What is death?
Human beings are psychosomatic, we are a union of soul and body. Death is the dissolution of this union, the separation of the body from the soul. Our bodies are composite — made up of different parts — and this is why, after the moment of death, the body begins to decay and dissolve into its constituent elements, returning to the earth from which it was taken. The soul, however, is simple — it is not made up of parts — and therefore doesn’t suffer decay the way the body does, but remains intact even after death.
The Bible says clearly that, ‘God did not make death: neither does he take pleasure in the destruction of the living. For he created all things, that they might have their being […] For righteousness is immortal: But ungodly men with their works and words called it to themselves’ (Wisdom of Solomon 1:13-16). We were not made for death, but brought death upon ourselves by sin (i.e., by turning away from the Source of Life, which is God). God did not make us naturally mortal nor naturally immortal, but gave us the choice to choose mortality or immortality. When mankind chose death, he allowed this ‘in order that evil might not exist forever’. However, he did not abandon us to death, but gave us also the possibility of restoration and immortality by becoming man in the person of Jesus Christ.
What does the Bible say about life after death?
While the Bible speaks frequently about the future resurrection of the dead, it does not focus much on the experience of the soul after physical death (i.e., while it awaits reunification with the body at the resurrection). It is not completely silent, however, and the story of the Rich Man and Lazarus (Luke 16) in particular provides us with some important insights:
- The soul of the righteous is escorted by angels (16:22). Elsewhere in Luke, we see the soul of an unrighteous person being required by the demons (12:20).
- The soul remains conscious and retains its personhood .
- It experiences a state of comfort — the ‘Bosom of Abraham’ — or torment, described as Hades (16:23).
- It remembers its life on earth (16:25), and retains attachments to loved ones (16:27-28).
The moment of death
During the Midnight Office on Saturday, we pray:
‘O Master, let Thy hand shelter me and let Thy mercy descend upon me, for my soul is distracted and pained at its departure from this my wretched and defiled body, lest the evil design of the adversary overtake it and make it stumble into the darkness for the unknown and known sins amassed by me in this life. Be merciful to me, O Master, and let not my soul see the dark countenances of evil spirits, but let it be received by Thine Angels bright and shining’.
Essentially, we continue to keep in death the company we kept in life. If we spent our lives in the company of angels — that is, a life of faith in Christ — those same angels will come to escort our soul at the moment of death; if we spent our lives in the company of demons — a life of selfishness, rejection of God, and indifference towards our fellow man — these are the ‘friends’ we will encounter at death.
This, of course, is not something that occurs only at death. The invisible world always surrounds us. However, we are generally not aware of this fact because we perceive the world around us through the physical senses of the body. When the soul leaves the body, however, it can see only with its own ‘senses’, and therefore becomes aware of this angelic presence.
The particular judgment
The presence of angels and demons at the moment of death also represents our conscience being reminded of our good and bad deeds and dispositions. No longer blinded by the false comforts and vain preoccupations of this world, we are suddenly able — to some extent, at least — to see the truth of who we are. If we have not already repented and come to terms with our flaws and shortcomings, this will be an unpleasant experience; a form of judgement.
This particular judgement of the conscience — as opposed to the General Judgement, where all will stand before the Judgement Seat of Christ — will determine whether this temporary state of the soul, as it awaits its reunification with the body, will be experienced as bliss or torment. Both these experiences are not Heaven and Hell, but a partial foretaste of these two states.
Praying for the dead
Just as the souls of the dead remain conscious and retain an awareness (or at least a memory) of those it left behind, so we remain aware of those who have departed from us, and pray for them: that they may be granted rest with the saints, and that they may not suffer condemnation on the Day of Judgement.
Unlike the Latin church, the Orthodox Church does not have a concept of Purgatory, where this intermediate state constitutes a process of purification by fire.
Resurrection and Judgement
In the Creed, we confess that Jesus ‘is coming again in glory to judge the living and the dead, and his kingdom will have one end’. We also add: ‘I await the resurrection of the dead, and the life of the age to come’
St Paul explains that, when Christ returns in glory, the dead will rise first, so that all people — those who are alive at the time and those who had already died — can ‘meet the Lord in the air’ (1 Thessalonians 4:15-17), just as it was the custom for the inhabitants of a city to go out and meet the king as he approached.
Just as Christ’s resurrection was a physical resurrection (Luke 24:39), this general resurrection of the dead will also be a physical resurrection, a reunion of soul and body, and the return of the human person to its natural unified state.
The Judgment, then, is not a judgement of souls, but a judgment of the whole human person — body and soul — because the life for which we are judged was not lived only by the soul, but by the whole human person. Moreover, the eternity into which we enter after that Judgement is not a disembodied spiritual reality, but an existence that also involves the body (albeit in transfigured and perfected form). This applies not only to our bodies, but to the entire physical world, which will be renewed: ‘For, behold, I create new heavens and a new earth’ (Isaiah 65:17).
Heaven and Hell
God is perfect and self-sufficient, he isn’t subject to change, and we cannot speak of God as having human emotions. The Bible does use anthropomorphic language and attribute emotions to God — God being angry, for example — but these are poetic devices. God is love in his very being, and that perfect love cannot be affected by our actions. That’s why Christ says, ‘Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you, that you may be sons of your Father in heaven. He causes His sun to rise on the evil and the good, and sends rain on the righteous and the unrighteous’ (Matt. 5:45). God has the same love for the holiest saint and the most terrible sinner.
This likewise applies to the Orthodox view of heaven and hell. When we speak of Judgement, this involves our coming into the presence of God, seeing him as he is (1 John 3:2), and simultaneously seeing ourselves for who we truly are. How we experience this encounter, and the accompanying self-realisation, is what we describe as ‘heaven’ and ‘hell’.
As the Fathers of the Church teach, the light of heaven and the fire of hell are the same thing: the presence of God. A person who has spent their life in total darkness, and then suddenly steps out into a bright light, will find that light intolerable and excruciating. A person whose eyes are adjusted to the light, on the other hand, will experience that very same light as something joyous and pleasant. So it is with the light of God.
Hell, then, is not a manifestation of God’s hatred or lack of forgiveness, but rather his absolute respect for human freedom, without which love — and therefore heaven — would be impossible. As the author C.S. Lewis once wrote: ‘The gates of hell are locked on the inside’.