Gospel Preached to the Dead.
By J.W. HANSON, D. D.
The early Christian church almost, if not quite, universally believed that Christ made proclamation of the Gospel to the dead in Hades. Says Huidekoper: "In the Second and Third Centuries every branch and division of Christians believed that Christ preached to the departed." 1 Dietelmaier declares2 this doctrine was believed by all Christians. Of course, if souls were placed where their doom was irretrievable salvation would not be offered to them; whence it follows that the early Christians believed in post-mortem probation. Allin says that "some writers teach that the apostles also preached in Hades. Some say that the Blessed Virgin did the same. Some even say that Simeon went before Christ to Hades." All these testimonies go to show that the earliest of the fathers did not regard the grave as the dead-line which the love of God could not cross, but that the door of mercy is open hereafter as here. "The platonic doctrine of a separate state, where the spirits of the departed are purified, and on which the later doctrine of purgatory was founded, was approved by all the expositors of Christianity who were of the Alexandrian school, as was the custom of performing religious services at the tombs of the dead. Nor was there much difference between them and Tertullian in these particulars."
In the early ages of the church great stress was laid on I Pet. iii. 19:
"He (Christ) went and preached unto the spirits in prison."
That this doctrine was prevalent as late as Augustine's day is evident from the fact that the doctrine is anathemitised in his list of heresies--number 79.
And even as late as the Ninth Century it was condemned by Pope Boniface VI. It was believed that our Lord not only proclaimed the Gospel to all the dead but that he liberated them all. How could it be possible for a Christian to entertain the thought that all the wicked who died before the advent of our Lord were released from bondage, and that any who died after his advent would suffer endless woe?
Eusebius says: "Christ, caring for the salvation of all * * * opened a way of return to life for the dead bound in the chains of death." Athanasius: "The devil * * * cast out of Hades, sees all the fettered beings led forth by the courage of the Savior." 3 Origen on I Kings, xxviii:32: "Jesus descended into Hades, and the prophets before him, and they proclaimed beforehand the coming of Christ." Didymus observes "In the liberation of all no one remains a captive; at the time of the Lord's passion he alone (Satan) was injured, who lost all the captives he was keeping."
Cyril of Alexandria: "And wandering down even to Hades he has emptied the dark, secret, invisible treasures."
Gregory of Nazianzus: "Until Christ loosed by his blood all who groaned under Tartarian chains."
Jerome on Jonah ii: 6: "Our Lord was shut up in æonian bars in order that he might set free all who had been shut up."
Such passages might be multiplied, demonstrating that the early church regarded the conquest by Christ of the departed as universal. He set free from bonds all the dead in Hades. If the primitive Christians believed that all the wicked of all the æons preceding the death of Christ were released, how can we suppose them to have regarded the wicked subsequent to his death as destined to suffer interminable torments? Clement of Alexandria is explicit in declaring that the Gospel was preached to all, both Jews and Gentiles, in Hades;--that "the sole cause of the Lord's descent to the underworld was to preach the gospel." (Strom. VI.) Origen says: "Not only while Jesus was in the body did he win over not a few only, * * * but when he became a soul, without the covering of the body, he dwelt among those souls (in Hades) which were without bodily covering, converting such of them as were fit for it."
The Gospel of Nicodemus.
About a century after the death of John appeared the apocryphal Gospel of Nicodemus, valuable as setting forth current eschatology. It describes the effect of Christ's preaching in Hades: "When Jesus arrived in Hades, the gates burst open, and taking Adam by the hand Jesus said, "Come all with me, as many as have died through the tree which he touched, for behold I raise you all up through the tree of the cross.'" This book shows conclusively that the Christians of that date did not regard æonian punishment as interminable, inasmuch as those who had been sentenced to that condition were released. "If Christ preached to dead men who were once disobedient, then Scripture shows us that the moment of death does not necessarily involve a final and hopeless torment for every sinful soul. Of all the blunt weapons of ignorant controversy employed against those to whom has been revealed the possibility of a larger hope than is left to mankind by Augustine or by Calvin, the bluntest is the charge that such a hope renders null the necessity for the work of Christ. * * * We thus rescue the work of redemption from the appearance of having failed to achieve its end for the vast majority of those for whom Christ died. * * * In these passages, as has been truly said, 'we may see an expansive paraphrase and exuberant variation of the original Pauline theme of the universalism of the evangelic embassage of Christ, and of his sovereignty over the world;' and especially of the passage in the Philippians (ii. 9-11) where all they that are in heaven and on earth and under the earth, are enumerated as classes of the subjects of the exalted Redeemer." 5And Alford observes: "The inference every intelligent reader will draw from the fact here announced: it is not purgatory; it is not universal restitution; but it is one which throws blessed light on one of the darkest enigmas of divine justice." Timotheus II., patriarch of the Nestorians, wrote that "by the prayers of the saints the souls of sinners may pass from Gehenna to Paradise," (Asseman. IV. p. 344). See Prof. Plumptre's "Spirits in Prison," p. 141; Dict. Christ. Biog. Art. Eschatology, etc. Says Uhlhorn (Book I, ch. iii): "For deceased persons their relatives brought gifts on the anniversary of their death, a beautiful custom which vividly exhibited the connection between the church above and the church below."
"One fact stands out very clearly from the passages of patristic literature, viz.: that all sects and divisions of the Christians in the second and third centuries united in the belief that Christ went down into Hades, or the Underworld, after his death on the cross, and remained there until his resurrection. Of course it was natural that the question should come up, What did he do there? As he came down from earth to preach the Gospel to, and save, the living, it was easy to infer that he went down into Hades to preach the same glad tidings there, and show the way of salvation to those who had died before his advent." 6
Prayers for the Dead.
It need not here be claimed that the doctrine that Christ literally preached to the dead in Hades is true, or that such is the teaching of I. Pet. iii: 19, but it is perfectly apparent that if the primitive Christians held to the doctrine they could not have believed that the condition of the soul is fixed at death. That is comparatively a modern doctrine.
There can be no doubt that the Catholic doctrine of purgatory is a corruption of the Scriptural doctrine of the disciplinary character of all God's punishments. Purgatory was never heard of in the earlier centuries. 7 It is first fully stated by Pope Gregory the First, 'its inventor,' at the close of the Sixth Century,
"For some light faults we must believe that there is before judgment a purgatorial fire."
This theory is a perversion of the idea held anciently, that all God's punishments are purgative; what the Catholic regards as true of the errors of the good is just as true of the sins of the worst,-- indeed, of all. The word rendered punishment in Matt. xxv: 46, (kolasin) implies all this.
Condition of the Dead not Final.
That the condition of the dead was not regarded as unalterably fixed is evident from the fact that prayers for the dead were customary anciently, and that, too, before the doctrine of purgatory was formulated. The living believed--and so should we believe--that the dead have migrated to another country, where the good offices of supervisors on earth avail. Perpetua begged for the help of her brother, child of a Pagan father, who had died unbaptized.
In Tertullian the widow prays for the soul of her departed husband.
Repentance by the dead is conceded by Clement, and the prayers of the good on earth help them.
The dogma of the purificatory character of future punishment did not degenerate into the doctrine of punishment for believers only, until the Fourth Century; nor did that error crystallize into the Catholic purgatory until later.
"Comparing Gregory's doctrine with the earlier, and more spiritual notions concerning the efficacy of the purifying fire of the intermediate state, we may adopt the statement of Schmidt that the belief in a lasting desire of perfection, which death itself cannot quench, degenerated into a belief in purgatory."
Plumtre ("Spirits in Prison," London, p. 25) has a valuable statement:
"In every form; from the solemn liturgies which embodied the belief of her profoundest thinkers and truest worshippers, to the simple words of hope and love which were traced over the graves of the poor, her voice (the church of the first ages) went up without a doubt or misgiving, in prayers for the souls of the departed;"
[Thereby] showing that they could not have regarded their condition as unalterably fixed at death. Prof. Plumptre quotes from Lee's "Christian Doctrine of Prayer for the Departed," to show the early Christians' belief that intercessions for the dead would be of avail to them.
Even Augustine accepted the doctrine. He prayed after his mother's death, that her sins might be forgiven, and that his father might also receive pardon. ("Confessions," ix, 13.)8
The Platonic doctrine of a separate state where the spirits of the departed are purified, and on which the later doctrine of purgatory was founded, was approved by all the expositors of Christianity who were of the Alexandrian school, as was the custom of performing religious services at the tombs of the dead.
Uhlhorn gives similar testimony:
"For deceased persons their relatives brought gifts on the anniversary of their death, a beautiful custom, which vividly exhibited the connection between the church above and the church below."
Origen's tenet of Catharsis of Purification was absorbed by the growing belief in purgatory. 9
Let the reader reflect,
(1) that the Primitive Christians so distrusted the effect of the truth on the popular mind that they withheld it, and only cherished it esoterically, and held up terrors for effect, in which they had no faith;
(2) that they prayed for the wicked dead that they might be released from suffering;
(3) that they universally held that Christ preached the Gospel to sinners in Hades;
(4) that the earliest creeds are entirely silent as to the idea that the wicked dead were in irretrievable and endless torment;
(5) that the terms used by some who are accused of teaching endless torment were precisely those employed by those acknowledged to have been Universalists;
(6) that the first Christians were the happiest of people and infused a wonderful cheerfulness into a world of sorrow and gloom;
(7) that there is not a shade of darkness nor a note of despair in any one of the thousands of epitaphs in the Catacombs;
(8) that the doctrine of universal redemption was first made prominent by those to whom Greek was their native tongue, and that they declared that they derived it from the Greek Scriptures, while endless punishment was first taught by Africans and Latins, who derived it from a foreign tongue of which the great teacher of it confesses he was ignorant.
Let the reader give to these considerations their full and proper weight, and it will be impossible to believe that the fathers regarded the impenitent as consigned at death to hopeless and endless woe.
Note.--After giving the emphatic language of Clement and Origen and other ancient Christians declarative of universal holiness, Dr. Bigg, in his valuable book, "The Christian Platonists of Alexandria," frequently quoted in these pages, remarks (pp. 292-3): "Neither Clement not Origen is, properly speaking, a Universalist. Nor is Universalism the logical result of their principles." The reasons he gives are two:
(1) They believed in the freedom of the will; and
(2) they did not deny the eternity of punishment, because the soul that has sinned beyond a certain point can never become what it might have been!
To which it is only necessary to say
(1) that Universalists generally accept the freedom of the will, and
(2) no soul that has sinned, as all have sinned, can ever become what it might have been, so the Dr. Bigg's premises would necessitate Universalism, but universal condemnation!
And, as if to contradict his own words, Dr. Bigg adds in the very next paragraph:
"The hope of a general restitution of all souls through suffering to purity and blessedness, lingered on in the East for some time;" and the last words in his book are these: "It is the teaching of St. Paul,--Then cometh the end, when he shall have delivered up the Kingdom to God, even the Father. Then shall the Son also himself be subject unto him that put all things under him, that God may be all in all." And these are the last words of his last note: "At the end all will be one because the Father's will is all in all and all in each. Each will fill the place which the mystery of the economy assigns to him."
It would be interesting to learn what sort of monstrosity Dr. Bigg has constructed, and labeled with the word which he declares could not be applied to Clement and Origen.
1 An excellent resume of the opinions of the fathers on Christ's descent into Hades, and preaching the gospel to the dead, is Huidekoper's "The Belief of the First Three Centuries Concerning Christ's Mission to the Underworld;" also Huidekoper's "Indirect Testimony to the Gospels;" also Dean Plumptre's "Spirits in Prison." London: 1884.
2 Historia Dogmatis do Descensu Christi ad Inferos. J. A. Dietelmaier.
3 De Passione et Cruce Domin. Migne, XXVIII, 186-240.
4 Carm. XXXV, v. 9
5 Farrar's "Early Days of Christianity." ch. vii.
6 Universalist Quarterly.
7 Archs. Usher and Wake, quoted by Farrar, "Mercy and Judgment."
8 That these ideas were general in the primitive church, see Nitzsch, "Christian Doctrine," Sec. III; Dorner, "System of Christian Doctrine," Vol. IV (Eschatology). Also Vaughan's "Causes of the Corruption of Christianity," p. 319.
9 "Neoplatonism," by C. Bigg, p. 334.