From the Treatise on Faith in the Resurrection by St. Ambrose the Bishop
The first fruits are of the same kind and nature as the other fruits, and they are brought as an offering to God, to win his blessing on the ingathering; an holy offering made on behalf of all, and as it were the homage of restored nature. Christ then is the first fruits of them that sleep. But is he the first fruits only of his own beloved ones? That is, only of those who fall asleep in him, and lie as it were untouched by death, wrapt as it were in a sweet slumber? Or is he the first fruits of all the dead? But (as Scripture saith) as in Adam all die, even so in Christ shall be made alive. So that, as in Adam were the first-fruits of the death, wherein all do die, even so were the first-fruits of the resurrection, wherein all do rise again. But let no man be hopeless; neither let the righteous think it a belittlement of righteousness that the resurrection will be common to all men; for the righteous do rightly look for ward to that day wherein the harvest of this life will nobly realize itself. All indeed shall rise again, but, as saith thr Apostle: Every man in his own order. The harvest of God’s mercy will be for all, but in reward one man shall differ from another.
The Anglican Breviary, p. C382
How often do we presume hopelesness with regard to those who have died, but not in Christ? How often is that asserted as part and parcel of our Christian creed? How often are those believing otherwise tarred Origenists/heretics? To presume that after death, in a – presumably – relatively bodiless state change is impossible is not a feature taken immediately out of the Scriptures. Rather, the unchanging features of the spiritual realm come to us from the Greek Philosophical tradition. This is not, of course, necessarily a problem. Cultures and their philosophies can be baptized so that whatever is good, true and noble in them is retained and even brought to full fruition by the Gospel.
But in the case of the spiritual realm, the Scriptures are mostly silent. Or perhaps more accurately, the Scriptures are in evolution. It would seem that the oldest layers of text in the Old Testament do not know of existence after death at all, but the awareness of such a reality is only gradually unfolded throughout the volumes we know as the Old Testament. The New Testament is explicit about a few things in this regard, and they have all found their way into our most cherished and most often used creeds:
- there is life after death
- there will be a judgment after death
- there will be a bodily resurrection (life after life after death as Bp. N.T. Wright calls it)
Beyond these central points little, if anything, is unambiguously asserted. A judgment assumes the possibility of punishment and reward and the Scriptures as well as the Commentaries in the The Anglican Breviary affirm it by speaking about precisely punishment and reward in certain places. This selection from St. Ambrose here presents us with the question whether all those who have died and will die without any known connection to the saving grace of Jesus Christ are necessarily beyond hope. St. Ambrose seems to say that it is not necessarily so. Hope remains, and in the Eastern Christian tradition prayers are therefore offered for all the dead. This is particularly evident in the so-called kneeling prayers in the Office of Pentecost. The Western tradition seems to agree on this point with the Eastern tradition. This is not to say that universal salvation is garanteed for all. Neither the Scriptures, nor the tradition allows for such a strong assertion. The point here must be that if universal salvation cannot be dogmatically asserted neither can the eternal duration of hell be so asserted.
Soon Pentecost will be upon us. We will first see our Lord ascend to Heaven, and from the Father’s right-hand-side He will send us the Spirit to – among other things – give us words and breath with which to pray. Let us not exclude from our prayers our friends and family which are not Christian. Let us pray for their conversion and salvation. But let us also not exclude those of our friends and family who have died without having ever visibly united to the Lord Jesus Christ. Let the Spirit of prayer inspire all your intentions for the living and the dead – indiscriminately! For the depths of hell have not conquered Christ, rather Christ has conquered them. Hope remains, hope is the mode of Christian prayer, faith, and life not despair.
All praise be thine, O risen Lord,
from death to endless life restored;
whom with the Father we adore,
and Holy Ghost for evermore. Amen.
Fr. Gregory Wassen +