Of Papias, we have only a handful of attributed fragments which have come down to us via Eusebius.
The case for immortal souls is argued from one of them:
As the presbyters say, then those who are deemed worthy of an abode in heaven shall go there, others shall enjoy the delights of Paradise, and others shall possess the splendour of the city; for everywhere the Saviour will be seen, according as they shall be worthy who see Him.
But that there is this distinction between the habitation of those who produce an hundredfold, and that of those who produce sixty-fold, and that of those who produce thirty-fold; for the first will be taken up into the heavens, the second class will dwell in Paradise, and the last will inhabit the city; and that on this account the Lord said, "In my Father's house are many mansions:" for all things belong to God, who supplies all with a suitable dwelling-place, even as His word says, that a share is given to all by the Father, according as each one is or shall be worthy.
And this is the couch in which they shall recline who feast, being invited to the wedding.
The presbyters, the disciples of the apostles, say that this is the gradation and arrangement of those who are saved, and that they advance through steps of this nature; and that, moreover, they ascend through the Spirit to the Son, and through the Son to the Father; and that in due time the Son will yield up His work to the Father, even as it is said by the apostle, "For He must reign till He hath put all enemies under His feet. The last enemy that shall be destroyed is death."
For in the times of the kingdom the just man who is on the earth shall forget to die.
But when He saith all things are put under Him, it is manifest that He is excepted which did put all things under Him. And when all things shall be subdued unto Him, then shall the Son also Himself be subject unto Him that put all things under Him, that God may be all in all.
For the sake of objectivity, I must remind the readers that this is actually an excerpt from Eusebius, who merely attributes these words to Papias. The citation itself may be genuine; it may be interpolated; it may be a complete fraud. But it doesn’t present me with any difficulties, so I’ll accept it at face value for the sake of this discussion.
Let’s examine this tiered reward structure for ourselves and see if it really is talking about different degrees of reward in Heaven, or some form of supernatural afterlife.
Papias lists three separate abodes for the righteous:
- The heavens.
- “The city” (which can only be Jerusalem.)
The first thing we notice is that none of these places are actually said to be in heaven! Indeed, Paradise itself was understood by various Church fathers to be a literal place on earth.
Now these things we are under the necessity of setting forth at length, in order to disprove the supposition of others. For some choose to maintain that paradise is in heaven, and forms no part of the system of creation.
But since we see with our eyes the rivers that go forth from it which are open, indeed, even in our day, to the inspection of any who choose, let every one conclude from this that it did not belong to heaven, but was in reality planted in the created system. And, in truth, it is a locality in the east, and a place select.
On the Hexameron.
The second thing we notice is that none of them are said to be the abode of disembodied immortal souls!
The third thing we notice is that this entire scenario is perfectly compatible with a belief in the resurrection of the dead and a millennial reign on Earth!
This last point is demonstrated by the words of Eusebius himself:
We must now point out how Papias, who lived at the same time, relates that he had received a wonderful narrative from the daughters of Philip. For he relates that a dead man was raised to life in his day. He also mentions another miracle relating to Justus, surnamed Barsabas, how he swallowed a deadly poison, and received no harm, on account of the grace of the Lord.
The same person, moreover, has set down other things as coming to him from unwritten tradition, amongst these some strange parables and instructions of the Saviour, and some other things of a more fabulous nature.
Amongst these he says that there will be a millennium after the resurrection from the dead, when the personal reign of Christ will be established on this earth.
History of the Church 3:39.
No mention of a disembodied existence in heaven; no mention of an "immortal soul.” This is genuine “old time religion”, straight from the Bible.
There’s another quote from Eusebius which deserves a mention in this context. It exposes his prejudice against Papias’ beliefs, demonstrating that Eusebius actually rejected Papias’ millennial theology as the work of a foolish and unlearned man!
…he says there would be a certain millennium after the resurrection, and that there would be a corporeal reign of Christ on this very earth; which things he appears to have imagined, as if they were authorized by the apostolic narrations, not understanding correctly those matters which they propounded mystically in their representations.
For he was very limited in his comprehension, as is evident from his discourses; yet he was the cause why most of the ecclesiastical writers, urging the antiquity of the man, were carried away by a similar opinion; as, for instance, Irenaeus, or any other that adopted such sentiments.
History of the Church 3:39.
Yet for all his scoffing, Eusebius still proves my point: Papias did not believe the "afterlife" of an immortal soul "in the heavens" (or anywhere else) but in the bodily resurrection of the faithful, who would receive their reward in the literal, corporeal kingdom of Christ on Earth.
Note well his comment that Papias' belief was subsequently inherited by Irenaeus, who likewise rejected immortal soulism in favour of (a) bodily resurrection, (b) conditional immortality and © a literal millenial reign on Earth.
As Stuart G. Hall writes in his celebrated Doctrine and Practice in the Early Church
But the cutting edge of Irenaeus' thought was precisely to defeat the view that mankind is saved spiritually by escape from the body. To him that was false. For the same reason, he was deeply committed to the view that at the second coming of Christ the dead would rise physically from their graves, and the righteous would reign on earth in a rich kingdom centering on a restored Jerusalem.
When God is all in all, some of the elect live in heaven, others on earth enjoying the lush fruits, others in the new Jerusalem; but it will be a new world, where death is no more. That hope flowed directly from Irenaeus' vision of God the Creator of this world, who would be vindicated in it - and his reading of the prophets and the Revelation to John.
You will doubtless recognise those elements of Irenaeus' theology which were inherited from Papias. References to the blissful existence of disembodied immortal souls in heaven are, of course, predictably notable by absence.
Observe also that this three-tiered system is one which exists at the end of the millennial reign – not before it, during it or as a replacement for it. This actually brings us into the realms of theological speculation to some extent (since we are given scant details about events subsequent to the Millennium), but there is still nothing here which contradicts Christadelphian teaching.