whom we have made mention, and of whom we have not made mention, who are of the true faith, from righteous Abel unto this day; do Thou Thyself give them rest there in the land of the living, in Thy kingdom, in the delight of Paradise, in the Bosom of Abraham and of Isaac and of Jacob, our holy fathers; whence pain and grief and lamentation have fled away: there the light of Thy countenance looks upon them, and gives them light for evermore.” The Clementine Liturgy in the eighth book of the “Apostolical Constitutions” has likewise a prayer “for those who rest in faith,” in these words: “We make an offering to Thee for all Thy saints who have pleased Thee from the beginning of the world, patriarchs, prophets, just men, apostles, martyrs, confessors, bishops, elders, deacons, subdeacons, singers, virgins, widows, laymen, and all whose names Thou Thyself knowest.”

I am sure that the reader, reading these things, must ask himself the question whether there is any connection between these views as entertained during this early period of the Christian church and the Romish doctrine with respect to purgatory. Philip Schaff asks and answers this question as follows:

9. These views of the middle state in connection with prayers for the dead show a strong tendency to the Roman Catholic doctrine of Purgatory, which afterwards came to prevail in the West through the great weight of St. Augustine and Pope Gregory I. But there is, after all, a considerable difference. The ante-Nicene idea of the middle state of the pious excludes, or at all events ignores, the idea of penal suffering, which is an essential part of the Catholic conception of purgatory. It represents the condition of the pious as one of comparative happiness, inferior only to the perfect happiness after the resurrection. Whatever and wherever Paradise may be, it belongs to the heavenly world; while purgatory is supposed to be a middle region between heaven and hell, and to border rather on the latter. The sepulchral inscriptions in the catacombs have a prevailingly cheerful tone, and represent the departed souls as being “in peace” and “living in Christ,” or “in God.” The same view is substantially preserved in the Oriental church, which holds that the souls of the departed believers may be aided by the prayers of the living, but are nevertheless “in light and rest, with a foretaste of eternal happiness.” 

Yet alongside with this prevailing belief, there are traces of the purgatorial idea of suffering the temporal consequences of sin, and a painful struggle after holiness. Origen, following in the path of Plato, used the term “purgatorial fire,” by which the remaining stains of the soul shall be burned away; but he understood it figuratively, and connected it with the consuming fire at the final judgment, while Augustine and Gregory I transferred it to the middle state. The common people and most of the fathers understood it of a material life; but this is not a matter of faith, and there are Roman divines who confine the purgatorial sufferings to the mind and conscience. A material fire would be very harmless without a material body. A still nearer approach to the Roman purgatory was made by Tertullian and Cyprian, who taught that a special satisfaction and penance was required for sins committed after baptism, and that the last farthing must be paid (

Matt. 5:20

) before the soul can be released from prison and enter into heaven.

Tertullian taught that the martyrs went at once paradise, the abode of the blessed, and taught that to in this they enjoyed an advantage over other Christians, as we may read in Vol. III, 646, of the Ante-Nicene Fathers:

For indeed the Spirit had sent the injunction to the angel of the church in Smyrna: “Behold, the devil shall cast some of you into prison, that ye may be tried ten days. Be thou faithful unto death, and I will give you a crown of life.” Also to the angel of the church in Pergamus (mention was made) of Antipas, the very faithful martyr, who was slain where Satan dwelleth. Also the angel of the church in Philadelphia (it was signified) that he who had not denied the name of the Lord was delivered from the last trial. Then to every conqueror the Spirit promises now the tree of life, and exemption from the second death; now the hidden manna, with the stone of glistering whiteness, and the name unknown (to every man save him that receiveth it); now power to rule with a rod of iron, and the brightness of the morning star; now the being clothed in white raiment, and not having the name blotted out of the book of life, and being made in the temple of God a pillar with the inscription on it of the name of God and of the Lord, and of the heavenly Jerusalem; now a sitting with the Lord on His throne, – which once was persistently so blessed to the sons of Zebedee. Who, pray, are these so blessed conquerors, but martyrs in the strict sense of the word? For indeed theirs are the victories whose also are the fights; theirs, however, are the fights whose also is the blood. But the souls of the martyrs both peacefully rest in the meantime under the altar, and support their patience by the assured hope of revenge; and, clothed in their robes, wear the dazzling halo of brightness, until others also may fully share in their glory. For yet again a countless throng are revealed, clothed in white and distinguished by palms of victory, celebrating their triumph doubtless over anti-Christ, since one of the elders says “These are they who come out of’ that great tribulation, and have washed their robes, and made them white in the blood of the Lamb. For the flesh is the clothing of the soul. The uncleanness, indeed, is washed away by baptism, but the stains are changed into dazzling whiteness by martyrdom. For Isaias also promises, that our of red and scarlet there will come forth the whiteness of snow and wool.

Of course, this idea, that martyrdom prepares the soul for immediate entrance into heaven is not sustained by the Word of God. First of all, how can one’s passing through the fire of martyrdom cleanse a soul from sin? One can easily understand how such a conception can lead to a conception such as the Romish Purgatory, which teaches that the fire of purgatory cleanses a soul from sin and prepares it for its place in the perfect glory of heaven. But, in the second place, this presentation is surely a denial of the Scriptural truth that the blood of our Lord Jesus Christ cleanses us from all sin and that no fire is prepare us for the everlasting glory of heaven. 

The doctrine of the Intermediate State also includes the doctrine of “soul-sleep,” the teaching that the soul sleeps between death and the resurrection. Eusebius of Caesarea, bishop of Caesarea in Palestine, the father of church history, was born about 275 or 280, and died either in 340 or 339. In his “Church History,” Eusebius attempted according to his own declaration to present the history of the Church from the apostles to his own time. He mentions a small section of Christians in Arabia who held that the soul remained unconscious from death to the resurrection. At the time of the Reformation there was such a revival of that doctrine that Calvin deemed it expedient to write an essay devoted to its refutation. The fathers, writes Hodge, say but little about Hades. According to this writer (Vol. III, 739-740), we read the following:

The fathers say but little about Hades. Hippolytus, however, gives an account of it which is in substance as follows: 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 the 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 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.