The Nature of the Afterlife and Jesus’ Three Days in Hades


William L. De Arteaga

Most Christian theology about the afterlife has been dominated by two traditions that sought to interpret scattered biblical revelations about the afterlife into a sensible system. The first, that of the Roman Catholic Church, was codified by Saint Augustine of Hippo (354-430), but later expanded by Saint Thomas Aquinas (1225-1274).  The second tradition, that of the Protestants, developed both in reaction to, and out of, that Catholic tradition.

In the official Catholic view, the afterlife is divided into several “locales” or spiritual states. There is heaven proper, which is where the saints and angels worship and experience the presence of God. There is purgatory, where those who are destined for heaven must be purified through suffering in order to become eligible for the heaven state. Then there is hell, where the damned reside in agony, awaiting the final judgment and the confirmation of their status.

Between purgatory and hell there was believed to be a “limbo,” named in Latin, Limbus Infanturn, where the souls of unbaptized infants reside in comfort, but without the experienced presence of God. Traditional Catholic theology also affirmed that there was formerly another limbo, one in which the souls of Jewish patriarchs and other righteous souls of the Old Testament stayed until they were freed by Jesus’ descent into the underworld described in 1 Peter 3 and 4 (upon we will extensively comment below), called Limbus Patrum.

The traditional Protestant view developed out of Catholic theology, but with careful attention to avoid anything that would make credible the Catholic practices of prayers, indulgences, and masses for the dead. Thus, both Purgatory and the Limbus Infantum were eliminated. But interestingly, many of the Reformers continued to accept the Catholic view of a former Limbus Patrum.

However, both the Catholic and Protestant theologies of the afterlife share an inadequate and a highly selective biblical base. They concentrate on Luke 16 (the story of the rich man and beggar), Mark 9:43-47, and the scriptures about the Last Judgment in the Book of Revelations. Ignored are the scriptures about the afterlife found in the Old Testament, as for instance the phrase “gathered to his people” found multiple times in the Old Testament (Gen. 25:8 &17, 35:29, 49:30, Num. 20:26, 32:50). Also, traditional Catholic and Protestant theologies tend to confuse man’s ultimate destiny as described in the Book of Revelations, with the after-death state until the Last Judgment, which has been more precisely called the “intermediate state.”

The dogmatic bottleneck over the afterlife began to be clarified in the two decades preceding the turn of the 20th Century. The new paradigm was apparently led by, but not limited to, stirrings by scholars and divines of the Anglican Church in Great Britain. The Anglican Church was undergoing one of its periodic reexaminations, searching to define itself in terms of the Bible, early Christianity, and the Patristic writers. It sought to avoid either the dogmatic assertions of the Roman Catholic Church or the reactive anti-Catholic theology of the Reformation.

Part of this reexamination was a fresh look at the belief in the afterlife. F. W. Farrar (1831-1903), Canon of Westminster Cathedral and chaplain to Queen Victoria, was one of the first, and perhaps the ablest, of the scholar/divines, which we will call the “Victorian re-examiners.” These theologians, scholars and clerics reexamined the doctrines of the afterlife and the ultimate destiny of mankind. They had the advantages of the system of rigorous Victorian education, as well as the fruits of then recent and revolutionary discoveries in biblical scholarship. These included the rediscovery of many inter-testament writings that had been lost for centuries, and which helped to explain the developed and varied ideas about the afterlife in the New Testament that were not found in the Old Testament.[1]

As in any group of scholars, not everyone came to identical conclusions, but there was uncommon agreement on some basic findings that are especially important for any discussion of the afterlife. It was agreed that the King James translation of the Bible had unnecessarily muddled the theology of the afterlife by using one word, “hell,” for sheol of the Old Testament, and hades and gehenna of the New Testament. “Hell” is a proper translation for gehenna, a place outside Jerusalem where garbage was burned, but it is a decidedly poor translation for sheol or hades which signified the afterlife place in the Old Testament but did not connote a place of punishment.

The Old Testament uses the word sheol often, but we are never given a precise description of what it is. It was presumed to be under the earth, and most passages described it as a place that is dark and gloomy, a joyless place, and a mere shadow of life on earth. Not even God can be praised there, and the person’s consciousness is much reduced (Ps. 6:5, Ec. 9:5-10). In Job 3:13-19 it is lamented that all men, good and bad, come to the same fate in sheol, apparently there being no system of rewards or punishment in sheol. These scriptures indicate that sheol has much in common with the Greek conception of the afterlife, “hades.” In fact, in the Septuagint, the Greek translation of the Old Testament that was in common use at the time of Jesus, sheol was translated as hades.

However, a few passages in the Old Testament hint that there is more to hades than just a neutral gray area. In 1 Samuel 28:8-20 it is also reported to be a place of “rest,” as the dead judge and prophet, Samuel, complains that his peace has been disturbed by a medium’s conjuring. On the negative side, in the book of Isaiah, there was described a section of sheol more ominously called the “pit” (Isa. 14:15).

The idea that sheol is divided into different sections was greatly elaborated in the books of the inter-testament period. Many of these books were influential in both Judaism and early Christianity, though they were later discarded and became canonical in neither. The book of Enoch was especially influential in establishing the afterlife as a place of rewards and punishments according to the righteousness, or lack of, the person’s life. By the time of Jesus, the rabbinical literature advocated a belief in an accountable and multilayered afterlife. The names gehenna, “Bosom of Abraham,” and “Paradise,” were all from the rabbinical literature of this period and utilized by Jesus to talk about the afterlife.[2]

Just as the Old Testament was ambiguous about the nature of the afterlife, the Victorian re-examiners came to see that the New Testament was equally ambiguous about man’s ultimate destiny. Canon Farrar had perhaps the strongest sense of scriptural ambiguity in this area.[3]  He identified four separate motifs about man’s final destiny within the New Testament.

One motif was the final reconciliation of all men to God (long called “universalism” by theologians), and a current that is discernible in the later writings of Paul. For instance, in Romans 5:18 Paul writes: “Consequently, just as one trespass resulted in condemnation for all people, so also one righteous act resulted in justification and life for all people.”[4]

A second motif is that the wicked and unsaved have no hope and will be doomed forever.[5] Yet another group of scriptures indicates that the wicked will not suffer forever but will be annihilated.[6] Finally there are a few scriptures which indicate that there is a temporary punishment and cleansing fire (elaborated as Purgatory in Roman Catholic doctrine). For instance, note Mark 9:47-49 which seems to imply everyone will experience some sort of punishment fire.[7]

And if your eye causes you to stumble, pluck it out. It is better for you to enter the kingdom of God with one eye than to have two eyes and be thrown into hell, where “‘the worms that eat them do not die, and the fire is not quenched.’   Everyone will be salted with fire.

Normative Christianity in the West, both Catholic and Protestant, has of course stressed the second motif – that the wicked are forever doomed, and has given less weight to, or ignored, the other motifs.

This came about historically through the tremendous influence of Saint Augustine, who stressed “forever doomed” position. Sometimes this has been put forth in an embarrassingly sectarian manner, For instance, as a boy living under the classical, Pre-Vatican II Catholicism, I was taught to believe that only Catholics can get to heaven. My wife, who was instructed in American (Northern) Baptist Sunday schools, was similarly taught that only Baptists would make it to heaven.  This illogical and unbiblical viewpoint was partly the product of the sectarian divides and warfare that racked Christianity after the Reformation. It left its mark with “resentful theologies” towards other denominations. Its consequence is it weakens the moral basis of Christianity and is one reason why many non-believers find it difficult to take Christianity seriously.  Besides all this, it completely disregards Paul’s revelation that those who have not been given the full Gospel will ultimately be judged on the light and revelation they did have (Rms. 2:12-16)

Canon Farrar went to great lengths to point out that early Christianity, and especially the early Church Fathers, were as a whole more optimistic than moderns and held out the “greater hope.” That is, the vast majority of mankind would eventually come to God, and that the punishment of the incorrigible wicked would be limited in duration.

This “greater hope” theology is quite natural to places where the Gospel is new, as in the first century. In such places it is not really “good news” to preach a gospel which includes the doctrine that poor old grandma, who was a lovely lady but worshiped Pagan gods out of ignorance, in now in eternal torment. Interestingly, the great Early Church scholar Origen chose to center his theology on the Pauline scriptures of the restitution of all to God. He was condemned as a heretic in the 5th Century when the “grandma in hell” issue had passed from immediate notice. Ironically, Gregory of Nyssa, who held the same view as Orogen but was more circumspect, is celebrated as one of the Fathers of Orthodoxy. As a group, the Victorian re-examiners were sympathetic with the “greater hope,” though they shied away from believing the Universalist position that all would be saved.

In 2011 a spirited debate broke out among Evangelical circles in America reference a book by Pastor Rob Bell, Love Wins.[8] In it he essentially reframed the Universalist position in terms he believed to be modern and yet Evangelical. He was not entirely successful, and his critics immediately saw in his presentation the old heresy. As the views, arguments and reviews of Love Wins fomented in the Christian press, one wishes that the writings of the Victorian re-examiners had been taught in seminary and in fashion. Bell could have posited a theology of “greater hope” that was more carefully and biblically defined, without absolute universalism, and his critics would have better recognized that his quest for a “greater hope” is not alien to the Biblical evidence or Church tradition. As it was, the debate over Love Wins was surprisingly civil, and the word “heretic” rarely used – an indicator that the resentful sectarianism of generations is fading.[9]

The Victorian re-examiners also came to see that the Catholic doctrine of purgatory, though exaggerated (a product of trying to derive a complete doctrine from ambiguous scriptures) had some biblical base.[10] They all agreed that the afterlife was not as simple as the common doctrine of heaven and hell, and that a characteristic of the afterlife was the opportunity it offered for further growth.

Again, Canon Farrar was a pioneer in suggesting a partial solution to the apparently contradictory nature of the afterlife scriptures in the New Testament. It was to understand that there is a difference between man’s intermediate after death state and his final destiny which will be determined at the Last Judgment.[11] New Testament writers were so sure that Jesus’ second coming was imminent within their lifetime, that they often did not discern the difference between what was revealed as pertaining to the afterlife in the intermediate state, and the afterlife after the Last Judgment.[12] The lack of a mature theology for the intermediate state combined with a disregard for the distinction between sheol and hell makes ghosts incomprehensible within a Christian scheme of things and thus dumped into the convenient category of “demonic counterfeit.”

After a century, the scholarship of the Victorian Re-examiners still stands as a major achievement of Christian theology. Sadly, since the 1920s liberal Protestantism increased in influence, and interest waned in the purely spiritual (including afterlife) aspects of theology in favor of the more “practical” and social-action issues. The “demythologizing” movement in Liberal Protestantism reached a point where many of its theologians reduced all spiritual phenomenon to psychology and even denied the concept of personal survival after death.[13] More modern works on the afterlife, such as John A. T. Robinson’s In the End God,[14] and John H. Hick’s Death and Eternal Life[15] tend to be heavy on philosophy and light on scripture. Fortunately, some advocates of “process theology” popular two decades ago, rediscovered much of what the Victorian re-examiners said about continued growth in the discarnate state, and affirmed the same biblical and Patristic positions asserted by the earlier scholars.[16]

A modern theology of the afterlife should begin where the Victorian Re-Examiners left off. It should be recognized that there is no scriptural evidence for believing that the sheol/hades levels described in the Old Testament were totally emptied. 1 Peter 3 and 4 state that Jesus preached in hades after his death, and Ephesians 4:8-10 suggests that many in sheol/hades responded to his preaching and followed him to heaven.

This is why it says:

“When he ascended on high,
he took many captives
and gave gifts to his people.”

(What does “he ascended” mean except that he also descended to the lower, earthly regions?  He who descended is the very one who ascended higher than all the heavens, in order to fill the whole universe.)

But note, there is no indication that sheol/hades was itself destroyed. Indeed there is scriptural evidence to the contrary. In Revelations 20:14, we are given an image of the events after the Last Judgment, and hades, personified as a person, is cast into the “Lake of Fire,” either ending hades by destruction or converting it into the “hell” we are familiar with. (Rev. 20:14) Further, there is no indication that when Jesus preached in sheol-hades they were suffering the torments of the rich man described in Luke 16. It is more logical to assume he preached to those in the gloom that Job foresaw or the restful level hinted at by Samuel. Further hints in the New Testament verify that the multileveled structure of the afterlife continued after the resurrection and ascension. Paul had a vision of the third heaven, (2 Cor. 12:2) implying that there are at least two heavens at a lower level.

The “Cloud of Witnesses”

Another aspect we must examine is the relationships that exist between those in the Body of Christ who are living and those who are in the afterlife. The writer of Hebrews mentions that a “cloud of witnesses” watches over actions, but this is not further elaborated (Heb.12:1). In the Roman, Anglo-Catholic and Orthodox Churches there are richly developed theologies about these matters.[17] In Protestant Christianity these questions are given little importance, though not totally ignored.[18]  

Historically, the beliefs about the interactions among deceased and living members of the Body of Christ were among the items bitterly debated in the Reformation period. Medieval Catholic devotion to the saints (e.g., prayers to the saints for intercessory help) was seen by the Reformers as little short of idolatry or spiritism. Also, masses for the dead were viewed as mere moneymaking schemes for the clergy. The net effect has been that some Protestant denominations, and certainly many Evangelicals, assert that the biblical prohibitions against mediumship, and the story in Luke 16 of Lazarus and the rich man, are absolute prohibitions against any form of interaction or contact between the living and the dead.

The Catholic and the Eastern Orthodox traditions on the contrary affirm that certain forms of contact with the dead, as in dreams or visions, are acceptable and not to be feared – though certainly they must be discerned. The dead-to-living communication is seen as a function of the consolation and comforting grace of the Body of Christ. In its authentic manifestations, it comes spontaneously and is initiated by the deceased. A classic example of this is seen in the advice Father Zossima gives to the grieving peasant woman in Fyodor Dostoyevsky’s The Brothers Karamazov.[19] A more detailed example of this type of dream contact is found in another Russian spiritual classic, The Way of a Pilgrim, written in the 1860s. In this book the Christian disciple and pilgrim is encouraged and given direction on such practices as Bible reading through dream contact with his deceased spiritual director (starets).[20]

Dream contact with the dead is not purely a Catholic or Orthodox Christian spiritual phenomenon. It has also been reported, though with much less frequency, by Protestants as well. For example, Corrie ten Boom, the great saint of the anti-Nazi Dutch underground who saved the lives of many Jews in World War II, had a beautiful and vivid dream about her great-grandfather who lived in the times of the Prince of Orange. In her dream she met the old gentleman and he exhorted her to trust the Bible. For, he added, by the time she is born many things from his age will have changed, but the Word of God is changeless and absolutely reliable.[21]

Contact between the living and the dead has been reported not only in saints’ lives, but has been systematically studied since the beginnings of parapsychology in the 1880s. Unfortunately, parapsychologists for the most part lump together all claimed contact with the dead, mediumistic, spontaneous, and dream, as one category. They then use such accounts to “prove” personal survival. Needless to say, Christian researchers need to do work in this area with more discernment, and personal survival is not the issue.

In fact, spontaneous, non-mediumistic contact with the dead may be more widespread than most people imagine. In 1973 Andrew Greeley, a Catholic priest-sociologist, added a question of contact with the dead to a sociological survey he was conducting and received a surprising response. One-quarter of Americans had experienced some contact with the dead. The contacts spread across all religious and denominational boundaries. Unfortunately, the survey did not distinguish between mediumship and spontaneous contacts such as dream contacts and visions, but certainly very few Americans have been to mediums. The vast majority of cases reported must have been in the category of the spontaneous visions or dreams.[22]

There is an especially suggestive scripture in the New Testament about the possibility of acceptable communication with the dead. It is the transfiguration scene when Jesus conversed with Moses and Elijah (Mt. 17:1-8; Mk. 9:2-8; Lk. 9:28-36). Now some will say that Elijah did not, properly speaking, die, but Moses did (Jos. 1 :1). The argument that this communication was a special dispensation for the Son of God, but sinful for us, is rather weak. Jesus explicitly desired to “fulfill all righteousness” (Mt. 3:13-15 ). The humanity of Jesus placed a limit on his actions insofar as he could do nothing that was humanly sinful. Note also the characteristics of the transfiguration; it was brief, and it was non-mediumistic. Jesus did not go into a trance and have the spirits of Moses and Elijah speak through him. Rather, they appeared to him spontaneously, and in this case, they could be seen by his disciples.

The Church’s Ministry to the Dead: A Biblical Perspective

The trigger that impelled a young Augustinian monk named Martin Luther to challenge the authority of medieval Catholicism was a fund-raising drive by a Dominican preacher, Johann Tetzel, in which indulgences (special prayers for the dead that released the person from purgatory) were sold for a price. Tetzel had an advertising jingle for his product which rhymes even in translation from the often-quoted German:

As soon as the coin in the coffer rings,
The soul from purgatory springs.

It cannot be our place here to settle this most heated of Reformation debates. We will suggest that in spite of the depths of demonization to which the indulgence system sank, at its root is an entirely valid biblical principle: ministering to the dead. This is a ministry that is confirmed by early Christian documents and by continuous practice since then. It is certainly not central to the Gospel, however, and like many other biblical doctrines it is veiled in a cloak of scriptural ambiguity. The Victorian re-examiners studied the problem of ministering to the dead and came to the unanimous conclusion that it was a sound doctrine, though they did not endorse specific Catholic practices, especially with regard to indulgences.[23]

In their research they found that among the many varieties of belief that circulated in Jewish denominations in the century before the Christian era, one that received wide circulation was the belief that the sins of the deceased could be atoned for by the prayers of the living faithful. This is specifically recorded in 2 Maccabees 12:38-45. The Reformers believed that this book did not deserve a place in the biblical canon and assumed that the passage in question was an aberration of Jewish custom. The Victorian re-examiners had access to the rediscovered inter-testament writings and realized that praying for the dead was indeed a widely accepted Jewish practice.[24]

With regard to the New Testament, there is an important passage addressing this issue, one found in the first letter of Peter. Like Paul, Peter’s literary style leaves much to be desired, and the passages in question are sandwiched between moral exhortations. But the central meaning is sufficiently clear:

For Christ also died for sins once for all, 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 he went and preached to the spirits in prison, who formerly did not obey, when God’s patience waited in the days of Noah, during the building of the ark, in which a few, that is eight persons, were saved through water. … For this is why the gospel was preached even to the dead, that though judged in the flesh like men, they might live in the spirit like God. (1 Pet. 3:18-21; 4:6)

What Peter describes is Jesus’ preaching ministry in hades (called a spiritual prison in this passage) and this is corroborated in Ephesians 4:8-10, as there it is revealed that Jesus succeeded and led “a host of captives” into the heavenly realms.

This is why it[a] says:

“When he ascended on high,

he took many captives

and gave gifts to his people.”

(What does “he ascended” mean except that he also descended to the lower, earthly regions? He who descended is the very one who ascended higher than all the heavens, in order to fill the whole universe.)

There was little confusion among the earliest Christian writers about the meaning of these passages. Between his death and resurrection Christ preached to the dead in sheol/hades, and those who accepted his word ascended with him to heaven.[25] Several traditions in early Christian literature elaborated this revelation. For example, in the Shepherd of Hermas, which was held as scripture by many churches in the second and third centuries, there is the assertion that the Apostles followed Jesus’ example, and at death they too preached to the heathen in Hades, and baptized them!

“Because,” he said, “these apostles and teachers who preached the name of the Son of God, after falling asleep in the power and faith of the Son of God, preached it not only to those who were asleep, but themselves also gave them the seal of the preaching. Accordingly they descended with them into the water, and again ascended. [But these descended alive and rose up again alive; whereas they who had previously fallen asleep descended dead, but rose up again alive. ][26]


Unfortunately, quite early in church circles the good news of Christ’s Lordship in Hades became adulterated. Late in the third century a spurious gospel, the Gospel of Nicodemus, was written which describes Jesus’ arrival at hades. There Jesus saves Abraham and the Old Testament saints from Satan’s dominion and leads them to the gates of heaven.[27] This view of what happened in hades influenced medieval theology, and it was commonly believed that the “spirits in prison” described in 1 Peter 3-4 who had been released by Jesus were the Patriarchs of the Old Testament as described in the fake gospel. This is of course unscriptural. Peter clearly defines the spirits to whom Jesus preached as the ones “who formerly did not obey.” Further, the famous passage in Luke 16 of Lazarus and the rich man mentions a heaven like place called the “Bosom of Abraham” where that patriarch resided in obvious comfort with Lazarus the just beggar. This quasi heaven could not possible be the “prison” mentioned 1 Peter.

In their passion to overthrow corrupt Catholic practices of multiple masses for the dead, indulgences for money, etc., the Reformers rejected too much. Luther accepted the concept of private prayers for the dead, though masses on their behalf were definitely forbidden. Calvin was adamant against any form of ministry to the dead. Significantly, in his massive Institutes of the Christian Religion, he skips commentary on the two critical passages of 1 Peter 3:20 and 4:6 and posits the interpretation from the bogus Gospel of Nicodemus. The conservative commentators of Protestantism, in following Calvin’s exegesis, are forced into an unbiblical assertion that because the dead were not, and cannot be, preached to or ministered to, the scriptures in 1 Peter 3-4 do not “make sense” and can be disregarded[28]

I recall watching, sometime in the late 1970s, the famous TV evangelist Jimmy Swaggert preach a sermon about Jesus’ descent into after-world.  On his stage, Swaggert imitated Jesus approaching each of the Patriarchs such as Abraham and Joseph. To each one he said something that rhymed about their life of faith, and released them to heaven. It was all very impressive. Withier the Rev. Swaggert got his sermon idea from Calvin’s Institutes, from a Bible commentary, or lecture notes from his Bible college days was not mentioned, but it ultimately came from the bogus Gospel of Nicodemus.

If 1 Peter 3-4 were the only scripture on this matter, there would be serious problem in affirming a continuing ministry to the dead. It could he asserted that what happened in sheol/hades after Christ’s crucifixion was a unique event. In that case the living church would have no role in this type of ministry. Several scriptures indicate that this is not the case, and that the Church on earth does indeed have a legitimate hand in this ministry.

The first scripture passage concerning this issue is one of the most widely known and quoted, Matthew 16:18. It is used by Roman Catholics as proof text for the establishment of the primacy of the Papacy. Protestants use it as proof text for the importance of faith in the individual believer. In all but the most recent translations its meaning has been seriously distorted by the use of the word hell instead of hades as in the Greek text. The newer New American Standard Bible which strives to be literal, and as close as possible to the Greek text reads: “I also say to you that you are Peter, and upon this rock I will build My church; and the gates of Hades will not overpower it.” The translation in the Jerusalem Bible is perhaps best: “So I now say to you: you are Peter and on this rock I will build my church. And the gates of the under-world can never hold out against it.”

A common mistake in interpreting this scripture, based on less accurate translations, is to assume that this is a defensive commission, that is, if demonic forces attack the church, it will have the power to stand. That is incorrect. Matthew 16:18 is an offensive commission. In warfare the “gates” of a fortress do not move and attack, they are not tanks, as in modern warfare. Rather, gates are designed to resist assault. This passage means that the best-fortified points of sheol/hades (including that part within Satan’s dominion) cannot withstand the assaults of the church. Thus, the Church is commissioned to attack and destroy the gates, that is, to penetrate and overthrow Satan’s section of sheol/hades – just as Jesus did for the three days between his death and resurrection.

One more confirmation for this last point must be noted. It is among the most controversial (or most disregarded) scriptures in the whole of the New Testament, 1 Corinthians 15:28-29:

When all things are subjected to him, then the Son himself will also be subjected to him who put all things under him, that God may be everything to everyone. Otherwise, what do people mean by being baptized on behalf of the dead? If the dead are not raised at all, why are people baptized on their behalf?

Neither Catholic nor Protestant commentators like this passage. For Protestants it implies a baptismal ministry to the dead. For Catholics it is a ministry for the dead that has no ongoing “tradition” behind it – no liturgy or special vestments for this sort of work. Further, no other documents of the Early Church take note of any such practice and thus the peculiar ministry of the Corinthian congregation must have been short lived. Only in the modern times the Mormons took this scripture literally and developed an ongoing ritual for the baptism of their ancestors – and everybody else’s ancestors.

In spite of a general reluctance to accept it as meaningful, the passage is there – like a piece of undigested meat disturbing a good night’s rest. The living church was ministering to those who had passed away, and, unlike some of the other practices of the Corinthian Church, Paul does not reprimand or criticize it. Rather he cites it as a positive practice to buttress his own argument. The great biblical scholar Rudolf Bultmann notes that in spite of the strangeness of this passage, it represents the authentic sacramental viewpoint of Saint Paul and of the earliest Church.[29]

Let me inject a personal incident here. About three decades ago, my wife and I ministered inner healing to a middle-aged woman who had a miscarriage after her husband beat her up. The incident happened five years previously. She had recently heard from a friend that such fetal miscarriages (and abortions) should be named and presented to the Lord via a Holy Communion service. That is common in Anglican and Episcopal churches, but other denomination will often offer prayers for these miscarried or aborted persons.

I was a layman at the time, and as we prayed for her on another issue the thought occurred to me to baptize the aborted child in proxy through its own mother. I explained to her the 1 Corinthians Scripture and asked if she would like to do that. She readily agreed. I baptized the child by proxy via pouring a glass of water. The moment that happened the mother experienced a vison “felt” that there was a young boy next to. My wife, who was gifted with discernment of spirits, saw a handsome five-year-old boy just next to the woman as she had indicated. Now all of this was merely a vision, but it could be of great significance in view of the large numbers of abortions that happen yearly.[30]

With regard to the practice of the Early Church, there are several documents that indicate that ministering to the dead, in the form of prayers, was a customary practice. This would have been well known to the Jewish Christians as continuity with 1st Century Jewish practice and possibly modeled by them to the Gentile church. Among the earliest documents is an apologetical work by Arnobius of Sicca, called The Case Against the Pagans, written about 305. In it the author protests the destruction of Christian churches under Roman persecution and describes their prayers:

Why should our meeting places be savagely torn down? In them the Supreme God is prayed to, peace and forgiveness asked for all magistrates, armies, rulers, friends, enemies; for those still living and those freed from the bonds of the body …. [31]

A second, and more often quoted source, and one written about the same time
(and possibly edited by Tertullian) was a description of the martyrdom of Saints Perpetua and Felicitas. This account describes how Pespetua received a vision about the sufferings of her brother in the afterworld, and after several days of earnest prayer had a dream signifying that he was now healed and happy. This type of travail for others in the afterworld occurs periodically in Christian literature of all ages. It happened to Mrs, Agnes Sanford as a little girl in China. After she saw the execution of a Chinese criminal, she had a dream in which he was pleading for her prayers. She did so, not knowing that as a Presbyterian she was not supposed to pray for the dead, and the next night she saw in a dream the same criminal happily waving to her with Jesus by his side.[32]

We can now begin to understand the distorting role of spiritsm and the occult. It is the demonic distortion, of two truths of the Kingdom of God. Firstly, it is true that the afterlife is multileveled, and that some of these levels are of the sheol type described in the Old Testament and not of the ultimate heaven or hell that will exist after the Last Judgment. In this regard, souls in the sheol state occasionally do manifest in apparitions and hauntings. Secondly, it is true that the Kingdom of God does allow some forms of limited, non-mediumistic communications between the living and the dead. Both these truths have been slighted in modern theologies, Catholic and Protestant, with the result that many spiritual phenomena are either misunderstood, ignored, or dismissed. This creates an interpretive vacuum which is often filled by the demonic in the form of Gnostic spirituality, either as parapsychology or spiritism.[33]

The research of the Victorian Revisionists bore fruit in the Church of England where there evolved a mature theology of the afterlife. This is reflected in pastoral practice by the fact that the Anglican Church is the only modern Christian Church that has an official rite for dealing with ghosts and haunting apparitions. The rite is called “laying a ghost to rest.” The assumption is that a ghost is an earthbound soul, trapped in a sheol/hades state, and it does not need to be cursed as in exorcism, but instead needs prayers to assist it in reaching a better place in the afterlife. To this end prayers are said for the forgiveness of its earth-life sins, and at times a communion service is offered for this purpose right at the place of the hauntings. More recently some ministers have been substituting a funeral service for the communion service.[34]

But we must not forget that at times the hauntings are of a seriously diabolical nature and can be ended only by a “place exorcism.” The choice of what type of prayer or exorcism is needed is a discernment problem that can only be decided on a case-by-case basis.

But to summarize this long article, which contains much information and biblical viewpoints alien to most Evangelical Christians:

  • The Evangelical church has a theology of the afterlife distorted by Reformation issues with Catholic theology and tradition, including the baneful influence of the false Gospel of Nicodemus.
  • The influence of the Gospel of Nicodemus short circuited a biblically sound theology of the after-life, especially pertaining to sheol.
  • There is indeed strong biblical and historical evidence for effective prayers for the dead.
  • Jesus did not spend three days in Hell, as currently taught by some Pentecostal and Charismatic Bible teachers. Rather he went to sheol where he preached to and released some of the souls there.

[1] F.W. Farrar, Mercy and Judgment (New York: E.P. Dutton, 1881); E.H. Plumptre, The Spirits in Prison (London: Wm. Isbister, 1885); Arthur Chambers, Our Life After Death (Philadelphia: George W. Jacobs, 1902); Lars Nielsen Dahle, Life After Death and the Future of the Kingdom of God, trans. John Beveridge, (Edinburgh: T. & T. Clark, 1896); Lewis Muirhead, The Terms Life and Death in the Old and New Testaments, and Other Papers (London: Andrew Melrose,
1908); and, J.H. Leckie, The World to Come and Final Destiny (Edinburgh: T. & Clark, 1918). Note that all except the Muirhead volume have been reprinted in modern editions and are available at moderate costs.

[2] J. H. Leckie, The World to Come and Final Destiny (Edinburgh: T. & T. Clark, 19I0), pp. 68-102.

[3] Farrar uses the Hegelian tern “antinomies,” see his Mercy and Judgment, 12.

[4] Farrar also cites John 1:29, 3:17, 12:32, Acts 3:21, Romans 5:15 &18-19: 1 Cor.15:22-28, 2 Cor. 5:19, Eph. 1:10, Cols. 1:20, 1 Tim. 4:10, and other scriptures.

[5] The scriptures cited for this motif are Matt. 13;49-50, 16:27; 25-46; Mark 3:29; Isaiah 12:1.

[6] This is often termed a heresy, “annihilism,” in spite of its solid biblical basis. See: Matt. 3:12; 5:30; 10:28; Luke 13:1-5; 20:18; Acts 3:23; Rms. 6:23; 8:13; Hebrews 10:26-31; Revelations 20:14; 21ff.

[7] Farrar cited Matt. 5: 26; Luke 12:5-9; and 1 Cor. 3:13-15.

[8] Rob Bell, Love Wins: A Book About Heaven, Hell and the Fate of Every person Who Ever lived. (New York; HarperCollins, 2011).

[9] Two excellent articles by Mark Galli, the prestigious senior editor of Christianity Today, cover the Bell controversy well: “Heaven, Hell and Robert Bell: Putting the pastor in context,” Christianity Today, posted 3/2/11, and “Rob Bell’s Bridge too Far,” Christianity Today. posted 3/14/11. Galli suggest that issues might best be let somewhat open due to a certain ambiguity in scripture, as Farrar had done a century before.

[10] For an intelligent presentation of the doctrine of Purgatory see the article by Gary A. Anderson, “Is Purgatory Biblical,” First Things, (Nov. 2011).

[11] See, for example, J. H. Leckie, who expanded Farrrar’s insight in: The World to Come and Final Destiny (Edin-
burgh: T. & T. Clark, 19I8),  68-102.

[12] Farrar,  Justice and Mercy, 13.

[13] See: Russell Alwincle, Death in the Secular City: Life after death in contemporary theology and philosophy (Grand Rapids: William b. Eerdmans, 1974, especially chapter 3, “Theology without hope.”

[14] (New York:  Harper & Row, 1968).

[15] (New York:  Harper & Row, 1976).

[16] See: Norman Pittinger, The Last Things in Process Perspective (London: Epworth Press, 1970).

[17] Catholic writers and theologians use the phrase “communion of saints” to indicate the mystical bound between those Christians on earth, those in heaven and even those in purgatory. The phrase first appeared in the creeds of the 4th Century.

[18]For example, Dietrich Bonhoeffer, The Communion of Saints (New York: Harper & Row, 1963).

[19] Part One, book II, “The Pleasant Women Who Have Faith.”

[20] Anonymous, Trans. By R.M. French (New York: Seabury Press, 1965).

[21] Corrie ten Boom, Father ten Boom: God’s man (Boston: G.K. Hall, 1979), 152-154.

[22]Andrew Greely, Death and Beyond (Chicago: Thomas Moore Press, 1976), chapter 4.

[23] Farrar, Mercy, and Dahle, After Death.

[24] Lackie, World, 73.

[25] Farrar takes special pains to show this: Mercy, 76 ff., and also see: Plumpter, Spirits in Prison, 78 ff.

[26] Anonymous, Shepherd o f Hermes, chapter 16, Roberts-Donaldson Trans. On the web.

[27] Gospel of Nicodemus, chapters 16-19, available on the web at various sites. Also in: Lost books in the Bible (New York: New American library, 1974).

[28] See for example: Nelson B. Baker, What Is the World Coming To? (Philadelphia: Westminster Press, 1961), 91. Baker was professor at Eastern Baptist Theological Seminary.

[29] Rudolph Bultmann, Theology of the New Testament, (New York: Scribner, 1955), vol. 1, 136. Butlmann was of course a theological liberal who did not believe in the miracles of the Bible, etc., but as a careful scholar who mastered the documents of Early Christianity, he well understood the beliefs and mindset of New Testament Christians.

[30] I included this incident, slightly altered, in my play, “Doing the Stuff at St. John’s,” found in my anthology of plays, Pentecostal (and Anglican) Plays (and Postscripts). (Amazon: 2013).

[31] Trans. By George E. McCracken (Westminster: Newman Press, 1949)

[32] The Second Mrs. Wu. (Philadelphia: J.B. Lippincourt, 1965).

[33] Among American authors, few who are biblically orthodox have dealt with the afterlife and sheol/hades state as well as Fr. Morton Kelsey. See his: Afterlife: The Other Side of Dying (New York: Paulist Press, 1979), and especially his tape series “Healing and the Afterlife” (Pecos: Dove Cassettes, 1981). An earlier classic study, done in the 1940s by Fr. Herbert Thruston (Roman Catholic) concluded only that some ghost and haunting phenomena were not demonic; see his Ghosts. and Poltergeists (Chicago: Henry Regnery Co., 1954) Available as modern reprint.

[34] For the Church of England’s ministry to ghosts see Fr. Michael Mitten, Requiem Healing: A Christian Understanding of the Dead (London: Darton, Longman & Todd, 1991), Kenneth McAll, Healing the Family Tree (London: Sheldon Press, 1982), and older works: Fr. Christopher Neil-Smith, The Exorcist and the Possessed (St. Ives, Engl.: James Pike, 1974), p. 82.; and especially two works by Dom Robert Petitpierre, Exorcism: The Report of the Commission Convened by the Bishop of Exeter (London: SPCK, 1972), and Exorcising Devils (London: Robert Hale, 1976).


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