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Theology Matters: Theology of Death

Changing Views of Death

The confusion surrounding how we feel about the theology of death and resurrection stems from an underlying confusion about how Christians should feel about death. Philippe Aries, in his book The Hour of Our Death, points out that the early Christians viewed death very differently from other non-Christian cultures around them.[1] Non-Christian cultures, including Judaism, viewed death as unclean and wanted the dead as far from their daily lives as possible. Christians, however, wanted the dead to be at the center of their lives. They were able to claim their dead because of the victory of Christ over death in the resurrection. They built elaborate buildings to house their dead, and in some places buried them in the center of town. Many churches had adjoining graveyards so the loved ones of the parishioners could be nearby for visitation.

During the 18th century, however, the old familiar ways of treating the dead as unclean crept back into secular society. Cemeteries were moved back out of the city. Families in France went so far as to stop going to funerals. After World War II, new parish churches discontinued the practice of having adjoining graveyards. Bodies were no longer kept at home after death, and the coffins could not fit into the narrow doorways of new homes. Families no longer lived near each other. Slowly the state, and eventually the funeral industry, began sanitizing the old rituals of death and dying. The funeral home takes care of the body, dresses the loved one, and puts make-up on him or her, as if the person is not dead. The earth around the burial plot is covered over with artificial grass so no one really knows what happens to the coffin after the conclusion of the service. 

The Theology of Death

There are three primary patterns of thinking which support the majority of thought regarding death: immediate rewards and punishments of the Reformed tradition, Purgatory from the Roman Catholic tradition, and the eschatological pattern of the Anglican tradition. We will examine these patterns one at a time. 

The immediate rewards and punishments of the Reformed tradition was a counter to the thought that after we died there was some period of waiting until judgment occurred. The Reformed tradition felt that, immediately upon death, you were either welcomed back into the arms of God or you were immediately sent to an eternal state of damnation. The scriptural support for this perspective is found in the parable of Lazarus and the rich man (Lk 16:19-31) and in Jesus’ last words to the thief on the cross next to him (Lk 23:42). The only change for the dead at the Second Coming of Christ would be an intensification of the state in which one already exists. The Westminster Confession of Faith declares that

The bodies of men, after death, return to dust, and see corruption; but their souls (which neither die nor sleep), having an immortal subsistence, immediately return to God who gave them. The souls of the righteous, being made perfect in holiness, are received into the highest heavens, where they behold the face of God in light and glory, waiting for the full redemption of their bodies, and the souls of the wicked are cast into hell, where they remain in torments and utter darkness, reserved to the judgment of the great day. Besides these two places for souls separated from their bodies, the Scripture acknowledgeth none.[2]


A second pattern one can draw from a negative reading of the intermediate state would be the idea of Purgatory. It is never described explicitly in Scripture, but rather is most likely drawn from an extra biblical tradition of tours of the underworld to be found in Jewish apocalyptic writers more than two centuries before Christ’s birth. Possible passages in Scripture to which one could refer as descriptions of Purgatory are Luke 16, 2 Corinthians 12, and 1 Peter 3. “In the later classical period, Augustine of Hippo and Gregory the Great suggested that the souls of the righteous might be cleansed by purifying flames at the last judgment. Western theologians of the eleventh to the fifteenth century shifted this period of purification from the last judgment to the period of waiting, thereby developing the doctrine of purgatory.”[3] Purgatory becomes the place where one has to suffer for one’s iniquities prior to entrance into heaven or hell, unless one was so saintly as to go directly to heaven or so evil as to go directly to hell. Those somewhere in the middle were sent to purgatory, for a time to be determined by the Pope, to be cleansed from their sins. 

Although this position was openly condemned by Article 22 of the Thirty-Nine Articles, the idea of progress crept its way into Anglican thought on the issue of the afterlife. Some have even gone so far as to suggest this progress could be granted to people who have been damned so that they might improve themselves to eventually earn a place in heaven.

The Anglican Church supports the pattern of the Day of the Lord. This pattern is supported in Scripture in 1 Corinthians 15, 1 Thessalonians 4 and Revelation 20. The life for which we hope after death is dependent upon the final victory of Christ. Christ returns at the Second Coming prepared to gather the living and the dead into God’s kingdom. There is no mention in Scripture regarding what actually happens to the person between death and the Second Coming. The idea of the dead being asleep can be found in 1 Corinthians and 1 Thessalonians. Revelation refers to the dead as being in Hades, the sea and in death. This is typically referred to as the intermediate state.

This pattern has been the underlying theology of the Book of Common Prayer since 1549 with Thomas Cranmer. Anglicans have used the Apostles’ Creed in support of this pattern because of the explicit mention of Christ descending into hell. The 1979 BCP, Rite II service, is the first to print out the text of the Creed in the midst of the service. Prior to 1979, it was only a rubrical suggestion. Although this pattern is clearer with the use of the Apostles’ Creed, the prayers in the 1979 BCP have become less clear than the prayers from the 1928 BCP. For example, the committal at the end of the service was shortened to exclude the following: “looking for the general Resurrection in the last Day, and the life of the World to come, through our Lord Jesus Christ; at whose second coming in glorious Majesty to judge the World, the Earth and the Sea shall give up their Dead; and the corruptible bodies of those who sleep in him shall be changed and made like unto his own glorious Body.” There is no longer an explicit reference to a resurrected life that begins at Christ’s return.

 The Current Dilemma

The problem with which theologians throughout the century have struggled, which is still relevant for us today, is how to describe this intermediate state. We accept that we will be raised with Christ on the last day, but the real confusion enters into the conversation when we try to describe what will happen in the meantime. This confusion can even lead people to deny the reality of death. The sleeping metaphor is not helpful in this situation. We want to be assured that our dead are comforted while they are waiting, not in some state of perpetual limbo. But, ultimately, we cannot say what we do not know. 

Members of the Standing Liturgical Commission, when reviewing the 1928 BCP, wanted to eliminate, whenever possible, the references to what that intermediate state might be like. Unfortunately, as a result of the changes, the theology of the current Prayer Book is even less clear than the prayer books prior to 1979. The net result is an office that is open to some degree to any of the three readings that we have seen above.

Ultimately, we need to focus on glorifying God in the face of death through the victory of Christ, commending our departed loved ones to God, comforting the bereaved and “bearing witness for the benefit of the living to the faith of the Christian community.”[4] Beyond that, I feel it is not helpful for us to speculate. What I have found most helpful in considering the intermediate state is the knowledge that God’s time is not our time. What may seem like an eternity to us, is mere seconds to God. While we recognize the grief of those left behind, we will be raised up on the Last Day through the ultimate power of Christ, and for that reason we can celebrate the joy of the resurrection in the pastoral office of the Burial of the Dead. But, until that day comes, we will be left in joyful anticipation.

“Our heart finds peace in knowing that death is not the end. Death opens the way towards a life where God welcomes us to himself for ever.”

- Brother Roger of Taizé

[1] Philippe Aries, The Hour of Our Death, Translated by Helen Weaver. (New York: Vintage Books, 1982).

[2] John Lieth, Creeds of the Churches, 3rd Ed. (Atlanta: John Knox Press, 1982), 229.

[3] Robert W. Prichard, The Nature of Salvation (Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 1997), 140.

[4] Prayer Book Studies 24, 19.

The Rev. Catherine Thompson is the rector of Annunciation in Lewisville


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