Even though the Mystery of Death and the life after death are two important topics a person may think about, many are ill informed about them. Many approach the thought of death with great fear not knowing what awaits them. The purpose of this article is to present just some of the Orthodox Church's teaching on death.
The Church has a rich and precise teaching on the question of the nature of death, which is contained in the writings of the Bible, Church Fathers, in the lives of the Saints, and in the Church's Hymnography and Iconography (e.g., see the Anastasis icon). Each of these teaches directly or indirectly about the Mystery of Christ's Resurrection, Who offers us eternal victory against death and universal corruption, which result from our common ancestor's disobedience in the garden of Eden (c.f. Rom. 8:19-22).
Many have said that we live in a society that worships materialism and forgets to care for the soul. This 'religion' is succeeding in excluding God from our daily lives. Furthermore, according to this religion, everything is supposed to be easy, convenient, and comfortable, and the idea that 'what feels good must be good' guides people. By pushing God aside we have forgotten how to work out our own "salvation with fear and trembling" (Phil 2:12) and that there are many gains made that are not worth losing our souls for (c.f. Matt 16:26).
Many think that death is the end, but death is the beginning of our life with Christ, because Christ is the Resurrection and the Life (c.f. John 11:25) who went to heaven to prepare a place there for you (c.f. John 14:2). In other words, our mortal life is a preparation for the future life, and this preparation ends when we physically die. Furthermore, God created humanity for immortality, and He opened the gates of His Heavenly Kingdom for those who have faith in Him and who have lived righteously by His resurrection.
The Church's teaching on life after death is profoundly more profitable than the popular 'after-death' books of our day, which are predominantly influenced by the seduction of 'eastern philosophy'. Christians, however, know that is it essential to life pleasing God with continuous prayer and thanksgiving.
The Church Fathers, such as St Isaac the Syrian, tell us that, "This life has been given to you for repentance; do not waste it in vain pursuits". St Isaac also tells us to fix our death in our heart in anticipation for the 'messenger waiting at the door' and prepare ourselves so that " when the time of departure comes, greet it with gladness, saying 'Come in peace! I knew that you were coming and I have not neglected anything that could prove useful to me on the way'". Similarly, St Silouan of Agion Oros (Mount Athos) tells us to "keep your mind in Hell and don't despair", and St John Climacus (i.e. of the Ladder) said much on being thoughtful of and preparing for death.
You can say that our spiritual accent to heaven is like climbing a ladder and its start is easy on the lower steps, and the higher you climb the harder you fall down the ladder. However, we have to pick ourselves up and return climbing, even though it becomes steeper and harder as we progress to heaven. The climb is not easy, but the rest at the end is well worth it. When we arrive there, we will fully realise how much God helped us along our climb and that our very existence depends upon His Grace.
Once we fully accept and admit that we have a sinful nature, we start to fast, pray, confess our sins, become charitable, dress modestly, bless our food, and are thankful to God for all things (even pain). On this topic, St Seraphim of Sarov warns us that, "Prayer, fasting, vigil and all other Christian activities, however good they may be in themselves, do not constitute the aim of our Christian life, although they serve as the indispensable means of reaching this end. The true aim of our Christian life consists in the acquisition of the Holy Spirit of God. As for fasts, and vigils, and prayer, and almsgiving, and every good deed done for Christ's sake, they are only means of acquiring the Holy Spirit of God".
Like the Apostles John and Paul 850 years earlier, St Andrew the Fool for Christ had a glimpse of what Paradise is. While St Andrew was lying among dogs on a dunghill to warm his frozen body on a winter's night, an angel appeared, brought him to Paradise, and kept him there for two weeks. The Saint recalled, 'I saw myself clad in shining garments like lightning, with a wreath of flowers on my head and girt with a kingly girdle, and I rejoiced greatly at this beauty, and marvelled in mind and heart at the unspeakable loveliness of God's Paradise, and I walked around it with great gladness'. He also described how he saw Christ, "When a flaming hand drew aside the curtain, I saw my Lord, as the Prophet Isaiah saw Him, sitting upon a throne, high and lifted up and surrounded by seraphim. He was clad in a red garment, His face shone and His eyes rested on me with great kindness. Seeing Him, I fell down before Him, worshipping before the awesome throne of His glory. I have no words for the joy that gripped me at the sight of His face; and remembering this vision, I am filled with unspeakable joy. And I heard my most merciful Creator speak three words to me with His most sweet and pure lips, which so sweetened my heart and inflamed it with love for Him that I melted as wax at such spiritual warmth".
On another occasion, St Andrew the Fool for Christ was, "walking along the streets of Constantinople and saw a great and splendid funeral. A rich man had died, and his cortege was magnificent. But when he looked more closely, he saw a host of little black men capering merrily around the corpse, one grinning like a prostitute, another barking like a dog, a third grunting like a pig, a fourth pouring something filthy over the body. And, they were mocking the singers and saying, 'You're singing over a dog!' St Andrew, marvelling, wondered what this man had done. Turning round, he saw a handsome youth standing weeping behind a wall. 'For the sake of the God of heaven and earth, tell me the reason for your tears', said the Saint. The young man told him that he had been the dead man's guardian angel, but that the man had, by his sins, greatly offended God, casting his angel's counsel from him and giving himself over utterly to the black demons. In addition, the angel said that this man was a great and unrepentant sinner, a liar, a hater of men, a miser, a shedder of blood, and a dissolute man who had turned three hundred souls to immorality. In vain the Emperor honoured him, in vain he was respected by the people, and in vain was this great funeral. Death had caught him unrepentant, and the harvest had come without warning".
As we get older and start attending the funerals of loved ones and friends we naturally asked ourselves, "what happens to the soul after death?" Man was created for immortality, and Christ opened the 'gates' of the Heavenly Kingdom by His Resurrection for those who believe in Him and have lived a righteous or devout life. As mentioned earlier, this life is a preparation for what happens at death, "and as it is appointed for men to die once, but after this the judgment, so Christ was offered once to bear the sins of many. To those who eagerly wait for Him He will appear a second time, apart from sin, for salvation" (Heb 9:27 28).
We then leave all our worldly concerns behind and our bodies will disintegrate in the earth where we are buried, but this is not eternal and the body with rise again on the day of the General Resurrection. The soul at or soon after death, however, remains conscious, finds itself amongst spirits, and usually will incline towards those that are similar to it.
One of the most authoritative of all Orthodox dialogue on this subject is St. Macarios of Alexandria of the fourth century, which forms the foundation for our schedule of memorial services celebrated in the Church.
St Macarios tells us, "When the soul departs from the body, a certain great mystery is there enacted. If a person is under the guilt of sin, bands of demons and fallen angels approach along with the powers of darkness which capture the soul and drag it as a captive to their place. No one should be surprised by this fact, for if, while a man lived in this life, he was subject to them and was their obedient slave, how much more, when he leaves this world, is he captured and controlled by them? You can understand this, however, from what happens to those on the better side. Indeed, angels even now stand alongside God's holy servants and holy spirits surround and protect them. And when they leave their bodies, the bands of angels receive their souls and carry them to their side into the pure eternity. And so they lead them to the Lord".
In detail, St Macarios allegorically says that on the third day after we die, "from the earth to heaven there is a ladder, and each rung has a band of demons. These... evil spirits meet the soul and bring its handwritten accounts and show these to the angels, saying, 'on this day and on such and such of the month this soul did that. Either it stole or fornicated or committed adultery or was effeminate or lied or encouraged someone to an evil deed... The angels then show whatever good the soul has done, charity or prayer or liturgies or fasting or anything else. And the angels and demons reckon up, and if they find the good greater than the evil, the angels seize the soul and take it up to the next rung", which is "fiercer and more horrible". It should be noted here that these are sins that are not confessed. The Prophet David on this said, "Blessed is he whose transgression is forgiven, whose sins have been revealed" (Psalm 31(32):l), which happens through the Mystery of Confession (e.g. see Matt 18:17, 1 John 1:9, James 5:16).
St Macarios adds, "Then if it be that the soul is condemned, the evil demons bear it off to below the earth, to a dark and distressing spot. And woe to that soul in which that person was born. And who shall tell, Holy Father, that straits in which the condemned soul will find themselves in that place! But if the soul is found clean and sinless, it goes up to Heaven with such joy".
It should be kept in mind that the righteous person does not come into this particular judgment and go straight to heaven (c.f. John 5:24). Blessed Theognostos mentions that the devout soul "passes through the air without hindrance, without being troubled in the least by the evil spirits".
It can therefore be concluded that the 'rungs of the ladder' described by St Macarios are the 'testing grounds' for those who leave the world in a 'lukewarm' moral state. They are "answerable to be judged and examined in the time of retribution" (Blessed Theognostos).
Those who are lukewarm should also remember Christ's words, "I know your works, that you are neither cold nor hot. 1 could wish you were cold or hot. So then, because you are lukewarm, and neither cold or hot, 1 will vomit you out of My mouth" (Rev 3:16).
Terrible indeed is the third day for the soul of the departed, and for this reason they especially need our prayers on that day and particularly by commemorating them at the Divine Liturgy. Until the Day of Judgment, changes are possible in the condition of souls, especially through offering for them the Bloodless Sacrifice (commemoration at the Liturgy), when particles cut for the living and the dead are dropped into the Blood of the Lord with the words, "Wash away, 0 Lord, the sins of those here commemorated by Thy Precious Blood and by the prayers of Thy saints".
This is why we must never believe the assertion by some Christians that nothing results from our prayers and Church Services for the souls of the dead.
from The Truth, v. 17/11 - 18/1,