The Subterranean Intermediate State in the Early Church

One of the unique beliefs of some of the early church fathers is that the intermediate state between death and the resurrection for believers is not in heaven where Christ is, but under the earth. According to them, only martyrs can go to heaven to be with Christ when they die (Rev 6:9). But this view is contradicted by the Bible’s teaching that all Christians at death go to be with the Lord rather than abiding in an underground abode (Luke 23:43; John 13:1; 2 Cor 5:1-10; Phil 1:21-24; 1 Thess 4:14; Heb 12:23; Rev 7:14-17). Tertullian was one of the first to teach this view when he says:

“Observe how he here also ascribes to the excellence of martyrdom a contempt for the body. For no one, on becoming absent from the body, is at once a dweller in the presence of the Lord, except by the prerogative of martyrdom, he gains a lodging in Paradise, not in the lower regions” (On the Resurrection of the Flesh 43).

Tertullian believed that this was the place Christ went to upon his death and that only with our own life blood shed in martyrdom can we enter heaven instead of hades before the resurrection:

“Christ in His death spent three days in the heart of the earth, that is, in the secret inner recess which is hidden in the earth, and enclosed by the earth, and superimposed on the abysmal depths which lie still lower down. Now although Christ is God, yet, being also man, ‘He died according to the Scriptures,’ and ‘according to the same Scriptures was buried.’ With the same law of His being He fully complied, by remaining in Hades in the form and condition of a dead man; nor did He ascend into the heights of heaven before descending into the lower parts of the earth, that He might there make the patriarchs and prophets partakers of Himself. . . . No, but in Paradise, you tell me, whither already the patriarchs and prophets have removed from Hades in the retinue of the Lord’s resurrection. How is it, then, that the region of Paradise, which as revealed to John in the Spirit lay under the altar, displays no other souls as in it besides the souls of the martyrs? How is it that the most heroic martyr Perpetua on the day of her passion saw only her fellow martyrs there, in the revelation which she received of Paradise, if it were not that the sword which guarded the entrance permitted none to go in thereat, except those who had died in Christ and not in Adam? A new death for God, even the extraordinary one for Christ, is admitted into the reception-room of mortality, specially altered and adapted to receive the new-comer. . . . The sole key to unlock Paradise is your own life’s blood. You have a treatise by us, (on Paradise), in which we have established the position that every soul is detained in safe keeping in Hades until the day of the Lord” (A Treatise on the Soul 55).

This same belief was continued by Victorinus in his commentary on Revelation:

“(As the golden altar is acknowledged to be heaven) so also by the brazen altar is understood the earth, under which is Hades (infernum) – a region withdrawn from punishments and fires, a place of repose for the saints, wherein indeed the just are seen and heard by the impious, but they cannot pass over to them” (Commentary on Revelation 6).

Charles E. Hill concludes that there is a link between this view of the intermediate state and millennialism:

“If souls are ushered into heaven, into the very presence of God and Christ, immediately after death and not detained in refreshing subearthly vaults, a future, earthly kingdom would seem at best an anticlimactic appendage to salvation history, at worst a serious and unconscionable retrogression. The millennium is then entirely redundant. . . . As introducing the redeemed into direct fellowship with their Savior and their God this heavenly postmortem existence takes the place of the millennium” (Regnum Caelorum: Patterns of Millennial Thought in Early Christianity, 20).

They believed that a subterranean intermediate state is necessary because going from the presence of Christ in heaven back down to a paradise earth without him would be a step backward in salvation history. They must therefore go from an underground paradise to an earthly millennial paradise and then to a heavenly paradise with Christ where they will join the martyrs and finally experience the beatific vision.


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