For you have died,
And your life is hidden with Christ in God.
And you too will appear with Him in Glory
I Corinthians 5:8
Sunday is a Roman name, the day of the unconquerable sun, but for Christians and the civilization Christianity formed it became the Lord’s Day, a celebration of the Lord’s Resurrection, not the old seventh day but the first day, the beginning of a new creation. Easter, the Feast of the Resurrection, is the first feast day in the Christian liturgical calendar.
It is characteristic of the Old Testament and of Mediterranean culture generally that the finality of death was no part of common belief; the departed lived on. The influence of this idea is still present among post-Christians who speak of the ‘afterlife’ as some sort of conscious survival somewhere, it being remarkable that in 2016 a survey showed that more Americans believe in the afterlife than believe in God. For most Romans, the thought that one might simply cease to exist absolutely was not a realistic possibility. How could a soul that was an eternal spark borrowed from the gods die? Surely the dead were in Hades, the realm of the dead, with its river Styx and the three-headed dog Cerberus. Hades was where nobody would wish to be, but it represented the realistic view that death was not a good thing and the attendant awareness that the dead had to live on somewhere. Over time the Romans came to suspect that some moral distinction might be made, so that Elysian Fields were provided for good soldiers and life in the stars for great generals, but the ordinary citizen looked forward to the half-life of Hades.
Likewise the Hebrews, for whom the place of the departed was Sheol, the same under-world in which the dead lived on forever. Thus the Old Testament writers were given to reminding God not to send them down to Sheol hastily, for then who would praise Him (Psalm 6:5)? But among the Hebrews, at least from the time of the writing of Job, there had been an awareness of the shallowness of the doctrine that men and women live on, but in the kingdom of death. For one thing, this meant that justice would never be done, for if both good and evil men enjoyed the same dreary existence, where was the justice of it all, and why seek righteousness. Job reflected that men are in a worse condition than a stump; they lie down and rise no more; til the heavens be no more they shall not awake. The condition of a tree was better, because when spring comes the stump may blossom again (14:1–15), but mankind is destined to live forever in the dark world that the Apostle Peter described in his First Letter as a prison of the spirit (3:19). But, thinking on, Job asked: “If a man die, shall he live again? All the days of my appointed time will I wait, till my change comes. Thou shalt call, and I will answer thee.”
By the time of Jesus’ ministry, there was already a belief in the resurrection, developed from the prophetic revelation of the Day of God on which the just would be rewarded and the unrighteous punished, which belief was amplified by the uncanonical books of the Maccabean and Roman periods. Belief in the resurrection was common among the Pharisees. Lazarus’s sister Martha could say, “I know that my brother will live again in the resurrection at the last day” (John 11:24). The background for belief that the human person has an eternal destiny that was more than a grim and twilight endurance was in place. But that one should rise from the dead, that had never happened until that day when the Peter, the Beloved Disciple, and Mary Magdalen ran to the tomb only to find it empty. But He was there. Mary thought He was a gardener.
The time between Our Lord’s resurrection on the third day and Pentecost was one of joy, doubt and confusion; the disciples believed, but they still did not know what this meant. They were glad when they saw the Lord ( ), but still there was doubt. Then came Pentecost, and the apostles were ready to preach not a better morality, although that would flow from repentance and a life worthy of repentance, but to proclaim the fact that a corner in history had been turned, that the resurrected Christ was the Man who lives forever, that He has the power to draw all those who are His into the divine life of the Incarnate God, a life to be lived in the New City, where there will be no hurt, no sin, and no darkness (Rev 21:4-7).
Jesus gave His disciples, and through them all mankind, a very specific promise. Jesus promised life to those whom He loved and who loved Him. The promise was not given to those who had an abstract desire for life; everyman fears death, but to those who belonged to Christ. And what was promised was not mere existence, but the fulfillment of the heart in knowing even as we are known, seeing face to face (I Corinthians 13:12), and continuing forever in the community of the saints, a pilgrimage toward evermore perfect knowledge of the Blessed Trinity that will carry us, as C. S. Lewis wrote, further up and further in.
Of course when the gates to heaven were opened there remained the past, those countless souls who had gone down to Sheol without knowing the Messiah, the Patriarchs and prophets of course, but also our parents and friends who missed the Good News. For them, as the Creed proclaims, Christ went down into that gray world and those who had longed for Him, who had in whatever terms believed in goodness, in life, in virtue, in self-giving. Perhaps without knowing what Martha knew of the promise of the resurrection, they saw in Christ the fulfillment of their expectations and came to Him. As the Apostle Peter says: He preached to the Spirits in prison (I Peter 3:19). In Thessalonica members of the first Christian generation feared that their beloved departed, people known and remembered quite specifically, would be forever denied knowledge of Jesus (I Thessalonians 4:12–17). Thus for a time the doctrine of the communion of the saints was interpreted to permit the living to be baptized for the dead (I Corinthians 15:29), bringing them into the community of the elect. And so the past was brought into the present.
For the rest of history the one question hanging over the affairs of mankind would be: “What do you think of Jesus; whose Son is He?” And what of the proclamation that His Kingdom is coming, when all mankind will be judged in the light of what they have desired and what they have done? To be a modern is to be troubled by the very particularity of this question. Remarkably, Saint Paul was not troubled with the abstract knowledge of the millions who lived beyond the communion of his Churches or indeed beyond his tight Mediterranean world as are we, we who have daily knowledge of vast races and nations who do not believe or who believe in something other than the Son of God, are troubled. How God may use what is good in the intentions of those who do not know or believe perfectly, how He may understand their circumstances and limitations gently or narrowly is not part of our story. But it is certain that God is the God of the particular. His revelation claims for Him no knowledge of abstractions and averages. He numbers the stars and calls them by name (Psalm 147:4). The Gospel is the story of souls, not of movements.
That in His sovereign will He should have chosen one people, one woman, one man who is God, then twelve only men and the Church that He called into existence through them, is no more mysterious than that anything at all should exist.
This essay from “The Best of Thoughts” was first published at Easter 2015.
James Patrick 2017