Protestant views of the afterlife

Authored by: Mark S. Sweetnam

The Routledge Companion to Death and Dying

Print publication date:  May  2017
Online publication date:  May  2017

Print ISBN: 9781138852075
eBook ISBN: 9781315723747
Adobe ISBN:


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Death, dying, and the afterlife were issues of central importance from the very beginning of the protestant Reformation. Indeed, debate about the destiny of the soul after death was one of the most significant triggers of the Reformation. This debate did not primarily concern those at either extreme of the eschatological spectrum – protestants agreed (and, for the most part, continue to agree) that heaven would be the eternal abode of the righteous, and hell the ultimate destination of the unrighteous. Rather, the debate centered on the existence of a middle location – or locations – and the experiences and prospects of those who might find themselves there. Luther’s Ninety-Five Theses, which had a seminal importance in initiating the European reformation, were directly energized by concerns about the legitimacy of selling indulgences – of urging Catholics to pay money or undertaking strenuous or unusual efforts in exchange for the partial remission of the sufferings of Purgatory. Purgatory and indulgences had been elements of Catholic teaching from the twelfth century onward, but throughout the Middle Ages, the selling of indulgences increased in popularity, and a growing commercialism led to abuses, which had already caused concern to the Roman Church in the centuries before the Reformation (MacCulloch 2004: 12–28). In the early sixteenth century, these abuses came to a head as a result of Leo X’s promise of indulgences to those who gave alms to support the rebuilding of St. Peter’s Basilica in Rome. It was this campaign, and especially the forceful salesmanship of Johann Tetzel, the Commissioner of Indulgences for Germany, that led to Luther’s public opposition to the Church’s teaching and practice, and thus to the Reformation (MacCulloch 2004: 119–122; MacCulloch 2010: 609).

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