The Ransom of the Soul

The Ransom of the Soul July 30, 2015

What causes changes in the way Christians understand God, salvation, or the afterlife? Peter Brown reminds us that as much as historians seek to understand and explain change over time, it is no easy task.

Brown RansomIn The Ransom of the Soul, his most recent topic is how and why Christian understandings of the afterlife (and relations between the living and the dead) changed between the third and seventh centuries. He begins his story with the idea that most souls remained in a state of what they described as refrigerium (which meant a indefinite time of refreshment and repose). Perhaps the martyrs or saints were immediately transported into the presence of God, but ordinary Christians remained in a state of suspended animation until the resurrection. The soul’s immortality was not the main event, which was the coming renewal of the earth and the resurrection of the saints with the Second advent of Christ and the establishment of the city of New Jerusalem.

By the end of the story, that intermediate period assumed tremendous importance and caused massive anxiety. The ascent of a Christian’s soul to God was a treacherous path. “Each soul,” Brown explains, “moved toward heaven at a different pace.” Satan and his demons would seek to drag them into hell. They needed help. “Each side,” Brown writes, “the living and the dead — was believed to need the other,” a standard ancient Near Eastern idea now reformulated in terms of sin and intercession. The dead needed the intercession of saints (hence many sought to bury their loved ones near saints’ tombs), and they needed the prayers and almsgiving of those still alive. In an attempt to ransom departed souls, Brown continues, Christians engaged in what became a “virtual arms race of pious practices by which the wealth [and others ] … sought to protect, nourish, and eventually bring home to heaven their own souls and the souls of the departed.” The dead, especially those “not altogether souls” whose eternal destinations remained uncertain — dearly needed the living.

This theology, of course, explains the massive growth of monastic estates in the early medieval period. In short, ransoming souls brought in a great amount of cash. Christians literally stored up a lot of treasure in heaven. Protestants have never been enamored with the results, with good theological and practical reasons, I might add. At an earlier period, the belief that giving alms cancelled sins (God was sort of keeping track on a heavenly ledger) had the more beneficial result of encouraging regular almsgiving, a practice nearly absent from western Christianity today. People sinned daily, so they needed to give regularly for the remission of those sins. Also on the plus side, giving by the wealthy and others to the church produced splendid churches, shrines, and monasteries. “There would have been less beauty in the late antique world if there had been less concern for the link between this world and the next,” states Brown.

How might we explain these changes? Not by any standard narrative of major political or religious transitions, says Brown. “Grand events,” he writes, “such as the conversion of Constantine, did not necessarily affect the views of the afterlife … No shock of barbarian invasion can account for the emergence of a fear of hell and of the demonic forces that lie in wait for the soul at the moment of death.”

Part of the explanation is that early communities of Christians were eventually joined by very wealthy converts. Wealth produced theological change.

Peter Brown has been plumbing the depths of Antiquity and Medieval Christianity for a long while now. Reading his Cult of the Saints was a transformative event in my undergraduate education, an eye-opening narrative of the “translation” of relics and other things entirely foreign to my evangelical Protestant sense of Christianity. Brown always has an always helpful reminder about for Christians and historians alike: in the past, they did things differently. We would seem as strange to them as they seem to us. And it is not a simple matter to explain how they came to do the things they did and believe what they believed. His is always history in its full complexity with a dash of preserved mystery.


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