In discussing “Conditional Immortality”, from the Bible, with Christians of all stripes I have lost count of the number of times I have been told, “But that’s not the traditional view of the church!” Fair call. However, when discussing Conditional Immortality with Protestants this objection seems a bit rich. “Sola Scriptura” (Scripture Alone) is one of the fundamental principles of the Reformation. As John Wesley stated in the 18th century, “The Church is to be judged by the Scriptures, not the Scriptures by the Church.”
Nevertheless, that is not my only objection: I might as well ask, “Why don’t you believe the traditional view of the church?” What is today passed off by most Protestants as “the traditional view” was not the dominant view in the early church. One book that makes this clear is Freeman Barton’s, “Heaven, Hell and Hades” (Henceforth … Publications, Lenox, Mass., 1990).
Concerning the intermediate state, for example, Barton says, “From the mid-second century, at least, the intermediate state has been a subject of controversy. … [F]our main alternatives have been held by some almost from the beginning of the church (p. 30-31). The four views Barton refers to he calls the “Materialistic view”, the “Traditional view”, “the Modern view” and the “Unconscious view”.
To be honest the views of the Apostolic Fathers are not always easy to determine. They did not write specifically to address this point. What statements they do make are often interpreted in a variety of ways depending on ones own position. No two writers are in 100% agreement as to who among the Fathers taught what. Because of this I find it easier to think in terms of three main alternatives:
THE CONDITIONALIST VIEW
I am among a minority today who call themselves Conditionalists. Some of us maintain that a human being is a material being only and that at death the whole person ceases to exist. Other Conditionalists believe there is an immaterial aspect to human beings but that this aspect is so tied to the material that when the body dies the immaterial part ceases to exist. Still others teach the view that at death the soul “sleeps” such that both the righteous and the wicked remain unconscious until the time of the resurrection.
In each of the above cases, the only hope for eternal life comes by way of resurrection when Christ comes again. Barton notes that the church father, Tatian (mid-2nd century) and later Athenagoras (late second century) held Conditionalist views. That Tertullian (late second, early third century) opposed “soul sleep” shows that such a view was not uncommon in his day. Eusebius (4th century) wrote of an Arabian “heresy” which maintained “that during the present time the soul dies and perishes with the body, but that at the time of the resurrection they will be renewed together.”
The Conditionalist view was so common among Anabaptists of the 16th century that Calvin felt compelled to write his first theological work, Psychopannychia, against it (Barton, p. 31).
Admittedly, the Conditionalist view however has never been the dominant view among Christians, but it has not been uncommon.
THE TRADITIONAL VIEW
Having said that, the view which perhaps more than any other deserves to be labelled the “traditional view” is not the one common among Protestant Christians today.
Most of the early Fathers maintained that the souls of the dead were gathered to some subterranean locality, neither heaven nor hell, to await the resurrection.
This view was common in Jewish writings of the intertestamental period. Justin Martyr affirmed: “The souls of the devout dwell in a better place whereas the souls of the unjust and evil dwell in a worse place, and there they await the judgment day.” Tertullian also wrote that “every soul is detained in safe keeping in Hades until the day of the Lord” (On the Soul, LV). Hippolytus gave a potted geography of Hades showing it to be a subterranean locality, distinct from Heaven or Hell, wherein both the righteous and the wicked were detained until the resurrection and judgment.
Many Conditionalists enthusiastically own as theirs those Fathers who say that the dead do not go immediately to Heaven or Hell. Often they are not in fact affirming what we know as Conditional Immortality. Rather, they affirm the existence of a third place where (they say) souls go consciously to await the resurrection and judgment.
There were differences of opinion among the Fathers, but this view was predominant in the post Apostolic Church and therefore might better deserve to be called the Traditional view. It is the view of the Orthodox (Capital-O) Church today. Now, the Roman Catholic Church, since the early Middle ages has held to a variation of this view. They offer several more options for post mortem accommodation including various Limbos and Purgatory. Only a few saints go straight to Heaven while the wicked go to Hell. Proponents of this view today have abandoned all speculation as to the geography of the afterlife, preferring to think of Purgatory etc, as a state in which souls exist after death, rather than a place to which they go at death.
THE MODERN VIEW
A third idea was the idea that upon the death of the body the soul goes immediately to the place of its final destiny, Heaven or Hell. The Gnostics (going back at least to the second century) taught that the soul ascended immediately to heaven. Justin Martyr roundly condemned such a view. Those who assert “that there is no resurrection of the dead, but their souls are taken up to Heaven at the very moment of their death, do not consider them to be real Christians”, says he (Barton, p. 33). Irenaeus and Tertullian likewise condemn this view.
A very few among the Fathers did teach that the souls of the dead go immediately to Heaven or Hell without going to any intermediate place and, at the same time, that there would be a resurrection at Christ’s return. This view, the most common among Protestant Christians today, in fact, only came to prominence at the time of the Reformation. It was a reaction against the Roman Catholic view, particularly against the doctrine of purgatory. As such it hardly merits being called “the Traditional view of the church.”
Answer A Question With A Question
The so-called “Traditional view” is not the “earliest” of the views that have been held in the church; nor has it ever been held by the majority in the wider Church. It is a fact that this falsely labelled view is not even the majority opinion of Christians today if we include Orthodox and Roman Catholics in our count.
The Bible alone is our guide in matters of faith and practice. But in discussing the Scriptures I am often asked, “Why don’t you believe the traditional view of the church?”, I now say, ‘Why don’t you believe the traditional view of the church?” A brief discussion of the information outlined above is more than enough to bring the most ardent Protestant back to his or her roots: “Oh well, what really matters is what the Scriptures teach!” they say.
“On that much we agree”, say I. “Let’s open the Bible again.”