The Christian Hope of the Resurrection (2)

[Arguing against the notion of Purgatory, Wright says:] In particular, we must take account of the well-known and striking saying of Jesus to the dying brigand beside him, recorded by Luke (23.43). ‘Today,’ he said, ‘you will be with me in paradise.’ ‘Paradise’ is not the final destination; it is a beautiful resting place on the way there. But notice. If there is anyone in the New Testament to whom we might have expected the classic doctrine of purgatory to apply, it would be this brigand. He had no time for amendment of life; no doubt he had all kinds of sinful thoughts and desires in what was left of his body. All the standard arguments in favour of purgatory apply to him. And yet Jesus assures him of his place in paradise, not in a few days or weeks, not if his friends say lots of prayers and masses for him, but ‘today’.

In fact, there are so many things said in the New Testament about the greatest becoming least and the least becoming greatest that we shouldn’t be surprised at this lack of distinction between the post-mortem state of different Christians. In the light of the most basic and central Christian gospel, the message and achievement of Jesus and the preaching of Paul and the others, there is no reason whatever to say, for instance, that Peter or Paul, James or John is more advanced, closer to God, or has achieved more spiritual ‘growth’, than the Christians who were killed for their faith last week or last year. Remember the workers in the vineyard (Matthew 20.116). Those who worked all day thought they would be paid more, but those who came at the last hour were paid just the same. Is the vineyard owner not allowed to do what he likes with his own? Are we going to grumble because he is so wonderfully generous?

If we are to be true to our foundation charter, then, we must say that all Christians, living and departed, are to be thought of as ‘saints’; and that all Christians who have died are to be thought of, and treated, as such. The arguments regularly advanced in support of some kind of a purgatory, however modernized, do not come from the Bible. They come from the common perception that all of us up to the time of death are still sinful, and from the proper assumption that something needs to be done about this if we are (to put it crudely) to be at ease in the presence of the holy and sovereign God. The medieval doctrine of purgatory, as we saw, imagined that the ‘something’ that needed to be done could be divided into two aspects: punishment on the one hand, and purging or cleansing on the other. It is vital that we understand the biblical response to both of these.

I cannot stress sufficiently that if we raise the question of punishment for sin, this is something that has already been dealt with on the cross of Jesus [emphasis mine]. Of course, there have been crude and unbiblical versions of the doctrine of atonement, and many have rightly reacted against the idea of a vengeful God determined to punish someone and being satisfied by taking it out on his own son. But do not mistake the caricature for the biblical doctrine. Paul says, in his most central and careful statement, not that God punished Jesus, but that God ‘condemned sin in the flesh’ of Jesus (Romans 8:3). The idea that Christians need to suffer punishment for their sins in a post-mortem purgatory, or anywhere else, reveals a straightforward failure to grasp the very heart of what was achieved on the cross.

—N.T. Wright, For All the Saints

Christ Ends the Tyranny of Death

The Word became flesh and dwelt among us; he suffered death in the flesh in order to give life to all. Even though [Jesus] remains in the flesh, since he came to life again on the third day and is now with the Father in heaven, we know that he has passed beyond the life of the flesh. Christ’s coming to life again for our sake has put an end to the sovereignty of death. We have come to know the true God and to worship him in spirit and in truth, through the Son, our mediator, who sends down upon the world the Father’s blessings. And so Saint Paul shows deep insight when he says: “This is all God’s doing: it is he who has reconciled us to himself through Christ.”

—Cyril, Bishop of Alexandria, Commentary on 2 Corinthians

The New Creation has Begun

The reign of life has begun, the tyranny of death is ended [by Christ’s death, resurrection, and ascension, and the coming of the Holy Spirit]. A new birth has taken place, a new life has come, a new order of existence has appeared, our very nature has been transformed! This birth is not brought about “by human generation, by the will of humankind, or by the desire of the flesh, but by God.”

—Gregory of Nyssa, Oration on the Resurrection

A Call to Repentance

What? Are none of these [pagan Athenians] to be punished? No, not if they are willing to repent [emphasis mine]. [Paul] says this not of the departed by of those whom he is addressing [in Athens]. [God] does not yet call you to account, Paul says. He does not say, “[God] neglected” or “[God] permitted,” but “You [Athenians] were ignorant. [God] overlooked.” That is, he does not exact punishment from you as from men deserving punishment. You were ignorant.

—John Chrysostom, Homilies on the Acts of the Apostles 38

Different Forms of Comfort

The Holy Spirit was another Comforter differing not in nature, but in operation. For whereas our Savior in his office of Mediator, and of Messenger,and as High Priest, made supplication for our sins, the Holy Spirit is a Comforter in another sense, that is, as consoling our griefs. But do not infer from the different operations of the Son and the Spirit a difference of nature.

—Didymus the Blind, On the Holy Spirit 27