Early in his most recent book, The Ransom of the Soul: Afterlife and Wealth in Early Western Christianity, Peter Brown directs the reader’s attention to a remarkable passage from the conclusion of Cyprian’s Exhortation to Martyrdom. In it, he reflects on the immediacy of the beatific vision for the martyr after death–one closes one’s eyes here, and opens them upon Christ (without time of further cleansing or testing) there. Though his focus is principally on those who are actually persecuted and martyred, Cyprian extends his point to every “soldier of God” so prepared.
Other writers in other contexts, where the prospect of martyrdom is not so immediate, likewise apply (correctly) what Cyprian says here to all saints (the Bible’s term for Christian believers): death, followed by the enjoyment of God in rest and safety.1
That we receive more as the reward of our suffering than what we endure here in the suffering itself the blessed Apostle Paul proves; who by the divine condescension, being caught up into the third heaven and into paradise, testifies that he heard unspeakable words, who boasts that he saw Jesus Christ by the faith of sight, who professes that which he both learned and saw with the greater truth of consciousness, and says:The sufferings of this present time are not worthy to be compared with the coming glory which shall be revealed in us.Who, then, does not with all his powers labour to attain to such a glory that he may become the friend of God, that he may at once rejoice with Christ, that after earthly tortures and punishments he may receive divine rewards? If to soldiers of this world it is glorious to return in triumph to their country when the foe is vanquished, how much more excellent and greater is the glory, when the devil is overcome, to return in triumph to paradise, and to bring back victorious trophies to that place whence Adam was ejected as a sinner, after casting down him who formerly had cast him down; to offer to God the most acceptable gift— an uncorrupted faith, and an unyielding virtue of mind, an illustrious praise of devotion; to accompany Him when He shall come to receive vengeance from His enemies, to stand at His side when He shall sit to judge, to become co-heir of Christ, to be made equal to the angels; with the patriarchs, with the apostles, with the prophets, to rejoice in the possession of the heavenly kingdom! Such thoughts as these, what persecution can conquer, what tortures can overcome? The brave and steadfast mind, founded in religious meditations, endures; and the spirit abides unmoved against all the terrors of the devil and the threats of the world, when it is strengthened by the sure and solid faith of things to come. In persecutions, earth is shut up, but heaven is opened; Antichrist is threatening, but Christ is protecting; death is brought in, but immortality follows; the world is taken away from him that is slain, but paradise is set forth to him restored; the life of time is extinguished, but the life of eternity is realized. What a dignity it is, and what a security, to go gladly from hence, to depart gloriously in the midst of afflictions and tribulations; in a moment to close the eyes with which men and the world are looked upon, and at once to open them to look upon God and Christ! Of such a blessed departure how great is the swiftness! You shall be suddenly taken away from earth, to be placed in the heavenly kingdoms. It behooves us to embrace these things in our mind and consideration, to meditate on these things day and night. If persecution should fall upon such a soldier of God, his virtue, prompt for battle, will not be able to be overcome. Or if his call should come to him before, his faith shall not be without reward, seeing it was prepared for martyrdom; without loss of time, the reward is rendered by the judgment of God. In persecution, the warfare—in peace, the purity of conscience, is crowned. (Exhortation to Martyrdom 13)
- Brown distinguishes later views of the paradisal beatific vision after death and before the Resurrection with the earlier view (e.g. in Tertullian) of the refrigerium interim, the time of waiting and refreshment before the Last Day. While recognizing the differences in the respective views, I think that there is a way of harmonizing them, though that is not Brown’s task or interest in this book. It would perhaps require casting Tertullian’s view as Your Second-Best Afterlife Now.