Fundamental Christian Theology, Vol. 2

By Aaron Hills

Part VI - Eschatology

Chapter 3


The question of an intermediate state refers to the condition of the dead between death and the resurrection. It is a question that grows out of the Christian religion, which reveals a future life. As all Christians believe in the resurrection of the body and a future judgment, they all believe in an intermediate state. It is a state of which we know nothing now, since we have no experience of the life of the soul apart from the body. Comparatively little is said about it in the Word of God, because the Book was not written to gratify idle curiosity. It has a far more serious purpose. But there are hints and facts dropped here and there, which arouse the mind to thought, and lead to necessary logical deductions, which are not without value to us.

I. Is there an intermediate place? For an immortal being a somehow involves a somewhere. In other words, there is a realm of the dead, or spirit world, - a temporary receptacle of souls, at least for the wicked; and a place somewhere for the righteous, where they come to a knowledge of themselves and of Christ, which they did not have on earth.

The Old Testament tells of Sheol-rendered hades in the Septuagint. It means the underworld. In the popular thought of the Jews, it was the common receptacle of the dead without any distinction of character, but divided into two compartments; one a place of happiness for the good; the other place of misery for the evil.

This is no authority for us, however; it is simply a question of fact, as to the teaching of the Word.

1. The Bible assumes that soul and body in man are two distinct substances, united in a vital union to constitute man, as we know him, one individual person. It further assumes that the seat of this personality is the soul. The soul is the self, the ego, of which the body is the organ. It assumes that the soul continues its conscious existence after its separation from the body. This we have seen to be the teaching, and spirit of the whole Bible. The dead do not cease to be; they have a conscious activity. They are, however, before the resurrection, in an unclothed, bodiless state. The parable of Dives and Lazarus, the words of our Lord to the dying thief, the prayer of dying Stephen, all throw light on the continued consciousness of the dead, and there being a place for them, and the fact of a separation between the righteous and the wicked.

2. It is the common Protestant doctrine that the souls of all who shall be saved, are made perfect in holiness, at their death. (This is not denying that many may be sanctified before death). But all infants and unfortunates, and all who die in a state of justification, but have never really understood that it is their blood-bought privilege to be sanctified here and now, and "live in holiness and righteousness all their days," and so have not willfully rejected sanctification, will be sanctified, at death. All such must be made "meet to be partakers of the inheritance of the saints in light."

It may be asked, what sanctifying power is there in death? And can one be made sanctified and holy in a moment? To the first question we answer, none whatever. Death is no more than a door through which one passes from time into eternity. To the second question we answer. Certainly: One can become sanctified and holy in a moment, even in this life, and most assuredly, in death. The objection supposes that the salvation of a soul is the result of a natural process; but as it is a supernatural work, and sanctification is obtained by an act of God, the objection has no force.

The conversion of Saul was most sudden. The justification of every man is equally sudden; and so must every man's sanctification be, since each is the result of an instantaneous act of God.

3. They immediately pass into a condition of endless blessedness. This is taught in many Scriptures. "I heard a voice from heaven, saying unto me, Write, Blessed are the dead which die in the Lord from henceforth; yea, saith the Spirit that they may rest from their labors; for their works follow with them." The simple meaning of this seems to be that those who die in the Lord are from that moment onward in a state of blessedness; because they cease from their labors and enter into the rewards of the righteous. The results of their holy earthly activities follow on to gladden their hearts.

4. Paradise, as the word is used by Christ and His Apostles, is the place where Christ now is, and where He manifests His presence and glory. It is commonly thought to be the place where the holy dead abide with their Lord (Luke 23: 43; 2 Cor. 12: 2-4; Rev. 2: 7. "Whether it is the place where He will finally establish His kingdom; and whether all the redeemed, clothed in their resurrection bodies, shall there be gathered together, is a matter of which we have no knowledge, and in which we need take no interest. All we need to know is that it is where Christ is; that it is a place and state in which there is neither sin nor sorrow, and where the saints are as exalted and happy as they are now capable of being. Whether any, in obedience to patristic usage, choose to call this paradise a department of Hades, is a matter of no concern. All that the dying believer need know is that he goes to be with Christ. That to him is heaven" (Hodge, Theology, Vol. Ill, p. 728). In 2 Cor. 5: 2 the Apostle says: "We know, that if our earthly house of this tabernacle were dissolved, we have a building of God, an house not made with hands, eternal in the heavens." In Phil. 1: 23, he says: "I am in a state betwixt two, having a desire to depart, and to be with Christ; which is far better, nevertheless, to abide in the flesh is more needful for you." These passages seem to teach three things unmistakably: (1) There is a place already prepared for the saints; (2) The condition of the holy is better in the next life than in this; (3) He was confident that as soon as he departed, he would be with Christ. The change for the better takes place immediately after death.

5. Corresponding to Paradise for the good, there is a place in Sheol or Hades for the bad, where, in conscious misery, they await the decisions of the coming judgment. The natural consequences of sin, - the reproaches of conscience, the embittering memories, the gnawings of wicked but unappeased desire, the goadings of remorse, - may all be felt there, in a most abundant harvest. Even though the positive punishments of God that follow the judgment are not yet inflicted.

II. Characteristics of This Intermediate State. In our foregoing discussion it has already necessarily been observed, that this state is one of conscious existence, and of great joy to the saved, and great misery to the lost. We now further observe.

1. It is not a state of probation.

(1) "The Scriptures make no announcement of any probation after the present life. The merest suggestion of another probation is all that can be properly claimed. As to any explicit utterance in favor of a second probation, there is a dead silence of the Scriptures. How is this? Probation with its privileges and responsibilities greatly concerns us. No period of our existence is fraught with deeper interest. The Scriptures are replete with such views of our present probation. They constantly press it on our attention as involving the most solemn responsibilities of the present life, and the profoundest interest of the future life. In a future probation there must be a renewal of all that so deeply concerns a present probation; yet there is not an explicit word respecting it, such silence of the Scriptures is utterly irreconcilable with the reality of such a probation."

(2) "The urgency with which the Scriptures press the importance of improving the present opportunities of salvation deny us all hope of a future probation."

A few texts will make this position fearfully sure: "Eccl. 9: 10."Whatsoever thy hand findeth to do, do it with thy might; for there is no work, nor device, nor knowledge, nor wisdom, in the grave whither thou goest." John 9: 4. "The night cometh, when no man can work." John 12: 35, 36. "Then said Jesus unto them, yet a little while is the light with you. Walk while ye have the light, lest darkness come upon you; for he that walketh in darkness knoweth not whither he goeth. While ye have the light, believe in the light, that ye may be the children of light." Heb. 2: 1-3. "Therefore we ought to give the more earnest heed to the things which we have heard, lest at any time we should let them slip. For if the word spoken by angels was steadfast, and every transgression and disobedience received a just recompense of reward; how shall we escape, if we neglect so great salvation?"

The many texts which assure us of salvation on our repentance and faith, but either directly or by implication deny it to us on the refusal or neglect of such terms, equally affirms the same truth." John 3: 14-16, 18, 36 (Miley, Vol. II, pp. 435, 436).

(3) The representations of the judgment do not hint at a second probation. We are always told that we are to give an account for the "deeds done in the body." 2 Cor. 5: 10. "For we must all appear before the judgment seat of Christ; that every one may receive the things done in the body, according to what he hath done, whether it be good or bad." Such a text makes it certain that destiny turns on the conduct of the present life.  If there be a future probation, one might suppose that it would continue at least till the judgment. But there is not in all the announcements of judgment any reference to deeds done in the future life. Such facts are conclusive against another probation.

(4) "There are," says Fairchild, "natural reasons for the termination of probation, in the tendency to fixedness of character. The work of probation is at length accomplished. The man becomes settled in virtuous or in sinful character. The limit is reached beyond which nothing in the nature of change is to be expected; indeed there are indications that that limit is sometimes reached in the present life. The good man of established character we do not expect to change, and in the case of the man confirmed in wickedness there is little hope.  A providential termination of probation is conceivable, and seems to be indicated in the order of events. It would involve a change of conditions, a withdrawing of God's grace and the influence of the Spirit, the motives by which men are led to repentance; a leaving of men to their own chosen way of sin. It is possible, and probable, too, that such a termination of probation may be needed among the moral forces of God's kingdom. If every one could look forward to assured opportunity of reaching the natural limit of probation, there would be danger of procrastination. There is divine wisdom in the uncertainty of life. Life is less likely to be wasted, than if every man could calculate with assurance upon his fourscore years; (and what if each of us was absolutely sure of an endless probation in eternity! Who would be likely to ever repent?) And so the termination may be wisely made uncertain. If probation terminates with this life, it is as uncertain as life itself; and this seems to be the drift of the Scriptures. We can only demand that God should deal justly with every man according to his works; in the way of a justification of God, we can ask no more" (Theology, p. 328).

(5) But it is objected, that Jesus preached to the spirits in prison. The two passages supposed to bear on the subject are 1 Pet. 3: 18-20 and 1 Pet. 4: 6, practically one passage. 1 Pet. 3: 18-20. "Because Christ also suffered for sins once, the righteous for the unrighteous, that He might bring us to God; being put to death in the flesh, but quickened in the Spirit; in which also He went and preached unto the spirits in prison, which aforetime were disobedient, when the long-suffering of God waited in the days of Noah." 1 Pet. 4: 6. "For unto this end was the Gospel preached even to the dead, that they might be judged according to men in the flesh, but live according to God in the spirit."

These passages are very obscurely written, and have been variously interpreted. One of the points of interest in it is, - when was this preaching done? And, another is by whom was it done?

A very common interpretation has been that the preaching was in the days of Noah to the spirits then alive upon the earth, but who are now in prison; preaching done perhaps by Noah himself, whom Peter calls "a preacher of righteousness" (2 Pet. 2:5). "No argument, therefore," says Barnes, "can be derived from this language to prove that Christ went and personally preached to those who were confined in Hades."

Another view is that Christ in the interval between His death and resurrection descended into the spirit-world and preached the Gospel to the disembodied antediluvians. Hyde says "We cannot help believing that our Lord preached there as a herald to 'the spirits in prison' once disobedient antediluvian sinners, then in custody, awaiting judgment." (Irenaeus, Clement, Tertullian, Calvin) "He may have preached on their once having been disobedient." (Green, Thayer, Bartlett) "While yet He went and preached," a local transfer, not in Noah's day nor before Christ's incarnation, for the antithesis is not between the body of Christ, and the pre-existent Spirit of Christ, or Spirit of God, but between Christ as "put to death in the flesh," and as made alive in the higher spiritual nature after death (Alford, Huther, Ellicott, Farrar, Fairbairn, Reuss, Schaff, Weiss, Patton). "There is a general agreement now among critical expositors that the passage relates to an experience of our Lord's human soul after death." Chambers.

After admitting so much, Hyde is compelled to add: "A case so unique and isolated is to be taken as exceptional. What happened after our Lord died, and before He ascended, was evidently abnormal. No prominence is given to it. No general inference can be drawn from it. Now that He has ascended and reigns in glory, His mission to Hades is over. By no means would He offer grace (and mercy) to those who live and die impenitent. Least of all should we presume that He must give a personal knowledge of Himself, either here or hereafter to those whom He would fairly test and judge. . . . Did He not bear witness rather to a finished redemption, or to God's power and grace, in the glory of His own resurrection?" (A New Catechism, pp. 154, 155).

Miley's conclusion is this: "Some of the best commentators say that the words, "He went and preached," mean simply, "He preached." But how? Not in person, but by the Spirit. And to whom? To those who were disobedient in the time of Noah. It may have been that Christ preached to them by the spirit, either through His strivings with them or in the preaching of Noah. Hence the assumption that Christ went and preached in Hades has slight warrant in this text. That He there preached the Gospel has no warrant. Further the narrow limits of His preaching, what or wherever it was, allows no ground for the assumption of a common preaching of the Gospel to the dead. Indeed the obscurity of the text, and the uncertainty of its meaning, which appear in the diversity of its interpretation, allow it no doctrinal weight in favor of a future probation" (Vol. II, p, 438).

The critical student will notice that (1) The passage stands alone: (2) It does not make it plain, when He preached; or (3) where He preached; or (4) how He preached; or (5) what He preached. No great and far-reaching doctrine can be built on such a solitary and obscure passage. This explains why such a calm and judicial mind as Fairchild concludes thus: "The passages are too obscure, and of too doubtful interpretation, to furnish a satisfactory foundation for the doctrine of continued probation, without other decisive Scripture support. The silence of the Scriptures is significant. Paul in 1 Thess. 4: 13, 14, comforts those whose friends are asleep in Jesus, but utters not a word of comfort to those whose friends have died without hope" (Theology, p. 325).

(6) The intermediate world is not a Purgatory. As these verses are the only ones in the New Testament on which the Romish Doctrine of purgatory is supposed to rest, it is proper to consider that here. Purgatory, as a doctrine is peculiar to Roman Catholicism, and has no place in the creed of any other Church. "According to this doctrine, Christians are divided into two classes, the imperfect and the truly good. The former have impurities which must be cleansed away, and venial sins which must be expiated in penal suffering, in order to a meetness for heaven. Even the truly good, while free from the guilt of mortal sins, yet have the deserts of temporal punishment, which must be expiated. Purgatory provides for both classes, as in its penal and purifying fires both may attain to a fitness for heaven. But it provides only for such as the Romish Church recognizes as Christians; therefore it has no connection with the doctrine of a second probation.

"It is a part of the doctrine that purgatory is, in some respects, subject to the Church. By prayers and alms and masses its penal sufferings may be mitigated or the hour of release hastened. The doctrine has been a fruitful source of revenue, a mighty power of oppression and extortion, which has not remained unused. . . . The doctrine is openly false to the soteriology of the Gospel, according to which we are saved, completely saved, from the guilt and pollution, through the blood of Christ and the sanctification of the Spirit" (Miley, Vol. II, p. 438).

Barnes observes on the passage: "There is no specification of the place where this prison is; no intimation that it is purgatory, - a place where the departed will undergo purification; no indication that their condition can be affected by any thing we can do; no intimation that those particularly referred to differ in any sense from the others who are confined in that world; no hint that they can be released by any prayers or sacrifices of ours. The essential ideas of purgatory are not to be found in the passage; there is not the slightest hint that they can be released by any prayers or offerings of those who dwell on the earth" (Com., Vol. X, p. 179).

(7) It is argued that justice demands a second probation for the heathen. "This argument," says Miley, "is more plausible against any doctrine or system of doctrines which denies the possibility of their salvation. We have no responsible part in any such issue, as we hold no such doctrine. The question before us is, not the reasons which may be urged in favor of a future probation of the heathen, but the sense of the Scriptures respecting such a probation." St. Paul seems to settle the matter with the distinct teaching that no such probation is needed. He lays down some principles of the divine government. A distinction is made between the heathen, and those who are under Jewish economy, and those also who are under the Christian economy, as respects the degree of guilt and the severity of punishment. But he makes no distinction as to their being amenable to the same judgment for the deeds of the present life, or the determination of their final destiny for the same.

1. Even the light of nature would make them responsible and afford a basis for judgment. Rom. 1: 20. "For the invisible things of Him from the creation are clearly seen, being understood by the things that are made, even His eternal power and God-head; so that they are without excuse." Paul's reasoning is that there is no necessity for continued probation for the heathen; they know their duty, and may be justly judged according as they walk in view of it.

2. Then he declares the divine equity; because God "will render to every man according to his deeds: ... to the Jew first, and also to the Gentile; for there is no respect of persons with God. For as many as have sinned without law, shall also perish without law; and as many as have sinned in the law shall be judged by the law. For when the Gentiles which have not the law, do by nature the things contained in the law, these, having not the law, are a law unto themselves; which show the works of the law written in their hearts, their conscience also bearing witness" (Rom. 2: 6-16). In other words, those who walk conscientiously, living up to the light they have, God can accept; and those who sin against the light they have, and know, God must condemn; and their own, consciences and moral judgment will ratify His condemnation . . . "in the day when God shall judge the secrets of men by Jesus Christ, according to my Gospel." Such is the doctrine of St. Paul: and it is impossible to read into them any second probation for the heathen world, or any need of one.

(8) In reference to a probation for infants, the Scriptures are utterly silent; they afford not even a hint. Infants are moral beings, and as such must somewhere form moral character, and to that extent must have a probation. By the prevenient grace of a sovereign God they may be often removed from earth to keep them from the evils that would have overcome them had they lived. The same grace can sanctify them in the article of death so that they shall enter the future life free from the bias to sin. "They may thus be received into the society of the redeemed and made to enjoy their influence and to share their experience to such an extent that they shall be carried safely through to established character without sin. This is conceivable and it is permitted to Christian hope. Infants thus surrounded will be in a different case from that of our first parents in Eden. They will be under the influence and guidance of those who have experienced sin and salvation."

(9) The necessity of any probation lies in the fact that moral beings must form their own character. They cannot be made at once by creative power what God wishes them to be; but must develop this by the exercise of their own moral responsibility. "We have reason to think that a degree of temptation, trial and hardship is favorable to the formation of strong character; and that the blessedness of heaven will be safer to men after such an experience. The experience of Eden proves that it would not be safe without the discipline" (Fairchild).

Now when characters have been formed in this life, and men have proved by their choices, both to themselves and to others, what they prefer to be, what is the need of another probation. What we are morally is no accident. We have become what we are, by struggle with temptation and environment, by conflict, in view of outward evil and inward propensity, by our voluntary attitude to grace, by our obedience or disobedience to the inner voice. Hence there is no necessity for a new probation; and if there be need of two, why not of twenty, or two hundred? Why not a probation world without end? The idea is subversive of all moral government.

2. And so we may regard the intermediate state as one of fixed character. The parable of the rich man and Lazarus seems to be especially clear on this point. "And besides all this, between us and you there is a great gulf fixed, that they which would pass from hence to you may not be able, and that none may cross over from thence to us" (Luke 16: 26). The question of character and destiny was settled beyond any change. The desire of the rich man that his brethren be warned while they lived, because there would be no help after death, and the response. "If they hear not Moses and the prophets, neither will they be persuaded, if one rise from the dead," all tend to confirm the lesson. There is enough light in this world to make a fair probation; and after death there will be a change neither of character nor destiny. There is no promise here, or in any other Scripture of any opportunity hereafter to retrieve the moral losses of this life. "The redemption of the soul is precious; and it ceaseth forever" (Ps. 49: 8). "The wicked is thrust down in his evil doing; but the righteous hath a refuge in his death" (Prov. 14:32).

Prof. Hyde, closes his discussion thus: "The whole drift and bearing of Scripture amounts to this, that the season for our being saved is limited; that the mistakes and failures of this life are not to be rectified in the next; that there are time and space for repentance here; not hereafter; that the Gospel as preached on earth, is God's ultimatum of mercy; that the harvest of souls has its fatal now, after which there is nothing but a cry of horror and despair. To human view the hour of death is the final limit of salvation. Nor will men be likely to improve even the most precious opportunity, unless they can be made to realize that, if lost or wasted, it will never return" (2 Cor. 6:2; John 8:21, 24; Rev. 22:11) (New Catechism, p. 155).