I recently sat in on a discussion about the afterlife wherein everyone present had a chance to reflect on their own views. I gave a potted answer of my own position there but what follows is an attempt to hash out my own position on this topic in more detail given its something that on one level I haven’t spent a long time thinking about but have noticed my views changing over time, or rather becoming more complex.

Growing up I believed, essentially, that as a Christian the Church would spend eternity in Christ and that those outside of Christ would spend it devoid of his presence. My individual salvation wasn’t based on my merits but on Christ’s who I follow after and whose name I had been baptised into. Reading the early Church on this hasn’t fundamentally changed this view but has made things more complicated, weirder, and I’ll try and communicate something about it all here.

Basics: Life After Death

In scripture, we see repeated descriptions of life after death. Paul writes in 1 Corinthians 15:20-28:

But now Christ is risen from the dead, and has become the firstfruits of those who have fallen asleep. For since by man came death, by Man also came the resurrection of the dead. For as in Adam all die, even so in Christ all shall be made alive. But each one in his own order: Christ the firstfruits, afterward those who are Christ’s at His coming. Then comes the end, when He delivers the kingdom to God the Father, when He puts an end to all rule and all authority and power. For He must reign till He has put all enemies under His feet. The last enemy that will be destroyed is death. For “He has put all things under His feet.” But when He says “all things are put under Him,” it is evident that He who put all things under Him is excepted. Now when all things are made subject to Him, then the Son Himself will also be subject to Him who put all things under Him, that God may be all in all.

1 Corinthians 15:20-28

There are many references to this belief in scripture but this shouldn’t be a point we spend a long time expounding upon for the purposes of this post. It is a universally accepted part of orthodox belief and the Apostles Creed likewise makes repeated references to life after death:

I believe in God, the Father almighty,

creator of heaven and earth.

I believe in Jesus Christ, his only Son, our Lord,

who was conceived by the Holy Spirit,

born of the Virgin Mary,

suffered under Pontius Pilate,

was crucified, died, and was buried;

he descended to the dead.

On the third day he rose again;

he ascended into heaven,

he is seated at the right hand of the Father,

and he will come to judge the living and the dead.

I believe in the Holy Spirit,

the holy catholic Church,

the communion of saints,

the forgiveness of sins,

the resurrection of the body,

and the life everlasting.

Amen.

The Apostles Creed, Emphasis Mine

This reflects the belief articulated by the Apostle Paul in 1 Corinthians 15. Christ is the firstfruit of what we all will eventually experience, the resurrection of the body. The defeat of death at some point in the future. Now lets see what the Early Church had to say on the subject of what happens after death.  

Particular Judgement After Death

In reading the Early Church Fathers I’m left with the distinct impression that beliefs on this topic had quite a broad range but can be categorised into majority and minority views. Let us focus on the immediate fate of the dead which is generally described as, in the words of the Theologian Thomas Oden, Particular Judgement:

The judgment of the individual soul is traditionally called particular judgment, sited as occurring immediately after death, as distinct from general judgment at the end of this-worldly history (Tho. Aq., ST supp. Q69.2). Thomas Aquinas (SCG 4.96) argued that immediately after death the soul receives a just retribution for what it has done in this life by becoming immediately aware of its destiny awaiting resurrection day (cf. Council of Lyons II, SCD 464). The end-time judgment awaits the event in which the resurrected body is rejoined to the soul. The posited time between them is called the intermediate state.

Thomas Oden, Classic Christianity. A Systematic Theology. Part 4: Human Destiny. Chapter 9: The Death of Believers. P783

This is that the believer, at point of death, would experience a foretaste of their eternal destiny prior to the resurrection. This is predicated on the view of people being conscious after death and prior to the resurrection. Now this wasn’t a universal view, but it was the majority view, and so it might be simpler to start with describing the beliefs of those who rejected this position before exploring Particular Judgement in detail:

Soul Sleep. No Particular Judgement. Position 1.

In the Early Church there was a tradition who rejected what we call Particular Judgement. This seems to be specifically associated with the Syriac and Ethiopic Churches. 

In the Second Century we see the Syriac writer Tatian, the author of the gospel harmonisation the Diatessaron, and student of Justin Martyr write:

The soul is not in itself immortal, O Greeks, but mortal. Yet it is possible for it not to die. If, indeed, it knows not the truth, it dies, and is dissolved with the body, but rises again at last at the end of the world with the body, receiving death by punishment in immortality. But, again, if it acquires the knowledge of God, it dies not, although for a time it be dissolved.

Tatian the Syrian. Address to the Greeks. Chapter 13. Theory of the Soul’s Immortality. 2nd Century.

Which talks about the dissolution of the body and soul only for it to be raised at the end of the world. So there is a priority placed on the unity of the soul and the body, that no existence of one occurs without the other. This is expounded in more detail by the later Syriac author Aphrahat:

But receive this explanation from me, that a sinner, while he is living is dead unto God; and a righteous man, though dead, is alive unto God. For such death is a sleep, as David said, I lay down and slept, and awoke. Again Isaiah said, They that sleep in the dust shall awake. And our Lord said concerning the daughter of the chief of the synagogue, The damsel is not dead, but sleeping a slumber. And concerning Lazarus, He said to His disciples, Our friend Lazarus has fallen asleep; but I go to awaken him. And the Apostle said: We shall all sleep, but we shall not all be changed. And again he said: Concerning those that sleep, be ye not grieved.

Aphrahat. Demonstrations 8.18. NPNF 2/13, p. 380-381. 3rd Century

Aphrahat really stresses the analogous association of sleep and death in scripture. He expounds the theological underpinning for this view more fully elsewhere:

The Spirit is absent from all born of the body until they come to the regeneration of baptism. For they are endowed with the soulish spirit (from) the first birth, which (spirit) is created in man, and is immortal, as it is written, “Man became a living soul” (Gen. 2. 7, cf. I Cor. 15. 45). But in the second birth-that is, of Baptism-they receive the Holy Spirit, a particle of the Godhead, and it is immortal. When men die the soulish spirit is buried with the body and the power of sensation is taken from it. The Heavenly Spirit which they have received goes back to its own nature, to the presence of Christ. Both these facts the Apostle teaches, for he says : “The body is buried soulish, and rises spiritual” (1 Cor. 15. 44). The Spirit returns to the presence of Christ, its nature, for the Apostle says: “When we are absent from the body we are present with the Lord” (2 Cor. 5. 7). Christ’s Spirit, which the spiritual have received, goes back to the Lord’s presence; the soulish spirit is buried in its own nature, and is deprived of sensation.

Aphrahat. Demonstrations. 293. 2-24, Parisot’s edition. Quoted in The Journal of the American Oriental Society , 1920, Vol. 40 (1920), pp. 103-120. F.Gavin. The Sleep of the Soul in the Early Syriac Church

So death the passage of time goes unnoticed by the dead themselves. It’s a legitimate question to ask, however, that even though such figures talk of ‘sleep’ do they really mean an unconscious experience of death? F. Gavin on the Aphrahat’s theology writes:

Aphrahat teaches also that the body and soul may be ‘deprived of sensation,’ yet he means by this ‘that in this sleep men do not know good from evil’ (397. 17). He uses in this same passage three words referring to ‘sleep,’ and this is the clue to the meaning of his other statement that the good rest with a good conscience and sleep well, waking alert and refreshed at the Resurrection, while those who have done evil in their lives are restive and unquiet, for they are uneasy with the sense of foreboding and doom impending. He illustrates this by the story of the likeness of the two servants, one of whom is expecting punishment, and the other praise from his lord, in the morning (396. 16-35; 397. 1-14). This is perhaps the clearest statement of the doctrine of the ‘sleep of the soul,’ and Aph. claims it for an article of the Faith (397.15).

The Journal of the American Oriental Society , 1920, Vol. 40 (1920), pp. 103-120. F.Gavin. The Sleep of the Soul in the Early Syriac Church

The Armenian Church, influenced by Syriac tradition, also believed that the soul was ‘quickened’ along with the body at the resurrection. Gregory the Illuminator believed in the 4th century that:

At the second coming of Christ will also occur the general resurrection. Then men’s minds and bodies, which had been lying in tombs, will spring up; each one’s spirit, which after his death had been separated from his body, will return to him and he will receive his original likeness, bones, flesh, sinews, and all other parts of his body being clothed with skin and hair.

R W Thomson. The Teaching of Saint Gregory: An Early Armenian Catechism, p. 29. 4th Century.

R W Thomson in this quoting of Gregory makes a reference here to a general resurrection. This is the belief in a future universal resurrection of mankind the sum of which is subsequently judged and divided between the righteous and the wicked, there is no Particular Judgement as articulated by Oden that goes alongside a doctrine of Soul Sleep here. 

Before we move on let’s look at a brief statement by Isaac of Nineveh in the 7th Century going on to associate the domain of the dead with Sheol:

Lo, they have slept in Sheol for long years as though it were one night! Nor is it known how long a time yet remains for them to sleep this lengthy sleep, or when the daybreak of the resurrection will dawn for them and awake them from their slumber.

Isaac the Syrian (of Nineveh). Homily 37. The ascetical homilies of St. Isaac the Syrian, pp. 165-166. 7th Century

Here we see reference to Sheol, a place mentioned repeatedly in the Bible (Psalm 6:5, 49:14, 88:6, 12; 143:3, Jonah 2:2–9, Job 10:21; 17:13–16, 26:5, Isaiah 38:10, 18, Habakkuk 2:5 to name a few). A place below the earth associated with the dead reflecting the fact that in burial bodies are lowered down into the ground.

This is a very brief rundown on the existence of the belief in Soul Sleep in the Early Church. A system with no scope for Particular Judgement as outlined by Oden and instead seeing all judgement awaiting the general resurrection of humanity at the end of all things. Whilst such a view is normative within the Syriac tradition it does seem to otherwise be a minority view. 

I will now go on to explain what we mean when we talk about Particular Judgement and what those in the early church who believed in a conscious experience of the dead in Sheol imagined it might be like.

Particular Judgement at Death. Position 2

It is appointed for men to die once, and after that comes the judgement.

Hebrews 9:27

The belief in particular judgement, is the belief that, in the words of John Chrysostom God “If He is powerful, He requites after death, and at the Resurrection.” (Homily 3 on Second Timothy) That God administers a measure of justice to the individual at their death that will be wrought wholly at the resurrection.

Just as we saw an early precedent for Soul Sleep in Tatian we see belief in a conscious experience of the afterlife in advance of the resurrection early on. As mentioned Tatian was a student of Justin Martyr who also wrote on this topic. He writes:

Reflect upon the end of each of the preceding kings, how they died the death common to all, which, if it issued in insensibility, would be a godsend to all the wicked. But since sensation remains to all who have ever lived, and eternal punishment is laid up (i.e., for the wicked). … let these persuade you that even after death souls are in a state of sensation.

Justin Martyr. First Apology. Chapter 18. Proof Of Immortality And The Resurrection. 2nd Century.

Justin Martyr here expresses a belief that sensation remains somehow after death and that this sensation is particular to the soul. Irenaeus of Lyon, living during a similar period, also expresses this belief and explains it in greater detail:

The Lord has taught with very great fullness, that souls not only continue to exist, not by passing from body to body, but that they preserve the same form [in their separate state] as the body had to which they were adapted, and that they remember the deeds which they did in this state of existence, and from which they have now ceased — in that narrative which is recorded respecting the rich man and that Lazarus who found repose in the bosom of Abraham. In this account He states Luke 16:19, etc. that Dives knew Lazarus after death, and Abraham in like manner, and that each one of these persons continued in his own proper position, and that [Dives] requested Lazarus to be sent to relieve him — [Lazarus], on whom he did not [formerly] bestow even the crumbs [which fell] from his table. [He tells us] also of the answer given by Abraham, who was acquainted not only with what respected himself, but Dives also, and who enjoined those who did not wish to come into that place of torment to believe Moses and the prophets, and to receive the preaching of Him who was to rise again from the dead. By these things, then, it is plainly declared that souls continue to exist that they do not pass from body to body, that they possess the form of a man, so that they may be recognised, and retain the memory of things in this world; moreover, that the gift of prophecy was possessed by Abraham, and that each class [of souls] receives a habitation such as it has deserved, even before the judgment.

Irenaeus of Lyon, Against Heresies. Book 2. Chapter 35.1. Souls can be recognised in the separate state, and are immortal although they once had a beginning. 2nd Century.

Here Irenaeus ties this belief of a conscious experience of the afterlife to the parable of the Rich Man (Dives) and Lazarus. From it we can determine a few things that Irenaeus takes to be true of the afterlife by paraphrasing Irenaeus’s summary:

  • Souls continue to exist after death and reside in a domain of the dead
  • They possess the form of a man, so that they may be recognised
  • They retain the memory of things in this world 
  • Each class [of souls] receives a habitation such as it has deserved 
  • This occurs before the judgment.

This is a view that although sometimes saw mild variation (Augustine, for example, describes the bodily language as metaphorical representation of a spiritual reality) was held by a good number of Early Church Fathers. This domain might be conflated with Sheol mentioned by Isaac of Nineveh and is summarised very concisely by Methodius of Olympus when he says of the parable and of death:

The rich man in torment, and the poor man who was comforted in the bosom of Abraham, are said, the one to be punished in Hades, and the other to be comforted in Abraham’s bosom, before the appearing of the Saviour, and before the end of the world, and therefore before the resurrection.

Methodius of Olympus. From the Discourse on the Resurrection. Part 3.2.19 A Synopsis of Some Apostolic Words from the Same Discourse. 3rd Century

So Hades is comparable to Sheol as a domain within it, but within it resides a sanctuary for the righteous called Abraham’s bosom. Why was that place called Abraham’s bosom? Tertullian explains:

It is designed for the reception of the souls of Abraham’s children, even from among the Gentiles (since he is the father of many nations, which must be classed among his family), and of the same faith as that wherewithal he himself believed God, without the yoke of the law and the sign of circumcision. This region, therefore, I call Abraham’s bosom. Although it is not in heaven, it is yet higher than hell, and is appointed to afford an interval of rest to the souls of the righteous, until the consummation of all things shall complete the resurrection of all men with the full recompense of their reward.

Tertullian, Against Marcion. Book 4. Chapter 34. Moses, Allowing Divorce, And Christ Prohibiting It, Explained. John Baptist And Herod. Marcion’s Attempt To Discover An Antithesis In The Parable Of The Rich Man And The Poor Man In Hades Confuted. The Creator’s Appointment Manifested In Both States. 2nd Century.

So if you are one of Abraham’s children, this is your abode before the resurrection. We also from this get some sense of a symbolic hierarchy to the various realms in existence. These seem to be:

  1. Heaven
  2. Earth
  3. Sheol/Hades
    1. Abraham’s Bosom
    2. Hades in General
  4. Hell

The Father who expounded on this topic most extensively, however, was Hippolytus of Rome who goes on to explain in great detail what he believes to occur in this domain and is therefore worth quoting substantially:

But now we must speak of Hades, in which the souls both of the righteous and the unrighteous are detained. Hades is a place in the created system, rude, a locality beneath the earth, in which the light of the world does not shine; and as the sun does not shine in this locality, there must necessarily be perpetual darkness there. This locality has been destined to be as it were a guard-house for souls, at which the angels are stationed as guards, distributing according to each one’s deeds the temporary punishments for (different) characters. And in this locality there is a certain place set apart by itself, a lake of unquenchable fire, into which we suppose no one has ever yet been cast; for it is prepared against the day determined by God, in which one sentence of righteous judgment shall be justly applied to all. And the unrighteous, and those who believed not God, who have honoured as God the vain works of the hands of men, idols fashioned (by themselves), shall be sentenced to this endless punishment. But the righteous shall obtain the incorruptible and un-fading kingdom, who indeed are at present detained in Hades, but not in the same place with the unrighteous. For to this locality there is one descent, at the gate whereof we believe an archangel is stationed with a host. And when those who are conducted by the angels appointed unto the souls have passed through this gate, they do not proceed on one and the same way; but the righteous, being conducted in the light toward the right, and being hymned by the angels stationed at the place, are brought to a locality full of light. And there the righteous from the beginning dwell, not ruled by necessity, but enjoying always the contemplation of the blessings which are in their view, and delighting themselves with the expectation of others ever new, and deeming those ever better than these. And that place brings no toils to them. There, there is neither fierce heat, nor cold, nor thorn; but the face of the fathers and the righteous is seen to be always smiling, as they wait for the rest and eternal revival in heaven which succeed this location. And we call it by the name Abraham’s bosom. 

But the unrighteous are dragged toward the left by angels who are ministers of punishment, and they go of their own accord no longer, but are dragged by force as prisoners. And the angels appointed over them send them along, reproaching them and threatening them with an eye of terror, forcing them down into the lower parts. And when they are brought there, those appointed to that service drag them on to the confines or hell. And those who are so near hear incessantly the agitation, and feel the hot smoke. And when that vision is so near, as they see the terrible and excessively glowing spectacle of the fire, they shudder in horror at the expectation of the future judgment, (as if they were) already feeling the power of their punishment. And again, where they see the place of the fathers and the righteous, they are also punished there. For a deep and vast abyss is set there in the midst, so that neither can any of the righteous in sympathy think to pass it, nor any of the unrighteous dare to cross it.

Thus far, then, on the subject of Hades, in which the souls of all are detained until the time which God has determined; and then He will accomplish a resurrection of all, not by transferring souls into other bodies, but by raising the bodies themselves.

Hippolytus of Rome. Against Plato, On the Cause of the Universe. 1.2

I find Hippolytus’s explanation really intimidating. In conjunction with Tertullian’s explanation I imagine a path which bifurcates with the righteous being ushered upwards to the right and the wicked dragged down to the left and the idea of seeing the respective fates of the other party I found actually really disturbing. I don’t know where Hippolytus draws his inspiration from but whilst it is more elaborative doesn’t differ substantially from the general view on this topic amongst its proponents. A view which is fundamentally influenced by the parable of the Rich Man and Lazarus.

Further Variation

It is at this point, however, that we can divide positions on this subject further. Did all the righteous reside together in Abraham’s bosom? Again it was split.

The Church in Abraham’s Bosom. Position A. 

The best depiction of Abraham’s Bosom as a universal Paradise for the righteous in advance of the resurrection comes from Irenaeus when he states:

Where, then, was the first man placed? In paradise certainly, as the Scripture declares And God planted a garden [paradisum] eastward in Eden, and there He placed the man whom He had formed. Genesis 2:8 And then afterwards when [man] proved disobedient, he was cast out thence into this world. Wherefore also the elders who were disciples of the apostles tell us that those who were translated were transferred to that place (for paradise has been prepared for righteous men, such as have the Spirit; in which place also Paul the apostle, when he was caught up, heard words which are unspeakable as regards us in our present condition 2 Corinthians 12:4), and that there shall they who have been translated remain until the consummation [of all things], as a prelude to immortality.

Irenaeus of Lyon. Against Heresies. Book 5. Chapter 5.1 The prolonged life of the ancients, the translation of Elijah and of Enoch in their own bodies, as well as the preservation of Jonah, of Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego, in the midst of extreme peril, are clear demonstrations that God can raise up our bodies to life eternal. 2nd Century. 

Here Irenaeus compares Paradise to the Garden of Eden. By comparing his description of Abraham’s Bosom earlier in Against Heresies to Paradise, which he describes later on, we can hypothesise that he is describing the same place. Both being ‘a habitation such as it [the soul] has deserved, even before the judgment’  and a place ‘that there shall they who have been translated remain until the consummation [of all things], as a prelude to immortality.’ respectively. 

Irenaeus goes on to argue that even Christ himself had to honour the ‘law of the dead’ in order that:

That He might become the first-begotten from the dead, and tarried until the third day in the lower parts of the earth; Ephesians 4:9 then afterwards rising in the flesh, so that He even showed the print of the nails to His disciples, He thus ascended to the Father;— [if all these things occurred, I say], how must these men not be put to confusion, who allege that the lower parts refer to this world of ours, but that their inner man, leaving the body here, ascends into the super-celestial place? For as the Lord went away in the midst of the shadow of death, where the souls of the dead were, yet afterwards arose in the body, and after the resurrection was taken up [into heaven], it is manifest that the souls of His disciples also, upon whose account the Lord underwent these things, shall go away into the invisible place allotted to them by God, and there remain until the resurrection, awaiting that event; then receiving their bodies, and rising in their entirety, that is bodily, just as the Lord arose, they shall come thus into the presence of God. For no disciple is above the Master, but every one that is perfect shall be as his Master. Luke 6:40 As our Master, therefore, did not at once depart, taking flight [to heaven], but awaited the time of His resurrection prescribed by the Father, which had been also shown forth through Jonas, and rising again after three days was taken up [to heaven]; so ought we also to await the time of our resurrection prescribed by God and foretold by the prophets, and so, rising, be taken up, as many as the Lord shall account worthy of this [privilege].

Irenaeus of Lyon. Against Heresies. Book 5. Chapter 31.2 The preservation of our bodies is confirmed by the resurrection and ascension of Christ: the souls of the saints during the intermediate period are in a state of expectation of that time when they shall receive their perfect and consummated glory. 2nd Century

So when we read that the Thief on the Cross was promised to be with Christ that day in paradise, he was presumably taken there, to Abraham’s Bosom, and left there among the righteous after Christ’s resurrection. This also, by implication, makes the argument that Christ is no longer present at Abraham’s bosom. Which begs the question: what does it mean to be away from the body and to be at home with the Lord (2 Corinthians 5:6)?

This is the main thrust of the other position we will now touch on.

A Portion of the Church in Heaven. Position B.

Tertullian argued that whilst the majority of the righteous will repose in Abraham’s bosom a minority will go immediately to heaven bypassing Abraham’s bosom entirely. We see this when he states:

Well, then, what difference is there between heathens and Christians, if the same prison awaits them all when dead? How, indeed, shall the soul mount up to heaven, where Christ is already sitting at the Father’s right hand, when as yet the archangel’s trumpet has not been heard by the command of God, — when as yet those whom the coming of the Lord is to find on the earth, have not been caught up into the air to meet Him at His coming, 1 Thessalonians 4:17 in company with the dead in Christ, who shall be the first to arise? 1 Thessalonians 4:16 … No, but in Paradise, you tell me, whither already the patriarchs and prophets have removed from Hades in the retinue of the Lord’s resurrection. How is it, then, that the region of Paradise, which as revealed to John in the Spirit lay under the altar, Revelation 6:9 displays no other souls as in it besides the souls of the martyrs? How is it that the most heroic martyr Perpetua on the day of her passion saw only her fellow martyrs there, in the revelation which she received of Paradise, if it were not that the sword which guarded the entrance permitted none to go in thereat, except those who had died in Christ and not in Adam? A new death for God, even the extraordinary one for Christ, is admitted into the reception-room of mortality, specially altered and adapted to receive the new-comer. Observe, then, the difference between a heathen and a Christian in their death: if you have to lay down your life for God, as the Comforter counsels, it is not in gentle fevers and on soft beds, but in the sharp pains of martyrdom: you must take up the cross and bear it after your Master, as He has Himself instructed you. Matthew 16:24 The sole key to unlock Paradise is your own life’s blood. You have a treatise by us, (on Paradise), in which we have established the position that every soul is detained in safe keeping in Hades until the day of the Lord.

Tertullian. A Treatise on the Soul. Chapter 55. The Christian Idea of the Position of Hades; The Blessedness of Paradise Immediately After Death. The Privilege of the Martyrs. 2nd Century

It is a shame we do not have access to Tertullian’s work ‘On Paradise’ to delve in to his views on this further but we see from this that he believed Paradise and Abraham’s bosom to be two distinct places with the former being reserved only for the Martyrs, with God, and even the patriarchs in Hades going behind them in order of resurrection. This was a position, incidentally, challenged by the later works of the Didascalia Apostolorum in the 3rd century and the Apostolic Constitutions in the 4th century (Book 5. Section 1.7) the former of which reads:

Now concerning the resurrection, and concerning the glory of the martyrs, the Lord spoke in Daniel thus: [Daniel 12:2]. As (of) the sun, then, and the moon, the luminaries of heaven, (such) glorious light has He promised to give to them that understand [Daniel 12:3], and confess His holy name, and bear witness.

But not to the martyrs alone has He promised the resurrection, but to all men; for He speaks thus in Ezekiel: [Ezekiel 37:1-14]

R. Hugh Connolly, Didascalia Apostolorum. Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1929. Chapter 20: Concerning the Resurrection of the Dead. 3rd Century

A legitimate response to which might be that Tertullian didn’t doubt the universal resurrection, rather that the Martyrs might occupy heaven and be resurrected somehow in advance. This is supported by claims made in various Martyrdom accounts of Perpetua that he recounts and others like that of Polycarp, and Ignatius. That the Martyr gains instant access to heaven upon being crowned with immortality in their martyrdom. Yet this is also a position, the belief that souls can go straight to heaven, that is dismissed by those like Justin Martyr as being the fruit of gnostic heresy and defeating the need for a resurrection (Dialogue with Trypho. Chapter 80). There is a logic to this in that, as Irenaeus points out, even Christ followed ‘the law of the dead’. The Martyr’s, by contrast, do not in Tertullian’s view. 

Victorinus of Pattau also explains that the Altar mentioned by Tertullian in the above quote is located under the earth. Placing it proximally in the same domain Tertullian himself placed Abraham’s bosom. Victorinus explicitly posits, therefore, that the Martyrs remain in Hades:

As the golden altar is acknowledged to be heaven, so also by the brazen altar is understood the earth, under which is the Hades,—a region withdrawn from punishments and fires, and a place of repose for the saints, wherein indeed the righteous are seen and heard by the wicked, but they cannot be carried across to them. He who sees all things would have us to know that these saints, therefore—that is, the souls of the slain—are asking for vengeance for their blood, that is, of their body, from those that dwell upon the earth; but because in the last time, moreover, the reward of the saints will be perpetual, and the condemnation of the wicked shall come, it was told them to wait. And for a solace to their body, there were given unto each of them white robes. They received, says he, white robes, that is, the gift of the Holy Spirit.  

Victorinus of Pettau. Commentary on the Apocalypse. Commentary on Revelation 6:9. 3rd Century

This contradicts Tertullian, and those like him, who believed that Martyrs weren’t in Hades/Sheol but in Heaven. Yet the position represented in this instance by Tertullian at best only partially addresses the fact that to be absent in the body is to be present with Christ. Because in this belief only a subset of the Church actually experiences that prior to the resurrection at which point everybody is in fact both present in the body and present with Christ.

The Harrowing of Hell

For David says concerning Him:

‘I foresaw the Lord always before my face,

For He is at my right hand, that I may not be shaken.

Therefore my heart rejoiced, and my tongue was glad;

Moreover my flesh also will rest in hope.

For You will not leave my soul in Hades,

Nor will You allow Your Holy One to see corruption.

You have made known to me the ways of life;

You will make me full of joy in Your presence.’

“Men and brethren, let me speak freely to you of the patriarch David, that he is both dead and buried, and his tomb is with us to this day. Therefore, being a prophet, and knowing that God had sworn with an oath to him that of the fruit of his body, according to the flesh, He would raise up the Christ to sit on his throne, he, foreseeing this, spoke concerning the resurrection of the Christ, that His soul was not left in Hades, nor did His flesh see corruption. This Jesus God has raised up, of which we are all witnesses.”

Acts 2:25-33

In the midst of Positions A and B lies the question of the harrowing of hell. That is: what happened in the event described in the creed which states Christ ‘descended to the dead’ before his resurrection? What happened to Hades after his resurrection? It is at this point that Christ broke the gates of hell from the inside, liberating from death those who died prior to the incarnation, as is alluded to by the Apostle Peter in his quoting of Psalm 16 at Pentecost. In this post we seen two possible outcomes:

  • Position 1 and Position 2A That Christ in obeying the ‘law of the dead’ has conquered death by his resurrection and that all in Sheol will follow in his stead at the end of all things. Whether conscious now or asleep, righteous or wicked, to everlasting glory or shame.
  • Position 2B Christ conquered death by his resurrection and whilst the dead remain for the greater part in Sheol the Martyrs are with God, in some form, in heaven. All awaiting the resurrection of the righteous and the wicked, to everlasting glory or shame.

There are issues with both these positions but one shared by both is the question of Christ’s presence in relation to the Church. Aren’t we told by the Apostle Paul that to be ‘to be absent from the body’ is ‘to be present with the Lord’ (2 Corinthians 5:8)? Does it turn out this is only true for the martyrs? How can part of Christ’s body be away from God? Can we possess his spirit somehow in Hades (Romans 8:11)? 

A Later View: The Church in Its Entirety in Heaven. Position2B.2

There has been another position argued by some that when we talk about the martyrs in heaven this stands in for the entire church. If we wanted to split things further we could call Position 2B instead Position 2B.1 and this version Position 2B.2. This seems to be a more contemporary view and it’s what I believe but it seems hard to reconcile with the writings of the early church on this topic. That at the harrowing of hell all the righteous were liberated and only the wicked remain and Hades in its entirety will be pitched into the pit of fire mentioned in Revelation 21:8. The difference being Abraham’s Bosom is either vacant or transported wholesale to Heaven where all future would-be occupants of the former go straight to the latter. However, from the Father’s we’ve quoted there are some potential criticisms we could see emerge regarding this:

  • Justin Martyr + Irenaeus Isn’t a disembodied heaven gnostic doctrine? Why have a resurrection if you’re already somehow embodied in heaven? (Dialogue with Trypho. Chapter 80 & Against Heresies. Book 5. Chapter 31.2)
  • Hippolytus Is there no particular judgement? (Hippolytus of Rome. Against Plato, On the Cause of the Universe. 1.2)
  • Tertullian Where do we see all believers in heaven before the resurrection? (A Treatise on the Soul. Chapter 55)
  • Victorinus Doesn’t Revelation argue the righteous dead exist ‘under’ the earth? (Commentary on the Apocalypse. 6:9)

Now Tertullian and Victorinus disagree with each other on Revelation 6:9 regarding where the martyrs reside. Yet in Position 2B.2 this verse describing the martyrs seems to be conflated with the righteous dead in general so the latter’s challenge to the former’s views on that area can be grandfathered in regarding this belief too. It is a popular belief, but perhaps this just goes on to show that on this topic there is no unanimity on this subject. Rather only that this last position doesn’t seem to have a strong historic pedigree as far as I’m aware. I haven’t seen this argument in Early Church literature.

As a result I actually incline towards either Position 1 and Position 2A. There are issues with each position which leaves me unable to commit fully to any but this is the conclusion I am drawn towards.

Christ and the Church in the Wake of the Harrowing of Hell 

What follows is my speculation on some of the questions I asked earlier regarding Position 2A in particular, namely:

  • Aren’t we told by the Apostle Paul that to be ‘to be absent from the body’ is ‘to be present with the Lord’ (2 Corinthians 5:8)?
  • How can part of Christ’s body be away from God? Can we possess his spirit somehow in Hades (Romans 8:11)? 

This is something that, once I started reading into it, I spent a long time wrestling with. I don’t want to accidentally stumble into heresy in my wondering and then put that in writing. Yet I couldn’t help but wonder, what if Christ’s harrowing fundamentally changed Sheol? What if even after his ascension his touch remains on it? When Hippolytus talks about the righteous in Abraham’s bosom ‘enjoying always the contemplation of the blessings which are in their view’ are they gazing, in a sense, upwards through the ‘hole’ left in Christ’s wake? The one after his resurrection broke down the gates of hell? I’m reminded of the passage in the Psalms where it says:

If I ascend into heaven, You are there;

If I make my bed in hell, behold, You are there.

Psalm 139:8

To which Augustine of Hippo said:

If I go up, says he, to heaven, You are there: if I go down to Hades, You are present Psalm 138:8. At length, miserable runaway, you have learned, that by no means can you make yourself far from Him, from whom you have wished to remove far away. Behold, He is everywhere; thou, whither will you go? He has found counsel, and that inspired by Him, who now deigns to recall him….If by sinning I go down to the depths of wickednesses, and spurn to confess, saying, Who sees me (for in Hades who shall confess to You? ) there also You are present, to punish. Whither then shall I go that I may flee from Your presence, that is, not find You angry? This plan he found: So will I flee, says he, from Your Face, so will I flee from Your Spirit; from Your avenging Spirit, Your avenging Face thus will I flee. How? If I take again my wings right forward, and abide in the utmost parts of the sea Psalm 138:9. So can I flee from Your Face. If he will flee to the utmost part of the sea from the Face of God, will not He from whom he flees be there? … For what are the utmost parts of the sea, but the end of the world? Thither let us now flee in hope and longing, with the wings of twofold love; let us have no rest, save in the utmost parts of the sea. For if elsewhere we wish for rest, we shall be hurled headlong into the sea. Let us fly even to the ends of the sea, let us bear ourselves aloft on the wings of twofold love; meanwhile let us flee to God in hope, and in faithful hope let us meditate on that end of the sea.

Augustine of Hippo, Exposition on the Psalms. Psalm 139:8, 9

If we cannot escape God’s presence is it possible that God is with the dead even in Sheol? Can his Holy Spirit still be indwelling amongst the righteous as it did in this life? Can it comfort the righteous there? We see similar references in Job:

He uncovers deep things out of darkness,

And brings the shadow of death to light.

Job 12:22

And:

Sheol is naked before Him,

And Destruction has no covering.

Job 26:6

This is prior to the harrowing of Hell, but do we really believe God no longer does these things afterwards?

Victorinus argued that the righteous remain under the earth in his commentary on the apocalypse drawing a link between their white robes and Isaiah 1:18. So we can argue that the passage of Revelation 6:9 describing the white robed, under the earth, does apply not just to the martyrs mentioned but we can infer it applies to all the righteous in possession of the ‘white robes’. This makes more sense in the context of the Marriage Supper and the Lamb and the significance of the coming together of Christ and his bride. In Position 2.B.(1 or 2) the Church and Christ have already, in some manner, come together. Yet if we follow Victorinus’s thinking Position 1 or 2.A actually increase the anticipation of Christ and the Church coming together at the Marriage Supper and the Lamb. To maintain the marriage analogy, wouldn’t having the Church in Heaven with Christ prior to the Marriage, even if only in part, be similar to consummation and cohabitation before Marriage?

Another point to consider is Irenaeus’s comparison of Paradise to Eden. This is the relevant quote again:

Where, then, was the first man placed? In paradise certainly, as the Scripture declares And God planted a garden [paradisum] eastward in Eden, and there He placed the man whom He had formed. Genesis 2:8 And then afterwards when [man] proved disobedient, he was cast out thence into this world. Wherefore also the elders who were disciples of the apostles tell us that those who were translated were transferred to that place (for paradise has been prepared for righteous men, such as have the Spirit; in which place also Paul the apostle, when he was caught up, heard words which are unspeakable as regards us in our present condition 2 Corinthians 12:4), and that there shall they who have been translated remain until the consummation [of all things], as a prelude to immortality.

Irenaeus of Lyon. Against Heresies. Book 5. Chapter 5.1 The prolonged life of the ancients, the translation of Elijah and of Enoch in their own bodies, as well as the preservation of Jonah, of Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego, in the midst of extreme peril, are clear demonstrations that God can raise up our bodies to life eternal. 2nd Century.

Irenaeus’s statement that paradise is the place preserved for the righteous (such as have the Spirit) is inline with the ‘geography’ of Victorinus’s comment on the white robes of Revelation 6:9. It also depicts not just a return to Eden but, after the Marriage Supper of the Lamb, the fulfilment of all it was originally meant to be. He also affirms that this is a place that serves as a prelude to immortality. Michael Hesier, in his expansive work on the spiritual realm, on the subject of Eden writes:

In Genesis, Eden was Yahweh’s home and the meeting place of his divine council. God had since changed addresses. Sinai was now his domain and where Israel was now headed. Earlier we discovered that Eden was the dwelling place and headquarters of the divine council. We were reminded of the description of Eden in Genesis as a lush garden with four rivers (Gen 2:10-14). Eden was also a mountain (Ezek 28:13-14), the administrative “seat of the gods” (Ezek 28:2), situated in the heart of the seas” (Ezek 28:2), a description that reiterated the well watered imagery of the council headquarters. The gods lived in the best or most remote places. That earlier discussion noted some connections between Eden and Mount Zion. It’s time to take a look at connections with Sinai. The fact that Eden is referred to as both a garden and a mountain in Ezekiel 28:13-14 is significant. It provides a clear conceptual link between Eden and the holy mountain of God, Sinai.

Micheal Hesier, The Unseen Realm. Part 4: Eden and His Portion. Chapter 20: Retooling the Template. Eden and Sinai p 160, 161

So paradise is this place that is a prelude to immortality and yet also comparable with the meeting place of God and his divine council. This meeting place is also in the heart of the seas, something we saw Augustine comment on in regard to Psalm 139:8, 9 (let us have no rest, save in the utmost parts of the sea). The seas obviously being lower in the Earth and that which gives up its dead in Revelation 20:13, not just being those who died at sea but all the dead. 

The boundary between this and heaven seems increasingly blurred. 

Yet the idea of paradise also being a mountain is something we already saw in Tertullian’s writing on the subject with his belief that Abraham’s bosom sits higher than Hades in general. This makes sense in that Abraham’s Bosom is comparable to Sinai, where God is encountered, just like the temple being where God is found, just like the Church in New Jerusalem wherein God resides.

We also read in Hippolytus’s description of Hades being populated by angelic beings serving various guarding functions (the angels are stationed as guards). This paints the image of the Harrowing of Hell being less a hit and run guerilla operation by Christ but a comprehensive occupation and transformation of the realm by a conquering Christ and his angelic hosts. Abraham’s Bosom is an outpost, a colony, of the heavenly realms within, as Hippolytus and Irenaeus state, the Earthly realms. As Matthew Emerson writes:

Now all those who die in Christ die knowing that death already has been defeated, and Sheol already has been decimated. We still wait for the Messiah, but now we wait for his second advent, not his first. This may be why the New Testament uses the terms “third heaven” and “sleep” to refer to the resting place of the Lord’s saints, rather than Sheol. The intermediate state is now no longer a place only of darkness and gloom, because the light of the world has entered it.

Matthew Y. Emerson, What Is Sheol?: Exploring the Afterlife in the Old Testament

To me the above makes the best sense of the different options we see available, in some ways I think it simpler to believe in a form of Soul Sleep, but I think this rationalisation of what I’m calling ‘Position 2.A’ harmonises scripture and the dominant themes in early church writings best.

Summary and Conclusion

In this piece I’ve covered three positions of the early church and a contemporary view not found amongst them. These are, once more, with any relevant Father’s associated with the given positions:

  1. Soul Sleep. No Particular Judgement: The dead are unconscious until the final judgement at the resurrection of the dead. (Tatian, Aphraphat)
  2. Particular Judgement at Death: The dead are judged at death and experience a foretaste of the final judgement.  (Justin Martyr, Hippolytus)
    1. The Church in Abraham’s Bosom: The righteous dwell together within Abraham’s Bosom in anticipation of the new heavens and the new earth. Abraham’s Bosom being a domain carved out within Sheol for Abraham’s Children. (Irenaeus, Victorinus)
    2. A Portion of the Church in Heaven: Either some or all of the righteous upon death enter Heaven.
      1. The Church Split Between Heaven and Abraham’s Bosom: The martyrs enter heaven. The rest of the Church dwell in Abraham’s Bosom (Tertullian)
      2. A Later View: The Church in Its Entirety in Heaven: All the righteous upon death enter heaven. (N/A)

As mentioned I’m inclined to lean towards either ‘Soul Sleep’ or ‘The Church in Abraham’s Bosom’. The is with the relationship between Abraham’s Bosom and Heaven itself being somewhat porous but still differentiated until the final judgement. I’ve attached below a brief sketch of what I imagine Sheol, in the context of creation, to be like:

Please take anything I say here tentatively, I’m not a theologian nor a minister. Yet this is a very brief summary of my understanding of what occurs after death and an attempt to align what we read in scripture and the early church on the subject. What happens eschatologically after this? Well I’ve touched on it very briefly in this post but maybe I’ll write about that more fully at some point in the future.

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