The Sadness of the Intermediate State

Christian reflection on eschatology has had to contend with two sets of statements in the New Testament, one which affirms the greatly desirable presence of deceased believers with Christ prior to the general resurrection “absent the body” (2 Cor 5:8), and another – the predominant strand – which holds out not this intermediate state but the final resurrection of the body as our ultimate hope (e.g., Rom 8:23-24; 1 Thess 4:13-18).

The tension between the two became heightened in the middle ages with questions about the time of the beatific vision, the promise of seeing God that is the fulfillment of deepest human desire. Is this already available to the souls of believers in the intermediate state, prior to the resurrection? Or does it await all Christians at the end, following the general resurrection? In 1336, Pope Benedict XII issued the bull Benedictus Deus, defining the former option as the Catholic faith.1 This heightened the Christian expectation for heaven immediately after death as the location of hope.

Nevertheless, others in the Christian tradition continued to emphasize the mixed quality of the intermediate state. Henry of Ghent states that the separated soul exists only in “incomplete personhood” (imperfecta personalitate) until its reunion with the body at the resurrection.2 And Robert Boyle, the early modern scientist and philosopher, compared this intermediate state to one of “widowhood”!3 This suggests that the state of departed believers prior to the final resurrection is one of mixed emotion: joy at being in the presence of the Lord, sadness for its imperfection prior to the recreation of the world.

1 Caroline Walker Bynum, The Resurrection of the Body in Western Christianity, 200–1336 (New York: Columbia University Press, 1996), ch. 7, esp. 285.
2 Ibid., 243, citing Quodlibet 6, q.5.
3 Robert Boyle, “Some Physico-theological Considerations about the Possibility of the Resurrection,” in The Works of the Honourable Robert Boyle, 6 vols. (London, 1772), 4:201.

Maccovius on Whether We Will Fully Comprehend God

Jan Makowski (1588–1644), better known by the Latinized version of his name, Johannes Maccovius, addresses the question of whether we will fully comprehend God in the future life. Answering in the negative, he draws an important distinction between an “essential imperfection” of a creature (i.e., something which is only an imperfection when considered in comparison to God) and a “privative imperfection” (i.e., something properly belonging to a creature, but which it now lacks).

But whatever imperfection is essential to a creature (which is called an imperfection not in comparison with creatures, but with respect to God), is only a denial of the highest perfection, that is, it only means that the creature is not God. If this imperfection were removed, we, in consequence, would be gods; this would be absurd and blasphemous in both speech and thought. On the other hand, a privative imperfection, which denotes a certain lack in the creature when compared with itself, that is, when we consider that a creature is not as perfect as it could be while yet remaining a creature – every imperfection of this kind will be taken away. For example, whatever could perfect the body, in such a way that the body does not cease to be a body (for perfection does not destroy but adorns its subject), and whatever could perfect the soul, in such a way that the soul does not cease to be a soul, will be present in the future life.

And so, it remains to ask: does it pertain to the perfection of the soul that we comprehend the essence of God? I respond, it does not reasonably seem so, the reason for this being that the incomprehensible cannot be comprehended.

— Loci communes theologici (Franeker, 1650), 886

Aquinas on the Resurrection of the Body

I’ve run across a couple interesting sets of comments from Aquinas’ commentary on 1 Corinthians 15, regarding the resurrection of the body in Paul’s letter. In the first, Aquinas denies that the resurrection is in any way a natural occurrence; in the second, he discusses the kinds of perfections the resurrected body will experience.

This is the first set, on 1 Cor. 15:37-38, “And what you sow is not the body that is to be, but a bare kernel, perhaps of wheat or of some other grain. But God gives it a body as he has chosen, and to each kind of seed its own body”:

Here it appears the apostle makes a comparison: when the human body is laid to rest in the ground, there is a kind of going to seed; but when it rises again, there is a coming to life. Because of this some are of the opinion that the resurrection of the dead is natural, since the apostle compares the resurrection to the sprouting of a seed, which is a natural occurrence. For they think that there are active seminal powers for the resurrection in the dispersed dust into which the human body is dissolved. But this does not seem to be true. For the dissolving of the human body into its elements takes place just as with other composite bodies, and so the dust into which human bodies are dissolved has no more active power than any other dust, where it is clear that there is no active power to compose a human body other than what is in human seed; rather, the dust into which human bodies are dissolved differs from other dust only according to God’s arrangement, as though these dust particles are arranged by the divine wisdom, in order that human bodies may once again be reconstituted out of them. Thus, the sole active cause of the resurrection will be God, though to this end he employs the work of angels to gather the dust… To conclude, the apostle does not here mean to prove that the resurrection is natural because a seed naturally sprouts, but he means to show, by way of a certain example, that the quality of the bodies of the risen and of the dying are not the same, and he does so because, in the first place, the quality of a seed and of its sprout are different. (Super I ad Corinthios 15.5.969)

And the second, on 1 Cor. 15:44, “It is sown a natural body; it is raised a spiritual body. If there is a natural body, there is also a spiritual body”, on the meaning of a “spiritual body”:

We see four things that proceed from the soul to the body, and they are more perfect to the degree that the soul is more virtuous. First indeed, it gives the body its being (dat esse); thus, when it arrives at the height of its perfection, it will cause the body to be spiritual (dabit esse spirituale). Second, it preserves the body from corruption; thus, we find that the stronger people are, the less they suffer from heat and cold. Therefore, when the soul becomes as complete as it can be (perfectissima), it will preserve the body totally impervious to external influences (omnino impassibile). Third, it provides beauty and brightness; for the sickly and deceased become discoloured on account of a failing in the soul’s working in the body, and when the soul arrives at the height of its perfection, it will make the body bright and glowing. Fourth, it gives the body movement, and this the more easily as the power of the soul gains strength over the body. And so when it arrives at the peak of its perfection, it will provide the body with agility. (Super I ad Corinthios 15.6.988)

This last paragraph is quite interesting: Aquinas believes the resurrected body will be unable to suffer any harmful influence or be affected from outside; it will quite literally glow with health; and it will be quicker than our bodies presently are. He even believes that two bodies could exist in the same space if God allows it, just as the resurrected body of Jesus could pass through closed doors (John 20:26), although this won’t be automatically possible (Super I ad Corinthios 15.6.983). This is of course so much speculation, but one imagines that our resurrected bodies will have breathtaking qualities something like these.

Readiness, Poverty and Jesus’ Return

Let’s talk about this kerfuffle. Apparently Jesus was supposed to return today, according to the Bible–well, that and some inventiveness and poor math skills. We could be done with this by simply quoting Jesus’ own words, such as, “But about that day or hour no one knows” (Matt. 24:36), or “The master of that servant will come on a day when he does not expect him” (Matt. 24:50). But let’s make this an occasion for some fruitful reflection, because I think that the reactions of both sides show us something.

In a way, we’ve already dealt with the first side, the side ready to believe that if you get your math straight, you can pinpoint when Jesus is going to return, because the Bible is after all an elaborate code book. This side should take some time to meditate on Matt. 24-25. But the other side, the side which is all too ready to ridicule the first side–I have to include myself here–should be careful not to fall into an opposite error, an error more pernicious because it is more respectable: going about life as if Jesus certainly won’t return on May 21st, 2011. (Even though as I write this it’s already May 22nd in Britain.) This may just be a failure of readiness.

If there’s a lesson we should take from this, it’s what is contained in the first word of Jesus’ address in Matt. 24-25, “Watch!” (Although the verb is just that for “look!” or “see!” Blepō. Maybe “keep your eyes open!” would do.) This idea shows up all over this discourse: “Therefore keep watch, because you do not know on what day your Lord will come” (24:42; here “keep watch” is a different verb which means just that). “So you also must be ready” (24:44). “Therefore keep watch” (25:13).

The question that interests me is whether we are a people who are “ready,” a people who “watch.” And further, whether the kinds of lives we live disable our readiness. Let’s take a detour. A few chapters earlier, Jesus tells his disciples that “others have renounced marriage because of the kingdom of heaven” (19:12). How does someone remain single–“celibacy” is the fancy term–“because” of the kingdom of heaven? Because it is a sign, an image of what that kingdom will be like. In Luke’s gospel, Jesus says, “The people of this age marry and are given in marriage. But those who are considered worthy of taking part in the age to come and in the resurrection from the dead will neither marry nor be given in marriage” (20:34-35). Those few God calls to celibacy now look odd just because they’re ahead of their time: they are living how we all will when the kingdom comes.

In the same way, voluntary poverty is a sign of the kingdom of God. Paul writes, “What I mean, brothers and sisters, is that the time is short. From now on those who… buy something, should live as if it were not theirs to keep; those who use the things of the world, as if not engrossed in them. For this world in its present form is passing away” (1 Cor. 7:29-31). For this reason, Paul could consider it all “crap” in comparison to knowing Jesus and his resurrection power (Phil. 3:8; a gentle translation of the word here). Because living in poverty is a sign of what the kingdom will be like, as odd as it looks now. What need will there be to buy and sell when we will already possess Everything we desire?

I fear that a Church which cannot be poor, a Church which shares the same affections as the world cannot see that this world is being gotten rid of in order for a new world to be born. Isn’t this half the point of the parable Jesus uses to close his discourse in Matt. 24-25? “Then the righteous will answer him, ‘Lord, when did we see you hungry and feed you, or thirsty and give you something to drink? When did we see you a stranger and invite you in, or needing clothes and clothe you? When did we see you sick or in prison and go to visit you?’ The King will reply, ‘Truly I tell you, whatever you did for one of the least of these brothers and sisters of mine, you did for me.’”

Augustine on the Resurrection

The earthly material, then, from which mortal flesh is created does not die for God; but in whatever dust or ash it is scattered, in whichever vapour and wind it is dispersed, into whatever other substantial body or the elements themselves it is changed, into whatever animal and also human food it may pass and flesh it may be changed, to this human soul it returns, in an instant of time, as that which it was originally, in order that the person may come forth living, being revived. (Enchiridion 23.88)

Non autem perit Deo terrena materies de qua mortalium creatur caro; sed in quemlibet pulverem cineremve solvatur, in quoslibet halitus aurasque diffugiat, in quamcumque aliorum corporum substantiam vel in ipsa elementa vertatur, in quorumcumque animalium etiam hominum cibum cedat carnemque mutetur, illi animae humanae puncto temporis redit quae illam primitus, ut homo fieret cresceret viveret, animavit.

Longing for the Kingdom

The kingdom of God was the central message of Jesus’ teaching. His ministry began with the cry, “The kingdom of God has come near. Repent and believe the good news!” (Mark 1.35). This theme resonated deeply with a dispossessed Jewish people under the cruel thumb of the Roman Empire. As NT Wright states:

Jesus was addressing a Jewish world in which ‘kingdom of God’, ‘reign of God’, the notion that only God must be king, was one of the most exciting and dangerous slogans. People had died in recent memory because of this slogan and the attempt to put it into practice … that is, to work for the holy revolution against the western imperial power, whatever it cost. (Paul: In Fresh Perspective, 157-8)

Of course, Jesus had other plans than political uprising. His use of the language of the kingdom of God fulfilled the longings of the Jewish people in a way so subversive and creative that we in our present day are not in a position to fully appreciate. The Zealots, planning armed revolt against the Roman world power to reestablish a Jewish kingdom, would not understand Jesus’ sayings that the kingdom would only come as they “turn … the other cheek,” “hand over [their] coat,” and “go with [the Romans] two miles” (Matthew 6.39-41).

But neither would the Pharisees, who held that the kingdom would come only to the morally pure and legalistically righteous, understand Jesus’ confrontational statement: “I tell you the truth, the tax collectors and the prostitutes are entering the kingdom of God ahead of you” (Matthew 21.32). It must have seemed like nonsense at best—at worst, that he was “demon-possessed” (John 8.48).

His word to the Sadducees, those dirty conspirators and Yes-men of the Empire, was no more encouraging: “David calls [the Messiah] Lord” (Luke 20.44). Now, this takes a bit more explaining, but the Greek word for Lord used in the Old Testament (kurios) was used by pagans to refer to Caesar (NT Wright, Paul, 71). Jesus is here making the claim that Caesar is a false emperor, and that the true empire can only be established by the Messiah—Jesus himself, a peasant-Rabbi, demands the allegiance of all humanity. As Brian McLaren states:

This kingdom throws down a direct challenge to the supremacy of the empire of Caesar centered in Rome, for in the kingdom of God, the ultimate authority is not Caesar but rather the Creator. (The Secret Message of Jesus, 17)

Longing for this kingdom, the sort of political rule in which God reigned fully and directly, was the motivating hope of the early Christian community. Living under the persecution of an all-powerful, pervasive Empire, they lived under the promise that “here we do not have an enduring city [e.g. Rome], but we are looking for the city that is to come [the new Jerusalem]” (Hebrews 13.14). Of course, this expectation diminished when Christians, under the rule of Constantine, came to be the Empire.

Largely forgotten for over 1500 years, the theme of the coming kingdom of God has reemerged as Christians have lost their privileged, imperial status in the West. The rise of secularism and the American Empire, which seeks its own kingdom—a pax Americana, some would say—over against the rule of Christ, have rediscovered reflection on the kingdom of God. Intentional Christian communities, especially those that work in the “abandoned places of Empire,” have renewed their longing for a time and place when Christ will reign.

The kingdom has not yet come, though there are whisperings of the Spirit that intimate its presence even now. Thus, we live patiently, not despairing, but with a great expectation despite the cruel rule of the Empire. For “we must go through many hardships to enter the kingdom of God” (Acts 14.22):

Longing becomes obsession when we behave as if our salvation depends on us ushering in the kingdom of God here and now. There is a desperation that undermines the gospel when we behave as if participation in the kingdom of God is our path to heaven rather than a foretaste of heaven …. Communities of the new monasticism must structure their common life in such a way that enables members to experience their longing for the kingdom rightly. (Schools for Conversion: 12 Marks of a New Monasticism, 103, 106)

So we exist in this tension, receiving the gift of God’s reign in whatever limited capacity it is given to us, ever being drawn by the Spirit toward the day when the “loud voices in heaven” will proclaim: “The kingdom of the world has become the kingdom of our Caesar and of his Messiah, and he will reign for ever and ever” (Revelation 11.15). With this foretaste giving life to our active patience, we work and pray: “Your kingdom come, Your will be done on earth as it is in heaven” (Matthew 6.10).