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Since the time canon was formed, when did the teaching that salvation can still be obtained by people after their physical death first appear in Christianity?

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As far as I can tell, no one knows for certain where the doctrine of a second chance after death began (sometimes called "postmortem evangelism"). Catholicism invented the first major variety of this doctrine with it's concept of purgatory. Since then, many denominations, such as the Mormons, have developed different varieties of this concept. As with most false teaching, this is a product of misinterpreted Scriptures and man-made creeds. One of the most vital rules of interpretation is that ambiguous or difficult passages should be interpreted in light of plainer passages.

Here are the two Scriptures most often abused to support salvation for the unfaithful dead:

I Peter 3:18-20 & I Corinthians 15:29

In light of Hebrews 9:28, which plainly shows that man dies and then he is judged, as well as Luke 16:19-26, which plainly shows that the deceased righteous and wicked are separated by an impassible gulf, we can determine what these more complex passages illustrate. We can instantly flag any interpretation which conflicts with these as false teaching.

I Corinthians 15:29 is simple - Paul, in support of the resurrection, used the ungodly as an example. The point made here is, "Not even the ungodly deny the resurrection, or else they wouldn't baptize on behalf of the dead." Interestingly, Paul never stated that he, the other apostles, or the Christians at Corinth practiced such a thing. Note his use of pronouns.

I Peter 3:18-20 - Admittedly, this can be a very difficult passage. The context is the key to unlock the meaning. We should first review the flood account in Genesis 6-7. The elements here are salvation in Jesus, The Holy Spirit, preaching, lost souls, and God's patience. The people of Noah's day could have been saved by obeying the message that was preached to them. Jesus, being the source of salvation, issued a call to repentance to them in the Spirit through Noah ("a herald of righteousness") just as he did later through the prophets and the apostles. For 120 years, God was patient, but they rejected Noah's preaching, thus perishing in the flood in a lost state. At death, lost souls are cast into a "pit" or "prison" and reserved for judgment (II Peter 2:4-9). The NASB clarifies the tense of I Peter 3:19.

He went and made proclamation to the spirits now in prison

Jesus did not preach to the spirits after they were dead and imprisoned, but while they were alive and there was still hope, he preached to them through Noah. They refused, and are thus doomed along with the rich man in torment.

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The Book of 2 Maccabees pre-dates the determination of the canon by hundreds of years, and in that book (viz., 2 Macc. 12:38-46), there is mention of prayer for the dead. There's no need to pray for the dead if there fate is already sealed in Heaven or Hell. Hence, they must be in some sort of intermediate state or, as Catholics would call it, purgatory. Without no mention of 2 Maccabees, I must downvote this answer. – H3br3wHamm3r81 Sep 25 at 8:08
@H3br3wHamm3r81 - My question was about Christianity, that is, at least about those humans that refer to themselves as Christians (the definition, which I myself don't support, but which is accepted here as correct). Since Maccabees were written prior to any human calling himself a Christian, insisting on mentioning Maccabees seems a bit irrelevant to the scope of my question. Besides, there are teachings in Christianity claiming that the righteous that were held in the hell before Christ's first coming were released from there by Him in his death, thus, no need to pray for them anymore. – brilliant Sep 25 at 11:33
This answer unnecessarily passes judgment on the validity of the belief and barely even attempts to answer the question actually asked - when it was first accepted. Despite the accept, I don't think it the type of answer that should be encouraged here. If the question was "what is the Biblical basis against the teaching", it would be a fine answer, but that is not what was asked. – ThaddeusB Sep 25 at 13:59

The idea shows up very early on, dating back to apostolic times. We see Paul talking about baptisms on behalf of the dead (1 Corinthians 15:29) as if it were a familiar, non-controversial practice, and in Peter tells how Christ went to preach to "the spirits in prison" while he was dead, (1 Peter 3:18-20) and saying that they were sinners who had been disobedient in their lives. So it's safe to say that the concept has been around since the beginning of Christianity.

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If it were really that simple this question wouldn't even be such an issue. The problem is, those verses have simple and widely acclaimed alternative interpretations that take the subject a whole different direction from the belief that you hold to about them. Depending on your hermeneutics, these verses might be no evidence at all. You would need corroborating evidence from the time to show that is how they were understood, which is lacking or there wouldn't be a debate on the meaning of these in the the first place. Summary: I don't think this answers the question at all. – Caleb Sep 26 '12 at 19:02
(1) I agree with Caleb on this one. Perhaps, I should've said "since the canon was formed" - I'll edit my question.Those verses can hardly be described as well-formed teachings, especially the first one. 1 Corinthians 15:29 could probably serve as a kind of basis (rather shaky one) for a teaching, but – brilliant Sep 27 '12 at 6:55
(2) in no way can it be considered a teaching. 1 Peter 3:18-20 looks more like an evidence of a teaching already existing at that time, but my! the matter of how to interpret these verses is so debatable! Just ascribe "souls" there to humans, and "spirits" to angels, and you'll make it totally irrelevant to my question. – brilliant Sep 27 '12 at 6:56

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