Note to My Readers: from mid-June to mid-August (6/18 - 8/20), I will be taking a summer break from posting new articles for my Thursday and Friday slots. This will only affect my Thursday series on the global growth of Christianity, and my Friday series, the "Theological Bestiary" of birds, both of which will resume in late August. During the summer, I'll be dusting off some of my best essays from the first few years of this blog (a decade ago), as well as my verse play "Thus Ends the World," and re-posting them in the Thursday and Friday slots. All other weekdays will continue to feature new material throughout the summer.
Saturday, December 26, 2015
95 Theses, #62-63: The Death of Christ and the Intermediate State
To see the introduction and disclaimers for my 95 Theses, first go to: 95-Theses-Introduction
(Painting: "The Dead Christ," by Annibale Carracci, 1580s, oil on canvas)
62.) The Death of Christ - The death of Christ is a mystery that may not allow for an explanation in terms that we could ever understand. It does not seem possible that the person of Christ could have dropped from existence altogether, since it is impossible for God, as the one necessary being, not to exist, and it is inconceivable that any part of the eternal Trinity could perish, even for a limited time. Rather, what I would posit is that in Christ’s death, the “new humanity” experience of death was inaugurated—death as a passage into a new mode of existence, not a diminishment into nonexistence. Thus, when Christ was “dead” on Holy Saturday (prefigured by the OT Sabbath’s day of rest and by the Godhead's "resting" on the seventh day of creation), his soul was resting in a timeless state in the presence of the OT saints (as I will explain below), who were present as “souls” in a timeless existence “in the bosom of Abraham”. The traditional doctrine of Christ’s “harrowing of hell” can be understood more as a metaphorical description of what Christ did on the cross rather than as a historical description of his activities while his physical body was in the tomb.
63.) Human Nature and the Intermediate State - This means that, apart from Christ, human beings would perish into nonexistence (except as ideas in the mind of God), and I would hold that that is exactly what happens to those who die without being members of the new humanity in Christ. This does not mean, however, that their “soul”—the immaterial information-pattern that makes them who they are--is irretrievably lost; God is able to resurrect that person at any time and in any form he chooses. Those who die as part of the new humanity—including those who went before Christ but were connected with God’s grace through a hopeful faith in the Christ they did not yet know—are brought from death immediately into a new state of existence, outside of the normal constraints of space and time, and with greater access to the unmediated presence of God. We do not know what form of existence this soul-in-death experience is like; classical Christian doctrine would seem to suggest that it is a disembodied-but-conscious existence, much like the angels. Scripture does tell us clearly, though, that a disembodied state is not our ultimate destiny—as the vicars of creation, standing between the material and spiritual worlds, we are meant to be embodied, and this disembodied state must be thought of as a hiatus in which the already-but-not-yet dynamic applies: we still deal with the effects of sin and the nature of things in “the vale of soul-making”—i.e., we still deal with the mortality of our physical existence—until the final restoration of all things. Such a disembodied state would also be a hiatus, a “rest” in the sense that, outside of the sequence and material existence for which we were created, we would be in some sense prevented from continuing on our course of moral growth until the final restoration. All this is merely supposition, however: it is certainly possible that the soul-in-death rest of the saints could be an embodied existence of some type of which we cannot now conceive; but this would seem to add the awkward element of an extra, interim body for ourselves, including an interim body for Christ during Holy Saturday. Therefore, though we may not fully understand the dynamics of all this, it seems more likely that our soul-in-death experience would be one of disembodiment. It is also possible to posit that this disembodied state need not be outside of the normal sequence of time, since the paradoxes of time and eternity here make an awkward overlap (at least in my position) of a timeless-state-hinged-to-the-sequence-of-history, a timelessness within the time between Christ’s first and second comings. But, on the other hand, if our understanding of physics is right, then to posit that something is within “time” suggests that it must be constrained by the limits of our physical universe. This paradox perhaps can be resolved by positing, as I will below, that “eternity” future will be for us a return to the sequence of time in “the new heavens and the new earth,” so that the timelessness that the angels, demons, and disembodied souls now experience is more of a static reality outside of time than it is some sort of state in which all times, including the future, are present, such as how we normally think of eternity in relation to time. Either way we think about it, it is probably best thought of as a “rest,” mirroring Christ’s Sabbath-rest in the tomb before the new creation begins in all its fullness. At most, those in this restful intermediate state would be capable of spiritual-relational functions, such as prayer and contemplation.