Monday, April 30, 2012

Between Death and Resurrection?

Continuing last week's reflection about the hope of the resurrection of the dead/body:

For Christians, the resurrected body has always been (officially if not in popular imagination) an integral aspect of our ultimate expectation. This creates a challenge to some popular and rather sentimentalized notions of life after death. Affirming that hope raises other questions such as:

Can we expect any conscious existence between our individual deaths and the Resurrection of the dead/body?

There have been those who have argued that the answer to that question is 'no.' In that case, those who have died are dead - period - until the Day of Resurrection at which point we will be restored for judgment and eternity.

Is it possible, though, even if we restore the centrality of  the hope of resurrection in place of popular images of heaven, to expect some conscious existence between our physical death and our resurrection?

Certainly that has been the majority view of the Church through the ages, including the representatives in the post referenced above. Even though they believed that whatever intervening existence those who have died might have is incomplete until the restoration of resurrection of the body, Anthony, Ephrem, and Dante each believed the dead had some conscious existence. 

We saw in the last post that physicist/theologian, John Polkinghorne holds to an idea of a conscious existence of the dead,'held in the divine memory.'

N. T. Wright, who is one who has been reclaiming the centrality of resurrection hope also thinks so,

All the Christian departed are in essentially the same state, that of restful happiness. Though this is sometimes described as sleep, we shouldn’t take this to mean that it is a state of unconsciousness. Had Paul thought that, I very much doubt that he would have described life immediately after death as “being with Christ, which is far better.” Rather, sleep here means that the body is asleep in the sense of dead while the real person–however we want to describe him or her–continues.
This state is not, clearly, the final destiny for which the Christian dead are bound, which is as we have seen, the bodily resurrection. But it is a state in which the dead are held firmly within the conscious love of God and the conscious presence of Jesus Christ while they await that day. There is no reason why this state should not be called heaven, though we must note once more how interesting it is that the New Testament routinely doesn’t call it that and uses the word heaven in other ways. (Surprised by Hope, p. 171-172)

Whether we are merely dead (and thus with no consciousness) until the resurrection or we have some conscious existence in the meantime, our next awareness after dying will be coming face to face with Jesus.

While I am persuaded that we do well to remember that our ultimate hope is the fullness of our restoration at the resurrection of the body, I am inclined to agree with the tradition that there is some conscious existence of the dead, however incomplete, between now and then.  But, then, other questions arise:

What is the relationship between those who have died and those still living in the flesh? Does it make sense to pray for the dead? To ask the dead to pray for us?


Lee Wyatt said...

The martyrs under the throne in Rev. 6 cry out "How long, how long?" Does this imply conscious existence or is that pushing the symbols here too far? Also the "great cloud of witnesses" in Heb,12?

Even with these passages I'm inclined at this point to go with something like Polkinghorne's view. Peace, Lee

Matt Gunter said...

Good points, Lee. We could add Paul's dewsire "to be with Christ" upon dying. Still, the trick is to hold onto a hope of some sort of intemediate state while acknowledging its incompleteness this side of resurrection.