Taken from his 1988 classic, Eschatology, which remains a leading text on the “last things” — heaven and hell, purgatory and judgment, death and the immortality of the soul.
If the “Last Day” is not to be identified with the moment of individual death but is accepted as what it really is, the shared ending of all history, then the question naturally arises as to what happens “in-between.” In Catholic theology, as that received its systematic form in the high Middle Ages, this question received its answer in terms of the immortality of the soul.
To Luther, such a solution was unacceptable. For him it was a result of the infiltration of faith by philosophy. Yet his own enquiry into the matter produced an ambiguous report. In great majority, the relevant texts of Luther take up the biblical term for death, “sleep,” seeing in it a description of the content of the intermediate state. The soul sleeps in the peace of Christ. It is awakened, along with the body, on the last day.
Elsewhere one finds Luther in a different state of mind, for instance in his comments on the story of Lazarus. There he remarks that the distinction between body and soul whereby hitherto people had tried to explain Lazarus’ life “in the bosom of Abraham” was ein Dreck, “a load of rubbish.” As he explains: “We must say, totus Abraham, the whole man, is to live….”
The impression one takes away from this is that Luther’s concern was not so much with the denial of the life of the dead, but with an attack on the body-soul distinction. Luther does not succeed in replacing that distinction by any clear or even recognizable new conception. In our survey of the status quaestionis, we discovered that recent theology rules out an “intermediate state.” By doing so, it gives systematic expression to a point of view first developed by Luther.
1. Early Judaism
What does the Bible have to say? In the light of our investigation into the ideas of the New Testament about the resurrection we can already make one fairly general statement. To posit an interruption of life between death and the end of the world would not be in accord with Scripture. In fact, the texts permit a much more precise set of assertions than this, as the exemplary work of P. Hoffmann in particular has shown in careful detail.
The first point to notice is that both the primitive community and St. Paul belonged with the Jewish tradition of their time, just as had Jesus himself. Naturally, they situated themselves vis-a-vis the internal debate within that tradition by reference to the fundamental criterion found in Jesus’ own image of God. This produced in time a gradual transformation of the preexisting tradition, by way of its thorough-going assimilation to the demands of Christology. Our first task, therefore, is to get acquainted with the data of intertestamental Judaism — a complicated affair for which I must rely on Hoffmann’s study.
Let us look at some characteristic documents. The book of Enoch in its Ethiopian recension, datable to c. 150 B.C., offers in its twenty-second chapter an account of the abode of the spirits or souls of the departed. Here the ancient idea of Sheol, earlier taken as the realm of shadow-life, receives more articulated and differentiated description. Its “space” is characterized in greater detail. The world in which the dead are kept until the final judgment is no longer located simply in the earth’s interior, but, more specifically, in the West, the land of the setting sun, in a mountain where it occupies four different regions (pictured as caves). The just and the unjust are now separated.
The unjust await the judgment in darkness whereas the just, among whom the martyrs occupy a special position, dwell in light, being assembled around a life-giving spring of water. We already get a glimpse of how such “early Jewish” notions lived on in unbroken fashion in the early Church. The memento of the departed in the Roman Canon (now the “First Eucharistic Prayer”) prays that God may grant to those who have died marked with the sign of faith and now “sleep the sleep of peace” a place of light, “fresh water” (refrigerium) and repose.
The prayer thus identifies the three conditions which inhabitants of the Mediterranean world consider the proper expression of all good living. Patently, the idea coincides in all respects with the destiny of the just as described in Enoch.
A further stage of development can be observed in the Fourth Book of Ezra, written somewhere around the year 100 A.D. Here too the dead dwell in various “chambers,” their “souls” the bearers of a continuing life. As in Enoch, the just have already entered upon their reward. But whereas the author of Enoch defers the start of the punishment of sinners until the final judgment, in Ezra the pains of the Godless begin in the intermediate state, with the result that at a number of points their position seems to be that of a definitive Hell.
In Rabbinic Judaism, the dividing line between two kinds of human destiny is even more consistently observed. From the moment of judgment, which follows immediately upon death, two paths open up. One leads into the paradise garden of Eden, conceived either as lying in the East or as preserved in heaven. The other goes to the alley of Gehenna, the place of damnation.
But, besides the idea of paradise, the destiny of the just is represented by other images and motifs as well. Thus we hear of the “treasury of souls,” of waiting “beneath the throne of God,” and of the just — and especially martyrs — being received into Abraham’s bosom. Here again the continuity between Jewish and early Christian conceptions is striking. The idea of paradise, the image of the bosom of Abraham;’ the thought of the tarrying of souls beneath the throne of God: all these are present in the New Testament tradition.
But before we turn to the New Testament itself, something should be said about the writings bequeathed to us from Qumran. So long as the community represented under this name, the Essenes, were known only from Josephus, scholars were obliged to regard them as belonging to the Hellenizing strand within early Judaism, at any rate where our question in this present section was concerned. Josephus had summed up their views in the following words:
For their doctrine is this: that bodies are corruptible, and that the matter they are made of is not permanent; but that the souls are immortal, and continue forever, and that they come out of the most subtile air, and are united to their bodies as to prisons, into which they are drawn by a certain natural enticements but that when they are set free from the bands of the flesh, they then, as released from a long bondage, rejoice and mount upward.
But with the discovery of the original Qumran manuscripts, our image of the Covenanters has necessarily undergone revision. As K. Schubert, in his study of the Dead Sea community, commented on the text just cited:
In all probability, this description is nothing more than a concession by Josephus to his Greek readership…. The Essenes were not a Hellenistic-syncretistic group, but a Jewish apocalyptic movement.
However, we are dealing here with ideas of the afterlife conceived in markedly material terms, so much so that this same writer can say that the Essenes of Qumran “believed in a continuation of bodiliness, even though they accepted the passing-away of their bodies in the first instance. To this extent, Josephus’ description is perhaps not too far removed from the truth. He too ascribes to the sect a materialist understanding of the soul of the kind common in Stoic philosophy.
This shows how complex in this period the reciprocal interpenetration of the Hellenistic and Jewish worlds could be. The much favored dichotomy between “Greek” and “Hebrew” simply does not stand up to historical examination. The discussion of the Qumran texts also indicates that the mere maintaining of strictly material notions about the life to come does not in itself guarantee fidelity to the spiritual inheritance of the Old Testament. The heart of that option which entered history in Abraham’s faith cannot be grasped without finer differentiation than this. In this perspective, a number of contemporary contributions seem to belong to a continuing “Essene” tradition, in that the issue of materiality has overshadowed every other consideration.
2. The New Testament
It should be clear by now that the New Testament belongs to that Jewish world whose fundamental contours have been sketched in the preceding section. As a general methodological assumption, it is legitimate to suppose that Jesus and the earliest Church shared Israel’s faith in its (then) contemporary form. The acceptance of Jesus’ awareness of his own mission simply gave to this faith a new center, a nucleus by whose power the individual elements of the tradition were step by step transformed: first and foremost, the concept of God, but then following it, and in a graduated order of urgency, all the rest.
The Synoptic tradition preserved two sayings of Jesus the topic of the “intermediate state.” These are Luke 16:19-31 and Luke 23, 43, and they were briefly touched above. So far as the first, the story of Lazarus, is concerned, we may admit that the parable’s doctrinal content lies its moral, a warning against the dangers of wealth, rather than in the descriptions of Lazarus in Abraham’s bosom and Dives in Hell.
And yet, manifestly, the teller of the parable does regard these evocations of the afterlife as appropriate images of the real future of man. In this, the text clearly testifies to the fact that the earliest Christianity shared in the faith of contemporary Judaism about the beyond. So much we can say without even entering into the (quite independent) question of whether in the parable we are overhearing the ipsissima vox of Jesus himself.
Something along the same lines must be said about the second text, the dialogue of the Crucified with the good thief. Here too the Jewish background is palpable. Paradise is the place where the Messiah, concealed, awaits his hour, and whither he will return. But it is in this selfsame text that we begin to see the Christian transformation of the inherited Jewish tradition at work. That destiny reserved by Jewish tradition to the martyrs and the privileged “righteous ones” is now promised by the Condemned Man on the Cross to a fellow condemnee.
He possesses the authority to open wide the doors of paradise to the lost. His word is the key which unlocks them. And so the phrase “with me” takes on a transformative significance. It means that paradise is no longer seen as a place standing in permanent readiness for occupation and which happens to contain the Messiah along with a lot of other people. Instead, paradise opens in Jesus. It depends on his person. Joachim Jeremias was right, therefore, to find a connection between the prayer of the good thief and the petition of the dying Stephen: “Lord Jesus, receive my spirit.”
With impressive unanimity, the New Testament presents the communion with Christ after death as the specifically Christian view of the inter-mediate state.
Here is the dawning realization that Jesus himself is paradise, light, fresh water, the secure peace toward which human longing and hope are directed. Perhaps we may remind ourselves in this connection of the new use of the image of “bosom” which we find in John’s Gospel. Jesus does not come from the bosom of Abraham, but from that of the Father himself.” The disciple who is to become the type of all faithful discipleship rests on the bosom of Jesus. The Christian, in his faith and love, finds shelter on the breast of Jesus and so, in the end, on the breast of the Father. “I am the resurrection”: what these words mean emerges here from a new angle.