Resting in Abraham’s Bosom

Thomas Aquinas died on this date 747 years ago. Accordingly, I decided to see what came up first with a quick search about Aquinas on death. I was led to the Summa Theologiae and, specifically, to Question 69 on “Matters concerning the resurrection, and first of the place where souls are after death.”

During his lifetime, Thomas Aquinas considered many questions that most people would never consider at all. Take, for example, Article 4 of Question 69 in which he asks: “Whether the limbo of hell is the same as Abraham’s bosom?”

I had not heard (or didn’t particularly recall hearing) of “Abraham’s bosom” but a detailed Wikipedia article discusses the concept as it appears in the Bible, Jewish and Christian history, and religious art and literature.

Here is the crux of Aquinas’ answer:

I answer that, After death men’s souls cannot find rest save by the merit of faith, because “he that cometh to God must believe” (Hebrews 11:6). Now the first example of faith was given to men in the person of Abraham, who was the first to sever himself from the body of unbelievers, and to receive a special sign of faith: for which reason “the place of rest given to men after death is called Abraham’s bosom,” as Augustine declares (Gen. ad lit. xii). But the souls of the saints have not at all times had the same rest after death; because, since Christ’s coming they have had complete rest through enjoying the vision of God, whereas before Christ’s coming they had rest through being exempt from punishment, but their desire was not set at rest by their attaining their end. Consequently the state of the saints before Christ’s coming may be considered both as regards the rest it afforded, and thus it is called Abraham’s bosom, and as regards its lack of rest, and thus it is called the limbo of hell. Accordingly, before Christ’s coming the limbo of hell and Abraham’s bosom were one place accidentally and not essentially: and consequently, nothing prevents Abraham’s bosom from being after Christ’s coming, and from being altogether distinct from limbo, since things that are one accidentally may be parted from one another.

There is a lot going on here.

First he discusses the basis of rest after death which, he thinks, is “by the merit of faith.”

Next, he discusses the varying degrees of rest depending upon the point at which a person died within salvation history.

For Aquinas, the rest afforded those who died before Christ’s coming has both an element of rest and an element of unrest. The Christian idea of Abraham’s bosom is that there is some deficiency to this place of rest until the time of Christ. And then, since, after Christ’s coming, it becomes possible for the dead to see God, “the bosom of Abraham” comes to denote a fuller, complete rest that has no unfavourable dimension, no lack of beholding God.

In short, one of Aquinas’ interesting points here is that exemption from divine punishment is the bare minimum of resting in peace; to truly rest in peace is to see the face of God.

Image: Abraham holding little figures of souls in a cloth, representing the “bosom”, as angels bring additional figures. Reims Cathedral

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