The State of the Impenitent Dead

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

Section 2




To ascertain the nature of death, the penalty of sin, we may first examine the language of Jehovah to Adam before the fall: " Of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil, thou shalt not eat of it; for in the day that thou eatest thereof thou shalt surely die."1 Here Adam is threatened with certain death in case of disobedience. The verb is made emphatic by repetition; as if God had said, Death, death, certain death, shall be the reward of transgression.

But this threatening, however emphatic and ominous it may be, does not in itself indicate the nature or contents of death. God, to be sure, may have explained its nature to our first parents; but, if so, his explanation was not put on record for our instruction.

Yet there is a clause in the verse before us, which may perhaps furnish no little aid to those who would discover the contents of this threatened death. "In the day of thy eating of it, thou shalt surely die." Disobedience was to be followed by immediate punishment.

If, now, we examine the narrative in Genesis, we shall discover the first fruits of the fall in the souls of Adam and Eve. Shame at their own nakedness, and dread of Jehovah's presence, both springing from guilt, began at once to be felt. Thus it was the soul which experienced the first stroke of retributive justice. Its fellowship with God and consequent blessedness were lost. And for this result, so fatal to the well-being of man, ample provision had been made in the properties of his spiritual nature. The ministers of divine justice had been stationed in every part of the town of Mansoul, and no sooner was sin admitted, than they began to frown upon the guilty place, filling it with terror and confusion.

But this great penalty, following close on the heels of transgression, and provided for in the original constitution of the soul, was not the extinction of conscious being, but the extinction of conscious well-being  —  was not the loss of existence, but rather the loss of true spiritual life, which is the normal and blessed working of a moral nature. It was a dissolution of man's spiritual relation to God; a separation far more disastrous than that of soul and body in physical death.

And when " in the breeze of the day " God called the guilty pair before him, what was the sentence which he pronounced? Upon the woman birth-throes and subjection to man, and upon the man wearisome toil until his body should return to the dust. Nothing is here said of death, except in the final words, " Until thou returnest to the ground," etc.; and no one will pretend that these words comprise all the evil which was threatened as the penalty of sin, when God said, "In the day that thou eatest thereof, thou shalt surely die." For if we may interpret the threatened punishment of transgression by the recorded effects of it upon the feelings and conduct of our first parents, this penalty had two elements, suffering and loss, and took effect, chiefly at least, in the soul rather than the body. On the positive side, there were shame and remorse, followed by toil and pain; and on the negative side, there were the loss of fellowship with God, and of the fruit of the tree of life, together with all the advantages of paradise.

And what better terms than life and death could have been chosen to characterize the different states of the soul before and after so dreadful a catastrophe. Love, light, fellowship with God, gave place to bitterness, alienation, darkness.' The normal and blessed action of the spirit was reversed forever. The moral magnetism, which should have drawn it evermore towards the Centre and Source of all goodness, was destroyed, and like the arch fiend in Milton's sublime epic, it " took its solitary way into the realms of Chaos and old Night." It was lost, separated from God; and this, we think, was the all-comprehending and tremendous penalty of sin. Bodily death was but the shadow of this spiritual ruin. Like birth-pangs and oppressive toil, it fitly accompanied the more dreadful doom of the soul.

We do not, however, claim that all this is indubitably taught by the narrative in Genesis; but we do claim that, according to this narrative, the chief penalty of sin was inflicted upon the soul and not upon the body. And from the words, "in the day that thou eatest thereof," interpreted by the subsequent history, we also conclude and maintain that the clause, " thou shalt surely die," was not employed to denote extinction of being, but to denote a forlorn and miserable existence; that is to say, we hold that the term death, when used by sacred writers to signify the penalty of sin, refers to the destruction of well-being rather than of simple existence.

But is there anything in the word of God, apart from the history in Genesis, to confirm this view? Is there any evidence that the term death, when applied to the soul, may signify something else than a termination of its conscious life? Any proof that the affirmation of eternal death may virtually be the affirmation of eternal existence?

In reply to these queries, we first appeal to these words of Christ: " Follow me, and let the dead bury their dead"2 Here the first τοὺς νεκροὺς; refers to those who are spiritually dead, that is, to unbelievers in Christ; while the second refers to those who are physically dead. This view of the words is taken by nearly all respectable interpreters,3 and it gives not only the most obvious meaning of terms as here employed, but a meaning which has also borne the test of repeated and severe scrutiny. No other view so well accords with the manifest scope of the passage.

We pass next to the language of Christ to the church in Sardis: '^ I know thy works, that thou hast a name, that thou livest, and art dead."4 The seven churches of Asia were addressed by the Saviour, through his apostle, in order to rekindle their zeal for God, and make them watchful against error and steadfast in the faith. Some of them had lost their first love. Some of them observed the formal duties of Christianity, but had little or no spiritual life. Their works did not spring from faith, and were therefore dead.5 The church in Sardis was thus dead. It had the form of godliness, but not the life and power. This is the only natural interpretation of the passage, and is sustained by the judgment of the great body of careful expositors.6 Vitringa remarks, that many of "these Asiatic churches now presented, as to their major part, rather the lurid aspect of death than the vivid expression of life  —  Magis luridam mortis, quam vividam vita specicm."

Turning now to the writings of Paul, we find him saying to the Colossians: ''And you, being dead in your sins and in the uncircumcision of your flesh, hath he quickened together with him;"7 and to the Ephesians: " You who were dead in tresspasses and sins  —  hath he quickened."8 The obvious teaching of these passages is that both the Ephesian and the Colossian Christians were, previous to their regeneration, morally dead, and that by regeneration they had obtained spiritual life. Says Calvin: " Dicit mortuos fuissc: et simul cxprimit mortis causam, nempe peccata. Non intelligit solum fuisse in mortis periculo: sed realem mortem significat ac praesentem, qua jam erant opprcssi. Nam spiritvalis mors nihil aliud sit, quam alienatio animae a Deo, omncs mortui nascimur, et mortui vivimus, donec efficiamun virtae Christi participes." On the word νεκροὺς, in the passage from Ephesians, Alford remarks: "The whole of the subsequent mercy of God, in his quickening them, is spiritual, and therefore of necessity the death also. That it involves physical death is most true; but, as I have often had occasion to remark, this latter is so subordinate to spiritual death, as often hardly to come into account in Scripture." Ellicott takes the same view of this word, and says that " the proleptic reference to physical death seems irreconcilable with the context."

Moreover, in his first letter to Timothy, Paul makes use of this expression: " She that liveth riotously is dead while she liveth;"9 literally living, she is dead. Death and life are here predicated of the same person, at the same time. By using the form τέθνηκεν, which signifies has died, and so is dead in the present tense, the apostle declares that being dead is compatible with being at the same time alive. But the life here spoken of is plainly one of conscious existence; and hence the death referred to cannot involve a negation of such existence. It must rather be the opposite or negative of some higher life, some better condition, and finer flow of being. That is to say, it must be spiritual death, ) the insensibility, darkness, and misery of a soul alienated from God.

On the words to which we have now called attention, Schtittgen remarks, " The Jews often employ this oxymoron in their writings. In general, all the impious are thus denominated by them." He proceeds to cite from the Rabbins such expressions as follow: " ' The ungodly, even in this life, are pronounced dead. The ungodly man, who walks not in the way of truth, is said to be dead.'10 ' I praised the dead, who died before.' From which it is evident that they of whom the verse speaks are alive, and yet are said to be dead.11 'For the living know that they must die, but the dead know nothing.' By the living, are to be understood the just; by the dead, the unjust." Again: " Those are meant who, even in death, are called living. ' And the dead know nothing; ' here the ungodly are meant, who, even in the activity of life, are called dead."12

However erroneous may be some of these interpretations, they illustrate the use of the term death to signify a moral condition of the soul, and we cite them merely to prove this use of the term by early Jewish writers. A thorough survey of Rabbinic testimony would not, we suppose, fail to justify the general statement of Schottgcn, introduced above.

With the passages already considered might be associated many others,13 in which some form or derivative of θνήσκω (to die) is applied to the unregenerate in this life; but it would be superfluous to accumulate evidence on the point. It can hardly be denied, that " death," "being dead," " dying," etc., are by the Scriptures predicated of the soul no less than of the body, and that, when affirmed of the former, these terms do not generally, if ever, involve an extinction of conscious being. And this application of the word death to the conscious spirit of man, in other parts of the sacred record, confirms our exposition of the penalty denounced upon sin in Genesis.

This exposition is also sustained by the use which is made of the term " life," in many passages of the inspired volume. For this word is employed by the New Testament writers to designate the kind of conscious being possessed by Christians, rather than the mere fact of existence, a blessed life in fellowship with God, rather than simple being. We begin with the language of Christ.

On a certain occasion, he pronounced' it necessary for the Son of Man to be lifted up, "that whosoever believeth in Him should not perish, but have eternal life"14  —  ἔκη ζωήν αἰώνιον Χωὴν αἰώνιον, says Meyer, who " is, perhaps, the best commentator on the New Testament, of modern times,"15 signifies the eternal Messianic life, which, however, the believer already possesses  —  ἔκη  —  in this αἰών that is, in the temporal development of that moral and blessed life which is independent of death, and which will culminate in perfection and glory at the coming of Christ." And Lücke, whose commentary on the gospel of John is one of the most thorough and attractive in the German language, says that the ἔκη ζωήν αἰώνιος, which is the exact opposite of ἀπώλεια (destruction), or θάνατος (death), is the sum of Messianic blessedness. It is plain, we think, that the life here spoken of as the present possession of every believer in Christ is more than endless existence; it is life in the fullest and highest sense of the word, the free, holy and blessed action of the whole man, that is to say, the proper, normal living of a rational and moral being. The germ, the principle of this life, exists in the heart of every believer; it is a present possession. '' Whosoever," says Christ, "drinketh of the water that I shall give him, shall never thirst; but the water that I shall give him shall be in him a fountain  —  πηγὴ  —  of water, springing up into everlasting life."16 In another place our Saviour utters these words: " He that heareth my word, and believeth on him that sent me, hath eternal life, and shall not come into condemnation, but has passed from death unto life"17μεταβέβηκεν ἐκ τοῦ θανάτου εἰς τὴν ζωήν. Here, again, the believer is said to have eternal life, even now; for he has passed from death into life. Ingens saltus, remarks Bengel, with his customary brevity and graphic power. We translate a part of Lücke's ample and instructive note on this important verse.

"The words, 'Has passed from death into life,' determine that ἐχει (hath) must be taken as a strict present. For the verb μηταβέβηκεν (has passed) affirms that the transition from death into life took place with the hearing and believing. Only if an impossible thought were thus expressed, could we consent, as in a case of extreme necessity, to understand the present ἔχει and the present perfect μηταβέβηκεν as futures. And then we should be compelled to say that John had expressed himself very strangely. But if a higher kind of life, a resurrection process prior to bodily death, is represented by ' hath,' and ' hath passed,' then ζωὴ and ζωὴ αἰώνιος are not to be understood of a life commencing after bodily death, but of the true and eternal Messianic life or salvation, beginning even here. This life does not, to be sure, exclude natural death, but neither does it first begin after this death.18 Even so θάνατος cannot be understood of bodily, but only of spiritual death, of lying in the darkness of the world. This interpretation would be justified here, even θάνατος elsewhere in the New Testament denoted uniformly nothing but bodily death. But the metaphorical idea of death stands out clearly in 1 John iii. 14; v. 16, 17; John viii. 51, 52; 2 Cor. ii. 16; vii. 10. Similar, also, is the use of the words θανατοῦν Rom. vii. 4; viii. 13; and νεκρός, νεκροῦν, ἀποθνήσκειν, Matt. viii. 22; Eph. v. 14; Heb. vi. 1; Col. iii. 5; Gal. ii. 19."

With the passage now examined may be compared a statement of the apostle John to the same effect, namely, " We know that we have passed from death into life, because we love the brethren; he that loveth not; abideth in death."19 This language, explained with a due regard to the preceding context, speaks, evidently, of spiritual death and life, of a passing from one moral condition into another and opposite one. To say that this new moral condition and blessed state is to endure and improve forever, may doubtless be to utter an important truth, but one which does not conflict in the slightest degree with its present existence. It begins in. this life; it continues forever and ever.

Again, we find our Saviour saying: " He that believeth on me hath everlasting life; " "Except ye eat the flesh of the Son of Man, and drink his blood, ye have no life in you;" and, "The words that I speak unto you are spirit, and are life."20 By these verses we are taught, once more, that the Greek terms which denote life and death, living and dying, were applied by Christ to opposite moral states of the soul. For, observe, (1) he more than intimates that his words, his doctrines, are the source of present life to those who receive them, and that, by eating his flesh and drinking his blood, he signifies a reception of his words, and so of himself as the Lamb of God. And (2) he declares that one who believes has eternal life; that one who eats of the true bread shall not die but shall live forever, and that one who does not eat the flesh and drink the blood of the Son of Man hath not life in himself.

Is it not plain that the words life and death, as well as the words bread, flesh, and blood, eating and drinking, are here used in a spiritual sense? Is it not plain that Jesus here speaks of something in the believer's soul which is nourished by Christian truth, and which is at the same time called life? But it is the function of truth to quicken thought and feeling, to determine the modes of conscious life, the character or moral condition of the human soul; and, hence, the rejection of it may involve the utter want of certain spiritual qualities and blessed emotions, but not the want of personal existence. In still another place we read, " Jesus said unto her, I am the resurrection and the life: he that believeth in me, though he were dead, yet shall he live; and whosoever liveth and believeth in me, shall never die." 21 Christ here affirms that every believer is exempted from death. And it matters not for our present purpose whether the word ζῶν, translated in our version "liveth" refers in this passage to physical or to moral life. If it refers to physical life, then our Saviour pronounces the Christian to be already, in time; delivered from the power of death, and in possession of a true and immortal life. But if it refers to moral life, Christ declares that whoever possesses this life, whether in the body or out of the body, is delivered from the power of death; that is, his union with God and delight in him, which alone constitute the normal living of the soul, shall never be interrupted: οὐ μὴ ἀποθάνῃ εἰς τον ̀αἰώνα  —  he shall never die.

Yet the words just cited have been said to signify "shall not die forever;" that is, shall not suffer eternal death; and, thus explained, have been urged in support of the doctrine that death involves the extinction of conscious being.22 The purpose of this essay permits us to test this novel interpretation, by referring to some of the passages which contain the phrase εἰς τὸν αἰώνα

According to Matthew, Christ said to the fig-tree, " Let no fruit grow on thee henceforward forever;"23 and, according to Mark," Let no man eat fruit of thee hereafter forerer."24 Would it express the meaning of Christ, in this instance, to render the phrase in question eternally, or in eternity, instead of forever, implying that the tree might bear fruit for a while in time? Again, Christ is reported to have said, " He that shall blaspheme against the Holy Ghost hath never forgiveness."25 Does this language merely negative the prospect of eternal forgiveness, while it leaves undisturbed the hope of temporal forgiveness? Is God one who really forgives the blasphemer for a time, but cannot forgive him for eternity? Once more: In the gospel written by Luke, Mary is represented as saying, "He hath holpen his servant Israel by remembering mercy, (as he spake to our fathers,) to Abraham and to his seed forever"26 Did not God show mercy to Abraham and to his seed in time as well as in eternity? Was he not to remember mercy from the time of Abraham onward forever, instead, perhaps, of being severe in time, and then gracious in eternity? Again, Jesus says to the woman of Samaria, "Whosoever drinketh of this water shall thirst again  —  πάλιν  —  but whosoever shall drink of the water that I shall give him, shall never thirst; but the water that I shall give him shall be in him a fountain of water, welling up into everlasting life."27 Here, evidently, it is not asserted that whosoever receives the true water of life shall not thirst forever though he may for a time, but from the reception of this water onward forever he shall not thirst. In another place Christ declares, "If any man eat of this bread,"  —  his own body in contrast with the manna,  —  "he shall live forever;"28 and likewise, "he that eateth of this bread "  —  again in contrast with the eating of manna and dying  —  "shall live forever."29 Still later Christ says, " The servant doth not abide in the house forever; the son abideth forever; " that is to say, the abiding of the servant is merely transient, while that of the son is permanent. And in the same chapter we read, " If a man keep my saying, he shall never see death."30 The meaning associated with this form of expression by the Jews is made known by their response: "Abraham died, and the prophets, and thou sayest. If a man keep my word he shall never taste of death." Again, Christ says of his sheep, "I give unto them eternal life, and they shall never perish."31 Did our Saviour mean to say. They may perish, or be plucked from my hand for a time, but they shall not perish for ever? Once more: " The people answered him, We have heard out of the law that Christ abideth forever; and how sayest thou the Son of Man must be lifted up?"32 Evidently the idea of abiding forever was not equivalent in the minds of these men to abiding in eternity or eternally, the terminus a quo beginning in a future world; but it was equivalent to abiding perpetually, from the time of his appearance onward forever. Again, Peter is represented as saying to Christ, " Thou shalt never wash my feet."33 Would it give the exact sense of this passage to translate it thus: "Thou shalt not wash my feet forever, though thou mayest now? " And, finally, Christ tells his disciples, "I will pray the Father, and he shall give you another comforter, that he may abide with you forever.''

"We have now brought forward all the passages in the gospels which contain the phrase, εἰς τὸν αιὡνα either alone or modified by a negative particle; and we believe it must be clear to all, that this phrase never signifies eternally as the opposite of temporally; never refers exclusively to the future and everlasting state. On the other hand, it uniformly starts in time and denies any future limit. The phrase occurs but rarely in the remaining books of the New Testament, and always in the sense given above.

From this partial digression we return to our examination of the term life. "And this is life eternal," says the Great Teacher, "that they should know thee, the only true God, and Jesus Christ whom thou hast sent."34 The best ancient and modern interpreters hold this verse to be a definition by Christ himself of the expression " life eternal," so often used by him according to the record of John. De Wette says: "And this is (therein consists) the life eternal; not, this is the means of the eternal life; for the vital knowledge of God and Christ is itself the eternal life which begins even here, and penetrates the whole life of the human spirit." Meyer translates thus: "Therein consists the eternal life,'' and says, "This knowledge, willed of God, is the 'eternal life,' inasmuch as it is the essential subjective principle of the latter, its enduring, eternally unfolding germ and fountain, both now in the temporal development of the eternal life, and hereafter when the kingdom is set up, in which faith, hope, and charity abide, whose essence is that knowledge."35 The same view, substantially, is presented by Olshausen, Lücke, Bengel, Alford, and many others.

The passage before us may, therefore, be taken, as conclusive evidence that the idea of simple life, of personal existence, was not that which Christ intended to express by ἡζωὴ and ζωὴ αἰώνιος, as applied by him to Christians. Hence, also, there is ample reason for supposing that he did not mean by the word θάνατος, as the opposite or negative of these words, literal death, or an end of conscious being. Both terms have rather a spiritual sense, and are used to designate the moral condition of those to whom they are applied.

It is further to be noted, that the work of regeneration which takes place confessedly in the soul of man, is called by inspired teachers a resurrection. " Therefore," says Paul, " we are buried with him by baptism into death, that like as Christ was raised up from the dead by the glory of the Father, even so we also should walk in newness of life.36 And a little further on he uses this language: " Yield yourselves unto God as those that are alive from the dead."37 In another epistle he remarks, "And you, being dead in your sins and the uncircumcision of your flesh, did He quicken  —  or make alive  —  with Him;"38 and, after a few verses, " If ye then be risen with Christ, seek those things which are above;"39 adding, presently, that they had "put off the old man with his deeds, and had put on the new, renewed unto knowledge after the image of Him that created him."40 And, in yet another epistle, he says that "God, who is rich in mercy. . . hath quickened us together with Christ, and hath raised us up together, and seated us together in heavenly places in Christ Jesus."41 From this class of passages we venture to conclude that the term " resurrection" is sometimes applied to the soul, and refers to the change effected by regeneration. But if the new birth is a resurrection of the soul from the dead, it is evident that the term death, when predicated of the soul, does not mean precisely the same as it does when used of the body. As a predicate, its meaning is modified by the nature of its subject.

It should also be borne in mind that several other terms are so applied to believers in the New Testament as to confirm our explanation of the words " life," " eternal life," and '' resurrection," when predicated in the present tense of genuine Christians. They are said to be "begotten again," '- begotten from above," to be " the workmanship of God, created anew in Christ Jesus unto good works."

These expressions characterize believers as those who have been made new by the spirit of God. Their personal identity remains undisturbed, their conscious existence flows on without interruption, their mental and moral faculties are still the same; yet all things have become new; unreason has given place to reason, spiritual blindness to insight, unbelief to trust, selfishness to love, alienation from God to fellowship with him; the spirit has been purified and established in harmony and peace and God; gales from heaven breathe upon it, divine influences pervade it, angels of light minister unto it, and God circumfuses and fills it with his presence. This is the normal and proper life of a rational being. Hence the beloved disciple could say, " In him was life; and the life was the light of men;" for spiritual life, light, and blessedness are almost equivalent terms. Hence, also, the new condition of the believer  —  the light, and love, and trust of his soul, are said to be formed, created, begotten, by the Father of Spirits. Hence, too, our final reply to the objection, which was named on a previous page, to our inference from Paul's language in the 15th of Corinthians. And hence, lastly, a justification of the view which we have taken of death, the penalty of sin.

To recapitulate: We have found reason to believe

(1) that the soul of man was made originally incorruptible, and his body corruptible;

(2) that the penal results of sin, which are expressed by the term death, were provided for in the original constitution of both soul and body;

(3) that these results consisted of suffering and loss, the soul experiencing the evils which attend and follow moral darkness and separation from God, and the body those which accompany the process of dissolution;

(4) that the all-comprehending penalty of sin was, however, the ruin and misery of the soul, the dissolution of the body being no more than the attending satellite of the great and central evil; and

(5) that the death of the soul took place immediately after the fall, being a state of misery which naturally and normally culminates in eternal woe.



1) Gen. ii. 17.

2) Matt. viii. 22.

3) Eg. De Wette, Meyer, Olshausen, Stier, Alford, Ripley, and others.

4) Rev. iii. 1.

5) See Heb. vi. 1; ix. 14.

6) Eg. Robinson, De "Wette, Meyer, Hengstenberg, Stuart, Ebrard, and others.

7) Col. ii. 13.

8) Eph. ii. 1, 5.

9) 1 Tim. v. 6.

10) Eccl. iv. 2.

11) Eccl. ix. 5.

12) Sec Schöttgen's Horae Hebraieae, I. pp. 181, 377.

13) Eg. Rom. vi. 13; xi. 15; Eph. v. 14, etc.

14) John iii. 15.

15) Dr. Hodge, of Princeton.

16) John iv. 14.

17) John v. 24.

18) Cf. v. 40.

19) 1 John iii. 14.

20) John vi. 47, 53, 63.

21) John xi. 25, 26.

22) Ham (J. P.), in "Bible Examined," vol. VII. p. 74: "' Shall not die forever; ' he shall die for a time, but not forever; he shall rise again."

23) Matt. xxi. 19.

24) Mark xi. 14.

25) Mark iii. 29.

26) Luke i. 54, 55.

27) John iv. 13, 14.

28) John vi. 51.

29) John vi. 58.

30) John viii. 35, 51.

31) John x. 28.

32) John xii. 34.

33) John xiii. 8.

34) John xvii. 3.

35) For ἵνα before a defining clause, see John vi. 29; iv. 34; 1 John iii. 11,23; iv. 21; 2 John vi.

36) Rom. vi. 4.

37) Rom. vi. 12.

38) Col. ii. 13.

39) Col. iii. 1.

40) Col. iii. 10.

41) Eph. ii. 4, 6.