Article of the Month
by Loraine Boettner
III. The Intermediate State
1. Nature and Purpose of the Intermediate State
By the intermediate state is meant that realm or condition in which souls exist between death and the resurrection. That there is such a state is acknowledged by practically all who believe in a resurrection and final judgment. The differences of opinion that exist have to do primarily with the nature of the state, — chiefly in controversy with the Roman Catholics, as to whether or not it is purgatorial in character; and with those who, as Jehovah’s Witnesses and the Seventh-day Adventists, believe in soul sleep between death and the resurrection; also to some extent with those who believe in a second chance or the possibility of repentance after death.
The doctrine commonly held by the Jews and by the early medieval Church was that believers after death were in a dreamy, semi-conscious state, neither happy nor miserable, awaiting the resurrection of the body. It was in fact not until the Council of Florence, in the year 1439, that the Latin Church expressed outright opposition to this view, and even then it continued to be the prevailing view in the Greek Church.
The Bible has comparatively little to say about the intermediate state, evidently because it is not the ultimate state. It focuses attention not on that which is passing and temporary, but rather on the return of Christ and the new era that shall then begin. We therefore find it difficult to form any adequate idea of the activities that characterize those in the intermediate state.
There are, however, several Scripture passages which teach that it is a state of conscious existence for both the righteous and the wicked, — for the righteous, a state of joy; for the wicked, a state of suffering. This comes out with special clearness in the parable of the rich man and Lazarus, where Lazarus is received into Abraham’s bosom, and the rich man is tormented in the flames of hell. Paul’s statements already cited (II Cor. 5:8 and Phil. 1:23) make it clear that the state of the believer immediately after death is much to be preferred to the present world. While on the cross Christ said to the dying thief, “Today shalt thou be with me in Paradise,” Luke 23:43. For the believer to be in the intermediate state is to be with Christ in Paradise. And Paul’s reference to the vision given him early in his ministry, in which in one instance he says that he was “caught up even to the third heaven,” and in another that he was “caught up into Paradise,” II Cor. 12:2-4, shows that Paradise is to be identified with heaven. And in Rev. 14:13 is found one of the clearest of all references to those in the intermediate state: “Blessed are the dead who die in the Lord from henceforth: yea, saith the Spirit, that they may rest from their labors; for1 their works follow with them.”
The intermediate state is a state of rest and happiness. That, however, does not mean that life there, or life in heaven, will be characterized by idleness and inactivity. Far from it. In the first place, “rest,” in Scriptural language, carries with it the idea of satisfaction in labor, or joy in accomplishment. Even in this world we often find rest in a change in the kind of work we are doing. The activity of the saints is no longer “toil” or “labor,” in the sense that it is irksome and tiresome. In this world man in his fallen condition is under sentence to earn his bread by the sweat of his face (Gen. 3:19). Much of his work is misdirected, monotonous, repetitious and vain. But there all of the unpleasant features are removed and it is given a new direction, with new motives, and is a joy to perform. It is no longer directed primarily toward ourselves, nor toward any creature, but toward God. The heavenly life is one of uninterrupted progress, always upward and onward. The saints are “before the throne of God; and they serve him day and night in his temple,” Rev. 7:15, — they serve Him in work as well as in worship, His temple perhaps including the entire created universe.
In the second place “rest,” in Scriptural language, carries with it the idea of freedom from all that is evil, — from the temptations and assaults of the evil one, and from all the allurements of the world which so often have deceived even the Lord’s people and caused them to stumble. Undoubtedly Satan is responsible for much more of our trouble than we are aware of. Not until we find ourselves for the first time in a realm where he cannot reach will we realize how many temptations and troubles were due to his assaults. This rest consists further in freedom from the outward cares and sorrows of life, and from the vexations and perplexities of earthly affairs.
At death the Christian drops entirely out of the world of sense, and shall belong to it no more until the day of resurrection, at which time he shall find that the world of sense also has been “delivered from the bondage of corruption into the liberty of the children of God,” Rom. 8:21-23. He is no longer saddened and wearied at heart by the injustices, violence, opposition and ill-will of evil men. There is no more pain nor sorrow. “They shall hunger no more, neither thirst any more ... and God shall wipe away every tear from their eyes,” Rev. 7:16,17. From all these things the righteous have eternal rest.
The saints from righteous Abel onward, who have passed from human touch and mortal eyes, live gloriously in the intermediate state amid the transcendant splendor of Paradise. What it will mean to be with Christ, the incarnate Son of God, our intimate friend and Elder Brother who loved us so much that He died for us upon the cross and who, now glorified, is in the full possession of that glory which He had with the Father before the world was, is more than we can comprehend. His prayer was, “Father, I desire that they also whom thou hast given me be with me where I am, that they may behold my glory, which thou hast given me,” John 17:24. If the brief transfiguration vision of Jesus glorified, as seen only through human eyes, was such as to cause Peter to exclaim, “Lord, it is good for us to be here,” and to cause him to desire to build three tabernacles so that the experience might be prolonged (Matt. 17:4), what must it be to be with the glorified Lord in Paradise!
The Scriptures teach that the state into which the righteous enter at death is one of consciousness, holiness and happiness, which the resurrection and judgment only augment and make permanent. The mind loses none of its power or knowledge at the death of the body. On the contrary, it enters on a much higher plane of existence. The first and immediate result is that the soul, freed from the limitations of earth and cleansed of the last vestiges of sin, finds its mental and spiritual faculties heightened and is more alive and active than it ever was before.
The very nature of a finite soul, created in the image of God, is that it is capable of limitless development. “Image” means likeness. Man is like God, and different from all the rest of the creation, in that he is: (1) a thinking, intelligent being; (2) a moral being, having the sense of right and wrong; (3) holy, as he was originally created and as he shall be when redemption is complete; (4) immortal, in that he possesses a soul that shall live for ever; and (5) a ruler over the lower creation, — he was commanded not only to dress and keep the garden, but to “subdue” the earth (Gen. 1:28; 2:15), that is, search out and learn how to employ for his own use the materials of earth and the forces of nature. Consequently, man shall continue to grow in knowledge and wisdom and to gather strength, not only during the present life and the intermediate state but through all eternity.
In the present life growth in holiness and intellect is at best slow and halting. But after death conditions shall be incomparably more favorable. What marvelous possibilities for the growth of the soul open up during those blessed, peaceful, happy years in immediate fellowship with Christ Himself! The intermediate state is therefore, preeminently a state of special training and education for the high service of the eternal, perfect kingdom. At that time the Lord’s people are to be made rulers “over many things,” according to His promise, Matt. 25:21,23.
Those who already have passed on and are in the intermediate state doubtless continue to know about affairs in this world, possibly by direct vision, possibly through revelation from God or the angels, or through those who have departed this life later than they. If in this world we have such efficient communication through the purely mechanical means of telephone, radio and television that events in any part of the world can be seen and heard immediately in any other part, need we doubt that in the higher realm communication will be much more direct and efficient than anything that we have known here?
It must be kept in mind that the intermediate state, while a state of freedom from sin and pain and a time of great personal advancement, is, nevertheless, in other respects a state of imperfection. This imperfection consists, first of all, in that the spirit is without a body, which for the human species is an abnormal condition. The body, with its organs of sense, is the instrument through which we make contact with the physical world. As long as the disembodied state continues the soul has, so far as we know, no instrument by which it can make contact with the physical world or communicate with individuals here. The imperfection consists further in the fact that not at death, nor at any time during this present dispensation, is the promised reward given to the Lord’s people. It is not the death of the believer, but the second coming of Christ, that is set forth as the time for the distribution of rewards for the labors and self-denials of this life. Paul says that there is laid up for him “the crown of righteousness which the Lord, the righteous judge, shall give to me at that day; and not to me only, but also to all them that have loved his appearing,” II Tim. 4:8. So Paul has not yet received his crown, “that day” having not yet come. For that day Paul and all the saints in Paradise are still waiting. Our Lord also taught this same truth when He said of those who when they make a feast, invite the poor and needy, that they “shall be recompensed in the resurrection of the just,” Luke 14:12-14. In not a single instance does the Bible connect the bestowal of the promised reward with the death of the believer. The blessings received in the intermediate state, great as they may be, are to be regarded only as an earnest and foretaste of the good things to come.
The life of man thus falls not into two stages, as is so often assumed, but into three. First, there is the stage from birth until death, which is life in the present world and in the natural body; second, life between death and the resurrection, in the intermediate state, which is life without the body; and, third, life in the resurrection body, which is the final and eternal state.
On the other hand the wicked at their death enter immediately into a state of conscious suffering which is heightened and made permanent by the resurrection and judgment. There are not many passages in the Bible that give information concerning the wicked in the intermediate state. The clearest is the parable of the rich man and Lazarus, already referred to. It is interesting to notice that in that parable the rich man was more keenly conscious of the after life than is a normal person in this life, for he knew what was going on in three realms, — his own, that in which Abraham and Lazarus were, which he saw by direct vision, and this world in which his five brothers still were. He had the same character in the other world that he had in this life. There was no break in memory, nor any change in personality. What a man is in this world he remains in the next. It should be observed, of course, that the rich man went to hell not because he was rich, but because he was selfish and hard-hearted, as is shown by the fact that with all his great surplus of goods and possessions he allowed the poor man Lazarus to starve to death at his gate; and Lazarus went to heaven not because he was a poor man but because he was a good man. The rich man lived in separation from God in this life; he could not but live in separation from Him in the next.
This general teaching is briefly summed up in the Westminster Shorter Catechism and in the Westminster Confession of Faith. In answer to the question, “What benefits do believers receive from Christ at death?” the Catechism answers: “The souls of believers are at their death made perfect in holiness and do immediately pass into glory; and their bodies, being still united to Christ, do rest in their graves, till the resurrection.”
The Westminster Confession makes a clear statement concerning both the righteous and the wicked when it says that at death, “The souls of the righteous, being then made perfect in holiness, are received into the highest heavens, where they behold the face of God in light and glory, waiting for the full redemption of their bodies; and the souls of the wicked are cast into hell, where they remain in torments and utter darkness, reserved to the judgment of the great day. Besides these two places for souls departed from their bodies, the Scripture acknowledgeth none.” (Ch. 32; Sec. 1).
2. Terms: Sheol — Hades
In the Old Testament the Hebrew word used to designate the place of the souls of the dead is Sheol, and in the New Testament the equivalent Greek word is Hades. There has been much controversy over the precise meaning of these words, and even today there remains a considerable difference of opinion particularly between liberal and conservative scholars.
Let us consider first the word Sheol. It is in itself a neutral term, indicating neither happiness nor misery. Frequently it means the grave, or death in the broad sense. It is used in this sense when Jacob, mourning for his son Joseph who he thought had been killed by wild beasts, said: “I will go down to Sheol to my son mourning,” Gen. 37:35; and again when Jacob, fearful lest harm should befall Benjamin if he were taken to Egypt by his brothers, said: “If harm befall him by the way in which ye go, then will ye bring down my gray hairs with sorrow to Sheol,” Gen. 42:38.
Both the righteous and the wicked are spoken of as descending into Sheol. Concerning the righteous the Psalmist says: “What man is he that shall live and not see death, That shall deliver his soul from the power of Sheol?” Ps. 89:48, and again: “For my soul is full of trouble, And my life draweth nigh unto Sheol,” Ps. 88:3. God speaking through the prophet Hosea said: “I will ransom them from the power of Sheol; I will redeem them from death:O death, where are thy plagues? O Sheol, where is thy destruction?” 13:14. As for the wicked, it is said regarding Korah and those associated with him: “So they, and all that appertained unto them, went down alive into Sheol: and the earth closed upon them, and they perished from among the assembly,” Nu. 16:33; and again concerning the wicked: “They are appointed as a flock for Sheol; Death shall be their shepherd; And the upright shall have dominion over them in the morning; And their beauty shall be for Sheol to consume,” Ps. 49:14.
Several places in the Old Testament descent into Sheol is set forth as a punishment against the wicked: “They spend their days in prosperity, And in a moment they go down to Sheol,” Job 21:13; “The wicked shall be turned back unto Sheol, Even all the nations that forget God,” Ps. 9:17. In warning against the strange woman Proverbs 7:27 says: “Her house is the way of Sheol, Going down to the chambers of death.” God’s anger is said to burn there: “For a fire is kindled in mine anger, And burneth unto the lowest Sheol,” Deut. 32:22.
On the other hand the Old Testament, as well as the New, represents the state of death for the righteous as one of reward and happiness, and since both the righteous and the wicked go to Sheol the word does not necessarily carry with it either the idea of reward or punishment. Concerning the righteous it is said: “Let me die the death of the righteous, And let my last end be like his,” Nu. 23:10; “Thou wilt show me the path of life: In thy presence is fulness of joy; In thy right hand there are pleasures for evermore,” Ps. 16:11; and “Thou wilt guide me with thy counsel, And afterward receive me to glory,” Ps. 73:24.
Sometimes Sheol is used to designate what we have in mind when we speak of “the unseen world,” a disembodied but not an unconscious state of being. Also, in describing the dead, the Scriptures often speak of them as they appear to us, — as in a state of rest, with all of their earthly interests and activities ended. It is in this sense that the term is used in Eccl. 9:10: “Whatsoever thy hand findeth to do, do it with thy might; for there is no work, nor devices, nor knowledge, nor wisdom, in Sheol, whither thou goest.”
The view of present day liberal theology is that the Sheol of the Old Testament was a place without moral distinctions, and therefore without blessedness on the one hand, or positive pain on the other. It was, according to this view, a dreamy sort of under-world of comparative inaction, darkness and silence. In opposition to this view Dr. Berkhof says: “The idea is quite prevalent at present that the Old Testament conception of sheol, to which that of hades in the New Testament is supposed to correspond, was borrowed from the Gentile notion of the underworld. It is held that according to the Old Testament and the New, both the pious and the wicked at death enter the dreamy abode of shades, the land of forgetfulness, where they are doomed to an existence that is merely a dreamy reflection of life on earth. The underworld is in itself neither a place of rewards nor a place of punishment. It is not divided into different compartments for the good and the bad, but is a region without moral distinctions. It is a place of weakened consciousness and of slumbrous inactivity, where life has lost its interests and the joy of life is turned into sadness. Some are of the opinion that the Old Testament represents sheol as the permanent abode of all men, while others find that it holds out a hope of escape for the pious.”1 That the liberal view of a dreamy underworld has little Scriptural support and that it is in fact contrary to the general Scriptural representations is clear from what has already been shown.
The word Hell never occurs in the Old Testament original manuscripts. There are, however, 31 instances in which the King James Version so translates the word Sheol, but in each instance it is a mistranslation. There are also 31 instances in which that version translates the word as “the grave,” and 3 in which it is translated as “the pit,” although there are entirely different words in the original for these terms. The American Standard Version has corrected all of these, uniformly using the untranslated Hebrew word Sheol.
In the New Testament the place of the souls of the dead is usually called Hades, although, like the word Sheol, this word is not always used in the same sense. Sometimes it means the state of death or disembodied existence. In this sense even the soul of Jesus is said to have been in Hades. In Acts 2:31 Peter says: “Neither was he left in Hades, nor did his flesh see corruption,” — that is, He did not remain in the state of death, nor under the power of death, but arose in the resurrection. Historically, the statement in the Apostles’ Creed, “He descended into hell,” simply means that He died, or that He went into the unseen world.
In the following New Testament references the terms Hades, and Hell (Greek, Gehenna), carry with them the idea of punishment: “And in Hades he lifted up his eyes, being in torments,” Luke 16:23; “And thou, Capernaum, shalt thou be exalted unto heaven? thou shalt be brought down unto Hades,” Matt. 11:23; “Whosoever shall say, Thou fool, shall be in danger of the hell of fire,” Matt. 5:22; “Ye offspring of vipers, how shall ye escape the judgment of hell?” Matt. 23:33; etc.
Briefly, we may say that in the Old Testament Sheol usually means the grave, but sometimes the place of punishment, while in the New Testament Hades and Hell usually mean the place of punishment but sometimes the grave.
We may say, therefore, that these words, Sheol and Hades, quite clearly are not always used in the same sense, and that, consequently, they cannot always be translated in the same way, whether it be the state of death, the grave, the place of departed souls, hell, or the underworld. Many of the best scholars, including Vos and Berkhof, maintain that the words do not always have the same meaning.
Furthermore, in this connection something should be said concerning the terms Paradise and Heaven, and also Limbus Patrum and Limbus Infantum.
The word Paradise is an oriental term, meaning parks or pleasure gardens, and occurs only three times in the entire New Testament. These references are: Luke 23:43, “Today shalt thou be with me in Paradise,” — the words of Jesus to the penitent thief; II Cor. 12:4, where Paul says concerning himself that he “was caught up into Paradise, and heard unspeakable words, which it is not lawful for man to utter,” which he explains by saying that he was caught up to the third heaven (vs. 3); and Rev. 2:7, “To him that overcometh, to him will I give to eat of the tree of life, which is in the Paradise of God.”
These verses make it clear that Paradise is Heaven. It is the place where Christ now is, the place where He manifests His presence and glory. It is sometimes said that, for the redeemed, Paradise is heaven without the body, or that it is heaven before the resurrection. Where Christ’s resurrection body is, Heaven is. And since His resurrection body is finite and limited, as is all human nature, that is, not everywhere present but present only in one particular place, Heaven must be a place as well as a state, a place where the saints are exalted and as happy as it is possible for them to be in their present state of existence.
Limbus Patrum. Roman Catholic theology holds that Old Testament believers at their death were gathered into a region called the limbus patrum, where they remained without the beatific vision of God, and yet without suffering, until Christ had accomplished His work of redemption. The word limbus is from the Latin, meaning fringe or outskirts, and the limbus patrum was one of the several compartments into which first Jewish theology and then later Medieval theology divided the unseen world. After His death on the cross, and while His body remained in the grave, Christ is supposed to have descended to this region, delivered the souls held captive there, and led them in triumph to heaven.
This view is derived from I Peter 3:18-20, which passage reads as follows: “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 made alive in the spirit; in which also he went and preached unto the spirits in prison, that aforetime were disobedient, when the longsuffering of God waited in the days of Noah, while the ark was a preparing, wherein few, that is, eight souls, were saved through water.”
This is admittedly a difficult passage. However, it is capable of quite a different interpretation, and it is therefore a precarious passage on which to build a doctrine. Indeed, some rather fantastic theories have been offered as to what it is intended to teach. We believe, however, that the correct interpretation is not too difficult to find. Let us keep in mind that throughout Christ’s earthly career His obedience to the will of the Father was accomplished through the leading and motivation of the Holy Spirit. The Holy Spirit came upon the virgin Mary before He was born, Luke 1:35; the Spirit descended in a visible form at the time of His baptism, Matt. 3:16; and following the baptism He was led of the Spirit into the wilderness where He was forty days and forty nights, Matt: 4:1. Throughout His entire earthly career He was obedient to the will of the Father, and the way in which that obedience was accomplished was by the leading, the motive power, the anointing of the Holy Spirit. I Peter 3:18 says that after His crucifixion He was “made alive in the Spirit.” This, we believe, means the Holy Spirit. Verse 19 tells us that it was in this same Spirit that “he went and preached unto the spirits in prison, that aforetime were disobedient.” And when did the Spirit of Christ preach to those spirits? Verse 20 tells us: “When the longsuffering of God waited in the days of Noah, while the ark was a preparing, wherein few, that is, eight souls, were saved through water.” In other words, it was the same Spirit of Christ who spoke through Noah to the people of his day. The preaching referred to by Peter was long since past. It occurred while the ark was in process of construction; and the tragic thing about it is that only eight souls responded to that preaching. Those eight, and only those, were saved through water. Those who refused the testimony of the Spirit of Christ as He spoke through Noah were “the spirits in prison,” that is, in the prison house of sin, or in hell, at the time Peter wrote, and they still are imprisoned. There is, therefore, no foundation here for the doctrine of a “limbus patrum.” It needs only to be said further, however, that according to Roman Catholic theology this region is now empty.
Limbus Infantum. Roman Catholic theology also holds that all unbaptized infants, whether of heathen or Christian parents, are excluded from heaven and are confined to a region known as the “limbus infantum.” This doctrine is founded on John 3:5, “Except one be born of water and the Spirit, he cannot enter into the kingdom of God,” which is interpreted to mean that no unbaptized person, child or adult, can be saved. This is closely connected with their doctrine of baptismal regeneration, which holds that the soul is spiritually renewed at the time of baptism and that all persons dying unbaptized carry with them the guilt of original sin. The ecumenical councils of Lyons and Florence and the canons of the Council of Trent (1563) declare very positively that the souls of unbaptized infants are confined to this realm; but the Roman Catholic Church has never defined the nature of the punishment except to say that they are not saved. There has always been a natural repugnance to the idea that these children are lost, and Roman Catholic theologians have differed considerably as to their condition, with probably the majority holding that they endure no positive suffering but only are excluded from the blessings of Heaven. What a contrast is all of this with the generally accepted Protestant doctrine that all of those dying in infancy are saved! [Editor’s note: There is no Scriptural evidence to support this claim. WCF 10:3 states clearly that all elect infants are saved... not all.]
3. Second Probation
The theory of “second probation” or “second chance” holds that those who die unsaved have another chance for salvation in the next life. Almost universally the Christian Church has held that only those who are believers at death are saved, and that there is no second chance nor opportunity of any kind for repentance after death. The opposite view has been held only by individuals or by comparatively small groups. In the early ages only Origen and a few mystics held that view. At the time of the Reformation some of the Anabaptists held that a second chance was given. During the nineteenth century several theologians in Germany and England, most prominent of whom was Schliermacher in Germany, embraced the idea and gave a considerable impulse to that kind of teaching. In more recent times the sect known as Jehovah’s witnesses began to propagate it aggressively. As Modernism, with its more or less consistent denial of the supernatural all through the Christian system, has become more prominent the doctrine of a second probation has become much more popular. It has been made the distinctive tenet of the Universalists. (The Roman Catholic doctrine of Purgatory, as it bears on this subject, will be discussed in a later chapter).
Opinions vary among those who believe in a second probation as to whether this opportunity is offered to all or only to certain classes. Practically all agree that the offer is made to all those who die in infancy and to all adult heathen who in this life did not hear the Gospel, and the general tendency is to extend it also to those who never seriously considered the claims of Christ or who rejected Him. Most of those holding this view say that none are condemned except those who obstinately resist. Some hold that the unsaved undergo a new period of training, and that this training may be so prolonged and intensified that eventually every human being is brought to salvation. This latter, of course, is Universalism. It makes the pains suffered after death to be primarily disciplinary in character rather than punitive and vindicatory.
Support for the theory of second probation is based more on general humanitarian conjectures or surmises of what God in His love and goodness might be expected to do, and on an easily understood desire to extend the atonement as far as possible, rather than on any solid Scriptural foundation. The Scripture on which advocates of this view rely primarily is I Peter 3:18-20, holding that Christ, between the time of His death and resurrection, went to the under-world and preached to the spirits of those who had died before His crucifixion, offering them salvation through the atonement that had just been provided. In the preceding section we have given what we believe to be the correct interpretation of those verses. If that interpretation is correct, they have no bearing at all on the subject of second probation. In any event they could apply only to those who had died before the time of the crucifixion. Those who have died since, particularly those who have heard the Gospel and rejected it, have had much fuller opportunity and apparently would be dealt with in a different manner. But on the basis of strict exegesis those verses give no support to the theory that those who refuse the testimony of God in grace in this world have the Gospel preached to them in a future probation. The solemn reality is that all who die in unbelief pass beyond death to a lost eternity. There is nothing in Scripture to indicate that they receive a second chance.
Scripture uniformly represents the state of the righteous and that of the wicked after death as fixed. Perhaps the most important passage in this connection is the parable of the rich man and Lazarus, Luke 16:19-31. “Between us and you,” said Abraham, “there is a great gulf fixed, that they that would pass from hence to you may not be able, and that none may pass over from thence to us.” Jesus gave the stern warning, “Except ye believe that I am he, ye shall die in your sins,” John 8:24. On four different occasions He declared that after the rejection of the opportunity afforded in this life “there shall be the weeping and the gnashing of teeth,” — Matt. 13:42, the parable of the tares; Matt. 22:13, the parable of the wedding feast and the slighted invitations; Matt. 24:51, the parable of the unfaithful servant; and Matt. 25:30, the parable of the talents. This hard saying obviously indicates absolute misery in a permanent condition, and His repeated use of it shows His concern that it be deeply impressed upon our minds. It shows further that He was aware of the inclination among men to soften the absolute antithesis between salvation and an eternally lost spiritual condition.
The theory of second probation is refuted by those passages in which death is represented as the decisive time for which man must watch and be ready. One of the most striking verses is Heb. 9:27: “It is appointed unto men once to die, and after this cometh judgment.” Here the end of this life and the final judgment are brought into immediate connection, as if there were no intermediate state at all. In II Cor. 5:10 Paul says: “For we must all be made manifest before the judgment seat of Christ; that each one may receive the things done in the body, according to what he hath done, whether it be good or bad.” “Behold, now is the acceptable time; behold now is the day of salvation,” Cor. 6:2.
There is not one verse in Scripture that lends any real support to the idea of a second probation. Its consistent teaching rather is that it is in this world that man’s fate for good or evil is decided, that what the person is at death he continues to be throughout all eternity. Once man has passed the boundaries of this life there is no turning back, no recall. A great and impassible gulf separates the righteous from the wicked, and the intermediate state is of no value whatever in preparing for the judgment.
The theory of second probation rests on the assumption that only the conscious, deliberate rejection of Christ and His Gospel is sufficient to condemn man. Unbelief is, of course, a great sin; but it is not the only form of revolt against God, nor the only ground for condemnation. Man is in a lost condition as a result of the fall of the race in Adam. Until he is regenerated and converted he is a victim of original sin as well as of actual or personal sin. Original sin is in itself sufficient to bring a person into condemnation, although his penalty would not be as severe as if actual sin were added. [Editor’s note: There is no Scriptural support for the view that there are different levels of punishment in hell.] The Baptist theologian, Dr. Augustus H. Strong, has pointed this out quite clearly in the following paragraph:
A further serious objection to the theory of a future probation is that it depreciates the importance of the present life and well nigh extinguishes missionary zeal. If there is to be a future probation, or perhaps a series of future probations until all are saved, it is at least of lesser importance whether or not we get right with God in this present life, and whether or not we carry the message to those who have not heard it. Certainly the need for any one to repent now is not so urgent if he is to have another chance later on. The traditional Christian view has been that we must evangelize all men everywhere or they perish. The practical effect of this theory if widely adopted would be to lower the moral tone at home and to discourage foreign missions.
4. Soul Sleep
The doctrine of soul sleep holds that the soul becomes unconscious at death and that it continues in that condition until the resurrection. According to this doctrine the souls of the dead are sleeping in the grave, that is, in a silent world in which there is no knowledge, consciousness or activity.
Doubtless the idea of soul sleep has arisen in part from the appearance of the body after death, which condition resembles that of physical sleep. The body is ordinarily placed in a recumbent position, and particularly among Christians it is cared for with a special sense of love and tenderness, similar to putting a child to bed for rest in sleep. The dead body and the body asleep are so much alike in appearance that it becomes a natural thing to speak of death as an unending sleep. Even those who are firm believers in the continued conscious activity of the soul after death often speak of it in this manner. And similarly the Bible, as was said earlier, sometimes describes things as they appear rather than as they are actually known to be.
This doctrine is one of the distinctive tenets of Jehovah’s Witnesses, and also of the Seventh-day Adventists. Historically it has been held only by small isolated groups, and has always been opposed by the main body of the Christian Church. In this connection Prof. Berkhof says:
Seventh-day Adventists illustrate their doctrine by comparison with what happens when the light bulb is loosened in the socket so that the current is broken. The light goes out. It stays out until the bulb is reconnected with the current. Then it again gives light. Says one writer: “A man’s light, or life, goes out at death, and he does not live again until the resurrection.” Jehovah’s Witnesses are equally insistent that man’s life ceases completely between death and the resurrection.
But the fallacy of this argument is that it assumes the very thing that is to be proved, which is, that the soul, like the light, ceases to exist at death. No proof is offered for that assumption, except that we no longer see it. The fact is that the two cases are quite different. It is not the same light that comes back into existence when the current is again contacted, but entirely new light, which is continuously recreated. On the other hand, the soul of man is a continuing, abiding reality. The soul that is rewarded in heaven or punished in hell is the same soul that lived on earth. If that soul ceased to exist at death, and a new soul were created at the resurrection, it could not possibly be the same soul, and could not justly be rewarded or punished for what the former soul has done. If as has been said of the disembodied soul, “its light, or life, goes out at death,” it cannot possibly be the same soul that is brought back into existence at the resurrection. This becomes quite clear when we remember that a soul apart from a body is simply a spirit, a conscious life. The essential characteristic of a spirit is life. It has no material substance in which its identity can be carried. There can be no such thing as a non-living spirit, for the reason that consciousness, or life, is the thing which constitutes it a spirit.
In opposition to the doctrine of soul sleep we insist that death is not extinction, but only the separation of the soul from the body. The soul continues to exist, fully conscious and active, and at the resurrection this same soul, not a new one, is reunited with the body. We may well ask, How can a non-existent person be brought back into existence? In what sense would this person be the same person who formerly lived? And as regards the wicked we may ask, Why should non-existent sinners be brought back into existence at all? Or why should they be brought back into existence only for the purpose of putting them out of existence a second time?
The main Scripture references relied on by those who teach soul sleep are the following:
(1) From the New Testament: “Our friend Lazarus is fallen asleep; but I go, that I may wake him out of sleep. . .. Then Jesus therefore said unto them plainly, Lazarus is dead,” John 11:11-14. Concerning the ruler’s daughter who had died Jesus said, “The damsel is not dead, but sleepeth,” Matt. 9:24. The first martyr, Stephen, died as a result of being stoned, and we are told that “he fell asleep,” Acts 7:60. Paul uses this expression on several occasions. “Behold, I tell you a mystery: We shall not all sleep, but we shall all be changed,” I Cor. 15:51. “But we would not have you ignorant, brethren, concerning them that fall asleep; that ye sorrow not, even as the rest, who have no hope. For if we believe that Jesus died and rose again, even so them also that are fallen asleep in Jesus will God bring with him,” I Thess. 4:13,14.
(2) From the Old Testament: “For the living know that they shall die: but the dead know not anything, neither have they any more reward; for the memory of them is forgotten. As well their love, as their hatred and their envy, is perished long ago; neither have they any more a portion for ever in anything that is done under the sun,” Eccl. 9:5,6. “Whatsoever thy hand findeth to do, do it with thy might; for there is no work, nor device, nor knowledge, nor wisdom in Sheol, whither thou goest,” Eccl. 9:10. “Consider and answer me, O Jehovah my God: Lighten mine eyes, lest I sleep the sleep of death,” Ps. 13:3. “For in death there is no remembrance of thee: In Sheol who shall give thee thanks?” Ps. 6:5. “The dead praise not Jehovah, Neither any that go down into silence,” Ps. 115:17. “His (man’s) breath goeth forth, he returneth to his earth; In that very day his thoughts perish,” Ps. 146:3,4. Daniel refers to “them that sleep in the dust of the earth,” 12:2.
But these verses present no real difficulty. It should be clear to any one that these verses describe the dead person only as he appears from the human viewpoint, not as he really is. The language is that of appearance only. Similarly, the Bible speaks of “the four corners of the earth,” Rev. 20:8; of “the ends of the earth,” Zech. 9:10; of the sun rising and setting; etc. Outwardly the dead person does look as if he were “at rest” or “asleep.” He can no longer hear, nor speak, nor move, nor in any way take part in the activities of this world. But not one of the verses quoted is intended to give a description of the person or his activities in the next world, nor does any one of them make any attempt whatever to enter into the reality that underlies death.
Everyone acknowledges, of course, that the body does sleep until the resurrection, that is, it becomes unconscious, insensible. The sleep spoken of is that of the body, not of the soul. Those who teach soul sleep have simply confused the sleep of the body with that of the soul. Soul sleep is not taught anywhere in the Bible. In every instance in which the word sleep is used in connection with the dead the context makes it clear that it applies only to the body.
The parable of the rich man and Lazarus, which tells so much about the intermediate state and to which we find it necessary to refer so often, answers this question completely. There we have a picture of both the saved and the lost immediately after death. Lazarus was in Abraham’s bosom, or Paradise, and the rich man was in hell. Both were fully awake and conscious. Abraham and the rich man recognized each other. They talked back and forth, and remembered the scenes of earth. Lazarus had the feeling of happiness and comfort, while the rich man had the feeling of misery and torment. What could better picture perfect consciousness? Poor consolation it would have been for Lazarus to be in Abraham’s bosom if he were unconscious, as some would have us believe, and did not know that he was there!
It will do no good for any one to object that this was only a parable. For the parables spoken by Jesus were true to life and based on realities. The parables of the sower, of the prodigal son, of the vine, fig tree, etc., are given because in real life there are sowers, prodigal sons, vines, fig trees, etc. A parable must give a true picture of the thing it illustrates if it is to be of any service. Otherwise it becomes misleading. Furthermore, these events are spoken of as having taken place during the earth time, that is, before the end of the world. Jesus Himself told the parables. Surely He knew what the realities were, and surely He would not have used words that would have deceived His hearers.
But apart from this parable there is abundant Scripture to prove that believers do enjoy a conscious life in connection with God and with Christ immediately after death. To the penitent thief on the cross Jesus said, “Today shalt thou be with me in Paradise,” Luke 23:43. Those words would have afforded little comfort if he were to sink into a state of dead unconsciousness, only to be awakened by the judgment trumpet. Instead of a long unconscious sleep he had the assurance that that day he would be with Christ in Paradise. The spirit of Jesus went immediately to the Father, and with him went the spirit of this poor victim, saved by faith. To transpose the word “today,” as the Adventists attempt to do, making the verse read, “Today I say unto thee, thou shalt be with me in Paradise,” is characterized by the best exegetical authorities as entirely unauthorized and as simply forcing the sense of the passage.
At the transfiguration scene, Matt. 17:1-8, Moses and Elijah appeared and talked with Jesus. They were not soul-sleeping. Moses had been dead fifteen centuries and his body had long since mingled with the dust of the earth, but now he appears, alive and conscious. Elijah, too, had been taken out of the world centuries earlier. But here he is, very much alive.
Our Lord, in His argument with the Sadducees, appealed to the Old Testament to prove that three men, Abraham, Isaac and Jacob, were then living and enjoying a conscious life of communion with God: “But that the dead are raised, even Moses showed, in the place concerning the Bush, when he calleth the Lord the God of Abraham, and the God of Isaac, and the God of Jacob. Now he is [present tense] not the God of the dead, but of the living,” Luke 20:37,38. The bodies of those men were dead, but their spirits were alive. Let it be kept in mind that the angels, who are pure spirits entirely apart from any bodies, are not soul-sleeping. Why, then, should it be thought that human souls must sleep when separate from their bodies? This was the argument of the Pharisees against their rivals, the materialistic minded Sadducees, namely, that the existence of angels proves that spirits can and do live apart from the body. The old Sadducees differed from the modern soul sleepers to this extent: they were more consistent in that they denied completely any future life, whereas the moderns believe that after a period of unconsciousness the soul will be brought back to consciousness at the resurrection to be united with the body.
It should be kept in mind that resurrection applies not to the soul, but only to the body. It is not the soul, but the body, that rises. This is the teaching of the Bible when, for instance, we are told that at the crucifixion of Jesus “the tombs were opened; and many bodies of the saints that had fallen asleep were raised,” Matt. 27:52. The soul needs no resurrection, for it does not die.
The dying martyr, Stephen, with the full light of inspiration in his mind, declared that he saw the heavens opened and the Son of man standing on the right hand of God, — standing there, waiting for him (Acts 7:56). So Stephen was not going into a state of soul sleep.
Paul indicates that the Christian at death is immediately present with Christ: “For to me to live is Christ, and to die is gain .... But I am in a strait betwixt the two, having the desire to depart and be with Christ; for it is very far better,” Phil. 1:21,23. That can only mean that he expected to be conscious in the presence of the Lord and to receive an immediate blessing. Again he says: “Whilst we are at home in the body, we are absent from the Lord...willing rather to be absent from the body, and to be at home with the Lord,” II Cor. 5:6,8. He certainly would not have spoken after that fashion about an unconscious existence, which is a virtual nonexistence. What possible satisfaction could there be in being unconsciously “at home with the Lord?” These words can have no other meaning than that he expected to be conscious immediately after death. With his burning desire to render much-needed service to the newly established churches, he would have preferred to have lived and labored, even amid great sufferings, rather than to have died if death had only meant entering into a state of unconsciousness and inaction. To be at home with the Lord loses all meaning if there is no consciousness.
Again, Paul’s teaching is set forth in II Cor. 5:1-3: “For we know that if the earthly house of our tabernacle be dissolved, we have a building from God, a house not made with hands, eternal, in the heavens. For verily in this we groan, longing to be clothed upon with our habitation which is from heaven: if so be that being clothed we shall not be found naked.” Here he makes it plain that after death he would know the difference between having a body and not having a body. Having a body is like being “clothed,” while being without the body gives a sense of being “naked.” The body is likened to a garment to which we have become accustomed and which we miss when it is taken from us. In other words, he makes it clear that after death he expects to know the difference between having a body and being in a disembodied state. An unconscious soul could not know that difference.
These and various other passages teach clearly and forcefully that souls do exist and that they are conscious between death and the resurrection. All of these relate to time before the resurrection. Surely there is no room left for the erroneous doctrine of soul sleeping.
In defense of their position the Adventists say that none of those who were raised from the dead have given any account of their experience, and that this in an indication that they were unconscious while in the disembodied state. But in reply we must point out that that is merely an argument from silence, and in this case quite worthless since Scripture in other places clearly teaches that those in the intermediate state are conscious. It is entirely possible that those who were brought back to life did tell something of their experiences, but that the accounts, like many other events and discourses of that day, were not recorded by the gospel writers. More probable is the explanation that what those persons experienced while in the disembodied state was so unlike anything in this life that it could not be expressed in human language, just as the language of higher mathematics or of chemical formulas is unintelligible to any one who has not studied in those fields. A few years ago when Professor Einstein propounded a new theory in regard to the relation between gravitation and magnetism his thesis was printed by newspapers as a human interest feature; but the peculiar signs and symbols that he used meant absolutely nothing to the vast majority of the people who saw them. This explanation is hinted at, if not clearly taught, by Paul in II Cor. 12:4, where he says that he was “caught up into paradise, and heard unspeakable words, which it is not lawful for man to utter.”
In the light of all this evidence we must conclude that the intermediate state is a state of consciousness, recognition and remembrance. There is no reason to believe that at death either the good or the evil enter into a state of abeyance or suspense. The innate activity of the soul would of itself make it probable that the soul would continue conscious and that it would enter upon the preliminary state of its reward or punishment as soon as that is completely earned. Those who teach soul sleep are confusing what is said of the body with what is said of the soul, and are setting forth a doctrine that is contradicted by many Scripture passages.
The same two groups that teach soul sleep, Jehovah‘s Witnesses and the Seventh-day Adventists, as well as a few others, have also taken quite an aggressive stand in asserting that after the final judgment all impenitent souls will be annihilated. And by annihilation is meant a literal cessation of being. This we may call conditional immortality. The form in which this view usually has been held is that man was created mortal, and that immortality is a gift which God confers as a reward upon the righteous, although some have held that man was created immortal but that the wicked are, by a positive act of God, deprived of that gift.
This theory has been brought forward primarily for the purpose of softening down or doing away with the difficulties connected with the doctrine of eternal punishment. Some believers teach it because they think it necessary in order to defend the character of God, so to speak, against the charge of unkindness and cruelty. Some of the wicked affirm it in order to escape the reality of hell. The motives of these latter are personal and selfish. In their case the wish is father to the thought. But the fact of the matter is that annihilation can hardly be called a punishment, certainly not an adequate punishment, for sin. It implies a termination of consciousness and therefore of all pain and all sense of guilt or ill-desert. For many the fear or dread of annihilation would not in itself be anything like commensurate with the transgression. For those who grow tired of life, and particularly for those who have an accusing conscience, extinction of being might be considered a very desirable thing. For such persons it would in reality be a blessing. This view, like that of second probation and soul sleep, has always been opposed by the church at large.
In opposition to this theory the Bible not only gives no hint of any cessation of the punishment of the wicked but declares in the strongest terms its endlessness. It is said to be “eternal,” “everlasting.” These words are the strongest of any in the Greek language. These same words are used to express the eternity of God, and to describe the duration of the blessed condition of the righteous in heaven. “Now unto the King eternal, immortal, invisible, the only God, be honor and glory for ever and ever,” I Tim. 1:17. “He that believeth . . . hath eternal life,” John 5:24. “I give unto them eternal life,” John 10:28. “The free gift of God is eternal life in Jesus Christ our Lord,” Rom. 6:23. “Depart from me, ye cursed, into the eternal fire which is prepared for the Devil and his angels .... And these shall go away into eternal punishment: but the righteous into eternal life,” Matt. 25:41,46. In this latter verse the same Greek word is used in both clauses. The wicked are to go “eis kolasin aionion,” and the righteous “eis zoen aionion”; hence the meaning must be the same in both cases. The word “aionion” is used in the New Testament seventy-two times, and always it denotes indefinite, unbounded, eternal duration. The judgment scene of Matt. 25:31-46 implies the continued existence of both the righteous and the wicked. Blessing is asserted for the one, and punishment for the other. The parallel would not hold at all if the wicked were to be annihilated.
The theory of annihilation does violence to the justice of God. Justice demands that the sinner shall receive punishment commensurate with his crime, not annihilation. The Bible teaches that there will be degrees of punishment for the wicked, — some will be beaten with few stripes, and some with many stripes, but in each case the punishment continues for ever. Let it be kept in mind also that with all restraints removed the sinner goes on sinning endlessly, defiantly, against God, and that endless punishment is the penalty for endless sinning.
That the sufferings of the wicked have no end is taught most unequivocally in the following verses: “And the smoke of their torment goeth up for ever and ever; and they have no rest day and night, they that worship the beast and his image, and whoso receiveth the mark of his name,” Rev. 14:11. “And the Devil that deceived them was cast into the lake of fire and brimstone, where are also the beast and the false prophet; and they shall be tormented day and night for ever and ever,” Rev. 20:10. “. . . who shall suffer punishment, even eternal destruction from the face of the Lord,” II Thess. 1:9. Jude, verse 13, refers to the wicked as “wandering stars, for whom the blackness of darkness hath been reserved for ever”; and in verse 7 the wicked are referred to as “suffering the punishment of eternal fire.” In Mark 9:43 we are told that the fire is “unquenchable,” and in verse 48 that “their worm dieth not, and the fire is not quenched.” Daniel declares that “Many of them that sleep in the dust of the earth shall awake, some to everylasting life, and some to shame and everlasting contempt,” 12:2.
In these verses it is not said that the effects of this punishment are everlasting, as would be the case if the wicked were annihilated, but that the punishment itself — the “fire,” the “punishment,” the “torment,” the “contempt,” the “worm” — is everlasting. What would be the sense of these being everlasting if the sinner himself had ceased to exist? If these expressions do not teach that the punishment of the wicked continues eternally, it is difficult to see how it could be taught in human language. God does not annihilate the wicked, whether men or angels, but makes them the means of displaying eternally His hatred for sin, as His holiness and justice are manifested in that punishment.
There is a close parallel between the fate of wicked men and lost angels, as we have just seen in Matt. 25:41. In this connection Dr. A. A. Hodge has said, “The demons sinned before Adam fell. Ever since, for many thousand years, they have been ‘reserved in everlasting chains under darkness, unto the judgment of the great day‘ (Jude 6). They are punished for sin, yet have for many thousand years not ceased to exist. Many of them, doing their evil work among men on earth, prove their conscious activity under a state of penalty (Matt. 12:43). No possible language can more explicitly declare that the Devil shall be tormented, kept in conscious suffering, ceaseless and endless. And into the same ‘everlasting fire prepared for the Devil,‘ are wicked men to be sent from the left hand of the judge (Matt. 25:41).4
Rev. Arthur Allen, editor of an Australian church magazine, recently stated the case in these words:
When the Bible says that the wicked are to “perish,” or to be “destroyed,” that does not mean that they are to be reduced to a state of non-existence. These words signify a continued condition of privation or of suffering. A sinner alienated from God is already “lost,” “destroyed,” “ruined,” but he has not ceased to exist. Eternal death is not the extinction of being but of well-being. Dr. Charles Hodge put this clearly when he said:
Jehovah‘s Witnesses and Seventh-day Adventists teach that eventually all evil is to be abolished. Wicked men and angels, they say, including Satan himself, are to be cast into “the lake of fire,” along with the agencies that they have used to accomplish their ends, and all of these are to be completely consumed. When these things are destroyed rebellion comes to an end, and God makes “a new heaven and a new earth.” Thus, according to their doctrines, only good eventually will remain, a universe without sin. This view naturally appeals to human sentiment, and we might wish it were true. But the difficulty is that it clearly contradicts what the Bible teaches.
It is said by some of those who teach annihilation that there will be no resurrection of the wicked — another sentimental scheme to which we might readily consent if it were given to us to arrange a universe according to our own liking. But to refute this we need only turn to the following: “For the hour cometh in which all that are in the tombs shall hear his voice, and shall come forth: they that have done good, unto the resurrection of life; and they that have done evil, unto the resurrection of judgment,” John 5:28, 29. Paul‘s words to Felix the governor were: “...there shall be a resurrection both of the just and unjust,” Acts 24:15. And Daniel said: “Many of them that sleep in the dust of the earth shall awake, some to everlasting life, and some to shame and everlasting contempt,” 12:2.
The annihilationists have only a comparatively small following because there is a consciousness in all men that death does not end all. The idea of immortality is so deeply rooted in the human mind that most unrepentant persons are afraid to die because they are worried, sometimes terrified, by the uncertainty of what lies beyond.
One further point should be brought out in this connection. In defense of their doctrine of annihilation Jehovah‘s Witnesses and Seventh-day Adventists say that nowhere in the Bible is man said to be immortal, and that God alone is declared to be immortal. As proof they cite I Tim. 6:15,16, which reads, “...the King of kings, and Lord of lords; who only hath immortality.”
In response to that we acknowledge that in the strictest and highest sense God alone has immortality, in that He alone has existed from eternity and always will exist. He is the only absolute Being. But when human souls are created in His image, while they have a beginning, they have no ending and are from that time on immortal. To be immortal means to be never-dying. Man‘s body is mortal; but his soul is immortal. In I Cor. 15:53,54 Paul says, “For this corruptible must put on incorruption, and this mortal must put on immortality. But when this corruptible shall have put on incorruption, and this mortal shall have put on immortality, then shall come to pass the saying that is written, Death is swallowed up in victory.” Jesus said to Martha, “He that liveth and believeth on me shall never die,” John 11:26. The believer never dies spiritually. The unbeliever, like the Devil and the demons, is already dead spiritually, for Paul says, “And you did he make alive, when ye were dead through your trespasses and sins... But God ... even when we were dead through our trespasses, made us alive together with Christ,” Eph. 2:1-5. The believer does suffer physical death, which is separation of body and soul, but he does not die spiritually. The unbeliever not only dies physically, but is already dead spiritually and needs first of all to be “born anew,” that is, to be regenerated or given a new principle of spiritual life by the Holy Spirit. But while he is dead spiritually, that does not mean that his spirit is inactive or unconscious. Technically, the term “immortal,” in the strict sense, is nowhere in Scripture used to describe man, just as the word “Trinity” is nowhere used to describe God. But in each case the underlying truth is clearly there. And, what is more important, while the Scriptures do not apply to man the word “immortal,” they do apply to him the word life, which has a deeper and richer concept. The righteous have spiritual and eternal life. “Life,” in Scriptural and theological language, means not primarily continuation of existence, but a rich spiritual existence in association with God; and likewise “death,” in Scriptural and theological language, means primarily not cessation of existence, nor separation of body and spirit, but separation from God.
The Roman Catholic Church has built up a doctrine in which it is held that all who die at peace with the Church, but who are not perfect, must undergo penal and purifying suffering in an intermediate realm known as purgatory. Only those believers who have attained a state of Christian perfection go immediately to heaven. All unbaptized adults and those who after baptism have committed mortal sin go immediately to hell. The great mass of partially sanctified Christians dying in fellowship with the Church, but who nevertheless are encumbered with some degree of sin, go to purgatory where, for a longer or shorter time they suffer until all sin is purged away, after which they are translated to heaven.
The Roman Church holds that baptism removes all previous guilt, both original and actual, so that if a person were to die immediately thereafter he would go directly to heaven. All other believers, except the Christian martyrs but including even the highest clergy, must go to purgatory to pay the penalty for sins committed after baptism. The sacrifices made by the martyr‘s, particularly as those sufferings reflect honor upon the Church, are considered an adequate substitute for the purgatorial sufferings.
The sufferings in purgatory are said to vary greatly in intensity and duration, being proportioned in general to the guilt and impurity or impenitence of the sufferer. They are described as being in some cases comparatively light and mild, lasting perhaps only a few hours, while in others little if anything short of the torments of hell itself and lasting for thousands of years. They differ from the pains of hell at least to this extent, that there is a limit to the former but not to the latter. They are, in any event, to end with the last judgment. Hence purgatory, like the Limbus Patrum, eventually is to be emptied of all its victims.
As regards the intensity of the suffering, Bellarmine, a noted Roman Catholic theologian, says:
It seems that the Church of Rome has rather wisely abstained from any official pronouncements concerning the nature and intensity of purgatorial suffering. Books and literature intended for Protestant readers or hearers speak of it only in the mildest terms. But the Church does not thereby escape responsibility, for it has always allowed free circulation, with its expressed or implied sanction, of books containing the most frightening descriptions, ranging all the way from comparatively mild disciplinary measures to a burning lake of billowing flames in which the souls of the impenitent are submerged. Among their own people and in the hands of the priests it has been an instrument of terrifying power. We are reminded of the remark of Charles Hodge in this connection: “The feet of the tiger with its claws withdrawn are as soft as velvet; but when those claws are extended, they are fearful instruments of laceration and death.”
In general it is held by the Roman Catholic Church that the period of suffering in purgatory can be shortened by gifts of money, prayers by the priests, and masses, which gifts, prayers and masses can be provided for by the person before death or by relatives and friends after death. Purgatory is supposed to be under the special jurisdiction of the Pope, and it is his prerogative as the representative of Christ on earth to grant indulgences as he sees fit. This power can be exercised directly by the Pope or through his priests who in turn have power to alleviate, shorten or terminate the sufferings. It is, of course, impossible but that power of this kind should be abused even in the hands of the best men. Vested in the hands of ordinary men, as generally must be the case, or in the hands of mercenary and wicked men as has too often happened, the abuses were bound to be appalling. The evils that have flowed from this doctrine, and which are its inevitable consequences, make it abundantly clear that it cannot be of divine origin.
The more satisfaction one makes while living, the less remains to be atoned for in purgatory. One of the most convenient and acceptable forms of service that can be rendered, of course, is the gift of money or property. The priest is authorized to accept the gift and to offer the prayer for the alleviation of suffering or the deliverance of the soul. The result, particularly among ignorant and uneducated people, has been that the Church sells salvation for money, not outwardly and directly but in the practical working out of the system.
It is safe to say that no other doctrine of the Church of Rome, unless it be that of auricular confession, has done so much to pervert the gospel or to enslave the people to the priesthood. Every year millions of dollars are paid to obtain relief from this imagined suffering. No exact figures are available, but it clearly constitutes a primary source of income. In contrast with the custom in Protestant churches, in which itemized financial statements of income and expenses are usually issued yearly, Roman Catholic church finances are kept secret, no kind of a balance sheet or budget ever being published which would show where their money comes from, how much it amounts to, or how it is used.
The doctrine of purgatory has sometimes been referred to as “the gold mine of the priesthood,” since it is the source of such lucrative income. The Roman Church might well say, “By this craft we have our wealth.”
A low mass for the benefit of a soul in purgatory costs a minimum of one dollar; a high mass costs from five to ten dollars; a solemn high mass (three priests, sung) costs twenty-five to thirty-five dollars. Prices vary somewhat in the different dioceses and according to the ability of the parishioners to pay. The more masses said the better for an agonizing soul. People with property are sometimes urged to leave thousands of dollars to provide for prayers and masses to be said perpetually for them after they die. It is due in no small measure to this doctrine that the Roman Catholic Church is able to build costly cathedrals, monasteries and convents even in regions where the people are comparatively poor. The practical working out of the system has been seen when in several countries, e. g., France, Italy, England, and Mexico, a disproportionately large part of the property fell into the hands of the Roman Catholic Church and had to be confiscated by the government to redress the economic situation.
The doctrine of purgatory represents God as a respecter of persons, which the Bible says He is not. Because of money a rich man can leave more for prayers and masses and so pass through purgatory and into heaven more speedily than many a poor man who may have more to commend him in God‘s sight. The Bible teaches that God‘s judgment is based on character alone, not on outward circumstances of wealth, position or social standing. This doctrine turns to commercial gain the remorse of immortal souls and the dearest affections of the bereaved for their departed relatives and friends, and prolongs indefinitely the hold of the priest over the guilty fears and hopes of people which otherwise would end at death. People who sincerely believe that they are to suffer or that their loved ones are suffering such pains will do almost anything to provide relief.
But just at this point a serious question arises: If the Pope, or the priests acting for him, really has the power to shorten or modify or terminate the sufferings of a soul in purgatory, why does he not, if he is a good man, render that service willingly and without pay? Why should he be so insistent on the receipt of money before he renders that service? If any one of us had that power and refused to exercise it except after the payment of money he would be considered cruel and unchristian, — which indeed he would be. By all Christian standards that should be a service rendered freely and willingly by the Church to its people. The insistence on a money transaction shows clearly the purpose for which the doctrine was invented. Practical experience has shown that few doctrines bring forth worse fruit than this in the life of the church. A mere reference to the days of Tetzel, Luther, and the great Protestant Reformation, not to mention present day conditions in the Roman Catholic countries in southern Europe and Latin America where that church has had undisputed control for centuries, is sufficient to illustrate this point.
Since none but actual saints escape the pains of purgatory, this doctrine gives to the death and funeral of the Roman Catholic a dreadful and repellent aspect. Under the shadow of such a doctrine death is not, as in evangelical Protestantism, the coming of Christ to take His loved one home, but the ushering of the shrinking soul into a place of unspeakable torture.
In opposition to the doctrine of purgatory we assert that the whole idea that any person can make satisfaction to divine justice for the sins of the dead is unscriptural and of pagan origin. Belief that one could maintain contact with the dead, and that he could influence them for good or bad, has been an element in several of the pagan religions. When the Israelites came into the land of Canaan Moses strictly charged them that they were not to follow the customs of the land in making gifts to or sacrificing for the dead, nor were they to allow any marks to be made in their flesh to appease or facilitate contact with the spirits of the dead. In Deut. 26:13,14 we read: “And thou shalt say before Jehovah thy God, I have put away the hallowed things [objects of heathen veneration and worship] out of my house.... I have not eaten thereof in my mourning, neither have I put away thereof, being unclean, nor given thereof for the dead.” And further: “Ye shall not make cuttings in your flesh for the dead, nor print any marks upon you: I am Jehovah,” Lev. 19:28. The Roman Catholic practice of gifts for the dead and prayers to the dead — to Mary and certain of the saints — is not far removed, if indeed it is removed at all, from such customs.
That the doctrine is unscriptural can be easily shown. The Bible says nothing about any such place as purgatory. The redeemed soul goes not to any midway station between earth and heaven, but directly to heaven. It needs no purgatorial process of cleansing for it is cleansed not with human merit but with the perfect righteousness of Christ, — in Paul‘s words, “not having a righteousness of mine own, even that which is of the law, but that which is through faith in Christ, the righteousness which is from God by faith,” Phil. 3:9. Christ has done all that is necessary for our salvation. Faith in His finished work is the only thing that ever can or ever will save a sinner from hell. His death on the cross was sufficient to “purge” all our sins without the need of “purgatory”. “It is appointed unto men once to die, and after this” — not a long purifying process, not an arduous education toward better things, but — the “judgment,” Heb. 9:27. When Jesus said to the thief on the cross, “Today shalt thou be with me in Paradise,” Luke 23:43, the clear inference was that at his death he would go immediately to heaven. Paul anticipated no purgatory, but said that to depart was to be with Christ and that it was far better. Nor is there any transfer from one realm to another after death. Those who go to the place of outer darkness cannot cross from that sphere to the other, — “between us and you there is a great gulf fixed, that they that would cross from hence to you may not be able, and that none may cross over from thence to us,” Luke 16:26.
Furthermore, as Dr. Augustus H. Strong has said:
Roman Catholicism is to be thought of not as a pure type, but as a badly deformed type, of Christianity. It has become a religious totalitarianism, claiming authority over its subject not only as to what they may read or hear or do in this life, but also claiming authority to admit souls to or exclude them from heaven as they meet or fail to meet the demands of the Church for confession and penance. Professing to believe in the authority of the Bible, it has placed along side of the Bible as of equal authority a group of spurious writings known as the Apocrypha, and also a large collection of Church council decrees and papal proclamations, and it is almost exclusively from these latter sources that it derives its doctrine of purgatory. Three Scripture references are cited, but no one of them has any real bearing on the doctrine. They are: (the words of John the Baptist concerning Christ) “He shall baptize you in the Holy Spirit and in fire,” Matt. 3:11; “If any man‘s work shall be burned, he shall suffer loss; but he himself shall be saved; yet so as through fire,” I Cor. 3:15; and, “And on some have mercy, who are in doubt; and some save, snatching them out of the fire,” Jude 22,23. Surely this is indeed a very light cord on which to hang so heavy a weight.
The primary support for the doctrine of purgatory is found in II Maccabees 12:39-45, a Jewish book written after the close of the Old Testament canon and before the birth of Christ. That, of course, is an apocryphal book, and therefore is not acknowledged by Protestants as having any authority. In order to show how flimsy the evidence is for this important Roman Catholic doctrine we quote those verses in full:
But those verses really do not teach the doctrine at all. Furthermore, from the Roman Catholic viewpoint they prove too much, for they teach the possible salvation of soldiers who had died in the mortal sin of idolatry, and that contradicts other Roman Catholic doctrine. Commenting on those verses Dr. R. Laird Harris, in a very helpful little booklet, “Fundamental Protestant Doctrines,” says:
As indicated earlier, there is surprisingly little revealed in Scripture concerning the intermediate state. This has led some to resort to conjecture and imagination to fill out the picture that revelation has given only in the barest outline. Hence we get, on the one hand, the Seventh-day Adventist doctrine of soul sleep between death and the resurrection, and on the other and at the opposite extreme the Roman Catholic doctrine of purgatory, — for neither of which is there any real Scriptural proof.
The Roman Catholic theologian Newman cites this doctrine as one of the clearest instances of “development” from a slight Scriptural germ. But in reality it is an instance of the development from a germ of that which was never in it to begin with, — as if from a mustard seed one could develop an oak tree.
In defense of this doctrine Roman Catholics lay considerable stress upon the fact that the custom of praying for the dead prevailed early and long in the church. Such prayers, it is said, take for granted that the dead need our prayers, that they are not immediately in heaven. But, as we have pointed out in an earlier section, praying for the dead is a superstitious practice entirely without Scripture support. That was one of the early corruptions introduced into the Church from heathenism. It will not do to argue from one corruption to support another.
This much can be said for the doctrine: The term “purge,” from which the word “purgatory” is derived, comes from Scripture, — that is, from the King James Version. But the following verses make it clear that the true purg(e)atory is not after death but in this present life: “Lo, this hath touched thy lips; and thine iniquity is taken away, and thy sin purged,” Is. 6:7; “Purge me with hyssop, and I shall be clean: Wash me, and I shall be whiter than snow,” Ps. 51:7; “And he shall sit as a refiner and purifier of silver: and he shall purify the sons of Levi, and purge them as gold and silver, that they may offer unto the Lord an offering in righteousness,” Mal. 3:3; “Every branch in me that beareth not fruit he taketh away; and every branch that beareth fruit, he purgeth it, that it may bring forth more fruit,” John 15:2. In each of these verses, however, the American Standard Version uses another word instead of “purge”: i.e., forgive, purify, refine, and cleanse.
One thing that has given the doctrine of purgatory a certain amount of plausibility is the fact that we all are sinners and none attain perfect holiness in this life, while heaven is a place of perfect holiness where nothing evil can enter. The question naturally arises, How is the soul cleansed of the last remnants of sin before it enters heaven? Since this deals with something that is outside the realm of our experience it might seem reasonable to believe that there would be a place of further purification. In this case the Bible is our only trustworthy source of information. But a careful examination of all the passages relating to this subject shows that there are only two abodes for the dead: a heaven for the saved, and a hell for the lost. And in response to the question as to how the Christian is made ready for heaven, the Bible teaches that perfect righteousness is not to be had by any process at all, but only through faith in Christ. We are “not justified by the works of the law but through faith in Jesus Christ,” Gal. 2:16. As expressed in the Westminster Confession: “The souls of believers are at their death made perfect in holiness.” And if it be doubted that holiness can be attained in a single moment, let it be remembered that recovery from disease is ordinarily a process, but that when Christ said, “I will; be thou made clean,” even the leper was cleansed in an instant (Matt. 8:3).
History of the doctrine. The germ of what afterward grew into the doctrine of purgatory is to be found in the idea of a purification by fire after death among the ancients long before the time of Christ, particularly among the people of India and Persia. It was a familiar idea to the Egyptian and later to the Greek and Roman mind. It was taken up by Plato and found expression in his philosophy. He taught that perfect happiness after death was not possible until one had made satisfaction for his sins, and that if his sins were too great his suffering would have no end. Following the conquests of Alexander the Great, Greek influence spread through all the countries of western Asia, including Palestine. We have seen that it found expression in II Maccabees. The Rabbis came to teach that by means of sin offerings children could alleviate the sufferings of deceased parents. Later Jewish speculation divided the underworld into two abodes, — Paradise, a place of happiness, and Gehenna, a place of torment.
We need only to read church history to discover how this doctrine developed by slow processes into its present form. In the early Christian era, following the Apostolic age, the writings of Marcion and the Shepherd of Hermas (second century) set forth the first statement of a doctrine of purgatory, alleging that Christ after His death on the cross went to the underworld and preached to the spirits in prison (I Peter 3:19) and led them in triumph to heaven. Prayers for the dead appear in the early Christian liturgies and imply the doctrine since they suggest that the state of the dead is not yet fixed. Origen, the most learned of the early church fathers (died, 254 A. D.), taught, first, that a purification by fire was to take place after the resurrection, and second, a universal restoration, a purifying fire at the end of the world through which all men and angels were to be restored to favor with God. The priestly conception of the Christian ministry was introduced probably as early as 200 A. D., and with it came the idea that the sacrament of the mass availed for the dead.
In the writings of Augustine (died, 430 A. D.) the doctrine was first given definite form, although he himself expressed doubt about some phases of it. It was, however, not until the sixth century that it received formal shape at the hands of Gregory the Great, who held the papal office 590-604 A. D. Thereafter eschatology entered on what we may call its mythological phase, during the period of history known as the Dark Ages. The invisible world was divided into heaven, hell and purgatory, with the imagination attempting to portray as vividly as possible the topography and experiences of each region. The Protestant Reformation swept away those creations of terror and fancy, and reverted to the Scriptural antithesis of heaven and hell.
The following paragraph by Dr. Charles Hodge shows the influence that this doctrine had in the lives and thinking of all classes of people during that period:
Our conclusion after a rather extensive survey of the whole doctrine of purgatory is that it is not in the Bible, that it is rather an invention of men and contrary to what the Bible teaches. Our sins are cleansed, not by any fires in purgatory, but by the blood of Christ our Saviour. “The blood of Jesus his Son cleanses us from all sin,” I John 1:7, — thereby eliminating once and for all any need for such a horrible place as purgatory. We do not say that no person who believes in purgatory can be a Christian. Experience shows that Christians as well as unbelievers sometimes can be very inconsistent, that they may accept without thinking it through a doctrine or theory that is contrary to what the Bible teaches and to what their hearts know to be true. But how thankful we should be that we are not under the false teaching of a misguided church or priesthood that threatens us with torments of purgatory, that instead we have the assurance that at death we go directly to heaven and enter immediately into its joys!
Another subject that has a direct bearing on the nature and activity of the spirits of the dead in the intermediate state is Spiritualism. Spiritualism is the belief that the spirits of the dead can and do communicate with the living, usually through a “medium” who is susceptible to their influences.
The more accurate term for this belief is “Spiritism.” But the term “Spiritualism” has long been in common use and has come to a definite and well understood meaning. Consequently in this discussion we shall follow the generally accepted practice and refer to it as “Spiritualism.”
The thing that gives Spiritualism its strongest appeal is its professed ability to secure messages from departed loved ones and, to a lesser extent, its professed ability to foretell future events. It is rather closely related to fortune telling, palmistry, astrology, etc. Its chief patrons are grief stricken relatives and those who are in distress of one kind or another, often those who are worried about what the future may bring. Broken-hearted mothers, desolate widows and fatherless children in their grief have sought some direct message, some ray of hope from the other world, and in that moment of grief or despair Spiritualism seems to offer an easy solution. Usually those who patronize the mediums are people whose Christian faith is weak, or who are not Christians at all. Instead of trustingly accepting and acting upon the information given in the Bible, which information is amply sufficient and clear for those who put their trust in God, they have undertaken to secure direct answers through the spiritualistic mediums.
It seems that a considerable majority of those who function as mediums are women. Usually a medium claims to have a particular “control” spirit who answers questions or secures information from the deceased. Sometimes the medium professes to bring back the spirits for personal appearances and direct questioning. Deluded thousands, particularly in the larger cities, are asking the mediums for bread, but instead are receiving stones. We have no hesitation in declaring, primarily on the basis of Scripture teaching, that Spiritualism is a snare and a delusion. A Christian cannot do other than reject unconditionally the claims of Spiritualism to open up the unseen world and bring back the spirits of the deceased.
There is no satisfactory proof that the mediums actually do contact those spirits. The contact, if it is real, presumably is with evil spirits who impersonate the departed or who profess to give information from them. There is good reason to believe that all of the spiritualistic phenomena is produced by the mediums themselves or by their helpers. Even the most famous mediums have been detected in fraud, and some of them have been exposed time and again as morally bad characters. And if they cheat sometimes, how do we know that they do not cheat all the time?
THE SPIRITS OF THE DEAD CANNOT RETURN
The Bible teaches that death causes a complete break with all that belongs to this world. This is set forth in both the Old Testament and the New. Job said, “I go whence I shall not return, Even to the land of darkness and of the shadow of death,” 10:21; and again, “He that goeth down to Sheol shall come up no more. He shall return no more to his house, Neither shall his place know him any more,” 7:9,10. David said concerning his son who had died, “I shall go to him, but he will not return to me,” II Sam. 12:23. A great truth of the New Testament is that the souls of believers are at their death made perfect in holiness and that they go immediately to be with the Lord. Paul describes this as, “Absent from the body ... at home with the Lord,” II Cor. 5:8. In the parable of the rich man and Lazarus the rich man in Hades was by his own admission unable to communicate with his brothers, nor was such communication permissible or even possible under any circumstances. The saved go to heaven; the lost go to hell. Neither can have any further communications with this world. The dead are said to be “asleep,” — a figure which implies that they have no further contact with this earthly life, and that it is therefore impossible for us to communicate with them.
Nowhere in the Bible is there anything to indicate that the dead do return to this earth, either in spirit or in physical bodies except by a miracle when God Himself sends them back on a special mission. Such special cases we find in the appearance of Samuel when Saul sought information from the witch at Endor, in the instances in which people were raised from the dead (resuscitations, we may call them, not resurrections), performed by Elijah and Elisha, by the Lord and by the Apostles in His name, and in the appearance of some of the saints immediately after the resurrection of Christ (Matt. 27:52,53). But the Bible teaches that apart from such divine interference death brings about a permanent separation between the living and the dead.
THE ATTEMPT TO COMMUNICATE WITH THE DEAD IS FORBIDDEN
Not only does the Bible teach that it is impossible for the living to communicate with the dead, but the attempt to effect such communication is strictly forbidden. God’s command through Moses to the Children of Israel as they were about to enter the land of Palestine was: “When thou art come into the land which Jehovah thy God giveth thee, thou shalt not learn to do after the abomination of the nations. There shall not be found with thee any one that maketh his son or his daughter to pass through the fire, one that useth divination, one that practiceth augury, or an enchanter, or a sorcerer, or a charmer, or a consulter with a familiar spirit, or a wizard, or a necromancer [literally, one who inquires of the dead]. For whosoever doeth these things is an abomination unto Jehovah,” Deut. 18:9-12. “Thou shalt not suffer a sorceress to live,” Ex. 22:18. “And the soul that turneth unto them that have familiar spirits, and unto the wizards, to play the harlot after them, I will even set my face against that soul, and will cut him off from among his people,” Lev. 20:6. Isaiah repeated the same warning: “And when they shall say unto you, Seek unto them that have familiar spirits and unto the wizards, that chirp and that mutter: should not a people seek unto their God? on behalf of the living should they seek unto the dead ? To the law and to the testimony! if they speak not according to this word, surely there is no morning for them,” Is. 8:19,20. The sure test for any professed teacher or prophet, says Isaiah, is: Does he speak according to the Word of God, according to “the law and the testimony?” What the Bible calls a “familiar spirit” is what spiritualists today call a “control,” — a spirit that supposedly gives information to or controls a medium.
These Scriptural representations should be enough to deter any Christian from ever attempting to communicate with the dead. The Bible is sufficiently plain. The sins here named are those that go with heathen idolatry. Those who consult fortune tellers, and those who go to spiritualistic seances and try to speak with the spirits of the dead, are guilty of this sin.
Listen to the stern rebuke that God delivered through the prophet Elijah to the apostate Ahaziah, king of Israel: “Is it because there is no God in Israel, that ye go to inquire of Baalzebub, the God of Ekron?” II Kings 1:3. How shameful that those whose faith should be in the true God should in their ignorance and impatience turn to such practices!
God in His word has seen fit to give us an abundance of reliable information about Himself, the way of salvation, and life beyond the grave. The resurrection of Christ is designed expressly to give the Christian the answer to the question concerning the reality of the future life. Some one has wisely said, “I do not know what the future holds, but I know the One who holds the future.” Why should a Christian go to the false cults and to such shady characters as the fortune tellers to learn of the future ? Or why should any one go to those sources for any kind of information or help ? The only reason that spiritualistic mediums and fortune tellers continue to flourish and that people continue to pay out considerable sums of money for their “services” is, first of all, a tragic lack of spiritual understanding; secondly, the sheer gullibility of those who patronize them; and, thirdly, a certain amount of superstition in the make-up of a large number of people (even in many who refuse to acknowledge it openly), which causes all alleged supernatural phenomena to appear mysterious and which in turn makes it easy for them to believe there may be something to the claims of the spiritualists.
Dr. John R. Rice has recently said (and in this we agree with him fully):
TENETS OF SPIRITUALISM
Spiritualistic meetings are often given a religious setting. In some places they have their “churches,” and make use of Scripture readings, appropriate hymns and music, and even prayer. This tends to provide a congenial atmosphere and to break down any reserve or prejudice on the part of those who are members of established churches. But the whole movement is un-Christian and anti-Christian, utterly subversive of the entire Christian system. First of all, it denies the inspiration of the Scriptures and seeks to lower the Bible to the level of other books. It denies the Deity of Christ and presents him as, of all things, a medium! and intimates that His supernatural powers were the same in kind as those exercised by present day mediums. It indignantly rejects the idea of His atonement as a satisfaction to divine justice for sin, and asserts that salvation is a matter of personal merit. Through it there runs a tendency toward universalism. It denies the doctrines of the Trinity and the Holy Spirit, the existence of hell and the personality of the Devil, making the Devil an abstract principle of evil. One writer says, “There is no Devil and there are no evil spirits.” It treats lightly the doctrine of sin and the need for forgiveness.
Perhaps the most widespread and popular form of occultism in our country today is astrology. Astrology is a pseudo-science which professes to interpret the influence of the stars on human affairs and so to foretell the future. It is pure fiction and untruth.
There are, of course, many things about the future that we do not know, for it has pleased God not to reveal them to us, and it is not our place to pry into knowledge that He has forbidden. In regard to forbidden knowledge it is well to remember that when our first parents were in their unfallen state there was a tree in the garden that held a secret, a secret of the knowledge of good and evil, and they were warned that the knowledge it contained was not for them. In prying into the knowledge of good and evil they would become the victims of evil. But, heedless of the warning, they determined to investigate. The result proved fatal to the human race. They unfolded a mystery that condemned them body and soul. Their inquisitive disobedience gained for them nothing, but destroyed everything that they held dear. In our day those who hanker after forbidden knowledge, knowledge which they imagine can be gained through the services of a spiritualistic medium, show what a complete lack of appreciation they have for Christian truth.
In the parable of the rich man and Lazarus the rich man is reminded that his brothers had the writings of Moses and the prophets, and that they therefore had all the information they needed. We who live in the light of the completed New Testament have a much fuller revelation, and we have the promise that the Holy Spirit will guide us into the truth if we diligently seek it. Surely we have much less need for the spirits of the dead to come back and inform us regarding conditions in the next world. Any movement that claims that departed spirits are free to do what the Bible says they cannot do thereby labels itself as anti-Christian through and through.
RESULTS OBTAINED BY THE USE OF MAGIC
We do not pretend to know the answer to all of the Spiritualistic phenomena. Some of it seems quite weird and even supernatural to the average layman. We believe, however, that in the main the results are obtained through the use of magic, — that is, slight of hand, technical manipulations that are so rapid or so concealed that they escape the eye of the observer, — and that however mysterious the results may appear to the uninitiated they are obtained through purely natural means. On different occasions we have seen skilled magicians mystify an audience with one trick after another; yet we do not believe there was anything supernatural about their accomplishments, and most of them are frank enough to admit as much.
So much trickery and fraud on the part of the mediums has been exposed that entirely apart from the condemnations in Scripture the whole movement has been brought under deep suspicion. Dr. William E. Biederwolf made a considerable study of Spiritualism and its methods, and his conclusion was that “A bigger set of liars and fakers never lived than the majority of these mediums and clairvoyants and clairaudients and slate-writers and table-tippers and other ghostly manipulators.” — Spiritualism, p. 5. The conditions on which mediums usually insist, such as a darkened room, a select group of people, obedience to particular instructions, etc., make it extremely difficult for those who are not familiar with magic phenomena to detect the trickery.
COLLUSION WITH EVIL SPIRITS?
Another explanation given by some who have studied the spiritualistic phenomena is that the alleged supernaturalistic events are caused by evil spirits. Quite clearly it cannot be of divine origin, nor produced by the holy angels, for it is condemned in Scripture. We know that evil spirits do exist, and that they have access to this world. Both the Old Testament and the New make that abundantly clear. An evil spirit came upon king Saul, I Sam. 16:14; 18:10; also upon the prophets who prophesied before king Ahab, I Kings 22:21-23. Demon possession was a well known phenomenon in New Testament times. On numerous occasions Jesus cast out evil spirits from those who were possessed. Various physical afflictions were attributed to demon possession. We are told, for instance, “Then was brought unto him one possessed with a demon, blind and dumb: and he healed him, insomuch that the dumb man spake and saw,” Matt. 12:22. An epileptic boy was cured when the demon was cast out, Matt. 17:14-18. A woman who for eighteen years had been bowed so that she could not lift herself up, was healed, concerning whom Jesus said, “Ought not this woman, being a daughter of Abraham, whom Satan had bound, lo, these eighteen years, to have been loosed from this bond,” Luke 13:10-17. The Apostle Paul, writing to the church in Thessalonica, expressed his desire to visit them and said that he and Timothy would have come to them once and again, but, he adds, “Satan hindered us,” I Thess. 2:18.
It may be that many of the temptations and misfortunes that befall us — diseases, accidents, broken bones, property losses, even death — are caused by evil spirits or by the Devil himself. Our eyes cannot see them because they are spirits entirely apart from any material body. But their influence in the spiritual realm may be as real as certain other forces in the material world which also are unseen, such as gravity, magnetism, radio or television waves. In Job’s case the Devil did not show himself directly, but worked through the forces of nature, that is, through second causes. The Sabeans (bandits) stole Job’s oxen and killed his servants; the lightning killed his sheep; the Chaldeans stole his camels; a great wind from the desert blew down the house where his sons and daughters were feasting and killed them; and Job himself fell a victim of painful boils. From the human viewpoint all of these things seemed to happen in the regular course of nature. Job apparently had no other idea than that they were natural happenings. But the account tells us that the Devil had been given permission to tempt Job through these trials, that for Job the trials were disciplinary in character, and that the Devil could not touch Job until he was given permission and then could cause affliction only within prescribed limits. If such likewise is the case with many of our seeming misfortunes, we may be sure that they occur only with God’s permission, and that as in Job’s case they eventually are to be overruled for good.
This does not substantiate Spiritualism, for there is no proof that the mediums or any one else actually has power to contact the spirits or to influence them in any way. If the possibility is granted that the phenomena are caused in part at least by spirits, it means that the spirits who manifest themselves at the seances, or who give the mediums information which it seems would be impossible to secure through ordinary human channels, are not the spirits of loved ones at all, but spirits from the world of darkness, perhaps in some instances the Devil himself. In any event no one ever finds the secret of true happiness or the way to permanent success and prosperity by patronizing the mediums or fortune tellers. The strong denunciations against necromancy given in Scripture are intended to safeguard humanity against those deceptions.
SAUL AND THE WITCH OF ENDOR
The one event in Scripture most often cited by Spiritualists as supporting their claims that departed spirits can communicate with the living is Saul’s visit to the witch of Endor. This is recorded in I Sam. 28:3-25. We believe, however, that a careful examination of this passage will show that instead of supporting the claim it really contains a strong refutation of it.
Let us recall the story. The old prophet Samuel was dead. Saul, the king of Israel, had gone from bad to worse and was a God-forsaken man. The Philistines were marshalling their armies against him. The ordinary channels of revelation were closed to him because of his willful disobedience, — “Jehovah answered him not, neither by dreams, nor by Urim, nor by prophets.” The impending battle with the Philistines filled him with fear, and he did not know where to turn. He thought of Samuel and longed for some word from him as of old. He knew that those who dealt with familiar spirits were reputed to be able to call up the dead. Though earlier in his reign Saul had abolished under penalty of death all who acted as mediums, wizards, necromancers, etc., now in his despair and superstition he seeks out one who was practicing illegally at the town of Endor, — much as a present day ruler who had outlawed liquor might go in search of a bootlegger.
Disguising himself, Saul went to this woman. She reminded him that Saul had forbidden such practice under penalty of death. But after receiving a solemn promise that no punishment would come to her she asked. “Whom shall I bring up unto thee?” Saul asked that Samuel might be brought up. The story continues:
“And when the woman saw Samuel, she cried with a loud voice; and the woman spake to Saul, saying, Why hast thou deceived me? for thou art Saul. And the king said unto her, Be not afraid: for what seest thou? And the woman said unto Saul, I see a god coming up out of the earth. And he said unto her, What form is he of? And she said, An old man cometh up; and he is covered with a robe. And Saul perceived that it was Samuel, and he bowed with his face to the ground, and did obeisance.
“And Samuel said to Saul, Why hast thou disquieted me, to bring me up? And Saul answered, I am sore distressed; for the Philistines make war against me, and God is departed from me, and answereth me no more, neither by prophets, nor by dreams: therefore I have called thee, that thou mayest make known unto me what I shall do. And Samuel said, Wherefore then dost thou ask of me, seeing Jehovah is departed from thee, and is become thine adversary? And Jehovah hath done unto thee as he spake by me: and Jehovah hath rent the kingdom out of thy hand, and given it to thy neighbor, even to David. Because thou obeyest not the voice of Jehovah, and didst not execute his fierce wrath upon Amalek, therefore hath Jehovah done this thing unto thee this day. Moreover Jehovah will deliver Israel also with thee into the hand of the Philistines; and tomorrow shalt thou and thy sons be with me: Jehovah will deliver the host of Israel also into the hand of the Philistines. Then Saul fell straightway his full length upon the earth, and was sore afraid, because of the words of Samuel.”
That is the story. Saul resorted to what we call a spiritualistic medium, and God gave him a message of doom, — defeat for the army, pillaging of the country, and death for himself and his sons. As we read this story two questions come to mind: (1) Was it really Samuel who appeared and spoke to Saul? and (2) If it was Samuel, did the woman really possess the power to call him up?
In regard to the first question, everything in the story indicates that Samuel actually did appear and that he spoke to Saul. We are told that the woman saw Samuel (vs. 12), that Saul perceived that it was Samuel (vs. 14), that Samuel spoke to Saul (vs. 15), that Samuel sternly rebuked Saul (vss. 16-19), and that Saul was afraid because of the words of Samuel (vs. 20). It is definitely stated that Samuel spoke to Saul. All of this is given in a straight forward, historical narrative, and there is no hint anywhere in the entire story that it was either the woman or an evil spirit impersonating Samuel.
In regard to the second question, we cannot believe that the woman actually had power over the spirit of Samuel to cause him to appear at her beck and call. Such belief would be contrary to the general teaching of Scripture on this subject. It seems clear that something happened that the woman herself had not expected. She evidently had expected to do what she usually did, — go into a trance (real or pretended), impersonate Samuel, and so fool her visitors. But when a spirit actually did appear, rising as a wraith from the earth and terrible in its majesty, she was the most surprised person of all. She was, if we may use the expression, literally scared out of her wits, and screamed, — “cried with a loud voice.” If she had been what she pretended to be, a medium able to call up such spirits from the grave, this appearance should have been only routine and she should in fact have expected it to happen. But here was something entirely different from the usual experience of a medium.
From the time that Samuel appeared, the woman had no further part in the affair except as a spectator. It seems clear that in this instance God actually sent back the prophet Samuel, that He superseded the seance and used this as an occasion to pronounce judgment upon the wilfully disobedient king Saul. In the parallel account in I Chronicles 10:13,14 the element of Saul’s disobedience is particularly stressed: “So Saul died for his trespass which he committed against Jehovah, because of the word of Jehovah, which he kept not; and also for that he asked counsel of one that had a familiar spirit, to inquire thereby, and inquired not of Jehovah: therefore he slew him, and turned the kingdom to David the Son of Jesse.” Surely this cannot be taken as Scripture in support of Spiritualism.
“Oh, the road to Endor is the oldest road,
ORGIN OF THE SPIRITUALISTIC MOVEMENT
Spiritualistic phenomena in one form or another go back very far in history. But modern Spiritualism as we know it really began with the Fox family, in a humble farm home, in Hydesville, New York, in 1848. The house occupied by the Fox family was regarded by the community as a haunted house. Over a period of months the family had been annoyed with mysterious rappings. M’Clintock and Strong’s Encyclopedia of Biblical, Theological and Ecclesiastical Literature gives the following account:
That, in brief, was the beginning of modern Spiritualism. Margaret and Kate Fox were taken in charge by an older sister, Leah, who sponsored and exhibited them on entertainment platforms. Both went on to become famous mediums. During the immediately following years the movement had an incredibly rapid growth. A corps of workers and lecturers took up the movement and popularized it, and it spread throughout New York and the New England states, as far west as St. Louis, into Canada, and even across the Atlantic to England.
Forty years later, after the movement had attained world-wide attention, the Fox sisters explained the method by which they had produced the spirit phenomena. They acknowledged that their results were obtained by trickery and fraud. Each repudiated her connection with the whole movement. Margaret arranged for a public demonstration in New York and began her repudiation with these words:
Charles W. Ferguson, author of a book dealing with various present-day cults, gives the following information concerning the Fox sisters during the period previous to their repudiation of the movement:
HOUDINI’S ATTITUDE TOWARD SPIRITUALISM
Another phase of the Spiritualistic controversy that must not be overlooked and which in the opinion of the present writer probably is more important than any other except direct Scripture teaching, is the attitude taken toward it by the most famous magician that the world has yet produced, Mr. Harry Houdini.
A fact that gave special weight to Houdini’s verdict was his unsurpassed knowledge of the whole field of magic and occultism and his ability to mystify a critical as well as a credulous audience. Time and again he performed feats that the most meticulous observer considered impossible and which other magicians were not able to duplicate. Yet he made no claim to supernatural power. Rather he insisted that all of those feats were accomplished through purely natural means. He could do them because he knew magic. And that, declared Houdini, is precisely what the mediums do.
On repeated occasions Houdini exposed mediums who pretended to call forth the voices and spirits of the dead by other than purely physical means. He was on the committee set up by the Scientific American magazine to investigate spiritualistic phenomena, in connection with which an award of $2,500 was offered to any medium who could prove to the satisfaction of the committee that he — or she — actually could call forth the spirits of the dead. He repeatedly challenged mediums to meet him in debate before their own audiences, and his programs carried a “CHALLENGE TO ANY MEDIUM IN THE WORLD” to present “so-called psychical manifestations that I cannot reproduce or explain as being accomplished by natural means.” He offered to donate as much as $10,000 to charity if his challenge were successfully met. But the award went unclaimed. After one of his programs the Providence News commented; “Houdini knows a few tricks himself and he knows them even better than the cleverest psychic frauds.
More power to Houdini to run the fakirs out of business.” For a short time in his early career Houdini had practiced as a medium and knew how most of their effects were produced. He says later that he did not realize how wrong it was to prey on the hopes and fears of the bereaved until his own mother, whom he loved very dearly, died, and he himself was grief-stricken. That experience caused him to turn strongly against Spiritualism. In the opening paragraph of his book, A Magician Among The Spirits, published in 1924, he says:
He continues: “It has been my life work to invent and publicly present problems, the secrets of which not even the members of the magical profession have been able to discover, and the effects of which have proved as inexplicable to the scientists as any marvel of the mediums. My record as a `mystifier of mystifiers’ qualifies me to look below the surface of any mystery problem presented to me and that with my eyes trained by thirty years of experience in the realm of occultism it is not strange that I view these so-called phenomena from a different angle than the ordinary layman or even the expert investigator. . . .
“I have accumulated one of the largest libraries in the world on mystic phenomena, Spiritualism, magic, witchcraft, demonology, evil spirits, etc., some of the material going back to 1489, and I doubt if anyone in the world has so complete a library on modern Spiritualism, but nothing I ever read concerning the so-called Spiritualistic phenomena has impressed me as genuine... . Mine has not been an investigation of a few days or weeks or months but one that has extended over thirty years and in that thirty years I have not found one incident that savored of the genuine. If there had been any real unalloyed demonstration to work on, one that did not reek of fraud, one that could not be reproduced by earthly powers, then there would be something for a foundation, but up to the present time everything that I have investigated has been, the result of deluded brains or those which were actively and intimately willing to believe.”
Houdini’s contacts with Sir Conan Doyle, with whom he was on very friendly terms, were quite interesting. Doyle was a British author who, after the loss of a son in World War I, turned to Spiritualism and became one of its most enthusiastic advocates. Doyle became convinced that Houdini was himself a medium, capable of more-than-human actions. He declared that Houdini could perform some of his tricks only by “dematerializing” himself — that is, by dissolving his physical body — and “rematerializing” himself later. Houdini’s reply to such statements was an unqualified declaration that he accomplished all of his escapes and other feats by purely physical means.
After a tour of England in which he gave many public performances, a British writer, J. Hewat McKenzie, President of the British College of Psychic Science, in a book entitled Spirit Intercourse, said:
In reply to this Houdini said:
Houdini pointed out that many of the marvels of scientific achievement, such as the radio, airplane, radium [and in our day we might add television, even in color and three dimensions, radar, and atomic energy], were at one time classed as impossible and would have been looked upon as supernatural, if not as spiritual manifestations. Because a thing looks mysterious to one person does not necessarily mean that it would be considered supernatural or mystic if he had fuller information. Concerning one very baffling trick performed by a medium who supposedly was securely bound, Houdini said, “I have performed it regularly for thirty years without any supernatural power whatever.”
The scheming of the mediums and fortune tellers to get bits of information, some of it relating to details of long past events that may have been forgotten by the client, and their skillful presentation of it in such a way as to give the impression that they have supernatural insight, is as devious as their tricks in the physical realm. They have sometimes worked for days or even weeks gathering detailed information from old letters, newspaper clippings, relatives, or former acquaintances. The success of the mediums and fortune tellers often times is aided by the uncritical attitude or even blind faith of those who go to them. “Distressed relatives,” said Houdini, “catch at the least word which may remotely indicate that the spirit which they seek is in communication with them. One little sign even, which appeals to their waiting imagination, shatters all ordinary caution and they are convinced. Then they begin to accept all kinds of natural events as results of spirit intervention.”
One of Houdini’s most famous tricks was to have on the stage a large milk can filled with water, in which he would allow himself to be submerged, then the top would be put on and securely fastened with three locks and a chain. A curtain would then be drawn around the can, and within twenty seconds, while the people in the audience were still gasping with astonishment, he would appear from behind the curtain, his clothes dripping with water. This trick was accomplished by using a can from which the rivets that held the oval top part of the can to the sidewall had been removed and replaced with dummies, allowing the can to be manipulated from within so that the entire upper part came off as a unit, which of course left the locks and chain unmolested. The removed part could then be snapped back in place, and when the curtain was withdrawn the can appeared to the audience and to the men who had put the locks and chain on it never to have been opened. Another popular trick was that of escaping from a trunk that had been locked and tied with ropes, or from a wooden box that had been built on the platform by carpenters from the audience. The secret of the trunk escape was a sliding side panel that collapsed inward. When the box trick was performed the box would be built one night, with the escape to be made the second night. After the program he and his aids cleverly fixed a board so that it could be collapsed inward but with the alterations so concealed that they were not detected by the carpenters who the second night again would be invited to come on stage and verify that it was the same box they had built. During his career he invented dozens of tricks that had not been performed by other magicians. But through it all he insisted that his feats were accomplished through purely physical means.
Houdini’s controversy with Spiritualism had to do primarily with its moral effects. “Spiritualism,” he said, “touches every phase of human affairs and emotions, leaving in its wake a train of victims whose plight is frequently pathetic, sometimes ludicrous, often miserable and unfortunate, and who are always deluded. It is to these effects of Spiritualism which are so seldom considered that I wish to call the reader’s attention” (p. 180). To any one who is interested in a thorough and well documented exposure of the mediums, Houdini’s book, A Magician Among The Spirits, is especially recommended.
Our conclusions concerning the whole matter of Spiritualism are:
(1) It is impossible to communicate with the spirits of the dead.
(2) All spiritualistic practice is severely condemned in the Bible. It is therefore morally wrong for any one, and particularly for Christians, to have anything to do with it.
(3) The effect of Spiritualism is to lead people away from a right belief in God and in His Word.
(4) The spiritualistic phenomena in the seances is produced neither by departed human spirits, nor by evil spirits, but by deception and by the clever use of magic on the part of the mediums.
Dr. Boettner was born on a farm in northwest Missouri. He was a graduate of Princeton Theological Seminary (Th.B., 1928; Th.M., 1929), where he studied Systematic Theology under the late Dr. C. W. Hodge. Previously he had graduated from Tarkio College, Missouri, and had taken a short course in Agriculture at the University of Missouri. In 1933 he received the honorary degree of Doctor of Divinity, and in 1957 the degree of Doctor of Literature. He taught Bible for eight years in Pikeville College, Kentucky. A resident of Washington, D.C., eleven years and of Los Angeles three years. His home was in Rock Port, Missouri.
This article is taken from Immortality, Chapter I, pp. 91-159. His other books include: Roman Catholicism, Studies in Theology, The Reformed Doctrine of Predestination, and The Millennium.
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