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The principal components of the doctrine of the future life held during the age of the Church Fathers (c. 160-604 CE) is generally referred to as orthodox teaching. It was believed that Jesus himself taught a purely moral doctrine concerning the future life, a doctrine free from arbitrary, mechanical, or sacerdotal peculiarities. With experimental knowledge, with inspired insight, with fullest authority, he set forth conclusions aligned with the human hope that immortality awaits the soul in the realm of the divine father (depending of course on ethical and spiritual conditions).
To this simple and sublime doctrine announced by Jesus, so rational and satisfactory, the apostles added various notions, such as the local descent of Christ into the prison world of the dead, his mission there, his visible second coming, a bodily resurrection, a universal scenic judgment, and other affiliated views.
This peculiar theological work of the apostles concentrated on the life of Christ yet also combined the Persian Jewish doctrine of the Pharisees. The theological work of the Fathers in regard to the doctrine thus formed by the apostles was twofold. The first being that they were unsatisfied with the swift second coming of Christ, and decided to further develop the intermediate state of the dead. Secondly, as a result of the long and vehement controversies which arose, they were advised to complete and systematise their theology, to define their terms, to explain and defend their doctrines, comparing them together and attempting to harmonise them with history, reason, and ethics, as well as with Scripture and tradition. Meanwhile, defining and systematising continued, loose notions hardened into rigid dogmas, free thought was hampered by authority. The scheme assumed the title of orthodox, anathematising all who dared to dissent, and eventually the fundamental outlines of the patristic eschatology were firmly established.
In seeking to understand and to illustrate this scheme of faith, we have three principle aids. First, we explore the symbols or confessions of faith put forth by several of the leading theologians at the time, or by general councils, and openly adopted as authority in many of the churches, the creed falsely called the Apostles’, extant as early as the close of the third century, the creed of Arius, that of Cyril, the Nicene creed, the creed falsely named the Athanasian, and others. Secondly, we have the valuable assistance given by the treatises of Irenaus, Tertullian, Epiphanius, Augustine, and others concerning the heresies that had arisen in the Church, treatises which make it easy to infer, by contrast and construction, what was considered orthodox from the statement of what was acknowledged heretical.
And, thirdly, abundant resources are provided in the extant theological dissertations, and historical documents of the principal ecclesiastical authors of the time in review, a cycle of well-known names, sweeping from Theophilus of Antioch to Photius of Byzantium, from Cyprian of Carthage to Maurus of Mentz. We think that any candid person, mastering these sources of information in the illustrating and discriminating light of a sufficient knowledge of the previous and the succeeding related opinions, will recognise in the following abstract a fair representation of the doctrine of a future life as it was held by the orthodox Fathers of the Christian Church in the period extending from the 1st to the 10th century.
Before proceeding to set forth the common patristic scheme, a few preliminary remarks are necessary in relation to some of the peculiar, prominent features of Origen’s theology, and in relation to the rival systems of Augustine and Pelagius. Origen was a man of vast learning, passionately fond of philosophy; and he combined and modified several eastern and platonic notions with his theology. He imagined that innumerable worlds had existed and perished in the past, and that future worlds would continue this pattern.
He believed that all souls, whether devils, men, angels, were of the same rank; that all who exist in material bodies are imprisoned in them as a punishment for sins committed in a previous state. The fig leaves in which Adam and Eve were dressed after their sin were the fleshly bodies they were compelled to become upon expulsion from Eden; until by penance and wisdom they slowly won their deliverance. This gradual descent and ascent of souls being figuratively represented by Jacob’s ladder; all punishments and rewards are exactly fitted to the degree of sin or merit, without possibility of failure; all suffering even that in the lowest hell is benevolent and remedial, so that even the worst spirits, including Satan himself, shall after a time be restored to heaven; that this alternation of fall and restoration shall be continued so often as the cloy and satiety of heavenly bliss, or the preponderant power of temptation, pervert free will into sin.
He declared that it was impossible to explain the phenomena and experience of human life, or to justify the ways of God, except by admitting that souls sinned in a pre-existent state. He disregarded the idea of vicarious atonement, and instead viewed Christ’s suffering as having merely the same efficacy as the death of any innocent person, only more renowned. He discusses the mission of Christ as a means to illustrate the ways in which God can forgive and absolve humankind from sin, banishment and hell, in addition to portraying the power of salvation…
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