Christian reflection on eschatology has had to contend with two sets of statements in the New Testament, one which affirms the greatly desirable presence of deceased believers with Christ prior to the general resurrection “absent the body” (2 Cor 5:8), and another – the predominant strand – which holds out not this intermediate state but the final resurrection of the body as our ultimate hope (e.g., Rom 8:23-24; 1 Thess 4:13-18).
The tension between the two became heightened in the middle ages with questions about the time of the beatific vision, the promise of seeing God that is the fulfillment of deepest human desire. Is this already available to the souls of believers in the intermediate state, prior to the resurrection? Or does it await all Christians at the end, following the general resurrection? In 1336, Pope Benedict XII issued the bull Benedictus Deus, defining the former option as the Catholic faith.1 This heightened the Christian expectation for heaven immediately after death as the location of hope.
Nevertheless, others in the Christian tradition continued to emphasize the mixed quality of the intermediate state. Henry of Ghent states that the separated soul exists only in “incomplete personhood” (imperfecta personalitate) until its reunion with the body at the resurrection.2 And Robert Boyle, the early modern scientist and philosopher, compared this intermediate state to one of “widowhood”!3 This suggests that the state of departed believers prior to the final resurrection is one of mixed emotion: joy at being in the presence of the Lord, sadness for its imperfection prior to the recreation of the world.
1 Caroline Walker Bynum, The Resurrection of the Body in Western Christianity, 200–1336 (New York: Columbia University Press, 1996), ch. 7, esp. 285.
2 Ibid., 243, citing Quodlibet 6, q.5.
3 Robert Boyle, “Some Physico-theological Considerations about the Possibility of the Resurrection,” in The Works of the Honourable Robert Boyle, 6 vols. (London, 1772), 4:201.