Without the resurrection, there is no Christianity. It is as simple as that. St. Paul himself taught as much when he declared that “if Christ has not been raised, then our preaching is in vain, and your faith is in vain” (1 Cor. 15:14) and “if Christ has not been raised, your faith is futile” (1 Cor. 15:17). It is the Resurrection that constitutes the foundation of our faith and the centerpiece of our theology.
Few Orthodox Christians would deny such assertions, and yet we tend to minimize the significance of Christ’s Resurrection. We tend to see it primarily as a vindication of the Lord who was unjustly condemned, as a manifestation of his divine power, and as a validation of his teaching. We describe it as an event long ago and far away -important, to be sure, but not having any parallel in our own lives. This is a distortion which needs to be corrected, and the means of correction is again found in the teaching of St. Paul.
ONLY THE BEGINNING
n depicting Christ as risen from the dead, St. Paul does not see him only as a vindicated Messiah or a powerful Lord or a validated Rabbi. He uses a phrase that vividly indicates another crucial aspect of the Resurrection: “But in fact Christ has been raised from the dead, the first fruits of those who have fallen asleep” (1 Cor. 15:20). St. Paul here uses harvest language. The first crops to be harvested are the “first fruits,” but no good harvest ends there; many other fruits are to follow. And so it is with Christ’s Resurrection. In the plan of God, it is not to be seen as an isolated, “one-shot” event; it is only the beginning. In rising from the dead, Christ began a process which has yet to come to full fruition. The full harvest will take place on the Last Day, and St. Paul gives the order in which it will occur. “Christ the first fruits, then at his coming those who belong to Christ” (1 Cor. 15:23). In other words, Christ has risen first, but we will rise in a resurrection like his as well (cf. Rom. 6:5). The Resurrection of the Lord is a foreshadowing of what will happen to us. When we celebrate the Christ’s Resurrection, we are actually anticipating our own. Resurrection is our destiny as well. On the Last Day we will rise from the dead, just as Christ already has, “each in his own order” (1 Cor. 15:20). He who has already conquered death will give us a full share in that victory. Every Christian should yearn for that Last Day. The Creed gives clear expression to this anticipation: “I look for the resurrection of the dead and the life of the world to come.”
YEARNING FOR THE LAST DAY
But do we really yearn for that Day? Do we see it as the culmination of the divine plan for the human race – and indeed for all creation? Do we understand eternal life through the lens of the Last Day? Most of us, unfortunately, do not. We see our eternity as being fixed at our own death. We die; we are judged; we enjoy the blessedness of the just in heaven or the lot of the condemned in hell. End of story.
As popular as such a perspective might be, it is not the teaching of the Church. The Church’s teaching on eschatology – i.e., its doctrine of the “last things” – focuses not on the death of the individual, but on the Last Day, when the “age to come” will dawn.
So how are we properly to understand death and the afterlife from an Orthodox perspective?
TO SAVE OUR SOULS – AND BODIES
First and foremost, we must understand that it is God’s purpose to save us fully – as whole human beings, body and soul together. The purpose of Christianity is not just to save our souls, to the exclusion of our bodies. Our bodies will be redeemed as well as our souls. This teaching seems all but lost in many quarters. It needs to be re-affirmed.
The teaching that a human being is a psychophysical unity, a unity of body and soul, was certainly central in early Christian doctrine. Consider, for instance, the clear teaching of St. Justin the Martyr (+ 165):
For what is man but the rational animal composed of body and soul? Is the soul itself man? No; but the soul of man. Would the body be called man? No; but it is called the body of man … neither of these is by itself man, but that which is made up of the two together is called man [On the Resurrection, 8; cited in L. Puhalo, The Soul, the Body and Death (Chilliwack, BC, Canada: Synaxis Press, 1985), p. 93].
According to Orthodox Christian teaching, a soul is not to be seen as “trapped” in a body. Perhaps the most vexing heresy that the early Church had to combat, Gnosticism, taught that the soul was good and that the body was bad and that death, therefore, was good because it “liberated” the soul. The Fathers roundly condemned this teaching. The body is not evil: it is the partner of the soul, and both are worthy of salvation.
WHAT HAPPENS AT DEATH?
But what does happen to the soul once it is separated from the body at death? Is it not judged in a “particular judgment”? According to Orthodox theology, after parting from the body, the soul is taken by angels to a place of waiting and repose when it rests in a reflective state. To be sure, this entails a judgment in that the souls of the just have a perception of God’s presence and love and of their communion with Christ and his body, the Church, while the souls of the wicked exist in that spiritual darkness that characterizes the absence of the Holy Spirit. The souls of the just are given by the Holy Spirit an awareness of the joy and fulfillment that awaits them at the judgment on the Last Day. The souls of the wicked, on the other hand, have only a perception of the sorrow and grief that await them because of their rejection of the freely-given love of God.
This experience of the soul after its separation from the body in death was described powerfully in the fourth century by St. Ambrose of Milan (+397):
While the fullness of time is awaited, souls await the reward due them. Punishment awaits some, glory others and yet the former are not meanwhile free from suffering, nor the latter without reward. For the former are disturbed, seeing that for those observing the law of God a reward of glory is set aside, their dwelling places are kept by the angels, but for them future punishments, shame and confusion for their negligence and obstinacy, so that while looking on the glory of the Most High, they are ashamed to come into his sight, whose commands they violated. (On the Good of Death, par. 47; cited in Puhalo, p. 117).
In the fifteenth century, the great pillar of Orthodoxy, St. Mark of Ephesus (+1444) described the existence of the soul between death and the dawning of the Last Day as follows:
We affirm that neither the righteous have as yet received the fullness of their lot and that blessed condition for which they have prepared themselves here through works, nor have sinners, after death, been led away into eternal punishment in which they shall be tormented eternally. Rather, both the one and the other must necessarily take place after the Judgment of that Last Day and the resurrection of all. (Orations and Replies to the Cardinals on the Orations, cited in Puhalo, p. 135).
THE LAST DAY
On the Last Day, Christ the Risen Lord will descend in glory, “with a cry of command, with the archangel’s call, and with the sound of the trumpet of God,” and then the dead in Christ will rise (1 Thess. 4:16; cf. I Cor. 15:52). We should not think of this resurrection as a mere reconstitution of our old bodies. Far from it. Our bodies in this resurrection will be transformed, freed from the imperfections and burdens of mortality and corruption. “In the twinkling of an eye,” St. Paul assures us, “we shall all be changed” (1 Cor. 15:51-52). As he describes it:
So it is with the resurrection of the dead. What is sown is perishable, what is raised is imperishable. It is sown in dishonor, it is raised in glory. It is sown in weakness, it is raised in power. It is sown a physical body, it is raised a spiritual body … For this perishable nature must put on the imperishable, and this mortal nature must put on immortality (1 Cor. 15:42-44, 53).
The Fathers expand on St. Paul’s depiction of our resurrected bodies by assuring us that whatever deformities we suffered in our mortal body will be corrected on the Last Day. St. Justin assures us that “if on earth Christ healed the sicknesses of the flesh, and made the body whole, much more will he do this in the resurrection, so that the flesh will rise perfect and entire” (On the Resurrection, 4; cf.Tertullian, On the Resurrection of the Flesh, 57).
In short, on the Last Day the reign of death and sin – indeed all creation’s subjection to futility -will be shattered when the glory and love of God are fully revealed and all things are made subject to Christ, who, in turn, will hand all things over to the Father (1 Cor. 15:25-28).
THE UNIVERSAL JUDGMENT
But this full revelation of the glory and love of God implies judgment. We tend to speak of what will happen on the Last Day in figurative terms. We picture Christ descending on a throne, holding a large book filled with data about our lives. We picture ourselves being called forward one by one for a hearing that will determine whether we get sent to heaven or hell. Such images are helpful, but they can also be misleading. If people do not move beyond them toward a more sophisticated understanding of the Universal Judgment, they will dismiss the whole idea of the Last Day as a childish tale. We have to get behind these images.
God wills that everyone be saved (1 Tim. 2:4). However, when the overwhelming light of God’s glory and love is manifested at the end of time, no one will be able to hide from its rays. No one or no thing will be able to avoid being exposed by it. There will be no darkness, no hiding. Face to face with the awesomeness of God’s glory and love, we will realize the magnitude of the salvation offered to us by God and will be led to examine how we responded to this offer. Every person will thus inevitably be judged by his or her own conscience.
Those who accepted the offer of salvation will know a boundless joy. On the other hand, those who rejected this salvation will cower – just like someone who, having been locked in a dark room for months, would cower when suddenly thrust into bright sunshine. Those who damned themselves will be consumed by remorse and grief once they realize the great opportunity that they lost.
And all this will take place after the body has been raised and rejoined to the soul, which God had preserved in life by his grace. Thus the whole person, body and soul together, will be judged on the Last Day. And that, the Fathers assert, is only fair. After all, it was as a whole person, body and soul together, that we did good or did evil. It is therefore as a whole person, body and soul together, that we should stand for judgment and receive either reward or punishment. The Church Father Tertullian (+ca. 225) says that God’s justice requires such an arrangement. God would be unjust, he asserts, “if he were to exclude from reward the flesh which is associated in good works” and “if he were to exempt it from punishment when it has been an accomplice in evil deeds” (On the Resurrection of the Flesh, 15; cf. Athenagoras, On the Resurrection of the Dead, 18).
THE “SLEEP OF HOPE”
For the Orthodox Christian, then, death is a “sleep of hope.” At death we enter a period of restful anticipation; while sleeping in the Lord, we await the resurrection on the Last Day. We must recapture the early Christian expectation of the Parousia, the second coming of Christ and the consummation of all things. It could dawn tomorrow – or today! And when it does, Christ’s victory over death, which we celebrate so triumphantly during this and every Paschal season, will be fully ours as well.
Christ rose from the dead as the “first fruits” of the dead so that we all might follow him in a resurrection like his. Risen from the dead in transformed bodies, as whole persons, redeemed in both body and soul, we will be part of that “great harvest” of the Kingdom, the harvest that Christ initiated by his glorious Resurrection.
Fr. Theodore Pulcini, pastor of St. Mary Mission in Chambersburg, PA, is assistant professor of religion at Dickinson College, Carlisle, PA.