The writings of the Apostolic Fathers are the earliest extant patristic texts. One, the Didache, was possibly written as early as 50 (though some scholars date it closer to 150) and the latest, Second Clement, was likely complete before 170 (Galli, 10-14). They are called apostolic because they are by (or about, in the case of the Martyrdom of Polycarp) figures who likely had direct experience of the apostles. This is more likely in some cases than in others, but at any rate, the recently living apostles of Jesus Christ certainly directly influenced the era in which these Fathers wrote. This earliest age of Christianity significantly predates the formulation of the creeds that have since endeavored to ensure some degree of doctrinal unity within Christianity.
The closest things to a creed found in the writings of the Apostolic Fathers are in the epistles of Ignatius of Antioch, who, writing before 117, approvingly observes that the Smyrnæans are
“fully persuaded with respect to our Lord, that He was truly of the seed of David according to the flesh, and the Son of God according to the will and power of God; that He was truly born of a virgin, was baptized by John, in order that all righteousness might be fulfilled by Him; and was truly, under Pontius Pilate and Herod the tetrarch, nailed [to the cross] for us in His flesh. Of this fruit we are by His divinely-blessed passion, that He might set up a standard for all ages, through His resurrection, to all His holy and faithful, whether among Jews or Gentiles, in the one body of His Church” (86).
This statement of Christian belief parallels significantly the order and content of the creed that would eventually develop at the councils of Nicaea and Constantinople (see page 10), and so it may be reasonable to suppose that the later councils built the creed, in small part, upon this foundation, of course filtered through centuries of baptismal creedal formulations.
Joanne McWilliam Dewart suggests a different reading of the resurrection in this statement of Ignatius. She reads, “Through the [rather than ‘His’] resurrection for his saints and faithful” (McWilliam Dewart, 47, emphases mine), as though Ignatius means to refer to the resurrection of the just and not simply of the resurrection of Christ. Ignatius’ omission of reference here to universal resurrection may or may not imply, as McWilliam Dewart suggests, that Ignatius believed in resurrection exclusively for the just (37).
While Ignatius might imply that God will not raise the unjust, the Didache states this plainly. Being primarily a guide for living according to “the way of life” (377), the Didache has very little to say about the resurrection of the dead, but what it does say is interesting. It ends with a simple apocalypse similar to that found in the Gospel of Mark (Mark 13:14-37) and it is in this context that it makes its only statement about the resurrection: “And then shall appear… the resurrection of the dead, yet not of all, but as it is said: The Lord shall come and all His saints with Him” (382, emphasis mine). The Didache is here interpreting a passage in Zechariah, which states, “Then the LORD your God will come, and all the holy ones with him” (Zech 14:5). The Didache erroneously identifies “coming with the Lord” with “resurrection,” rather than with “reigning with Christ Jesus” (cf. 2 Tim 2:12) or with the “resurrection of life” (John 5:29) This interpretation is contrary to the understanding of the Church, as it would develop in the following centuries.
One important and distinctive article of the Christian faith expressed in the Nicene-Constantinopolitan Creed is that, “we look forward to a resurrection of the dead and life in the age to come” (Constantinople I, 24). Importantly, this “resurrection of the dead” does not include a qualification like that found in the Didache and consequently implies a resurrection of all the dead. Interestingly, this article was not included in the creed from the first council of Nicaea in 325 (Nicaea I, 5), but the first council of Constantinople added it in 381. Clearly, the Church only gradually realized the necessity of including this statement in the creed. Perhaps the first council of Nicaea considered it sufficient to attest to the resurrection of Christ, in which all resurrection is accomplished. The first council of Constantinople, however, encountered the need to clarify this belief further. Of course, the real foundation of this belief is Sacred Scripture, but to what extent do the Apostolic Fathers, hundreds of years before Nicaea, maintain and pass down the scriptural belief?
Although not without occasional ambiguity, there is ample support, in fact, for belief in the resurrection of the dead among the Apostolic Fathers, bearing in mind that the purpose of their writings was not doctrinal formulation, but more often exhortatory. Clement of Rome, in his epistle to the Corinthians, written in 96 or 97, offers a reasonably lengthy discussion of the resurrection of the body, considering that this is not the primary intention of his writing. During the course of this discussion, he associates the resurrection of the Lord Jesus Christ with the coming resurrection. He writes, “There shall be a future resurrection, of which He has rendered the Lord Jesus Christ the first-fruits by raising Him from the dead” (Clement, 11). The Apostolic Fathers frequently us this image of Christ as the first fruits, which implies that others will rise as He did (McWilliam Dewart, 36). The image also appears in Paul’s first Epistle to the Corinthians (1 Cor 15:23). Clement further states that “the Lord continually proves [this] to us” through the testimony of nature’s numerous and continuous “resurrections.” He gives the cycle of night and day and the cycle of sowing and harvesting of grain as examples. (11). He also compares resurrection of the flesh to the fabulous life cycle of the phoenix (12). The fleshly and physical nature of these analogies suggests that Clement probably understands resurrection to be embodied and not shadowy, as would the contemporarily competing Gnosticism. Clement’s citation of Job as scriptural proof for the reality of the resurrection further strengthens the understanding of its physicality. He paraphrases the passage of Job that says, “After my skin has been thus destroyed, then from my flesh I shall see God” (Job 19:25-26). Clement’s cyclical analogies, however, do not repeat his initial association of resurrection with that of Christ. Consequently, it is not entirely clear whether Clement understands the universal resurrection as primarily caused by Christ’s resurrection and triumph over death, or as primarily a function of good created nature. Furthermore, Clement never in his epistle specifically declares that resurrection is universal, as do certain other Apostolic Fathers, but rather limits his discussion to the positive resurrection of the just. Clement does not directly imply that resurrection was limited to the just, as did Ignatius, arguably; he simply leaves the issue of the resurrection of the unjust unaddressed.
That resurrection will take place for all people, Ignatius may actually imply in his Epistle to the Ephesians, which, in the course of a reflection on the newly established kingdom of God, states, “God… meditated the abolition of death” (57). Ignatius’ use of the term “abolition” as opposed to, for example, “relaxation” implies a total and complete end to the finality of death. For the abolition of death to be complete, the resurrection of all the dead would be necessary. However, declarations of Ignatius’ actual understanding of this issue, considering how scant his discussion of it is, are conjectural at best.
Despite his possible ambiguity on the universality of resurrection, Ignatius does provide some further patristic support for the orthodox Christian belief in the bodily resurrection of the dead, which the council would later describe in the symbol of faith. He provides this foundation primarily in his discussion of the bodily resurrection of Christ contained in his Epistle to the Smyrnæans, in which he writes, “I know that after His resurrection also He was still in the flesh, and I believe that He is so now” (Ignatius, 87). He then quotes a passage from the apocryphal Gospel of the Nazarenes, which echoes a passage in the canonical Gospel of Luke, in which the eleven apostles, having seen the risen Lord, believe Him to be a spirit, to which the Lord replies, “See my hands and my feet, that it is I myself; handle me, and see; for a spirit has not flesh and bones as you see that I have" (Luke 24:39). Ignatius maintains and passes on this scriptural basis for belief in the resurrection of the flesh, writing also, “After his resurrection He did eat and drink with them, as being possessed of flesh” (87). This emphasis is typical of Ignatius, who is consistently careful, against Docetism, to affirm the fleshly character of the resurrection of Christ and the essential unity of the body and the spirit in the human person (McWilliam Dewart, 48-49).
Ignatius, more clearly than Clement, connects the resurrection of Christ with the resurrection of others in his Epistle to the Magnesians, writing, “[On] the Lord’s Day…, our life has sprung up again by Him and by His death” (62). He reaffirms this point still more clearly in his Epistle to the Trallians, in which he writes, “Jesus Christ… was also truly raised from the dead, His Father quickening Him, even as after the same manner His Father will so raise up us who believe in Him by Christ Jesus” (70). Here, once again, Ignatius provides a passage open to an accusation of denial of the resurrection of nonbelievers.
To this possible interpretation, Polycarp, whom Ignatius greatly admired, provides a possible corrective. In the context of exhorting deacons, youths and virgins to a virtuous life, Polycarp reminds his readers of the purpose in acting in ways that are pleasing to God: that in the resurrection, they may “reign with Him” (2 Tim 2:12). Some of those God raises, by inference, will not reign with Him. In his Epistle to the Philippians, likely written before 120, Polycarp writes,
“If we please Him in this present world, we shall receive also the future world, according as He has promised to us that He will raise us again from the dead, and that if we live worthily of Him, ‘we shall also reign together with Him,’ provided only we believe” (Polycarp, 34).In this statement, belief does not necessarily appear as a prerequisite to resurrection, but rather only as a prerequisite to “also” reigning with the Lord.
Polycarp offers the Church a more poignant testimony to his sure faith in the coming resurrection during his martyrdom. As he is preparing to hand his body over to be burned, he offers his prayer to God:
“O Lord God Almighty, the Father of thy beloved and blessed Son Jesus Christ…, I give Thee thanks that… I should have a part in… the resurrection of eternal life, both of soul and body, through the incorruption [imparted] by the Holy Ghost” (Martyrdom of Polycarp, 42).In Polycarp’s reference to the “resurrection of eternal life,” he implies, in agreement with the Gospel according to John, of whom Polycarp is traditionally considered a disciple, that there is also another kind of resurrection, a “resurrection of condemnation” (John 5:29), and not all those who are raised will also inherit eternal life. In fact, this is the faith as the Church would come to understand it, despite certain implications to the contrary in other apostolic writings (for example, in the Didache and Ignatius), which is why the creed would later refer to the resurrection “of the dead” and not only of the saved.
However, another statement of Polycarp, found in his Epistle to Philippians, tends in the same direction as Ignatius and one could interpret it as a denial of universal resurrection. He writes, “He who raised [our Lord Jesus Christ] up from the dead will raise up us also, if we do His will” (33, emphasis mine). This could imply, of course, that if we do not do His will, He will not raise us. Polycarp wrote this epistle about forty years before his martyrdom. Read from the point of view of the later account of his martyrdom (or even within the context of the rest of the epistle), Polycarp may simply be saying that the Father will not raise those who do not do His will to eternal life, but rather to condemnation. A certain Pionius (copying Caius, copying Irenæus, a disciple of Polycarp (Polycarp, 43)) wrote the Martyrdom of Polycarp not long after Polycarp’s death, probably around 155. It is not entirely clear whether the “resurrection of eternal life” spoken of in this later document is a more mature expression of the Christian faith from an older Polycarp or an idea read into Polycarp’s words by one of the copyists that passed down the account of his martyrdom. Neither is it entirely clear that the author intended by this phrase the implication of a “resurrection of condemnation” as discussed above. However, regardless of what Polycarp’s or his disciples’ understandings may have been, the Church would ultimately accept universal bodily resurrection prior to the final judgment as the true belief.
The homily commonly ascribed to Clement clearly defends this orthodox belief. It states, “Let none of you say that this very flesh will not be judged, nor rise again…. For just as you were called in the flesh, you will also come to be judged in the flesh” (Second Clement, 519). Second Clement clearly insists that the resurrection precedes the final judgment and, consequently, that there will be, as it says in Scripture, a resurrection “both of the just and the unjust” (Acts 24:15).
As is found in the other writings of the Apostolic Fathers, the primary purpose of Second Clement is to encourage the faithful in righteousness. Therefore, even as it admits that salvation is not universal among those who will rise from the dead, it uses the resurrection as a means of encouragement for those who are suffering and may be tempted to forsake the faith.
“Even if for a little time they suffer evil in the world, they shall enjoy the immortal fruit of the resurrection. Let not then the godly man be grieved, if he be wretched in the times that now are; a blessed time waits for him” (Second Clement, 522).In Second Clement, reminders of the future fleshly resurrection serve both as a consolation to the just (“we… receive the reward in this flesh”) and a warning to the unjust (“you will… be judged in the flesh”) and in both cases serve to exhort the faithful to “repent with the whole heart” and to “practice righteousness” and obedience (519, 523). Further demonstrating belief in the bodily resurrection of the ungodly, Second Clement describes their condemnation in explicitly material terms, quoting Isaiah as a description of their torment, “their worm shall not die, their fire shall not be quenched” (Isa 66:24), and stating, “those that have gone astray and denied Jesus through their words or through their works, how that they are punished with grievous torments in unquenchable fire.”
As is clear from the multiplicity of perspectives found among the Apostolic Fathers on this subject of the resurrection of the dead, while it is certainly the case that the creeds that would develop later do have a foundation of a sort in their writings, the need for clarification that the creeds would later seek to answer was already present in the sub-apostolic age. This need only intensified with the passing of time and the strengthening of various heretical movements, such as Gnosticism and Docetism, which were already present when the Apostolic Fathers were writing. Ultimately, the Church convened councils and settled this matter as well as many others that had been in dispute even from the earliest times. Now, at every liturgy, every orthodox Christian professes, in the Nicene-Constantinopolitan Creed, expectation of the coming resurrection of the dead. Every orthodox Christian owes their knowledge of this truth of the faith to the Scripture, and also to the Apostolic Fathers and to the subsequent Fathers of the Ecumenical Councils who worked to preserve and pass down this and, in truth, the entire Christian faith.
 Ignatius wrote to Polycarp, “I may be found [your] disciple in the resurrection” (Ignatius, 96; Galli, 123).
 McWilliam Dewart claims these works hold this perspective (37).
from the Epistle of Ignatius to the Smyrnæans
from the Nicene-Constantinopolitan Creed
fully persuaded with respect to our Lord,
that He was truly of the seed of David
We believe in… one Lord Jesus Christ,
according to the flesh, and the Son of God according to the will and power of God;
the only begotten Son of God, and born of the Father before all ages….
that He was truly born
of a virgin,
was baptized by John, in order that all righteousness might be fulfilled by Him;
And was incarnate of the Holy Ghost and of the Virgin Mary and was made man;
and was truly, under Pontius Pilate and Herod the tetrarch, nailed [to the cross] for us in His flesh. Of this fruit we are by His divinely-blessed passion, that He might set up a standard for all ages,
was crucified also for us under Pontius Pilate, suffered and was buried;
through His resurrection,
and the third day rose again….
to all His holy and faithful [followers], whether among Jews or Gentiles, in the one body of His Church.
And one holy, catholic, and apostolic Church….
we look for the resurrection of the dead….
Clement of Rome. “The First Epistle of Clement to the Corinthians.” Ante-Nicene Fathers. Ed.
Alexander Roberts and James Donaldson. Vol. 1. Grand Rapids: Wm B. Eerdmans
Publishing Company, 1885. 5-22. Print.
“Constantinople I.” Decrees of the Ecumenical Councils. Ed. Norman P. Tanner. Vol. 1.
Washington: Sheed & Ward, 1990. 21-36. Print.
“Didache.” Ante-Nicene Fathers. Ed. Alexander Roberts and James Donaldson. Vol. 7. Grand
Rapids: Wm B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 1885. 377-382. Print.
McWilliam Dewart, Joanne. Death and Resurrection: Message of the Fathers of the Church 22.
Wilmington: Michael Glazier, 1986. Print
Galli, Mark. The Apostolic Fathers. Chicago: Moody Publishers, 2009. Print.
Ignatius. “The Epistles of Ignatius.” Ante-Nicene Fathers. Ed. Alexander Roberts and James
Donaldson. Vol. 1. Grand Rapids: Wm B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 1885. 49-126.
“Martyrdom of Polycarp.” Ante-Nicene Fathers. Ed. Alexander Roberts and James Donaldson.
Vol. 1. Grand Rapids: Wm B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 1885. 37-44. Print.
“Nicaea I.” Decrees of the Ecumenical Councils. Ed. Norman P. Tanner. Vol. 1. Washington:
Sheed & Ward, 1990. 1-20. Print.
Roberts and James Donaldson. Vol. 1. Grand Rapids: Wm B. Eerdmans Publishing
Company, 1885. 33-36. Print.
“Resurrection of Christ” and “Resurrection of the Dead.” A Dictionary of Early Christian
Beliefs. Ed. David W. Bercot. Peabody: Hendrickson Publishers, Inc., 1998. 558-564. Print.
“Second Clement.” Ante-Nicene Fathers. Ed. Alexander Roberts and James Donaldson.
Vol. 7. Grand Rapids: Wm B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 1885. 509-523. Print.