I am continuing to slowly read Matthew Levering’s book Jesus and the Demise of Death: Resurrection, Afterlife, and the Fate of the Christian. Levering is a Catholic thinker, an Aquinas expert, and as such thinks from this direction. Even so (haha), he offers some really excellent commentary on some very important theological topics. In this instance the issue is ‘death.’ I wanted to share something from him on the ‘intermediate state,’ or the status that obtains upon the death of a Christian person (or non-Christian, for that matter). Here we are at the end of one of his opening chapters where he has been sketching various approaches to this matter; approaches presented by important thinkers such as NT Wright, Pope Benedict XVI, Hans Urs von Balthasar, Thomas Aquinas et al. Let’s read his concluding remarks on these various sketches:
Wright emphasizes the eschatological renewal of space, time, and matter; he fears eschatologies that overspiritualize our future with God. At the same time, he holds that the New Testament attests to an intermediate state in which the dead are conscious prior to the general resurrection. He portrays this intermediate state as a place of uneventful happiness, and he denies that the intermediate state involves purification. By contrast, Balthasar envisions Christ experiencing all sin in solidarity with the damned in Sheol. Numerous Fathers, followed by Metropolitan, Hilarion, understand the intermediate state as marked by Christ’s preaching, opening up the possibility that those who reject Christ in this life may accept him in the intermediate state.
Aquinas likewise affirms the existence of an intermediate state. At the moment of his redemptive death, Jesus entered into the intermediate state and liberated the holy people of God who were waiting for him. His resurrection thus reveals the vindication not only of Jesus, but also of the people of God who welcome Jesus as the messianic King. The happiness of those who welcome him accounts for Jesus’ promise to the good thief that “today you will be with me in Paradise” (Luke 23:43) and for Paul’s remark that he “would rather be away from the body and at home with the Lord” (2 Cor 5:8). Although people can be happy in the intermediate state, nonetheless death retains its bitterness: Jesus experienced the separation of body and soul as a profound privation. In this regard at least, Aquinas’ position is not contrary to Calvin’s view that Jesus’ “descent into hell” describes his suffering the terrible penalty of death on behalf of all sinners.
Aquinas’ connection of Jesus’ entrance into the intermediate state with the vindication of holy Israel avoids Wright’s otherworldly portrait of inactive sameness. At the same time, Aquinas’ position does not overly historicize Jesus’ presence in the intermediate state. Jesus works in the intermediate state by the power of his Passion without having to undertake a new ministry or undergo further desolation. When Christ the king arrived in the intermediate state to await his resurrection as the first-fruits of ours, the joyful passage of faithful Israel—of all who “died in faith, not having received what was promised, but having seen it and greeted it from afar, and having acknowledged that they were strangers and exiles on the earth” (Heb 11:13)—had indeed begun.
We see Levering, rightfully in my view, offering some critique of Wright’s overly-horizontalized depiction of the eschatological reality through Aquinas’s more metaphysically informed view. But that is not ultimately what I want to press. I simply wanted to broach this topic as an important piece of contemplation that seemingly most Christians (in the churches) never are exposed to. But this shouldn’t be so!
Clearly, there is a lacuna in the church’s teachings in regard to an issue that the global world is confronted with on a daily basis. We all suffer the losses of death, one way or the other and finally ultimate death as we succumb to whatever it is we are going to succumb to in regard to our last breath on this earth. I think it is an important to think about what we will face after we are absent from this body, present with the Lord. What in fact does ‘present with the Lord’ entail, particularly in the in-between time that the so called intermediate state symbolizes? Is the ‘life after life’ (as Wright notes it) just ‘more of the same’ just elevated? According to Levering and his Aquinas, no, the after-life and the eschatological consummate life to come, yet future, even for those in intermediate status, is of a greater sort; it is of a qualitative difference of the sort that only eyes of faith might begin to apprehend (which I agree with).
We will be engaging with this topic further in the days to come. But I wanted to register this now, so you, the reader, can start thinking about this issue. I will say this: “If Christ be not risen we are of all people most to be pitied.”
 Matthew Levering, Jesus and the Demise of Death: Resurrection, Afterlife, and the Fate of the Christian (Baylor University Press, 2012), 43 Scribd version.