The story of St. Stephen, one of the first seven deacons and the first martyr for Christ told in Acts 6-7 is important for a number of reasons. The formation of the diaconate gives important information regarding both the forms of church leadership at its earliest stage and the understanding of that leadership’s continuity with that of the old covenant assembly. St. Stephen’s sermon given as both an apologia and as a gospel presentation reflects the way in which Second Temple traditions surrounding the Hebrew Scriptures were understood by the earliest Christians to be authoritative in understanding those Scriptures. The role played in his death by Saul of Tarsus, soon to become St. Paul, reveals the depth of the transformation experienced by the apostle through his direct encounter with Christ on the road to Damascus and his call to become an apostle to the nations. St. Stephen’s vision at the time of his death may be the most important element of the story, however, theologically. What St. Stephen saw in those moments testifies to a massive change that has taken place in the invisible creation. This change was a result of Christ’s harrowing of Hades. Understanding it is key to correctly interpreting all of New Testament eschatology.
With only a few exceptions, the fate of all those who perished in the pre-Christ era is very clear in the Old Testament Scriptures. Whether righteous or wicked, Israelite or Gentile, a worshipper of Yahweh or of other gods, all flesh decayed and every soul went down into Sheol, Hades, the grave. For the righteous, for the follower of Yahweh the God of Israel, there were two hopes. The first was that one would rest with the fathers (e.g. 1 Kgs/3 Kgdms 2:10). This was not only a euphemism for death but expressed a belief that there was some region of the underworld in which the departed dwelt in a state of relative rest and respite compared to the fates of the wicked (c.f. 1 Enoch 22:2,9; Luke 16:22-26). There was also a second hope that exceeded this marginal promise. That Yahweh would not abandon his faithful ones in Sheol (Ps 16:10). This is the hope of the anastasis, the resurrection.
A day would come, the Day of Yahweh, the Day of the Lord, the End of Days, on which the God of Israel would visit his creation and restore justice. The justice restored, the correct order of things, would not only be for those who were alive on that day, but for the living and the dead. Human persons not only suffer violence, oppression, and wickedness in their lives in this age. The deaths of people are often themselves unjust and the product of the injustice and sin in the world. This includes people like Lazarus, left to starve and die of disease (Luke 16:20-21, 25). This hope predominately came to surround the martyrs. While St. Stephen is rightly remembered as the first Christian martyr, there were martyrs who preceded him in the Second Temple period. Likely the most prominent were the Maccabean martyrs. The Greek Seleucids attempted to destroy Judea by outlawing Torah practice and promoting the worship of pagan gods. Those who refused to assimilate to the Hellenic way of life were subjected to torture and death in a way nearly identical to that faced by early Christian martyrs at the hands of the Roman state. Second Maccabees describes this persecution and the resulting Maccabean revolt. Chapter 7 gives a detailed description of this persecution in the torture and deaths of an elderly man, a woman, and her seven sons whom she was forced to watch be tortured to death before her eyes.
The reason for these tortures was explicitly the refusal to consume the meat of pigs (2 Macc 7:1). Its description as “unlawful” swine’s flesh and the general practice of Greek city-states in this era suggest that this was not only a question of kosher laws. Pigs were the primary sacrificial animal of the Hellenic pagan cults and these sacrifices were the source of the majority of meat consumed by the general populace. Not only would it have been a violation to eat the meat of an unclean animal, but the Seleucid authorities were also attempting to force these Judeans to take part in a sacrifice to other gods. Because they were faithful to Yahweh, these people, old and young, were subjected to pain, dismemberment, and death making it the greatest of injustices. In their professions before their deaths, however, these martyrs express their confidence in how this injustice will be, once and for all, set aright by the God to whom they were faithful. “You dismiss us from this current life but the King of the creation will raise us up to a new, eternal life because we have died for his laws” (2 Macc 7:9). “Someone can not choose not to die at the hands of men, but he must cling to the hope given by God that he will raise him again. But for you, there will be no resurrection to life” (2 Macc 7:14). Watching them die, their mother stated to their executioner, “I do not know how you came into being in my womb. It was not I who gave you life and breath. It was not I who ordered the elements in each of you. Therefore, the Creator of the world, who shaped man in the beginning and designed the origin of all things, will in his mercy give life and breath back to you again, because you now abandon yourselves for the sake of his laws” (2 Macc 7:22-23).
The depiction of the life of the soul after death in the Hebrew Scriptures was already revolutionary in certain respects. Among the nations, any kind of blessed afterlife, if possible at all, was reserved for the very few. Divine kings and great heroes might expect to share in the life of the gods after death or at least receive some kind of pleasant rest and respite. Yahweh, however, gave rest to the souls of his servants who were, in most cases, the poor, the orphan, the widow, the simple faithful who had lived lives of loyalty and service to him. For God’s people, however, this was not the final stage of their existence, but an intermediate one. A day was coming when they would be raised again to new and eternal life to right the wrong which had been done to them.
This promise was not opposed to but was integrated with the promise made to Abraham that his descendants would become like the stars of heaven. Humans would, like Enoch, Moses, and Elijah of old, would take the place of the fallen spiritual powers in God’s divine council. They would come to share, by grace, in Yahweh’s governance of his creation. They would do this not by becoming angels, but precisely as humans, their human natures saved and transfigured in Christ. Their human bodies will be raised again to new and eternal life to live and to reign with Christ in a renewed material and spiritual creation. As the prophet Daniel said, “Those who are wise will shine as brightly as the heavens and those who lead many to justice will shine like the stars forever” (Dan 12:3).
At the time of Christ’s death, within the physical creation, the signs of the Day of Yahweh appeared. The sun was darkened and did not give its light and the earth shook (Matt 27:45, 51; Mark 15:33; Luke 23:44; cf. Zeph 1:14-18; Is 13:9-11; Ezek 30:3-4; Amos 5:18-20; Joel 2:1-2). These signs convey what was happening in the spiritual world, the invisible creation, at the same time. This was the time of the harrowing of Hades when Christ’s descended to the realm of the underworld where the fathers and the righteous dead dwelt. There he defeated the devil and bound him, taking the righteous with him to Paradise. Though these events transpired in the unseen world, not only were they attested to by the aforementioned signs, but they also produced events in the visible world, as the saints in and around Jerusalem rose bodily from their tombs to new life (Matt 27:52-53). St. Matthew indicates these events as a result of the others by describing the delay in the emergence of the resurrected holy ones from their tombs.
These events, this great cosmic change, the result of the defeat of the devil, who held the power of death, by Christ, had already taken place when St. Stephen dies a martyr’s death at the hands of a stone-wielding mob. St. Stephen, therefore, does not express his hope that he will rest with his fathers. Neither do we read of angels taking his soul to Abraham’s bosom or any other part of Hades. He does not need to express confidence that he will not be abandoned to Sheol or that someday he hopes to be raised from the dead. After St. Martha expressed her faith in the resurrection on the last day, Christ told her that he is the resurrection (John 11:24-25). St. Stephen sees Christ, the Son of Man, standing at the right hand of God (Acts 7:55-56). That Christ is portrayed as standing is significant. Christ is standing at the right hand of the Father’s throne within his council. He is standing to receive and testify to St. Stephen, to introduce him, as it were, and to install him as a member of that council (Heb 2:11-13). These are the terms in which Christ reiterated the promise to Abraham to those who were faithful to him in this life (Luke 12:8-9). In his 59th epistle, St. Ambrose comments on St. Stephen’s vision, “[Christ] sits to judge, he stands to give judgment. He judges the imperfect but gives judgment among the gods.” St. Ambrose’s language not only evokes the divine council in general but also Psalm 82/81 in particular. St. Stephen taking his place in the divine economy as a saint ruling and reigning with Christ is part and parcel of God’s “arising,” the resurrection.
Nevertheless, as should be obvious, Christ’s death and resurrection was not the end of days, but the end of one age and the beginning of another. It was the beginning of the age of the Messiah and the change wrought in the unseen world here described was a major feature of the transition from one to the other. The Messianic age is not eternal but precedes the beginning of the age without end, the consummation of the heavens and the earth. This event will be heralded by Christ’s glorious appearing and the physical resurrection of all the dead (1 Tim 6:14; 2 Tim 1:10; 4:1, 8; Tit 2:13; 1 Pet 1:7). St. John describes this basic landscape of Christian eschatology in chapter 20 of his Apocalypse. After the binding of the devil, the Messianic age begins (Rev 20:1-3). Central to this age is that the saints, and in particular those martyred like the Maccabean martyrs, come to life and rule and reign with Christ (v. 4). St. John calls this “the first resurrection/anastasis” (v. 5). These saints not only share in Christ’s rule over his kingdom but also serve as priests, offering prayers on behalf of the world and Christ’s people (v. 6). The Messianic age lasts for a thousand years, a term synonymous in Greek with any long span of time or an age. At the end of the Messianic age come the great tribulation, the rise of the lawless one, the final antichrist, and the final defeat of the powers of evil (v. 7-10). After this comes the final Day of the Lord, the final judgment of all of humanity and of creation itself when all is set aright, and the beginning of the eternal age without end (Rev 20:11-21:27).