Soul-Sleep And The Millennium

One famous mortalist

One more reflection from Charles Hill’s book on the millennium. Hill notes that after the patristic period, the connection between chiliasm and a subterranean intermediate state was no longer held with such consistency. However, another regular connection between a particular view of the intermediate state and such a millennial position took its place. That is, instead of an infernal afterlife, now the idea of an unconscious soul-sleep was regularly paired with chiliasm:

No longer were men so confident that there lay deep within the bowels of our own earth yawning caverns into which sentient souls could be gathered for the reception of their allotted griefs or pleasures. Yet the weight of many centuries’ elaboration on the doctrines of purgatory and saints’ merit finally became too much for the Christian to bear. For some, in an attempt to resolve a philosophical difficulty in Christian anthropology, and for many others, as a violent corrective to the Church’s freighted teachings on the afterlife, a doctrine of the soul’s sleep (or death) between death and resurrection was engendered, much to the consternation of the larger (Roman and reformed) Church. In many instances this doctrine was promulgated along with new breeds of chiliasm. Norman Burns, in his study of English “mortalism” in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, has noted the congruency that was perceived between the two eschatological ideas:

They, like Tyndale, wanted no part of any doctrine that detracted form the importance of the great eschatological drama, and in this period some chiliasts decided that if the imagination was to give the drama of the kingdom its due attention the idea that souls are presently in bliss must be eliminated. These chiliasts “searched the scriptures,” of course, but they found there what others, more interested int he immediacy of the Christian’s reward, could not find: the doctrine of the sleep of the soul… . The troubled social situation of the middle years of the seventeenth century brought on, then, not only an increase in chiliasm, but a smaller, parallel increase in Christian mortalism. In the years before Hobbes linked soul sleeping with the Millennium, a number of English Christians anticipated him.

The connection between soul sleep and chiliasm not only has been maintained by individuals but also was institutionalized in several nineteenth- and twentieth-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 of heaven at death was not only inimical to the original chiliastic eschatology, but it has repeatedly proved troublesome for many chiliasts throughout Christian history. [247-248]