Holy Saturday, Second Chances, and Purgatory: Engaging Levering’s Jesus and the Demise of Death

Matthew Levering's latest, Jesus and the Demise of Death: Resurrection, Afterlife, and the Fate of the Christian

This post is part of the current Patheos blogger roundtable on Matthew Levering’s latest book from Baylor Press.

Anyone familiar with Matthew Levering must wonder to themselves, how does he write so much? Levering produces several thesis-type books per year, on top of teaching and editing a major journal (and other collected volumes). At least part of the answer, it seems to me, is that Levering has found a format that works for him. It started already in his doctoral thesis and has continued to form the basis of the majority of his books: Levering takes a contemporary problem in theology and puts today’s scholarship on the question into dialogue with Thomas Aquinas. In Levering’s latest work, Jesus and the Demise of Death: Resurrection, Afterlife, and the Fate of the Christian, Levering employs Thomas’s eschatology to clarify several contemporary questions about ‘end things.’ In Chapter 1, Levering addresses Aquinas’s view of Christ’s descent into hell on Holy Saturday. I found this intriguing because Thomas, at least in my experience, is rarely invoked in contemporary debates on this topic.

Scripture talks in many ways and many places about an intermediate state for those who die before Christ’s death and resurrection. On this Levering is agreed with contemporary scholars like the Anglican Bishop N. T. Wright and the Orthodox Metropolitan Hilarion Alfeyev. But Levering is not willing to affirm, with Wright, that such a state is uniform for all the saved – this is to abstract eschatology too much from history – nor is he willing to grant, with Alfeyev, that such a state offers a second chance at salvation – which would seem to imply a kind of second personal history. Levering desires that the intermediate state reflect the real choices made by human persons in their one and only personal history and so it will be experienced differently by different individuals without being a new history that offers “another life – with the same fundamental choice at stake” (p. 22) as the first.

It is important to note, then, that “hell” in this case does not mean exactly what it means for those of us living after Christ’s death and resurrection. (Hence the idea of the rough equivalence of “hell” or “the dead” in the creed pointed out by Ratzinger.) Heaven, hell, and purgatory cannot properly exist prior to Christ’s passion. In fact, and here Aquinas agrees with Balthasar and Ratzinger, though he never says so very explicitly, heaven, hell, and purgatory are constituted by Christ’s descent in to hell, that is, by his encounter with the dead in the intermediate state. Christ is the Omega, the end of all things. As such, perhaps the most useful way to think about eschatology is as encounter with Christ.

As Levering writes, pace Wright,

Aquinas does not think that all the inhabitants of the intermediate state are in the same condition. Due to the grace of the Holy Spirit, the “great cloud of witnesses” (Heb 12:1) is ready for Christ at his coming into the intermediate state. But others are not. (p. 24)

In other words, for those prepared to meet Christ, the encounter with him is itself the beginning of heaven. (I say “beginning” because they still await the resurrection of the body, something with which Levering deals in Chapter 2, Christ’s own resurrection, and Chapter 7, our resurrection.) Among those, however, who are not ready to meet Christ, there are two groups. Hell, as an intermediate state, can become hell as eternal and definitive separation from God for those whose rejection of Christ in their lives is made explicit by their encounter with Him. Those, on the other hand,

whose love is still divided . . . undergo in the intermediate state a further purification of their loves. Aquinas comments that “they who were such as those who are now in Purgatory, were not set free from Purgatory by Christ’s descent into hell.” [ST III, q. 52, a. 8]  This does not mean that Christ’s presence had no impact on those who as yet could not fully welcome him. It simply means that they were unable to fully welcome him, and his love worked, as it always does, to heal them of this deficiency. (p. 25)

In other words, far from freeing them from purgatory, Christ’s descent inaugurates their purgatory. Purgatory is the encounter with Christ himself and his purifying love for us that exposes our divided hearts for what they are. And exposing evil is the first step in healing its effects. Is this not the dynamic highlighted in Scripture?

This is the judgment, that the light has come into the world, and men loved darkness rather than light, because their deeds were evil. For everyone who does evil hates the light, and does not come to the light, lest his deeds be exposed. (John 3: 19-20)

The real truth hidden in the language of a “second chance” after death, then, is not that we get a kind of mulligan on life but rather that that which was only implicit in this life becomes explicit in the presence of Christ. In him who is Truth, there will be no ambiguity. Christ’s descent to the lowest reaches of human existence is revelatory. It tells us who we really are. And for those willing to look honestly at such revelation – which for most will include a degree of personal purification – it is salvation.


Readers may also be interested in my Good Friday reflection from last year: Good Friday:  Why Did Jesus Have to Die?

Brett Salkeld is a doctoral student in theology at Regis College in Toronto. He is a father of three (so far) and husband of one. He is the co-author of How Far Can We Go? A Catholic Guide to Sex and Dating and the author of Can Catholics Evangelicals Agree about Purgatory and the Last Judgment?

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  • Dan

    Interesting take. Have you ever encountered any writings that don’t contemplate any kind of intermediate state? It seems to me that the “intermediate state” is really a construction based on an assumption that time continues in a linear fashion after we die much in the same way it does here. This creates not just one but two problems – first, that the soul must somehow “detach” itself from the body for a time, and that this soul must exist in some weird state between this moment of detachment and the resurrection. To me, neither seem terribly scriptural. It seems to me that we need rethink the source of the problems rather than try to solve them. I would be interested in any recommendations that have addressed this topic.

    Here’s an example of a perfectly scriptural scenario that eliminates both the detachment problem and the intermediate state:

    – If Christ’s glorified body was not limited by time and space, and we know that, post resurrection, we will be like the “angels in heaven”, we can safely assume that our bodies will neither be limited by time and space.

    – Therefore, if we are not limited by time and space in our resurrected bodies, we are both incorruptible and have complete access to history. i.e. we are immortal and exist across time (much like we assume the detached spirit to be).

    – Now, when we die in our current (non-glorified) body, our soul, which does not exist without the body, does not get detached – it rather “ceases animation” as our body “ceases animation” until the point of the resurrection.

    Now, this may seem contradictory to the idea of the immortal soul – but not so. It simply means that the soul without the body doesn’t have meaning. But you still exist immortally at any given point in time.

    Problem solved…?

    • brettsalkeld

      Well, I think you’ve highlighted something important. I’m not sure a disembodied soul is a very meaningful term. To think in reverse,an unsouled body is not a body at all, but a corpse.

      I’m not entirely sure about the need to wait for resurrection though. It’s just that I’m not sure exactly what that means. Ratzinger writes that our relationship with history exists long after our own deaths through the innumerable consequences that follow from our actions and relationships. Part of our purgatory is dealing with our ongoing relationship with history, so I don’t like to imagine us somehow frozen and waiting, which is what “ceases animation” sounds like to me.

      In any case, my thoughts on this aren’t complete yet. My first instinct would be to read the rest of Levering’s book and then look at Ratzinger’s Eschatology.

      • Dan

        so I don’t like to imagine us somehow frozen and waiting, which is what “ceases animation” sounds like to me.

        It really isn’t – it only appears that way if we think of time in a linear sense.. But if you really grasp what it means for the resurrected body to transcend time and space, then our lives cannot be linear in nature. There is no gap between our death and our resurrected, glorified selves.

        We are tempted to think of our lives as constrained by our linear perceptions of time: We are born, we die, then ???, then we are resurrected, then we are judged. In that sense, there clearly is a gap between our death and the resurrection, which creates all sorts of problems requiring solutions like intermediate states, purgatory, limbo, and confuses issues like the communion of saints. However, all these problems disappear if you think of the resurrection not as a moment where you re-unite with your body within a fixed linear history, but rather like a drop of water falling into a still pond that spreads out in all directions. At the point where the resurrection occurs, your existence transcends time, meaning your glorified body exists throughout history; there is no “gap” where you are frozen awaiting some future event.

        This obviously sounds very new-age but it isn’t any different from what we think of the disembodied soul, and there’s enough scriptural evidence to make this a much better fit than the traditional linear understanding, which require weird ideas like limbo and the intermediate state. It also makes the communion of saints trivial….

        • brettsalkeld

          So, if there’s no gap, what exactly “ceases”?

      • Dan

        Tying this around to purgatory, it does seem quite fitting that you’re going to have to come to terms with everything you’ve done in your life and how it has impacted other – you can’t escape it if your actions and their consequences become part of your eternal present…

      • Dan

        Your mortal existence ceases – much as a seed dies and remains inanimate for an indefinite period until it comes into contact with water, at which point it ceases to be a seed but transofrms into a tree.

  • http://easternchristianbooks.blogspot.com Adam DeVille

    Thanks for a fascinating discussion of a book I hope to get around to reading this summer. It is, as I have noted elsewhere (http://easternchristianbooks.blogspot.com/2012/03/is-matthew-levering-predestined-to-make.html) a very great mystery as to how Levering writes so much, but your theory about his “formula” makes sense. For those who may be interested, I interviewed Levering and Gilles Emery about their recent collection on the Trinity here: http://easternchristianbooks.blogspot.com/2011/12/gilles-emery-and-matthew-levering-on.html

  • http://catholicsensibility.wordpress.com Neil

    Dear Brett,

    Thank you for a very interesting post to read during Holy Week. I haven’t yet had a chance to read Levering’s book, but I wonder how he or you might answer the following questions that could be posed by the aforementioned Metropolitan Hilarion Alfeyev or someone like that –

    1. Does St Thomas still reduce the scope of Christ’s descent into hell? For instance, Thomas claims that unbaptized infants remain in hell and distinguishes certain sinners who would also be left in hell after Christ’s ascent. This sort of claim and distinction are, according to Alfeyev, completely foreign to Eastern Christian thought.

    2. If Christ’s descent serves to tell us “who we really are,” what exegesis can we provide of 1 Peter 3:19-20: “He also went to preach to the spirits in prison who had once been disobedient …?” Can we consider this to be an offer of salvation (e.g. the Eastern fathers, some exegetes like Goppelt) or must that be ruled out?

    3. What do we make of the claim by patristic writers that Christ’s descent also means the breaking of the power of the devil, the devastation of hell itself, etc? Is this intelligible?

    4. Does any claim for a “second chance” have to mean a “second personal history” or a “mulligan?” For instance, Alfeyev, in a lecture, uses language like the “continuation on a new level of that road which a person followed in his lifetime.”


    • brettsalkeld

      Thanks for your always thoughtful questions Neil. I don’t know anything about #1 or what Levering might say in response.
      #2 is my line, so I’d better own it. Yes, I think it can be understood as an offer of salvation. Those who see, in the light of Christ, the truth about their disobedience would experience salvation, though perhaps painfully at first. Those who, even in the light, refuse to see would not. (This strikes me as related to #4.)
      #3 Yes, I think the power of hell is broken, though it is possible that some will choose to go down with that ship.
      #4 Yes, that seems to me much like what I think second chance should mean, though I (and, I assume, Levering) would tend to avoid such terminology as ambiguous. As I noted, I think there is a truth in it, but it needs to be carefully parsed out so it doesn’t look like a mulligan.

  • http://catholicsensibility.wordpress.com Neil

    Dear Brett,

    Thanks for your generous reply. Is it the case, then, that with #2, you differ from Aquinas?

    In ST IIIa.52.8.ad 3, Aquinas does quote John of Damascus’ De Fide Orthodoxa 3.29, but somewhat incorrectly, I think, in order to say that Christ’s preaching in 1 Peter 3 was “not in order to convert unbelievers unto belief, but to put them to shame for their unbelief.”

    Later on, Aquinas will say, that Christ’s descent “had its effect of deliverance on them only who through faith and charity were united to Christ’s Passion” (my emphasis).

    For him, then, there’s no change, no new “offer.”

    Are you trying to pursue some sort of middle path between Augustine-Aquinas and the Eastern tradition? (Or perhaps I have misunderstood.)

    • brettsalkeld

      Levering notes that for him this problem evaporates because he believes it is possible to be united with Christ’s Passion “implicitly.” (This basic idea was available to Aquinas, but became much more developed after the Age of Exploration.) To me that is the key. Those who were united to Christ implicitly would experience an offer of salvation, but rather as something that “continued on a new level that road which a person followed in his lifetime,” as Hilarion put it. It is possible, of course, that others, not united to Christ, would be “put to shame.”

      • http://catholicsensibility.wordpress.com Neil

        Thanks – I really am grateful. I’ll definitely have to read the book. I’m curious to know if this means that Levering simply “redivides” Hell or whether Thomas’ fourfold division of hell becomes somewhat unsustainable.

        Do you plan to blog more about the book?

        • brettsalkeld

          Thanks Neil.
          Unfortunately not. I am in the middle of trying to finish a doctoral dissertation (or at least the most important parts of one) before summer, so things are pretty hairy around here.

  • Anne

    Dan “…all these problems disappear if you think of the resurrection not as a moment where you re-unite with your body within a fixed linear history, but rather like a drop of water falling into a still pond that spreads out in all directions. At the point where the resurrection occurs, your existence transcends time, meaning your glorified body exists throughout history; there is no “gap” where you are frozen awaiting some future event.”

    I find the whole idea of entering “eternity” fascinating. But, fwiw, Ratzinger in Eschatology shoots down almost every way I’ve imagine it, including waking at death into a resurrected state, as it were: “History would be deprived of its seriousness if resurrection occurred at the moment of death. If the resurrection occurs in death then, fundamentally, history is indeed in one sense at an end. Yet the continuing reality of history and thus the temporal character of life after death is of quite basic importance for the Christian concept of God as we find that expressed in christology: in God’s care for time in the midst of time…(pp. 184-5).” Later, he notes “as long as history really continues, it remains a reality, even from a vantage point beyond death, and therefore to declare that history is already cancelled and lifted up into an eternal Last Day after death is impossible…(p. 188). He also ties Purgatory to history, asserting “purgatory means, then, suffering to the end what one has left behind on earth — in the certainty of being definitively accepted, yet having to bear the infinite burden of the withdrawn presence of the Beloved…(p. 189).”

    Since he also defines purgatory as a sinner’s transformative (“purging”) experience upon encountering Christ, I’m not sure how that extends in time. But he’s very clear that history can’t end until it ends…even for the dead.

    • Dan

      I would be interested in learning more about this. I don’t really see an inherent contradiction between what Ratzinger is saying and my hypothesis. There’s really not much difference between what I am proposing and what the traditional understanding is, except in the manner in which we are present after death (bodily vs disembodied).

      I am not proposing that resurrection happens outside of history – rather that when it happens (within history), our existence no longer is limited to present and future events. Rather, history is also fully accessible to us. It’s kind of like having a car that can only move forward, and later getting that car upgraded so that it can move in forward and reverse.