It cannot be proved from Scripture, that believers under the Old Testament, before the ascension of Christ, were in Heaven.
I never taught such a doctrine as this in public, and I never asserted it affirmatively in private. I recollect, however, that I said, on one occasion, to a minister of God's word, in reference to a sermon which he had then delivered, |there are many passages of Scripture which seem to prove, that believers under the Old Testament, before the ascension of Christ, were not in Heaven.| I produced some of those passages, against which he had little to object. But I added, that I thought it could not now be propounded with much usefulness to any church that held a contrary opinion; but that, after it has been diligently examined and found to be true, it may be taught with profit to the church and to the glory of Christ, when the minds of men have been duly prepared. I am still of the same opinion. But, about the matter itself, I affirm nothing on either side. I perceive that each of these views of the subject has arguments in its favour, not only in passages of scripture and in conclusions deduced from them, but likewise in the sentiments of divines. Having investigated all of them to the best of my ability, I confess that I hesitate, and declare that neither view seems to me to be very evident [or to have the preponderance.] In this opinion I have the assent of a vast majority of divines, especially those of our own age. Most of the Christian Fathers place the souls of the Patriarchs under the Old Testament beyond or out of Heaven, either in the lower regions, in Purgatory, or in some other place, which yet is situated out of the verge of what is properly called Heaven. With St. Augustine, therefore, |I prefer doubting about secret things, to litigation about those which are uncertain.| Nor is there the least necessity. For why should I, in these our days, when Christ, by his ascension into Heaven, having become our Forerunner, hath opened for us a way and entrance into that holy place, why should I now contend about the place in which the souls of the Fathers rested in the times of the Old Testament?
But lest, as is usual in my case, a calumnious report should be raised on the consequences to be deduced from this opinion, as though I was favourable to the Popish dogma of a Purgatory, or as though I approach nearly to those who think that the souls of the dead sleep or have slept, or, which is the worst of all, as though I seem to identify myself with those who say, |the Fathers were like swine that were fed and fattened without any hope of a better life,| lest such reports as these should be fabricated, I will openly declare what my opinion is about the state of the Fathers prior to Christ's ascension into Heaven. (1.) I believe that human souls are immortal, that is, they will never die. (2.) From this I deduce, that souls do not sleep. (3.) That, after this life, a state of felicity or of misery is opened for all men, into the one or the other of which they enter immediately on their departure out of this world. (4.) That the souls of the Fathers, who passed their days of sojourning on earth in faith and in waiting for the Redeemer, departed into a place of quiet, joy, and blessedness, and began to enjoy the blissful presence of God, as soon as they escaped out of the body. (5.) I dare not venture to determine where that place of quiet is situated, whether in Heaven, properly so called, into which Christ ascended, or somewhere out of it. If any other person be more adventurous on this subject, I think he ought to be required to produce reasons for his opinion, or be enjoined to keep silence. (6.) I add, that, in my opinion, the felicity of those souls was much increased by the ascension of Christ into Heaven, and that it will be fully consummated after the resurrection of the body, and when all the members of the Church universal are introduced into Heaven.
I know certain passages of Scripture which are produced, as proofs that the souls of the Old Testament Saints have been in Heaven. (1.) |The spirit shall return unto God who gave it.| (Eccl. xii.7.) But this expression must either be understood in reference to all the spirits of men of every description, and thus will afford no assistance to this argument; or, if it be understood as relating to the souls of good men alone, it does not even then follow, that, because |the spirit returns unto God,| it ascends into Heaven property so called. I prefer, however, the former mode of interpretation, a return to God the Creator and the Preserver of spirits, and the Judge of the deeds done in the body. (2.) Enoch is said to have been taken to God, (Gen. v.24) and Elijah to have ascended by a whirlwind into Heaven. (2 Kings ii.11.) But, beside the fact of these examples being out of the common order, it does not follow of course that because Enoch was taken to God, he was translated into the highest heaven. For the word |Heaven| is very wide in its signification. The same observation applies to Elijah. See Peter Martyr and Vatablus on 2 Kings ii.13. (3.) |Christ is now become the first fruits of them that slept.| (1 Cor. xv.20.) This would not appear to be correct, if Enoch and Elijah ascended into the highest Heaven, clothed in bodies endued with immortality. (4.) |Lazarus was carried by the angels into Abraham's bosom,| where he enjoyed consolation. (Luke xvi.22.) But it is not proved, that Heaven itself is described by the term, |Abraham's bosom.| It is intimated, that Lazarus was gathered into the bosom of his father Abraham, in which he might rest in hope of a full beatification in Heaven itself, which was to be procured by Christ. For this reason the Apostle, after the ascension of Christ into Heaven, |had a desire to be with Christ.| (Phil. i.23.) (5.) |Many shall come from the East and the West, and shall sit down with Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, in the kingdom of Heaven.| (Matt. viii.11.) But it does not thence follow, that the Fathers have been in Heaven, properly so called, before they, who are to be called from among the Gentiles, sit down with them. (6.) It appears from Matthew 25, that there are only two places, one destined for the pious, the other for the wicked. But it does not hence necessarily follow, that the place destined for the pious has always been Heaven supreme. There have never been more places, because there have never been more states. But it is not necessary, that they should always be the same places without any change. The authority of this declaration is preserved inviolate, provided a third place be never added to the former two. (7.) |The reward| which awaits the pious |in heaven,| is said to be |great.| (Matt. v.12.) Let this be granted. Therefore, [will some reasoner say,] they must instantly after death be translated into the supreme heaven.| This does not necessarily follow. For it is well known, that the Scriptures have in these promises a reference to the period which immediately succeeds the last judgment, according to the following expression: |Behold I come quickly, and my reward is with me.| The spouse replies, |Even so come, Lord Jesus!| (Rev. xxii.12, 20) In the same manner must be understood that passage in Luke, |They may receive you into everlasting habitations;| (Luke xvi.9;) that is, after the last judgment, at least after [the ascension of] Christ, whose office it was to prepare those mansions for his people. (John xiv.2.) (8.) |The Fathers are said to have been justified by the same faith as we are.| (Acts xiii.33.) I acknowledge this. |Therefore they have always been in Heaven even before [the ascension of] Christ, and we shall be after Him.| This is not a necessary consequence. For there are degrees in glorification. Nor is it at all wonderful, if they be said to be rendered more blessed and glorious after the ascension of Christ into Heaven. (9.) |But Jesus said to the malefactor, to-day shalt thou be with me in Paradise.| (.Luke xxiii.43.) I reply, FIRST, It is not necessary that by |Paradise| should here be understood the third heaven, or the eternal abode of the blessed. For it denotes in general a place of felicity. SECONDLY, St. Chrysostom says, the crucified thief was the first person whose spirit entered into heaven. Yet he did not ascend there before Christ, nor before the vail of the temple had been rent in twain.|
But to these passages is opposed that admirable dispensation or economy of God, which is distinguished according to the times preceding Christ, and those which followed. Of this dispensation the temple at Jerusalem was an illustrious [exemplar] pattern. For its external part, by means of an interposing vail, was separated and divided from that in which the priests daily appeared, and which was called |The Holy of Holies,| in contradistinction to that which is called |The Sanctuary,| (Heb. ix.2, 3.) Heaven itself is designated by |The Holy of Holies| in Heb. ix.24. It was shut as long as the former tabernacle stood, and until Christ entered into it by his own blood. (Heb. ix.8-12.) It was his province as |our Forerunner| to precede us, that we also might be able to enter into those things which are within the vail. (Heb. vi.19.) For this purpose it was necessary that liberty should be granted to us of |entering into the Holiest by the blood of Jesus, by that new and living way which he hath consecrated for us through the vail, that is to say, his flesh.| (Heb. x.19, 20.) On this account the ancient worthies, who, |through faith have| most evidently |gained this testimony that they pleased God,| are said, |not to have received or obtained the promise; God having provided some better thing for us,| who follow Christ, |that they without us should not be made perfect.| (Heb. xi.40.) These passages of scripture, and a view of the dispensation which they describe, are among the principal reasons why I cannot give my assent to the opinion which affirms, that the Fathers have been in Heaven properly so called.
But, that our brethren may not so highly blame me, I will oppose to them one or two of the approved divines of our church. CALVIN, in his INSTITUTES,| (lib. iv, c.1, s.12,) says: |For what churches would dissent from each other on this account alone -- that one of them, without any of the licentiousness of contention or the obstinacy of assertion, holds the opinion that souls, when they leave their bodies, soar up to Heaven; while another church does not venture to define anything about the place, but only maintains with certainty that they still live in the Lord.| Peruse also the following passage in his |Institutes,| (lib. iii, c.25, s.6.) |Many persons torment themselves by disputing about the place which departed souls occupy, and whether they be now in the enjoyment of heavenly glory or not. But it is foolish and rash to inquire about things unknown, more deeply than God permits us to know them.| Behold, Calvin here says, that it is frivolous to contend whether the souls of the dead already enjoy celestial glory or not; and, in his judgment, it ought not to be made a subject of contention. Yet I am condemned, or at least am accused, because I dare not positively affirm |that the souls of the Fathers before Christ, were in Heaven, properly so called.| PETER MARTYR proceeds still further, and is bold enough to assert, in his observations on 2 Kings ii.13, |that the souls of the Fathers before Christ, were not in Heaven properly so called.| He says, |Now if I be asked, to what place were Enoch and Elijah translated? I will say simply that I do not know, because that circumstance is not delivered in the divine volume. Yet if we might follow a very probable analogy, I would say, they were conducted to the place of the Fathers, or into Abraham's bosom, that they might there pass their time with the blessed Patriarchs in expectation of the resurrection of Christ, and that they might afterwards be elevated above the Heavens with Him when he was raised up again.| Where it is to be noted, that Martyr entertains doubts concerning Enoch and Elijah, but speaks decisively about those who are in Abraham's bosom, that is, about the Fathers, |that they were raised up above the heavens with Christ at his resurrection.| This likewise appears from what he mentions a little afterwards. With regard to that sublime ascension, we grant that no one enjoyed it before Christ. Enoch, therefore, and Elijah went to the Fathers, and there with them waited for Christ, upon whom, in company with the rest, they were attendants when he entered into heaven.| See also BULLINGER on Luke xvi.23;
Heb. ix.8; 1 Pet. iii.19.
From the preceding explanation and extracts, I have, I think, rendered it evident, that not only had I just causes for being doubtful concerning this matter, but that I likewise ought not therefore to be blamed, even though I had uttered what they here charge upon me as an error; nay, what is still more, that I ought to be tolerated had I simply asserted, |that the souls of the Fathers were not in Heaven prior to the ascension of Christ to that blissful abode.|