Do Christians pass straight into glory when they die, or must they journey first over a harrowing path of cleansing and purification, as in Plato’s Myth of Er in Book 10 of the Republic or as in the sixth book of Vergil’s Aeneid? According to Augustine in City of God 20.9, they do not go to jail, as it were, but pass “Go” immediately and collect $200.
I’m not interested in this post in examining the practices which his theology of the communion of the saints (that is, of Christians) undergirds, or whether all of them are ontologically sustainable. I’m interested rather in noting the assumption of a theology of communion that he believes to be necessary in order for those practices to be intelligible.
And the logic of that assumed theology is that, because Christians are members of Christ’s body, they reign with him. When Christians are incorporated into Christ, their reign commences, because Christ already reigns. That reign is not somehow altered by death, as though we reign with him now but something stands between us once we have died–which, a moment’s reflection reveals, would be very strange indeed. No: our souls continue to join in that reign the the time that passes before the Last Day; and, after that, with our souls joined to our bodies once again, the reign continues on.
For the souls of the pious dead are not separated from the Church, which even now is the kingdom of Christ; otherwise there would be no remembrance made of them at the altar of God in the partaking of the body of Christ, nor would it do any good in danger to run to His baptism, that we might not pass from this life without it; nor to reconciliation, if by penitence or a bad conscience any one may be severed from His body. For why are these things practised, if not because the faithful, even though dead, are His members? Therefore, while these thousand years run on, their souls reign with Him, though not as yet in conjunction with their bodies. And therefore in another part of this same book we read,Blessed are the dead who die in the Lord from henceforth and now, says the Spirit, that they may rest from their labors; for their works do follow them.Revelation 14:13 The Church, then, begins its reign with Christ now in the living and in the dead. For, as the apostle says,Christ died that He might be Lord both of the living and of the dead.Romans 14:9 But he mentioned the souls of the martyrs only, because they who have contended even to death for the truth, themselves principally reign after death; but, taking the part for the whole, we understand the words of all others who belong to the Church, which is the kingdom of Christ.
That this is the teaching of Holy Scripture Augustine recognizes. Revelation 20.4 (“Also I saw the souls of those who had been beheaded for the testimony of Jesus and for the word of God….They came to life and reigned with Christ for a thousand years”) refers to the martyrs, Augustine notes, though he takes it as a synecdoche for the whole church–all the “pious dead,” because we are all members of one body, and it is only as members of that body that we reign. Revelation 20.4 refers to the martyrs explicitly, then, and to all believers implicitly and by extension, but Revelation 14.13, which Augustine quotes, refers explicitly to all Christians, whom a voice from heaven calls “blessed” and for whom it gives assurance of rest from all labors. Rest from labors does not mean the painful process of being cleansed; it means that that cleansing has occurred and one is at peace in glory.
Here is a call for the endurance of the saints, those who keep the commandments of God and their faith in Jesus. And I heard a voice from heaven saying, “Write this: Blessed are the dead who die in the Lord from now on.” “Blessed indeed,” says the Spirit, “that they may rest from the labors, for their deeds follow them!” (Rev. 14.12-13)
This is but the consummation of what our Lord promises in the Gospel of Matthew: “Come to me, all who labor and are heavy laden, and I will give you rest.”
What does this mean? It means that every believer can rejoice, and can know that he is with his savior now, and ever shall be. We reign already with him to whom we have been joined. And what does the Scripture say? “I am sure that neither death nor life, nor angels nor rulers, nor things present nor things to come, nor powers, nor height nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord.” Nothing–this does not admit of exceptions. Therefore we shall reign with him then as well with no interruption, for we are his without remainder, and he is ours, and his reign does not cease. “[A]ll things are yours, whether Paul or Apollos or Cephas or the world or life or death or the present or the future—all are yours, and you are Christ’s, and Christ is God’s.”