How the Christian View of the Afterlife Developed

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crypte et vitrail

Christianity believes that through the cross comes the way to heaven. Photograph by Celeste Clochard.

Readers raised on the traditional view of the afterlife as a choice between heaven and hell might be surprised that Jesus rarely mentioned heaven.

Furthermore, the early church did not make much of the idea of going to heaven. For most early Christians, the expectation was that Jesus would imminently return and establish God’s reign on Earth.

There would be a resurrection of the dead, in which the righteous would rise to new, glorified bodies while the unrighteous would arise in decay and corruption. As Jesus’ return was expected to be close, no one bothered much about that happened in the interval for those who had died.

This interval between death and the second coming is called the eschatological gap – so what’s the problem?

The Problem with the Eschatological Gap

Here, the early church ran into difficulties. As the years advanced, Jesus had not returned, and many early Christians had died. There came an awareness that the Parousia, the second coming of Jesus, was not imminent. So the problem of what happened to people after their death, but prior to the Parousia, became pressing.

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Scripture provided no clear view on the matter. The parable of the Rich Man and Lazarus [Luke 16] shows a rich man being damned to Hell while Lazarus goes to Abraham’s bosom, a term for heaven. John’s gospel speaks of eternal life being granted to believers now, but it still talks of the Age to Come. What is significantly lacking is any mention of heaven being human’s true home, a claim that is standard to many preachers. There was not enough for there to be a  clear answer to the question.

One line in Scripture was significant. The letter to the Hebrews says that man is appointed once to die and afterwards to face the judgment. It is on the basis of this single line, written not by Paul, but probably Apollos, that the church has argued for its rejection of reincarnation, though many early Christians accepted reincarnation, so they did not interpret it literally.This rejection of reincarnation meant that Christians had to envisage that humans achieve their eternal destiny after death. The current belief that on death we go to Heaven or Hell arises from this belief that humans do not return after death.

New Easter Morning Christian Cross Concept Jesus Risen at Night

The moment when death is reversed. Photo by ricradoreitmayer

The Disappearance of Reincarnation

The temporary destiny of the soul before the Parousia was still subject to disagreement. Some Christians, for example Justin Martyr, resolved the issue by believing that death is a sleep that ends with the awakening at the Parousia; others, however, wanted continued consciousness in heaven, and heaven won out in the popular consciousness. Gnostic Christians argued for reincarnation, and some orthodox Christians agreed with them.

Clement of Alexandria, one of the Egyptian church’s greatest scholars, promoted the idea that God sends souls back until they are ready for him. Clement’s student Origen, took the view further with the doctrine of apocatastasis, which postulated that the world was cyclic and souls return once in a cycle, bearing with them their moral successes as strengths, and their failures as weaknesses until they are spiritual enough to go to God.

Synesius, another Egyptian, believed that souls descend from heaven, and if they do not quickly return, they are doomed to wander long in the nether regions. Reincarnation fell officially out of use in 553, after the Second Council of Constantinople. The council was opposed to the Origenists, who believed that after many incarnations a person could become equal to Christ. This belief, for orthodox Christians, was not possible, so to eliminate this heretical view, the council declared that the belief in the pre-existence of the soul was anathema, or condemned. Without the pre-existence of the soul, reincarnation is impossible, so the idea of reincarnation fell quickly out of theology after this.

Souls in purgatory wait for entry into heaven. Photo by Renata Sedmakova

The Influence of Augustine

During the fifth century, Augustine promoted the idea that humans are cursed by sin inherited from Adam, and deserve Hell. This he linked to a belief that God predestines people to heaven, leaving others to be condemned. This was not unjust, he believed, as we are all under the curse of Adam. Entry to salvation was exclusive to the baptized, so according to this stark view even unbaptized babies went to Hell. Augustine’s view was a novelty, as this was not the teaching of the early church. He was, however, politically influential in his own time and theologically influential throughout the later centuries.

Eastern Christians Had Other Ideas

In Catholic Christianity, the ideas of Limbo and Purgatory were upheld (Protestants accept neither concept). The Christian mind struggled with Augustine’s harshness, so many Christians accepted the idea of Limbo. In the fourth century, Gregory Nazianus, one of the great Cappadocian fathers, accepted that without baptism there could be no entry to heaven; however, he also considered that Hell’s punishments could not be fairly meted to infants, so there was an extra state known as Limbo for these unfortunates. Even Augustine accepted that the punishments of infants in Hell would be the mildest. Some thought that there was also a limbo for the good pagans who died not knowing Christ, but Augustine’s followers condemned these to Hell.

Purgatory was another belief that arose in the early years. While Jesus never mentioned it, early Christians realized that some people who repented their sins still had quite a lot of guilt, and some punishment was appropriate for them. Origen, whose views changed at times in his life, thought that if a soul went to God with light faults, these would be burned away in a purifying fire.

Purgatory was a doctrine that simply grew out of the widespread practice, attested in inscriptions in the catacombs, of praying for the dead, which would be unnecessary for those in Heaven or Hell.

Eastern Christians disagreed with their Western fellows, preferring to see purgatory as a time of reflection, rather than purifying fire.

Christianity and the Afterlife

When the Second Coming didn’t happen quickly enough, the early Church began to examine ideas about what might happen after death. From belief in purgatory to limbo, early Christians developed new belief systems to account for questions about the afterlife.


Robert Appleton. The Catholic Encyclopaedia. (1907-1912). New York.

McGrath, Alistair.The Christian Theology Reader. (1997). Blackwell.

MacGregor, Geddes. Reincarnation in Christianity. (4th Edition, 1989). Theosophical Publishing House.

Tillich, Paul. A History of Christian Thought. (1968). Touchstone.

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© Copyright 2013 Frank Beswick, All rights Reserved. Written For: Decoded Past

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