The State of the Impenitent Dead

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

Section 4




In the last section we had occasion to mention the well-known doctrine of the Pharisees as to the conscious existence of souls after death. Before adducing the testimony of Scripture in respect to the final state of unbelievers, it may be well to lay before our readers the account which Josephus, a contemporary of the apostles, gives of the doctrine held by Pharisees and Essenes on the point to be examined. Their opinions are of no weight per sc; yet a knowledge of them may put us in the position of those who listened to Christ, and may thus enable us the better to understand his teaching. In so far as lie appropriated, without explanation, the language of any large class of his hearers, when alluding to the condition of men beyond the grave, he thereby and to that extent endorsed their belief as correct. This will readily be admitted by all who recognize his authority as a religious teacher, and with such only are we at present concerned. If any are prepared to assume that Christ had no certain doctrines to express, no well-defined and reliable truths to utter in the ears of a lost race, for them all aids to interpretation derived from the use of language by the Jews may be superfluous; the pictures and visions of a poet and seer1 may be comprehended at once by the "poet's eye," or " faculty divine," but for others the help of history and philology will ever be necessary.

According to the testimony of Josephus, the Pharisees held " that all souls are incorruptible, but the souls of good men are only removed into other bodies, while the souls of bad men are subject to eternal punishment."2 Again: they "believe that souls have an immortal vigor in them, and that under the earth there will be rewards and punishments, according as they have lived virtuously or viciously in this life; and the latter are to be detained in an everlasting prison, but the former shall have power to revive and live again . . . . But the doctrine of the Sadducees is this: That souls die with the bodies," etc.3 And, in another place: '- Smiling in their agonies, and deriding the efforts of their persecutors, they cheerfully resigned their souls, assured of receiving them again. For the opinion obtains among them, that bodies indeed arc corruptible, and the matter of them not permanent, but that souls continue exempt from death forever: and that, emanating from the most subtle ether, they are enfolded in bodies, as prisons, to which they are drawn by some natural spell. But when loosed from the bonds of the flesh, as if released from a long captivity, they rejoice, and are borne upward. In this opinion, harmonizing with the sons of Greece, they maintain that virtuous souls have their habitation beyond the ocean, in a region oppressed neither with rains, nor snows, nor heats, but which the ever-gentle zephyr refreshes, breathing from the wave, while to the bad they allot a gloomy and tempestuous cavern, full of never-ending punishments.

"According to the same notion, the Greeks seem to me to apportion to the brave, whom they style heroes and demi-gods, the islands of the blessed; but to the souls of the wicked, the place of the impious in hades, where their legends tell that certain persons are punished, as Sisyphus, and Tantalus, and Ixion, and Tityus, laying it down, first, that souls are immortal, and deriving from thence their exhortations to virtue, and their dissuasives from vice. For the good become better in this life by the hope of a reward even after death, and the impetuous passions of the evil are restrained by the fear, that, though they may escape detection while alive, they will, after dissolution, undergo a deathless punishment. Such are the theological views of the Essenes concerning the soul  —  an irresistible attraction to those who have once tasted their philosophy."4

Moreover, Tacitus affirms of the Jews that " they deem the souls of those who are cut off in battle or by the hand of the executioner to be eternal. Hence their desire for offspring, and their contempt of death. Dead bodies are buried, after the custom of Egypt, rather than burned; there is also the same solicitude, and the same belief in respect to the under-world."5

With the light which these testimonies shed upon the belief prevalent among the Jews, at the time of Christ, in respect to a future life, let us turn to the word of God, and examine its language concerning the final state of unbelievers. In the last book of the New Testament we read: " And the devil that deceived them was cast into the lake of fire and brimstone, where also were the beast, and the false prophet, and they shall he tormented day and night forever and ever  —  βασανισθήσονται ἡμέρας καὶ νυκτὸς εἰς τοὺς αἰὦνας τῶν αὶώνων. Here " the beast " must be understood to signify and represent real men, knit together in a body, controlled by a common purpose, and setting themselves as a great organized power in opposition to Christ  —  a monarchy, perhaps, yet not the less composed of actual men, because they are united together, and may be represented in the aggregate as a single power. Here, then, is no image of impersonal evil,  —  "for there is really no such thing as impersonal evil in the sense of moral evil,"  —  no mere nominalistic idea set before us as a great beast, but a compact anti-christian organization, made up of individuals, and which can be in the "lake of fire " only as the individuals constituting it are there. A similar view is also to be taken of the " false prophet."

"And I saw," proceeds the Revelator, " a great white throne, and him that sat on it, from whose face the earth and the heaven fled away, and no place was found for them. And I saw the dead, great and small, standing before the throne; and books were opened; and another book was opened, which is the book of life; and the dead were judged out of the things written in the books according to their works. And the sea gave up the dead that were in it, and death and hades gave up the dead that were in them, and they were judged every one according to their works. And death and hades were cast into the lake of fire. This is the second death, the lake of fire. On the last words of this passage Ebrard remarks: " If death and hades were cast into the lake of fire, and it is then said, 'This is the second death, the lake of fire,' the sense cannot be that death in the abstract is to be destroyed, so that henceforth there shall be no death any more; also, that hades has become superfluous as an abode, and therefore will be burned up like an old box. For death's annihilation cannot be a second death, and, besides, the second death is a punishment for men,6 not a means for the burning up of localities and instruments which have become superfluous. Still less can "death" and "hades" be two " demons " (as De Wette supposes), who were to be punished, because they had slain so many men; for in that case " the lake of fire " itself must also be punished! Death and hades are rather to be understood in the concrete of the men who are found in them." To nearly the same effect says a writer in the Christian Review: " Death has no separate existence. Hades, indeed, may be a locality as well as a condition, and may, therefore, without incongruity, be represented as being cast into the lake of fire. But as this cannot be said of death, and as the two are so intimately united, it seems preferable to treat them alike. It is not said that the dead who were in death and hades were cast into the lake of fire, but simply that death and hades themselves were cast in. Is it not, then, perfectly legitimate to consider death and hades as standing for the dead who were in them, or, rather, the dead in whom they were?"7 We cannot withhold our assent to this interpretation as the only natural and consistent one. Passing now to the next chapter of the Apocalypse, we read: " But the fearful and unbelieving, and abominable, and murderers, and Whoremongers, and sorcerers, and idolaters, and all liars, shall have their part in the lake which burneth with fire and brimstone, which is the second death:8 and further on in the next chapter, "Blessed are they that do his commandments, that they may have right to the tree of life, and may enter in through the gates into the city. For without are dogs, and sorcerers, and whoremongers, and murderers, and idolaters, and whosoever loveth and maketh a lie."9 Let it be observed in passing, that the same classes of men, with hardly an exception, are said, in the one case, to " have part in the lake of fire," and, in the other, to be " without the city." To these passages should be added, as referring in our judgment to the future doom of unbelievers, two verses in the fourteenth chapter of this book, namely, " If any man worship the beast and his image, and receive his mark in his forehead or in his hand, the same shall drink of the wine of the wrath of God, which is poured out without mixture into the cup of his indignation: and he shall be tormented  —  βασανισθήσεται  —  with fire and brimstone, in the presence of the holy angels and in the presence of the Lamb; and the smoke of their torment ascendeth up forever and ever; and they have no rest day nor night," etc.10 Well has Bengel said of this language,, "Una omnhim horrcndissima in tola Scriptura est haecce comminatlo. Pcllit timorem ab interfectoribus corporis timor ah Eo, qui potest et animam et corpus perimere."11

On these portions of the sacred record we submit the following remarks: First, the second death, which awaits all whose names are not written in the book of life, is denominated the lake of fire. This death seems also to be referred to as consisting, in part, of exclusion from the holy city and association with the vile and abandoned. Briefly, it involves extreme suffering and infinite loss. Secondly, the lake of fire, called also the second death, is a designation of the final state or abode of Satan and his angels. If, then, the testimony of this apocalyptic seer is worthy of confidence, wicked men are to be associated in their final state with the great adversary  —  a fact of dreadful omen in itself. Thirdly, the sufferings of Satan are to be without end. Togcther with the beast and the false prophet, he is to be " tormented clay and night forever and ever." The Greek words in this clause are perfectly unequivocal. The idea of eternity is expressed with all the plainness with which the most perfect language ever spoken could give it; and we are unacquainted with any form of speech that would more surely convey to a mind familiar with the Greek tongue the idea of conscious suffering than the one here chosen. To attempt any modification of the prima facie import of such language seems to us a perilous tampering with the word of God. We rejoice, therefore, to find that Dobney, one of the ablest as well as fairest defenders of annihilation, hesitates to deny the eternal misery of Satan.12 Fourthly, the misery of lost men must therefore be pronounced in like manner endless. For their doom is described by the same figurative language as that of Satan. Many of them, indeed, are designated by the terms " beast " and " false prophet," who are to be tormented, it is explicitly said, forever and ever. And from the passage in chapter fourteenth we learn the doom of all who worship the beast and his image; " the smoke of his torment ascendeth up forever and ever; and they have no rest day nor night," etc.

"We can but think the expressions cited above shut us up to the doctrine that death, the penalty of sin, does not consist in the extinction of conscious being:, but in the extinction of conscious well-being. Dissolution belongs to the corruptible body, " the earthly house of this tabernacle," but not to the spirit or to its resurrection body.

Let us hear now the words of Christ while yet on earth. In the twenty-fifth chapter of Matthew he portrays the general judgment. "We quote two verses from this sublime description: " Then shall he say also unto them on the left hand. Depart from me, ye cursed, into everlasting fire, prepared for the devil and his angels" "And these shall go away into eternal punishment, but the righteous into life eternal."13 How perfectly does this language coincide with that in the Apocalypse! The abode of lost men is also Satan's home, and is called everlasting fire and punishment. To resolve all this into a flame-picture addressed to the imagination, is to give up the science of exegesis, and make the word of God teach whatever the student chooses to have it. Says De Wette, the rationalist: "Evil and its punishment have in the Father, the absolute God, and in his eternal purpose, no ground, but are a human work, although guided and controlled of God. . . . . The punishment of hell, which is conditioned by sin, cannot be eternal. See, however, the opposite view, as maintained by the Rabbins, in Wetstein. The eternity of this punishment lies, indeed, in the verbal sense  —  Wortsinne)  —  but yet it is to be remarked that the term fire is to be taken figuratively, and the word αἰώνιον not with metaphysical strictness; that the idea of the eternal is irreconcilable with that of evil and its punishment, and that the object of this warning representation is not to give information respecting the eternal nature of things, but to depict visibly the idea of the judgment, that is, the removal of the conflict between good and evil in the kingdom of God, by setting aside evil."

This evidently is not interpretation, but speculation; its basis is philosophy, and not the word of God. Meyer's note, on the other hand, seems to us full of truth: " The absolute idea of eternity, in respect to the punishment of hell, is not to be set aside by an appeal to the popular use of αἰώνιον, nor by an appeal to the figurative term fire and to the inconsistency between the idea of the eternal and that of evil and its punishment, together with the warning object of the description; but it stands fast exegetically by reason of the contrasted ζωὴν αἰώνιον which signifies the endless Messianic life."

With the passages already adduced may be compared the following: " If thine eye offend thee, pluck it out; it is better for thee to enter into the kingdom of God with one eye, than having two eyes to be cast into hell, where their worm dieth not, and the fire is not quenched."14 "I say unto you, that many shall come from the cast and the west, and shall sit down with Abraham, and Isaac, and Jacob, in the kingdom of heaven; but the children of the kingdom shall be cast out into outer darkness: there shall be wailing and gnashing of teeth."15 "The Son of Man shall send forth his angels, and they shall gather out of his kingdom all things that offend, and them which do iniquity; and shall cast them into a furnace of fire: there shall be wailing and gnashing of teeth."16 "So shall it be at the end of the world: the angels shall come forth and shall sever the wicked from among the just, and shall cast them into the furnace of fire: there shall be wailing and gnashing of teeth."17 "Cast ye the unprofitable servant into outer darkness: there shall be weeping and gnashing of teeth."18 "But he shall say, I tell you I know you not whence ye are; depart from me all ye workers of iniquity. There shall be weeping and gnashing of teeth when ye shall see Abraham, and Isaac, and Jacob, and all the prophets, in the kingdom of God, and you yourselves cast out."19

It will be observed by the careful reader that the final abode of the ungodly is variously represented by Christ. He speaks of their being cast into a " furnace of fire," or " unquenchable fire," into " outer darkness," or simply " out of the" kingdom of God." But the effect is always the same; nowhere destruction of consciousness, everywhere misery, " weeping and gnashing of teeth." While we have no more right to presume that unbelievers will be immersed in the element of fire hereafter than we have to conclude that literal darkness, or an actual worm that never dies, will be the source of their anguish, we are authorized, and indeed required, to believe that their condition will be one of intense woe.

Yet this doctrine has been of late assailed, and the opinion has been advanced, that fire is not an emblem of torment, but of destruction, and, hence, that all the passages cited above point us rather to the extinction of personal existence than to a state of penal suffering. Several instances may, no doubt, be produced from the word of God which seem at first sight to favor this opinion. But if we narrowly examine those expressions which set forth the future condition of unbelievers, it will be found, we suppose, wholly untenable. For (1) the wicked are said to be in torment. This fact is almost always indicated, as if it were the characteristic feature of their condition. Now if fire were in these passages an emblem of destruction, the accompanying terms would be almost certain to adjust themselves to this leading idea, and thus place it in the foreground. If virtual annihilation is to be the punishment of sin hereafter, and if this was meant to be symbolized by immersion in fire, it is strange that this fact does not appear, as the fact of suffering now does, at every turn in the language of Christ; it is strange that the rich man in hades is made to shrink from pain only, and not rather, above all, from destruction of consciousness, the real penalty of sin, the culminating point of his doom. But if the termination of personal being is not in reality the punishment of sin, but rather the end of punishment, the coveted release from it, then surely this virtual annihilation cannot be " death," " the wages of sin/' the penalty annexed to it from the beginning. Alas! when we read that Dives after death lifted up his eyes, being in torments, and said, also, I am tormented in this flame, that Satan and his angels are to be tormented in the lake of fire, which is the second death, and that unbelievers are sentenced with appalling precision of language to the same state, it is but too certain that fire is here employed to symbolize a source of suffering, instead of non-existence. And (2) the impenitent dead are said to be in protracted, endless woe. It would be difficult, if not impossible, to express the idea of endless misery more unequivocally than it is given in several passages to which we have referred. To transcribe again language so inexpressibly solemn and fearful seems to be unnecessary. Let the reader who feels any doubt at this point turn back and examine once more the testimony for himself. But how long does fire, as a destroying agent, spare its victim? How many hours, or even minutes, would a human being survive in a flame so intense as to be called, for that reason, unquenchable? In a previous section we have shown that human souls are conscious during the interim between bodily death and resurrection. But for many of our race, how long must this period be! Who can measure the interval which connects the fratricide of Cain with the sound of the last trumpet! Yet, according to our Saviour's account of "the rich man," the lost in hades survive what is signified by the action of fire, until the last judgment; and if they endure it for so long a time, there is no reason to believe it will ever put an end to their personal existence. Think of the wicked as being exposed after death to some power which destroys them, as fire burns up the chaff", and what becomes of Christ's language, " For all are alive to him,"20 and again, through the Revelator, " They shall be tormented day and night forever and ever."21 Its appropriateness and significance disappear at once, and we are compelled to wonder at his use of language.

And (3) the impenitent dead are described as being in " outer darkness," "without the city," and " without the kingdom of God." But darkness, however thick and terrible, is by no means, according to the popular belief and usus loquendi, a destructive energy. It is rather suggestive of gloom, terror, helplessness and desertion, than of extinction of being. Much more is this true of the other expressions. To be excluded from the holy city or the kingdom of God is simply equivalent to being fixed irrevocably in a state of spiritual death, the state in which unbelievers now exist. For these reasons, in brief, we must reject the opinion that fire is spoken of in connection with the impenitent dead as a symbol of destruction, and must adhere to the view obviously required in almost every case by the adjuncts and context, that it is a symbol of torment.

Our conclusion, then, is this: That the conscious existence of unbelievers will have no end.22 Those who reject Christ are destined to survive the rolling together of the heavens as a scroll, and the melting of the elements with fervent heat,  —  are destined to survive the searchings and terrors of the last day, when they will be ready to say to the mountains, Fall on us, and hide us from the face of him that sitteth upon the throne, and from the wrath of the Lamb; for the great day of his wrath is come, and who shall be able to stand?  —  are destined to survive their flight into the outer darkness, where there shall be wailing and gnashing of teeth, their descent into the bottomless pit, where they will have no rest day nor night; and are destined, in this abode of outer darkness, to suffer, with all the foes of God, " eternal punishment." This, according to the Scriptures, to which we must add nothing, from which we must subtract nothing, will be their dreadful but righteous doom. This is the second death. that all who read these pages may be delivered from it by accepting the gift of eternal life through Jesus Christ, our Lord! And may God in his tender mercy give us grace to believe on his Son before the day of our trial is past, and our doom assigned us with hypocrites and unbelievers!



1) We refer to the discourse of Rev. T. S. King, entitled, " The Doctrine of eternal Punishment unchristian."

2) Wars of the Jews, II. 8, 14.

3) Antiquities, XVIII. 1, 5.

4) Jewish War (Traill's trans.), II. viii. 10, 11.

5) "ANIMASQUE PROELIO, AUT SUPPLICIIS PEREMPTORUM AETERNAS putant. Hinc generandi amor, et moriendi conteniptus. Corpora condere, quam cremare, e more Ægyptico; eademque cura, et de infernis persuasio," etc. (L. v. c. 5.)

6) Cf. u. 11; and xx. 6.

7) Chr. Rev. vol. XX. p. 397.

8) Rev. xxi. 8.

9) Rev. xxii. 15.

10) Rev. xiv. 10, 11.

11) See also the commentaries of Hengstenberg, Ebrard, and Stuart, on this passage.

12) Scripture Doctrine of Future Punishment, p. 231 sq.

13) Matt. xxv. 41, 46.

14) Mark ix. 47, 48.

15) Matt. viii. 11 12.

16) Matt. xiii. 41, 42.

17) Matt. xiii. 49, 50.

18) Matt. XXV. 30.

19) Luke xiii. 27, 28.

20) Luke XX. 38.

21) Rev. xx. 10.

22) It has not been deemed necessary to examine afresh, as if the matter were unsettled, the import of αἰώνιος and the phrases which signify eternal. See, however, Stuart's "Essays on Future Punishment," p. 5, sq.; Meth. Rev. vol. XXXIV. p. 257, sq.; "Immortality: The Argument from Scripture," by Rev. T. M. Post, D.D.; New Englander, vol. XIV. p. 161, sq.  —  a manly and powerful discussion; Ellicott on 2 Thess. i. 9; Ebrard on Rev. xx. 10; and the commentators generally on the passages noticed in this essay.