Alvah Hovey was, at various times, both a Professor and President at the Newton Theological Institution for fifty-four years in the latter half of the 19th century. His systematic theology, entitled Manual of Systematic Theology and Christian Ethics, was published in 1877. In this excerpt, Hovey explains his understanding of the intermediate state.1
By this is meant the state of men between their bodily death and resurrection. That there is such a state must be assumed for the present; but we shall soon have occasion to exhibit the proof of it, by showing that there will be a simultaneous resurrection of the dead. Almost all Christians feel a particular solicitude about the condition of human souls immediately after death. The proximity of that state to this invests it with double interest. Friends accompany their friends to the very borders of it, and know that, when the latter close their eyes here, they open them at once there — know that in a moment their loved ones are in the state that lies between time and eternity —between existence in a natural body and existence in a spiritual body.
Besides, that is a profoundly mysterious life which connects the one before death with the one beyond the judgment, —a life of waiting for the Lord, with how much of blessed service on the part of the righteous, no one knows; for the teaching of Scripture concerning the middle state is neither full nor explicit, but it assures us of these facts :—
1. That the spirits of the departed are bodiless in that state
This may be inferred:
- From the joy which Paul expresses in view of the resurrection at the coming of Christ (1 Cor. xv.54).
- From the way in which the Scriptures connect our present and our future bodies (John v. 28; 1 Cor. xv. 44, 51, 52 ; Phil. iii. 21). Were we to have other bodies in the middle state, the language of these passages would be unnatural.
- From those texts of Scripture which refer by way of distinction to the spirit of man at death, or after it (Eccl.xii. 7; Acts vii. 59 ; Heb. xii. 23 ; 1 Peter iii. 19).
Against this view, the following passages have been urged as decisive; namely, Luke xvi. 23 sq. ; Matt. xxii. 23-33 (cf. Luke xx. 27, 40; 2 Cor. v. 1 -8). But we cannot admit them to be so. They may all be explained, without violence, in harmony with the statement made above, that the spirits of the departed are bodiless.
2. That the spirits of the departed are conscious in the middle state
This may be asserted on the authority,—
- Of the Old Testament. (See Eccl. xii. 7; Prov. xv. 24; xxiii. 14; xiv. 32; Ps. xvii. 15; lxxiii. 23, 24; xlix. 15). But still more confidently on that:
- Of the New Testament (Luke xvi. 23 sq.; 1 Peter iii. 19; 2 Peter ii. 4 sq.; Luke xxiii. 42, 43 [cf. 2 Cor. xii. 4 ; Rev. ii.7; xxii. 2]; Acts vii. 59; Matt. viii. 11; 2 Cor. v. 1-8 [cf. Rev. vi. 9] ; 1 Sam. xxviii. 1 1 - 20; Phil. i. 21 -24).
Objection 1: The dead are usually spoken of as asleep
Hence they must be unconscious (see 2 Sam. 7-12; Dan.xii. 2; 1 Thess. iv. 13-15; v. 10). To this we reply, that death is called sleep by a natural figure of speech, though it does not involve unconsciousness. It is the bodily senses which are inactive in sleep; the spirit is often, if not always, active, and in a certain way conscious.
Besides, the term sleep is used instead of the term death, when speaking of believers in Christ, because it is at once a milder term, and one suggestive of a resurrection. It is very rarely applied to the death of unbelievers, — at least, in the New Testament.
Objection 2: A general judgment which is based, as the Scriptures affirm, on the conduct of men in this life, is scarcely compatible with moral existence in the middle state; for character must be greatly modified by the course pursued in that state; and it is absurd to suppose that moral conduct there will not be taken into account in the final decision.
To this we reply:
- That the objection undertakes to set aside positive testimony by an appeal to difficulties, even though it must be admitted that human reason cannot fully understand the merits of the case. Such an attempt is certainly rash, and likely to lead one astray.
- That it probably rests on a false view of the ends to be reached by a general judgment; for these ends may be more numerous and important than any man supposes, even though the judgment should consist chiefly in a manifestation of the perfection of God’s government to all intelligent beings.
- That it undervalues the moral influence which the certain prospect of a general judgment has upon the minds of men in this life.
3. That unbelievers are in a state of misery
This might be inferred from the circumstance that they are unreconciled to God; but whether their condition will be one of greatly increased misery, as compared with a sinful life here, can only be learned from the word of God. The language of that word, though figurative, is sufficiently clear; and one who believes it to be true cannot doubt the great misery of those who die in their sins (Luke xvi. 23 sq. [cf. Matt. xi. 23 ; xvi.18]; Luke x. 15; 2 Peter ii. 9; Rev. i. 18; vi. 8; xx. 13, 14). The state or place in which they are is called hades.
4. That believers are in a state of happiness (Luke xvi. 22; xxiii. 43 ; 2 Cor. v. 1 -8 ; Phil. i. 23)
The terms applied to their state or abode suggest that it is one of greatly advanced satisfaction. They are to be in Abraham’s bosom, which would be esteemed by any pious Jew the highest privilege. They are to be in paradise; and this word signified almost every thing delightful They are to be with the Lord, than which nothing could be more desired by the Christian. They are to be numbered and united with the spirits of just men made perfect; and every true believer longs to be free from sin.
5. That neither believers nor unbelievers are on probation in that state (Luke xvi. 21 sq.; Matt. xxv. 31 sq.; 2 Cor. v. 10; Matt. xi. 22-24; Rom. ii. 7-9, 12)
It will be noticed that an impassable gulf is said to separate the evil from the good after death; and that, in all the accounts of the judgment, the deeds done in the body are represented as determining the destiny of men. This seems to show that the eternal condition of men depends on their conduct in the present life. All that is done afterwards will be in the direction of what they do here.
Against this view many protest, appealing to 1 Peter iii. 19, 20 ; iv. 6. But it seems to us, on the whole, improbable that Peter refers to a personal visit of Christ to hades, between his crucifixion and resurrection, for the purpose of preaching to the ungodly who were there confined. It is more probable that he refers to the ministry of Noah, who, by the power of the Spirit of Christ imparted to him, preached to his unbelieving contemporaries for a hundred and twenty years, while the ark was building.
1 Alvah Hovey, Manual of Systematic Theology and Christian Ethics (Boston: 1877), 345-349.