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.

Lombard on the Necessity of Believing in Resurrection

At the very beginning of his treatment of resurrection, the final judgment, and heaven and hell in the Sentences (book IV, dist. 43-50), which will run to the end of his work, Peter Lombard (c.1096-1160) emphasizes the necessity, for Christians, of believing in the future resurrection. He begins:

Finally, we must briefly discuss the condition of resurrection, and the mode of those who will rise, and also the day of judgment and the quality of mercy. “I am unable to satisfy all the questions that are usually raised about this subject, but no Christian should in any way doubt that the flesh of all those who have been born and will be born, and have died and will die, will be resurrected” (Augustine, Enchiridion 23.84). For Isaiah says, “The dead will rise, and those who will be in the tombs will rise” (cf. 26:19).

To a quotation from Augustine’s famous treatment of resurrection in the Enchiridion, he adds biblical confirmation from Isaiah. Lombard then quotes 1 Thess 4:13-17, which gives him the framework for some of distinction 43 on the events surrounding the resurrection (the sound of the trumpet; the middle of the night; then, whether the elect will remember their past sins; those who will be found alive at Christ’s return; in what sense Christ is judge of “the living and the dead”; and that all will rise incorruptible). His first little chapter of the distinction thus concludes: “The truth of resurrection, and the cause and order of those who will rise, is very clearly insinuated in these words.”

The way Lombard begins his treatment of eschatology, quoting Augustine on the necessity of believing in the resurrection–“no Christian should in any way doubt” (nullatenus ambigere debet christianus; Augustine reads, nullo modo dubitare)–is highly instructive. In Christian theology from the Fathers through the Reformation, the resurrection was an indubitable article of faith. Yet it was–and is–also attended by numerous intellectual difficulties: What about those with physical deformities or scars? What about those who are stillborn? What age will one be in the resurrection? Lombard’s dist. 44, which deals with these questions, opens this way: “But some tend to hesitate and ask, at what age and in what bodily state will everyone be resurrected?”

These questions, arising from this “hesitation,” can only be asked on the basis of accepting that there will be a future resurrection–what Lombard calls the veritas resurrectionis, quite clearly insinuated in Is 26 and 1 Thess 4, for instance. How this resurrection will take place is the mystery, and the subject of many scholastic disputations. In modern theology, this intellectual difficulty and mystery begins to creep forward, into faith in the resurrection itself. The seemingly irresolvable difficulties attending the thought of the long dead rising in new bodies, the how, has been thought to challenge the that.

But this distinction is crucial to the New Testament witness about resurrection itself. That Jesus rose from the dead is the central confession of the entire New Testament; how he rises or the “mode” of his rising, why, that is, he sometimes goes unrecognized (Luke 24:16; John 20:14; 21:4) or can pass through closed doors (John 20:19) or disappear (Luke 24:31), is not explained to us. Because Jesus’ resurrection is the “firstfruits” and therefore model of our own (1 Cor 15:20), this is mirrored directly in the theology of our own, future resurrection.

The very layout of Lombard’s treatment of resurrection in book IV is, then, a reflection of the shape of the biblical witness: he begins with the necessity of believing in the resurrection on the basis of Scripture (dist. 43) before moving onto the difficulties implied by this belief, the questions for which Scripture offers no answer (dist. 44). Both of those are, further, encapsulated in the brief, opening quotation from Augustine. That we will rise is a basic Christian confession–“For since we believe that Jesus died and rose again, even so, through Jesus, God will bring with him those who have died” (1 Thess 4:14)–but how, the “mode” as Lombard calls it, is the mystery.

Continuity and Discontinuity in Jesus’ Resurrection

When Jesus rose from the dead, he was both the same as and different than he was before. Michael McClymond puts it well in his introduction to Jesus:

The earliest Christians insisted that Jesus’ death on the cross was not the end of his life and that he reappeared to many of them, alive again. Their claim was not that he was resuscitated from death and simply returned again to the same kind of existence he had prior to his crucifixion. Instead the resurrection narratives suggest that Jesus had passed into a new mode of existence. On the one hand he had a physical body, and in the Gospel of Luke he invited them to verify this for themselves with the words: “Touch me and see; for a ghost does not have flesh and bones as you see that I have” (Luke 24:39). Luke also states that Jesus ate a piece of fish in their presence (Luke 24:42-43; cf. John 21:13). On the other hand Jesus presents himself in the Gospels as victorious over death and therefore no longer existing in a mortal or perishable body. In the Gospel of John Jesus suddenly appears with the disciples in a room where the doors were shut and locked (John 20:19-20). In John, as in the Gospel of Luke, he shows them his hands and sides (John 20:20), presumably so that they could see the marks of his suffering and know that the one they saw was also the one who had died on the cross.

— Michael J. McClymond, Familiar Stranger: An Introduction to Jesus of Nazareth (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 2004), 129

This continuity and discontinuity is nicely expressed by McClymond’s “on the one hand. . . on the other hand. . .”. On the one hand, Jesus had a visible, physical body with “flesh and bones,” as in Luke’s account. On the other hand, and significantly, Jesus is victorious over death; this is not a return “to the same kind of existence” as before. Jesus rises as the one who will never die again. He also has new modes of mobility and visibility, appearing without going through closed doors, as in John, or disappearing before the disciples’ eyes, as with the disciples at Emmaus in Luke.

McClymond also highlights the identity of the risen Jesus with the crucified. It may seem obvious when it comes to Christ, that “the one they saw was also the one who had died on the cross,” as evidenced by the wounds in his hands and sides in John. But of course, our resurrection is based on Christ’s; he is the “firstfruits” of a great harvest (1 Cor 15:20) and the “firstborn from the dead” (Rev 1:5). How can these same bodies in which we now live rise again at the end, after they have decomposed into their constituent elements? That this must be so, the scholastics spoke of in terms of numerical identity (eodem numero): the resurrection body must be the same in number as our present bodies, that is, you will not be able to add them up, the present body plus the resurrection body making two. They are one and the same. To say how this can be so, they only pointed to God’s omnipotence as the Creator of heaven and earth.

There is also more we can add to McClymond’s helpful account. To do this, we can compare Jesus’ resurrection with the accounts of others raised from the dead in Scripture. There are eight (or nine) such accounts: 1 Kings 17; 2 Kings 4, 13; Luke 7; Mark 5//Matt 9//Luke 8; John 11; Acts 9, 20 (the odd one is Matt 27:52-53). Yet these are almost universally dismissed as irrelevant to our understanding of what occurs in Jesus’ resurrection. They are often given a different name: not “resurrection” at all, but “resuscitation,” as indeed here in McClymond’s text. Because these people would die again, their return from death can tell us nothing about Jesus’ return from death. The contention of my current research is that (a) they are, in fact, a kind of resurrection, though not permanently death-defeating as Jesus’ is and our own will be; and (b) that these resurrections, when compared to Jesus’ and our own, help us to better understand and, indeed, to believe Christian teaching on the raising of the dead.

Albert the Great on Asking for Resurrection

In his comments on the raising of Lazarus in John 11, Albert the Great states that it is perfect faith which asks God for the dead to be raised. This perfect faith is faith in Jesus Christ, the cause of our resurrection by virtue of his own. Jesus instructs Martha in such faith by his divine instruction, drawing out her consent. To such faith, nothing, not even the raising of the dead, is impossible.

Here Albert comments on Jesus’ conversation with Martha in vv.25-27: “Jesus said to her, ‘I am the resurrection and the life. Those who believe in me, even though they die, will live, and everyone who lives and believes in me will never die. Do you believe this?’ She said to him, ‘Yes, Lord, I believe that you are the Messiah, the Son of God, the one coming into the world.’”

Here [Jesus] touches upon a faith perfect in obtaining that for which one asks. An encouragement to such faith is first given, and then perfect faith is described.

Therefore, in the first place he says four things: in the first of these, the perfect cause of the resurrection and life is said to be in Christ; in the second, this to the believer, the possibility to obtaining the resurrection of the dead by asking is shown; in the third, the reward of such faith is signified; in the fourth, the consent of Martha to such faith is sought.

Therefore, Jesus says, “I am,” by way of cause, “the resurrection and the life,” that is, I am the cause of resurrection and life. 1 Thess 4:[14],1 “For since we believe that Jesus died and rose again, even so, through Jesus, God will bring with him those who have died.” For he is therefore called “the firstborn from the dead,” since his resurrection, believed in faith, is the cause of the resurrection of the dead, as Augustine states.2 Rev 1:5, “the firstborn of the dead, and the ruler of the kings of the earth.” John 10:10, “I came that they may have life, and have it abundantly.”

“And everyone who lives,” etc.

Here he touches on the reward of her faith: for since it is now perfect, she lives. Hab 2:4, “My righteous will live by their faith.”

“And believes in me,” that is, by believing draws toward me [tendit in me], “will not die in eternity [or “forever,” in aeternum, here and following],” for although one dies bodily in time [or “for a time,” ad tempus], nevertheless they do not die so as to die in eternity. For the damned die in this way in eternity, as to always die. John 8:52, “Whoever keeps my word will not taste death in eternity.” John 3:[16],3 “that everyone who believes in him may not perish but may have eternal life.” Hos 8:14 [Vulg.], “From the hand of death I will free him, from death I will redeem them.”

“Do you believe this?”

He elicits consent to this perfect faith, to whose asking nothing is impossible. Mark 9:[23],4 “All things can be done for the one who believes.” Matt 17:[20],5 “if you have faith the size of a mustard seed, you will say to this mountain, ‘Move from here to there,’ and it will move; and nothing will be impossible for you.”

“She said to him, ‘Yes,’” etc.

Here she now sufficiently presents consent in perfect faith by means of an elevated instruction.

“Yes, Lord.” Matt 15:28, “Woman, great is your faith! Let it be done for you as you wish.”

And she explains this faith, saying, “I believe,” firmly believing and simply confessing, “that you are,” because you hide in human nature, “Christ,” anointed with the anointing of deity, “the Son of God,” born of the Father before all ages, “who,” born from a woman, the Virgin, came under the law, “came” through the assumption of flesh “into this” visible “world.” And this is perfect faith in relation to this article; so, he does not further instruct her in the faith. Matt 16:16, “You are the Messiah, the Son of the living God.” And therefore, as to Peter the keys were given upon this confession, against which the gates of hell will not prevail, so the doors of death, which held the dead, could do nothing about this faith, but gave up the dead which it had taken in. Ps 107:16-17 [Vulg. 106:15-16], “For he shatters the doors of bronze, and cuts in two the bars of iron. He brought them out from their sinful ways.”

D. Alberti Magni Opera Omnia, vol. 24, In evangelium secundum Joannem, ed. Borgnet (Paris: Vivès, 1899), 447-48

1 The Borgnet edition reads I Thessal. IV, 13. We still await a critical edition of Super Iohannem.

2 I have not yet been able to identify the precise text of Augustine to which Albert might be referring.

3 The Borgnet edition reads Joan. III, 13.

4 The Borgnet edition reads Marc. IX, 22.

5 The Borgnet edition reads Matth. XVII, 19.

Barth on the Future Resurrection

This beautiful quote on our future resurrection as a sharing in God’s eternal life comes from late in the Church Dogmatics:

Since, then, God alone can be its future, the life of a creature after death cannot in any sense or circumstances be anything other than its life from God and for God, i.e., the life which is not its own but is given to it by God. God alone is above death and after it. He alone has immortality (I Tim. 616). If a creature is to have immortal life, i.e., the life which defies and overcomes death, which leaves it behind, which is no longer threatened by it, then in no circumstances can this be simply its autonomous continuation in life. It can be only its new life from God and with God. It can be only the eternal life which is given to it by God after the manner of His own life. Its corruptible and mortal, therefore, must as such, as that which it was between birth and death, put on the incorruptibility and immortality which are proper only to God (I Cor. 1553). Its present form is not, then, dissolved or done away with or destroyed, which would mean death, or a future without God. It is taken up into the new form which is not proper to it in its creatureliness but is given to it as that of God its Creator. The past state upon which it enters with death, and which is manifest in death, is thus taken from it by the fact that God, who was its only but true future even in its corruptibility before death and its corruption in death, is present to it in death itself. As what it was before death, it may thus be present and live eternally even after death in the power of His presence, i.e., not of itself, but in the power of the presence of God. (CD IV/3, 310-11)

In this sense, the question of the ‘mortality’ or ‘immortality’ of Adam before the fall, or of Christ’s humanity, is an abstract and meaningless question. We live only as we receive life from God, only as he upholds the universe by the Word of his power (Heb 1:3). God is the life of the creature, its “only but true future even in its corruptibility before death”. It is only as we given life and breath and everything else from God himself that we continue to live, and only ultimately as we are transformed and brought to share in God’s own life that we will one day, after the resurrection, have life forever. This resurrection life will be a “new life from God and with God. It can be only the eternal life which is given to it by God after the manner of his own life.”

Melanchthon on Worship in the Resurrection

Melanchthon’s systematic theology, entitled Loci communes theologici, was revised in 1535 to include, among other things, a new section on the resurrection of the dead. In this locus, he expounds various passages of Scripture having to do with resurrection and the renewal of the world. When he comes to comment on Isaiah 66:22-24–the last three verses of Isaiah–this is how he understands the prophet’s words, “For as the new heavens and the new earth that I make shall remain before me, says the Lord, so shall your offspring and your name remain. From new moon to new moon, and from Sabbath to Sabbath, all flesh shall come to worship before me, declares the Lord”:

And he teaches what eternal life will be like when he says, “There will be unending months and an unending Sabbath,” that is, an unending feast day, that all the saints may unendingly worship the Lord. Therefore, eternal life will be unending worship–that is, the knowledge and righteousness of God without sin and without death. (Loci communes theologici [Basel, 1561], p.505)

Erit ergo uita aeterna, perpetua adoratio. Come, Lord Jesus.

Vermigli on the Importance of Resurrection

The Reformer Peter Martyr Vermigli (1499-1562) introduces his locus de resurrectione with these comments on the difficulty and importance of this doctrine:

The article on the resurrection of the flesh is believed with great difficulty because it is a reality so remote from human reason. Yet persuasion regarding it comprises many points of Christian faith so necessary to salvation. He who is clearly and firmly resolved regarding resurrection counsels himself well in that last hour. For those who are dying, certain of the blessed resurrection, cannot but be eager and happy to depart from this life. But those who, on the other hand, waver regarding this article then spin in the greatest anxieties, are anguished and agitated, nor do they truly know where they are going. This firm persuasion, then, consoles us when we lose friends and relatives in death; thus Paul teaches the Thessalonians. In the face of this we are armed against persecutions, misfortunes and the hardships that one ought to suffer for the faithful confession of the name of Christ—the holy martyrs suffered any and all things when they knew with certainty that a most happy life was to be restored to them. (Loci communes [London: Ioannis Kyngstoni, 1576], 3.15.1, pp. 771-72)