The State of the Impenitent Dead

Edited By Alvah Hovey, D.D., LL.D.

Section 1




No topic within the range of human thought is approached by the majority of good men with greater reluctance than the topic of this essay. Many indeed prefer to avoid, if possible, all reference to the final state of unbelievers, and sometimes, it maybe feared, shrink from a careful study of the language employed by the sacred writers to describe that state. It will therefore occasion no surprise, if we say that the following pages owe their existence, primarily, to the claims made upon the writer by his employment; for otherwise, so awful is the doom which seems to be denounced by the word of God upon such as remain impenitent, he might have been led to defer still longer a protracted examination of the elements of that doom. Hence, too, the general form and style of this essay, the occasional insertion of a Greek word or clause, and the fresh translation of a passage now and then from the original text, may remind our readers of the use to which it was first applied, but will not obscure the course or diminish the value of our investigation.

It need scarcely be said, that we undertook the discussion of our theme, not only with conscious reluctance, from a sense of duty, but also with a deep conviction of its unrivalled solemnity and importance; feeling that it would be wronging the character of God, on the one hand, to represent him as threatening and inflicting a heavier penalty upon sinners than he was really threatened, and, on the other hand, that it would be wronging his character no less to represent him as annexing a milder penalty to transgression than he has really annexed; feeling that in this case, as in every other, it is our duty to abide by the testimony which God has given, leaving every difficulty and mystery to be cleared by the light of an after life.

We shall therefore endeavor to ascertain, by an appeal to the word of God, the true meaning of the term death, when used by sacred writers to denote the penalty of sin, and then to examine the principal objections to this meaning. This investigation will lead us directly to the ultimate object of our essay, namely, a knowledge of the state of the impenitent dead. And we may open our way to the Biblical use of the term death by observing,  — 

I. That the Scriptures recognize an original and important difference between the soul of man and his body. God is said to have created man in his own image;1 and this image or likeness of God must be found, we suppose, in the rational and moral properties of the human soul, as it came from the hand of God. If the resemblance of man to his Maker be not found in this part of his nature, it seems impossible for him to obtain any distinct and trustworthy conception of God. If he cannot transfer from his own spirit to the infinite One the generic ideas of knowing, of feeling, and of willing  —  if he cannot assume that his own soul is in some proper sense a copy of the divine mind; though on a scale infinitely reduced, he. may well despair, not merely of knowing as he is nown2 but of ever being assured that his worship is paid to the living God, instead of a phantom originated by his imagination. For certain it is, that we can form no conception whatever of a personal Deity, without ascribing to him cognitive, emotive, and voluntary powers, that is to say, the fundamental powers of the human soul.

In another place we are told that " the Lord God formed man of the dust of the ground, and breathed into his nostrils the breath of life;"3   —  language which appears to distinguish the vital, informing principle of human nature from its material part, pronouncing the former to be more directly from God, and akin to him, than the latter; and it may be doubted whether one reader in a thousand, if left to himself, would take any other view of the case.

Again, the Almighty describes himself as "Jehovah which stretcheth forth the heavens, and layeth the foundation of the earth, and formeth the spirit of man within him;"4  —  words which seem plainly to recognize the soul as distinct in nature from the body, and to assign it a dignity and worth far beyond that of any material organism. It was the forming of man's spirit which the prophet looked upon as the crowning work of Jehovah, and cited, along with the creation of heaven and of earth, as a proof of his almighty power.

The language of Paul belongs also to our argument. '' I know a man in Christ, fourteen years ago   —  whether in the body I know not, or out of the body I know not, God knoweth  —  such an one caught up into the third heaven,"5 etc. Now if the apostle, as he undoubtedly affirms, was distinctly conscious of having been caught up into paradise, and of having been permitted to hear words which it is not lawful for a man to utter, while at the same time he was uncertain whether his whole nature, body and soul, or only the latter, was caught up, is it not manifest that he deemed it possible for the soul to be conscious and active, apart from the body? Is it not manifest that he esteemed the personality of man separable from a material organism, and capable of ecstatic joy in a disembodied state?

If, now, we add to these passages the testimony of Solomon, " Then shall the dust return to the earth as it was, but the spirit shall return to God who gave it;6 the prayer of Stephen, "Lord Jesus, receive my spirit;"7 and the words of Christ, "Fear not them which kill the body, but are not able to kill the soul,"8 the conclusion becomes inevitable, that the Scriptures do recognize an original and important difference between the soul of man and his body. It may be well to observe,   — 

II. That this original difference between the nature of man's body and that of his soul underlies a difference of relation to endless existence. For the body of Adam seems to have been mortal, even before the fall. It was made of the dust of the ground; it was χοϊός earthy, and therefore in its nature corruptible. And so the immortality of man, as a complex being, was conditioned on his eating of the tree of life. This was made the pledge, if not the means, of a process by which his animal body might be exchanged for a spiritual body, and this corruptible put on incorruption. Thus much may be inferred, we think, from the language and the action of God after the great apostasy in Eden: " And now, lest he put forth his hand, and take also of the tree of life, and eat and live forever  —  therefore the Lord God sent him forth from the garden of Eden, to till the ground from whence he was taken."9 In the natural course of events, had not sin intervened, Adam would surely have eaten of the tree of life, and have become immortal. The fruit of that sacramental or life-giving tree would in due time have secured to him perpetual vigor, and have made him meet in bodily organism for an inheritance "incorruptible, undefiled, and that fadeth not away."

This view of the original and natural mortality of the body is confirmed by the language of Paul. For he not only teaches that our bodies, as now constituted, are animal and corruptible, but also that " the first man, Adam, was made a living soul,"10 when God breathed into his nostrils the breath of life; and from the context it appears that the apostle understood the phrase "living soul " to denote a being whose body was psychical and mortal, a body of flesh and blood, which could not inherit the kingdom of God. He then proceeds to announce a general law: " The spiritual is not first, but the psychical (or natural), afterwards the spiritual."11 The lower precedes the higher; the imperfect the perfect; and this general law of development was to be illustrated according to the plan of God, in the bodily nature of man. With this view agree the remarks of Meyer on a subsequent passage: " The first man is of the earth, earthy  — χοϊός. Since the body of Adam is thus, as in v. 45, characterized as a ψυχικὸν σῶμα or psychical body, and since a psychical organism involves mortality (v. 44), it is clear that Paul, in perfect agreement with Gen. ii. 7; iii. 19, considers Adam not as created immortal. Nor does this conflict with his doctrine that death came into the world through sin12 For had not our first parents sinned, they would have remained in paradise, and would have become immortal by eating of the tree of life, which God had not forbidden them.13 But ere they had eaten of this tree,14 they were driven out of paradise, and so, also, according to the narrative in Genesis, death came into the world by sin."

It may be suitable to add, that the same view is proposed and defended by Augustine. " Sic et illud corpus jam erat mortale; quam mortalitatem fucrat absumptura mutatio in œternam incorruptionem, si in homine justitia, id est obedientia, permaneret; sed ipsum non est factum mortuum, nisi propter peccatum."15

Let us then bear in mind the fact that God anticipated the apostasy of our race, and foreshadowed the same by giving to man a corruptible body. The material part of human nature was preadjusted to a sinful condition; its doom in case of transgression was provided for in its original constitution. To say the least, it was not adapted to endless existence. It gave no intimation of perpetual vigor. Forces from without must be applied to change its nature, before it could bear the weight of immortality.

But how was it with the soul of man? Do the Scriptures anywhere intimate that this also was mortal by virtue of its original constitution? Do they mention any ab extra appliances by which its primeval nature was to be changed, before it could enter upon a life without end? Instead of this we find expressions in the sacred record which seem to favor an opposite view.

For our present purpose, it will be sufficient to adduce Paul's remarkable chapter on the resurrection,   —  Quod unum instar est omnium. And let it be remembered that the apostle in that chapter fails to drop even a hint of the need of any change in the natural properties of the human spirit to prepare it for endless being. He plainly avers the unfitness of our bodily nature for the eternal world, but refrains from any such testimony respecting our spiritual nature.

Now if Paul believed the soul of man to be corruptible and mortal like his body, his silence on this point, in a chapter that treats so fully of the resurrection, is not a little surprising. For if the Corinthians deemed the spirit of man to be adapted in its nature to a higher and endless state of being, and if this belief was in Paul's opinion erroneous, why did he not rectify their error, check their confidence in a vain philosophy, and teach them that of the soul, no less than the body, it may be said, " This corruptible must put on incorruption, and this mortal must put on immortality? " Why did he not remind them of their folly in proposing the skeptical question, " With what body do they come? " while they neglected the parallel question, " With what spirit do they come? " But if, on the other hand, the Corinthians looked upon the soul of man as related to death and the resurrection in the same way as his body, and were troubled with similar doubts respecting it, why did the apostle restrict his discussion to the body merely, and neglect to intimate, by a single remark, that the spirit is also to experience a no less essential and glorious change at the resurrection? We therefore submit the opinion, that Paul's silence as to any change of the properties of the soul at the resurrection is a sound argument against its natural mortality, and in favor of its original and present adaptation to endless existence.

We may, however, proceed a step further. In the chapter before us we find another reason for supposing that the apostle regarded the human soul as originally fitted to exist forever. After contrasting the body laid aside at death with that which we shall possess hereafter, in several particulars, he says: " It is sown a natural body, it is raised a spiritual body."16 Whether the word spiritual here describes the essence or the office of our bodily nature after the resurrection, it is plain that the spirit is conceived of as adapted to a future life. For if the body is to be made incorruptible by being made spiritual in its nature, then must the spirit itself, to which it is assimilated, be incorruptible and immortal. Or if the body is to be made incorruptible by being made the proper and permanent organ of the spirit17 it is scarcely less evident that the latter is incorruptible. " The servant is not greater than his lord."

But there is a grave objection, it may be said, to the argument now presented, to wit: the apostle has in mind the resurrection of believers only, and the souls of believers receive at the moment of regeneration a principle of life which prepares them for endless being. Without this principle, they are as incapable of eternal existence as the body.

The plan of our essay will soon bring us to the investigation of what is meant in the word of God by spiritual life; and this investigation will furnish a reply to the objection just stated. It may, however, be observed, in passing, that regeneration is not only characterized by the sacred writers as a creative act, by which the subject of it becomes a new creature in Christ Jesus, and a generation from above, by which the soul is brought into a new spiritual life; but also as a washing, a battling effected by the Holy Ghost, by which the polluted spirit is cleansed; as an illumination, by which it is filled with the knowledge of God and qualified to appreciate spiritual things, and as a change of mind, involving sorrow for sin and love for holiness. The eye of conscience is cleared the desires and affections are reversed and flow into new channels, and the selfish views, prejudices, and motives which formerly reigned in the soul, are superseded by faith, love, and hope, resting in Christ and leading to every good work. The entire spirit is readjusted morally; its aspirations, tendencies, and relations to God are rectified, and it enters, so to speak, upon a new life.

But all this pertains to the moral condition and experience of the soul, affording no evidence that its essence has been changed, that any faculty or constitutive element has been added, any fresh vigor or new principle of existence infused. And until such evidence is furnished, the objection to our argument from the language of Paul is without force.

It will not be irrelevant to add, that those beings who are represented by the word of God as dwelling in the invisible and eternal world are frequently called spirits. God, " who only hath immortality," is affirmed to be spirit. The holy angels are described as " ministering spirits. " Demons are spoken of as evil spirits. And departed saints, dwelling in paradise and awaiting the resurrection, are denominated '' the spirits of just men made perfect." It seems, therefore, that all who inhabit the eternal world are either simple spirits, or are spirits clothed with bodies which are perfectly adjusted and assimilated to their spiritual nature. Now it would doubtless be rash to draw from this fact alone the conclusion, that, because human souls are frequently called spirits in the word of God, therefore they must have been originally fitted for endless existence; but when we bear in mind the process by which words relating to earth and to man are transferred to beings or events of a higher sphere, the fact noted by us may well serve to strengthen our confidence in a deduction from other and surer premises. We proceed to remark,  — 

III. That the original adaptation of the human soul to endless existence may he inferred from its rational and moral Properties. For, first, it is brought by these properties into conscious personal connection with the infinite and the eternal. It is put en rapport, so to speak, with the one absolute Personality, with the immutable principles of right, and with the idea of causation, binding the creature to the Creator, the conditioned to the absolute. And; secondly, it is rendered by these properties capable of action without weariness, and delight without satiety. We do not hesitate to trace all the fatigue which results from intense and protracted thought to the material organ of the mind. Our best intellectual processes never flag until the brain begins to suffer. It would be easy to illustrate and confirm the position now taken by many interesting phenomena of dreaming. Again, our rational and moral tastes are never satiated. Whatever is truly sublime or beautiful, answering to the normal susceptibilities of our spiritual nature, " is a joy forever." Bodily appetites are soon glutted, and we are even made to loathe, for a time, the objects which just before were craved; but our spiritual relish for the true, the beautiful, and the good, is never diminished by the fullest gratification. Who was ever satisfied to loathing with the grandeur of Niagara, the sublimity of Mount Washington, or the majesty of the ocean? Who was ever made to turn away with a sense of satiety from the sight of a sunset sky, or of a beautiful landscape, or of a delicate flower? Or, still more to our purpose, who was ever conscious that the mental vision of a geometrical figure, the admiration of an act 3 of moral heroism, or the exercise of a right affection, however protracted, had produced in him even a temporary disrelish of those objects? Is it not a fact, that the soul is so made as to be capable of permanent delight in whatever corresponds with its normal tastes?  —  so made, that its pleasuree in the apprehension of a suitable object is not necessarily intermitted or transitory, but may be at once complete and perennial? And does not this peculiarity of the soul qualify it for endless existence, and even foreshadow such existence? It seems to us that but one reply can be made to these questions. And, thirdly, the soul was evidently adapted in the beginning, by its rational and moral properties, "to glorify God and enjoy him forever." And notwithstanding the terrible shock and change which it experienced in the apostasy, it has a religious nature still, and is still called upon evermore to worship him who is God over all, blessed forever. We discover, or seem to discover, in this religious nature of the soul, this innate testimony for the ever-living God, this silent call and command, issuing from the very centre of the spirit, to engage in his worship, a qualification for, and a prophecy of, immortality. To unfold this argument, however, would detain us too long, and we therefore bring these preliminary observations to a close.

We have seen that the body of man was made in the beginning corruptible, and that bodily death, a penal result of sin, was provided for in his original constitution. We have also seen that the soul of man was made originally incorruptible, adapted to endless existence. And this difference, we submit, establishes a valid presumption that the penal result of sin to the soul does not consist in its dissolution or extinction. The strength of this presumption will of course depend almost entirely upon the view which is entertained by each individual of the eternal purpose, order, and harmony of the divine government. We can but think it is entitled to great consideration; and the more, because it will be found that provision was made in the original structure of the soul for a penal result of sin, which is called death in the word of God.



1) Gen. i. 26, 27.

2) 1 Cor. xiii. 12.

3) Gen. ii. 7.

4) Zech. xii. 1.

5) 2 Cor. xii. 2. seq.

6) Eccl. xii. 7.

7) Acts vu. 59.

8) Matt. x. 28.

9) Gen. iii. 22, 23.

10) 1 Cor. XV. 45. Cf. the commentaries of Hodge, Alford, Meyer, and De Wette on this verse.

11) 1 Cor. XV. 46.

12) Rom. V. 12.

13) Gen. iii. 22; ii. 16, 17.

14) Gen. iii. 22.

15) De Pec. Mer. et Remis, I. 5.

16) 1 Cor. XV. 44.

17) See the commentaries of Dc "Wette, Clever, Olshausen, Alford, Hodgc, and Ruckhcrt, on the passage cited above.