Chiliasm And Soul Sleep

Our study began with Irenaeus’ contention that the belief in an immediate removal of the soul to the presence of God and Christ at death was a stumbling block to orthodox acceptance of chiliasm, and with his counter proposal that the chiliastic hope was properly accompanied and corroborated by belief in a subterranean detainment for the soul until the time of resurrection.

Following this lead, we observed…the extraordinary regularity with which the doctrine of a subterranean intermediate state in fact shows up in the writings of other Christian chiliasts…often appearing as well with some form of polemic against the opposing view. The alliance between chiliasm and the subterranean view is developed most conscientiously by Irenaeus, with perhaps the best constructive integration by Tertullian and with the highest exegetical ingenuity by Victorinus of Pettau.

…The underworld as the abode of the departed was a common enough conception in antiquity, and by no means was it customarily joined with the hope of a temporary golden age to precede and an eternal ‘world to come’.

…The connection between soul-sleep and chiliasm has been maintained not only by individuals but was institutionalized in several 19th- and 20th-century Christian sects such as Mormonism, Seventh-day Adventism, and the Jehovah’s Witnesses. Time and again the validity of the doctrinal connection observed by Irenaeus in the late second century has been reconfirmed. The belief in an immediate experience in heaven at death was not only inimical to the original chiliastic eschatology but it has repeatedly proved troublesome for many chiliasts throughout Christian history.

—Charles E. Hill, Regnum Caelorum: Patterns of Future Hope in Early Christianity (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1992), 178–81.

Subscribe to the Heidelblog today!


  1. I’m interested in reading this book by Hill. I read his _Who Chose the Gospels?_ and thought it excellent.

    There are some who argue that Luther also taught soul sleep. Any comment?

  2. James R. White, interestingly enough, believes in an intermediate state where both paradise and sheol are not quite heaven but good and evil go to their respective intermediate states before heaven and hell. The Lake of Fire is the final destination of Satan, the fallen angels, and the damned of humanity. I was taken aback that someone like James R. White would support these ideas. He is generally, otherwise, reliable and sane in his theology.

    • A belief in an intermediate state is in accord with biblical orthodoxy. The intermediate state is simple the period of time between death (when our souls go into the Lord’s presence and our bodies rest in the grave) and the resurrection of the body.

  3. So, it’s been a while since I went through Hill and I’m trying to remember. Is the point that, in the early church, since belief in a subterranean intermediate state is connected with chiliasm, therefore, on the flip-side, belief in the immediate removal into the presence of the Lord is connected with non-chiliasm. Therefore, early fathers who held to immediate removal into the presence of the Lord were likely orthodox non-chiliasts, even if they don’t explicitly teach that view in their writings. And therefore, there is actually significant support for orthodox non-chiliasm in the early church. Is that right?

    • According to Charles Hill in his Regnum Caelorum, that would be correct. My view is that at death there is an immediate removal into the presence of the Lord that is connected with non-chiliasm which was the majority, orthodox view. Given the cautions expressed by Moises Silva in his Biblical Words and Their Meaning: An Introduction to Lexical Semantics, we have to be careful about how words like sheol. gehenna, and the Greek hades and how they are used in context before we create false notions of an intermediate state(s).

  4. I don’t object to the idea of the soul’s removal to the presence of the Lord (or the other direction) and the body in the grave, and the resurrection of the body on the last day – that is hardly a theory of the intermediate state. Has anyone read Calvin’s Psychopannychia?

  5. Chuck made several points:

    1. The original chiliast view (sometimes called historic premillennialism) of the 2nd cent et seq involved belief in a subterranean, after life and soul sleep, the origins of which were not clearly Christian.

    2. There were orthodox non-chiliasts, whom he calls amillennialists, who rejected both the idea of an 1,000 year earthly millennium, soul sleep, and a subterranean after life.

    To this it could be added that later versions of chiliasm omitted soul sleep and the subterranean element.

    As to what Reformed folk ought to believe. In the Heidelberg Catechism we confess:

    57. What comfort does the “resurrection of the body” afford you?

    That not only my soul after this life shall be immediately taken up to Christ its Head; but also, that this my body, raised by the power of Christ, shall be reunited with my soul, and made like unto the glorious body of Christ.

    58. What comfort hast you from the article of “life everlasting”?

    That, inasmuch as I now feel in my heart the beginning of eternal joy, I shall after this life possess complete bliss, such as eye hath not seen, nor ear heard, neither hath entered into the heart of man, therein to praise God forever.

    The issue isn’t so much whether there is an intermediate state but of what sort is it? We confess, with the orthodox non-chiliast (amil) fathers et al that, at death, believers go immediately to be with the Lord where they await the resurrection of the body.

  6. Why is soul sleep significant to chiliasm? You mention later chiliasm is not always associated with soul sleep, but why such a usual association? Does Mr. Hill cover this in his book? Are there other sources I could use to find out? Thanks.

  7. Dear Chelvan,

    I refer to your comments about James R White and his ideas about the intermediate state. Are you able to point to a source in which James R White made those claims? I am just seeking clarification.



    • He has made it in some off hand remarks. I recommend checking out some of his recorded radio discussions in the last few weeks. I have not noticed these statements in print. I have a lot of respect for what he does in his debates with and presentation of the gospel to various Muslim groups. I would never misrepresent his position.

  8. I can’t remember exactly what he said, so check out the recently released video discussion with Steve Anderson. It was the last thing they talked about.

    I would think the best thing to do would be to have a source to ready, before being critical.

Comments are closed.