In the context of related debates such as:

I think it would be quite helpful to know the views held by the Apostolic Fathers, as they had the unique privilege of receiving direct or almost direct teaching from the Apostles themselves.

I checked the site assuming someone had probably already asked a similar question in the past, but I'm a bit surprised to say that it appears no one has (please let me know if I overlooked something), so here we go:

Question: What is an overview of beliefs held by the Apostolic Fathers regarding the state of the dead and the afterlife? What happens when (and after) we die according to the Apostolic Fathers?

Note: by Apostolic Fathers I mean:

[...] core Christian theologians among the Church Fathers who lived in the 1st and 2nd centuries AD, who are believed to have personally known some of the Twelve Apostles, or to have been significantly influenced by them.

See the answers to this question for an example of an intense exegetical debate on these controversial subject matters. See also this recently asked question for another ongoing debate.

Related: What is an overview of Christian viewpoints on what happens to humans after death?


3 Answers 3


St. Clement I (Pope from 88-97 or 92-101) was consecrated by St. Peter and is considered the first Apostolic Father. It appears he thought that those who were faithful to God would be resurrected and gain "life in immortality" and receive "beautiful things." In one writing of his, he says

Shall we then think it great and wonderful, if the Maker of all things shall make a resurrection of those who, in the confidence of a good faith, have piously seized him, when even by means of a bird he showeth the greatness of his promises? For he saith in a certain place, And thou shalt raise me up, and I will give thanks unto thee[*]; and again: I slumbered and slept; I arose up because thou art with me[**]. [...] In this hope, therefore, let our souls be bound unto him who is faithful in his promises and just in his judgments. [...]

Behold, beloved, how blessed and wonderful are the gifts of God -- life in immortality [...] and all these things have already come within our cognizance. What therefore are the things that are prepared for them that abide in patience? The Maker and Father of the worlds, the all-holy one, he knoweth how many and how beautiful they are.


I don't think St. Clement is clear on whether the soul slumbers in an immediate state before the last judgement. "Falling asleep" was a common expression for death (and is still used in the Orthodox Church at least), and is used the same reference (emphasis mine):

Our Apostles, too, by the instruction of our Lord Jesus Christ, knew that strife would arise concerning the dignity of a bishop; and on this account, having received perfect foreknowledge, they appointed the above-mentioned as bishops and deacons: and then gave a rule of succession, in order that, when they had fallen asleep, other men, who had been approved, might succeed to their ministry.

On the other end of the spectrum, time-wise, was St. Irenaeus. He saw and heard the teaching of St. Polycarp, a disciple of St. John, and may have been born between 115 and 125.

St. Irenaeus believed that while the soul of a person did not always exist, it was immortal:

The Lord has taught with very great fullness, that souls not only continue to exist, not by passing from body to body, but that they preserve the same form [in their separate state] as the body had to which they were adapted, and that they remember the deeds which they did in this state of existence, and from which they have now ceased — in that narrative which is recorded respecting the rich man and that Lazarus who found repose in the bosom of Abraham. In this account He states [Luke 16:19, etc.] that Dives knew Lazarus after death, and Abraham in like manner, and that each one of these persons continued in his own proper position [...] But if any persons at this point maintain that those souls, which only began a little while ago to exist, cannot endure for any length of time; but that they must, on the one hand, either be unborn, in order that they may be immortal, or if they have had a beginning in the way of generation, that they should die with the body itself — let them learn that God alone, who is Lord of all, is without beginning and without end, being truly and for ever the same, and always remaining the same unchangeable Being. But all things which proceed from Him, whatsoever have been made, and are made, do indeed receive their own beginning of generation, and on this account are inferior to Him who formed them, inasmuch as they are not unbegotten. Nevertheless they endure, and extend their existence into a long series of ages in accordance with the will of God their Creator; so that He grants them that they should be thus formed at the beginning, and that they should so exist afterwards.

(Reference, from Book II of Against Heresies)

* cf Psalm 30:1 (or 29:1)

** cf Psalm 3:5


A great many of the statements by the Apostolic Fathers on the afterlife are verbatim quotes or close paraphrases of Biblical texts. While these are very helpful for an understanding of what texts were considered authoritative by early Christians, they are less helpful for purposes of this question–that is, providing additional commentary on how the Biblical text was understood.

Bipartite vs. Tripartite natures of man

I am unaware of any statement by the Apostolic Fathers that substantially enlarges upon what is described in the Biblical text.

Clement of Rome makes the following potentially relevant statement:

Finally may the All seeing God and Master of spirits and Lord of all flesh, who chose the Lord Jesus Christ, and us through Him for a peculiar people, grant unto every soul that is called after His excellent and holy Name faith (1 Clement 64:1)

But whether soul = spirit + body or is a separate entity is not described by Clement.

Soul sleep vs. Consciousness during the intermediate state

Perhaps the most direct statement on the matter is made in the Shepherd of Hermas:

the apostles and the teachers who preached the name of the Son of God, after they had fallen asleep in the power and faith of the Son of God, preached also to them that had fallen asleep before them (Hermas 92:5)

This passage contains clear, conscious echoes of 1 Peter 3:18-20, but expands upon it to teach that not only Jesus, but His followers, taught the dead in the intermediate state (the subsequent verses indicate this is pre-resurrection). This concept is well-supported by Ante-Nicene Fathers of later generations.


Clement of Rome supports the contemporary Jewish & Christian view (such as is taught in the parable of the rich man and Lazarus–see Luke 16) that there is an intermediate state in which the righteous receive some form of glory/rest:

  1. There was Peter who by reason of unrighteous jealousy endured not one not one but many labors, and thus having borne his testimony went to his appointed place of glory.

  2. By reason of jealousy and strife Paul by his example pointed out the prize of patient endurance. After that he had been seven times in bonds, had been driven into exile, had been stoned, had preached in the East and in the West, he won the noble renown which was the reward of his faith,

  3. having taught righteousness unto the whole world and having reached the farthest bounds of the West; and when he had borne his testimony before the rulers, so he departed from the world and went unto the holy place, having been found a notable pattern of patient endurance. (1 Clement 5:4-6)

Here we have an apostolic father who is suggesting that although Peter & Paul have not yet been resurrected (see 1 Clement 24:1 & 26:1), they are already in a better holier place and have already received some form of glory. Clearly Clement believes there is something between death and the resurrection.


Polycarp supports (and complicates!) post-mortal consciousness:

I exhort you all, therefore, to yield obedience to the word of righteousness, and to exercise all patience, such as you have seen [set] before your eyes, not only in the case of the blessed Ignatius, and Zosimus, and Rufus, but also in others among yourselves, and in Paul himself, and the rest of the apostles. [This do] in the assurance that all these have not run in vain, but in faith and righteousness, and that they are [now] in their due place in the presence of the Lord (Epistle to the Philippians, chapter 9)


Annihilationism / Conditional immortality vs. Immortality of the Soul

No clear statement in support of annihilationism is to be found in the Apostolic Fathers.

Glenn Peoples has argued for annihilationism by implication in the writings of Ignatius of Antioch (see here), but as noted by Talbot, the first direct statement for annihilationism by a Christian comes from Arnobius of Sicca in the 4th century (see here)...and Arnobius’ views were considered heretical when he introduced them.



The only topic raised in the OP where the Apostolic Fathers are abundantly clear is post-mortal consciousness--they are decidedly in favor of it.

Annihilationism does not find clear support in the Apostolic Fathers (but does find much opposition in the writings of their disciples), and proponents of bipartite & tripartite views are unlikely to find compelling evidence one way or the other. Whatever they conclude from reading the Bible will be relatively unchallenged by the writings of the Apostolic Fathers.

Numerous relevant statements were made by Justin, Irenaeus, Clement of Alexandria, Tertullian, and Origen–however, I will exclude them from this post per the Meta guidance. They are ante-Nicene Fathers, but not Apostolic Fathers. A compilation of many of their relevant statements is found here.

  • 2
    (+1) Great post, as usual :-). Nice to see you back on the site. Not sure who downvoted this though, it certainly made someone uncomfortable.
    – user50422
    Commented Jan 27, 2022 at 18:03

References to the after life.

Chapter XVIII.—Proof of immortality and the resurrection. For reflect upon the end of each of the preceding kings, how they died the death common to all, which, if it issued in insensibility, would 169 be a godsend1803 to all the wicked. But since sensation remains to all who have ever lived, and eternal punishment is laid up (i.e., for the wicked), see that ye neglect not to be convinced, and to hold as your belief, that these things are true. For let even necromancy, and the divinations you practise by immaculate children,1804 and the evoking of departed human souls,1805 and those who are called among the magi, Dream-senders and Assistant-spirits (Familiars),1806 and all that is done by those who are skilled in such matters —let these persuade you that even after death souls are in a state of sensation; and those who are seized and cast about by the spirits of the dead, whom all call dæmoniacs or madmen;1807 and what you repute as oracles, both of Amphilochus, Dodana, Pytho, and as many other such as exist; and the opinions of your authors, Empedocles and Pythagoras, Plato and Socrates, and the pit of Homer,1808 and the descent of Ulysses to inspect these things, and all that has been uttered of a like kind. Such favour as you grant to these, grant also to us, who not less but more firmly than they believe in God; since we expect to receive again our own bodies, though they be dead and cast into the earth, for we maintain that with God nothing is impossible. Justin Martyr

Ignatius to the Romans

Chapter VI.—By death I shall attain true life. All the pleasures of the world, and all the kingdoms of this earth,860 shall profit me nothing. It is better for me to die in behalf of861 Jesus Christ, than to reign over all the ends of the earth. “For what shall a man be profited, if he gain the whole world, but lose his own soul?”862 Him I seek, who died for us: Him I desire, who rose again for our sake. This is the gain which is laid up for me. Pardon me, brethren: do not hinder me from living, do not wish to keep me in a state of death;863 and while I desire to belong to God, do not ye give me over to the world. Suffer me to obtain pure light: when I have gone thither, I shall indeed be a man of God. Permit me to be an imitator of the passion of my God. If any one has Him within himself, let him consider what I desire, and let him have sympathy with me, as knowing how I am straitened. Ignatius

Here's Irenaeus

  1. The Lord has taught with very great fulness, that souls not only continue to exist, not by passing from body to body, but that they preserve the same form3287 [in their separate state] as the body had to which they were adapted, and that they remember the deeds which they did in this state of existence, and from which they have now ceased,—in that narrative which is recorded respecting the rich man and that Lazarus who found repose in the bosom of Abraham. Irenaeus

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