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Did they Go to Heaven?
By Gary F. Zeolla
The article Demonic Activity: In the World of the Early Christians describes the persecutions of Christians in the early centuries of Christianity. But what did the early Christians believe happened to the martyrs (and Christians in general) whey they died? Did they go immediately to heaven and the presence of the Lord? Or did they enter a state of "soul sleep" until their resurrections?
Note: "Soul sleep" is the idea that upon death people enter a state of unconsciousness. Many religious groups today believe this idea. But is it what the early Christians believed?
Clement (c.30-100 AD)
Clement was a companion of the apostle Paul (Phil 4:3). Around 96 AD he wrote an epistle to the church at Corinth.
In this epistle, Clement discussed the martyrdoms of Peter and Paul:
There was PETER who by reason of unrighteous jealousy endured not one or two but many labours, and thus having born his testimony WENT TO HIS APPOINTED PLACE OF GLORY [see John 21:18f; 1Peter 1:3f].
By reason of jealousy and strife PAUL by his example pointed out the prize of patient endurance.... having taught righteousness unto the whole world and having reached the farthest bounds of the West; and when he had born his testimony before the rulers, so he DEPARTED FROM THIS WORLD AND WENT UNTO THE HOLY PLACE....
UNTO THESE MEN OF HOLY LIVES WAS GATHERED A VAST MULTITUDE E OF THE ELECT, who through many indignities and tortures, being the victims of jealousy, set a brave example among ourselves (Lightfoot, p.59; see Heb12:1,22f).
Does this sound like Clement believed Peter, Paul, and the other martyrs went to heaven immediately upon death? Or does it sound like he believed in soul sleep?
Another quote may help to further answer this question, "all the generations from Adam unto this day have passed away: but they that by God's grace were perfected in love DWELL IN THE ABODE OF THE PIOUS (Lightfoot, p.78; Luke 16:22).
The Martyrdom of Polycarp (155 AD)
As a young man, Polycarp had been a disciple of the apostle John. In 155 AD, when he was 86 years old, he was burned at the stake for being a Christian. A now unknown author wrote an account of his martyrdom.
This document recorded what Polycarp prayed after he was tied to the stake:
O Lord God Almighty, the Father of thy beloved and blessed Son Jesus Christ, through whom we have received the knowledge of thee, the God of angels and powers and all of creation and of the whole race of THE RIGHTEOUS WHO LIVE IN THY PRESENCE.
I bless Thee for that Thou has granted me this day and hour, that I might receive a portion amongst the number of martyrs in the cup of Christ unto resurrection of eternal life, both of soul and of body, in the incorruptibility of the Holy Spirit. MAY I BE RECEIVED AMONG THESE IN THY PRESENCE THIS DAY (Lightfoot, pp.207,8; Luke 23:43).
Polycarp's attitude about the afterlife seen above was formulated long before his execution. About forty years earlier he wrote an epistle to the church in Philippi. All the people mentioned in the following passage were also martyrs.
Polycarp urges the Philippians:
I exhort you all therefore to be obedient unto the word of righteousness and to practice all endurance, which ye saw with your eyes in the blessed Ignatius and Zosimus and Rufus, yea and in the others also who came from among yourselves, as well as in Paul himself and the rest of the Apostles; being persuaded that these ran not in vain but in faith and righteousness, and that THEY ARE IN THEIR DUE PLACE IN THE PRESENCE OF THE LORD (Lightfoot, p.180; Rev 6:9-11).
Justin Martyr (c.100-165 AD)
As his name implies, Justin was also a martyr for his faith in Christ. He was beheaded in 165 AD. As with Polycarp, someone wrote an account of his death.
The following is part of a conversation between Justin and his executioners:
The prefect Rusticus said to Justin: "Listen, you that are said to be a learned man, and think that you are acquainted with true doctrine, if you shall be scourged and beheaded, "ARE YOU PERSUADED THAT YOU WILL ASCEND TO HEAVEN?"
Justin said: "I hope if I endure these things to have His gifts....
The prefect Rusticus said: "DO YOU THEN THINK THAT YOU WILL ASCEND TO HEAVEN, TO RECEIVE CERTAIN REWARDS?"
Justin said: "I DO THINK AND AM FULLY PERSUADED" (Fremantle, p.195).
Justin sounds rather confident he'll be in heaven after he is executed! This idea wasn't new for him. About 30 years previously, he had a dialogue with the Jew Trypho.
During this debate, Justin declared:
I affirm that SOULS NEVER PERISH, for this would be indeed a godsend to the wicked. What then befalls them? THE SOULS OF THE GOOD ARE CONSIGNED TO A BETTER PLACE, and those of the wicked and unjust to a worst, there to await the day of judgment (Fremantle, p.271; 2Cor 5:6-8; Phil 1:21-24; 2Pet 2:9).
The Reason for the Martyrs' Confidence
How could the martyr's be so confident about their fates? Another quote from Clement should help to explain. In context "they" refers to Old Testament saints and "we" to Christians.
They all therefore were glorified and magnified, not through themselves or their own works or the righteous doing which they wrought, but through (God's) will. And we, having been called not through our own wisdom or understanding or piety or works which we wrought in holiness of heart, BUT THROUGH FAITH (Lightfoot, p.70; Eph 1:7-12; 2:8,9).
The martyrs, and Christians in general, are confident about their fates because they do not trust in themselves but in Christ for their salvation (Rom 4:4,5). Do you, reader, have this assurance? Like the martyrs, you can KNOW what your fate will be (1John 5:13).
Bush, Russ. ed. Classical Readings in Christian Apologetics A. D. 100-1800 . Grand Rapids: Zondervan. 1983.
Dods, Marcus. ed. We Don't Speak Great Things - We Live Them! Tyler, TX: Scroll Publishing, 1989.
Fremantle, Anne. ed. A Treasury of Early Christianity. New York: Viking Press, 1953.
Lightfoot, J.B. and J.R. Harmer. eds. Apostolic Fathers . Grand Rapids: Baker, 1988.
Tacitus. Transl. Michael Grant. The Annals of Imperial Rome. New York: Penguin Books, 1971.
Additional books with the writings of the Church Fathers are listed at Church History Books: Books-A-Million Recommendations.
The Martyrs: Did They Go to Heaven? Copyright © 1999 by Gary F. Zeolla of Darkness to Light ministry (www.dtl.org).
The above article originally appeared in Darkness to Light
newsletter in 1992.
It was posted on this Web site in July 1996.
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