We know now, that the Bible through the evolving notion of She’ol/Hades, assumes that there is an intermediary state between death and resurrection that it is not the final state. This thought has been maintained by many1 Church fathers2.
The first epistle of Clement of Rome written at the end of the first century, explain that :
"All generations from Adam to this day have passed away, but those who have been found in love by the grace of God dwell in the abode of the saints, who will be manifested when the kingdom of Christ appears. For it is written: "Enter into your chambers for a moment, until my anger and wrath are past; and I will remember a good day, and will bring you up from the grave"3.
Irenaeus of Lyon (around 90 years later) has the same kind of view:
"As our Master, therefore, did not at once depart, taking flight [to heaven], but awaited the time of His resurrection prescribed by the Father, which had been also shown forth through Jonas, and rising again after three days was taken up [to heaven]; so ought we also to await the time of our resurrection prescribed by God and foretold by the prophets, and so, rising, be taken up, as many as the Lord shall account worthy of this"4.
Irenaeus refers to Matthew 12,40 to justify that we also will have to await for resurrection because it will not take place directly after the moment of our death.
As Ireneaus, Tertullian has to fight (theologically) against Gnosticism, a pseudo-christian movement that denied the importance of the flesh. He demonstrates that the earthly body and the resurrected body has strong links. His goal is not to make a specific demonstration about the resurrection process but to show gnostics that there can not be a salvation of the soul without a salvation of the body. In his demonstration, he postulates an intermediate state between the two bodies:
"All flesh shall come and worship me, says the Lord. "At what time? " - "When the figure of this world has passed away". A little further up, it says: "Just as I will create new heavens and a new earth that will remain forever5.
For if the good shepherd brings back on his shoulders the flesh and soul of his sheep, that is to say, the whole animal, this example shows us the restoration of man in his double substance. How unworthy it would be of the divine majesty to place in possession of salvation only half of man (...) it is only that which is lost that must receive salvation6.
Clement, Irenaeus and Tertullian seem to agree on the fact that there is a waiting period between death and resurrection. But you may have notice that the Bible does not explain how it is possible that the body disappears while the soul or the heart is kept in some spiritual place. Tertullian tries an explanation a bit later in the same document:
"Thus the change, conversion, or transformation which must take place at the resurrection, does not exclude the preservation of substance"7.
Substance is preserved so that there can be a transformation at the resurrection. But where is this substance?
"The flesh will therefore rise, not only all flesh, but the same flesh, and in its integrity. Wherever it is, it is in the hand of God in Jesus Christ…"8
The idea here is that God keeps the flesh in Christ and will give it back, when the time will have come because it is necessary for resurrection.
The Alexandrian Church Fathers (Clement of Alexandria, Origen) for their part insisted on the conformity of our resurrection to Jesus resurrection. Origen emphasizes that the resurrection is a process that requires the church to be complete, so that the body of Christ is fully constituted. In his seventh "scholia" on Leviticus he says:
"Abraham is still waiting (…) and all the prophets are waiting for us to receive with us the perfect blessing because there is only one body that awaits resurrection".
From the 3d century many churches tried to elaborate creeds to try to express and synthesize the doctrinal content of the faith. Old written creeds9 makes it explicit that resurrection of the flesh is a step that must necessarily precede eternal life.
In the 13th century, Thomas Aquinas influenced by the re-discovery of Aristotle explained that the soul is what gives its shape to the body. Both are inextricably linked, but the soul is what needs to be preserved first as if the soul was the seed of the body.
When modernity arose (a time when reason was the only good tool for knowledge), the soul was even more valued : Cogito, ergo sum : « I think, therefore I am » expresses quite well the thinking of this time.
Today, theology is exploring new possibilities :
- death could be the destruction that precedes a re-creation, a new creation what remains after death is an idea of us in God’s mind (Karl Barth - similar to Tertullian idea)
- the body could become a transcendental reality (which is quite like an oxymoron !). This idea leads to think that our future body will not be material, but only spiritual, which is not in accordance with scripture but more with greek philosophy.
- many theologians insist on the fact that afterlife is a mystery: something certain, but unspeakable (see Paul in 2Corinthians 12,4). We may imagine it or feel it, being aware that this kind knowledge is partial and distorted by subjectivity.
So we are at the stage now to consider that after-life does not begin by a resurrection, but by a stopover in a spiritual underworld. Resurrection will be an other step of afterlife and we will explore the biblical pattern of resurrection in the following section.
1 Ignatius of Antioch, who died at the latest in 113, does not agree with this. He talks about the passion of Jesus Christ as a hope for us of a resurrection that will lead us to him (address of the Epistle to the Trallians).
2 See : Douglas JACOBY, What’s the truth about heaven and Hell, Harvest House Publishers, Eugene : Oregon, 2013, p.126.
3 Epistle of Clement of Rome 50,3-4.
4 Ireaneus of Lyon, Against Heresies, V,31,1 - Translation by Philip Schaff:
5 De resurectione Carnis 31.
6 De resurectione Carnis 34.
7 De resurectione Carnis 55.
8 De resurectione Carnis 63 — this sentence continues this way: "He is the faithful "arbiter between God and man," who will restore God to man, man to God, spirit to flesh, and flesh to spirit: he has united the one and the other in his person, giving a bride to the bridegroom and a bridegroom to the bride. If it is claimed that the soul is the bride, then the flesh will follow the soul, even if only as a dowry. The soul will not be a prostitute for her husband to receive her stripped and naked. It has its entourage, its finery, its slave; it is the flesh: the flesh will therefore accompany it like a sister of milk."
9 Examples: the Niceno-Constantinopolitan Creed (in greek), the Apostles’ Creed (in latin - of course not written by the apostles despite its designation).