History of the Christian Church, Volume II: Ante-Nicene Christianity. A.D. 100-325.
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§ 155. Eschatology. Immortality and Resurrection.

I. General Eschatology:

Chr. W Flugge: Geschichte des Glaubens an Unsterblichkeit, Auferstchung, Gericht und Vergeltung. 3 Theile, Leipz. 1794–1800. Part III. in 2 vols. gives a history of the Christian doctriNe. Not completed.

William Rounseville Alger (Unitarian): A Critical History of the Doctrine of a Future Life. With a Complete Literature on the Subject. Philad. 1864, tenth ed. with six new chs. Boston, 1878. He treats of the patristic doctrine in Part Fourth, ch. 1. p. 394–407. The Bibliographical Index by Prof. Ezra Abbot, of Cambridge, contains a classified list of over 5000 books on the subject, and is unequalled in bibliographical literature for completeness and accuracy.

Edm. Spiess: Entwicklungsgeschichte der Vorstellungen vom Zustand nach dem Tode. Jena, 1877. This book of 616 pages omits the Christian eschatology.

II. Greek and Roman Eschatology:

C. Fr. Nägelsbach: Die homerische Theologie in ihrem Zusammenhang dargestellt. Nürnberg, 1840.

The same: Die nachhomerische Theologie des griechischen Volksglaubens bis auf Alexander. Nürnberg, 1857.

Aug Arndt: Die Ansichten der Alten über Leben, Tod und Unsterblichkeit. Frankfurt a. M. 1874.

Lehrs: Vorstellungen der Griechen über das Fortleben nach dem Tode. Second ed. 1875.

Ludwig Friedlaender: Sittengeschichte Roms, fifth ed. Leipz. 1881, vol. III. p. 681–717 (Der Unsterblichkeitsglaube).

III. Jewish Eschatology;

A. Kahle: Biblische Eschatologie des Alten Testaments. Gotha, 1870.

A. Wahl: Unsterblichkeits-und Vergeltungslehre des alttestamentlichen Hebraismus. Jena, 1871.

Dr. Ferdinand Weber (d. 1879): System der Altsynagogalen Palaestinischen Theologie aus Targum, Midrasch und Talmud. Ed. by Franz Delitzsch and Georg Schnedermann. Leipzig, 1880. See chs. XXI. 322–332; XXIV. 371–386.

Aug Wünsche: Die Vorstellungen vom Zustande nach dem Tode nach apokryphen, Talmud, und Kirchenvätern In the "Jahrbücher für Prot. Theol." Leipz. 1880

Bissel: The Eschatology of the Apocrypha. In the " Bibliotheca Sacra," 1879.

IV. Christian Eschatology:

See the relevant chapters in Flügge, and Alger, as above.

Dr. Edward Beecher: History of Opinions on the Scriptural Doctrine of Retribution. New York, 1878 (334 pages).

The relevant sections in the Doctrine Histories of Münscher, Neander, Gieseler, Baur, Hagenbach (H. B. Smith’s ed. vol. I. 213 sqq. and 368 sqq.), Shedd, Friedrich Nitzsch (I. 397 sqq.)

A large number of monographs on Death, Hades, Purgatory, Resurrection, Future Punishment. See the next sections.

Christianity—and human life itself, with its countless problems and mysteries—has no meaning without the certainty of a future world of rewards and punishments, for which the present life serves as a preparatory school. Christ represents himself as "the Resurrection and the Life," and promises "eternal life" to all who believe in Him. On his resurrection the church is built, and without it the church could never have come into existence. The resurrection of the body and the life everlasting are among the fundamental articles of the early baptismal creeds. The doctrine of the future life, though last in the logical order of systematic theology, was among the first in the consciousness of the Christians, and an unfailing source of comfort and strength in times of trial and persecution. It stood in close connection with the expectation of the Lord’s glorious reappearance. It is the subject of Paul’s first Epistles, those to the Thessalonians, and is prominently discussed in the fifteenth chapter of First Corinthians. He declares the Christians "the most pitiable," because the most deluded and uselessly self-sacrificing, "of all men," if their hope in Christ were confined to this life.

The ante-Nicene church was a stranger in the midst of a hostile world, and longed for the unfading crown which awaited the faithful confessor and martyr beyond the grave. Such a mighty revolution as the conversion of the heathen emperor was not dreamed of even as a remote possibility, except perhaps by the far-sighted Origen. Among the five causes to which Gibbon traces the rapid progress of the Christian religion he assigns the second place to the doctrine of the immortality of the soul. We know nothing whatever of a future world which lies beyond the boundaries of our observation and experience, except what God has chosen to reveal to us. Left to the instincts and aspirations of nature, which strongly crave after immortality and glory, we can reach at best only probabilities; while the gospel gives us absolute certainty, sealed by the resurrection of Christ.

1. The heathen notions of the future life were vague and confused. The Hindoos, Babylonians, and Egyptians had a lively sense of immortality, but mixed with the idea of endless migrations and transformations. The Buddhists, starting from the idea that existence is want, and want is suffering, make it the chief end of man to escape such migrations, and by various mortifications to prepare for final absorption in Nirwana. The popular belief among the ancient Greeks and Romans was that man passes after death into the Underworld, the Greek Hades, the Roman Orcus. According to Homer, Hades is a dark abode in the interior of the earth, with an entrance at the Western extremity of the Ocean, where the rays of the sun do not penetrate. Charon carries the dead over the stream Acheron, and the three-headed dog Cerberus watches the entrance and allows none to pass out. There the spirits exist in a disembodied state and lead a shadowy dream-life. A vague distinction was made between two regions in Hades, an Elysium (also "the Islands of the Blessed") for the good, and Tartarus for the bad. "Poets and painters," says Gibbon, peopled the infernal regions with so many phantoms and monsters, who dispensed their rewards and punishments with so little equity, that a solemn truth, the most congenial to the human heart, was oppressed and disgraced by the absurd mixture of the wildest fictions. The eleventh book of the Odyssey gives a very dreary and incoherent account of the infernal shades. Pindar and Virgil have embellished the picture; but even those poets, though more correct than their great model, are guilty of very strange inconsistencies."11031103    Decline and Fall of the R. Emp. ch. XV103

Socrates, Plato, Cicero, Seneca, and Plutarch rose highest among the ancient philosophers in their views of the future life, but they reached only to belief in its probability—not in its certainty. Socrates, after be was condemned to death, said to his judges: "Death is either an eternal sleep, or the transition to a new life; but in neither case is it an evil;"11041104    Plato, Apol. 40.104 and he drank with playful irony the fatal hemlock. Plato, viewing the human soul as a portion of the eternal, infinite, all-pervading deity, believed in its pre-existence before this present life, and thus had a strong ground of hope for its continuance after death. All the souls (according to his Phaedon and Gorgias, pass into the spirit-world, the righteous into the abodes of bliss, where they live forever in a disembodied state, the wicked into Tartarus for punishment and purification (which notion prepared the way for purgatory). Plutarch, the purest and noblest among the Platonists, thought that immortality was inseparably connected with belief in an all-ruling Providence, and looked with Plato to the life beyond as promising a higher knowledge of, and closer conformity to God, but only for those few who are here purified by virtue and piety. In such rare cases, departure might be called an ascent to the stars, to heaven, to the gods, rather than a descent to Hades. He also, at the death of his daughter, expresses his faith in the blissful state of infants who die in infancy. Cicero, in his Tusculan Questions and treatise De Senectute, reflects in classical language "the ignorance, the errors, and the uncertainty of the ancient philosophers with regard to the immortality of the soul." Though strongly leaning to a positive view, he yet found it no superfluous task to quiet the fear of death in case the soul should perish with the body. The Stoics believed only in a limited immortality, or denied it altogether, and justified suicide when life became unendurable. The great men of Greece and Rome were not influenced by the idea of a future world as a motive of action. During the debate on the punishment of Catiline and his fellow-conspirators, Julius Caesar openly declared in the Roman Senate that death dissolves all the ills of mortality, and is the boundary of existence beyond which there is no more care nor joy, no more punishment for sin, nor any reward for virtue. The younger Cato, the model Stoic, agreed with Caesar; yet before he made an end to his life at Utica, he read Plato’s Phaedon. Seneca once dreamed of immortality, and almost approached the Christian hope of the birth-day of eternity, if we are to trust his rhetoric, but afterwards he awoke from the beautiful dream and committed suicide. The elder Pliny, who found a tragic death under the lava of Vesuvius, speaks of the future life as an invention of man’s vanity and selfishness, and thinks that body and soul have no more sensation after death than before birth; death becomes doubly painful if it is only the beginning of another indefinite existence. Tacitus speaks but once of immortality, and then conditionally; and he believed only in the immortality of fame. Marcus Aurelius, in sad resignation, bids nature, "Give what thou wilt, and take back again what and when thou wilt."

These were noble and earnest, Romans. What can be expected from the crown of frivolous men of the world who moved within the limits of matter and sense and made present pleasure and enjoyment the chief end of life? The surviving wife of an Epicurean philosopher erected a monument to him, with the inscription "to the eternal sleep."11051105    See Friedlaender, l.c. 682 sq.105 Not a few heathen epitaphs openly profess the doctrine that death ends all; while, in striking contrast with them, the humble Christian inscriptions in the catacombs express the confident hope of future bliss and glory in the uninterrupted communion of the believer with Christ and God.

Yet the scepticism of the educated and half-educated could not extinguish the popular belief in the imperial age. The number of cheerless and hopeless materialistic epitaphs is, after all, very small as compared with the many thousands which reveal no such doubt, or express a belief in some kind of existence beyond the grave.11061106    See Friedlaender, p. 685. So in our age, too, the number of sceptics, materialists, and atheists, though by no means inconsiderable, is a very small minority compared with the mass of believers in a future life.106

Of a resurrection of the body the Greeks and Romans had no conception, except in the form of shades and spectral outlines, which were supposed to surround the disembodied spirits, and to make them to some degree recognizable. Heathen philosophers, like Celsus, ridiculed the resurrection of the body as useless, absurd, and impossible.

2. The Jewish doctrine is far in advance of heathen notions and conjectures, but presents different phases of development.

(a) The Mosaic writings are remarkably silent about the future life, and emphasize the present rather than future consequences of the observance or non-observance of the law (because it had a civil or political as well as spiritual import); and hence the Sadducees accepted them, although they denied the resurrection (perhaps also the immortality of the soul). The Pentateuch contains, however, some remote and significant hints of immortality, as in the tree of life with its symbolic import;11071107    Gen. 2:9; 3:22, 24.107 in the mysterious translation of Enoch as a reward for his piety;11081108    Gen. 5:24.108 in the prohibition of necromancy;11091109    Deut. 18:11; comp. 1 Sam. 28:7.109 in the patriarchal phrase for dying: "to be gathered to his fathers," or "to his people;"11101110    Gen. 25:8; 35:29; 49:29, 33.110 and last, though not least, in the self-designation of Jehovah as "the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob," which implies their immortality, since "God is not the God of the dead, but of the living."11111111    Ex. 3:6, 16; comp. Matt. 22:32.111 What has an eternal meaning for God must itself be eternal.

(b) In the later writings of the Old Testament, especially during and after the exile, the doctrine of immortality and resurrection comes out plainly.11121112    Comp. the famous Goël-passage, Job 19:25–27, which strongly teaches the immortality of the soul and the future rectification of the wrongs of this life; Eccles. 12:7 ("the spirit shall return to God who gave it"), and 12:14 ("God shall bring every work into judgment, with every secret thing, whether it be good or whether it be evil").112 Daniel’s vision reaches out even to the final resurrection of "many of them that sleep in the dust of the earth to everlasting life," and of "some to shame and everlasting contempt," and prophesies that "they that are wise shall shine as the brightness of the firmament, and they that turn many to righteousness as the stars forever and ever."11131113    Dan. 12:2, 3; Comp. Isa. 65:17; 66:22-24.113

But before Christ, who first revealed true life, the Hebrew Sheol, the general receptacle of departing souls, remained, like the Greek Hades, a dark and dreary abode, and is so described in the Old Testament.11141114    See the passages sub Sheol in the Hebrew Concordance. The very name Sheolלוֹאשְׁ expresses either the inexorable demand and insatiability of death (if derived from לאַשָׁ, to ask pressingly, to urge), or the subterranean character of the region, an abyss (if derived from לﬠַשָׁ, to be hollow, comp. hell, hollow, Höhle), and is essentially the same as the Greek Hades and the Roman Orcus. The distinction of two regions in the spirit-world (Abraham’s Bosom or Paradise, and Gehenna, comp. Luke 16:22, 23) does not appear clearly in the canonical books, and is of later origin. Oehler (Theol. des A. Test., I. 264) says: "Von einem Unterschied des Looses der im Todtenreich Befindlichen ist im Alten Test. nirgends deutlich geredet. Wie vielmehr dort Alles gleich werde, schildert Hiob. 3:17-19. Nur in Jes. 14:15; Ez. 32:23, wo den gestürzten Eroberern die äusserste Tiefe (רוֹב-תֵבְּדיַ) angewiesen wird, kann mann die Andeutung verschiedener Abstufungen des Todtenreichs finden, etwa in dem Sinn, wie Josephus (Bell. Jud. III. 8, 5) den Selbstmördern einen, ᾅδης σκοτιώτερος in Aussicht stellt. Sonst ist nur von einer Sonderung nach Völkern und Geschlechtern die Rede, nicht von einer Sonderung der Gerechten und Ungerechten."114 Cases like Enoch’s translation and Elijah’s ascent are altogether unique and exceptional, and imply the meaning that death is contrary to man’s original destination, and may be overcome by the power of holiness.

(c) The Jewish Apocrypha (the Book of Wisdom, and the Second Book of Maccabees), and later Jewish writings (the Book of Enoch, the Apocalypse of Ezra) show some progress: they distinguish between two regions in Sheol—Paradise or Abraham’s Bosom for the righteous, and Gehinnom or Gehenna for the wicked; they emphasize the resurrection of the body, and the future rewards and punishments.

(d) The Talmud adds various fanciful embellishments. It puts Paradise and Gehenna in close proximity, measures their extent, and distinguishes different departments in both corresponding to the degrees of merit and guilt. Paradise is sixty times as large as the world, and Hell sixty times as large as Paradise, for the bad preponderate here and hereafter. According to other rabbinical testimonies, both are well nigh boundless. The Talmudic descriptions of Paradise (as those of the Koran) mix sensual and spiritual delights. The righteous enjoy the vision of the Shechina and feast with the patriarchs, and with Moses and David of the flesh of leviathan, and drink wine from the cup of salvation. Each inhabitant has a house according to his merit. Among the punishments of hell the chief place is assigned to fire, which is renewed every week after the Sabbath. The wicked are boiled like the flesh in the pot, but the bad Israelites are not touched by fire, and are otherwise tormented. The severest punishment is reserved for idolaters, hypocrites, traitors, and apostates. As to the duration of future punishment the school of Shammai held that it was everlasting; while the school of Hillel inclined to the milder view of a possible redemption after repentance and purification. Some Rabbis taught that hell will cease, and that the sun will burn up and annihilate the wicked.11151115    See these and other curious particulars, with references in Wünsche, l. c. p. 361 sqq., and 494 sqq. He confesses, however, that it is exceedingly difficult to present a coherent system from the various sayings of the Rabbis. The views of the Essenes differed from the common Jewish notions; they believed only in the immortality of the soul, and greeted death as a deliverance from the prison of the body.115

3. The Christian doctrine of the future life differs from the heathen, and to a less extent also from the Jewish, in the following important points:

(a) It gives to the belief in a future state the absolute certainty of divine revelation, sealed by the fact of Christ’s resurrection, and thereby imparts to the present life an immeasurable importance, involving endless issues.

(b) It connects the resurrection of the body with the immortality of the soul, and thus gives concrete completion to the latter, and saves the whole individuality of man from destruction.

(c) It views death as the punishment of sin, and therefore as something terrible, from which nature shrinks. But its terror has been broken, and its sting extracted by Christ.

(d) It qualifies the idea of a future state by the doctrine of sin and redemption, and thus makes it to the believer a state of absolute holiness and happiness, to the impenitent sinner a state of absolute misery. Death and immortality are a blessing to the one, but a terror to the other; the former can hail them with joy; the latter has reason to tremble.

(e) It gives great prominence to the general judgment, after the resurrection, which determines the ultimate fate of all men according to their works done in this earthly life.

But we must distinguish, in this mysterious article, what is of faith, and what is private opinion and speculation.

The return of Christ to judgment with its eternal rewards and punishment is the centre of the eschatological faith of the church. The judgment is preceded by the general resurrection, and followed by life everlasting.

This faith is expressed in the oecumenical creeds.

The Apostles’ Creed:

"He shall come to judge the quick and the dead," and "I believe in the resurrection of the body and life everlasting."

The Nicene Creed:

"He shall come again, with glory, to judge the quick and the dead; whose kingdom shall have no end." "And we look for the resurrection of the dead, and the life of the world to come."

The Athanasian Creed, so called, adds to these simple statements a damnatory clause at the beginning, middle, and end, and makes salvation depend on belief in the orthodox catholic doctrine of the Trinity and the Incarnation, as therein stated. But that document is of much later origin, and cannot be traced beyond the sixth century.

The liturgies which claim apostolic or post-apostolic origin, give devotional expression to the same essential points in the eucharistic sacrifice.

The Clementine liturgy:

"Being mindful, therefore, of His passion and death, and resurrection from the dead, and return into the heavens, and His future second appearing, wherein He is to come with glory and power to judge the quick and the dead, and to recompense to every one according to his works."

The liturgy of James:

"His second glorious and awful appearing, when He shall come with glory to judge the quick and the dead, and render to every one according to his works."

The liturgy of Mark:

"His second terrible and dreadful coming, in which He will come to judge righteously the quick and the dead, and to render to each man according to his works."

All that is beyond these revealed and generally received articles must be left free. The time of the Second Advent, the preceding revelation of Antichrist, the millennium before or after the general judgment, the nature of the disembodied state between death and resurrection, the mode and degree of future punishment, the proportion of the saved and lost, the fate of the heathen and all who die ignorant of Christianity, the locality of heaven and hell, are open questions in eschatology about which wise and good men in the church have always differed, and will differ to the end. The Bible speaks indeed of ascending to heaven and descending to hell, but this is simply the unavoidable popular language, as when it speaks of the rising and setting sun. We do the same, although we know that in the universe of God there is neither above nor below, and that the sun does not move around the earth. The supernatural world may be very far from us, beyond the stars and beyond the boundaries of the visible created world (if it has any boundaries), or very near and round about us. At all events there is an abundance of room for all God’s children. "In my Father’s house are many mansions. I go to prepare a place for you" (John 14:2). This suffices for faith.

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