The State of the Impenitent Dead

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

Section 3




Haying learned from the word of God that death, the penalty of sin, falls chiefly upon the soul, and consists, for the present, in separation from God rather than extinction of conscious being, we must now carry forward our investigation to the state of unbelievers during the period which elapses between the dying and the rising again of the body. The Scriptures teach, as we believe, that the souls of impenitent men continue still, in the transitional state to be conscious and miserable; and it will be our duty in the present section to exhibit, partially at least, their testimony on this point.

In our Lord's account of the rich man and Lazarus, it is said: "And it came to pass that the beggar died, and was carried by the angels into Abraham's bosom; the rich man also died and was buried; and in hades he lifted up his eyes, being in torments," etc.1 The limits assigned to the present essay do not permit us to review and estimate in detail the various hypotheses which have been made respecting the import of this passage; but the result of a somewhat careful survey is simply this: that the most obvious meaning of Christ's language is its real meaning; that no amount of ingenuity, no keenness of spiritual vision, can discover any occult sense in this language, or dissipate the impression which it makes at once upon a thoughtful mind. Says Dr. Whately of the passage: " It seems to imply, indeed, very plainly, that there is a future state of rewards and punishments, . . . and also that those who have been devoted to the good things and enjoyments of this world will have no share in those of the world to come, and will regret, when it is too late, their not having ' laid up for themselves treasure in heaven.'"2 Very true; but is this all? We think not. If it teaches so much, it teaches still more; it endorses the well-known doctrine of the Pharisees as to the conscious existence of human souls after death, making no distinction at this point between the righteous and the wicked. Nor is the testimony of our Saviour weakened by supposing his words to be a parable; for the dialogue between Dives and Abraham, the positive misery of the former and the implied blessedness of the latter, are too prominent features of the supposed parable to be reckoned mere drapery without any special significance. It will not be extravagant to assert, on the strength of this parable, that previous to the final day the impenitent dead are fully conscious, are in a state of suffering, are beyond the reach of help, and have no valid plea to offer against the justice of their doom. For, according to the representation of Christ, the rich man had brothers living upon earth; he was able to converse with Abraham; he spoke of being " tormented in this flame; " and his seeming reflection upon the goodness of God was repelled by the significant words: " If they hear not Moses and the prophets, neither will they be persuaded though one rose from the dead."3

To destroy the force of tins passage, great stress has sometimes been laid upon the fact that both the rich man and Abraham are represented as having bodies, which is quite inconsistent with a proper idea of the intermediate state. But it may well be doubted, whether they are represented as having bodies in any other way than God is said to have hands and feet, and nearly all the members of a human body. If, however, they were, this could hardly, with our limited knowledge of the future life, be pronounced inconsistent with the proper idea of an intermediate state. " If, when parts of the body are removed, we still believe that we possess those limbs, and feel pain in them, why may not the disembodied spirit still subjectively exist in, and feel the sensations of, that corporeal system from which it is temporarily separated?"4 And besides, it may be questioned, whether those who assume the existence of the human soul, or of any created intelligence, apart from a material organ, as simple spirit like God, do not go beyond the record. It certainly behoves every man to speculate with great caution on a matter which is not distinctly treated in the word of God, and which lies altogether beyond the range of our experience in this life.

Turning now to the language of Peter, we obtain additional evidence that unbelievers are conscious during the intermediate state. He speaks of Christ as '' being put to death in the flesh, but quickened by the Spirit; in which also he went and preached to the spirits in prison "  —  ἐν θυλακῇ. To pass over the questions still in litigation respecting the import of this text, we believe all the best interpreters agree in holding the spirits here mentioned to be the souls of departed men, probably the souls of those who perished in the Noachian deluge. Now it seems to us scarcely less than absurd to speak of unconscious spirits as under guard, in prison. Nothing short of an express declaration, made by an inspired teacher, that a state of profound unconsciousness was itself the prison in which they were guarded, would seem to justify such an exposition.

But we are not restricted in this part of our essay to those passages which speak of the impenitent dead; for it is commonly admitted that both the righteous and the wicked are conscious, or both unconscious, between death and the resurrection. Hence every expression of the Scriptures, which proves the consciousness of believers during the period in question, proves that of unbelievers also.

Let us then consider the words of Paul in his second epistle to the Corinthians: " Being confident then always, and knowing: that while at home in the body we are absent from the Lord; for we walk by faith, and not by sight; we are confident, I say, and arc well pleased rather to migrate out of the body, and to dwell at home with the Lord.'"5 The apostle had already, in a previous verse, expressed his desire to be clothed upon with a celestial body. And he goes on to say, in the verses cited by us, that even though he should not be permitted to enter at once, after death, upon the blessedness of the final state in his glorified body, he was nevertheless well pleased to leave this present body, and dwell at home with the Lord. And it is certain that unconscious existence, or virtual non-existence, would not have been described by Paul as a dwelling with the Lord  —  ἐνδημῆσαι πρὸς τὸν κίριον. Alford, who thinks the second coming of Christ was anticipated by Paul as possible in his own day, paraphrases thus: "Even if a dissolution of the body be imminent,  —  even that, though not according to our wish, does not destroy our confidence; for so sensible are we that dwelling in the body is a state of banishment from the Lord, that we prefer to it even the alternative of dissolution, bringing us, as it will, into his presence." If the apostle preferred a state of absolute unconsciousness to life in this world, merely because he would have no sense of the lapse of ages, but would seem instantly to awake with Christ, he plainly disregarded his own best good and the best good of mankind. For, " by continuing in life, he would have made further proficiency in the Christian life, would have done more for the honor of God, and for the kingdom of Christ, and therefore would have been entitled by promise, to a greater degree of happiness in the resurrection state; and this greater degree of happiness would have been extended to all eternity. So that, in reality, the apostle would have been an infinite loser by death at that time. He would have lost a certain degree of happiness, doubtless equal to the whole heavenly happiness of some saints; and this degree of happiness, running through eternity, would be a sum of happiness as truly infinite as the whole eternal happiness of some real saints. As, therefore, those saints, by the loss of their whole heavenly happiness, would sustain an infinite loss, so would the apostle, if he had lost that additional degree of happiness to which he would have been entitled by his continued life and usefulness. We can make nothing of this text but upon the supposition that his soul died not, or did not fall into a torpor with his body."6 And, again, his removal by death would put an end to his direct efforts for the good of the church. Bands of Christians, looking to him for counsel and encouragement, had been formed in various parts of the Roman Empire,* and never were his personal services more necessary to their establishment in truth and spiritual progress, than when he was writing this very epistle. Yet, according to the hypothesis of unconsciousness during the intermediate state, the magnanimous apostle was quite willing to leave these lambs, which had been entrusted by the Great Shepherd to his care, for the sake of seeming to be sooner with the Lord! nothing more.

And this remark bears the mind away to another passage in the writings of Paul, where he distinctly recognizes the value of his presence to the churches. Writing to the Philippians, he uses these words: "Because for me to live is Christ, and to die is gain. But if to live in the flesh  —  if this is to me the fruit of labor,  —  then what I should choose I know not. Now I am perplexed by the two, having the desire to depart and to be with Christ, for it is much more than better; but to abide in the flesh is more needful for you."7 In his manuscript notes upon the epistle to the Philippians, Professor Hackett says of the word ἀναλῦσαι (to depart): " It is strictly a nautical term, meaning 'to cast loose,' to 'weigh anchor,' in order to put to sea." The manner in which σὺν Χριστῷ εἶναι follows this term, would lead us to suppose that the apostle regarded the one event as immediately subsequent to the other. It is not easy to see how he could have expressed himself in a way more inevitably suggesting that idea, than the one which he has adopted here. Had he believed that an interval of unconsciousness was to elapse after death before the soul was to be present with Christ, would he not be likely, in such a connection, to have intimated that belief, or at least to have avoided language so liable to mislead the reader? And on the whole passage he makes the following remarks: " It may be well to notice here the nature of the struggle in Paul's mind, between his desire to depart and be with Christ, and his anxiety to labor for the spiritual welfare of men. It is difficult to see how he could have experienced any such struggle, unless he believed that death, which released him from the toils of this life, was to introduce him at once to the presence of Christ and the bliss of heaven.

"On the supposition that he expected after death to remain, for an indefinite time, unconscious in the grave until the resurrection, how, with his characteristic zeal for the salvation of men, and his contempt of trials and dangers in the pursuit of that object, could he have hesitated for a moment to wish to live as long as possible, since the longer lie lived the more he would be able to accomplish for the cause of the Redeemer, and since he could gain nothing of a permanent nature by an earlier death which he would regard as worthy of a moment's comparison with the value of his labors to his fellow-men? On the contrary, if we suppose that he regarded his attainment of the rewards and the joys of heaven as simultaneous with his departure from life; we have then a natural explanation of his perplexity. He might well desire that a consummation fraught with such gain to himself personally might arrive soon, and feel that nothing could reconcile him to the idea of remaining longer absent from Christ, except the importance of his ministry in preparing others for the same glorious destination."

To the testimony of Paul may be added the language of Christ himself. When one of the robbers who were crucified with him offered the prayer, " Lord, remember me when thou comest in thy kingdom," the Saviour replied, "Verily, I say unto thee, to-day shalt thou be with me in paradise."8 Comment on this declaration seems to be almost superfluous. To suppose that Christ, in reply to such a petition, merely reminded the dying robber that they were both to pass that very day from the land of the living into a state of total unconsciousness, of virtual non-existence, is most unreasonable. We can hardly divine the process by which any one can be led to endorse such a view. Moreover, the primary sense of the word paradise, namely, a "park" or "pleasure-garden," and the use of this term by Josephus, by the Seventy, by Paul, and by John, are utterly inconsistent with such a view of our passage. Indeed, it is quite certain from the language of Christ, that the believing robber was to enter, that very day, immediately after death, upon a state of conscious blessedness in the presence of Christ. Dr. Whately appears to concede this, but undertakes to destroy the value of this concession by suggesting that, by reason of his extraordinary faith and the peculiar time of his death, the converted robber was permitted to anticipate the resurrection.9 With similar ingenuity he advances the suggestion, that Moses did not actually die, but was translated, like Enoch and Elijah. But these conjectures seem to be unsupported either by reason or by the word of God, and are advanced, it is not severe to say, for no other purpose than to save a doctrine which is not, we suppose, taught in the New Testament.10

"If, however, it be said the meaning is, that, as the thief would be conscious of nothing between death and the resurrection, his being with Christ at the resurrection would seem to him to have been the same day on which he died, or immediately after his death, I answer, this would be to talk without example, and in a manner not intelligible to mankind in general. Would it not be unintelligible, and without example, to tell a man who had been a whole day in a sound sleep, and who was wholly ignorant of the time which had elapsed during his sleep, that it was but a minute since he had fallen into sleep? Or would there be any propriety or truth in saying, that Lazarus, who lay dead four days, was raised on the same day, and even immediately after his death? Not an instance of such language can be found in all the Scriptures, nor in any approved uninspired author. Yet this would have been just as true and proper, on the ground of this objection, as our Lord's telling the thief on the cross, 'To-day shalt thou be with me in paradise.' Lazarus, on the hypothesis now under consideration, would no more have perceived any time between his death and resurrection, than the thief would have perceived time between his death and the general resurrection, "11

But a plausible objection to the view now presented has been drawn from Christ's language to the Sadducees: "As touching the resurrection of the dead, have ye not read that which was spoken unto you by God, saying, I am the God of Abraham, and the God of Isaac, and the God of Jacob? God is not the God of the dead, but of the living."12 Dobney remarks on this language: " Observe, the question just then opened was not concerning the separate and conscious existence of the soul after death; and, therefore, it was not to prove this that he showed that Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob had not utterly ceased to be. His argument, to be satisfactory against that particular class of objectors before him and demonstrative of the point he had undertaken to prove, shows the living again, which he predicted, to be dependent on a resurrection. To deduce from the title God had assumed, that, therefore, since he is not the God of the dead but of the living, the patriarchs were still existent, in a separate state, would not have met the case at all, unless the living after death be itself the resurrection. His argument, strictly logical when correctly stated, is this: As God is not the God of the dead, of those who have finally and forever ceased to be, there must be a resurrection of those of whom he calls himself the God."13

The Sadducees, it will be remembered held that " there is no resurrection, nor angel or spirit;"14 and that "the souls of men perish with their bodies."15 It was a central dogma of their system, that man is entirely dependent on bodily organization for conscious existence; so that when the corporeal frame is dissolved by death, he really ceases to be. And, according to Mr. Dobney, this was also the doctrine of our Saviour; otherwise his statement, " Now that the dead are raised, even Moses showed at the bush," was a mistake, and his reasoning fallacious. But we cannot see that he has made good this position. For it must be borne in mind that the doctrines of a separate existence of the soul after death, and of a future resurrection, were always united in the Jewish mind; that the Pharisees and Essenes affirmed both these doctrines, while the Sadducees denied them both; that Christ and his apostles are nowhere in the New Testament represented as agreeing with the Sadducees, even in part, and that the only alternative allowed by our passage is, that the patriarchs were pronounced "alive," either because, though actually and completely dead, they had not finally ceased to be, since God would raise them into life hereafter, or because they were truly alive and conscious, but not in their full, complex nature  —  which fact was really a divine prediction and assurance of the resurrection  —  and, bearing this in mind, it will surely be easy for any fair investigator to decide in favor of the latter as the only just view of Christ's language. And if this decision be accepted, how characteristic and profound was the answer of Jesus! His argument was far deeper and more comprehensive than the single point brought forward by his adversaries required. He replied to the Sadducees as a judge, rather than as a lawyer. He proved their system to be rotten at the core. From a passage which no mere logician would have pronounced relevant to the question at issue, he drew a conclusion which destroyed their whole system, root and branch.

To present the matter in another form: The Sadducees assailed the whole doctrine of a future life, whether in the body or out of the body, by assailing the doctrine of the resurrection, for the latter doctrine was an integral part of the former. To use the words of a friend, it was tacitly assumed by them and by Christ, " That there is such a connection between the resurrection of the body and the spiritual existence of men between death and the resurrection, that any proof of the one, is pari passu a proof of the other."16 Our Saviour, therefore, first answered their cavil against the resurrection of the body, by correcting their gross and false idea of a " spiritual " body, and then proved out of the Scriptures the conscious existence of Moses and the patriarchs long after their decease, which fact was a prophecy and pledge, and valid proof of the resurrection.17

Further, the dead are spoken of as those "that sleep in the dust of the earth," and sleep, it is urged, involves unconsciousness. On this objection we remark, first, that men who believe in the consciousness of the soul after death, have been wont for ages to speak of dying as falling asleep, and of the dead as those who have fallen asleep, without perceiving any absurdity or incongruity in their language. This fact alone is a full reply to the objection; for Christ and his apostles used not the language of philosophy, but of common life. And, secondly, that sleep and death resemble each other; not, however, because the soul is unconscious in either, but because the bodily senses are closed, the windows by which the spirit looks forth upon the world, the avenues by which the world approaches it, the mysterious arches which in this life span the gulf between mind and matter, are all gone or impassible; so that if the mind is active, as in dreaming, this action is unrestrained by the real condition of the external world, by the true relations of the dreamer to material objects. Hence the exceeding difficulty often times of recalling the action of sleep, when the senses are refreshed and revived and reopened. The truth seems to be this: that the spirit is ever active, though in different states of consciousness, which may or may not be connected here. Even Dr. Whately admits that the mind probably does not cease to think in the profoundest sleep. It is, therefore, we have good reason to believe, the body alone which truly rests in sleep; it is the senses, the nerves, the organs of the soul for this present life in connection with the world, which are directly concerned in slumber; and so it is in death. The body sleeps in the dust of the earth until the last day; but the soul is not there; it has passed into a different sphere of action and consciousness.18

The fact also may be worthy of attention, that only " the dead in Christ " are said by New Testament writers to be asleep. And from this usage of our Saviour and his apostles it may be right to infer that the dead are described in the book of Daniel as those " that sleep in the dust of the earth," because the righteous were first and prominently in the speaker's mind. This view is favored by the context. And if it be correct, we are only to inquire why the penitent dead are spoken of as being asleep. And the answer may be this: They have passed from a State of wearisome toil and conflict to one of sweet repose, which, again, is to be followed by a more active and blessed life.

And, finally, a general judgment is foretold in the Scriptures, and this is pronounced inconsistent with the doctrine of human consciousness between death and the resurrection. Such a statement we are not required to answer; for we are by no means competent to explain the ways of God. As the heavens are high above the earth, so are his ways above our ways, and his thoughts above our thoughts. We are content to abide by the testimony of his word. Still, it may be remarked, that a ruler might certainly for wise reasons defer indefinitely the trial of a criminal whose guilt was certain, whose custody was sure, and whose hope of ultimate acquittal was nearly or quite taken away; and so also God, for aught we can see, may properly reserve the wicked for a final and solemn adjudication, not to assure them of their guilt and condemnation, but to exhibit before all finite beings the ground of his decision and the righteousness of his administration. We can imagine no better way for him to take in making himself and his glory known. It seems to us eminently suited to the proper conduct of a moral government, perfectly adapted to complete the revelation of the divine character, as concerned in the origin and final destiny of our race. And even should it prove that the wicked do not come to a full knowledge and sense of their guilt on the one hand, and to an absolute assurance of their hopeless nun on the other, until the last judgment, we do not see how this could affect materially the question at issue.19 No party would be wronged; the guilty would be treated as such, though perhaps cheating themselves still with the faint hope of deliverance, and the righteous would be treated as such, though not perhaps enjoying all the assurance and blessedness of their final state.

We have never seen any other even plausible objection, drawn from the word of God, to the consciousness of departed spirits in the intermediate state, and therefore submit the following as our conclusion from the teaching of Scripture, namely: That unbelievers, as well as believers, will be fully conscious from the time of their physical death until the resurrection. And it need scarcely be remarked, after considering; the parable of the rich man and Lazarus, that the former are in a state of misery, and the latter in a state of blessedness.



1) Luke xvi. 19-31.

2) Whately's Future State, p. 57.

3) We would here call attention to an excellent article on " The Place and Condition of the Departed," by Prof. Griffin, in the Bib. Sac. vol. XIII. p. 153, sq.; to an article on "The Intermediate State," in the Chr. Rev. vol. XX. p. 381, sq.; to an article on " The Intermediate State and the Punishment of the Wicked," in the Meth. rev. vol. XXXIV. p. 240, sq.; to Hertzog's " Real-Encyklopaedie fur prot. Thcolosie und Kirche," Bd. V. s. v. Hades; and to Prof. Stuart's "Essays on Future Punishment," p. 76, sq.

4) Alford, sub loco. See, on this passage, the commentaries of Calvin, De Wette, Meyer, Bengel, and Ripley.

5) 2 Cor. V. 6-8.

6) Works of Edwards the Younger, vol. II. p. 530.

7) Phil. i. 21-24.

8) Luke xxiii. 43.

9) Future State, p. 61 sq.; 247 sq.

10) In addition to the passages considered above, see also Matt. xvii. 3; cf. Mark ix. 9; and Rev. vi. 9-11.

11) Edwards' Works (the younger), vol. II. p. 531.

12) Matt xxii. 31, 32; Cf. Luke xxi. 38.

13) "The Scripture Doctrine of Future Punishment," etc., by H. H. Dobney, p. 154.

14) Acts xxiii. 8.

15) Josephus Antiq. xviii. 1-5.

16) Rev. J. T. Smith, of Amherst, Mass.

17) See also the Commentaries, especially those of Meyer, De Wette, Alford, and Bengel. Says Schöttgen ad Matt. xxii. 32, " Nervus hujus argumentntionis Christi a Tkeohgis nostris probe pcrspectus est. Deum exim alicujus esse notat in faedere cum ipso versari. Sic in V. T. Deus tantum erat Israelitarum Deus, in N. T. etiam gentilium. Roman. iii. 29, hoc est, olim cum solis Judaeis facdus habebat., jam vero cum omnibus nationibus in toto terrarum orbe. Jam Deus se Deum Abrahami, Isaaci, et Jacobi dicit, longo intervallo post mortem ipsorum, h. e. fatebatur, se adhuc in faedere cum ipsis versari, necesse erat igitur, ut tunc temporis adhuc in vicis esseni, respectu scil, ad animam habito. Quia vero anima abrahami non est totus Abahamus, sed tantum pars ipsius, superest, ut etiam corpus SPEm HABEAT reviviscendi, et Veritas haec verborum divinorum inconvulsa maneat. Hoc est argumenium Christi pro resurrectione mortiorum.''

18) See a luminous discussion of "Consciousness," in Sir Wm. Hamilton's "Lectures on Metaphysics." Leo's XI. to XIX., especially Lec. XVII.

19) Cf. Matt. vii. 22, and xxv. 44.