THE CONTINUED AND CONSCIOUS
LIFE OF THE SOUL
CHRIST'S GOING AND PREACHING
SPIRITS IN PRISON.
A Sermon Preached at the CHURCH OF THE ANNUNCIATION,
WILLIAM JONES SEABURY, M. A.,
Rector of that Church, and CHARLES and ELIZABETH LUDLOW
"LET us take heed of those men, who professing to believe the resurrection promised in the Gospel, do yet deny the subsistence of man's soul in the interval between death and that resurrection. That faith and this denial cannot well stand together."—Bishop Bull.
THE following sermon was written and preached in the ordinary course of parochial duty as an exposition of a passage occurring in the services of the day on which it was delivered; and, it is perhaps unnecessary to say, with no expectation that the knowlege of it would extend beyond the congregation for which it was intended. It is now published because some of the author's parishioners have desired to make that use of it.
It may be proper to remind the reader that the sermon was not so much intended to treat of the subject of the Intermediate State, as of a single text in its application to that subject. Its aim is to show that the doctrine of the continued and conscious life of the soul after its separation from the body, evidenced by other parts of Holy Scripture, is also fairly supported by St. Peter's reference to the spirits in prison. But as this is not a truth unquestioned, the author has thought best to extend his comments upon the text somewhat further than was possible in the pulpit, and to give also some account of the views of others who have written in reference to it.
To avoid encumbering the sermon unnecessarily with notes, this additional matter has been thrown into an appendix.
ANNUNCIATION RECTORY, New York,
Feast of All Saints, 1874.
THE CONTINUED AND CONSCIOUS LIFE OF THE SOUL
INFERRED FROM CHRIST'S GOING AND PREACHING TO THE SPIRITS IN PRISON.
For Christ also hath once suffered for sins, the just for the unjust, that he might bring us to God, being put to death in the flesh, but quickened by the Spirit:
By which also he went and preached unto the spirits in prison;
Which sometime were disobedient, when once the long-suffering of God waited in the days of Noah.
1 St. Peter, iii: 18, 19, 20.
Jesus Christ, in assuming our nature, became not only our Redeemer, but also our Exemplar. He was not only the Mediator between God and man, who, by His perfect and all-sufficient sacrifice effected an Atonement for human sin, whereby sinful man might attain to the blessedness of pardon upon repentance, but He was also the head and leader of those who in faith should follow Him, so that walking in the steps wherein he walked, they might avoid falling again into the bondage of sin, and might, by the aid of that Holy Spirit which He procured for them, attain unto such a share of His righteousness as for His sake to be well pleasing in the sight of God. Nor was our Blessed Lord only an example for our imitation in the actions of our life, but also, in that which He endured in the human nature, He was the cause and ground of all our capacity for faithful endurance. He not only acted that we might imitate his actions: He also suffered that we might be comforted and encouraged in our sufferings. Nor was this model which He set before us, proposed only for our imitation in action and suffering during the continuance of our earthly lives, but also it furnishes us with hope and encouragement in the prospect and the endurance of death itself: nay, more, it goes beyond the grave, and reveals to us that state of life which [5/6] is the continuance of the life begun on earth, the introduction to the life eternal in the Heavens.
Such, if I have correctly understood it, is the suggestion of the Passage which I have now read to you, and which the Church sets before us in the second lesson for this evening's service. There is something more in it than the thought that Christ was our Mediator in suffering for us; something more than that His just life is the example for the reformation and improvement of the unjust; something more than that we should cheerfully suffer even for well doing, because He, the holy and the harmless, suffered for the sins of others. Beyond all this, there is the intimation of a significance for us even in the being of Christ after His death and before His resurrection. It is in this aspect of them that I desire to consider these words of St. Peter, and as the passage is confessedly a difficult one, I ask your attention while I endeavour to analyze it and unfold its meaning.
After the allusion to the sufferings of our Lord, we are told that He who had thus suffered was put to death in the flesh, but quickened by the Spirit, by which also He went and preached to the spirits in prison, which sometime were disobedient, when once the long suffering of God waited in the days of Noah.
There is a common interpretation of these words to this effect, that Christ, who was put to death in the flesh, was raised by the Holy Spirit, and that this Holy Spirit was the same by which He preached to the disobedient in the days of Noah. But this interpretation will not stand. It depends chiefly upon the use of the two prepositions in and by. Christ was put to death in the flesh and quickened by the Spirit. But these prepositions, although included in the English translation which we use, are not contained in the original Scripture from which the translation was made. [qanatwqeiV men sarki zwopoihqeiV de pneumati] We may, with equal propriety, translate that [6/7] Christ was quickened in spirit, and this seems to be demanded by the opposition of the words flesh and spirit, both being evidently spoken of as belonging to Christ. The flesh was Christ's body; the spirit was Christ's soul. And since being made man, Christ took the whole of our nature, and possessed as we know, not only a body, but also a soul, so it is natural that the text, referring to the nature of Christ, should refer to it in those two aspects under which the human nature must ever be considered: and as it tells us what was done to Christ in the flesh or in the body, viz.: that He was put to death therein, so it tells us what Christ did in the spirit, or how his soul, which could not be put to death, was occupied while His body lay silent in the grave.
It will be apparent, therefore, that the text refers not to what Christ did by the Holy Spirit, but to what He did in His own proper person. He was put to death and the sacred record in other places tells us what was done with his mortal part, that is His body, viz., that it was laid in the grave. In this place St. Peter further tells us what became of His soul, or rather mentions one thing that He did while his human soul was disconnected from His human body, namely, that He went and preached to the spirits in prison. The penalty of death, which for our sake He undertook to bear, involved the suspension of sensation and of the power of motion in the body. What the penalty of death involved in respect to His soul, we could not have known without revelation. If Christ was a perfect man, as the Holy Scriptures assure us, then we know that death would affect His soul as it affects the souls of all men; just as we see that death affected his body as it affects the bodies of all men. While death rested upon Christ, it affected His human nature as it affects the nature of all men. Its reign in His case was brief, too brief for corruption, and that is all which makes his death an exception to the general rule of death in the case of all men. As we see, then, that His body was affected by death just as the [7/8] bodies of all men are affected; so we believe that His soul was affected by death just as the souls of all men are affected. But how are the souls of men affected by death? That is precisely what nature does not teach us, and hence the value of that revelation which teaches us how the soul of Christ was affected: for if the soul of Christ was affected by death even as the souls of all men are affected, then of course we know how the souls of all men are affected, when we are told how the soul of Christ was affected. This is the point of the revelation of St. Peter: Christ being dead in the body, STILL LIVED IN THE SOUL! being put to death in the flesh, but quickened in the spirit. Still living in the soul, He was neither unconscious nor idle; neither, it would appear, was His soul incapable of motion, or of residence for a greater or less time in place; for in the spirit, in the conscious existence of His human soul, He went and preached to the spirits in prison. He went; that is, He moved from the place where the soul parted from the body to some other place. He preached; that is, when He reached that place He was neither overwhelmed by sleep, nor incapable of intelligent action: and His preaching was to the spirits or souls of a certain class of men who are afterward described. And thus it appears that the soul of Christ, in its separate existence from the body, was capable of motion and of residence in place, that it was conscious and capable of intelligent action, and that, as a matter of fact, it held intercourse with the disembodied spirits of other men.
Now, if we apply the text thus far interpreted, to the answer of our inquiries, as to the effect which death will produce upon our souls, what does it teach us? If the souls of men are affected by death as the soul of Christ was affected, which there seems no possible ground of reason or of revelation for denying, then we have these certain truths to stay our faith upon—that when our souls depart from our bodies, they will be capable of motion or of transportation, and that they will move or be transported [8/9] from the place where they have left their earthly companions to some other place which is capable of containing them, and where they will reside. That the manner of our action will be the same as the manner of Christ's action, does not follow. The preaching of Christ was the manner of His action; but, although this is not necessarily true of us, yet the possession of that conscious and intelligent existence which enabled Christ to preach, and which His preaching presupposes, may be predicated of our souls after death, as well as of the soul of Christ: simply for the reason, that that state of existence belonged to the soul of Christ, not because it was the soul of Christ, but because that was a human soul which Christ had assumed.
Thus far we have found that the text teaches us how the soul of Christ was affected by death. Rather, we may say, that the text teaches us that the soul of Christ was not affected by death, but that it possessed those same powers of conscious existence, of residence in place, of motion, of communion with other souls which it possessed before his death; and this leads us inevitably to the conclusion that our own souls will be affected even as the soul of Christ—not otherwise. That is to say, rather that our souls will remain unaffected by death; that they will be unchanged in their essential nature and properties.
Does it seem strange to any of you, my brethren, to say that after death our souls will possess a conscious existence; that they will be able to have the power of motion; that they will be capable of residing in a certain place, and capable also of intercourse with other souls, likewise disembodied? Does it seem strange? I fear it does to some, because I know that in the current philosophy of the day to speak of a man’s soul is after all very nearly equivalent to speaking of—nothing. Men say that they believe in the immortality of the soul, but what do they mean by this? Do they mean that the soul continues to possess [9/10] an individual personal existence, or do they mean that the life which once animated the body has returned to all life, or that it is resolved into the elements of the life which teems in many forms upon the earth? I think that most men, when they speak of the immortality of the soul, have very little definiteness about their belief, and it is somewhat singular that those who have and express that very definite belief which belongs to the religion of Christ, are sometimes accounted guilty of superstition. It is objected to them that the soul is immaterial, and that therefore it is incapable of form and motion, and residence. But, I pray you, is not the soul the same in these respects before death as after death? Is not the soul immaterial before death? And yet it fills or occupies in some incomprehensible way the body which belongs to it. If the body moves, it is because the indwelling soul wills that it shall move. If the organs of the body are made the media of communication between men, still it is the indwelling soul which sees and speaks and hears through those organs which God has appointed for the purpose. And I confess I can see no reason why the soul, after it leaves the body, should not be, as it was before, a formal substance of some kind, although it be not composed of what we call matter, and is consequently intangible and invisible to our bodily senses. I can see no reason why this formal substance, invisible to us, should be invisible to the eye of God, and incapable of being moved and disposed of by the power of God, and in accordance with laws not fully known to us. Indeed, I am willing to admit that there is nothing in nature which would convince us of this, if it were not taught us by revelation, but what I say is, that if it be taught us by revelation, as I think it is, there is nothing in our knowledge of nature which goes counter to it, and so if the revelation be plain, there is every reason why we should believe it. And it seems to me that this text alone, which we are now considering, is sufficient to [10/11] establish our belief in this proposition: that, like the soul of Christ after death, so our souls, after death, lose nothing of that essential nature which they had in their earthly life; that they have independent personal existence; that this existence is conscious and intelligent; that in it they are capable of motion, of position, of the recognition of the souls of others and of communication with them. What these disembodied souls have added to them which they did not possess on earth we do not know, for Holy Scripture is silent on that point; but that so much is reserved to them we do know, for Holy Scripture is plain to this effect.
If we follow our text to its conclusion, we find that it confirms what has already been said, although at the same time it suggests subjects of inquiry to which, at present, we can hardly do justice, although we may pass them by without at all weakening the results already reached.
Christ, we are told, went and preached to the spirits in prison, which sometime were disobedient, while the long suffering of God waited in the days of Noah.
Here we observe that Christ preached to spirits—and not only to spirits, but to the spirits of certain men. Therefore the Spirits or souls of others beside that of Christ were in the like state of conscious existence with His own.
Further, we are told that these spirits were in prison—that is, as the original word implies, they were under guard or in ward or, as we would say perhaps, in safe-keeping. [en fulakh] At any rate, they were in some place whither the soul of Christ went, and where He found them. Where this place is, we are not informed, but the text will hardly allow us to disbelieve that there is such a place; that there is a place where the disembodied souls of men are kept from the time of their departure from the body until the time of the general resurrection, which is to take place before the [11/12] general judgment. For it is no part of the teaching of Holy Scripture, wherever the idea may have come from, that the individual soul has its individual judgment so soon as it leaves the body, and passes at once to its final abode of happiness or misery. On the contrary, the teaching of Holy Scripture is so plainly opposed to this that it is marvellous to see how many Christian people have learned to believe it. For Scripture teaches us that there will come a day in which all that are in their graves shall hear the voice of the summoning angel and shall arise; that God hath appointed a day in which He will judge the world; and that all mankind, both small and great, shall at that dreadful day stand before the judgment seat of Christ and shall receive their reward for the things done in the body, whether good or evil. [See Acts xvii: 31. St. John v: 28, 29. 1 Cor. xv: 52. 2 Cor. v: 10. 1 Thess. iv: 13-17. Rev. xx: 12-15. See also Rev. vi: 9-11.] And for the souls which continue their conscious existence from the day of death to the day of judgment, reason itself will tell us that some provision must have been made, and therefore it will not surprise us to learn from the text that those souls are kept in a place, although God in His wisdom has not seen fit to reveal the situation of the place.
This place we call in general terms the place of departed spirits. It is also sometimes, and properly, called Hell, although in common use this word Hell has become appropriated so as to denote the place of everlasting punishment. The reason of this change in the use of language is probably that in our English version of the Bible the word Hell is used to translate both the original words, Hades and Gehenna; [St. Matt. v: 22 ib. 29; St. Luke xvi: 23; Rev. i: 18] Hades meaning the place [12/13] of departed spirits in the intermediate state, before the judgment; and Gehenna meaning the place for Souls condemned in that judgment: and so it has happened that since men have forgotten to believe in the existence of a place of departed spirits, they have come to use the word Hell to denote only the place of final punishment. But the early usage of the word is evidenced both by the Creed and the Articles of the Church: for in the Creed we profess that Christ, who was crucified, dead and buried, also descended into Hell; and in the third Article of Religion, the Church declares that "as Christ died for us and was buried: so also is it to be believed that He went down into Hell." Where the word Hell, although perhaps it may not exclude the Gehenna, or abode of Satan, yet certainly does include the Hades, or place of reception for souls disembodied, but not yet either acquitted or condemned in the judgment which they cannot experience before the general resurrection shall have re-united them with their bodies. The word Hell, I say, evidently bears this meaning, for not otherwise can it consist with the words of Christ Himself; for when He spoke in words of comfort to the penitent thief upon the cross, His words were, ''this day shalt thou be with me in Paradise." Now Paradise never, by any usage, could mean the place of eternal punishment: nor by Scriptural usage does it mean either heaven or earth. It means, therefore, the intermediate state, or the place wherein are received the souls of the departed between death and judgment, and which the text speaks of as a prison, or place of keeping. There is, indeed, a limitation of meaning in the word Paradise, to that portion of the place of departed spirits which is the dwelling of the faithful departed, in opposition to that portion which is the dwelling of those who depart hence impenitent and unfaithful—unreconciled to God. So that although the word Paradise must always denote the place of departed spirits, or a part of it, yet the place of departed spirits may be mentioned [13/14] without necessarily intending Paradise. But either part of that region, that which includes the good or that which includes the evil, may well be referred to as a prison, because both kinds of spirits are in ward or keeping against the time of the resurrection. And if the words of Christ explicitly assure us that He was in Paradise after death, and before resurrection; if the other parts of Revelation fail to assure us explicitly that He was in the other part of Hades; if the word used by St. Peter to denote the place where He was present within that interval, will apply to the one part as well as to the other, then no violence seems to be done to the text if it be interpreted to mean that Christ went not into the place and companionship of the spirits of wicked men, but into Paradise. If this be so, it shows that those spirits to whom our Lord preached were not unreconciled to God at the time of their death. And this is very important to be observed, because it shows that the text, while it supports the doctrine of a place of departed spirits, which is both Scriptural and Catholic, furnishes no countenance to the doctrine of Purgatory, which, is neither Scriptural nor Catholic, but is strictly and properly Roman.
But perhaps you will say, if these spirits were reconciled to God, and needed no reformation, where was the need of preaching to them? I answer, however, that reformation is not the only end of preaching. Preaching the Gospel is strictly the proclamation of the glad tidings of the victory of Christ over the powers of evil. Where this is addressed to the wicked, it involves the idea of reformation, because on no other terms can the Gospel message be glad tidings to the wicked. Where it is addressed to those who have already known repentance and faith, it conveys comfort and holy joy. And to whom should Christ in the conscious existence of His human soul have spoken, if it were not to those who had looked forward, in their imperfect state of existence, to the victory which He should one day accomplish [14/15] over the Devil, who once had used his power upon them? Would not this preaching of Christ, think you, be in very truth the proclamation of glad tidings to those who were able to rejoice at the consolation which He thus afforded to them?
And the words of the text confirm this view, for they tell us that Christ preached to the Spirits which sometime were disobedient, implying that that time of disobedience came to an end, and that while the long-suffering of God waited for them they became reconciled to Him.
But will you say that this was impossible in the days of Noah, when all mankind were involved in ruin, except himself and his family? Where then do you find the revelation of this impossibility, which would tie the hands of Him, who not only hardeneth whom He will, but who also hath mercy on whom He will have mercy? [Rom. ix: 18.]
They were indeed involved in temporal ruin. Their repentance came too late to include them in the especial mercy shown to Noah. They were not like the eight in the ark, counted worthy to be saved by water (as St. Peter remarkably expresses it), and so to serve as types of those who should afterwards be saved by the same element, in the mystical washing away of sin, in the Sacrament of Baptism. But nothing in Holy Scripture forbids us to believe that many of them, in the loss of their earthly hopes, laid hold upon the Eternal Rock, who had been revealed to them as their certain refuge. And the language of St. Peter fairly implies it: and while it cuts away the specious plea for Purgatory, which would fain see in this preaching to disembodied spirits the hope of reformation after death; it goes further and gives us an intimation of the sublime purpose of God, to make the redemption wrought by Christ effectual, not only for those who should live after Christ, but also for all those [15/16] who ever had lived, or ever should live in the faith of the Redeemer, and who ever had called, or ever should call upon Him, and with a faith acceptable to Him, put themselves under the cover of his saving mercy.
So much time, my brethren has been used in the explanation of this text, that scarce any remains for its application; and yet does not the application speak for itself, and will not the remembrance of these truths be full of comfort, and of warning to all of us? Surely it will be much if we carry away with us a clearer faith in the fact of Christ's life after death—of the conscious existence of His soul after the departure from the body; and if, by consequence, we learn to have a more certain assurance of the reality of the continued existence of our own souls after they shall have been summoned, as sooner or later they must be, in the case of all of us, to depart from the body. How much of the terror of death is taken away from us, both in our own case, and in the case of our friends, when we remember that death, after all, is but a change of the scene in which we live! In our own case, we leave that with which we are familiar; we go to seek a country of which we know nothing, it is true: but at least we know that Christ has been there before us; if so be we are so happy as to depart hence in faith and humble penitence. In the case of our friends, they have parted from us it is true, but they are not dead—oh, no not dead—as we commonly use and understand these words of inexpressible sadness. They have left us their mortal remains; we honor them; we treat them with reverence and care; we lay them in the grave; but our friends themselves—we do not lay them in the grave. They suffer from no cold contact with the lifeless day; they see no corruption—for they live. And, blessed be the power and love of God, both for them and us, it was written of His Holy One, who is the model both of our life and death, "Thou wilt not leave His soul in Hell." He took again His body, no longer mortal and passible, but immortal [16/17] and glorious! We also, if we live before him in reverence and godly fear, shall resume our bodies, no longer mortal and passible, but immortal and glorious.
Such is the end which is promised to us! Our intermediate state is but the threshold of our Eternal Home: our death is but the step by which we tread upon it. But our present life! this is our time of probation. Beware of that, and live in such holy preparation for the change, that when it comes it shall find you reconciled to God. Then, at the last day, Christ will come once more to the spirits which are in prison, and we shall hear His liberating voice with joy unending.
The interpretation of the text in question depends mainly upon the sense in which the word pneumati is used. There are, among the English divines, some whose names carry great weight, who understand the word spirit, to refer to the Holy Spirit: of whom the most eminent are Bishop Pearson and Doctor Hammond. It appears, however, that the majority of the Commentators, and of those who have written on the text among the English divines, understand the word spirit to mean the spirit or soul of Christ; among whom are Bishop Horsley, Bishop Middleton, Bishop Wordsworth, Bishop Browne and Dean Alford, and among our own divines, Bishop Hobart (Sermons, vol. ii., p. 1)
Supposing that the word spirit means the Holy Spirit, the text will assert that Christ was put to death in the flesh, but quickened by the Holy Spirit. There is no difficulty thus far, because nothing further seems involved, than that the human nature of Christ was raised by virtue of the power of his own divine nature. "That Spirit," says Bishop Pearson, "by which Christ was quickened, is that by which He was raised from the dead, that is the power of his divinity." [Pearson on the Creed, 4th edition, p. 406.] And I presume that the Holy Spirit, by whose especial operation Christ was made man, may properly be believed to have been the efficient agent of his resurrection. But, if this be the meaning of the statement in the text, the remainder of the text must be interpreted of the action of the Holy Spirit. The question then arises, whether the Holy Spirit went and preached to the spirits in prison, and if so, in what sense? The answer of the advocates of this interpretation is, that this is the meaning of the text: that Christ preached to these spirits, not personally, but by the Holy Spirit; but that He so preached, not in the prison, but to those who afterward, at the time of Christ's death, or in some figurative sense, were in prison. In this view the preaching which is here mentioned, was the preaching of Noah while he was preparing the Ark, and while the long suffering of God waited for the repentance of those to whom He preached. So that the text must read thus—Christ was put to death in the [19/20] flesh, but quickened by the Holy Spirit; that same Spirit, which in the person or Noah, preached to the spirits, which were disobedient while the long-suffering of God waited for them during the preparation of the ark, and which are now in prison. So Wetstein, in his note on the passage (Nov. Test.), paraphrases it: "Spiritus Christi, qui in Noacho fuit vocavit ad poenitentiam eos qui ante diluvium vixerunt; cum autem non audirent, aquis perierunt et nunc detinentur en adou. Praedicavit, antequam essent in carcere: in quem detrusi sunt quia vocanti non paruerunt." But does not this construction seem forced and unnatural? Dr. Hammond, while maintaining that Christ preached by the same Spirit by which He was raised, meets the difficulty of the preaching to the spirits in prison much more ingeniously, though to me, not more satisfactorily; for he says, that the meaning is, that Christ, by "the power of God in Him" in the days before the Flood, preached to spirits who were in prison in the sense of being bound or confined in the body or prison house of sin; and with his usual profound and learned reasoning, he supports this view, by comparing the text with Gen. vi: 3: "My Spirit shall not always strive with man;" and with passages which show that the body is sometimes spoken of as the sheath or covering of the spirit or soul which is contained within it, as a sword within the scabbard. (see Hammond's Commentary on the place). But still, I ask, is not this construction forced and unnatural? The text begins by speaking of Christ; certainly the natural construction is that which makes it continue to speak of Christ until some word occurs which must necessarily refer to another. But, by this construction, the first part of the text speaks of Christ; the second speaks of the Holy Spirit: the text speaks of preaching to spirits in prison; the construction makes the text say that the preaching formerly took place to spirits then fleshbound or now in prison, thus seeking the sense by inverting the language.
Bishop Pearson's comment upon the text, in his explication of the descent of Christ into Hell, seems to go no further than to say that this passage cannot be used in proof of that doctrine, unless we were sure that the spirit there spoken of were the soul of Christ, which he denies to be the case. [Pearson on the Creed, 4th edition, p. 406.] That is to say, the [20/21] authority of Bishop Pearson's name may be urged against the interpretation. This of course is very considerable, but still, I think it must be admitted, that Bishop Pearson is far from reasoning in this place with his usual conclusiveness.
Suppose how, that the word spirit refers to the soul of Christ, and certainly the construction seems more natural and straightforward. Christ was put to death in the flesh, but quickened in spirit, in which, also, He went and preached to the spirits in prison, which sometime were disobedient, when once the long suffering of God waited in the days of Noah, etc. This is a plain narrative. Christ suffered for us. He was put to death as to His flesh. His soul, according to the nature of the soul which He Himself had described (St. Matt. x: 28; St. Luke, xii: 45), could not be put to death,—this was quickened or preserved alive. In this living part of His humanity, He went and preached to the spirits in prison. These spirits were the same which had once been disobedient, &c. Nothing is inverted or transposed. The text tells its own story plainly. But difficulties arise, not in the text, but in the consequences which may be inferred to result from the statements of the text. Why did Christ preach to those whose day of grace was ended? Why did He single out those who lived in the time of Noah? If it be admitted that He preached to disembodied spirits, it must be admitted that there is opportunity for reformation after death. Thence must follow the Roman doctrine of Purgatory. If it be admitted that He went to the spirits of the antediluvians, countenance will be given to the doctrine of Limbus Patrum. Therefore the plain sense of the passage cannot be the true one, and a substitute must be sought. Perhaps such a train of thought may not have been without its effect upon many who have sought to avoid what seems to be the plain meaning of the text, even if Bishop Pearson and Dr. Hammond were above such an influence.
To objections of this sort, which have led to what he calls "those jejune, figurative interpretations which modern criticism, scared by the bugbear of Purgatory, would substitute for the plain and obvious sense," Bishop Horsley makes this general reply: "Thither,"—i. e., to the prison, which he describes as a [21/22] place of safe-keeping, the invisible mansion of souls departed—"the Apostle says He went and preached. Is any difficulty that may present itself to the human mind, upon the circumstances of that preaching, of sufficient weight to make the thing unfit to be believed upon the word of the Apostle? Or are we justified if, for such difficulties, we abandon the plain sense of the Apostle's words and impose upon them another meaning, not easily adapted to the words, though more proportioned to the capacity of our understanding—especially when it is confirmed by other scriptures that He went to that place? In that place He could not but find the souls which are in it in safe-keeping; and in some way or other it cannot but be supposed that He would hold conference with them; and a particular conference with one class might be the means, and certainly could be no obstruction, to a general communication with all. If the clear assertions of Holy Writ are to be discredited on account of difficulties which may seem to the human mind to arise out of them, little will remain to be believed in revealed, or even in what is called natural religion; we must immediately part with the doctrine of atonement, of gratuitous redemption, of justification by faith without the works of the law—of sanctification by the influence of the Holy Spirit; and we must part at once with the hope of the resurrection." Horsley's Sermons (London, 1826, p. 262).
The English version, seemingly of purpose to deprive this text of any bearing upon the doctrine of an intermediate state, so renders it that it appeals simply to be a statement of the resurrection and glorification of Christ consequent upon His humiliation. By the opposition of the prepositions in and by it merely raises the presumption in the mind of the English reader that Christ, after having suffered death, was raised to life by the Holy Spirit. But ZwopoihqeiV seems to bear the meaning of preserved alive rather than of made alive. [See Browne on the Articles, p. 101, note.] And if Christ was preserved alive, it was, of course, in His soul: and merely interpreting the passage of His resurrection leaves the continued existence of His soul quite out of the question, and ignores what, if the continued existence of His soul is alluded to, the text supplies by way of accounting for the condition of His soul as it [22/23] had already accounted for the condition of His body. How unreasonable is the idea of a resurrection of the man without the continued existence of the soul which constitutes his personality; how vain is the endeavour to preserve faith in the doctrine of the resurrection when men are allowed to believe that their resurrection shall consist in the gift of a new life to their bodies, and not in the re-union to them of the same souls which once dwelt in them; how much of the present practical unbelief in the doctrines of resurrection and accountability may be laid at the door of those who have timidly held or wilfully abandoned the once undoubted faith in the continued existence of the soul, this is not the place to consider. [See Bishop Bull's sermon on the subsistence of the soul of man after death. Sermons (Oxford, 1827) Vol. 1., pp. 37-42.] Our business at present is with the meaning of the text, and certainly the text seems to be not only obscured, but warped, by the use of the preposition by where the translators were equally free to use the preposition in, since the original supplies none, although it suggests in rather than by. Bishop Middleton, in his treatise on the Greek Article, remarks upon the passage thus: "I have had occasion to signify (see on Rom. viii: 13) that there is no indisputable instance in the New Testament in which anything is said to have been done or suffered by the Holy Spirit, where pneuma whether in the Genitive or Dative case, is not governed by some preposition. But not only is the preposition here wanting; even the Article has so little authority that it is rejected from the text by Wetstein, Griesbach and Matthâi; though the last, indeed I know not from what cause, wished to retain it, had not the MSS., as he confesses, compelled him to abandon it. For what would happen, supposing the Article authentic? Not that the passage would speak of the Holy Spirit; the sense would be, in His spirit, viz., the spirit or mind of Christ, as John xiii: 21, and elsewhere. And this is not remote from what I consider to be the true meaning, "dead carnally, but alive spiritually;" the only difference is, that by retaining the Article, for which there is very little authority, we destroy the form of the Antithesis between sarki and pneumati an Antithesis which may be found in the next chapter, verse 6, also Galat. iii: 3. We find, likewise, En pneumati, En sarki—kata pneuma, kata sarka [23/24] in none of which instances is the Antithesis ever violated by the insertion of the Article before one of the Nouns while it is wanting to the other. (Am. Ed. 1813, PP. 333-4). Bishop Middleton then refers to the sermon of Bishop Horsley on the text, and adopts his interpretation of making the word spirit refer to the soul of Christ, as agreeing with his own. It is worthy, also, of note that the instance cited by Bishop Middleton of the use of the word pneuma, to denote the rational soul of Christ, is, as he intimates, not the only instance which might be cited. There are four other places (St. Mark viii: 12; St. Luke x: 21, xxiii: 46; St. John xix: 30) where the word is undoubtedly used in the same sense, so that it cannot be said that the word pneuma would improperly be understood of the soul of Christ.
Bishop Beveridge, in his treatise on the Thirty-nine Articles, in proving the third article from Scripture, makes no use of the text, except to refer to it as one which was generally applied in proof of Christ's descent into Hell by those of the Primitive Church, "so that to name the place to them was a sufficient proof of the thing. But," he continues, "another exposition universally possessing men's minds now, the argument is rendered now altogether useless and invalid for the purpose aforesaid. Though I do confess that was a man resolved to hold it, that this place is to be understood of the soul or Spirit of Christ's real descent into Hell, I know no reasons strong enough to draw him from his error in it. I am sure the ancient Syriac, Arabic and Ethiopic translations seem clearly to carry the sense that way. [Oxford, 1840, vol. I, pp. 162-3; see also the note on the text in these versions.]
Bishop Beveridge's opinion that the Hell into which Christ descended was the place of torment, does not impair the value of his testimony as to the construction of the text under consideration, namely, that it is either true, or such an error as he knew no convincing reason against, that the text is spoken, not of the action of the Holy Spirit, or of Christ by the Holy Spirit, or the "power of God that was in him," but of the action of Christ's soul living after separation from the body.
That this was the traditional interpretation at the time of the [24/25] Reformation, I presume there is no doubt. Certainly there are two remarkable evidences that this was the case. One is, that the German translation of the text in Luther’s Bible, (to apply, the language of Bishop Beveridge) seems clearly to carry the sense that way; the other is, that, in the Articles of Religion of the English Church, as they were put forth in 1552; the third article contains a citation of this text in proof of the descent into hell, which it affirms is to be believed. [Sparrow's Canons. p. 41.] I believe it is admitted also that this was the interpretation of this passage, which generally prevailed in the Ancient Church, so that it cannot be said that the interpretation was fixed upon the passage for the support of Mediaeval error although it may justly be said that the fear of affording Scriptural support to such Mediaeva1 errors, has led to the rejection of the traditional interpretation in some quarters. Whether it was this fear which prevailed with the Divines of the Church of England in 1562, so that they put forth the third article in its present shape, without reference to the text; or whether the reference was abandoned from an unwillingness to appear to rest the doctrine of the descent of Christ into Hell solely on that passage, I do not know. Dr. Hey observes on this point: "The leaders of the Church, in the time of Queen Elizabeth, seem to have been very wise in the alteration they made, and in leaving the doctrine grounded on the Scripture at large, and on the nature of the thing;" although he adds, "it is possible that the Puritans may have contributed to the alteration." [Hey's Lectures on Divinity, Cambridge, 1822, vol. II. p. 374.]
However this may have been, it is certainly worth remembering, that the existence of the soul of Christ in its separation from the body, the existence of some place wherein it then was, and the consequent continued life, in safe keeping of the souls of other men between death and resurrection, are truths, which independently of this passage, appear from other parts of revelation. By no one are these truths more plainly recognised, or more lucidly unfolded, than by Bishop Pearson himself. In applying the passage in Acts II., 25-31, to the proof of the descent of Christ into Hell, he says: "Now, from this place the Article is clearly and infallibly deduced, thus: if the soul of Christ were [25/26] not left in Hell at his resurrection, then His soul was in Hell before His resurrection; but it was not there before His death; therefore, upon or after His death, and before His resurrection, the soul of Christ descended into Hell, and consequently the Creed doth truly deliver that Christ, being crucified, was dead, buried and descended into Hell" (p. 407).
And, again (pp. 418-419), this must be laid down as a certain and necessary truth, that the soul of man, when he dieth, dieth not, but returneth unto Him that gave it, to be disposed of at His will and pleasure, according to the ground of our Saviour's counsel: Fear not them which kill the body, but cannot kill the soul. That better part of us, therefore, in and after death, doth exist and live, either by virtue of its spiritual and immortal nature, as we believe; or at least by the will of God, and His power upholding and preserving it from dissolution, as many of the fathers thought. This soul thus existing after death, and separated from the body, though of a nature spiritual, is, really and truly, in some place; if not by way of circumscription, as proper bodies are, yet by way of determination and indistancy; so that it is true to say: this soul is really and truly present here, and not elsewhere.
"Again, the soul of man, which, while he still lived, gave life to the body, and was the fountain of all vital actions, in that separate existence after death must not be conceived to sleep, or be bereft and stript of all vital operations; but still to exercise the power of understanding, and, of willing, and to be subject to the affections of joy and sorrow. Now, as souls, at the hour of death, are really separated from the bodies, so the place where they are at rest, or in misery after death, is certainly distinct from the place in which they live. They continue not where they were at that instant when the body was left without life; they do not go together with the body to the grave; but as the sepulchre is appointed for our flesh; so there is another receptacle or habitation and mansion for our Spirits. From whence, it followeth, that in death the soul doth certainly pass by a real motion from that place, in which it did inform the body, and is translated to that place, and unto that society which God, of His mercy or justice hath allotted to it. And not at present [26/27] to inquire into the difference and distance of these several habitations (but, for method's sake, to involve them all as yet under the notion of the infernal parts, or the mansions below), it will appear to have been the general judgment of the Church that the soul of Christ, contradistinguished from His body, that better and more noble part of His humanity, His rational and intellectual soul, after a true and proper separation from His flesh, was really and truly carried into these parts below, where the souls of men before departed were detained, and that by such a real translation of His soul, He was truly said to have descended into Hell."
But to return to our text. Its interpretation mainly depends, as has been said, upon the sense which the word pneumati is intended to bear. If that word does not refer to the soul of Christ, then the text seems to have no bearing on the state of the departed—the passage simply asserts the resurrection and glorification of Christ consequent upon His humiliation, and the preaching to the spirits in prison must be accounted for by referring it to a time antecedent to the death of Christ. But supposing it to be admitted or established that the word pneumati does refer to the soul of Christ, then plainly the text teaches that Christ in that living part of His humanity went and preached to the spirits in prison. Now, the meaning of this part of the text depends upon the meaning of the word fulakh [Bp. Brown, Art. p. 101, remarks that the Syriac version renders this word by Hades. It is of this Syriac version that Bp. Beveridge observes: "Was I deprived of the original Greek, and confined to a translation, I should choose the Syriac above all the rest, it being (as may easily be demonstrated) the first translation that was ever made of it, and therefore, in all probability, made before the malice of heretics, or the negligence of transcribers, had brought any various readings into it. Beveridge on the Articles, Vol. 1, p. 164.] which the English version translates prison. This word in its proper sense signifies a place of keeping. Perhaps its meaning is not limited to place, but also it may be said that it signifies a means, or state of keeping or being kept. Christ went and preached to the spirits which were in keeping, being kept or in ward. But the English version properly renders prison, since the idea of place naturally, if not necessarily, associates itself with that of ward or keeping, and since further, the word prison, in its strict meaning, [27/28] signifies, not a place of punishment, but simply a place of enclosure or restraint. The idea of punishment evidently is secondary. A prison is a place of punishment, because, ordinarily, to be restrained of our liberty, causes suffering, and is properly a means of punishment. But all restraint of liberty, all confinement or enclosure, is not therefore of necessity a punishment. The inmates of the Ark by their confinement escaped the violence of the deluge. Surely, to be restrained or enclosed in the region of departed spirits may be a blessing and a protection, as well as a punishment. How else could the souls of the faithful, after they are delivered from the burden of the flesh, be in joy and felicity? To be turned loose into a common domain with devils and spirits of wicked men, would be to be subjected to their torments. That in fact this division between departed spirits exists, and that the spirits of either division are equally, though with quite different effect, and for quite different cause, shut up and restrained of their liberty, is most evident from the parable of Lazarus and Dives. [St. Luke, xvi, 19-26.]
One who heard the foregoing sermon afterwards quoted to me the following passage from Milton's Comas as an instance of the use of the word prison (or rather its derivative verb) in the sense of confinement and not of punishment.
"I have oft heard
My mother Circe with the Sirens three,
Amidst the flowery kirtled naiadés
Culling their potent herbs and baleful drugs,
Who as they sung would take the prisoned soul
And lap it in Elysium."
What the text proves, then, is simply that the soul of Christ, in its separation from the body, continued to live and communicated with the souls of others previously separated from their bodies, and being in safe keeping. If these souls were in place, Christ's soul was in place, for he went to them, and where their souls were, there also was His soul. Both the common usage, which supposes a place for that which is kept, and the natural signification of the terms; 'He went and preached,' imply that Christ sought and found these departed souls in some place. Where this place was, and whether this was the only place to which Christ went in His disembodied state, are questions which I humbly conceive to be not thoroughly resolved in Holy Scripture. Inasmuch as Christ declared upon the day of His death, [28/29] that He would be that day in Paradise, the presumption at least is, that this place was identical with Paradise, and that presumption can hardly be overthrown, unless there be something in the text to show that this place was not the place of rest which Paradise by Scriptural and other usage is understood to denote. There is nothing in the text capable of this unless it be the reference to those souls with whom Christ communicated as having been disobedient in the time of Noah. But if this implies that those souls to whom Christ preached were in the abode of the Devil and his angels, or in that part of Hades occupied by the spirits of wicked men, then that is equivalent to the statement that all who are cut off by God's temporal judgments are necessarily damned: a conclusion which I confess is as horrible to my mind as Calvin's horrible decree of predestination. It is a clear assumption, not declared in Holy Scripture, and therefore is not necessarily the implication of the text, and by consequence is of no weight whatever to overthrow the presumption, that the prison there referred to is equivalent to Paradise.
Whether this Scriptural doctrine of the passage of the soul of Christ into the place of departed spirits, and into that particular portion of it which belongs to the faithful, and which is called Paradise; whether this Scriptural doctrine, which seems to be the doctrine of the text, be the doctrine which is declared, also, in the Apostles' Creed and in the third Article of Religion, is a separate question. The Creed and the Article unite in the declaration that Christ descended into Hell, and may be presumed to mean the same thing. But as to the meaning of the word Hell, it must be confessed that there is a great difference between the authorities. Some understand the word to mean the place of torment, some the place of departed spirits, both good and bad. Among those who hold that the Hell into which Christ descended was the abode of Satan, there are also important differences, relating to the reason why He went to that place. But whatever might have been the circumstances of His going, whether, as I should incline to suppose, in triumph, as a conqueror; entering and emerging unharmed from the very stronghold of His enemy; [See Bishop Andrewes' sermon on Isaiah lxiii: 1-3; A. C. L. iii: 60] or, as many contend, in His humiliation, [Beveridge on the Articles, Vol. I., p. 174-5.] [29/30] certainly it may be fairly argued, from Scripture, that He did go to the Hell of Satan. [Pearson on the Creed, 445-8.] But to suppose that He went only there is not consistent with His own declaration of His going to Paradise, nor with the passage in St. Peter, as I understand it. The necessary inference seems to be, that during the intermediate state His soul was not only in one place, but also in the other. Although the fact of His being in both places be presumed to be declared, yet the duration of His stay in either is not declared, nor is it at all inconceivable that He should go first to one and then to the other. And so far as the meaning of the word Hell is concerned, certainly the Creed covers the belief in His presence in both places. For, in its original meaning, the word Hell denotes simply a covered place, a place unseen or hidden, [See Bishop Horsley's sermon on the text, p. 250. See, also, Bishop Seabury's sermon on the Descent of Christ into Hell; Discourses, Vol. 1., p. 223.] being exactly the equivalent of the word adhV (a and idein) and in its applied and popular sense it denotes the abode of Satan.
But it may be said that the language of the Creed excludes a reference to Paradise, because it speaks of the descent of Christ's soul, whereas the Scripture, in its reference to Paradise, leads us to regard it as above, and not beneath, the surface of the earth. St. Paul, speaking of the revelations bestowed upon him, gives us to understand that not only Heaven, but also Paradise, had been opened to him. I knew a man in Christ, he says, whether in the body or out of the body, caught up to the third Heaven, and I knew such a man caught up to Paradise; [2 Cor. xli; 2-4.] implying, it is said, that Paradise is above. But it should be remembered: 1st, that the word which St. Paul uses does not mean caught up, but caught away, and therefore, what he says does not necessarily imply an ascent into Paradise; and 2dly, that, supposing the assumption to be correct that Paradise is above, it amounts to no more than that Paradise is somewhere in space between earth and Heaven, instead of being in the bowels of the earth; and the word descended may not unnaturally be understood of a falling or passing away of the soul of Christ from the earth, on whose surface He had walked while in the body.
 In his sermon on the descent of Christ into Hell, Dr. Barrow remarks, "if we take Hell in a general and common sense, for the place or state of souls departed, and descending for passing thereinto (by a falling, as it were, from life, or by going away together with the descent of the body, and thence styled descending; what appeareth visibly happening to the body being accommodated to the soul); if, I say, we do thus interpret our Saviour's descent into Hell, for his soul's going into the common receptacle and mansion of souls, we shall, so doing, be sure not substantially to mistake." [Sermon xxviii, London, 1823, Vol. V., pp. 35, 36.]
Certainly it does not appear from the Scriptures what the precise situation of the region of departed spirits is, nor what difference of position may exist with respect to the surface of the earth, between the several parts of that region inhabited by the souls of the good or the wicked. The fact of this distinction, however, appears most plainly; and if the fact of the existence of such a region, and of the distinction between the several parts of it be avouched to our faith by the Word of God, it seems to be a matter of secondary importance to determine whether the soul of Christ and the souls of the faithful have reached their intermediate rest by an ascending or descending motion in the strict sense of these words. Among the Fathers of the Primitive Church, both views seem to have been held; some believing that Paradise was a portion of the regions below, and some that it bordered upon the confines of heaven itself. But even among those who thus differed as to the location of Paradise, the fact of its existence, as distinct from Heaven and the abode either of the Devil, or of the spirits of evil men, seems to have been concurred in.
"Remarkable," says Bishop Bull, "is the Catholic consent here. Even those Doctors of the Church that fancied the place of godly souls to be, I know not what subterraneous region; being led into that error (for such I take it to be) by the ambiguity of the Greek word , yet acknowledge the godly souls there to be in a very happy condition. So that, though they differed from other Doctors of the Church as to the situation (if I [31/32] may so speak) of the place of the separate spirits of good men, yet as to their state, they well enough agreed with them." [Bishop Bull's Sermon on the Middle State of Happiness or Misery. Vol. 1., p. 67 (Oxford, 1827).]
The sum of the matter, so far as the words of St. Peter are concerned, seems to be, that Christ, having been put to death as to His flesh, was preserved alive as to his soul, in which, living and conscious, He went and preached to the living and conscious souls of others, who were in that part of the place of departed spirits which Christ referred to under the name of Paradise. The inconvenience arising from the supposition that Christ preached to lost souls in Hell, or in that part of the place of departed spirits to which lost souls are consigned, is not in the text, but in the mind of those who suppose that preaching is exclusively for purposes of reformation; that the souls of all who perished in the time of Noah were lost souls, and that the prison here referred to is identical with the abode of Satan, or the abode of the souls of the wicked. If these theories are, as I suppose, incapable of proof, then the text stands, not as a superfluous addition to the declaration of Christ's resurrection and glorification after His humiliation, contained in another part of the same passage; not as a prop to the superstitious and debasing dream of Purgatory, but as a monument of witness to the reality of the existence of a place set apart by God for the reception of the souls of the departed, wherein, or in some part of which, the souls of the faithful live, consciously expecting the completion of the Gospel promise of the beatific vision: a truth which God in His mercy has made sufficiently evident to the faith of the Christian, but which in His wisdom He has not attempted fully to explain to the understanding of the man.