The State of the Impenitent Dead

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

Section 6




We come now to a minor objection urged against the doctrine of this essay, namely,  — 

III. The dead are declared to be in a perfectly inactive and powerless state j body and sold; hence death is an event which puts an end to conscious existence.

Of the many passages in the Old Testament which are alleged in support of this proposition, a few only can be submitted to brief examination in these pages; but these few will be specimens of the entire class, and will enable us to test the interpretation given to all.

The Psalmist, speaking of princes, of the son of man in whom there is no help, says: " His breath goeth forth, he rcturneth to his earth; in that very day his thoughts perish."1 It will be sufficient to remark that the word in the last clause which is rendered "thoughts" signifies the counsels or plans of princes and great men. These shall all fail, and come to nought. ''Sicut,'' remarks Calvin, " phrenetlcus ille Alexander Macedo, quum audiret plures esse mundos, deflevit se nondim uno potitum esse, paulo post autem sarcophago contentus fuit.'' Again, the Preacher saith, "All which thy hand findeth to do, do with thy might; for there is no work, nor device, nor knowledge, nor wisdom, in Sheol, whither thou art going.2 Here it may not be amiss to cite a paragraph from the work of Mr. Hudson. " The argument to prove unconsciousness is often based on the expressions, ^ the dead know not anything; ' ' their love, and their hatred, and their envy, is now perished; ' and, ' there is no work, nor device, nor knowledge, nor wisdom, in the grave whither thou goest.' But these expressions are evidently the conclusion of an epicurean argument, including the denial of all future life, which the 'preacher had taken up.'3 It is certainly possible that we have in the book of Ecclesiastes a record of the perplexmg doubts and fruitless speculations of a mind sorely tossed by the mysteries of Providence, and passing on through a period of skepticism to simple faith;4 and; if so, our passage might obviously represent, not the final and correct belief of Solomon, but an earlier and lurid speculation. But it is hardly necessary to resort to this hypothesis; for we may find a key to the whole paragraph in the last clause of the sixth verse: 'Neither have they any more a portion forever in anything that is done under the sun.'" The writer seems to have in mind the entire separation of the dead from this earthly life and all its activities. If his language is interpreted of personal existence per se, without restriction, it militates against any consciousness forever, and therefore against the plain teaching of Christ.

Again, the Lord declares by Jeremiah the prophet, in respect to the princes, sages, and mighty men of Babylon, " they shall sleep a perpetual sleep, and not awake.''5 Now a future resurrection, whether followed by annihilation or by misery, is inconsistent with a literal interpretation of these words. Yet there will be, as we are taught by the word of God, a resurrection both of the just and of the unjust. "All that are in their graves shall hear his voice and shall come forth."6 Hence we must give up the truth and inspiration of the Bible, or the literal sense; of the verse before us. And no thoughtful man, who understands the use of speech in animated prose or in poetry, will hesitate for a moment which to do. To sleep a perpetual sleep, a sleep which knows no waking, here refers to death as an ultimate closing of the eye upon worldly scenes, a sleep from which one does not presently awake to resume the business of this world, a final sleep removing princes and mighty men from the theatre of their pride into the " silent land," " that undiscovered country from whose bourne no traveller returns."

For the sake of brevity we present the following passages in a group, appending to them a few words of explanation: "For in death there is no remembrance of thee; in the grave who shall give thee thanks? " " What profit is there in my blood, when I go down to the pit? Shall the dust praise thee? Shall it declare thy truth? " " Wilt thou show wonders to the dead? Shall the dead arise and praise thee? Shall thy loving kindness be declared in the grave? thy faithfulness in corruption? Shall thy wonders be known in the dark? and thy righteousness in the land of forgetfulness? " " The dead praise not God, neither any that go down into silence." "For the grave cannot praise thee, death cannot celebrate thee; they that go down into the pit cannot hope for thy truth. The living, the living, he shall praise thee, as I do this day."7

These and similar expressions to be found in the Old Testament do unquestionably, at first sight, and taken by themselves, suggest the idea of unconsciousness after death. They refer, also, it will be perceived, in a majority of instances, to the righteous, and, according to their prima facie import, exclude the prospect of a resurrection.8 If it makes no difference to a good man at the point of death, whether he will continue conscious in another world, or fall asleep for a million ages to wake as from a moment's slumber at the last trumpet, these " holy men of old," looking forward to a resurrection of the body, could not have used the language cited by us, nor could they have written "as they were moved by the Holy Ghost/' words which are inconsistent with the doctrine of Christ. The passages adduced cannot, therefore, be explained as a complete account of the departed, but only as a statement of their relation to this world, and to the glory of God in bringing men to a saving knowledge of the truth. They find a natural explanation in the words of Paul, " For me to live is Christ," because I can thereby most signally honor his name. The inspired poets, whose language has been cited, felt that their homage and praise were eminently well pleasing to God, when offered in a revolted province of his empire, to further his holy cause by celebrating " his mighty acts and the glorious majesty of his kingdom." With this plea they came before God to ask for a continuance of life, especially as they were threatened by the enemies of Jehovah, and their death would be the signal of triumph to his foes. The view now suggested rests, we are free to confess, upon a rapid survey of the passages in question; for it was felt that their bearing upon the doctrine of man's existence after death, must be determined by the clearer revelations made by Christ, and not the reverse; it affords ns, therefore, great pleasure to subjoin a different view from a careful investigator. " The writers of the Old Testament generally speak of death as to its effects on the physical organization, and its results in relation to the concerns and interests of this world. They speak just as we frequently do of death and the grave. We admonish our fellow-men to to work while the day lasts, because the night cometh, and that in the grave there is no knowledge or work; and so did those writers. But neither they nor we, in these expressions, assert anything for or against the unconsciousness of the soul. We do not believe, and we suppose that they did not believe, that the soul is buried with the body in the grave. We thus explain the passages already cited9 as referring to physical death, and to the grave as the silent receptacle of the body after the soul has left it."10

It has also been claimed,  — 

IV. That the doctrine of this essay was unknown to the primitive church, and must therefore he unscriptural. Those who make this claim do not, of course, pretend that the primitive Christians fully apprehended the entire contents of Scripture, hut only that the doctrine in question is one of which they could not have been ignorant. As a matter of fact, they say, this doctrine was gradually brought over from pagan philosophy into the creed of the church. The apostolical fathers make no certain allusion to it; and their successors, the early apologists, have it, if at all, as the result of pagan culture. In replying to this objection we shall first speak of the apostolical fathers.

And it is to be lamented that they either wrote very little, or else their writings have, for the most part, perished. All the Christian literature to be relied on as authentic, now in existence from the first quarter of the second century, may be comprised in a small volume; and this literature is intensely practical, touching but lightly and incidentally on points of doctrine. The authors of it were separated by a very wide interval from their inspired teachers. We may think of them as earnest, devout, practical men, repeating the simple story of the cross, occupied with pastoral labor, and encountering with noble heroism the dangers incident to their post; but we should greatly err in supposing them to have been distinguished for accurate knowledge or logical thought. Hence it was natural for them to present the doctrines of Christianity in the very words of Scripture, giving us often no certain clue to their interpretation of the language; and so it happens, that every denomination of Christians is able to employ their words with more or less confidence in support of its own creed. For doctrinal statements couched in phrases borrowed from the word of God, may be easily understood by the reader as he has concluded to understand the sacred record. With these remarks we pass to the testimony, and find it, as might have been expected, painfully meagre. Still, though meagre, it is not unworthy to be heard.

In his letter to the Ephesians, Ignatius testifies that whoever " corrupts the faith of God by evil doctrine, shall go into unquenchable fire.''11 In the epistle to Diognetus we read: "Then shalt thou condemn the deceit and error of the world, when thou shalt know the true life in heaven; when thou shalt despise the seeming death here; when thou shalt fear the true death which is kept in store for those who shall be condemned to the eternal fire, which will torment them who are committed to it unto the end."12 In the account of Polycarp's death we read that the martyrs, "giving heed to the grace of Christ, despised earthly torments, purchasing release in one hour from eternal punishment. And the fire of their harsh tormentors was cool to them; for they had before their eyes an escape from the eternal fire which is never to be quenched," μηδέποτε σβεννύμενον πῦρ.13 From the Shepherd of Hermas14 we extract the following passages: " Again he showed me many trees, some of which were putting forth leaves, and others were dry. Those trees which are green, (said he,) are the just, who shall dwell in the future world. For this future world is summer to the just, but winter to sinners." And, a few lines below, it is said that " sinners shall be burned as dry wood."15 In another place the Shepherd compares apostates and betrayers of the church to" dry, rotten, and, as it were, worm-eaten branches," and, then, says: " All these are dead unto God, and thou seest no one of them exercising repentance."16 Is not the moral or spiritual nature of man here referred to? We are inclined to think there is no reference in this passage to the idea of personal existence as such. We cannot, of course, transcribe every expression which seems to bear upon the topic of this essay; but unless we are mistaken, the most decisive evidence to be found in the literature of the apostolic fathers has now been presented; and according to this evidence it is not safe to affirm that they were either ignorant of, or hostile to, the doctrine of the eternal consciousness of unbelievers. By every impartial student their language will be understood to coincide with that of Scripture, and will therefore be interpreted in harmony with his own views of the Scriptural doctrine.

Let us now come down to the early apologists. It is, however, but a single step; for Justin Martyr, who opens the series, was born in Palestine about the close of the first century. His first apology was addressed to the Roman emperors in the year of our Lord 138 or 139. It is an elaborate production, of unquestionable integrity, and worthy of our serious consideration. In this apology he says to the emperor and his associate: " If you care not for us who offer our petition and exhibit plainly the whole truth, we shall not be injured in the least, since we believe, or rather are fully assured, that each one will suffer punishment by eternal fire according to the desert of his actions, and that he will give account to God according to the abilities which he has received, as Christ announced, saying, ' To whom God gave more, of him likewise shall more be demanded.' " (c. 17.) Again, speaking of the Messiah: " The prophets foretold two comings of him; one which has already transpired, when he came as a despised and suffering man, but the other, when he will come, as we i^reach, with glory from heaven with his angelic host \ when, also, he will raise the bodies of all men who have existed, and will clothe those who are worthy with immortality, but will send the unjust, in eternal sensibility  —  ἐν αὶσθήσει αἰωνια  —  with wicked demons, into eternal fire." (c. 25.) Once more we read as follows: "In like manner, Plato said that Radamanthus and Minos would punish the unjust who come to them, and we say the same will be inflicted upon them, but by Christ, and while they exist in the same bodies with their souls; moreover they shall suffer eternal punishment, but not punishment for the period of a thousand years only, as he taught." (c. 8.) We add a very interesting passage from his " Exhortation to the Greeks": " Hence as nothing true concerning religion can be learned from your teachers, who offer to you an ample disclosure of their ignorance by their opposition one to another, I think it suitable to revert to our ancestors, who, indeed, preceded by far the times of your teachers, and who taught us nothing from their own imagination; neither did they contend with one another, nor attempt to overthrow the doctrines of one another; but without envy or dissension they received the [true] knowledge from God, and taught this to us. For it is impossible for men to know so great and divine things, either by means of nature or of human thought, but only by the gift, which then descended from above upon the holy men who needed neither the art of words, nor of speaking anything captiously or enviously, but who offered themselves in purity to the energy of the divine spirit, that this divine plectrum, descending from heaven, and using the just men as a musical instrument  —  harp or lyre  —  might reveal the knowledge of divine and heavenly things to us. Hence for this reason they taught us, consistently and harmoniously with one another, as if from one voice and one tongue, respecting God and the creation of the world; and the forming of man, and the immortality of the human soul, and the judgment which is to be after this life, and all things which it is necessary for us to know, offering to us this divine teaching in manifold places and times." (c. 8.) Mr. Hudson refers to the above, in proof, it would seem, of the following statement: " In the same treatise he names as truths held in common, by the philosophers and the Christians, the doctrines of the divine origin of the world and creation of man, of the soul's immortality, and of judgment after this life."17

Turning now to the treatise of Athenagoras upon the resurrection,18 we find these words: "Let no man be surprised if we call the life which is dissevered by death and corruption a continual existence, bearing in mind the fact that the meaning of this appellation is not uniform, the measure of continuance is not uniform, because those which continue in being have not one nature. For if each one of those which continue to be has this continued being according to its own peculiar nature, one cannot find the same sort of continuance among those who are purely incorruptible and immortal, because the natures of the more excellent are not made equal with those which are inferior; neither is it proper to seek in man that even and unchangeable continuance of being; for which the higher natures were made from the first immortal, and continue without death by the will of their Maker, men have in respect to the soul unchangeable being or continuity from birth: but in respect to the body, they receive immortality by means of change  —  a change required by the nature of the resurrection; and, looking to this, we not only await the dissolution of the body as following this life, which is subject to want and decay, but also after this we hope for continued being with immortality." (c. 16.) This passage evidently recognizes an original and important difference between the soul of man and his body, placing the former in a different relation to endless life from the latter. In his Plea for Christians he uses these words: " We are convinced that, having departed from this life, we shall live another life better than the present, and heavenly, not earthly, (as we shall remain near God, and with God, stable and unsuffering in soul, not as fleshly beings, though we may have flesh, but as celestial spirit,) or, if we fall with the rest, a worse life even by means of fire ] for God did not create us like sheep and oxen, a subsidiary work, that we should perish and vanish away; and hence we are not likely to be willfully bad, nor to deliver ourselves up to the great judge to be punished." (c. 31.) "In the system of Athenagoras," says Mr. Hudson, "the immortality of the soul is certainly of nature."19 About the same time Theophilus wrote to Autolychus, an educated pagan, in defence of Christianity, and urged him to " believe God and submit to him, lest," he says, " if thou now disbelievest, thou shalt then be convinced, being vexed in eternal punishments; which punishments, having been predicted by the prophets, were stolen by the later poets and philosophers from the Holy Scriptures for the purpose of securing credit to their own opinions. . . . Do thou, also, if it please thee, read studiously the prophetic Scriptures, and they will more clearly direct thee how to flee from the eternal punishments, and to secure the eternal benefits of God." (L. I. c. 14.) Again, he says, "The law and the prophets taught men to refrain from godless idolatry, and adultery; and murder, fornication, theft, avarice, perjury, wrath, and all lasciviousness and impurity; and that all things whatsoever a man would not have done to himself he should not do to another; and that whoever is thus just in action shall escape the eternal punishments, and be thought worthy of the eternal life with God." (L. II. c. 34.) It should be added, that, while Theophilus appears to have believed in the endless existence of all men, as a matter of fact, he denied the natural immortality of the soul, and affirmed that God only is immortal per se. Tatian, who wrote his " Address to the Greeks " near the close of the second century, was the first, we believe, to teach the doctrine of the final extinction of the wicked. And there is far more reason to consider this doctrine an independent speculation of his own, than to suppose it derived by him from the word of God. For although he was, for a time, the friend and admirer of Justin Martyr, he returned to the east, when the latter had suffered death for his loyalty to Christ, and there founded a sect of Gnostics. His opinions, therefore, cannot be attributed indiscriminately to the church of that period. It must further be remarked, that in expounding the Scriptures he does not exhibit even that moderate degree of care and sobriety which is discoverable m the other apologists of his day.

We may now close this survey by stating the result of our examination in these words: The records of the primitive church, prior to A. D. 200, afford no evidence that a belief in the endless existence of the sold was brought over from pagan philosophy into the creed of the church, and no evidence that the early teachers and defenders of Christianity understood the impenitent to be threatened by the word of God with extinction of conscious being as the penalty of sin hereafter. As to the later Christian apologists and teachers, Clement, Origen, Tertullian, and Hippolytus evidently regard the souls of men as destined to exist forever; and we can but question the interpretation of certain passages in the work of Irenaeus by which they are said to teach a different belief.20



1) Psalms cxlvi. 4.

2) EccI. ix. 10.

3) Future Life," p. 262.

4) See "The Preaching of Ecclesiastes," by Rev. J. A. Goodhue, Chr. Rev. 1854.

5) Jeremiah vi. 57.

6) John v. 28.

7) Ps. vi, 6; xxx. 10; lxxxviii. 10-12; cxv. 17; Isa. xxxviii. 18, 19.

8) This is admitted by Mr. Hudson; and therefore he does not rely upon these expressions to prove unconsciousness during the intermediate state.  —  p. 262.

9) Job xiv. 12; Ps. xlix. 14; cxv. 17; Eccl. Lx. 10; and Isa. xxxviii. 18, 19.

10) Meth. Rev. ut supra, p. 242.

11) C. 16; cf. his Ep. to the Romans, c. 2 and 4.

12) Ep. to Diog. c. 10.

13) Martyr. Polycarpi. c. 2.

14) Written, perhaps, as late as A.D. 150.

15) L. III. Simil. 4.

16) L. III. Simil. 8. c. 6.

17) "Future Life," p. 313. Compare Semisch's "Justin Martyr," vol. II. p. 262 sq., and p. 304 sq., Ryland's translation, for a thorough discussion of Justin's belief; also " Some Account of the Life and "Writings of Justin Martyr: By John Bishop of Lincoln," p. 102 sq.

18) Written about A.D. 175.

19) "Future Life," p. 321.

20) On this point see Duncker's desh. Irenaeus Christologie, p. 90 seq., and Massueti Dissertatio III. Irenaei Opera, vol. II. p. 333 sq., Stieren's edition.