Did the early Church believe in the resurrection of the dead? During the centuries (including in our own century) some have said “No,” but the Fathers and other early Christians writers said, “Yes.”
(Note: Not every early Christian writer is termed a “Father” of the Church. Only those who were orthodox bear the title. Two prominent early writers, Origen and Tertullian (each uncanonized) accepted some heretical beliefs. Origen, for instance, believed that hell is not eternal, and Tertullian didn’t even die a Catholic, but in his early years of writing he was an orthodox Catholic. Such men are cited in this column because their witness remains valuable, especially the witness from their Catholic periods.)
Clement of Rome
“Let us consider, beloved, how the master is continually proving to us that there will be a future resurrection, of which he has made the Lord Jesus Christ the firstling, by raising him from the dead. Let us look, beloved, at the resurrection which is taking place seasonally. Day and night make known the resurrection to us. The night sleeps, the day arises. Consider the plants that grow. How and in what manner does the sowing take place? The sower went forth and cast each of the seeds onto the ground; and they fall to the ground, parched and bare, where they decay. Then from their decay the greatness of the master’s providence raises them up, and from the one grain more grows and bring forth fruit” (Letter to the Corinthians 24:1-6 [A.D. 80]).
Ignatius of Antioch
“Not as Peter and Paul did, do I command you. They were apostles, and I am a convict. They were free, and I even to the present time am a slave. Yet, if I suffer, I shall be the freedman of Jesus Christ, and in him I shall rise up free. Now in chains, I am learning to have no desires of my own” (Letter to the Romans 4:3 [A.D. 110]).
“Everyone who does not confess that Jesus Christ has come in the flesh is an antichrist; whoever does not confess the testimony of the cross is of the devil; and whoever perverts the sayings of the Lord for his own desires, and says that there is neither resurrection nor judgment, such a one is the first-born of Satan. Let us, therefore, leave the foolishness and the false-teaching of the crowd and turn back to the word which was delivered to us in the beginning” (Second Letter to the Philippians 7:1-2 [A.D. 135]).
“Other than him, no god do they worship. They have the commandments of the Lord Jesus Christ himself impressed upon their hearts, and they observe them, awaiting the resurrection of the dead and the life of the world to come. They do not commit adultery or fornication, nor do they bear false witness nor covet the goods of other men. They honor father and mother and love their neighbors, and they render just judgment. What they would not want done to them, they do not do to another. They make appeal to those who wrong them and win them to themselves as friends” (Apology 15 [A.D. 140]).
“The prophets have proclaimed his two comings. One, indeed, which has already taken place, was that of a dishonored and suffering man. The second will take place when, in accord with prophecy, he shall come from the heavens in glory with his angelic host, when he shall raise the bodies of all the men who ever lived. Then he will clothe the worthy in immortality, but the wicked, clothed in eternal sensibility, he will commit to the eternal fire along with the evil demons” (First Apology 52 [inter A.D. 148-155]).
“Indeed, God calls even the body to resurrection and promises it everlasting life. When he promises to save the man, he thereby makes his promise to the flesh. What is man but a rational living being composed of soul and body? Is the soul by itself a man? No, it is but the soul of a man. Can the body be called a man? No, it can but be called the body of a man. If, then, neither of these is by itself a man, but that which is composed of the two together is called a man, and if God has called man to life and resurrection, he has called not a part, but the whole, which is the soul and the body” (The Resurrection 8 [inter A.D. 150-165]).
“We believe that there will be a resurrection of bodies after the consummation of all things, and not as the Stoics affirm, according to certain periodic cycles in which the same things are eternally produced and destroyed for no useful purpose, but that it will take place once, at the completion of our times–and forever, according to the studied arrangement which pertains to men alone–for the purpose of judgment” (Address to the Greeks 155 [A.D. 165-175]).
“When you have put off mortality and have put on incorruption, then you shall be worthy to see God. For God will raise up your flesh immortal with your soul; and then, having become immortal, you shall see the immortal, if you will believe in him now; and then you will realize that you have spoken against him unjustly. But you do not believe that the dead will be raised. When it happens, then you will believe, whether you want to or not; but unless you believe now, your faith then will be reckoned as unbelief” (To Autolycus 1:7-8 [A.D. 181]).
“For the Church, although dispersed throughout the whole world even to the ends of the earth, has received from the apostles and from their disciples the faith in one God, Father Almighty, the Creator of heaven and earth and sea and all that is in them; and in one Jesus Christ, the Son of God, who became flesh for our salvation; and in the Holy Spirit, who announced through the prophets the dispensations and the comings, and the birth from a virgin, and the passion, and the resurrection from the dead, and the bodily ascension into heaven of the beloved Christ Jesus our Lord, and his coming from heaven in the glory of the Father to re-establish all things; and the raising up again of all flesh of all humanity, in order that to Jesus Christ our Lord and God and Savior and King, in accord with the approval of the invisible Father, every knee shall bend of those in heaven and on earth and under the earth, and that every tongue shall confess him, and that he may make just judgment of them all” (Against Heresies 1:10:1-4 [inter A.D. 180/199]).
“In this regard the blessed Paul says in his epistle to the Ephesians: ‘Because we are members of his body, from his flesh and his bones.’ In the same way that the wood of the vine planted in the ground bears fruit in due season or as a grain of wheat, falling on the ground, decomposes and rises up in manifold increase through the Spirit of God who contains all things and then, through the wisdom of God, comes to the service of men and, receiving the word of God, becomes the Eucharist, which is the body and blood of Christ; so also our bodies, nourished by [the Eucharist] and deposited in the earth and decomposing therein, shall rise up in due season, the word of God favoring them with resurrection in the glory of God the Father” (ibid. 5:2:3).
“See, too, how for our consolation all nature suggests the future resurrection. The sun sinks down, but is reborn. The stars go out, but return again. Flowers die, but come to life again. After their decay shrubs put forth leaves again; not unless seeds decay does their strength return. A body in the grave is like the trees in winter: They hide their sap under a deceptive dryness. Why are you in haste for it to revive and return, while yet the winter is raw? We must await even the spring of the body. I am not ignorant of the fact that many, in the consciousness of what they deserve, would rather hope than actually believe that there is nothing for them after death. They would prefer to be annihilated rather than be restored for punishment” (Octavius 34:11-12 [inter A.D. 218/235]).
“After the present age is ended he will judge his worshipers . . . All who have died since the beginning of time will be raised up again and shaped again and remended to whichever destiny they deserve. In times past we laughed at these things. We are from among you. Men are not born Christians, but become such” (Apology 18:3 [A.D. 197]).