The Resurrection that we believe in does not happen at the time of our death. It is not as though each person is resurrected at (or shortly after) the time of his or her physical death. If that were the case, billions of people would be living the resurrection life in their spiritual bodies even now. But the resurrection is not an individual event. It is what is sometimes referred to as the “general resurrection,” meaning that everyone will be raised at the same time.
The resurrection, and the reconstitution of our bodies into spiritual bodies to be reunited with our spirits, will take place at the time of the second coming of Christ, which is the end of human history. Notice that in the parable, the ten bridesmaids were waiting for the groom. And the analogy for us is that we live in the age of the Church, when the Church (the Bride of Christ) waits for her Groom to return.
When He does return, it will be time for the wedding.
This life of the resurrection after the second coming of Christ is what the book of Revelation refers to as the “New Jerusalem.” It is also what Thomas Aquinas called the “Beatific Vision,” in which the human person “sees” the divine essence directly and comes to immutable happiness and the full potential of understanding and knowing God as fully as he or she is known by God (1 Cor. 13:12).
The resurrection cannot have taken place already for anyone but Jesus (and Mary), because everyone else who has died has left his or her body behind, and the elements of those bodies are still part of the earth. For the saints, these are their relics, which we venerate at holy sites and which are placed in our altars when the altars are consecrated (see Rev. 6:9–11). Eventually, though, this world will come to an end, and then those relics, along with the remains of everyone else who ever lived, will be raised.
Gregory of Nyssa (through his sister St. Macrina) taught that there must be an end to human history (and an end to human procreation and the creation of new souls), because for the resurrection to take place, all of the elements of the earth that once were part of human bodies would have to be brought up into the resurrection bodies of so many people.
In the Meantime
So, what happens in the meantime? A person who dies now (not to mention many years ago) will have to wait for the resurrection in that state of tension when the spirit waits to be reunited with the body. People in this state are dead and have not yet been raised to life. But does that mean they are unconscious?
It should be pointed out that the parable of the rich man and Lazarus takes place in this in-between time. Both of these men have died, but the resurrection has not yet taken place. They are conscious of their situation, and they remember their loved ones. Of course, we can’t push this parable too far or take it too literally as a picture of the afterlife, especially since Jesus told it before His own Resurrection. But we can deduce from Jesus’ parable that people who have died do not simply “sleep” until the resurrection or exist in some unconscious state of suspended animation until they “wake up” at the end of time.
This is important, because we believe in the communion of the saints, and we believe that the spirits of the saints can hear our prayers and pray for us even now. To speak of someone who has passed on as “asleep” is simply a euphemism for death and does not imply that the person is unconscious or unaware.
Punishment After Death
Even the concept of “resting in peace” is a euphemism that applies more to the body than to the spirit, because, as Tertullian pointed out, some people go to Hell immediately after death, and they do not need to wait for a resurrection body to be punished (like the rich man in the parable; see Tertullian, A Treatise on the Soul 43, 53, and On the Resurrection of the Flesh 17).
For our purposes, it is enough to say that Tertullian seems to have believed those people consigned to Hell would be in something of a “dreamlike” existence, rather like what many people in the Roman world believed that the afterlife would be for everyone. But since Tertullian saw the human spirit as the part of us primarily to blame for sin, even the spirit in Hell must be aware enough to experience the regret of not making it into Heaven. For Gregory of Nyssa, this is, in fact, the primary “torture” of Hell: regret. Regret and shame. Macrina said, “Remorse . . . is a whip.”
The person who rejects any connection to God in the present life is granted that same wish in the afterlife, but the difference is that in Hell the person’s mind is eternally occupied with looking back on life and mourning the very attachment to earthly life that caused the separation from God. This is the “outer darkness” of Jesus’ parable of the wedding banquet (Matt. 22:13), where there is weeping (remorse) and gnashing of teeth (regret).
There is some disagreement among the Church Fathers as to whether punishment in Hell is literal — that is, “physical” — and therefore requires a body. For some of them, this becomes part of their argument for the resurrection body — people must be raised bodily so the damned can be tortured. In any case, in this intermediate phase before the resurrection, there is no body to be punished, even for those in Hell. After the resurrection, it may be the case that those who are judged and condemned will receive their spiritual body to be punished in it; nevertheless, the later Church Fathers seem to have believed that even then the torture of Hell would be primarily spiritual or intellectual, rather than physical.
Body & Spirit
So, when a person dies, his or her spirit leaves the earthly realm, which is bound by time, and, we might say, enters eternity. But the body remains in the world of time and three-dimensional space. Spirit and body are separated from the moment of death until the resurrection, which will take place at the end of time (Ratzinger, Eschatology, p. 252). But although they are separated in the interim, each spirit is eternally and inseparably connected to the same body it had in life, in spite of decay.
According to Gregory and Macrina, the spirit is the guardian of the elements of the body, watching over each particle so that nothing is lost. All of this means that none of our loved ones who have passed on have experienced the resurrection yet. They all exist in this intermediate state. They are conscious and aware. There is an initial judgment to determine who will go directly to Hell (Rev. 20:12–13). Those who die in Christ are alive in Christ, and by virtue of their union with Christ, they can hear our prayers when we pray to them. They remember us, and they can pray for us. But they are temporarily separated from their bodies.
What the dead experience now has been called Paradise, or resting in peace, or Abraham’s Bosom, as in the parable (see Ratzinger, Eschatology, pp. 219, 246). According to St. Augustine, Paradise and the Kingdom of Heaven are different things (On the Soul and Its Origin 1.10; City of God 13.20–21). The term “paradise” is, of course, a reference to the original state of humanity in the Garden of Eden, but the Paradise of the afterlife is not simply a return to the past. It is a return to the peace and joy of innocence, but it is also a moving forward toward the ultimate goal of humanity, which is redemption and union with God.
So Paradise is possible now, but the Kingdom comes later.