Angelic Bodies, Human Bodies, and the Intermediate State

I have just finished Paul Griffith’s Decreation: The Last Things of All Creatures (Waco: Baylor, 2014). In it his aim is to explicate the novissimum, or last thing, of all creatures, animate (angelic, human, animals) and inanimate (plants, rocks, etc.). While there is much to commend and to critique, my purpose for reading is my continued research on Christ’s descent to the dead. And although, as Griffiths notes, the intermediate state is not properly a novissimum, it is intricately connected to each creature’s last thing and so he deals with it in this book, albeit more briefly than other topics.

Other than mapping the options for those persons in the intermediate state (heaven, hell, and purgatory [Griffiths is Roman Catholic]), the other main concern of Griffith’s chapter on this issue is to describe “the intermediate state . . . [and] the nature and capacities of the soul therein, understood as a kind of body, and as the only trace of the human remaining in the incarnate state” (178, emphasis mine). I highlight that middle phrase because it is my particular concern with the descensus: how can we speak of Christ’s soul descending to the dead, and in what way(s) is his own “intermediate state” instructive for understanding ours? Griffiths provides one avenue for answering those questions by arguing that disincarnate souls have bodies.

He bases this point on his understanding of both angels and timespace. Of angels, Griffiths says,

If the created order is by definition spatio-temporal, and if the LORD is by definition not, then angels, being creatures, must be located firmly within the created order, and that is best done by clarity about their spatio-temporality and (therefore) the fact that they are bodies. … We must say, if we are to think with the church, that angels lack bodies if by “body” is meant a solid, fleshly body like that of animals, including humans (angels are not incarnate; they have no caro; we must also say that they lack bodies if by that is meant the continuous extension in space of aggregated inanimate matter (angels are not in this way like rocks or bodies of water). We must also say that they are not eternal (angels are not the LORD), which is the same as to say that they are part of the created order, and thus temporal in some sense, and that they can, again in some sense, occupy or appear in space. And if spatio-temorality implies body…then there must be a sense in which angels have bodies, or are embodied (120-21, emphasis mine).

This is a foundational truth for Griffiths (and indeed, for the Tradition) – the Creator/creature divide means only God is unbound by space and time. Angels must, therefore, be located within timespace (even if it is in a different manner than other creatures), and this entails having a body of some sort. Griffiths goes on to describe angels as “permanently disincarnate animate bodies,” and says this about them:

 … In ordinary English usage, terms like “body,” “flesh,” “matter,” and “mass” are not clearly distinguished, and we affirm the existence of many kinds of thing (electrons and quarks, for instance) whose capacity for spatio-temporal location is very unlike that of enfleshed animate bodies. … “Body” names capacity for spatio-temporal location, and thus for availability and responsiveness to other creatures with spatio-temporal location…. Bodies come, however, in many kinds.

In other words, all creatures have bodies of some sort, precisely because they are creaturely – they are located in timespace. But there are different kinds of bodies. To speak in logical terms, all creatures are embodied, but not all creatures are enfleshed. “Flesh” is a subset of “body.” Continuing in this vein, Griffiths says that,

Angelic bodies, according to this definition [located in timespace], have mass, but not, or not necessarily, matter. … “Mass” … names, in the discourse of physics, a body’s resistance to acceleration by force acting upon it (inertial mass), and its gravitational attraction to other bodies (gravitational mass). These may be properties of bodies without matter, which is to say bodies consisting only of energy … [T]o speak of a body’s mass, then, is another way of speaking about its availability and responsiveness to other bodies, without necessarily attributing to them the weight and aggregated extension in space characteristic of animate fleshly bodies. Angelic bodies, I should think (in this like the bodies of the separated souls), are bodies whose mass is immaterial… (122).

In other words, angels are embodied much like quarks and electrons are embodied, albeit as animate rather than inanimate.

The key phrase for my purposes is “in this like the bodies of the separated souls,” for in his chapter on the intermediate state, Griffiths explicitly compares again the permanently disincarnate animate bodies of angels with the temporarily disincarnate animate bodies of souls that have been separated from their fleshly body by death. In other words, according to Griffiths, separated souls exist as embodied and locatable, albeit in a different type of embodiment than the one they experienced prior to their death in their fallen enfleshed existence and than the one they will experience at the general resurrection of the dead and their subsequent novissimum.

Where are they? Griffiths says,

Asking where they are in this sense is like asking where an electron is at the moment: a malformed question. The best answer to it is that they are, disincarnately, more or less intimate, depending on their state – those in hell very much less, those in heaven very much more – with the locus-tempus that is the LORD (181).

This understanding of both spatio-temporality and of angels and separated human souls as “bodies,” albeit unenfleshed ones, has obvious implications for both our understanding of the intermediate state and of Christ’s descent. I am still working through the ramifications but nonetheless found Griffiths’ approach worthy of attention.