Summary of the Orthodox teaching on the fate of the soul after death
“I look for the resurrection of the dead and the life of the age to come.”
Limitless and without consolation would have been our sorrow for our near ones who are dying, had not the Lord given us eternal life. Our life would be pointless if it ended with death. What benefit would there then be from virtue and good deeds? Then they would be correct who say: “Let us eat and drink, for tomorrow we die!” But man was created for immortality, and by His resurrection Christ opened the gates of the Heavenly Kingdom, of eternal blessedness for those who have believed in Him and have lived righteously. Our earthly life is a preparation for the future life, and this preparation ends with our death. “It is appointed unto man once to die, but after this the judgment” (Heb. 9:27). Then a man leaves all his earthly cares; the body disintegrates, in order to rise anew at the General Resurrection.
But his soul continues to live, and not for an instant does it cease its existence. By many manifestations of the dead it has been given us to know in part what occurs to the soul when it leaves the body. When the vision of its bodily eyes ceases, its spiritual vision begins.
Bishop Theophan the Recluse, in a message to his dying sister, writes: “You will not die. Your body will die, but you will go over into a different world, being alive, remembering yourself, and recognizing the whole world that surrounds you.”
After death the soul is more, not less, alive and aware than before death. St. Ambrose of Milan teaches: “Since the life of the soul remains after death, there remains a good which is not lost by death but is increased. The soul is not held back by any obstacle placed by death, but is more active, because it is active in its own sphere without any association with the body, which is more of a burden than a benefit to it.”
St. Abba Dorotheus, the 6th century monastic Father of Gaza, summarizes the teaching of the early Fathers on this subject: “For as the Fathers tell us, the souls of the dead remember everything that happened here – thoughts, words, desires – and nothing can be forgotten. But, as it says in the Psalm, ‘In that day all their thoughts shall perish’ (Ps. 145:4). The thoughts he speaks of are those of this world, about houses and possessions, parents and children, and business transactions. All these things are destroyed immediately when the soul passes out of the body… But what he did against virtue or against his evil passions, he remembers, and nothing of this is lost… In fact, the soul loses nothing that it did in this world, but remembers everything at its exit from this body more clearly and distinctly once freed from the earthliness of the body.”
The great 5th-century monastic Father, St. John Cassian, sets forth quite clearly the active state of the soul after the death of the body, in answer to the early heretics who believed the soul was unconscious after death:
“Souls after the separation from this body are not idle, do not remain without consciousness; this is proved by the Gospel parable of the rich man and Lazarus… The souls of the dead not only do not lose their consciousness, they do not even lose their dispositions – that is, hope and fear, joy and grief, and something of that which they expect for themselves at the Universal Judgment they begin already to foretaste… They become yet more alive and more zealously cling to the glorification of God. And truly, if we were to reason on the basis of the testimony of the Sacred Scripture concerning the nature of the soul, in the measure of our understanding, would it not be folly to suspect even in the least that the most precious part of man (that is, the soul), in which, according to the blessed Apostle, the image and likeness of God is contained, after putting off this fleshy coarseness in which it finds itself in the present life, should become unconscious – that part which, containing in itself the whole power of reason, makes sensitive by its presence even the dumb and unconscious matter of the flesh? Therefore it follows, and the nature of reason itself demands, that the spirit after casting off this fleshy coarseness by which now it is weakened, should bring its mental powers into better condition, should restore them as purer and more refined, but should not be deprived of them.”
Today’s “after-death” experiences have made men shockingly aware of the consciousness of the soul outside the body, of the keener and quicker state of its mental faculties. But this awareness itself is not enough to protect one in that state from being deceived by appearances in the “out-of-body” realm; one must be in possession of the full Christian doctrine on this subject.
The beginning of spiritual vision
Often this spiritual vision begins in the dying even before death, and while still seeing those around them and even speaking with them, they see what others do not see.
This experience of the dying has been noticed throughout the ages, and its occurrence among the dying today is nothing new. Often the dying person begins to see departed relatives and friends, although the actual nature of the images of the departed which then appear is perhaps known to God alone. Apparently God grants this experience as the most evident way to inform the dying person that the other world is not, after all, a totally strange place, that life in the other world is also characterized by the love that one has for one’s close ones. Bishop Theophan expresses this touchingly in his words to his dying sister: “There father and mother, brothers and sisters will meet you. Bow to them, and give them our greetings, and ask their prayers for us. Your children will surround you with their joyous greetings. It will be better for you there than here.”
Encounters with the spirits
But when it leaves the body, the soul finds itself among other spirits, good and evil. Usually it inclines toward those which are more akin to it in spirit, and if while in the body it was under the influence of certain ones, it will remain in dependence upon them when it leaves the body, however unpleasant they may turn out to be upon encountering them.
Here we are solemnly reminded that the other world, even though it will not be totally strange to us, will not be simply a pleasant meeting with loved ones in a “summerland” of happiness, but a spiritual encounter which will test the disposition of our soul in this life – whether it has become more inclined towards the angels and saints through a life of virtue and obedience to God’s commandments, or whether by its negligence or unbelief in has made itself more fit for the company of fallen spirits. Bishop Theophan the Recluse has well said that even the trial at the aerial toll-houses may well turn out to be less one of accusation than of temptations.
While the fact of judgment in the next life is quite without doubt – both the particular judgment immediately after death, and the Last Judgment at the end of the world – the outward sentence of God will only answer the inward disposition which the soul has developed in itself towards God and the spiritual beings.
The first two days after death
For the course of two days the soul enjoys relative freedom and can visit places on earth which were dear to it, but on the third day it moves into other spheres.
This teaching has been known to the Church since the 4th century, when the angel who accompanied St. Macarius of Alexandria in the desert told him, in explaining the Church’s commemoration of the dead on the third day after death: “When an offering is made in church on the third day, the soul of the departed receives from its guardian angel relief from the sorrow it feels as a result of the separation from the body… In the course of the two days the soul is permitted to roam the earth, wherever it wills, in the company of the angels that are with it. Therefore the soul, loving the body, sometimes wanders about the house in which his body had been laid out, and thus spends two days like a bird seeking its nest. But the virtuous soul goes about those places in which it was wont to do good deeds. On the third day, He Who Himself rose from the dead on the third day commands the Christian soul, in imitation of His resurrection, to ascend to the Heavens to worship the God of all.”
St. John Damascene, in the Orthodox funeral service, vividly describes the state of the soul, parted from the body but still on earth, helpless to contact the loved ones whom it can see: “Woe is me! What manner of ordeal doth the soul endure when it is parted from the body! Alas! How many then are in tears, and there is none to show compassion! It raiseth its eyes to the angels; all unavailing in its prayer. It stretcheth out its hands to men, and findeth none to succor. Wherefore, my beloved brethren, meditating on the brevity of our life, let us beseech of Christ rest for him who hath departed hence, and for our souls great mercy.”
Bishop Theophan the Recluse, in a letter to the husband of his dying sister, writes: “But sister herself will not die: the body dies, but the personality of the dying one remains. It only goes over to another order of life… It is not she whom they will put in the grave. She is in another place. She will be just as alive as she is now. In the first hours and days she will be around you. Only she will not say anything, and you won’t be able to see her; but she will be right here. Have this in mind. We who remain weep over the departed, but for them it is immediately easier; that condition is a happier one. Those who have died and then have been brought back into the body have found it to be a very uncomfortable dwelling. Sister will feel this also. She is better off there; and we are in agony, as if some kind of tragedy has happened with her! She will look and surely be astonished at this.”
It should be kept in mind that this description of the first two days of death constitutes a general rule which by no means covers all cases. In fact, the saints, being not at all attached to the things of this world and living in constant expectation of their passage to the other world, are not attracted even to the places of their good deeds, but immediately begin their ascent to heaven. Others begin their ascent before the end of the two days because of some special reason in God’s Providence. On the other hand, the contemporary “after-death” experiences, fragmentary as they are, all do fit into this rule: the “out-of-body” state is but the beginning of the soul’s initial period of bodiless wandering to the places of its earthly attachments; but none of these people has been dead long enough even to meet the two angels who are to accompany them.
Some critics of the Orthodox teaching on life after death find such variations from the general rule of after-death experiences to be proof of contradictions in the Orthodox teaching; but such critics are simply too literal-minded. The description of the first two days (and of succeeding days as well) is by no means any kind of dogma; it is surely a “model” which indeed sets forth the most common order of the soul’s experiences after death. The many cases, both in Orthodox literature and in accounts of modern experiences, where the dead have momentarily appeared to the living within the first day or two after death (sometimes in dreams) are examples of the truth that the soul does indeed usually remain close to earth for some short period. Genuine appearances of the dead after this first short period of the soul’s freedom are much rarer and are always for some specific purpose allowed by God, and not according to one’s own will. By the third day (and often sooner), this period comes to an end.
At this time (the third day), the soul passes through legions of evil spirits which obstruct its path and accuse it of various sins, to which they themselves had tempted it. According to various revelations there are twenty such obstacles, the so-called “toll-houses,” at each of which one or another form of sin is tested; after passing through one the soul comes upon the next one, and only after successfully passing through all of them can the soul continue its path without being immediately cast into gehenna. How terrible these demons and their toll-houses are may be seen in the fact that the Mother of God Herself, when informed by the Archangel Gabriel of Her approaching death, begged Her Son to deliver Her soul from these demons and, answering Her prayer, the Lord Jesus Christ Himself appeared from heaven to receive the soul of His Most Pure Mother and conduct it to heaven. This is visually depicted in the traditional Orthodox icon of the Dormition. Terrible indeed is the third day for the soul of the departed, and for this reason it especially needs prayer then for itself.
Here again we may note that descriptions of the toll-houses constitute a “model” of the soul’s experiences after death, and individual experiences of them may vary considerably. Minor details such as the number of the toll-houses are, of course, quite secondary compared to the primary fact that the soul does indeed experience a judgment (the Particular Judgment) soon after death as a final summary of the “unseen warfare” it has conducted (or failed to conduct) on earth against the fallen spirits.
Continuing his letter to the husband of his dying sister, Bishop Theophan the Recluse writes:
“In the departed there soon begins the struggle of going through the toll-houses. Here she needs help! Stand then in this thought, and you will hear her cry out to you: ‘Help!’ This is where you should direct all your attention and all your love for her. I think that it will be the truest testimony of love if, from the minute of the soul’s departure, leaving concern for the body to others, you will go off and, being by yourself wherever you can, you will immerse yourself in prayer for her in her new condition and her new, unexpected needs. Having begun thus, remain in unceasing crying out to God to help her, for the course of six weeks, and indeed for longer than that. In the account of Theodora, the bag from which the angels took in order to be separated from the tax-collectors was the prayers of her elder. Your prayers will be the same; do not forget to do this. This is love!”
The “bag of gold” with which the angels “paid the debts” of Blessed Theodora at the toll-houses has often been misunderstood by critics of the Orthodox teaching; it is sometimes mistakenly compared to the Latin notion of the “excess merits” of saints. Again, such critics are too literal-minded in their reading of Orthodox texts. Nothing else is referred to here than the prayers of the Church for the reposed, in particular the prayers of a holy man and spiritual father. The form in which this is described – it should hardly be necessary to say – is metaphorical.
The Orthodox Church regards the teaching of the toll-houses as of such importance that it has included references to it in many of its Divine services. In particular, the Church makes a special point of presenting this teaching to each one of its children who are dying; in the “Canon on the Departure of the Soul,” read by the priest at the deathbed of each of the faithful, there are the following troparia:
“As I depart from earth, vouchsafe me to pass unhindered by the prince of the air, the persecutor, the tormenter, he who stands on the frightful paths and is their unjust interrogator” (Canticle 4).
“Translate me, O Sovereign Lady, into the sacred and precious hands of the holy angels, that being covered by their wings, I may not see the shameless and foul and dark form of the demons” (Canticle 6).
“O Thou Who gavest birth to the Lord Almighty, remove far from me the chief of the bitter toll-houses, and ruler of the world, when I am about to die, that I may glorify Thee forever, O Holy Theotokos’ (Canticle 8).
Thus, the Orthodox Christian in dying is prepared by the Church’s words for the trials in front of him.
The forty days
Then, having successfully passed through the toll-houses and bowed down before God, the soul for the course of 37 more days visits the heavenly habitations and the abysses of hell, not knowing yet where it will remain, and only on the fortieth day is its place appointed until the resurrection of the dead.
It is certainly not strange that the soul, having passed through the toll-houses and finished for good with earthly things, should then be introduced to the truly other world, in one part of which it will spend eternity. According to the revelation of the angel to St. Macarius of Alexandria, the Church’s special commemoration of the departed on the ninth day after death occurs because up to then the soul is shown the beauties of Paradise, and only after this, for the remainder of the forty days, is it shown the torments and horrors of hell, before being assigned on the fortieth day to the place where it will await the resurrection of the dead and the Last Judgment. These numbers, once again, constitute a general rule, or “model” of after-death reality, and undoubtedly not all the departed complete their course precisely according to the “rule.” We do know that Theodora, in fact, completed her “tour of hell” just on the fortieth day – as time is measured on earth.
The state of souls until the Last Judgment
Some souls find themselves (after the forty days) in a condition of foretasting eternal joy and blessedness, and others in fear of the eternal tortures which will come in full after the Last Judgment. Until then changes are still possible in the condition of the souls, especially through offering for them the Bloodless Sacrifice (commemoration at the Liturgy), and likewise by other prayers.
The benefits of prayer, both public and private, for the souls in hell have been described in many Lives of Saints and ascetics and in Patristic writings. In the Life of the third-century Martyr Perpetua, for example, the fate of her brother Dimocrates was revealed to her in the image of a cistern filled with water which was too high for him to reach in the filthy, intensely hot place where he was confined. Through her intense prayer for a whole day and night the cistern became accessible to him, and she saw him in a bright place. By this she understood that he had been released from punishment.
In the Life of an ascetic who died in our own 20th century there is a similar account. The Life of the Nun Athanasia (Anastasia Logacheva), a spiritual daughter of St. Seraphim of Sarov, relates:
“Now she undertook a labor of prayer for her own brother by blood, Paul, who had hanged himself while drunk. She went at first to Pelagia Ivanovna, the blessed one who lived in the Diveevo Convent, to take counsel from her as to what she could do to make easier the lot beyond the grave of her brother, who had unfortunately and dishonorably ended his earthly life. After counsel, the following was decided: Anastasia would lock herself up in her cell to fast and pray for him, every day reading 150 times the prayer, ‘Virgin Mother of God, rejoice…’ At the end of forty days she saw a great abyss; at the bottom of it was a bloody stone, and upon it there lay two men with iron chains on their necks; one of them was her brother. When she informed the blessed Pelagia about this vision, the latter advised her to repeat this labor. At the end of the second forty days she saw the same abyss, the same stone on which were the same two people with chains around their necks, but her brother was now standing and was going around the stone, but then fell again on the stone; the chain was still around his neck. After she informed Pelagia Ivanovna about this dream, the latter advised her to perform the same labor for a third time. After forty more days Anastasia saw the same abyss and the same stone, but now there was only one man, unknown to her, and her brother had gone away from the stone and was hidden from sight. The one who remained on the rock said, ‘It is good for you; you have powerful intercessors on the earth.’ After this, blessed Pelagia said, ‘Your brother has been delivered from tortures, but he has not received blessedness’.”
There are many similar incidents in the Lives of Orthodox Saints and ascetics. If anyone is inclined to be too literal-minded about such visions, it should perhaps be said that of course the forms which such visions take (usually in dreams) are not necessarily “photographic” views of the way the soul appears in the other world, but rather are images which convey the spiritual truth of the soul’s betterment in the other world through the prayers of those who remain on earth.
How important is commemoration at the Liturgy may be seen in the following occurrence: Before the uncovering of the relics of St. Theodosius of Chernigov (1896), the priest-monk who was conducting the re-vesting of the relics, becoming weary while sitting by the relics, dozed off and saw before him the Saint, who told him: “I thank you for laboring for me. I beg you also, when you will serve the Liturgy, to commemorate my parents Priest Nikita and Maria.” These names had been unknown before this vision. Several years after the canonization, St. Theodosius’ own book of commemoration was found in the monastery, which confirmed these names and corroborated the vision. “How can you, O Saint, ask for my prayers, when you yourself stand at the heavenly Throne and grant to people God’s mercy?” – the priest-monk asked. “Yes, that is true,” replied St. Theodosius, “but the offering at the Liturgy is more powerful than my prayer.”
Therefore, panikhidas and prayer at home for the dead are beneficial for them, as are good deeds done in their memory, such as alms or contributions to the church. But especially beneficial for them is commemoration at the Divine Liturgy. There have been many appearances of the dead and other occurrences which confirm how beneficial is the commemoration of the dead. Many who died in repentance, but who were unable to manifest this while they were alive, have been freed from tortures and have obtained repose. In the Church prayers are ever offered for the repose of the dead, and on the day of the Descent of the Holy Spirit, in the kneeling prayers at vespers, there is even a special petition “for those in hell.”
St. Gregory the Great, in answering in his Dialogues the question, “Is there anything at all that can possibly benefit souls after death?” teaches: “The Holy Sacrifice of Christ, our saving Sacrifice, brings great benefits to souls even after death, provided their sins are such as can be pardoned in the life to come. For this reason the souls of the dead sometimes beg to have Liturgies offered for them… The safe course, naturally, is to do for ourselves during life what we hope others will do for us after death. It is better to make one’s exit a free man than to seek liberty after one is in chains. We should, therefore, despise this world with all our hearts as though its glory were already spent, and offer our sacrifice of tears to God each day as we immolate His sacred Flesh and Blood. This Sacrifice alone has the power of saving the soul from eternal death, for it presents to us mystically the death of the Only-begotten Son.”
St. Gregory gives several examples of the dead appearing to the living and asking for or thanking them for the celebration of the Liturgy for their repose; once, also, a captive whom his wife believed dead and for whom she had the Liturgy celebrated on certain days, returned from captivity and told her how he had been released from his chains on some days – the very days when the Liturgy had been offered for him.
Protestants generally find the Church’s prayer for the dead to be somehow incompatible with the necessity of finding salvation first of all in this life: “If you can be saved by the Church after death, then why bother to struggle or find faith in this Life? Let us eat, drink, and be merry…” Of course, no one holding such a philosophy has ever attained salvation by the Church’s prayer, and it is evident that such an argument is quite artificial and even hypocritical. The Church’s prayer cannot save anyone who does not wish salvation, or who never offered any struggle for it himself during his lifetime. In a sense, one might say that the prayer of the Church or of individual Christians for a dead person is but another result of that person’s life: he would not be prayed for unless he had done something during his lifetime to inspire such prayer after his death.
St. Mark of Ephesus also discusses this question of the Church’s prayer for the dead and the improvement it brings in their state, citing the example of the prayer of St. Gregory the Dialogist for the Roman Emperor Trajan – a prayer inspired by a good deed of this pagan Emperor.
What we can do for the dead
Every one of us who desires to manifest his love for the dead and give them real help, can do this best of all through prayer for them, and in particular by commemorating them at the Liturgy, when the particles which are cut out for the living and the dead are let fall into the Blood of the Lord with the words: “Wash away, O Lord, the sins of those here commemorated by Thy Precious Blood, by the prayers of Thy saints.” We can do nothing better or greater for the dead than to pray for them, offering commemoration for them at the Liturgy. Of this they are always in need, and especially during those forty days when the soul of the deceased is proceeding on its path to the eternal habitations. The body feels nothing then: it does not see its close ones who have assembled, does not smell the fragrance of the flowers, does not hear the funeral orations. But the soul senses the prayers offered for it and is grateful to those who make them and is spiritually close to them.
O relatives and close ones of the dead! Do for those what is needful for them and what is within your power. Use your money not for outward adornment of the coffin and grave, but in order to help those in need, in memory of your close ones who had died, for churches, where prayers for them are offered. Show mercy to the dead, take care of their souls. Before us all stands that same path, and how we shall then wish that we would be remembered in prayer. Let us therefore be ourselves merciful to the dead.
As soon as someone has reposed, immediately call to inform a priest, so he can read the “Prayers on the Departure of the Soul,” which are appointed to be read over all Orthodox Christians after death. Try, if it be possible, to have the funeral in church and to have the Psalter read over the deceased until the funeral. The funeral need not be performed elaborately, but most definitely it should be complete, without abbreviations; think at this time not of yourself and your convenience, but of the deceased, with whom you are parting forever. If there are several deceased in church at the same time, do not refuse if it be proposed to serve the funeral for all together. It is better for a funeral to be served for two or more of the deceased at the same time, when the prayer of the close ones who have gathered will be all the more fervent, than for several funerals to be served in succession and the services, owing to lack of time and energy, abbreviated; because each word of prayer for the reposed is like a drop of water to a thirsty man. Most definitely arrange at once for the serving of the forty-day memorial, i.e. daily commemoration at the Liturgy for the course of forty days. Usually, in churches where there are daily services, the deceased whose funerals have been served there are commemorated for forty days and longer. But if the funeral is in a church where there are no daily services, the relatives themselves should take care to order the forty-day memorial wherever there are daily services. It is likewise good to send contributions for commemoration to monasteries, as well as to Jerusalem, where there is constant prayer at the holy places. But the forty-day memorial must be begun immediately after death, when the soul is especially in need of help in prayer, and therefore one should begin commemoration in the nearest place where there are daily services.
Let us take care of those who have departed into the other world before us, in order to do for them all that we can, remembering that “Blessed are the merciful, for they shall obtain mercy.”
The resurrection of the body
One day this whole corruptible world will come to an end, and the everlasting Kingdom of Heaven will dawn, where the souls of the redeemed, joined to their resurrected bodies, will dwell forever with Christ, immortal and incorruptible. Then the partial joy and glory which souls know even now in heaven will be replaced by the fullness of joy of the new creation for which man was made; but those who did not accept the salvation which Christ came to earth to offer mankind will be tormented forever – together with their resurrected bodies – in hell. St. John Damascene, in the final chapter of his Exact Exposition of the Orthodox Faith, well describes this final state of the soul after death:
“We also believe in the resurrection of the dead, for there really will be one, there will be a resurrection of the dead. Now, when we say resurrection, we mean a resurrection of bodies. For resurrection is a raising up again of one who has fallen. But, since souls are immortal, how shall they rise again? Well, if death is defined as a separation of soul from body, the resurrection the perfect rejoining of soul and body, and the raising up again of the dissolved and fallen living being. Therefore, the very body which is corrupted and dissolved will itself rise up incorruptible. For He Who formed it in the beginning from the dust of the earth is not incapable of raising it up again after it had again been dissolved and returned to the earth whence it was taken by the decision of its Creator…
“Now, if the soul had engaged alone in the contest for virtue, then it would also be crowned alone; and if it alone had indulged in pleasures, then it alone could be justly punished. However, since the soul followed neither virtue nor vice without the body, it will be just for them to receive their recompense together…
“And so, with our souls again united to our bodies, which will have become incorrupt and put off corruption, we shall rise again and stand before the terrible judgment seat of Christ. And the devil and his demons, and his man, which is to say, the Antichrist, and the impious and sinners will be given over to everlasting fire, which will not be a material fire such as we are accustomed to, but a fire such as God might know. And those who have done good will shine like the sun together with the angels unto eternal life with our Lord Jesus Christ, ever seeing Him and being seen, enjoying the unending bliss which is from Him, and praising Him together with the Father and the Holy Spirit unto the endless ages of ages. Amen.”